Bridge the Gap: A Conversation with Marcus Wicker about Music, Metaphor, and Macy’s Changing Rooms

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Marcus Wicker is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, The Missouri Review's Miller Audio Prize, as well as fellowships from Cave Canem, and the Fine Arts Work Center. His first collection Maybe the Saddest Thing (Harper Perennial), a National Poetry Series winner, was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. Wicker's poems have appeared in The Nation, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Oxford American, and Boston Review. His second book, Silencer—also an Image Award finalist—was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017 and won the Society of Midland Authors Award, as well as the Arnold Adoff Poetry Award for New Voices. Marcus teaches in the MFA program at the University of Memphis, and he is the poetry editor of Southern Indiana Review.

On May 3, 2018, the poet Marcus Wicker joined Interlochen Arts Academy Creative Writing students for a master class and reading. Interlochen Review editors Sophie Paquette, Poppy Rose and Isabelle Byrnes-Bartell sat down with him for a conversation about the myriad influences that have fueled his two collections.

Poppy Rose: In your “Self Interview” on your website, you talk about why you named your newest collection Silencer. I was wondering if you could tell us why you chose to title your first collection Maybe the Saddest Thing.

Marcus Wicker: Maybe the Saddest Thing was a title that came from a hat, actually. I was in a grad class and a bunch of buddies, we made up fake names for fake books. It just so happened that Maybe the Saddest Thing is humorous with a side of glib solemnity, so Maybe the Saddest Thing started as a joke and it stuck. But for Silencer, as you saw on the website, I was living in Evansville, Indiana, and I had these friends, this diverse group of guy friends, and we’d go out, and we’d talk about everything under the sun. But when I talked about race or gun violence, it got really quiet. I was worried that I was being silenced, so I thought, there’s got to be a way to a have a conversation without having a frank, sort of scary conversation about race and gun violence. That’s how the title came about.

Isabelle Byrnes-Bartell: In Maybe the Saddest Thing you have the title poem placed at the end of the first section. Because of the title, it feels like one of the most important poems in the book. What made you put it in the middle instead of starting or ending with it?

MW: The first section of Maybe the Saddest Thing is called “Maybe the Saddest Thing,” right, and the second section is “Beats, Breaks, and B-Sides.” So it ends that first section, it picks up on all the themes I talk about in the first half of the book: the difference between love and desire, masculinity, popular culture. That title poem includes all those themes and, hopefully, ties those threads together. It made sense to me to put it at the end of the first section.

Sophie Paquette: In “Confession Booth with Lines from Heartbreak ‘Drizzy’ Drake, Ending on a Theme from Odisee,” and several other poems, you explore the rhythmic and lyrical intersection between poetry and rap. In what ways do you find these genres informing each other, and how would you like to see both artistic modes transformed in the future?

MW: I’ll start by just saying I’m a child of hip hop. Growing up, my first tape was Kriss Kross, “Kriss Kross will make you jump,”—might be before you. I always liked rhyme. The first things that I wrote in my notebooks were rhymes, so I never saw much of a difference between poetry and hip hop. Given a few years of study, there are some pretty clear differences. But I really want fans of hip hop music to read poetry. I think there’s this way that, when you’re in school, if you’re only taught Robert Frost and Shakespeare, you get the sense that poetry is either pedantic, only about nature, or boring. That’s not the case, so if there are folks who are enamored with rhyme, syncopation, anaphora, if you like metaphor, you’re probably hearing those things in hip hop, and you’ll also discover those things in poetry. I’d like to bridge the gap. That’s my hope with Silencer.

PR: Building off of that, your poems do reference songs, but you also have a lot of poems, for example “When Academia Tells Me Only a Fool Believes in a God that He Can’t See,” where you use a lot of spaces and indents and caesuras that give them a very rhythmic quality when you read it. It’s very different from the forms in your other collection. I was wondering how the music that inspired Silencer might be different from the music that informs Maybe the Saddest Thing.

MW: I’m thinking more in SilencerSilencer is a heavier book, right, the topics are a little weightier—so more than just referencing hip hop like I do in the second section of Maybe the Saddest Thing, “Beats, Breaks, and B-Sides,” in that collection I’m interested in sampling actual lyrics, but in Silencer, sometimes I will take a line from a hip hop song and scan it like you do in metrical poetry. Often Kendrick Lamar, some of his rhymes are almost in iambic pentameter. If there is a flow that I like, I will take the cadence and the pace of that flow, and I will put my own rhymes to it.

IB: In “Interrupting Aubade Ending in Epiphany” and several of your Ars Poetica poems, you take pre-established poetic practices or structures and transform them. How do you find your work influenced by existing artists and forms?

MW: I always tell people you can’t be a great writer unless you read, right, unless you read a lot. In that first book, I’m trying on many modes that I was just practicing. At the time I was working for Indiana Review, a magazine just like Interlochen Review, and we’d get all these aubades, which is like a mourning song that is written for lovers who are departing. All of the aubuades that I read were really silly and kind of cheeky, so I wrote my own aubade making fun of theirs. In the writing of that poem, something happened. I think I hit the turn in poem and it transformed. In a lot of ways, sometimes I’ll just give myself an assignment: write a sonnet, write a sestina, but a broken sestina, and see what happens without thinking about subject matter. The subject matter just comes, because I’ve given myself that challenge. I always say that writers are apprentices to a long line of master craftsmen and women, and whenever you can employ and older form, you should try it. But do it your way.

IB: Do you feel like one of your poems’ projects is to deconstruct these influences?

MW: Yeah. I want to be in a rich dialogue with them, but I also want to subvert these practices and forms. For instance, a lot of my sonnets in Silencer, they’re not written in pentameter but they’re ten-beat lines, and I will add an extra rhyme or three, in three different lines. I’m always interested in the subversion of form.

SPR: Maybe the Saddest Thing includes a series of self-dialogues, and, additionally, several of your other poems in this collection examine the power of naming—including references to names in pop culture that elicit specific responses, or naming poetic forms while morphing them. I was also interested in the line from “Silencer to the Heart While Jogging Through a Park”: “I won’t name him. You’ll look away.” What does the power of naming mean to you, in terms of your artistic voice and projects?

MW: Naming is always important. I think that, by naming, it’s like an invocation, right? I’m calling on the power of those folks that I’ve sampled in previous works, those writers that I’ve read, sort of, I’ve borrowed from. And then also, I think there’s power in not saying a name. So that poem that you’re talking about, that name is Trayvon Martin. I think that there’s a way, that if you name the victims of gun violence, if you’re so happy and safe in your world, and you don’t want to interact with the news, you don’t want to interact with journalism, as soon as I name Sandra Bland, you’re turned off, and you’re thinking about what you had for breakfast, right, or you’re just not willing to engage me in a certain way. And so, in those “Silencer” poems, I think that a lot of the power comes from not naming those victims.

IB: In the first section of Maybe the Saddest Thing, there are multiple poems that were titled as love letters to various pop culture stars, such as RuPaul and Dave Chappelle. Some are an homage, while others feel like they’re more critiques. What made you want to write poems in homage to or in critique of these specific people?

MW: You know, love is a complicated thing. They’re love letters, and sometimes you can love something about someone, but not love their whole person, and so Flavor Flav, for instance, in Public Enemy, right, he’s sort of a buffoon. He wears this large clock around his neck at all times, he’s got these viking horns that he wears. If you saw him on the street, you would think that guy’s a goofball, but at the time, Public Enemy needed him. They were talking about Ronald Reagan, they were also talking about police brutality, and Chuck D, the leader of the group, was heavily political, and so they needed a little levity, they needed a little humor. They needed a hype man, like Flavor Flav. And so, in a poem like “Love Letter to Flavor Flav,” I take him to task, rapping about the poor while he wears a mouthful of gold teeth, but I also respect what he did for the music.

IB: How do you see these love poems poems working together?

MW: I mean together, hopefully they, or the reader, comes to the conclusion that love isn’t always easy, and that it’s okay to critique our heroes.

PR: Building off of that, in your poem “Self Dialogue with Marcus,” these themes kind of come together, and I was wondering if you have come to an understanding about yourself through the writing of these poems, and if there’s a difference between you, Marcus as a person, and you as a poet?

MW: Marcus as a poet is fearless, but I’m kind of a chicken in real life. There are things that I’m willing to say on the page, that I wouldn’t be able to say to an individual face-to-face. Often I think writing is like the way that I do math, it’s like the way that I solve for x, the way that I figure out what’s on my heart. When I know that something's eating away at me, but I can’t articulate it in words yet, I journal it. Or I’ll start a poem draft, and eventually, ideas and thoughts will sort of unfold, that I was having all along or that I couldn’t quite name.

SP: In both collections, several poems examine the complexity of responding to injustice on a personal level, versus speaking to discrimination as a collective experience, and I was wondering how you strive to balance the personal and the political in your poetry, while exploring this issue?

MW: For me, the personal is political. I can only talk about my experience. I think that through inferences, and talking to friends, I can hear the ways in which other people are discriminated against, but it affects everyone differently. These microaggressions that you go through on a daily basis, you know, something as small as the woman at the Macy’s counter telling me that I have good diction, or being surprised that I like to wear kerchiefs in my jacket. That will highly offend me, but maybe not offend my brother Bryan, right? And so the only way for me to enter these poems, really, is to first examine myself.

SP: I was really interested in the line from “In My 31st Year”: “I metabolize rage, / almost all of the time.” As social media makes daily injustices more visible, and as we consume these instances at a much higher rate, do you ever feel overwhelmed or pressured to create an artistic response, or does it come naturally?

MW: I mean I try. So sometimes something will happen that will stir me, I’ll be watching the news, and I’ll write it out, and it was cathartic. It did some emotional work for me, it helped me out. But the poem itself, it won’t really be a poem, it’ll be a rant, and it will be about my sadness, or my rage, and I’ll have to stick it in a drawer for six months, or a year, or however many drafts it takes before I can talk about a more nuanced subject matter. These days I don’t feel so inclined to talk about everything that I see, all the injustices in the world, but I think that maybe it’s because I got it out of my system in Silencer. We’ll see what happens with the next book.

IB: In Silencer, in your poem “Ars Poetica Battle Rhyme for Really Wannabe Somebodies,” you have the epigraph “I’m not here to make friends!” This quote is normally referenced in a joking manner, since that episode of America’s Next Top Model aired. What effect are you going for when you pair a comedic quote with a poem that deals with heavy subject matter?

MW: I’m making a joke, I’m being silly and trying to channel the humor, but in jest, right, there’s a sense of seriousness, too. That poem’s about writers who want to write just to be famous, or writers who want to write just to have other people congratulate them. But when you’re alone in your room, none of that stuff matters, and none of that stuff is gonna help you actually write a poem, and so, in a way, it’s like an invective. It’s negative speech against those people who have come to poetry for the wrong reasons. But often I’ll start off a poem with a joke so that people feel safe, and they think ‘Oh, he’s not talking about me,’ but I am.

SP: Poems like “Watch us Elocute” and others explore an ambivalence about traditionally academic settings and the experiences that come with these places/people. As an artist, how have you navigated maintaining your creative integrity while existing in spaces that might seem, at times, to silence that voice?

MW: The writing. I think the writing sort of saves me. It’s like a natural anodyne. I think that there’s a way that as humans, when we’re in an uncomfortable social situation, we will laugh our way out of it, or I’m really good at changing the subject matter. But I will never get comfortable enough that when someone says something messed up to me, it always registers. It always registers, right? And so when I’m at home at my desk I can work those things out on the page. I often think of the zinger that I should have said, when someone sort of put me on the backfoot.

IB: In Maybe the Saddest Thing you have two different poems titled “To You.” One is a rather short poem in tercets, while the other is a longer strophe. What made you choose to give these the same title?

MW: Yeah I mean, so they’re different sides of the same coin. The first poem “To You”, which starts off the book, it’s making—it’s an ars poetica—and it’s making an argument; if I wrote in a highly stylized poem where the stanzas look the same, they’re very clean and clinical, would you hear me because that’s what you expect from poetry? The other poem “To You” is a narrative poem, there is some profanity in it, and the lines are a little unwieldy. If I made an argument in that way, would you hear me? I guess, I’m posing the question to the reader.

IB: Do you think one has been heard more than the other? When people ask you, which one is more preferened?

MW: The second poem. The narrative, the sort of loud, brash poem I think is the one people respond to. But when I’m having a personal conversation people often talk about the quieter poem, and they tell me they appreciate that one more. So I don’t know who to believe. People lie.   

IB: So I know like a lot of times with rap music it gets not as much acknowledgement as it should because of its vulgarity. Do you think that parallels what you’re saying with those poems?

MW: Yeah, well, I guess those are two different questions. Rap music does get a bad rap because it’s misogynist. It can be homophobic. It can go above and beyond when it comes to using expletives. I think there’s a good balance and any poem is a balancing act and hopefully I don’t go too far, right, in a poem like that. But people like Kendrick Lamar, he just won a Pulitzer Prize for his rhymes. So hopefully people will start to pay more attention hip hop and poetry that uses hip hop influences.  

PR: What’s a question that you always wished you were asked in interviews more often that you’re not, and what would the answer be?

MW: That’s good, that’s good. Oxfords or Brogues? No, I don’t know. Let’s see. You’re putting me on the spot here. My favorite member of Wu-Tang, right? Changes weekly, Inspectah Deck this week. Just go with that.

IB: Oh wait! Because you talk about such a rhythm and rap influence in your writing, what rapper has influenced you the most or your favorite rapper?

MW: Yeah, yeah, Black Thought from The Roots. Who even if you don’t know The Roots, maybe you’ve seen him on Jimmy Fallon because the Roots is now their house band. He is the most underrated MC. I think he can do everything: eye rhyme, slant rhyme, anaphora, metaphor, he can go off the top of his head. He is the poet’s MC.