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Marcus Wicker
Interrupting Aubade Ending in Epiphany

Could I call this poem an aubade if I wrapped it
in fragrant tissue paper? If I locked this morning

in the mind's safe deposit box and polished it
66 times per day, until a sky's description noted

the number of feathers on a sparrow's left wing
and the crab grass jutting from his uppity beak?

I once wrote a poem about a fruit fly orgy
in a grape's belly. It's crescendoed combustion

was supposed to represent the speaker's feelings
for a wife named Joy. That poem never really

worked out. This poem is aware of its mistakes
and doesn't care. This poem wants to be a poem

so bad, it'll show you a young smitten pair
poised in an S on a downy bed. The man inhales

the woman's sweet hair and whole fields
of honeysuckle and jasmine bloom inside him.

He inhabits a breath like an anodyne and I think
I could call this poem an aubade if it detailed

new breath departing his mouth. I think I could
get away with that. Because who knows what

that even means? Maybe I mean
that's safer than saying it straight

like, This is about the woman I'll marry.
How one summer, she hit snooze four times

each sunrise. This is about her smiling
and nodding off, and smiling, and listening

to me mumble into the back of her perfect
freckled shoulder about anything but poetry.

And this morning at my desk, in the midst
of a breath, I remember not every moment

needs naming. I know precisely what to call this.


Ars Poetica in the Mode of J-Live

It's like this, Anna:

shell banged bare
with a bat, Anna

vat of gun powder
shed, Anna

famished bird
fed off scraps, Anna

gut-itch flown
south for life, Anna

dropper's stool self-pecked
slow, Anna

wince or stool
dropped again, Anna

bird sifting
through his shit, Anna

slug built by a bird's
beak, Anna

small handgun.
It's like this, Anna

gun the bird
doesn't grip.

It's like this, Anna.
It's like that.

It's like that
and like this.

Love Letter to Flavor Flav

                              We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.
                                     -Langston Hughes

I think I love you.
How you suck fried chicken grease
off chalkboard fingers, in public!
Or walk the wrong way down an escalator
with a clock around your neck.
How you rapped about the poor
with a gold tooth-grin.
How your gold teeth spell your name.
How you love your name is beautiful.
You shout your name 100 times each day.
They say, if you repeat something enough
you can become it. I'd like to know:
Does Flavor Flaaav! sound ugly to you?
I think it's slightly beautiful.
I bet you love mirrors.
Tell the truth,
when you find plastic Viking horns
or clown shades staring back,
is it beauty you see?
Or Vaudeville?
To express myself honestly enough;
that my friend, is very hard to do.

Those are Bruce Lee's words.
I mention Bruce Lee here, only
because you remind me of him.
That's a lie. But your shades do
mirror a mask he wore
as Green Hornet's trusty sidekick.
No, I'm not calling names.
Chuck D would have set cities on fire
had you let him.
You were not Public Enemy's sidekick.
You hosed down whole crowds
in loud-mouth flame retardant spit.
You did this only by repeating your name.
Flavor Flaaav! Flavor Flaaav!
I think I love you. I think I really might
mean it this time.
William. Can I call you William?
I should have asked 27 lines ago:
What have you become?
How you've lived saying nothing
save the same words each day
is a kind of freedom or beauty.
Please, tell me I'm not lying to us.


-from Maybe the Saddest Thing, selected by Guest Editor Phillip B. Williams


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 previous collection Maybe the Saddest Thing, 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, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017.


A Review of Marcus Wicker's Maybe the Saddest Thing by Jonathan Farmer, first published by Slate

Because poetry’s medium is a single human voice, it’s an ideal vehicle for human mastery, a source of awe at the almost athletic ingenuity of saying something rhythmically and well. Or: Because poetry’s medium is a single human voice, it’s an ideal image of our human frailty—its serrated right margin pointing out that the page is still mostly blank, that a larger silence surrounds our speech. And: Sometimes a poet manages both, suggesting that even the most unmanageable truths are amenable to our activity, making even absence shapely, present, shareable, right.

Marcus Wicker’s debut collection, Maybe the Saddest Thing, falls into that final category. It's hip-deep in pop culture’s energy, but it’s also, and often at the same time, a reminder of the loneliness all our culture, pop and not, has in trust. You can hear that combination in the conclusion of his poem “Love Letter to RuPaul,” one of several love letters to pop icons, all of them emphasizing race and masculinity, most of them flat-out amazing. Here, Wicker is describing “one of my earliest memories,” a burger ad starring RuPaul. Notice how bare the last two incomplete sentences seem:

…that commercial
ravished me. How hard, to be sandwiched
between what and who you are, tickled
by every cruel wind, critic-voyeur
playing rough beneath your skirt. How
raw you must be. To sit before a camera,
legs uncrossed.

"Raw" is right. In both sound and sense, Wicker nails the terrible courage of standing out and dignifies it with an abrupt austerity.

That's not to say that Maybe the Saddest Thing is perfect. The book—which D.A. Powell chose for the National Poetry Series, an annual contest in which five prominent poets choose books for five presses—includes some poems that seem to exhibit too much faith that writing a poem is inherently worthwhile and others that too readily take up an opposite position: Interrupting himself with skepticism about what he’s up to, Wicker sets up an artistic cul-de-sac that’s frustratingly prevalent in contemporary verse.

But those are small sins, and common ones as well. It’s Maybe the Saddest Thing's strengths that are uncommon, and they define the majority of this book. Wicker captures pop culture’s abundance—in particular the hurry and wit of hip-hop and slam—without pop’s blind timeliness. He also fuses hip-hop’s restless dexterity, its as-if-improvised fusion of amazement and momentum and force, with an ability to reward the less purely propulsive experience of reading on the page.

That double value shows up in another of Wicker's love letters, this one to Dave Chappelle:

This isn't a poem
about some cowboy cracking up
over a blackface skit. How his cackle
sounded like a bigot's brain
lodged inside a beating heart, thinking
out loud.

You can hear the same rhythmic extravagance that shows up in some hip-hop, the eagerness to almost overwhelm an audience with ingenuity. Imagine drawing lines between all the words that seem to be echoing each other through, for instance, alliteration (cowboy, cracking, blackface, skit, cackle, like, thinking; blackface, bigot, brain, beating; etc.), and imagine trying to account for all the overlaps and variations in those. Listen to the places where the stressed syllables pile up, loosen, then pile up again. Notice the way he establishes a pattern of "a," followed by a descriptor beginning with b, and then a noun (and the way that "bigot's brain" throws in an extra b).

Listening to something this agile, you're meant to feel your mind racing to keep up. You're meant to marvel, humbled and amazed. And yet Wicker's own humility leaves plenty of room for intimacy and contemplation, too—including, in this poem, contemplation of the ways that black culture gets used in the larger, whiter world (a subject Wicker will later take up in regards to his own standing as a poet). And if the almost-too-much of the excerpt's rhythm foreshadows Chappelle's eventual breakdown, the poem's thinking also foregrounds a compassion that takes that person more seriously than the cultural chaos that overwhelms him.

Wicker's style and success serve as a reminder that we don't need to reject world and world's delights to think about both critically. Here, for example, is another ending, this one from “Everything I Know About Jazz I Learned from Kenny G.” The prose poem opens with Wicker’s father discovering his eighth-grade son listening to the poem’s titular lightweight, then dragging him downstairs to the father’s collection of real jazz. Wicker concludes the scene many hours later:

It sounds like a welted voice wincing at the basement’s night. A voice my father hears too.

He does not cave the basement door. He walks a dirge down those steps. Gently strokes my neck. Asks, Why are you crying, son? Dad, I ache. Because I’ve been down here forever.
Clearly, Wicker’s putting on a show—“a welted voice wincing at the basement’s night” almost winks with pleasure, even as it describes a wounded state—but it’s a damned good show, and one that, in numerous poems, pushes us to stay aware of the ways our shows are manufactured and what they ask us to believe. Wicker does this without ever suggesting superiority to showmen, though. His writing is full of love for the songs and artists he invokes.

And that’s another thing that makes Maybe the Saddest Thing so worthwhile: In spite of its title, it seeks (and finds) real delight, giddy with the joy of making language mean and sing, sound and sense and allusion all but falling over each other as they run. Take "The Break Beat Break," which riffs on the joys of being deluded (and delighted) by music:

                        It happens on a deserted island

of a song, when a funky-ass fault line rips through
your bass-induced Buddhist empty state and you
start thinking, Damn. What breed of human am I?

What type of man walks around with rhythm rattling
the trunk of his dome?
 And wherever you are you run
to the closest piece of light-reflecting glass, say Oh,

that’s right, I do.

                        … think Yeah, that’s me.
My walk alone could make tight pants fit.

But delight, all by itself, rarely seems wide enough for the persistent emptiness of a page. Wicker writes poems whose timely pleasures keep verging on timeless sorrows, and where the social issues of our time persistently evoke enduring human need. In the process, he captures the odd ways that our larger-than-life moment lives inside our pending irrelevance—and the compassion such knowledge allows. "I'm wondering if a face on fire/ looks the same in any city. In any hue," he writes, watching the inferno after a meth lab explodes. And, earlier in that same poem,

                                                       A fist
of ash like nail polish scorched with salt blasts

me to my knees. Everything disintegrates
from this angle….

                               From this point of view
soot cloaks stars."


An Interview with Marcus Wicker by Ben Read, first published by Adroit Journal

Ben Read: First off, were you always interested in writing, or did some event, person, place, or story lead you to it?

Marcus Wicker: From an early age, maybe five or six, I was always writing things- penning "Who Done It" capers in composition notebooks or scribbling what seemed like super important feelings in my journal, but I decided poetry was a viable form of self-expression in 10th grade. My journalism and American Lit teacher, Ms. Andrew, took our class to the first ever National Youth Poetry Slam (now Brave New Voices) at the University of Michigan. I saw teens my age writing inventively and bravely saying some of the same things I'd been thinking about the world, about the self. I thought, maybe I could do this. Maybe I could take writing seriously.

BR: Here's a question to further break the ice: what is your favorite artistic movement in history? Why?

MW: Oh, can I say the beginning of the Post-Bop Jazz era? Is that a thing? It seems to me that folks like McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane, and Wane Shorter pushed the limitations of improv and instrumental proficiency in a way that competitively propelled one another toward virtuosity. That's the kind of cohort I can get behind.

BR: Have you ever written nonfiction, fiction, or other sorts of prose? What is it about poetry that fascinates you?

MW: I've tried my hand at all the genres, but the simple answer is: I don't yet have the stamina for the long form. I dig the challenge of concision. That is, the sometimes volatile, sometimes vulnerable nature of working with highly pressurized language. It's all very risky, poetry.

BR: Let's talk about your first collection, Maybe the Saddest Thing. How would you describe the style of the collection? What about your process of writing it?

MW: Maybe the Saddest Thing refers to a speaker's obsessive impulse and willingness to interrogate everything. "Everything," in this case, constitutes poems which ask, "In observing the world have I forgotten how to live in it?"; likewise, poems tackling the stuff of masculinity, identity and desire. Employing popular black icons, humor, and sonnet-like "self dialogues" as springboards to address those themes, the returns that occur throughout the manuscript are also "the saddest thing." Particularly important to this collection is a speaker's ever-shifting voice- one foot wandering the academy, the other planted firmly on the blacktop of contemporary culture.

The book began as my MFA thesis circa 2008. I remember complaining to my classmates about the lack of simultaneously funny and seriously crafted poetry collections, so that's the book I set out to write. It turns out I just wasn't reading enough. But I think the naïve arrogance implicit in those goals allowed me to freely write, fail, and revise (repeat) my way into poems that at least accomplished those things.

MTST really took shape in 2011 during a 7 month fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center, where I had ample time and space away from the classroom to get ruthless-hack away at apprentice poems and replace them with more nuanced and cohesive ones.

BR: Now, in the wake of the collection, do you think your writing has shifted in certain ways? Anything specific that you think caused this shift?

MW: Going back to those post-bob jazz players, I'm trying to stretch myself: work more lyrically, write in forms I was once intimidated by (I'll never tell), and force myself to pen poems that arrive at turns I don't see coming. It's important to me that I allow my work to teach me what I intuitively know and don't know. Of course, those poems have taken longer to write than some of those in my first collection, but the quality control has been good for my art.

BR: How do you think teaching at the University of Southern Indiana and serving as poetry editor of Southern Indiana Review has informed your understanding of poetry (whether yours, or others')?

MW: In a very practical sense, you have to know a subject particularly well in order to teach it well. This renders me as much student as professor when I'm prepping for, say a craft lecture. Working with the magazine is especially instructive concerning the following: popular poem topics (read bees, landscapes without landscapes, pomegranates, Icarus retellings, etc.), how not to open or close a poem, the magic of a good title, and how (not) to take a rejection. All good things.

On rejection: This will happen. Don't worry. That insignificant slip of paper isn't a rejection of you but rather something about your work that didn't gel with perhaps just a single reader. No big deal. Write what compels you, revise hard, and live to submit again.

BR: In your poem "Ode to Browsing the Web," you tell the internet to "be fucking infectious." How do you think technology has affected art: positively and/or negatively?

MW: Positively.

BR: And, finally, what role do you think poetry plays in the collective sphere of modern society? Should we as poets be satisfied with it?

MW: Each time a person comes across a poem doing its job well enough to relay a distinct experience or idea, a kind of long distance intimacy - no, kinship is formed between poet and reader. That's more than enough for me.



       Click here to view a reading by Marcus Wicker



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Click here to buy Wicker's book

Marcus Wicker







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