Poet Marcus Amaker says his job as an artist is to make you feel history

By Shelley Hill Young

Marcus Amaker didn’t fully realize the power of poetry until he started sharing with others the words he’d scribbled in a little red notebook.

Marcus, the city of Charleston’s first poet laureate, says he started writing what he thought were song lyrics when he was just 10 years old, but he was a freshman in college at the University of South Carolina when he first read his poetry in front of others.

“That opened me up to the power of what poetry really is, being able to connect to people in a way that you might not really expect,” Marcus says.

People often start writing poetry from an egocentric point of view, Marcus says. “Then, you start to realize that this isn’t really about me, especially when you start to share it with people. … That’s where poetry is really powerful.”

Marcus’ poetry gained greater recognition when Charleston City Paper asked him to write a poem just a day after the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church, where nine church members were killed. Marcus says the words came to him “by the Spirit.”

“That was a hard night,” he recalls. “It wasn’t easy because of all the emotions that we were all going through. It was just a lot to deal with it.”

Marcus recalls that the first version of the poem, “Black Cloth – a poem for Charleston,” was angry. He sought feedback from other writers, who helped guide him in the direction of the final version. He says he would have written a poem about the tragedy, even if he wasn’t asked. “As an artist, that’s the way we react to the world, to create and to reflect.”

That poem eventually led to Marcus writing a another poem, this time with South Carolina poet laureate Marjory Heath Wentworth for Mayor John Tecklenburg’s inauguration in January 2016.

“That was a transformative experience for me to write a poem for such a big event,” Marcus says.

Soon after, the mayor decided to appoint a poet laureate for the city and chose Marcus for the position.

“Sometimes, we need tragedy to act and to do important things, and I think this position was created to have a good and powerful voice for the city,” Marcus says. “I’m honored they gave the position to me.”

Marcus, who also is a graphic designer, describes his poetry as a mirror of what he’s seeing and experiencing in the world.

“What is beautiful about art is it’s the artist’s job to make people feel,” he says. “We can make you feel history, feel it in a way that a history book can’t. It’s almost like watching a documentary on Netflix. You see what’s going on, you can feel what people are going through. Music, poetry, can put you in other people’s shoes.”

Marcus says there are times when he’s hyper-aware of the need for his poetry to send a message. “But there are also times when I’m responding to something personal or just responding to everyday life, helping people open their eyes to the details of everyday life.”

He says there’s often an extra pressure on African-American poets and writers to speak for the community.

“I get asked a lot to be a social justice voice, but it would be great to be just a poet,” he says.

Read Marcus’s poetry at marcusamaker.com.