On anniversary of church shooting, South Carolina poets offer healing through verse

Friday saw the first anniversary of the shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, where alleged white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black churchgoers. Among those who struggled to come to terms with the tragedy were two local poets, musician and web designer Marcus Amaker and South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth, who share some of their reflections in verse.

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    Even as the country's attention has been focused on Orlando for much of the week, today marked the anniversary of another mass shooting, when nine people were killed in Charleston, South Carolina, at the Emanuel AME Church, known as Mother Emanuel.

    We look back through the thoughts and words of two Charleston poets. They're part of the community that's been coping with the tragedy since then.


    That was a crazy night. My wife and I were watching the news online, and we were watching everything unfold. There was a whole bunch of fear, because the shooting happened about five or six blocks from our house.

    MARJORY WENTWORTH, Poet Laureate of South Carolina: I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. I physically reacted. And then I had to go to work. And I work — teach at a college two blocks from Mother Emanuel. And it was a crime scene. They hadn't caught the killer yet.


    My name is Marcus Amaker. And I'm a Web designer, graphic designer, videographer, musician, and poet.


    I'm Marjory Wentworth. I'm the poet laureate of South Carolina.

    Music of doves ascending. Yellow crime tape tied to the rod-iron fence weaves through bouquets of flowers and wreaths made of white ribbons like rivers of bright pain flowing through the hours.


    Circadian rhythms. At ground zero of death, the voice of God will sound like an alarm clock waking you up from a dream.


    The arts community in Charleston has been folded into the healing process. And that was immediate. Poetry is — in a time of crisis, it is a great way to find the language for something that people don't have. And they want that language. People crave some way of articulating what they're feeling. And that's what poetry does, I think.


    I think that, for a long time, a lot of people my age, especially, racism is not really this tangible thing, but then, when this happened at the church, it really became the most real thing that we have ever experienced.

    You open your eyes and see yourself not as a woman or a man, but as a spirit who had been breathing in an illusion.


    I think, in terms of the larger issue in the city, the state and the country, you know, the flag is down as a result of a horrific crime, but the conditions that exist around that, the sort of social justice issues based on race, have not changed in our city.

    One week later, the funeral bells ring. Lines of strangers still bring offerings. Nine doves tossed toward the sun. One week later, the funeral bells ring, while churches in small towns are burning. Nine doves tossed toward the sun, because there are no words to sing while churches in small towns are burning. A blur of white wings ascends like music.


    I see an awakening that's happened in this city. I have been awakened. It's not like I didn't know that racism was out there, but to see it in this tangible, real way so close to where I live was really a big awakening.

    And, for me, it feels like the time for small talk is over. If we don't change after this, then what is going to change us?

    On June 18, the voice of God sounded like an alarm clock and woke us up from a nightmare. It was the day after a massacre, when illusion became reality, when darkness was a dagger in our hearts. From this day forward, the voice of God sounds like an alarm clock waking us up from a dream. Our eyes are now open to the restlessness of our souls as we confront the relentlessness of racism. I will not rest until we can sleep peacefully again.

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