Friends of Ed Congratulate the Academy of American Poets Fellow

Ed Madden, Poet Laureate of Columbia, South Carolina - photo by Lester Boykin    Ed Madden  was raised in Newport, Arkansas. He received a BA in English and French from Harding University, a BS in Biblical Studies from the Institute for Christian Studies, an MA in English from the University of Texas at Austin, and a PhD in literature from the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent collections include  Ark  (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016),  Nest  (Salmon Poetry, 2014), and  Prodigal: Variations  (Lethe Press, 2011). He is a professor of English and director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the University of South Carolina, where he teaches Irish literature and creative writing. Madden, who will receive $50,000, plans to launch “Telling the Stories of the City,” a project that will incorporate local and youth voices, build on community-based workshops, and create an interactive storymap of the city.

Ed Madden, Poet Laureate of Columbia, South Carolina - photo by Lester Boykin

Ed Madden was raised in Newport, Arkansas. He received a BA in English and French from Harding University, a BS in Biblical Studies from the Institute for Christian Studies, an MA in English from the University of Texas at Austin, and a PhD in literature from the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent collections include Ark (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016), Nest (Salmon Poetry, 2014), and Prodigal: Variations (Lethe Press, 2011). He is a professor of English and director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the University of South Carolina, where he teaches Irish literature and creative writing. Madden, who will receive $50,000, plans to launch “Telling the Stories of the City,” a project that will incorporate local and youth voices, build on community-based workshops, and create an interactive storymap of the city.

Yesterday was a great day for one of the Jasper Project’s own – our Ed Madden, Columbia city poet laureate, Jasper Magazine founding poetry editor, and hard core Friend of Jasper, learned that he has been awarded one of only 13 of the first ever major fellowships from the Academy of American Poets. The fellowship, which is accompanied by a $50,000 honorarium, will allow Ed to launch, “Telling the Stories of the City,” a project that will incorporate local and youth voices, build on community-based workshops, and create an interactive story map of the city.

At Jasper, we were thrilled, proud, and absolutely giddy with the news of this award – but we were not surprised.

It wasn’t long ago that this writer told Ed I expected a MacArthur Genius grant to come his way soon – Ed would probably argue that this is better.

According to an announcement from, “These thirteen poets who serve as poets laureate of states, cities, and counties across the U.S. will receive a combined $1,050,000 in recognition of their literary merit and to support civic programs, which will take place over the next twelve months. 

 These new fellowships are made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and, in total, are believed to be the largest awards provided to poets in the U.S. at any one time by a charitable organization. They are also in keeping with this spring’s national poetry programming theme of Poetry & Democracy offered by the Poetry Coalition, an alliance of more than 20 organizations working together to promote the value poets bring to our culture and the important contribution poetry makes in the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds.”

I’ve had the pleasure of being a Friend of Ed and a frequent partner in projects for a long time. Having witnessed his enthusiasm and dedication to a project in action, I am fortunate to know well that when Ed Madden sets his mind to accomplishing something it is best to consider it done. As a friend, colleague, administrator, boss, activist, and fellow instigator, Ed Madden is an exemplary example of the best of humankind. He is kind, sensitive, strong, and good – and he is also very talented.

Congratulations from all of us at Jasper as well as from a few of the Friends of Ed below.


Ed Madden won’t be satisfied until parking tickets have verses, bus rides are lyrical, haikus magically appear after rainstorms, poems are typewritten at the Statehouse, and everyone in the city of Columbia is a poetic element. Thank you, Ed Madden, for engaging our ordinary lives with poetry. Columbia is in its best form with you as our poet laureate – Tim Conroy


Ed Madden is magic. When you’re around him you really understand the value of art and how it improves our world to interact with it. Fact is we live in a world that doesn’t really honor the importance of art. But when you’re around Ed you’re reminded of the necessity of art and the responsibility of the artist. You see it when you help him distribute poetry parking tickets. Maybe you see it when you talk with to him about making poem stencils for his rain poetry project. Or when you watch him create an environment where grade school students come alive with poetic insight. Whatever it is, Ed does the dreaming and physical labor necessary to make it possible. And if you’re lucky enough to go with him, then you get to see something better than magic. You get to see Ed Madden. – Ethan Fogus


I could not be more proud of my friend, and cannot think of anyone more deserving of this award. We’re better poets, writers, teachers, and patrons because of Ed Madden, and this recognition is way overdue. I hope he buys a motorcycle! That would be badass. – Ray McManus


Congratulations to the gifted poet and community-minded Ed Madden who wants our state to participate in bringing poetry to our corner of the world. Good on ya’, Ed. – Libby Bernardin


The Fellowship is a well-deserved recognition of the work that Ed has done as Poet Laureate to amplify the voices of citizens through the expression of poetry. He continues to develop projects that treat poetry as public art, both to tell the stories of Columbians and to add creative expression to our daily lives. By honoring Ed's work, the Academy of American Poets is affirming the importance of the arts in Columbia. – Lee Snelgrove


Ed’s an inspiring leader - the kind that fights for you, helps you find your own voice, challenges you to do more, uses that big university money for good, and all the while making the world better with his poetry. I’m so happy that even more folks will know how lucky this city is to have him. Congrats, Ed! – Meeghan Kane


Ed Madden, educator, poet, mentor, friend and Columbia's first poet laureate. A better choice for poet laureate is not possible. Ed welcomes in the entire family of poetry and expertly weaves town and gown into whole cloth. – Al Black

Ed, you deserve this. You constantly keep Columbia engaged with poetry. You are treasure. We are blessed to have you. Congratulations! — Jennifer Bartell Boykin

For more on Ed’s big honor check out:

Al Black's New Book of Poetry, Man with Two Shadows, Launches Saturday Night

Praise for Man with Two Shadows

“Black’s experiences are universal, and there is comfort in looking at this profound loss through his eyes.” - Marjory Wentworth, SC poet laureate

“Al Black has put together a gorgeous and heart-breaking collection that is a testament to the dutifulness and responsibility we feel to and for parents we find difficult to understand.” - Ed Madden, Columbia, SC poet laureate

“Al Black’s poetry is astonishing, defiantly original; scrubs our ears with dirty bathtub water; roars with love for a leather belted father and battle-proven mother.” - Tim Conroy, author of Theologies of Terrain

Man with Two Shadows photo.JPG

When asked what inspired his earlier poetry, local poet, Al Black, answers, “Where you’re at. Sometimes you’re angry. Sometimes you’re happy. Sometimes you just see a situation and a metaphor goes through your head.”  This inspiration provides Columbia locals with a captivating voice to not only experience but to feel through Black’s stunning craft.


Local poet and supporter of the literary arts, Al Black, moved to Columbia, SC, nearly 10-years-ago.  Originally from Lafayette, IN, the father of 4 worked at The University of South Carolina in facilities management before retiring to become a full-time writer.


“My wife and I had four children and when the youngest one got old enough- my wife went back to school in her late 40s and got her PHD at 55 and wanted a career,” Black says, “So, I said, ‘I can work anywhere and I’ll go anywhere as long as it’s not further north,’ and so we ended up down here … I worked at The University of South Carolina for a while; I just left them. I’m 66, so I can be a full-time writer now and a trophy husband.”


Black attended college at Ball State, where he was an athlete who studied voice.   “I was one of those weirdos in college,” he says, “I was a voice major and an athlete.”   The poet not only played sports in college, but he would go on to coach college, high-school and semi-pro.


However, most Columbia locals know Black for his stunning craft of poetry and for the near 100 literary events that he hosts and co-hosts in a given year.  The poet crafted his first poem at the age of nine-years-old; however, he didn’t share his first poem until age 58, which resulted in the publication of his first book, I Only Left for Tea, published by Muddy Ford Press in 2015.


“I started really writing at eight or nine, but I never shared … I don’t know if I was afraid to share or if I just didn’t care to share,” Black explains,” When I came here, I didn’t see an event I liked, so I started what’s called Mind Gravy about eight and a half years ago.  I wanted to make sure I stirred it up as far as style, race, culture … about a month or two in, I shared a poem … I read it in a gallery and Cindi [Boiter] and her husband [Bob Jolley] heard me and said oh, they’d like to publish me and I was like, ‘I don’t know,’ but I eventually agreed to it.  And it’s gone from there.” Cindi Boiter and Bob Jolley are the publishers at Muddy Ford Press, a boutique publishing house just outside of Columbia.


Black’s first book was edited by Ed Madden and published by Muddy Ford Press. Madden is the Columbia city poet laureate as well as a professor of English at USC and the director of the university’s Women’s and Gender Studies Program. Since then, Black has co-edited a poetry anthology, titled Hand in Hand: Poets Respond to Race, with fellow poet Len Lawson, where several of his poems were published along with those of a number of local writers. Black and Lawson founded the Poets Respond to Race Initiative, and the anthology originated from the initiative.

Poet Al Black (photo by Forrest Clonts for Jasper Magazine)

Poet Al Black (photo by Forrest Clonts for Jasper Magazine)

Black has been very involved in issues of race and reconciliation.  This is work that the poet has always been passionate about, even while working at Perdue University in Indiana. “… I worked at a private business but mostly I worked at Perdue.  I was trained as a diversity trainer, and so, it’s been work that I’ve always been passionate about.  And, I believe whatever you do should reflect your values,” the former Indiana NAACP Vice President explains.


Today, most wait in anticipation for the poet’s newest publication, a collection of poems entitled Man with Two Shadows.  The book release will be held at Tapp’s this Saturday, September 22nd at 7pm.  At the release, you can expect live entertainment from jazz band, Vasaboo group, along with poem readings by the author, followed by a book signing.


The new book is a collection of poetry inspired by his father.  After his passing at age 94, the poet wrote for 120 days, eventually compiling a book with the poems he had created during the time-period before and after his father’s death.  Ed Madden, Black’s friend and first publication’s editor, edited this collection of poetry, as well.


“Well, it’s basically shortly before my dad’s passing and then it’s in two parts.  You know, that period shortly before when he’s getting sick and you’re going back to see him … and you’re beginning to worry,” the son says, “and then I was with him when he passed.  He passed a little after one o’clock in the morning.  And then it’s that time and then immediately after … that’s what the book’s about.  It’s about, you know, everybody has a different relationship with their parents.  It’s never all smooth sailing … So, yeah, my dad was the old-world way and you know, I was a baby boomer.  It’s dealing with that relationship, you know, that feeling that’s there.”


Months after the passing of his father, the poet lost his mother who was 93.  Both parents surface throughout Black’s latest poetry, and he is currently in the editing process for a book inspired by his mother.


“My father died at 94 in October. My mother was lonely and died in April at 93,” Black explains, “And so, I wrote for 120 days there, too.  So, now I’m in the editing process of her book.”


When he isn’t writing, you can find Black hosting and co-hosting multiple events, including Mind Gravy (Wednesdays at 8pm), Poems: Bones of the spirit (held once a month at a yoga studio), Blue Note Poetry (every first Tuesday of the month) and Songversation (monthly), along with multiple events surrounding the Poets Respond to Race initiative.  Each event is unique until itself.


Black also hosts and organizes three workshops, where poets, through invitation, work on a prompt, share their work and critique it.  Black stays busy and as evidenced through his dedication and involvement in the literary arts.


At age 66, the poet is still following what he is passionate about and living through his talent.  As said best by Black himself, “You know, if you have the talent for something, you should do.” Most are happy to know that this kind, humble soul lives through these words.

 by Hallie Hayes


If You’re Going

Book Launch - Man with Two Shadows

by Al Black

Saturday, September 22nd - 7 pm

Tapp’s Arts Center

1644 Main Street, Columbia, SC

For more information on Muddy Ford Press go to


In Guns We Trust by Ed Madden with Bert Easter

"Bert built a crucifix in the backyard." - Ed Madden

guns we trust 2.JPG

After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February, National Rifle Association spokesman Wayne LaPierre said at a conservative political meeting that the right to bear arms “is not bestowed by man but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright.” My husband Bert and I were struck by the religious language LaPierre used, the idea that God grants us, as Americans, the right to carry a gun. For the next few days, we kept talking about this language, this almost-religious devotion to the gun as an American icon, what it represents, what it can do.


I was reminded of an essay historian Garry Wills wrote after the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in 2012, “Our Moloch,” in which he compares the American worship of the gun to the stories of Moloch, the Old Testament god of the Canaanites that required the sacrifice of children.  “The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate,” he says. “It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?”


As we kept talking, we began to imagine a religion of the gun, a chapel to the gun, the gun as a god that requires the sacrifice of children. We imagined a child crucified on a cross of guns, a church banner with LaPierre’s quote. I suggested one of those hokey traditional pictures of the guardian angel hovering over two children, but with belligerent NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch’s head pasted on it, maybe a gun in her hand.

guns we trust guardian angle.jpg

A few years ago, as part of a collaborative show centered on the image of Saint Sebastian, Bert and I designed an interactive chapel to Sebastian. The show was organized by Alejandro Garcia Lémos and Leslie Pierce at Friday Cottage in downtown Columbia, and featured a range of artists—visual art, sculpture, stained glass, performance, film, poetry—all exploring the iconography of the saint and the historical status of the saint as a gay icon. In our little chapel, there was an altar with votive candles and a statue of the saint, surrounded by any little plastic figure I could find with a bow and arrow (cowboys and Indians, Vikings, even a Smurf). There were church pews, banners, and a shrine where you could write down your prayers, shames, or desires on strips of red paper and pin them to the body of the saint. By the end of the evening, it was covered with red ribbons of prayer.


So we imagined a chapel to the gun. A window diorama. We would call it In Guns We Trust, our national motto inscribed on all currency, evoking thus national patriotic and religious (and perhaps commercial) resonances. We asked Tapp’s Arts Center—perhaps a little in jest, since we are not trained visual artists—if we could do a window installation. They said yes. So we began work in earnest, hoping to get it installed in advance of the March for Our Lives.


Bert built a crucifix in the backyard. We bought toy rifles and machine guns. I bought Dana Loesch’s 2014 book, Hands Off My Gun: Defeating the Plot to Disarm America.  I looked up LaPierre’s infamous press conference on December 21, 2012 after the Sandy Hook school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, where he said, “The only way to stop a monster from killing our kids is to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection. The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” 


I began to read more and more about how American attitudes toward guns suggested something sacred. “How can we determine if we are in bondage to an idol?” asked theologian John Thatamani in “The Price of Freedom? Child Sacrifice and the American Gun Cult.”  “Intensity of reaction is a sure-fire marker that we traffic with the sacred,” he said.  “We know that the gun has become a sacred object because it commands unquestioning reverence. Interrogating its sacral status triggers anger and even death threats.”


After the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Garry Wills wrote, in “A Nation Captive to the Gun”:  “God gave us guns to show us who we are. Giving up the gun would be a surrender to evil, taking us abruptly into eschatological time.” Eschatological, meaning end times, death and judgment, the end of the world.


“So this time,” Wills continued, “let us skip all the sighing and promising and moments of silence. Why keep up the pretense that we are going to take any real and practical steps toward sanity? Everyone knows we are not going to do a single damn thing. We can’t. We are captives of The Gun.”


“The Gun is patriotic,” he wrote, “The Gun is America. The Gun is God.”


I found that the psalm Dana Loesch cites in her acknowledgments, Psalm 144:1, was inscribed on AR-15 rifles by a gunmaker in Florida in 2015.  “Blessed be the Lord my Rock who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.”  The gunmaker said he hoped a Muslim terrorist would be struck by a bolt of lightning if he picked up the gun.


I was struck by the fact that the toy guns we bought for the installation all had the gun safety integrated into the mode switch, so that you can toggle between safe, semi, and automatic. On the cheaper guns on which the accessories were molded, the switch is permanently set on semi. We’re set on semi-safe.


guns we trust 2.JPG

In Guns We Trust, our window installation at Tapp’s on Main Street is meant to draw attention to the almost religious devotion to guns in America, which prevents us from talking about reasonable control legislation. It is a chapel to the gun with banners (including the February quote from Wayne LaPierre and another intoning, in good Republican fashion, "Now is not the time"), a communion tray with cups filled not with wine but with spent AR-15 bullets. On the left side of the window, a poem called “Semi.” (We’re set on semi-safe.)  On the right side, passages from some of the things I’d been reading. There is a trinity of toy machine guns in the air, their laser targets trained on the sidewalk. There is an image of Dana Loesch as the traditional guardian angel, and a child crucified on a cross made of guns.


We hope the window raises awareness, or at least questions, about our American devotion to guns. We hope it helps to start conversations. We clearly need to start talking. Maybe now is the time.


Ed Madden is the poetry editor for Jasper Magazine and the poet laureate for the City of Columbia, SC. 

Focus on JAY Finalists - Tyler Matthews in Music

Tyler Matthews - 2017 JAY Finalist in Music - photo by Forrest Clonts

Tyler Matthews - 2017 JAY Finalist in Music - photo by Forrest Clonts

We're chatting with the 2017 JAY Awards Finalists as we enter the last few days of voting and preparing for the JAY Awards (& Retro Christmas party!) coming up on December 5th.


Jasper: What made the past year so great for you as an artist?


Tyler: Just getting to go full artist mode across several different disciplines, collaborating with talented people and working on awesome projects.


Jasper: How have you grown as an artist over the past year and to what do you attribute that growth?


Tyler: I’ve grown across the board in the area of problem solving, writing, and producing fast. When you start out at anything there’s a large amount of activation energy required to get past being a novice producer. After a certain amount of hours you reach a tipping point where the technical things that used to be difficult to understand are second nature.


Jasper: How have you seen your arts community grow over the past few years and to what do you       attribute that growth?


Tyler: I’ve seen the music scene continue to thrive because the energy from artists in Scenario Collective, Moas Collective, and WUSC has been embraced in Columbia by Arts & Draughts, First Thursday, and various events/venues around town. The film scene is thriving because of the leadership from Wade Sellers. The work he’s done with 2nd Act Film Festival has bridged more connections and brought more people to the scene than anything else I can think of in Columbia. (editor’s note – yes, that’s Jasper Magazine film editor, Wade Sellers – nominated for a boatload of Emmy’s, always eager to help  his brother and sister artists, especially with a hand-up. We love our Wade and are proud to have him on our staff and Jasper Project board of directors. And yes, 2nd Act film Festival is one of the primary endeavors of the Jasper Project, so you know, yays all around!)


Jasper: Why is art so important right now?

Tyler: Art is so crucial right now. At a time when there seems to be so much division and confusion in the world, art enables people to express themselves in a healthy, productive way. For some it provides a much needed escape.


Jasper: Who have been your major influences?

Tyler: Locally: Mason Youngblood, Chaz Bundick, Tucker Prescott, Pedro Ldv, and Wade Sellers. Globally: Hans Zimmer, Led Zeppelin, Deadmau5, Wes Anderson, and Christopher Nolan,


Jasper: Who are some of your favorite local artists from an arts discipline other than your own?

Tyler: Ed Madden and Tucker Prescott (um, hello, it’s us again. We just wanted to point out that Ed Madden is our poetry editor and has been since we started Jasper Magazine – we don’t know what we’d do without our Ed. Oh, and did we mention that he’s the poet laureate for the city of Columbia? So, again, yay!)


Jasper: Is there anyone you’d like to thank for their support of your arts career?

Tyler: Mason Youngblood and Tucker Prescott for inspiring me with their talents and encouragement. Wade Sellers for being a great mentor. My family for putting music in my life at an early age and setting a high bar with their own talents. The Jasper Project for caring enough about the arts community to assemble a great team that takes interest in South Carolina’s creative talent. (Aww, thanks Tyler!)


Jasper: Why should folks come out to the 2017 JAY Awards and Retro Christmas Party?

Tyler: Everybody who’s anybody is going to be there!



BUY Tickets at



New Film in Works -- "Rising" by Ron Hagell with Terrance Henderson

Rising_Logo “Rising ”is a new contemporary dance film by Ron Hagell, with choreography by Terrance Henderson. It is being made for The Jasper Project as a part of the “Marked by the Water” commemoration of the first anniversary of the 1000 Year Flood on October 4, 2016.


Both Hagell and Henderson have felt strongly that the artists of Columbia need to “make artwork” in response to this major event that brought upheaval to so many lives in our hometown. To that end both artists, experienced in dance and filmmaking, came together to devise this new work.


The artists were close to some of those whose homes were engulfed on the night of October 4, 2015 particularly along Gills Creek in the Rosewood section of the city. In the aftermath many had lost a lifetime’s worth of treasured possessions and their homes but thankfully, with the help of neighbors and strangers, few lives were lost.


Talking through the disaster’s lead-up and with a good deal of knowledge of the community since the flood, both felt that there has been a change in our community and that a comment about this could be the starting point for new work.


If we think back to our state and town in the years and months leading up to this event it is clear that South Carolina has been in a socio-cultural slump for some time. There were many problems that came to a head prior to the flood. The Charleston shooting happened and this lead to the final chapter in the decades long struggle to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from the Statehouse grounds. While one negative incident led to a positive one, the economic and political plight of many blacks and other citizens of the state did not change. Old problems of inequality and racial division seemed as intractable as ever. The SC State Supreme Court ruling regarding basic education rights for all children showed us how serious the situation had become. But many still believed that, even with these news headlines, change would only come in the far distant future - if at all.


Then the flood came.


Since the flood came so quickly and waters rose to heights never before witnessed in living memory, those affected needed a great deal of assistance from across the whole community. In most areas the destruction was so great that normal services could not cope. In these cases many communities saw neighbors and stranger helping each other in a myriad of ways regardless of race or social standing. The flood brought down barriers and in their place we have felt a change that has stayed around. It’s a ripple on the surface of our town, where history runs deeper than the three rivers. But it’s there and we hope it will lead to a new beginning and a bridge to change.


Our dance film speaks to this hopeful future but rests in the arms of our Southern traditional/spiritual music. As with most contemporary dance, every element of the work is symbolic. The historic photograph stands-in for much that is lost – washed away by the waters. But still our victim is helped to rise from the flood into a new life with the help of others.





“Rising” Film Production Organization:

Production: Studio 53 – Contact: Ron Hagell or Shirley Smith

Telephone: (917) 216-2098 or (803) 609-0840

Filmmaker (script and direction) – Ron Hagell

Choreographer and Music Arranger – Terrance Henderson

Principal Vocalist – Katrina Blanding

Supporting Vocals – Terrance Henderson and Kendrick Marion

Art Director – Eileen Blyth

Auditions are currently underway for dancers and additional crew. The film will be completed in late September for screening on October 4, 2016.

This film is being produced under the auspices of the Jasper Project as a part of “Marked by the Water,” under the leadership of Cynthia Boiter, Ed Madden and Mary Gilkerson.



Fall Lines 2016 Award Winners Announced (& Photos!)

Fall Lines  

Congratulations to Selected Contributors to

Fall Lines - a literary convergence, Volume III

and Prize Winners

Jasper assistant editor Kyle Petersen with Claire Kemp winner of the Broad River Prize for Prose

Claire Kemp - Winner of the Broad River Prize for Prose

Claire Kemp's short fiction, The Doll Maker, was selected from finalists by award winning, Columbia-based author Julia Elliott.

Jasper literary arts editor Ed Madden is shown awarding the Saluda River Prize for Poetry to Kathleen Nalley

Kathleen Nalley - Winner of the Saluda River Prize for Poetry

Kathleen Nalley's poem, The last man on the moon, was selected from finalists by South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth.


Contributors' work selected or invited from more than 300 entries include:

Leah Angstman

Al Black

Julie E. Bloemeke

Laurel Blossom

Davi Travis Bland

Mark Burns

Jonathan Butler

Scott Chalupa

Tim Conroy

Ron Cooper

Pam Durban

Phillip Gardner

Terrance Hayes

Claire Kemp

Michael Miller

Tamara Miles

Patricia Moore-Pastides

Kathleen Nalley

Matthew O'Leary

Frances Pearce

Bo Petersen

Andrew Plant

Ron Rash

Mark Rodehorst

Eileen Scharenbroch

Maggie Schein

Randy Spencer


Additional photos:

Fall lines 16 flowers

Bo Petersen

Eileen Scharenbroch

Julie Bloemeke

Jonathan Butler

Mark Rodehorst

Matthew O'Leary

Michael Miller

Scott Chalupa

Tim Conroy

Travis Bland

Fall Lines 16


Sincerest appreciation to Tapp’s Arts Center, Jonathan & Lorene Haupt, Sara June Goldstein, Bert Easter, One Columbia for Arts & History, Richland Library, Friends of Richland Library, South Carolina Academy of Authors, University of South Carolina Press, Muddy Ford Press, Columbia Museum of Art, SC Philharmonic, Rosewood Art & Music Festival, Deckle Edge Literary Festival,Lee Snelgrove, Annie Boiter-Jolley

photos by Bob Jolley & Julie Bloemeke

Fall Lines Program Announced for Thursday, July 28th at Tapp's

Fall Lines

Thursday, July 28th, 2016 ~ 7 – 9 pm

Tapp’s Arts Center ~ Columbia, SC


7 – 8



8 – 9

Welcome & Recognition of Honored Guests – Cindi Boiter

Awarding of Prizes – Ed Madden & Kyle Petersen


Scott Chalupa

Claire Kemp

Kathleen Nalley

Travis Bland

Matthew O’Leary

Eileen Scharenbroch

Bo Petersen

Mark Rodehorst

Tim Conroy

Julie Bloemeke

Mike Miller

Jonathan Butler


Sincerest appreciation to Tapp’s Arts Center, Jonathan & Lorene Haupt, Sara June Goldstein, Bert Easter, One Columbia for Arts & History, Richland Library, Friends of Richland Library, South Carolina Academy of Authors, University of South Carolina Press, Muddy Ford Press, Columbia Museum of Art, SC Philharmonic, Rosewood Art & Music Festival, Deckle Edge Literary Festival


Fall Lines – a literary convergence launches third issue with a reception and reading at Tapp’s Arts Center July 28th

Fall Lines  


The Columbia Fall Line is a natural junction, along which the Congaree River falls and rapids form, running parallel to the east coast of the country between the resilient rocks of the Appalachians and the softer, more gentle coastal plain. 


Jasper Magazine, in partnership with Richland Library, USC Press, One Columbia, Muddy Ford Press, and The Jasper Project will release the third annual issue of Fall Lines – a literary convergence on Thursday, July 28th from 7 – 9 pm at a free reception at Tapp’s Arts Center. An annual literary journal based in Columbia, SC, Fall Lines was conceived as a mechanism for highlighting Columbia as the literary arts capitol of South Carolina.

A panel of judges selected 30 pieces of poetry and prose, from hundreds of international submissions, for publication in Fall Lines alongside invited pieces from Ron Rash, Terrance Hayes, Pam Durban, Laurel Blossom, and Patricia Moore-Pastides. Two prizes for the literary arts, sponsored by Friends of the Richland Library, will also be awarded including the Saluda River Prize for Poetry to Kathleen Nalley for her poem, “The Last Man on the Moon,” and the Broad River Prize for Prose, awarded to Claire Kemp for her short fiction, “The Dollmaker.”  Adjudicators included SC poet laureate Marjory Wentworth and award-winning author Julia Elliott. In addition, Fall Lines will also publish the winner of the 2016 South Carolina Academy of Authors Coker Fiction Fellowship, “I Can’t Remember What I Was Trying to Forget,” by Phillip Gardner.

The awards ceremony and reception will also feature readings by selected authors whose work is published in this issue of Fall Lines: Scott Chalupa, David Travis Bland, Matthew O’Leary, Mike Miller, Claire Kemp, Kathleen Nalley. Tim Conroy, Julie Bloemeke, Eileen Scharenbroch, Jonathan Butler, and Mark Rodehorst.

The editors of Fall Lines, Cindi Boiter, Ed Madden, and Kyle Petersen, are deeply appreciative of this year’s sponsors including Jonathan and Lorene Haupt, Sara June Goldstein, Richland Library, One Columbia for Arts and History, Muddy Ford Press, Columbia Museum of Art, the SC Philharmonic Orchestra, Rosewood Art and Music Festival, Deckle Edge Literary Festival 2017, and The Whig.

For more information please contact Cindi Boiter at

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




The lesson that night

Here, in its original format, is the beautiful poem Jasper's literary arts editor -- Ed Madden -- wrote for The State, published June 17, 2016. We're sharing this iteration here simply to preserve the correct formatting for posterity. 



The lesson that night

for 17 June 2016



     “And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground.” – Mark 4:16


     “Who are we now?” – Nikky Finney, “A New Day Dawns”



How hot it was that sun-beat week,

watering the yard every day,


the curled leaves and dry ground,

green wings of zinnia breaking the soil.


They sat together around a green table,

prayed, sang, then opened the gospel—


the lesson that night was seed sown

on stony ground. What can we know


of the human heart, entangled in all

that we’ve been taught? A boy from here


sat with them about an hour,

then aimed his hate and opened fire.




How quick we were to act,

focused on that festering flag,


quick to take it down

and move forward, move on—


these aren’t the same.

After weeks of heat, it rained the day


the governor said to take it down.

Are we somehow different now?


How would we know?




We furled a flag. We furled a flag.

A girl was slung across a room,


a man who ran shot in the back.

The broke and broken schools remain.


What has changed, beyond that square

of empty sky where it once flew,


the opened door of clouds and blue?




The lesson that night was stony ground.

Not birds, not thorns, not the good soil.


What grows up quick among the stones.

What has no roots, what withers away.


A friend calls change a perennial plant.

A second year takes nurture and luck.


If it comes back another year,

a better chance that it will stay.


Water well the just-sown and just-up.

Water long in morning light.


Water long and soak the roots

to learn the lesson of that night.


Learn the lesson of that night.



On Gender by Ed Madden (as He Prepares Tess Demint for the Vista Queen Stage)

IMG_8102 “You learn a lot in drag.” – Panti Bliss/ Rory O’Neill, A Woman in the Making (2014)


Last Monday I published a poem online at the Good Men Project, a website devoted to rethinking masculinity—“Translations,” a poem about gender and race and how we like to put people in boxes.  I had been teaching creative writing to some young writers last fall, I was still thinking about the Confederate battle flag and the Black Lives Matter movement, and I had been asked to write a poem for a transgender remembrance ceremony and the GLBTQ student organization’s “lavender graduation” ceremony.  It all came together in this prose poem, maybe more essay—in the old sense of trying out something, thinking through something—than poem.  (I am deeply grateful to my student Caleb for talking with me about non-binary identification—his words are the heart of the poem.)


I’ve been thinking a lot about gender, as I prepare for my performance in Vista Queen this coming Monday, because gender is very much in the air, in the cultural conversation—from Trump’s misogyny to Hillary’s candidacy.

On March 24, North Carolina passed a law that has been called “the most anti-LGBT legislation in the country.”  It undoes all local nondiscrimination laws and specifically excludes gay, lesbian, and transgender people from legal protections.

Ironically, International Trans Day of Visibility was celebrated just a week later, on March 31.

Now Senator Lee Bright of Roebuck has proposed similar legislation for South Carolina.


Before I entered, I asked my colleagues in Women’s and Gender Studies if it was okay for me to enter.  They said sure.  One said don’t do it—not because she objected, she just said, “You’re already too busy and beleaguered.”  Well, true.

But I asked because drag can be risky business when you work in gender studies.

On the one hand, drag is a central example in the work of theorist Judith Butler and celebrated by folks influenced by that work.  Drag, they say, makes visible that all gender identity is a performance, a repetition of acts and styles and embodied tropes of how we fit—or don’t fit—into the binary gender system: male/female.  (Yes, there’s a Wikipedia page on this.)

But, on the other hand, I suppose there’s that old gay tradition of female impersonation that tends toward misogyny rather than subversion or understanding.  For example, see this really smart essay from a Stanford student which notes, “if drag is to be subversive, then it must challenge or undermine systems or institutions that oppress those performing.”  Yes, I think, as I work on Tess DeMint’s script.  That is, the subversion mustn’t simply reinforce the powers that be, but question them.

I think about those old “womanless weddings” often held in rural Southern churches and segregated high schools in the 1940s and 1950s—often connected, as Brock Thompson notes in The Un-Natural State: Arkansas and the Queer South, to blackface minstrelsy as well. These performances were popular across Arkansas and the South, and, as Thompson points out, had more appeal (and played a more essential function in enforcing behavior) in communities where the racial and class divides were stark.

I think about the fact that, according to Chris Bull and John Gallagher’s Perfect Enemies, an analysis of anti-gay politics, that one of the most effective and prevalent tropes of anti-gay organizing in the 1990s was a male teacher in drag.

The Stanford student also says that “as drag becomes more and more a mainstay of our culture, it is important for those partaking in it—queer or not—to be mindful of and question the origins and implications of the personas we perform.”


Over spring break I read the biography of Panti Bliss, the extraordinary Irish drag queen, featured in the recent documentary The Queen of Ireland.  I’ve had the extraordinary pleasure of seeing Panti perform several times when I’ve been over in Ireland—even once attending the low-key and lovely Monday night “Make-and-Do-Do” craft nights at Pantibar, where she assigns a craft project and a bunch of grown men do their best with craft sticks and pipe-cleaners and marla (Irish for Playdoh).  I think our assignment that night was something Brazilian.  Laughter, community, friendship—all of it with the soundtrack of the hilarious Panti and the deeply nostalgic primary classroom smell of Playdoh.

I’ve been thinking about Panti as I work on Tess, about what drag can and can’t do. If you don’t know Panti, you should watch her speech—her noble call—on a Dublin theatre stag about homophobia.  Yes, I’m raising money for an institution that I love, a theatre that has in its very mission statement: “Our success will be measured by our commitment to collaboration and innovation, while our impact will be measured by the creation of a more diverse and vibrant Columbia.”

A more diverse and vibrant Columbia.


Tess has been writing a few little limericks in preparation for the performance, just in case she has occasion to recite a poem or two.  While most of them are about herself, as they should be, there’s this one she wrote this morning:

A not very Bright man named Lee wants to police who can and can’t pee. But trans is no crime, so let’s say, no not this time, and fight Mr. Bright’s bigotry.


I’m a 52-year-old (yes, really) man who has never done drag (yes, really)—unless you count the bearded college student in a bathrobe who lip-synched “You Can’t Hurry Love” with 3 friends at a church retreat (I don’t).

Panti says in her recently released autobiography A Woman in the Making that, if you can’t quite achieve beauty, you can certainly achieve interesting.

Maybe Vista Queen isn’t supposed to be political, but when I slip on my heels and try to walk and move through the world in shoes that slow me down and make me conscious of my body in ways I’ve never been conscious of my body, I think otherwise.  I think about the annual Walk A Mile In Her Shoes march against rape and sexual assault, the local event hosted by Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands to be held next Thursday, April 14.  (Register here before Sunday!)

I’m still tinkering with my act.  It will be an evening of people doing deeply uncomfortable and outrageous things for a theatre they love.  I hope it’s interesting.  I hope it’s subversive.  I hope it raises lots of money for Trustus.  Mostly I hope I can stay upright on those heels.

You can donate to Tess DeMint online at Trustus, or at her GoFundMe page.  It’s for a great theatre, a good cause.

As Panti says, You learn a lot in drag.

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

More From Tess DeMint: Ed Madden Compares Notes with Former Vista Queen Participant Jason Watkins (Tess Tickles)

Tess Tickles (Jason Stokes) Performing at the 2014 Vista Queen. Photo by Richard Kiraly.

This is the fifth in a series of blogs written by Tess DeMint (aka Professor Ed Madden), a contestant in the 18th annual Vista Queen Pageant, a fundraiser for our beloved Trustus Theatre.

Please support Tess by visiting Trustus Theatre. Each vote costs $10 and all money goes to Trustus Theatre.

You can also donate to Trustus (and support Tess!) at Tess’s donation site:


“Just have fun,” he said.

Last week Bert and I had dinner with Jason and Katy Watkins–Jason is also known as Tess Tickles, the 2014 Vista Queen. I wanted to know what the experience of Vista Queen was like for someone who had been through it, what advice he might have for me, drag novice and VQ newcomer.

When we walked in the restaurant—one of their favorites—the wait staff welcomed Jason by name, circling around us almost like courtiers for royalty. Jason made his way between tables, shaking hands with other regulars. We got a special corner table—one apparently usually reserved for another regular patron and his wife. It was made available to us. The waiter already knew what Jason wanted.

In another corner, I saw Jim and Kay Thigpen. A good sign. This was the place to be.

Katy is an old friend (we tied for “most liberal” when we went through Leadership Columbia together, ages ago), so there was some catching up, new jobs and old acquaintances. But then we quickly got down to business. I asked about costumes, about practicing in heels. I asked about talent.

Jason didn’t have a fitting with a costumer, he said. No fake hips. Katy laughed, “He’s a perfect size 6.”  Both of them talked about particularly beautiful queens, particularly memorable acts, particularly drunken contestants.  She said Tess/Jason was hilarious, though she occasionally wanted to crawl under her seat.

Jason wrote a song for his talent. He pulled out his phone at the table, read me the lyrics.  That year, the sixteenth contest, the theme was “Sweet Sixteen,” so Jason wrote a song about being 16—a boy at a military school, rebellious, desperate for sex, the chorus emphasizing that he could never have dreamed, when he was 16, that he might be a Vista Queen.

“Just have fun,” Jason kept saying, telling me about the madness of backstage. “And just remember, they’re all drunk,” as if that might temper my stagefright. I wasn’t sure.

Tess Tickles and Tess DeMint. It was the old Tess and the new, and their faithful consorts. It was instruction in local knowledge and vernacular practices of drag—what to expect, what to avoid. There at a corner table over sushi and salmon, royal counsel, advice from a queen.

Why I Said Yes - Tess DeMint (aka Ed Madden) Explains Love of Trustus

From the Trustus production of The Brothers Size. Photo credit: Richard Kiraly

This is the fourth in a series of blogs written by Tess DeMint (aka Professor Ed Madden), a contestant in the 18th annual Vista Queen Pageant, a fundraiser for our beloved Trustus Theatre.

Please support Tess by visiting Trustus Theatre. Each vote costs $10 and all money goes to Trustus Theatre.

You can also donate to Trustus (and support Tess!) at Tess's donation site:

I know my favorite row in the theatre.  I know my favorite seats.

I remember when Trustus Theatre staged Angels in America, one of the first if not the first regional theatre in the nation to do so.  I had seen the original New York production as a graduate student, and I taught the play at USC, so I was inclined to be critical.  But Trustus overwhelmed me with a beautiful, profoundly moving, and memorable production.

I remember Lonesome West and The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh and other crazy Irish plays at Trustus.  The playwright was savagely funny, and the local production amplified his ability to make violence simultaneously hilarious and horrifying.

Which one of those plays was it that Alex Smith as the suicidal priest broke my heart?

I remember the rocking productions of Spring Awakening (yes they did that here and it was fucking amazing) and Hedwig and the Angry Inch—and being so tickled when Hedwig clearly directed the song “Sugar Daddy” to a couple of dear friends in the front rows.  (I won’t call out your names, Gordon and Doak.)

I remember taking my honors seminar to see Standing on Ceremony last spring as the semester began.  A collection of one-act plays about same-sex marriage, the performance introduced most of the very issues we were about to discuss.  The Trustus production (and talkback after) helped to set a tone for the rest of the semester as we began our own serious study of marriage politics.  I usually give students the option of a creative final project rather than a traditional research paper, and a couple of students wrote their own one-act plays, adding to the political and emotional complexity of what they had seen at Trustus.

More recently, I remember Chad Henderson’s haunting and gorgeous production of The Brothers Size.  The extraordinary acting (my Vista Queen fellow contestant Bakari Lebby and his colleagues were amazing), the minimal but strangely beautiful and convincing staging.  The intimacy of the sidedoor theatre.  The fireflies.

I remember Jim Thigpen—and later Larry Hembree—introducing a play and reminding us that we could always trust the theatre (trust us), even if we didn’t know the play or the playwright, because it would be good and it would be done well.  And I remember Kay’s smiling face at the ticket window, her easy laugh.

I remember working so hard for years with gay and lesbian organizations in South Carolina, and the way that Trustus would open their doors to us, the way they’d let us buy out the final dress rehearsal for a show as a fundraiser for our local community center.  The way the place filled with GLBT folks and their friends, laughing through The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, laughing at Hunter Boyle as the bitchy Santa Claus, laughing through tears at the end as the lesbian couple gave birth to a child and the gay couple resigned themselves to the new HIV drugs not working.  I remember a room full of people I loved laughing and feeling giddy and connected to one another, giggling at the silliness of When Pigs Fly, or stunned by the professional production of Take Me Out.

It was the Jim and Kay Thigpen School of theatre and aesthetics and collaboration and community and inspiration and love.  It was and is the theatre’s mission: “a safe space for exploration of the political, the personal, and all things human.” It was and is the theatre’s artistic mission: to produce works “that start and nurture dialogues.”  As they say on the webpage: “Our success will be measured by our commitment to collaboration and innovation, while our impact will be measured by the creation of a more diverse and vibrant Columbia.”

I remember that fundraiser at Most Fabulous, the huge spread of food Bert prepared, and the enormous bouquet of flowers—mostly from our yard—and a potted night-blooming cereus Bert put on the table, the large prickly arm of it reaching over the spread, ending in a tight white blossom.  I remember that it opened up during intermission, the incredible smell filling the bar.  A magical night.

I know my favorite row in the theatre, my favorite seats.  I know Bert and I will order a bottle of white wine, and he will have to get the basket of popcorn refilled at intermission.  I know it feels like home to be there.

So when Chad Henderson walked up to me at the Deckled Edge literary festival’s opening night and asked me to be in Vista Queen, I said yes.  I didn’t think about it: I said yes.  I was immediately terrified at what I had agreed to (though Bert was clearly delighted), but I said yes.

Why?  Because I love this theatre.  Because of so many good memories and so many amazing plays.  Because of the community Trustus makes possible and the community it enables and sustains.  Because Chad asked me.  Because I know which seats are my favorites.


Not Drama Queen?! More from Vista Queen Contestant Tess DeMint (aka Ed Madden)

pink heart

This is the third in a series of blogs written by Tess DeMint (aka Professor Ed Madden), a contestant in the 18th annual Vista Queen Pageant, a fundraiser for our beloved Trustus Theatre.

Please support Tess by visiting Trustus Theatre. Each vote costs $10 and all money goes to Trustus Theatre.



You’ve never been back here? she asked, smiling.


No, I hadn’t.


I followed Brandy into the back room, a door just beside Chad’s office, upstairs at Trustus.  Racks and racks slam-packed with costumes, dresses, jackets.  Shelves of labeled plastic bins.  Military hats.  How far did it go? I couldn’t see the other end. The long-suppressed theatre queen in me starting trembling, giddy, overcome. (Theatre queen, not drama queen.)  I ran my hand down a rack of jackets and fur.


It was my meeting with Brandy, who is helping with costumes for Vista Queen.  We met upstairs, in a small sitting room filled with a couple of rolling racks of dresses.  I had a couple of selections set aside from my first meeting with T.O., but Brandy was helping to augment and complete the look.


I had pretty good luck at my first drag consultation, and I even found something crazysexycool (and a little assymetrical) while shopping.  But we weren’t set, we weren’t certain.  There was one incredible black and blue metallic beaded gown that looked like Tammy Faye Bakker meets Loretta Lynn.  It was heavy.  It was tempting.  It was too small.


And anyway, was it really the right look?  Brandy and I talked about Tess, who she is, what she’s like.  I said ebullient and awkward.  We agreed: not church lady (that’s been done), but religious, perhaps awkwardly so.  Brandy described a character from the movie Blue Like Jazz, someone she said was almost uncomfortable to watch.  Uncomfortable.  Was that Tess?


Earlier in the day, over coffee at Drip on Main with Cindi Boiter, we talked about Vista Queen.  I showed her a photo of one costume selection.  She thought Tess should be sexier.  Should she?  Showed the same photo to another friend: he burst out laughing.


Also ran into Phil Blair from The Whig.  He’s sending me dates for Tess to do a Vista Queen fundraiser night at the bar.  (Watch for more info! Also a donation site up soon!)


Tess is still a work-in-progress.


So when Brandy said, “Let’s see what we can find back here,” and opened the door to that magic back room of props and costumes, I wondered: Is Tess back here?


We looked for a while, laughed a lot, found a cow outfit, but didn’t really find anything that said Tess, found ourselves back in the sitting room with the same selections I’d already tried on.  We talked about hip pads and bras.  Brandy jotted down some notes, about how to alter and accessorize what I had already to make it more fitting (literally and figuratively) for the Tess we imagined.


Bert said that one item we found really really really needed a little brooch of some kind.


I’ve got just what you need, Brandy said.  She pulled out a tiny heart-shaped pin with pink and blue gems out of her purse.





This is the second in a series of blogs written by Tess DeMint (aka Professor Ed Madden), a contestant in the 18th annual Vista Queen Pageant, a fundraiser for our beloved Trustus Theatre.

Please support Tess by visiting Trustus Theatre. Each vote costs $10 and all money goes to Trustus Theatre.

ed dress


Last weekend we decided to go shopping.


At that first consultation with T.O., I had tried on things from the theatre wardrobe, and settled, I think, on a couple of possibilities.  But no shoes there, and still in need of at least one more getup.  T.O. suggested visiting thrift stores, if only to get a sense of what I liked, what might work.


When we were in Arkansas during spring break, we ran across a booth of formal dresses in an antiques mall, all the dresses marked down to $30 and $40.  Maybe a formalwear shop closing up.  Some crazy things, mostly prom dresses.  We decided to check it out.  I slid a big jacket on: too small.  I found a chart for size translation on my phone: it included waist and jacket sizes for men and the corresponding women sizes.  We looked through all the sizes.  Nothing for me there.


That was, of course, before the consultation, before I’d even settled on a name or a persona.  Now I have a better sense of who I could be, what I might look like.


Goodwill, where we started shopping, was full of many things, but not much that seemed useful.  Way too many outfits that looked like tired professional women at work.  I did find a choir robe for $6, which seemed maybe worth buying.  The shoe rack had some scary-cool things, but nothing in my size, nothing in an interesting color.  I noticed my own shoes were dusted yellow—pollen, that film of yellow coating everything right now, the air filled with the sexual life of plants.


At one consignment shop, somewhat high-end, filled with furniture and bric-a-brac, as well as racks and racks of clothes, we had a little more luck.  There was a ruffled pink thing that looked promising.  (I texted Tio a photo. “Drama,” he wrote back approvingly.)  A large woman in orange seemed annoyed we were in her section, and practically pushed me aside with her cart.  She was perhaps unamused by two men giggling over the options on the plus-size dress racks, which could mostly be dismissed as (as Bert put it) “too mother-of-the-bride.”  Not the look for a Vista Queen.


At another consignment store, Second Chances, when we mentioned Vista Queen, the woman behind the counter brightened up, walked us through the store, determined to help us find the right thing.  When I told her what I thought my size should be (based on that internet research and the things I pulled on at the first consult, encased in my fake hips and bosom), she laughed, oh honey you don’t need something that big.  She pulled out a lovely beaded black size 16.  Just pull it on over your clothes, she said, to get a sense of how it fit, how it looked.  It was breathtaking—and breath-taking, too tight.


We checked our watches.  We had dinner plans.  It was our wedding anniversary—eleven years after being unlawfully wed, as I like to say, that long-ago ceremony filled with family and friends, but unacknowledged at the time by state law. While we searched the consignment shop, our minister, who now lives in the Upstate, sent a text of well-wishes from himself and his wife.


One more.  Behind the desk was a flouncy white ruffled dress that slid maybe too easily over my head.  Bert suggested a slit up the side to make it a little less matronly.  We texted a pic to T.O., me in the middle of the shop, the dress pulled over my jeans and green shirt.


He agreed with Bert: too mother-of-the-bride.


I hope T.O. deleted that picture.

Ed Madden is Tess DeMint in the 2016 Vista Queen Pageant

VistaQueenWeb It's the 18th annual Vista Queen pageant at Trustus Theatre and, this year, Jasper will be bringing readers a behind-the-scenes look at the tucking and taping and general mayhem that accompanies the only kind of pageant we could ever support - a mockery!

Meet Tess DeMint, (aka Ed Madden).

You'll be learning more about Tess in the weeks to come.

In the meantime, Tess and Ed have started doing the work that it takes to be a woman. As Simone De Beauvoir  says, "One is not born a woman, but becomes one." Here's a bit of what that involves -- 

Ed's shoe


I’m wearing high heels as I write this.

I’ve been wearing them the past hour or so as I move about the hotel room, putting away things, washing my face, answering emails.  I’m trying to get used to them, used to how I walk in them, used to how I should walk in them.  On Monday, when I met with Tio for my first drag consultation, he told me I walked like a gorilla, told me that I needed to let my hips and arms move.  He had helped me into hip pads and a dress, after I’d pulled on the obligatory three sets of stockings and tights, after I’d tucked myself best I could.  When he asked me if I knew about “tucking,” I said that I had read about it.  I’m an academic: it’s what I do.  He laughed.  I was the first person, he said, who had ever told him they read about tucking.  It was actually a little scary to read—especially when you see, “This may cause damage to the genitalia.”  Tio assured me that I didn’t have to use tape.


I walked around the room, best I could.  A gorilla.  He said I seemed to be getting better every time he turned around.  Bert said it was a little scary.  Tio told me to wear the heels around the house, to practice walking in them.


A video I found online tells me to look up and straight ahead, not at my feet.  Yes, I have been watching videos on how to walk.  I also watched some Yanis Marshall videos—more inspiration than aspiration, nothing I could imagine doing myself.  (I also think Arnaud Boursain—the tall bearded one—is sexy.)


So I’m sitting in a hotel room in Spartanburg, after attending Bodies of Knowledge, a gender studies conference at USC Upstate, in a pair of very black and very shiny high heels, about two inches high.  (Wishful thinking? Maybe I exaggerate?)  The rest of me looks like the rest of me: khaki pants, a green button-down shirt, some green striped socks.


I’m thinking about gender and heels and movement.  At the conference, I participated in a “queer movement” workshop with the enthusiastic performance artist Leigh Hendrix.  I hadn’t intended to stay for that last session, but I asked Leigh if it would help me be a better Vista Queen.  She assured me it would, if only to think about how my body moves.  We curled on the floor in fetal position.  We moved through the room with our six limbs (arms, legs, head, tail).  We did what felt comfortable; we stopped if it didn’t.  Make a heroic shape, she said.  I stood like the statue of an orator.  Make a male shape, she said.  Arms crossed, legs spread, aggressive stare.  Someone else sat on the floor, manspreading.  Make a female shape.  I stood legs slightly crossed, my hip out, one arm loosely crossing my chest, the other lifted, my wrist bent, my hand curled loosely back, a finger pensive against my chin, a downcast but withering gaze.  Honestly, I felt more Tim Gunn than female.  Leigh looked at me, laughed: you’re ready.


But we weren’t wearing heels.

-- Ed Madden/Tess DeMint

To vote for Tess, um, Ed, please visit Trustus Theatre. Each vote costs $10 and all money goes to Trustus Theatre.



Announcing the 2015 Jasper Artists of the Year

It was a beautiful night of revisiting the best of the Italian Renaissance at the Big Apple last night when we announced and celebrated the 2015 Jasper Artists of the Year. Without further ado, the winners are: Martha Brim pictured with Jasper Contributing Dance Editor Bonnie Boiter-Jolley


Julia Elliott with Jasper Literary Arts Editor Ed Madden


Craig Butterfield pictured with Jasper Music Editor Michael Spawn


Dewey Scott-Wiley pictured with Jasper Assistant Editor Kyle Petersen


Kimi Maeda pictured with Jasper Editor Cindi Boiter



Congratulations to all the JAY Winners and Finalists!

Thanks to Kristine Hartvigsen for photography, Mouse House for framing, Singing Fox for event planning, and Coal Powered Filmworks for Sponsorship. Special thanks to the shared talents of Duo Cortado, Cathering Hunsinger, the Trustus Apprentices, Chris Carney, and Jasper's Wet Ink spoken word poetry collective.

Where is Your Next Stop? Launching Poets on The Comet This Sunday, November 1!


Rosa Rode the Bus Too A revolution began on a city bus. Where is your next stop? - Len Lawson

By: Literary Arts Editor and City Poet Laureate Ed Madden

On Sunday, November 1, One Columbia and The Comet will host the launch of our city’s first major poetry as a public art program—poems on city buses—with a rolling poetry reading on a downtown bus route followed by a celebration and reading at Tapp’s Art Center (1644 Main).

The rolling reading will take place on route 101—so we’re calling it Poetry 101. (Clever, right?) The route, which runs up North Main from the Sumter Street transit station, takes approximately an hour. There will be limited seating, first come, first served. Three sets of poets will read their work for Poetry 101, and thanks to the generosity of One Columbia, all rides on the 101 route will be free all day. For the Poetry 101 rolling reading, meet at the Sumter Street station (1780 Sumter) at 3:30. If you can’t join us on the bus, join us at Tapp’s Art Center for the celebration, with food and drink and readings by more of the poets.

The project is a collaboration One Columbia Arts and History and the Poet Laureate with the Central Midlands Transit Authority. Thanks especially to Lee Snelgrove at One Columbia and Tiffany James at CMTA.

This is my first major project as the city’s poet laureate, and I’m really excited that we have been able to do this. One of my charges as the city laureate is to incorporate the literary arts into the daily life of the city, and to get poetry into public places. The Comet project does that. We have poems on printed CMTA bus schedules (check out some online at:, we have poems on the buses themselves, and One Columbia has also published a small book of poems selected for this project—an exciting collection of South Carolina voices, and short poems ranging from the punchy to the political to the poignant. The books will be available at Tapp’s.

Earlier this year, 89 South Carolina writers submitted over 200 poems for Poems on the Comet. Our theme was “The Story of the City,” and poets wrote about favorite places, historical events, daily life in the Midlands, even poems about riding on the bus. We narrowed it down to 51 poems by 45 writers. There are poems by established writers, emerging writers, writers active in the local spoken word and arts communities, musicians, and young writers—seven of them students in Richland and Lexington County middle schools.

At Tapp’s we will also announce the theme for next year’s poetry project.

You can find out more at our Facebook event site:

Learn more about this project and get updates on what I’m doing as laureate at the laureate website:

Here are a few poems featuring in this year’s project.


Jennifer Bartell

As a turtle suns on the boulders of the river so my soul stretches forth to face the day.

Downtown Grid

Kathleen Nalley

No matter your starting point, here you’re never lost. Each right turn, each left turn leads you to a familiar place. The city itself a compass, its needle, no matter the direction, always points you home.

Small Winds

Jonathan Butler

All morning the wind has collected the incense of fields, the smell of grass like the sweet breath of the dead, the scent of earth pungent with sorrow and hope, the perfume the rain shakes from its long hair.

The wind has collected these things in fields and forests, cities and towns, to bring them to you this morning, small winds carrying chocolate and smoke blown from the black lake of your cup of coffee.

Who Sees The City?

Drew Meetze (age 14)

Who sees the city best? The tourist, the resident, or the outsider? The tourist sees the bronze stars on the capitol, the cramped racks of key chains and postcards. The resident sees little coffee shops on Main Street and hidden alleyways. The outsider understands that everyone they see has their own lives, first loves, or tragedies.


K. LaLima

Time flows like water Eyes of Cofitachequi Watch the Congaree


Under watchful gaze Five Points remains guarded by That naked cowboy

Milltown Saltbox Bedrooms

David Travis Bland

You can dance in the passenger seat— I'll hold the wheel. Five in the morning traffic Between an emaciated bridge And chicken factory steam Blurring the red neon sky. We're vegetarians in a pork town Dancing in milltown saltbox bedrooms On the banks of a river we all cross.

REVIEW: Nothing Like a Real Woman, Titty Diaries, CMFA 24 October, 2015 by Ed Madden 

titty diaries

 "It’s not the sexy that’s the problem: it’s the sexism."

                                                                                  -- Ed Madden

Let me start by saying I really wanted to like the play Titty Diaries, written by Trinessa Dubas and directed by Caletta Harris-Bailey, staged at CMFA October 23-25. It has all the right bona fides. It was staged in partnership with and as a fundraiser for Dianne’s Call, a local health non-profit targeting underserved communities ( It’s by a new playwright—and I want to raise up the city’s up-and-coming writers. With its title and episodic monologue structure, the play is also clearly intended to echo The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, a play I have taught, a play staged annually in Columbia as a fundraiser for domestic violence and rape crisis services. Staged during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Titty Diaries is supposed to address breast cancer awareness and body image. And it was clear that the audience seeing the play Saturday evening enjoyed the performance, not just its broad and usually stereotypical humor, but its emotional pathos as well.


So many reasons to want to like this play, and yet I left the theatre deeply troubled, in part because the play seemed more endorsement than indictment of a sexist culture that objectifies women. I also left convinced that the play is not quite ready for the stage—despite the playwright and director’s announced intentions to extend it to a full-length production and take it on the road—mostly because it’s not quite clear yet what the playwright wants this play to do and be.


Gender, or Yes but Why Bother


The first and fundamental problem is the play’s awkward engagement with gender issues. Like a lot of mainstream culture, from country music to community theatre melodrama to Real Housewives of Whatever, it seems to be about female empowerment, but only within the constraints of traditional gender roles, and only if we refuse to question the pervasive cultural sexism they reenact. Despite a script filled with female roles and stories, options for women here are limited.


The first scene, “My Eyes Are Up Here,” established my unease. In it, Terra, a single woman in a bar says she uses her cleavage to get free drinks. She gets annoyed when a man ogles her breasts and tells him, “My eyes are up here,” but that little moment of feminist snap is framed within a scene that’s all about using your anatomy to get things.


As Terra puts it: “As a single woman, I get a good thrill off of simple mined men. It’s not me, but do I ask for this? Am I inviting unwanted niceties when I decide on the cut of a shirt? Or can the blame be put on a man who may quite possibly have been breast-fed and can‘t get past a titty without salivating? Can I truly expect him to concentrate on what I am saying as opposed to what he sees, when my titties are so very prominent in this V? The answer is yes, and why bother? […] the purpose when flying solo in the Queen City is to get them dranks.”


Yes, she suggests, I should expect a man to listen to me, whatever I’m wearing, but why bother—men being men, the culture being the culture. It’s not about empowering sexual expression: it’s about using your body to get what you want. This becomes overt three scenes later in “Cause I Get What I Want,” the story of Fatima, a golddigger with a couple of pro athlete boyfriends. Like Terra, she doesn’t want to feel guilty about her own self-objectification: “I have to say this; it really is not my fault. […] Because of these babies (little chest jiggle to show breasts) I get what I want.” As if to chide audience members like me, she adds, “Now don’t knock me for being sexy. It’s a fact that I had to accept.”


It’s not the sexy that’s the problem: it’s the sexism.


I know there’s a fine line here. On the one hand, the play wants to insist, à la Eve Ensler, that women’s sexual expression can be about women’s sexual and self empowerment. On the other, we live in a culture that objectifies women and hypersexualizes black women. (Google it.) So when Fatima tells us “a girl needs sponsors,” the line between female sexual empowerment and self-objectification is erased. Of course, these are only two of 11 scenes, but we really don’t get any corrective or counter voices.  We get an aging exotic dancer wondering if she can go back onstage because her breasts are no longer perky. We get two older women telling a young wife to “titty-fuck” her husband when she’s menstruating because her job is to make her man happy. That she doesn’t understand that the “string of pearls” she will receive is a euphemism only reinforces the play’s emphasis on using your body to get what you want.


Representation, or Nothing Like a Real Woman


The second problem, as suggested by Fatima the golddigger, is the use of stereotype. The play offers a project of inclusivity, including multiple generations, even the stories of a man who suffers from gynecomastia (enlarged male breasts) and a transgender character. But it’s one thing to traffic in stereotypes for humor’s sake and another to reduce human stories to caricature, especially given the play’s seeming vision of inclusion.


The trans character (or caricature), Chortnii, announces, “Today transsexuals, transgender and transvestites are all over the place. We celebrate ferociously, but ain’t nothing like a real woman, with real titties.” Really? Despite RuPaul’s Drag Race, out in the real world trans people suffer violence and discrimination. And how offensive is it to put the play’s most anti-transgender line (“ain’t nothing like a real woman,” emphasis on real) in the mouth of a trans character? As if to make this character a grab-bag of sexual otherness as well as an anti-transgender caricature, the play adds fetishism and sexual orientation to the mix. Born “a boy who likes boys,” Chortnii morphs into sexual fetishist—“my fetish, men with titties”—and she dismisses a friend as “an old lesbian hag.” Given the fact that studies have found that lesbians and bisexual women have higher rates of breast cancer than heterosexual women, this joke only deepens the offense of the most offensive scene in the play.


Thinking about representation and inclusivity, two other issues seem striking. The inclusion of the male character, Frank, highlights the often ignored issue of male breast cancer, as well as the issue of bullying, but it also is the only narrative that addresses sexual abuse. “I was molested as a teen,” he says, his breasts groped by an old man. In a play full of women’s voices, it seems at the very least awkward that his is the only story of sexual abuse. Just as the trans character is forced to bear the burden of all sexual otherness, the issue of sexual abuse is displaced onto the only male character in the play.  Thinking about representation and women’s experience, I also thought it odd that in a play about breasts, there are no references to nursing—a positive and familial image of nurture and generational connection—other than Terra’s suggestion that men fetishize breasts because they suckled too long.


Intent and the Human Story


Finally, despite the pre-performance publicity, it simply wasn’t clear what this play is meant to do and be. The “dear diary” voiceovers that precede each monologue suggest a kind of intimacy, an entrée into private stories we don’t usually hear. But the voiceovers themselves either emphasized the characters as types, or, confusingly, as real people, in an I-knew-someone-just-like-that way. Further, both the script and the program insist the play is “ethnic/gender neutral,” but I wondered if, in fact, it might be a more interesting play if it were more explicitly about African American culture. That is, rather than disavowing the ethnic element, as the playwright does, would an examination of the specificities of cultural experience actually strengthen the play.


The question of intent is primarily located in the script, but I wonder if the staging amplified this issue. Whether to make the point that these stories are all connected, or because of the exigencies of CMFA lighting, or both, the director put all the cast on stage, lights up on all, a bit of furniture here and there marking off each individual performance space. As a monologue was performed, the lights went down and that character left the stage, a slow emptying that at least helped us focus our attention as the lights came up again.


While this might have the effect of suggesting that these stories were part of the same story, the cluttered stage also left a couple of pieces unfocused—almost literally because you couldn’t see what was going on. The shortest scene, “Self Esteem,” for example, was pushed far back stage left. As the only scene without the “dear diary” voiceover, and the only piece centered on symbolic action rather than language, the piece had more felt emotional weight than others. No monologue, just a woman sitting at a mirror, wrapped in a robe. But from where I was sitting, I couldn’t really tell what she was doing. Sliding inserts in her bra? The script says, “lights on Veronique as she picks up a silicon breast and places it in one bra and then the other.” Was this scene about plastic surgery—as someone sitting behind me suggested? (The script calls for a slide show of images, including a teenage girl stuffing her bra.) Or was it about mastectomy? (The scene is preceded by an old woman who refuses to get a breast reduction, despite her debilitating back pain—refuses the surgery despite medical need.) Given the extraordinary importance of the stage action, this scene should have been performed downstage. The actor then picks up the phone to make an appointment with a doctor. Lights down, and we move quickly and jarringly to the exotic dancer sitting prominently front stage left.


The play’s final scene was moving, in part because the voiceover and pre-performance publicity insists it’s based on a real story. But even then there was a kind of awkwardness to the scene, as the woman diagnosed with breast cancer slipped out of character to deliver some educationese about statistics (perhaps more appropriate for the program than performance). Indeed, despite the emotional power of the story, the whole scene moved erratically through kinds of speech, the effect of which was a kind of discursive whiplash, as the primary character moves quickly in and out of dialogue, impassioned prayer addressed to God, monologue addressed to the audience, health education discourse, to a final bit of unbelievable sloganeering—“If you or someone you love are having a difficult time dealing with a diagnosis just know that you have to keep fighting forward. Support research. We’ve come so far in healing and care. With early detection the battle is that much easier to win. Don’t give up.” This mishmash of languages—educational, devotional, performative, political—suggests, perhaps, the play’s unclear impulses.


As if to emphasize the human story at the heart of this project, after the play ended, the stage manager asked cancer survivors to raise their hands, asked anyone diagnosed to raise their hands, a moment that felt heartbreakingly awkward and wrong.




The day after, I went to see The Brothers Size at Trustus. One play troubled me, the other crushed me. One set cluttered with furniture, the other evoking bayou, carshop, and home with ritualized action and the simplest of props. One script depending on a junkshop of stereotypes to tell a deeply human story, the other developing a deeply human story out of myth and type. Unfair, I know, to compare community theatre to professional, a new unfinished play to an award-winning play, unfair to juxtapose these aesthetics. But something about that juxtaposition clarified for me the importance of getting the human story right, emphasized for me the potential of theatre to create empathy and understanding. Clarified for me why I wanted Dubas’s play to do something more.


We like to say that Columbia is a writers’ town, but I wonder if that’s true across all kinds of writing? Is it a town for playwrights? Do we have workshops for playwriting—workshops that would offer aesthetic and political critique, blocking suggestions, proofreading, as well as friendly support? I don’t know. I know that I love to see vibrant and scrappy and interesting theatre and performance culture developing outside and beyond the main stages. I know that a lot of what I say here would probably come up in a workshop critique or a staged reading with feedback. I know that Jasper is working on a playwright’s workshop.


I also know that I would love to see more work by Dubas. There’s an energy and cultural importance to this play, an ambition and riskiness, despite its problems.  In a culture in which breasts are insistently eroticized, in which cosmetic surgery is becoming common, in which pop stars sport beach-ball-sized bosoms, and in which breast cancer is so oddly part of mainstream thinking that a local bakery slathers pink icing on everything, we need a play that makes us stop and think about what our culture tells us about breasts. This isn’t yet that play. Yet.


Ed Madden is the literary arts editor for Jasper Magazine and the director of Women's and Gender Studies at USC.