A Conversation with Marcus Wicker
via Marcus Wicker
Maybe the greatest thing about Maybe the Saddest Thing (Harper Perennial, 2012) is the collection’s author, Marcus Wicker. He has been awarded a 2011 Ruth Lilly Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize, and he has received fellowships at Cave Canem and The Fine Arts Work Center. He is, in many ways, a jazz musician, with his inspiration John Coltrane, pushing the limits of the musical clef and breaking onto the paper with poetry that risks. And like the melody in the background of a jazz bar, he is fully present in the scene of contemporary poetry, and is on the rise. He embraces the modern art world of the Internet and technology with a mastery that speaks of old knowledge of sonnets and odes. Unlike “the poetry I normally ignored” (from his poem “Light” in Vinyl Poetry), Wicker’s writing demands to read, considered, and felt. Reading it has inspired me to look for poetic images in traditionally wearisome places, such as Fox News and Target, as he brings energy to his work and to poetry itself. I was lucky that he devoted some of that energy to answer a few questions.
First off, were you always interested in writing, or did some event, person, place, or story lead you to it?
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.
Here’s a question to further break the ice: what is your favorite artistic movement in history? Why?
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.
Have you ever written nonfiction, fiction, or other sorts of prose? What is it about poetry that fascinates you?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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’)?
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.
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?
And, finally, what role do you think poetry plays in the collective sphere of modern society? Should we as poets be satisfied with it?
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.