Many people might think of poetry as outdated, elitist and confusing. Marcus Wicker, winner of the renowned Pushcart Prize and National Poetry Series, aims to change this viewpoint.
The poet visited Rockhurst University on Thursday, delivering a rhythmic and emotional reading to a crowd full of Rockhurst and UMKC students, professors and community members. The timely inspiration for Wicker’s work quickly emerged: being black in modern America.
“Why crucify me in HD across a scrolling news ticker, tied / to a clothesline of broken necks long as time?” Wicker read from his poem “Conjecture on the Stained Glass Image of White Christ at Ebenezer Baptist Church.”
This powerful imagery called to mind the lingering, politicized deaths of Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and others. In fact, Wicker named these killings as a significant influence on his most recent book, Silencer, published last month.
Wicker, now a professor at the University of Memphis, reflected on his experience as a visiting poet in “In My 31st Year.”
“OK, so it’s true / that last week I let Andrew, / half in the bag, a little crumpled, / cuff my wrists, then / perhaps, too familiar, wing an arm / around my neck, and / then, he even called me his / boy,” Wicker read, a retelling of his condescending interaction with another faculty member.
Yet, among his heavy subject matter, Wicker finds humor and entertaining pop culture references. When asked what he would like to say to prejudiced faculty members, Wicker quipped, “I’d like to tell them ‘f*ck you,’ but I need to get tenure.”
Wicker also comments on the black experience by writing poems in the voice of rapper Kendrick Lamar and love letters to black television personalities, RuPaul and Flavor Flav. He acknowledged that when he sits down to write, he’s trying to appeal to fans of rap, not necessarily fans of Shakespeare.
After audience members laughed when Wicker read a poem beginning with the line, “In defense of ballin’ on a budget,” he revealed this conversational and joking language is part of his strategy.
“I try to charm and disarm,” Wicker explained. “So the audience laughs and starts to settle in, thinking they’re going to be comfortable, but then I’ll shock them.”
To order Marcus Wicker’s book or read more of his poems, visit his website at www.marcuswicker.com. For information about the upcoming readings in the Midwest Poet Series at Rockhurst University, visit www.rockhurst.edu/center-arts-letters/midwest-poets-series.