The Punch Like a Kiss on the Collarbone: An Interview with Marcus Wicker by Cate Lycurgus

August 25, 2017

Marcus Wicker is the author of Silencer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). He is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, 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, a National Poetry Series winner, was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Memphis. You may learn more about Marcus on his website here: www.marcuswicker.com.

Cate Lycurgus, Interviews Editor: There’s a line in one of the poems in your first collection, Maybe the Saddest Thing, when the speaker says “write it and please don’t stop.” No Marcus Wicker poem has ever let up on its music or question, shied away from form or looked down on free-form, stopped at pop-culture or academia, at love letter, pep-talk, nor crown of sonnets; but in your new book, Silencer, you really let the boom go. Where your pieces have always had a certain level of self-awareness and examination, these new poems take the same voice and light it on fire, throw it somewhere. “Taking Aim at a Macy’s Changing Room Mirror, I Blame Television,” for example, ends “See, I practice self target practice. There is no sight of me/ in my wears. I bedecked in No-Wrinkle Dockers. Sensible/ navy blazer. Barack Obama Tie, Double Consciousness-/ knotted. Stock dandelion pinned to the skin of an American/ lapel with his head blown off.” Since so many writers do stop and flounder between a first and second book, I want to start by asking how you got from one to the next?

Marcus Wicker: Thanks for the compliment, Cate. The boring but honest to goodness answer to that question is time. Time and space to play around on the page and practice techniques Maybe the Saddest Thing wasn’t interested in. Time to write poems toward four or five different subjects or book directions, then scrap them. Also, time not to write. Time to read poems for pleasure and self-education, time to read the news too frequently, then be utterly done with the news. Time to be quiet, too. And after all of that, I remembered that more than most everything else, I really enjoy the act of writing poems; that it’s a very real source of joy for me. The majority of the poems in Silencer were born from everyday necessity—by following the sonic patterns of the music I was listening to at the time, or trying to match a particular day’s mood to a draft’s tone. The book’s most productive source of compositional inspiration came from writing because it’s what I do, and then perhaps something like “the unconscious” helped define my direction.

CL: What artists influence your poems’ music? How do you think about music in relation to a poem? I ask because when I mention a poem’s music (or lack thereof) many people get a funny look. After listening, however, most can pick out a “musical” or “nonmusical” poem. When I first heard “Conjecture on the Stained Glass Image of White Christ in Ebenezer Baptist Church” on a podcast, for example, I didn’t have the lines in front of me or time to linger on the (rather complex) theology behind the piece. But the sonics, meter, and rhyme questioning “if in his image made are we, then why/ this endless string of effigies?/ Why so many mortal blasphemies?/ Why crucify me in HD across a scrolling news ticker, tied/ to a clothesline with broken necks long as Time?” made clear the high-stake inconsistencies, and simultaneous desire for that one spirit, one body of the gospel. I came to understand first through the music, but does music come first for you in determining the arguments or discoveries of your poems? Or does a poem seek the sonics that make it click or stick?

MW: Some of Silencer’s poems borrow epigraphs and lyrics from Oddisee, 2Pac, Drake, LL Cool J, and others. But its influences run deeper than that. I put together a longish Spotify playlist of music I was listening to while working on the book, for moments just like this, when I’m tempted to over share. You can find it here.

I would say at least half my poems begin by chasing the sound of something I can’t shake. When I really dig a song, I’m guilty of wearing it out. I’ll run the track back to back to back while cooking or driving to Office Max. I’ll repeat a rhyme over and over again in my head. So for instance, there’s a line in “Wesley’s Theory” from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly that goes, “What you want you a house, you a car? / Forty acres & a mule? A piano? A guitar?” One morning I sat down at my desk and transposed that lyric without thinking much about it. And then, in a similar meter I wrote this: “What you need you a bond, you a tree? / Printing press? A receipt? A monopoly piece?” I had no clue whether I would sample or cut Kendrick’s line, let alone what ideas the poem was going to work out, but that I liked the cadence of its inciting trigger enough to try on.

CL: What a great list! I can hear the rhythm in so many—and in unexpected ways. Poets have tried on cadences forever—you try on old ones as well, (like with the sestina-esque “Prayer on the Subdivision,”)—but also you try on content! Like when a simultaneously insulted and invisible speaker waits till the end of an academic reception for “all the peanuts from the gallery” and the “olives, the brie,/ the mango chutney co-opted/ from proper serving trays & safely/ out of range” to ask himself “Are you okay?” The lines resuscitate the cliché as danger enters a cordial room, pivoting us toward a hard corner. Which leads me to ask—is there anything too worn out for you to turn back and re-cast? How does the ordinary, or even our contemporary or popular culture help you approach what seems unapproachable, unresolvable?

MW: Lately I’ve been trying hard not to linger on a single draft for too many days, as is my way. I’ve been trying to get the poem on the screen in short order, to retain the same brand of adrenaline that sparked line one, the way I did when first discovering poetry. This means my ear is susceptible to all the wonderful junk one hears over the course of a day—the quick and easy abbreviations, aphorisms, ironic slang and all. My mind works best on the page when I can think about the act of writing as a faithful devotion, and language game, both. So sometimes I challenge myself to keep what seems pedestrian as an experiment in the pursuit of both. To see if I can use the everyday as a tool wielded to approach difficult subject matter and, of equal importance, to bring me back to my desk with a smile on my face. Does that make sense?

CL: Yes, prefect sense. It seems that if poetry is going to be of use, and by ‘use’ I mean doing work only it can, it must contain our common junk, and recycle it to us, recast. There’s delight in this for me and, while Silencer does have a lot language play it is also a collection of (maybe exclusively!) difficult poems—those addressing identity, race, privilege, faith. Often humor is an entry point for something hard or painful, yet with your work it seems to be a way out, as well. How do you see play or humor as functioning in poems? How does a poem progress for you, from that inciting cadence?

MW: Really I’m thinking about humor in three main ways: First, as invitation. I recognize that poetry in dialogue with difficult subject matter can be off-putting to readers for a number of reasons, for instance guilt or, who knows, just general malaise. But humor is an equalizing hook. You’d be hard pressed to find a human who doesn’t appreciate a well-earned laugh, no matter how aesthetically buttoned up they are. Sometimes comedy and irony are the olive branch I extend to a reader sporting expectations of what a poem should be that don’t readily include me.

When I’m really trying to grind an axe, I might open a piece wielding a joke as smoke screen, as in “Watch Us Elocute.” I’m a big boxing fan, and in a match, fighters rarely win via one-punch knockout. Best to flash the jab obscuring an opponents’ vision before landing the big right cross. This isn’t to say I think of readers like foes—quite the opposite—but it’s always the punch you don’t see that hurts most. In this way, I like to sit a reader down for a dramatic situation that feels comfortable and then reveal the heavy artillery.

Also, I think levity is important for healing a heart ailed by the current political and social climate. Not to speak of the private heft we find ourselves lugging around from place to place each day. I love reading work that moves me to laugh during trying times, and before anything else, I’m just aiming to write the kind of poems I’d like to see floating around.

CL: And some of that sting has to do with the fact, maybe, that the speaker seems equally self-interrogating or self-deprecating, ostensibly even surprising himself with that punch. I’m thinking of “Film Noir at Gallop Park, On the Edge” that ends:

in the director’s cut I’m the one being fatally
femme: I pretend to check my face in the rearview mirror,
pull a plume from a pinner & squeeze the trigger
on a can of lavender Febreze. I chase myself out the window
smarting every time someone flinches at the sight of me.
Metaphorically, I could only be the pitch dark
asphalt simmering in this parking lot. The fog lifting off
a black tar river, already gone. Though obviously, given
the opportunity, nay the luck—I’d play delivery boy,
even maintenance dude. Anything but walking dead
man. & I’ll be damned if I didn’t just run
all this way to tell you that. Fuck.

Double-fuck! It’s a double-edged blade, turned both on self and the society that has shaped the self. Do you see your work as political? As social critique?

MW: Ha! I would say that Silencer is pretty candidly political. There are poems that reference the Whig party, tax code, the dairy, coal, and oil lobbies, Jim Crow, the stand-your-ground law, former president Barack Obama, and other overt touchstones. But Silencer is mostly political in the sense that I’ve made a series of educated choices—some of them liberal, some conservative, all independently informed by personal interest—the choice to write in persona, in form, in hard, swaggering rhyme and muted tones, both. Or the choice to place a playful poem with religious undertones that samples Drake lyrics, near a stump speech on being both uncomfortable and at home in academia.

Social critique? Sure. I’m willing to go there when I’m willing to go there, you know? And concerning self-interrogation, thanks for hearing me the way I want to be heard. A mentor once reminded me you can’t always be the hero in your poems. If I’m going to make straight up observations about whole institutions it’s only fair that I account for the way my own ticks and predilections color an argument. My most pleasurable writing moments come from following a barrage of sounds and ideas toward an unexpected statement or landing. I knocked myself out a couple of times while finishing Silencer, and each one of those punches felt a little like a kiss on a collarbone. I guess that’s one convincing reason to practice poetry over boxing.

CL: I ask because I don’t think of your poems as political, first—rather as Marcus’, as reflective of Marcus being in the world as any good poem results from one having been in the world and engaged with and changed by it. But I guess that assumption is a political one, even—one of participation. In the polis or city-state, I can’t help recall that only landed men could vote or have a voice—just the ability to speak made it political. And also urbane in some way, so I’m drawn to the sub-urban in this collection, how the book’s final section “Cul-de-sac Pastoral” troubles and re-casts our notions of and relations to land, wealth, home. Why does Silencer need to challenge the pastoral, in the end? How do you see these poems as furthering this mode?

MW: There’s this longstanding, idealistic notion that with enough hard work and a little luck one can achieve just about anything in this country. Of course, a thinking person knows that contract is laced with fine print, but let’s say you’re a black citizen who’s managed to accumulate some markers for middle class success—the house in the well-maintained neighborhood equipped with a shiny gas grill and deck overlooking the tree-lined yard. Crepe myrtles everywhere. Always sunny. What then does it mean to own a picturesque slice of the land your ancestors helped build, when they were owned? What does it mean to be tethered to an American dream wherein the background plays an ever-looming nightmare? And when I say nightmare I mean systemic agitation: unimpeachable stereotypes, uneven lending and hiring practices, the threat of death by police brutality, a judicial system that doesn’t value black lives equal to those of certain other citizens, all of it. To my mind, this feels like a pretty circular existence.

The final section of the book, “Cul-de-sac Pastoral,” sings and shouts down this lifestyle, day and night. I’ve tried to mimic this circularity through a series of sometimes serious, often satirical prayers marked by Catholic liturgical hours. And hopefully the form—an invocation and five linked hybrid ghazal/sonnets, culminating in a broken sestina that recycles the cycles’ end words—also contributes to this reality. The poems’ landscapes and parody are in dialogue with the pastoral tradition, but their barbed, diglossic tone seek to challenge that tradition because, in the end, there’s no such thing as idyllic living for African Americans.

CL: That’s so well put and crucial to remember: that there is no simple bliss. Which might be why I marvel at the ghazal/sonnet form here; it takes strict and inherited structures and neither utilizes nor strictly flaunts them, but internalizes and then refigures. If ever a circle could be broken, I imagine it will take this sort of creative writing and living. It’s also interesting you use cul-de-sacs and the book of hours, since those where-to-go moments often bring us to our knees, or calling to some sort of divinity. Intersections of faith and the material including affluence and consumption come up a lot in your work. Can you talk some about the intersection there? Or the dead-end, should I say?

MW: Dead-end for sure. Circle anything enough and you’re bound to find yourself at an impasse. Christianity teaches us that those who do good deeds and live faithfully will be rewarded in the kingdom of heaven. The American Dreams says work hard enough and you’ll be rewarded materially, in the now. Between school and family life, I heard a lot of both growing up, and so it stands to reason that I’ve internalized both equations. All I can say is, after the hellish historical and political strife my folks have gone through, there are days when I think some form of reparations from a merciful God might justify an advance on the kingdom. Of course I feel guilt, even now, for thinking this aloud, but perhaps that’s one of the many invisible engines revving those poems where faith and consumption collide.

I like what you say about Cul-de-sac Pastoral internalizing and reframing strict structures. I take the ten-syllable line (but not the pentameter) and octave-sestet structure of the sonnet, plus the repeated end word of the ghazal, and try to sing within new parameters. These are poems about the anxiety of living inside the gates of suburbia and the palisades of bias, and gaudy success symbols the speaker has an ambivalent relationship with. The liturgical hours are a way to pray, think through this anxiety during specific portions of the day. I’ve always admired the structure that faith and form provide, but I’m more interested in sincere, open dialogue than strict religious tenants; more focused on the rhythm of my thoughts than traditional meters. “Cul-de-sac” borrows across literary, ethnic, and parochial traditions to say it my way, while in dialogue with other ways.

CL: I often have to remind myself that most faith traditions promise neither certain reward nor parity, but rather offer peace or fortitude for struggle and, in the case of Christianity, the guarantee one will not be alone. Which might be why I’m also drawn to poetry; when poems have touched me they come off the page and speak directly in my ear. I can almost feel the breath. And in that sincere, open way you describe, they hold my chest together or defibrillate it, depending on the moment. I’m curious about the way you think about loneliness or solitude in poems. “Ode to Browsing the Web,” for example, complicates the idea of connection, witness, and open dialogue and actually turns into a prayer of sorts, to the Internet. In the age of Twitter and YouTube, of marketing blasts and mass communication, how do you negotiate the tension of an intimate public poem? How does that come to shape the dialogue?

MW: I’ve got a real love/hate relationship with the Internet. I’m a Youtube junkie. A little iffy on social media, though. I think Facebook and Twitter are certainly fine places for poetry people to spend time with words being less lonely. I’m with you—there’s nothing quite like the surprise of reading something beautiful, especially by someone you don’t know, and feeling changed, reassured, more connected. I like the way folks like Eve Ewing, Kaveh Akbar, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, and Nick Ripatrazone use the web to build community and a community of readers. That’s fresh. But there’s also the element of social media that breeds vitriol, silly poe-biz envy, phoniness, and for me, genuine anxiety. I acknowledge some of these concerns in my poems about the Internet, perhaps to feel less alone about my position. Yeah. I think that’s right. And for sure I care more about the intimate act of writing a poem than the platform and people who might stumble upon it somewhere online.

CL: Speaking of a community of writers and readers, if you meet someone entirely outside that sphere or who has never encountered a poem before, what one would you give him or her?

MW: Yusef Komunyakaa’s, “My Father’s Love Letters.” It’s got expertly enjambed lines, a complicated but clear dramatic situation, memorable phrasing and imagery. It’s one of the few poems I read over and over again, every year, and never grow tired of. Super satisfying.

CL: Oh yes, agreed: “…Baby, Honey, Please…” And thank you, for speaking with me!

Cate Lycurgus’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Third Coast, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. A 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship Finalist, she has also received scholarships from Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. Cate currently lives and teaches south of San Francisco, California; for more information, visit catelycurgus.com.

Previous post:

Next post: