"Silencer" Spring: Ann Arbor native and poet Marcus Wicker at AADL
And if it weren’t for Kehinde Wiley, the prolific black painter most recently in the news for his portrait of President Barack Obama, there’s a chance that this event wouldn’t have happened.
The cover of Silencer prominently featured one of Wiley’s paintings, which is what drew AADL staff member and program host Sean Copeland to the book as he was working at the library. Copeland, not a poetry superfan, took the book home, read the work, and knew that others should experience it. (Read Copeland's interview with Wicker here.)
Over 30 people attended the Friday night event on what turned out to be the first spring-like day Ann Arbor had seen in a while. Wicker, in fact, remarked on that saying to the crowd, “It’s a Friday and you came here to see poetry. You could be on a lawn somewhere drinking beer.” (Video of the event coming soon.)
Wicker talked a bit about his life before he dove into reading his work, saying of Ann Arbor, “This is where I learned to write.” He also revealed that as a young boy, reading didn’t come to him as quickly as it had some other students. In first grade, he couldn’t yet read though some of his classmates could. That’s where his mother stepped in. Wicker said that one of the things that the mother and son share is the attitude that no one will be better than they are. Enter flashcards, workbooks, and hours of time spent making sure that Wicker got up to speed. Of the experience, he said, “That’s where my love for words came from.”
Wicker’s word diet also included a healthy serving of hip-hop. As he ingested the genre and its creative and expansive mastery of language, Wicker started writing his own poems, but he kept them to himself. It was in high school when his teacher took he and his classmates to the Brave New Voices poetry slam that he became inspired to share his own work, pulled in this direction by the courage he saw on display as people his age told their own stories. The next step for him involved local teacher, writer, and -- as Wicker put it -- “poetry godfather” Jeff Kass who “led me to poetry Mecca.”
Life happened as it is wont to do, and Wicker embarked upon studying law. However, he found his interest in the subject waning: “I was writing poems in my Constitutional law books.” He then, as many young people do, found himself in a series of jobs that weren’t the right fit for him. He decided to go to school for something that he loved, and that decision led him to earn his MFA in Creative Writing from Indiana University.
Wicker invited the audience to walk along his path as a poet by reading us his essay “Now You See Me.” The essay is the string of dots between Silencer and Wicker's first book, Maybe the Saddest Thing.
“I’m writing about social justice out of gratitude for life, and worry.” Marcus Wicker
Wicker shared selections from Silencer. One of the poems he read, “Watch Us Elocute,” captured me, taking me along for the ride until the speaker talks about someone predicting that he could do “a really wicked impression of Wayne Brady.” That is when my son’s sharp and knowing glance brought me right back down to Earth where I remained for the rest of the event.
Between poems, Wicker engaged the audience directly. Before reading, “Ballin’ on a Budget,” a poem that criticizes statements Will Smith made on the spending habits of black folks, he said, “Some of y’all strike me as Will Smith fans, like at some time you got jiggy with it.” Wicker talked about living in Southern Indiana as a black man. He touched on faith, saying, “IF God is all knowing, why Trayvon?” A man in the audience pumped his fist in acknowledgment. Wicker talked about how Silencer is a response to unpunished gun violence against black people.
Finally, Wicker generously fielded questions from the audience. Here he suggested other poets to read (Terrance Hayes, Robert Hayden) and he advised young writers to read broadly and longitudinally, to read all of the work of a writer. He shared stories about his writing process and about what it was like being one of the few African American students in the Catholic school he attended as a boy.
While we were brought together because of his book Silencer, Marcus Wicker gave us the opportunity to appreciate the fact that that he will not be silenced.
Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at sherlonya.net.