Haiku Death Match, or Learning about Creativity with Middle School Writers at Tri-DAC by Ed Madden

Photo by Lindsay Green-McManus  

This afternoon, it’s round two of Haiku Death Match.  The topics are deodorant and cheese.  The first round included haiku on Beyoncé and the beard of Darien Cavanaugh, one of the writing instructors.  The instructors write all sorts of topics on strips of paper—not just deodorant and cheese but French fries, love, bad smells, puppies.  These topics are drawn from a bucket.  The teams have 2 minutes to write.  They have given themselves team names—the Argonauts, NerdHerd 3.0, the Curators, Tomatoes. When time is called, someone from each team reads the haiku aloud—twice—for the judges.


Right, judges.  First there is the Panel of Death, a collection of mostly older students, who vote on the haiku.  Someone inevitably brings up questions of accuracy: what was the syllable count? how many syllables in “easily”? One reader explains that when he read: “Odor: / say your prayers now,” “Odor” was the end of the second line. Someone else shouts out: “That’s enjambment!” (Yes! They got the lesson on line breaks in poetry!)


If there is a tie, the decision goes to the Titans (the instructors).  And if there’s a tie among the Titans, well, bring out the Kraken—i.e. fiction instructor Cavanaugh, who will roar appropriately then vote thumbs up or thumbs down.  “Kra-ken! Kra-ken! Kra-ken!” they chant.


At some point, we usually ask that the haiku be sung. For clarity, of course.




At the Tri-District Arts Consortium, or Tri-DAC, I’m teaching creative writing along with a staff that continually amazes me and makes me laugh.  (And luckily, someone is usually ready to make a coffee run when it’s the needful thing.) The three-week summer program includes music, theatre, dance, visual arts, and creative writing.  Students audition to participate.  In creative writing we have about 50 lively and engaged students, rising 6th graders to rising 9th graders, some who have been here all four years.


In the Creative Writing Program (see our website here), practicing South Carolina writers teach essentials of creative writing from page to stage with exercises that promote creative development, revision, and performance. Along the way, students learn more than just how to become better writers—they also develop skills in effective communication, empathy, teamwork, and confidence.


Students in creative writing this year are taking poetry classes with me and with Betsy Breen, a poet who teaches at Hammond School; prose classes with Darien Cavanaugh, named the Jasper Artist of the Year a few years ago after he founded the Columbia Broadside Project; and classes in flash fiction and memoir with visiting artists Justin Brouckaert, a recent USC MFA graduate; and Carl Jenkinson, who teaches writing now at the Moore School of Business.  Past instructors and guest artists have included: Will Garland, Lindsay Green-McManus, Jonathan Maricle, Wendy Ralph, and Mark Sibley-Jones (who now teaches at the SC Governor’s School for the Arts). The whole endeavor is directed by Ray McManus, a poet on faculty at USC-Sumter who has an extraordinary ability to hold the attention of 50 rowdy middle schoolers.  Haiku Death Match was his idea for the late afternoons in the last week, when the instructors are getting a little punchy and the students are at their giddiest.  After two rigorous weeks of classes and daily writing activities, it’s a fun group activity that is collaborative and, despite the silliness, one that has students thinking about what makes a poem good, what makes a poem work.



Ray McManus - photo by Lindsay Green-McManus


Dr. Ray’s 8-10 Rules of Writing


  1. Do not ask yourself if you should disturb the universe. Instead ask yourself how.


  1. Rhyme is fine some of the time, but mostly it’s stupid.


  1. Editing is not the same as revising.


  1. No senseless writing.


  1. There is no such thing as writer’s block. There is no such thing as writer’s block. There is no such thing as writer’s block.


  1. When in doubt, say something outrageous.


  1. Typing is not writing.


  1. In writing there is no right or wrong, there is only weak or strong.


The students know these rules.  They can recite them.  In unison.  With enthusiasm.




Some of us have been working with Tri-DAC for years, some for the first time this year—but every year is really a first time, as we learn to work with each other and with a range of new and returning students, adapting our exercises to what other instructors are doing, and maybe trying to emphasize lessons students are learning in other classes. (Besides, if we reuse an exercise, returning students will let us know: “we did that last year!”)


Along with my class, my job the past few years has been the mini-showcase, a performance that falls at the end of the second week. Each art discipline performs during the showcase, usually highlighting their oldest students, especially the four-year students.  I’ve tried to create choral projects, where the students’ voices echo and converse with each other around a central theme or set of prompts.  One year we did prayers and curses.  (The entire audience moaned when one writer said, “May there be no presents under your tree.”)  One year it was a medley of poems about what we keep and how we worship, responding to poems by Naomi Shihab Nye (“Different Ways to Pray”) and Carlos Drummond De Andrade (“The Elephant”).


This year the students read two poems from Welsh poet Jonathan Edwards’ lovely book, My Family and Other Superheroes—“My Family in a Human Pyramid,” in which Edwards imagines his family building an impossible human pyramid, with his diapered godson teetering on top of his head, and “Building My Grandfather,” in which he imagines building his grandfather, one piece, and one story at a time.  (Read more about Edwards’ poetry here and here.)  So we began to imagine our families as soccer teams and cheerleading squads, as the cast of a play or the staff of NASA (with Grandma flying to the moon with her dogs, because she never goes anywhere without them).  And we, too, began to imagine building our grandparents, one piece, and one story at a time.


Here’s “Building My Grandmother” by Zach Frueauf, a rising 8th grader at Carolina Springs Middle School.


Building My Grandmother

by Zach Frueauf


We buy parts with the fifty dollars she gave me for my birthday.

We put her together steadily until we get to the knees,

they are rusty because she has done so much farm work.

We fill her lungs with the smoke she has inhaled from cigarettes.

We fill her heart with a new husband

to make up for the ones she had lost in the past.

We fill her brain with the music of her guitar,

and we put her hands on with care so she can play it.

Student Zach Frueauf - photo by Lindsay Green-McManus


In Breen’s class, the young writers wrote startlingly rich poems about places they’d been after reading South Carolina poet Terrance Hayes’s “New York Poem” (lightly edited for middle school students), and they produced amazing mythic versions of their own births after reading Alma Luz Villaneuva’s “Indian Summer Ritual.”  (One of our twin writers, Isaac Hill, wrote, in one of the loveliest birth poems, “I let Joe go first / He kicked me in the head. / It left no mark.”)  They also learned about showing not telling, about the value of specificity, while writing poems after reading Edward Hirsch’s “Cotton Candy.”  Breen asked them to write a poem about the last time they saw someone that they care about—“someone you haven’t seen in a long time.”


Here’s “Sharing a Coke” by Mara Lind, a rising 9th grader from River Bluff High School.


Sharing a Coke

by Mara Lind


I didn’t recognize you,

with a black shirt, dirty hair, and stubble.

You opened a coke but didn’t offer me one,

so I got my own,

sipping slowly.

Someone brought a radio and

the uncles danced with aunts.

My drink fizzed warm in my

stomach while we hid behind

hay stacks. You didn’t talk much.

I asked about school and

you answered.

When saying goodbye,

I had to stand tall to hug you,

and the pop tab fell between my fingers.

Mara Lind with Ed Madden - photo by Lindsay Green-McManus


Cavanaugh gets the students to create their own biographies based on a poem by George Ella Lyon, “Where I’m From,” as well as wacky little nonfiction pieces based on comedian Sara Silverman’s “Two-Minute Index” featured on the sides of Chipotle cups in their “Cultivating Thought” series. These are crazy fun.




Two of the boys are always farting.  One little girl has the whiniest voice I’ve ever heard, almost like fingernails on a chalkboard. If we don’t marshal them into Haiku Death Match, the room can devolve into arm-wrestling and discussions of how to talk like Yoda.  Matthew wants to show us card tricks.  Samantha drew a picture of me. Trevor tried to explain Pokemon Go to me. One day Scott brought his entire library of Animorphs books. On birthdays, we often have cupcakes.


It’s exhausting and exhilarating and every year I leave so thrilled to have been part of it.


And Friday night, July 15, we’ll have our final program.  The music and creative writing programs will perform together at 6:30 at the Lexington One Performing Arts Center.  Theatre and dance and visual arts have their final performances and presentations Saturday at Richland Northeast High School.


TriDAC is in its 31st year, the creative writing program in its 21st, the last 11 directed by McManus  To find out more about the creative writing program at Tri-DAC, check our website at www.cwtridac.com.




Poems Flow with Your Cup of Morning Joe via River Poems from One Columbia and the office of the Poet Laureate

  one columbia coffee


Local poets come together to create coffee sleeve poems about the historic flood and rivers of Columbia for national poetry month this April.


In conjunction with One Columbia for Arts and History, Ed Madden, the city of Columbia’s poet laureate, has created a project titled River Poems. This project will focus on bringing poetry to the people of Columbia during the entire month of April. Since 1996, April has been national poetry month, and one of the tasks of the poet laureate is to promote the literary arts. “As a project for the poet laureate, last year and this year both, we put poems on the buses. We had already decided the theme this year would be the river, because it is the theme for Indie Grits, but I think the flood added additional urgency to the theme,” says Madden.


Along with the bus project, the second project this year was to put the poems on coffee sleeves. “We’ve been trying to think of ways to promote poetry in unexpected places, so coffee sleeves felt like a really obvious place to put poetry,” says Madden. “You can drink your morning cup and read beautiful literature.”


Seven local writers came together for this wonderful opportunity to spread literature around the city. The writers include, Jennifer Bartell, Betsy Breen. Jonathan Butler, Bugsy Calhoun, Monifa Lemons Jackson, Len Lawson, Ray McManus, and Madden himself. After sending out a limited call to those artists to create a piece of poetry eight lines or fewer, each poem was then stamped on thousands of coffee sleeves that will be distributed at independent coffee shops around Columbia. Including both Drip locations, and the Wired Goat.


“I think the idea of the coffee sleeves is so smart. Columbia has a healthy relationship with the arts, especially the performing arts. But the city gives a lot of love to the fine arts, the design arts, and the literary arts that has thrived here for quite some time.  You’d expect that from a capital city to a certain extent. But what is unique in Columbia is that the art scene is so diverse, and there is a growing respect for that diversity. The literary scene is no exception. There is a little something for everyone here. I hope that resonates,” says Ray McManus, poet and author of the poem Mud.


Each of the eight poems centers around the idea of the river that runs through Columbia. This idea ties in with the theme of this year’s Indie Grits Festival, which is Waterlines as well as The Jasper Project’s multi-disciplinary project Marked by the Water, which will commemorate the first anniversary of the floods in October. There are also a few featured poems that represent the voices of people effected by the historic flood which ran through the city last October. Overall, each poems creates a sense of what the rivers mean to each poet, and how in many ways people are still mending together the pieces almost six months later.


When writing her poem titled What Stays, Betsy Breen was thinking back to a particular image she recollects from the flood. “I was thinking about the flood in October, and all the debris that washed up during that time. I have a particular image in my mind of a part of Gills Creek that I pass every morning on the way to work. The week after the rain stopped, it was filled with both keepsakes and trash. I was thinking of that when I wrote this poem,” says Breen.


It was almost opposite for McManus, who says most of his inspiration almost always comes from books and projects. “I love exploring directions that I didn’t otherwise intend. I’ve always been drawn to rivers; the way they perform; the way they’re always moving. And we depend on them more than we realize, especially in the most basic of functions. We grow from rivers, from the mud of rivers. At some point they become a part of who we are,” says McManus.


National poetry month begins on April 1. Columbia is sure to be celebrating all month with something to read as people drink their coffee and travel to work. “We are always looking for more ways to promote the arts, and I believe this year that includes a pretty unique project,” says Madden.


Don’t forget to pick up your cup of morning joe this month to feel the inspiration of poetry. Breen reminds us that “National Poetry month is much larger than this poem or project, of course, and I do hope people pay attention to all the different kinds of poetry around them.”

-- Alivia Seely

Art from the Ashes Final Event - Readings by the Literary Artists Tuesday Night

art from the ashes jpeg Tuesday night, join us for part three of Jasper's Art from the Ashes project -- a reading of the works in the monograph by the writers themselves.

7 pm at Tapp's

Readers include:

Betsy Breen - winner of the Best in Book Award, sponsored by Historic Columbia

Al Black

Jonathan Butler

Debra Daniel

Rachel Hainey

Ed Madden

Don McCallister

Tom Poland

Susan Levi Wallach

Cindi Boiter

Art from the Ashes Book Launch and Gallery Opening on February 1st at Tapp’s - A JASPER Project

art from the ashes jpeg  

Over the course of four evenings in the summer of 2014, more than two dozen literary, visual, and musical artists gathered in the Jasper Magazine office with experts on the February 17th, 1865 burning of Columbia. The artists immersed themselves in the events that took place the night of the burning as well as the days and nights leading to and immediately following it. Six months later, their inspirations have come to fruition in a multi-disciplinary series of arts events – Art from the Ashes.

Art from the Ashes cover


Art from the Ashes: Columbia Residents Respond to the Burning of Their City is a collection of poetry, prose, and even a screenplay by some of Columbia, SC’s most dynamic writers, including Ed Madden, Tara Powell, Ray McManus, Susan Levi Wallach, Tom Poland, Al Black, Jonathan Butler, Rachel Haynie, Debra Daniel, Will Garland, Betsy Breen, and Don McCallister. Edited by Jasper Magazine’s Cynthia Boiter, it is a publication of Muddy Ford Press and the first in the press’s new series, Muddy Ford Monographs.


In concert with the book launch, Art from the Ashes: The Gallery will open on the same evening, also at Tapp’s, and will run throughout the month of February. Participating visual artists include Susan Lenz, Kirkland Smith, Christian Thee, Michael Krajewski, Jarid Lyfe Brown, Whitney LeJeune, Mary Bentz Gilkerson, Cedric Umoja, Michaela Pilar Brown, Alejandro Garcia-Lemos, and Kara Gunter.

artist - Kirkland Smith


Join us as we celebrate the book launch and gallery opening from 5 – 7 pm. Visual artists will be on hand to answer questions about their work and literary artists will be signing and reading from their writings. Musician Jack McGregor, who created a three movement musical composition in response to the burning, will premiere his work as well.

artist - Jarid Lyfe Brown

artist - Kara Gunter

artist - Michael Krajewski

artist - Christian Thee


Additional events include a Visual Artists Panel Presentation on Thursday, February 5th at 7 pm and a Reading and Book Signing on February 17th at 7 pm, followed by a concert by Columbia-based musical artist, the Dubber.


All events take place at Tapp’s Arts Center on Main Street and are free and open to the public