Although both his books are influenced by the rhythms of hip-hop and spoken word, Marcus Wicker’s second book of poetry, Silencer, is a noticeable departure. His first book, Maybe the Saddest Thing, looks at Dave Chappelle, RuPaul, and Kenny G in an exploration of masculinity and pop culture. But after the killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and so many others, Wicker decided to turn his second book toward the conversation around race and blackness in America. In Silencer, Wicker explores fear and rage, the need to be hyperaware of one’s surroundings, and the worlds of suburbia and academia—worlds that can sometimes lull people into a false sense of security. His poems find joy in language and nature, comfort in religion, and express both pride and vulnerability—often all in the same poem. In his first book, Wicker writes, as many writers do, about his faith in the act of writing. In Silencer, there are no such poems. Instead, he refuses to be silent and refuses to settle for easy answers with the confidence of a poet saying what matters most. I reached Wicker by phone in Memphis, where he teaches at the University of Memphis M.F.A. program. We spoke about code-switching, prayer, the power of individual experience to address political topics, and the Wu-Tang Clan. —Alex Dueben
How did you first become interested in poetry? Were you always writing?
I had been writing poems in my journals for as long as I can remember, but I never had the courage to share those poems with anyone else. When I was in tenth grade, my teacher took us to the National Youth Poetry Slam. That’s called Brave New Voices now. It was amazing to see teens my age and younger, from all over the country, performing with complete bravery and ardor. They inspired me to read my own work publicly. That summer, the writer Jeff Kass—he’s like the poetry godfather in Ann Arbor—hosted a workshop on slam poetry that my parents signed me up for. I’ve been writing and reading seriously ever since.
As you’re writing, are you always thinking about the sound? Is the sound of a poem key for you?
Absolutely. More than form or even subject matter, sonics are my chief concern. I grew up with my parents’ sixties soul and post-bop jazz and had an infatuation with nineties hip-hop. Plus, I was a band geek—jazz, symphonic, marching, all of it. Those sounds and techniques inform my work. I usually start with a single line that’s been playing in my head on repeat like a chorus. Chasing improvisatory phrasing and polyrhythms compels me to complete a draft. While writing Silencer, many of my revisions were legislated by thinking about poetry in concert with musical curiosity. For instance, asking myself what an argument might sound like in pianissimo versus forte.
The poem “Theorizing Wesley” has a note—“as performed by Kendrick Lamar.” So a lot of us will scan the first line and go, Okay, I get how this sounds. In your other poems, how do you convey the way it is meant to be read?
Silencer is a pretty intimate book. Sometimes my speakers talk to God, an unborn son, or Tupac from the grave. So first and foremost, it’s important that they sound like me and my varied selves. Converging high and low diction to form a diglossic register is usually the linguistic sweet spot I shoot for. Other than that, I try to be deliberate about how I employ the line. This is especially visible in a poem like “Taking Aim at a Macy’s Changing Room Mirror, I Blame Television.” Every other line is indented, which typically creates a sense of meandering—the eye and mind are directed to move down the page without anticipating what comes next. That, paired with successive slant rhymes and back-to-back hard-enjambed moments, hopefully makes the reader hear something between rapid fire and off-kilter, like an A$AP Rocky verse.
You said once that you want to “invite rap fans to become the poetry fans they already are.” I love and agree with that wholeheartedly. As someone I know once said, “We have to make you unlearn everything your tenth-grade teacher taught you.”
If you’re not well versed in poetry and you pick up my book, even if you don’t understand the social contexts or the historical and formal literary touchstones, as a hip hop-head hopefully you’ll recognize a good punchline, metaphor, or pattern and nod your head. And you’re right. Your tenth-grade English teacher taught you anaphora and figurative language in the context of Frost, but not Black Thought from the Roots. This is perhaps an unpopular opinion in academia, but to my mind, a poet is a poet is a poet.
What was the process of writing this book?
I began writing Silencer during a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. After completing a book about pop culture, masculinity, and the self, I set out to pen something markedly different. It was the first time I’d been anywhere east or near an ocean. After a few months off the Cape, I fell in love with the landscape, so I started writing odes to the natural world—the beach, the forest, and the Atlantic. Those odes became prayers. And because it’s always easier for me to write about home—the suburban Midwest—when I’m elsewhere, I thought the second book would be called Cul-de-sac Pastoral. But when Trayvon Martin was gunned down and George Zimmerman was acquitted of any wrongdoing, poems considering the American Dream and an honest ambivalence about faith became secondary concerns. I decided I needed to be using my voice and art for social protest and to mark the other gun deaths that case brought to light in the media. In the end, I kept a number of those early cul-de-sac poems but tied the two themes together by way of theodicy or the evidential problem of evil. In other words, if God is all-knowing and all-powerful, why do bad things happen to good people? Why do they happen to Sandra Bland and Philando Castile?
The book is titled Silencer, and you have a number of “silencer” poems throughout. One of them explicitly references Henry Louis Gates Jr., but the others talk more obliquely about this threat of violence that comes from being a black man in America. “Sometimes, I can barely walk / out into daylight wearing a cotton sweatshirt / without trembling. & surely I don’t have to / tell you who gets put down, which one walks away.”
I was living and teaching in southern Indiana, where I hung with a group of down-to-earth, mostly white guy friends. We’d have dinner and drinks one or two times each month, joke, and talk about anything and everything. But whenever I brought up gun violence, particularly gun violence perpetrated against the black body, the room got extremely quiet, and I felt as if I was being silenced.
To mimic this experience on the page, and do a little self-therapy, I started writing “silencers” that address gun violence and police brutality against African Americans in the media, without specifically invoking case details. The idea is that the oblique approach—writing about injustice without writing about injustice—will be productively uncomfortable for a reader and more stirring than the gory facts that Americans have become desensitized to in the advent of the twenty-four-hour news cycle.
There’s two ways to read the word silencer. One is being kept silent about the unjust death, and the second is a silencer for a gun, which muffles the sound.
Exactly. Also, putting a silencer on a gun makes it more lethal because the shooter’s intention is to conceal a potentially deadly act. When I hear the term, the word mercenary comes to mine. The sharpest poems in the book are technical, tactical, and merciless. The book contains a number of by-any-means-necessary protests.
Many people know about these cases in a general sense but may not know who was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, or they know that Trayvon Martin was killed, but they’ve forgotten the circumstances. Coming at these killings obliquely is a way to make the reader respond differently than they would to names or places or gory details.
From your lips. If you visit my website, there are notes demystifying those “who’s who” moments that can occur when incidents and verdicts begin to blur because historically, their outcomes are usually the same. Part of the book’s project is to remind readers of those forgotten circumstances, ask them to shoulder the weight of each killing, and then use that rage to act. More important than that, though, these elegies are evidence of lives. They’re my attempt to keep the slain alive beyond their corresponding hashtags.
Reading poems like “In My 31st Year” and those in Cul-de-Sac Pastoral, it’s my impression that you like suburbia, you like academia, and that even though those spaces can feel like a world apart from all these other issues we’re talking about, to you they do not.
You know, I do enjoy certain aspects of being an academic. It’s one of the only jobs where you get paid to use this hard-fought specialized knowledge with great frequency. Teaching poetry means I’m always immersed in the business of language. I never have to worry about losing inspiration because I’m grappling with poetry daily, even when I’m not writing, and therefore always thinking about this thing that I love, that teaches me to live better. In this way, academia can feel like an oasis—its own dandy world. But the makeup of the power structure in academia looks like the face of any other power structure. That was me answering your question like a poet just then.
One poem that really struck me was “Conjecture on the Dream,” which is about being lulled into this sense of security and stability, the idea that once you have acquired material goods, you don’t need to worry anymore. So you end with this prayer—“Please allow me simply to keep wanting.”
Many African American parents teach their children that if you get an education, study a practical field, buy a house with a treated yard, then they will be as accepted as everyone else. That’s not always the case. There’s an unfair amount of fine print that voids this contract. “Please allow me simply to keep wanting” is my addendum. A self-reminder that growth and drive are more valuable than a soft landing pad.
You also talk about being a Christian in spaces that, while not overtly hostile, are not exactly open to religion either. I love your poem “On Being Told Prayer Is a Crutch,” which is about what it means to embrace the idea that yes, it is a crutch.
I think academics are famously arrogant about how much they know and, consequently, unwilling to acknowledge the great unknown. “How could a thinking person believe in something that they can’t see?” a colleague once asked me. But there are plenty of crutches that humans use to get through the day. Like Xanax and whiskey and porn. My counter question is, What does one risk by giving thanks or asking for guidance?
And in a world that’s more focused on economics and metrics, religion is something that can’t be quantified or explained. Which I suppose is what these poems have in common with the silencer poems—they circumvent the rules to get at the heart of individual experience.
I read in one interview that your favorite member of the Wu-Tang Clan is Raekwon. I would have guessed your favorite would be Ghostface Killah, but maybe that’s because Ghostface is my favorite.
Ha! Ghostface is no slouch. He’s a close second for me. Raekwon is my favorite because he’s an epic world builder. He spits that cinematic slick talk. Also, I appreciate his array of butter-soft leather jackets.
Alex Dueben has written for The Believer, The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Comics Journal, and other publications.
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