Now You See Me
Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Marcus Wicker’s poem “Conjecture on the Stained Glass Image of White Christ at Ebenezer Baptist Church” appears in the December 2016 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.
Many things are true at once.
Back in 2011 I started working on a book I was calling “Cul-de-sac Pastoral.” The bulk of the collection contained lyric poems about faith, as well as praise poems to and against Midwestern suburbia—hermetically sealed lawns, Uzi sprinkler heads, high-definition televisions, and an ever-shifting, out of reach American Dream. With a little distance, I’ve discovered some of that work was birthed from a kind of earnest assimilation, a desire to join a centuries-old chorus of writers riffing eloquent and elevated about pedestrian encounters in league with, and against, Christian teachings. The way I saw it, I was writing toward an honest dialogue with a creator concerning temporal affections, or “the things of this world,” as my youth group leader would look at me knowingly and say.
I’ve never privileged so-called confessional poems over any one mode, nor have I been of the mind that a successful piece should necessarily contain any of my multiple selves—educator, boxing fan, co-dog owner, hip hop head, etc. Still, what was missing from those early second-book poems was the makeup of me: son of a small business owner/professional house painter, and a self-taught grants administrator; African American parents who could have been solidly middle class had they not sacrificed to send my brother and me to St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School during our formative years. Because I was writing pleas exclusively, not accounting for the ways in which my particular upbringing informs, for instance, a shallow prayer for a suit-and-tie career (then the guilt-laden B-side where I ask forgiveness for asking) felt a little like lying in a confessional booth. One sticky stuck-in-the-first-stanza morning in June I stopped writing. And I wouldn’t attempt a poem again for eight months—the longest “drought” of my writing life.
After my reading at the elite private college, a high-chinned distinguished (old) white man corners me at the plastic card table where I’m signing broadsides. He stops, not to buy a book, but to tell me how “disappointed” he is to hear that I’m an untruthful writer. He’s referring to something that spills out between poems when I’m having a bit of fun with an audience. “I lie in my work; it’s part of my aesthetic,” I say half truthfully, half preemptively, to suggest my “I” is a slant self that both is and isn’t quite me. The truth is, I say this because not every audience feels like family, and I don’t always feel supported enough to talk freely about my work with a listener who’s a little too interested in trying out their theories of blackness on me.
I tell the man not to take it personally. That I’m a “by any means necessary poet,” willing to say or try anything on the page to make an argument work.
“But why are you arguing in the first place,” he frowns. “And with whom?”
When Trayvon Martin was gunned down in February of 2012, suddenly my desires and small quips about the Christian concept of “sin” felt like first world problems. I spent months revisiting the thought that there are those of us for whom privileges like quality public education, the right to a fair trial/sentencing, and justice are readily attainable. And then there are marginalized groups like African Americans, for whom concepts like the American Dream are secondary to concerns about inequity, and straight up and down safety. I have not forgotten about the legacy of race and racism in this country. The mass slaughter of indigenous people, the Peculiar Institution—America’s history devastates me. It wounds even right now, writing these words in the privacy of my own home. But there’s a coping mechanism by which, given the right uniform, the right job title, the right manicured subdivision, one might trick himself into believing that charming and disarming his way out of micro-aggressions—the arts administrator’s comment about his good diction, the Wal-Mart patron’s “Do you work here?”—is a kind of privilege. I say “privilege” as opposed to being choked to death by a cop for loitering while black, recorded on a cellphone video. But all of these stressors weigh on my psyche, so why shouldn’t they weigh on my work?
Borrowing from Audre Lorde, I started writing again when I was reminded Poetry is not a luxury, and neither am I. Books and degrees be damned, a bullet could come for me in a Florida townhouse community or my downtown Lansing, Michigan loft.
I began to pen a series of “silencers”—poems that quietly address unchecked gun violence and police brutality against African Americans in the news, without specifically invoking case details. Over time my poems grew louder, more swaggering, diglossic.
After my reading at the elite private college but before the book signing, the same high-chinned man asks: “Are you aware that when you use slang in your poems, you alienate a large group of readers who take seriously literature?”
I tell him, “I imagine and hope most my readers don't look like you or operate from the same level of expectation (privilege). I mean, I really hope I'm not writing for just you.”
More often than I care to admit, and by way of the skin I’m in, I imagine standing too near a bullet and the shooter walking away scot-free. Sometimes my speakers think through this reality in terms of “the problem of evil” or theodicy, as in “Conjecture on the Stained Glass Image of White Christ at Ebenezer Baptist Church.” Sometimes they think through this reality using an “I” that actually is me. Sometimes I lie in my poems and that “I” is really my brother Brian or President Obama.
Because contemporary American poetry is married to the academy, I know a number of my readers will at least look like the high-chinned man. To him I offer political poems that operate like a sleight of hand. I get him liquored up for three couplets at a black-tie affair, tell a joke before the dramatic situation unfolds and I go for the throat. Six couplets in and the man realizes he’s not reading a poem about a cocktail party, but a twenty-first century hate crime in Birmingham, Alabama.
Silencer—formerly "Cul-de-sac Pastoral"—merges black culture, hip hop culture, parochial education, politics, and the politics of higher learning with my own lived experience as a black man in America, another kind of education. These components are a fact of my identity, a negotiation I juggle daily. Poetry is, perhaps, a luxury for the man who’d avoid my lines over a few unfamiliar words and phrases he could easily key into Google, but I suspect he’s lying to himself and it’s actually his fragility my voice has disturbed, or something uglier.
I’m writing about social justice out of gratitude for life, and worry. I’m writing to mark a dark time in this nation’s history. To remind a reader like me that some of us be always lesser-than, and often less than that—expendable. I’m writing so I don’t forget when the news cycle ends. I’m writing to see my way through. Writing for you, too.
Marcus Wicker was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is the author of Silencer (2017) and Maybe the Saddest Thing (2012), which was selected by D.A. Powell for the National Poetry Series and a finalist for the NAACP Image Award. His awards include a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, Pushcart Prize, as...