Loud and Clear: Marcus Wicker's socially conscious "Silencer" poems are anything but quiet


Poet Marcus Wicker and his book Silencer

Marcus Wicker's poetry doesn’t mince words. He keeps it real.

Mixing hip-hop rhymes with poetic prose, Wicker's books deal with tough topics such as racism, classism, and police brutality -- subjects American society swiftly tries to hide from. Wicker, an Ann Arbor native, challenges those in power with every phrase he puts on the page. 

A Pushcart Prize winner and two-time NAACP Image Award nominee, Wicker received fellowships from Ruth Lilly and Cave Canem to name a few and has written articles that have appeared in The Nation, Oxford American, and Boston Review. He currently teaches in the MFA program at the University of Memphis and is the poetry editor of Southern Indiana Review.

All accolades aside, the most impressive things about Wicker are his ability to call readers to action and his ability to mix modern communication and hard-hitting wit within his work. He even injects humor as a great contrast to the serious topics. 

To date, he has published two books: Maybe the Saddest Thing and Silencer, which is a must-read. In a starred review, Publisher's Weekly wrote, "These fiercely lyrical narratives stand in the crosshairs of the political moment."

Silencer deals with the aforementioned subjects with grit and elegance simultaneously. Insistences of honest profanity are interspersed with poetic charm, a juxtaposition that surprises and delights. The book consistently delivers by refusing to taint Wicker's mission of bringing social awareness to the masses by tackling the tough topics that usually bring dead silence.

Wicker will discuss and read from Silencer at the Ann Arbor District Library's downtown branch on April 20. We had the pleasure of talking to Wicker for Pulp about race, privilege, his taste in hip-hop, inspiration, and Silencer

Q: You're a native of Ann Arbor. Tell us about your background and how this may have shaped your experiences.
A: Walking around the streets of Ann Arbor as a teenager, I was subjected to a wealth of culture. All-ages hip-hop shows at The Blind Pig, jazz at The Ark, and black box theater at the U of M. Many of the poems in both books are in dialogue with the music and art that I learned to love in the Deuce (do people still call it that?). But more than that, the city has always had a thriving literary scene and generous teachers; specifically, Mrs. Andrew-Vaughan at Huron High School, and Jeff Kass at Pioneer. I owe a great deal to them for sparking my love of literature.

Q: Though the name of the book is Silencer, you approach many of these poems with a bold and unapologetic flair. In a previous interview with PBS, you spoke about writing "silencers"; writings that you began after realizing police brutality was a tough topic to discuss with others. Recently, we heard about the acquittal of charges for the police officer who murdered Alton Sterling; this collection of poems is culturally relevant to what is happening today. How did you get to a place where you got the courage to speak about a very taboo but ever-present subject in our country: racism?
A: Perhaps, because I was often one of a few black students in suburban classrooms, I got used to journaling about racism while keeping those thoughts to myself for fear of being singled out for having, say, a divergent and ironic opinion about colonialism’s influence on the distribution of wealth/treatment of non-majority citizens during Mr. Vanwambeke’s AP History class. But the more I read and write about race/social issues -- for instance the history of police shootings and near-automatic officer acquittals -- the more comfortable I become in my positions.

Q: As African-American males, we are often silenced. Our experiences and humanity are minimized via daily living at times. Are you drawing from experiences in the workplace, in social circles, from things you've witnessed?
A: Yessir. All of the above: my experiences as an African-American in academia or in an SUV at a stoplight in southern Indiana, simply trying to exist without being called out of my name before the perpetrator speeds off in advance of my horrified reply. 

Q: What is your response to those who are dismissive of these claims and say that these issues aren't valid in today's time?
A: I try not to spend too much time trying to convince the inconvincible that quality of life, let alone my life, matters. I suppose I’d ask those dismissive folks to ask themselves whether or not privilege has anything to do with their stance. 

Q: The book discusses many themes: racism, police brutality, classism, fashion, anger, self-doubt, and even God. However, you also talk about determination and hope for the future. Which was the most thrilling for you to write about?
A: Hope. Always hope.  

Q: One of my favorite poems in the book is "In Defense of Ballin' on a Budget." This particular one talks about gaudiness and excess through spending. Jay-Z even touched on these themes in songs like "The Story of O.J." from his album 4:44. How do you approach this topic and what do you say to those who agree with Will Smith's introspective point of view that many people unnecessarily spend money just to impress?
A: During the interview where the epigraph was pulled from, Will was alluding to black folk. And I think his statement doesn't account for a host of institutional reasons why we, for instance, aim to dress sharper, more crisp than, say, the average white kid who can walk into Macy's with a hole in every square inch of his jeans without being followed. I mean to say he didn't imagine that trendiness is also about representation, self-expression, and impressing one's self.
Q: Many people nowadays love hip-hop. You're a fan of A Tribe Called Quest, one of the pioneers in the game and you've mentioned that hip-hop has a heavy influence on your writing. These groups were socially conscious and had messages in their work. Are you more influenced by these older groups or by ones we're hearing today? 
A: I’m definitely more influenced by '80s and '90s hip-hop than the current generation of mumble rappers. During the golden age of hip-hop, a trendy look and bandwagon following didn’t mean a whole lot concerning one’s status and popularity as an emcee. A Tribe Called Quest went head to head with groups like Wu-Tang, Souls of Mischief, The Pharcyde, Brand Nubian, and Black Star -- collectives who revised and practiced their delivery. If asked to freestyle during a radio interview, they didn’t need to dig around for a notebook (the equivalent of an iPhone at this point). They spit off the top. I’ll always admire that ambition and virtuosity.  [On his website, Wicker notes other musical influences: "Early '90s hip-hop, symphonic, and jazz band, Mom and Dad's Curtis Mayfield and Frankie Beverly records -- my love for poetry began in direct response to a pretty good soundtrack. That is to say, before anything else I was interested in sound, and working those sounds out on the page."] 

Q: Who are you currently listening to at the moment?
A: I recently discovered this cat from the West Coast by the name of Caleborate. He’s got a few albums but 1993 and Real Person are his best -- honest, introspective, syncopated, hungry. I’ve also been listening to EarthGang out of Atlanta. They’re a weirdo/trickster duo interested in politics, science fiction, race, and humor. Great beat selection. This week, I’ve been listening to their cut “Lengendari” on repeat. 

Q: There are many people out there who don't read poetry, as it can be hard to interpret. As a poet, do you pride yourself on being relatable to all readers?
A: I’d say it’s more important that one be sonically or emotionally compelled by my work than understand every word of it. 

Q: How do you define your writing style; what do you think distinguishes you from others?
A: I’m a workman-like writer. It’s important to me that I’m not employing the same mode over and over again. For this reason, in Silencer, you’ll find lyrics, narratives, formal poems, prose poems, you name it. Many of my most effective pieces use humor as the hook to reel a reader into a more serious socio-political dramatic situation. 

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from reading Silencer?
A: I’d love it if readers found poems in Silencer that will move them to work against injustice with whatever resources they’re able to use. I also hope those who read the book will walk away feeling less alone.

Sean Copeland is a desk clerk with the Ann Arbor District Library.

As part of National Poetry Month, Marcus Wicker will discuss and read from "Silencer" at the Ann Arbor District Library's downtown branch, 345 S. Fifth Ave., on Friday, April 20 at 7 pm. The event is free and books will be for sale. Visit marcuswicker.com for his notes about writing "Silencer" and to see his Spotify playlist of music he listened to while writing the book.