Interview

All of Us

Marcus Wicker on comedy, Wu-Tang, and all that influences his poetry.
Photograph of Marcus Wicker leaning against a graffiti wall.

Marcus Wicker’s virtuosic poetry is laceratingly funny, heart-stoppingly serious, and as at home with hip-hop heroes as it is with literary ones. It varies as widely as the internet, a subject he addresses in his extravagant “Ode to Browsing the Web”: “O holy streaming screen / of counterculture punks, linger my lit mind.” D.A. Powell selected Wicker’s debut collection, Maybe the Saddest Thing, as a winner of the 2011 National Poetry Series Prize, and his second collection, Silencer, was just released by Mariner Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship as well as fellowships from Cave Canem and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Wicker recently assumed a professorship in the MFA program at the University of Memphis after teaching for several years at the University of Southern Indiana. This past summer, shortly after his move to Tennessee, we corresponded over email about the power of the unsaid, the uses of poetry as delayed comeback, and his desire to “invite rap fans to become the poetry fans they already are.” The following exchange was condensed and edited.

You’ve said of composing Silencer that you wanted to write “poems that address gun violence and police brutality against African Americans in the news, without specifically invoking case details.” What made you decide to take an oblique approach instead of a more explicit one? And what do you most hope audiences will get out of this book?

As readers, we sometimes enter into poems addressing difficult subject matter with guards held high, bracing ourselves for the impending sting. With the poems I dub “silencers,” I’m interested in the power of the unsaid—what happens if the expected hurt of gory details and fiery language never strikes. To my mind, the oblique approach is an eerie and lingering one that hopefully warrants slow negotiation.

On one hand, I’d love it if readers found poems in Silencer that move them to work against injustice with whatever resources they can wield. On another, I hope folks read the book and just walk away feeling less alone or aesthetically engaged by even one of the varying styles I’ve purposefully employed.  

Recently, I was struck by something that Simone White wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “Poetry isn’t magical or removed from dirty, compromising political and personal acts, pettiness, racism, sexism, suffering. Absent the intervention of many other sociopolitical acts, poetry won’t save your life. To suggest otherwise is a kind of offense against poetry’s insistence on complexity, the multidimensionality of understanding.” What’s your understanding of the nature of the relationship between language and power, and what role, to you, does poetry play in survival and resistance? 

It sounds to me like the reviewer’s glass might be half empty, but I guess it’s true, in a very literal sense. Poetry won’t save your life, at least not without (self) action. But a well-wrought language object can deliver a lightning bolt of feeling married to intelligence that’s capable of stirring readers into any number of outward actions and interior reactions. That’s power and magic enough for me.

I’m heartened by the ways poems of resistance connect thinkers willing to grapple with issues of dire importance. By my standards, a good political poem’s grievances and considerations are nuanced and thoughtfully mined. I think these facets contribute to communities that value responsible rhetoric more than dutifully registering as a Democrat or a Republican or sleep-watching newscasters who work the same angle on MSNBC each night before bed.

Music—particularly hip-hop—and popular culture weave themselves in and out of both your debut and this second collection. Often, your speaker directly addresses himself to celebrities, as in “In My 31st Year,” which says to Tupac Shakur, “Dear Pac, if there’s a heaven / for a G, the red Rorschach splotches / of cop-shot bodies you must stomach, / floating toward the kingdom / each sunset.” What draws you to this kind of allusion and reference, and what can poetry do that other genres and activities cannot?

I’m always listening to music or unconsciously nodding to something on Pandora. When I’m driving around town, the knob flips between Backspin and the other hip-hop stations on satellite radio. When I’m walking toward a classroom or down the cereal aisle in Kroger, chances are there’s an emcee inside my headphones. Many of my poems begin, unwittingly, by being tuned to the cadences of rap. I was listening to Pac’s “I Wonder if Heaven Got a Ghetto” a lot around the time that poem was being drafted and considering what he would say about the persistence of police brutality and shootings, wondering how different his point of view might be from mine. I take my hip-hop influences as seriously as my literary heroes, and I’d like others to do so as well. By funneling my thoughts through the lenses of both hip-hop and poetry, I’m attempting to close the gap some readers see between bars and verse and invite rap fans to become the poetry fans they already are. But first and foremost, I’m writing the way I think—in dialogue with a variety of influences: rap, Christianity, comedy, the internet. Whatever works.

When all else fails, poetry helps me discover, articulate, and clarify ideas I feel instinctively but can’t make sense of otherwise. It’s equal parts edifying and cathartic.

Your poems are also extremely funny. What does humor let you achieve in your poetry that you couldn’t achieve without it?

My grandmother used to tell me, “Sometimes you’ve got to laugh to keep from crying.” In a very practical way, levity acts as a time-released anodyne for a writer who’s had his heart broken by America. I hope that it will be healing for readers too.

Humor also serves as an invitation and a smokescreen for those uncomfortable with reading a poem about money, God, inequity. Come for the laugh, stay for the deadly serious dramatic situation you didn’t see coming.

Then there’s the matter of the delayed comeback. Maybe you’re quicker on your feet than I am, but when an acquaintance says something slick and offensive to me, I’m usually too surprised to reply. Poetry lets me hit the instant replay button and respond with the snarky zinger I came up with in the shower a day later. That’s petty, I know.  

 

Book cover of silencer by Marcus Wicker
Image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

 

The arresting cover of Silencer features a Kehinde Wiley painting, Conspicuous Fraud Series #1 (Eminence), and manages, like most of Wiley’s paintings, to be both beautiful and powerfully argumentative. How and why did you choose it, and has Wiley read your poems?  

I first fell in love with Kehinde Wiley’s work at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I would steal away ten minutes to look at his paintings whenever I was near the museum. I especially liked his series of black men on horses:

adorned, regal, and fresh to death. I found the cover image killing time on Pinterest about a year before the book was finished and thought, “This is it.”

I'm most attracted to the way the painting’s black centerpiece navigates his suit and tie existence—the wide and leaning shirt collar, the play in the cut of his jacket. But more than anything, I love his unruly, unforgivably black hair. The way it refuses to be contained within the frame. To my mind, there’s a kinship between some of the book’s arguments, their formal containers, and the subversion I see happening in the painting. My press sent Wiley an advance reading copy, but I don’t know that he got it. If someone out there has a direct line, I’d be grateful for the connect! I really admire his eye.

Another theme of Silencer is your professional position as an academic. In “Prayer on Aladdin’s Lamp,” you write, “Grant a way / to provide for my love. Like, / a tenure-track job / at a small college in the Midwest.” You also have a poem called “Silencer on the Arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. After Sassing an Officer Who Assumed He’d Unlawfully Entered His Own Home.” The academy seems like a decent position from which African American intellectuals can critique a racist culture, but it’s also another institution that is itself subject to critique—what’s that all about?

I think teaching college-level creative writing is one of several ways to stay in steady dialogue with and about poems, to support other writers who are also in love with words and, if you’re lucky, receive the institutional resources to support your creative endeavors. It’s a profession I’m daily grateful to have found.

For sure the academy’s a fine place for African American thinkers to critique oppression or simply do good work, whatever we deem that good work be. But the academy does not provide shelter from injustice—micro or macro—not internally and certainly not beyond its walls, as we saw with Dr. Gates. Silencer takes a candid look at both stances.  

You dedicate the book “For all of us.” Whom do you mean to include in that us?  

Anyone who reads the collection and sees, feels the irritation, hurt, and tragic humor I continue to witness. Anyone who’s tired and ready for something else.

What is something you’ve always wanted interviewers to ask you about, but they haven’t? And what’s your answer to that question?  

Favorite member of Wu-Tang? Raekwon. 

Originally Published: September 25th, 2017

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...

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