Ed Madden is worth listening to for a couple of reasons. For one, as co-editor of the essay collection Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, he has found himself at the crossroads of sexuality and politics this year during the much-publicized Statehouse censorship debates.
For another thing, he's a damn fine poet.
I first met Madden in the spring of 2008, when I took his Irish Lit class at the University of South Carolina. I've since become a fan of his work, particularly his latest book, Nest (out May 21 via Salmon Poetry), which features poems set in Ireland, Hawaii, South Carolina, and his home state of Arkansas. With an eye for botany, a knack for appropriating Biblical language, and an occasional wicked wit, he delves into his own past in this collection and reckons with inherited ideas of masculinity, faith, and family.
It's a collection of poems about growing up and making a home, but Madden's voice is hardly conciliatory. As he writes in "Nest," the first of three poems with the same title,
Time doesn't heal. No
emotion is the final one.
Madden will give a free poetry reading Fri. May 30 at 6:30 p.m. in the Dock Street Theatre courtyard (133 Church St.) as part of the Piccolo Spoleto Sundown Poetry series. (UPDATE: Due to rain, the reading has been moved to the City Gallery at Waterfront Park, 34 Prioleau St.)
City Paper: First off, let's talk about Out Loud. What did it feel like to have this book that you co-edited suddenly at the center of a political firestorm?
Ed Madden: Very odd, because I don't think it's a radical book.
CP: Do you come away from this disenchanted or discouraged about the state of our state? What do you take away from it?
EM: No, I guess the thing I would take away is that the book matters even more than I thought it did. The kind of work it's doing about humanizing lesbian and gay people, the legislative controversy makes it very clear that that's still needed.
CP: I haven't gotten to read it yet. I did read Fun Home, which was the big scandal down here, and I was blown away by how un-scandalous it was.
EM: Now, if you think Fun Home is un-scandalous, you'll definitely think Out Loud is. I mean, Out Loud is just a collection of essays. The first one is a 14-year-old writing about what it's like to have a gay uncle. I think my favorite piece is by Becci Robbins about being an AIDS buddy and taking a guy who was dying of AIDS to Trinity Cathedral for a Christmas Eve service.
CP: Your poems in this collection don't seem especially political, but as you pointed out in your column for The State, lawmakers are describing what for a lot of people is everyday life as pornographic. Has this whole ordeal made the personal more political for you? Is your writing suddenly under a political spotlight?
EM: No, because I think I've always felt like that. That's one of the fundamental tenets of feminist thought, that the personal is the political. I think if you're gay in South Carolina, you know that. Just referring to your spouse as a spouse, just going to the grocery store line at Fresh Market and somebody saying, "Oh, your wife's going to be very happy" when you've got wine and roses in your cart, and you say, "No, but my husband will." Very simple things take on, I think, a larger resonance, if not a political resonance — something outside what many South Carolinians would still see as the norm. Does that make sense?
CP: It does. OK, moving on from politics, what would you say are the uniting themes of this poetry collection?
EM: Really, the title is Nest, and I've got more than one poem called "Nest." That title and that image carry the two themes. One theme is domesticity, finding a home and making a home. The other thing is a kind of scrappiness, pulling bits and pieces together to do that. There's a way in which it's very much about finding a place in the world, but also about the ways in which you decide what to keep and what to throw away as you do that.
CP: The toughest poem to read was "When I left" ["When I left I was dead. / When I left, my father mourned me every day"]. Tell me a little bit about it. That's about you and your father?
EM: Yeah. It partly takes place when my mother was in a car accident, being with him for a weekend in a hospital, and just the interactions there, but then it kind of spirals out. Like a lot of the poems, it uses a Bible story ["The oak tree lifted Absalom up for Joab's love: / for the three spears he thrust in his heart while he hung there"] to spiral out into something — I don't know if I want to say bigger, but something less autobiographical and more emotionally true, if not historically true.
CP: I've always seen references to flowers in your poems; you spend a lot of time just naming the flowers you see. You were also, I understand, the poet in residence at Riverbanks Botanical Gardens for a while. Tell me about your interest in botany and how it came to be a motif in your work.
EM: Well, I grew up on a farm. [laughs] That's the starting point. Although weirdly I would say I resisted learning about the botanical when I grew up on the farm, but then after I left it, that was the thing I most wanted to remember, most wanted to recover, was a connection to the botanical world. I guess because in my poems the seasonal plays such an important role, there's a way in which the botanical plays a part of that too. That sounds really literary; don't say that. [laughs]
CP: There's a lot in here about violence and danger in the animal and insect kingdoms ("Dragonfly, beetle," "Larval," the "Nest" series). It reminded me a little of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek —
EM: Oh, cool!
CP: — where she was observing a lot of beauty on her nature walks, but also a lot of what seemed like totally superfluous violence among insects and birds and reptiles. Why did you use these images in your poems?
EM: The poem I would point to is the "Dragonfly" poem, where you see what looks like a world of beauty laid out in front of you actually has such violence beneath the surface. So there's that image of looking down into the water and seeing all the stuff down there, and the moment when the larva grabs something with its pincers, I have the sun on my neck, so the idea is that I'm that thing. I guess I just wanted to suggest that beneath any façade there's some kind of violence. And I hate to say this, but I think that's true of families, that beneath the façade of the family there's always some kind of loss, some kind of struggle, some kind of violence.