Charleston's Poet Laureate Marcus Amaker Making a Difference

Nov 12, 2019

Marcus Amaker's personal book of poems
Credit Victoria Hansen/SC Radio

Charleston's first poet laureate has been called a Renaissance man.  Marcus Amaker boasts many talents.  He's a poet, a musician, a videographer, as well as a graphics and web designer.

But perhaps it's not what he does; instead how he does it, that distinguishes him.

The 43 year-old takes the mic at the Free Verse Poetry Festival he conceived three years ago.  Applause fills the halls of the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, mixed with the hypnotizing beat of drums. Behind the sticks is Quentin Baxter of the chart breaking group Ranky Tanky.

Amaker has many friends, many in high places.

Dressed in  suede shoes, a print button up shirt with rolled up sleeves and dark slacks, Amaker's loosely pulled back locs spill out from beneath his newspaper boy cap.  He exudes a vibe funky and chic.  Then, he introduces himself with a poem that could make anyone appear anything but cool.

"I beat myself up the first time words bumped up against my breath, disconnected from the pulse inside my head.  So I made beats alone behind closed doors instead."

Amaker's intro depicts a solitary boy who looks to music for a friend; a boy who stammered and stuttered and still stumbles as an adult.  It's a self- portrait so raw; it's as if it's drawn with crayons.

"I'm in a mode now where I want people to know me," says Amaker as we talk downtown in Washington Park just behind city hall.

"I've been writing a lot about Charleston and social justice issues.  I want folks to know me as well, and that is me."

Amaker embraces his insecurities, flexing his vulnerability like a super power.

Bornin  Las Vegas, Nevada, he travelled extensively as the only child  of an Airforce father.  He began writing songs when he was 10 years-old after discovering artists like Janet Jackson and Prince. As a young man, he grew increasingly fascinated with words, studying journalism at the University of South Carolina.

Amaker went to work at newspapers, including Charleston's Post and Courier.  There, graphic design caught his eye as that's what he does independently today; along with making videos and music, designing websites, and writing poetry.

"Honestly everything comes from the same place, a place of love," says Amaker.  "But it's also work."

"Honestly everything comes from the same place, a place of love. But it's also work." - Marcus Amaker, poet laureate of Charleston.

Amaker's hard work paid off in 2016 when Charleston's newly elected mayor asked him to co-write and read an inaugural poem. The work "Reimagining History" about Charleston's past, present and future was a real feather in his cap.  Literally, he wore a feather in his grey fedora that chilly day.   Not long after, he was named the city's first poet laureate.

As an advocate for the arts, Amaker takes his role seriously.  He strives to not only open doors for those who create, but make sure they get paid.  He also spends a lot of time in local schools.

"It's almost as if I'm opening their eyes to what really can happen through the written word and it's just expressing yourself, you know?"

Charleston poet laureate Marcus Amaker
Credit Marcus Amaker

Amaker is also trying to open the city's eyes to the importance of the arts, especially the power of  poetry.  That's why he crafted a yearly, week long free verse festival.

This year's spoken word artists included Jericho Brown whose work is  up for The National Book Award for Poetry, as well as activist and poet Andrea Gibson.  What's more they performed not in coffee shops and bars, but in art museums and music halls.

"Poetry has changed my life in a lot of ways because it has helped me to see my power and influence."

Amaker was recently honored with the Governor's Fresh Voices in the Humanities Award during a ceremony in Columbia.

He's convinced the candor of poetry can inspire much needed conversations about race, gender, religion, culture and history.  The idea being if  people can connect through shared emotions and experiences, they can focus on their similarities instead of their differences.

But as we sit in Washington park near city hall, a statue of the Poet of the Confederacy Henry Timrod towers before our bench.  Born in Charleston, he wrote during the Civil War and encouraged young men to enlist.

"His poems are a lot different than mine," laughs Amaker.

He opens a small, brown leather bound book and shares a poem still untitled.  It's about the much anticipated birth of his first child, a daughter due on Thanksgiving day.

Amaker explains he's insecure about his looks.  Perhaps the rising sea of "selfies" grasping for "likes" as if they're drowning are to  blame.  Maybe he's just obsessing.  Either way, he wonders and worries if that will change when he sees himself in his daughter's face.

"What if someone says she looks like me," he reads.  "How will she not be beautiful?"