Poet, musician, and graphic designer Marcus Amaker's latest self-published poetry collection, Mantra, is an experiment in the power of options. You can pay for it or not; you can get a physical book, or access the poetry via a free iPhone or Android Mantra app; you can read the poems, listen to them as an album, and even watch some of them as videos.
It's as immersive a poetry experience as you can get outside of a live reading — which is, of course, the point. "I felt like the poems I was writing had a certain theme, and they definitely deserved more than being just on paper," Amaker says. "It was a plan from the start to make Mantra a multimedia experience."
And if any poet is well-suited to that task, it's Amaker. His day job is running his own graphic and web design business, so he was able to own the entire creative process from writing to release. After finishing the poems, he designed the book, which is a sleek, square collection of pages that include photography as well as typewritten and handwritten poems. He recorded the poems as spoken word pieces. Then, because his skills also include videography, he was able to create several videos that merge spoken word with text and images. Finally, he brought all of those components together in the Mantra app. Together, the book and app are called Mantra: An Interactive Poetry Book.
Although Amaker's been performing his poems live for many years, and has recorded several of his own music albums, this is the first time he's experimented with this kind of multifaceted model. As he says, Mantra's expansive form was inspired by the poems themselves, which have to do with love, marriage (Amaker married his fiancée just a few weeks ago), justice, and self-knowledge, among other things.
There's a poem called "Mother Nature's Reckless Daughter," for example, which references the viral "This is what a feminist looks like" campaign that was popular last year. Another, "Breathe," draws from Eric Garner's death at the hands of New York police: "two words with two Gs / spread hate like a disease / the smoke is everywhere / and / I / can't / breathe."
The book opens and closes, however, with more personal poems — "Code" imagines human life as a universal computer code, while the final poem, "Self-Portrait (in bloom)" is a moving meditation on the self and the power of poetry: "this is the portrait / of a black boy in bloom, / the brown-eyed baby / whose birth's purpose / was to unearth poems."
"I've been labeled a love poet before, but these are more about the human experience," Amaker says. "I feel like these poems are a lot more true. That's why I called the book Mantra — somebody's mantra is their truth. These poems are 100 percent my truth at this moment."
While these large themes certainly lent themselves to a wider, more interactive medium, the poet had some practical considerations, too. "I feel like the old-school way of releasing books hasn't really been working as far as exposure goes," Amaker says. "I thought this would be an easier way for people to interact with the work. It's just staying ahead of the game — I'm trying to be forward-thinking about what the definition of a poetry book is." Plus, since he taught himself how to write apps by creating Mantra, Amaker can now offer that service to his clients.
Mantra also marks the first time Amaker has tried offering pay-what-you-want pricing for one of his products. The app is always free, but when you order the book from Amaker's website, you're able to name your price (the suggested price is $10). Just like the online component, this is meant to facilitate people's interaction with Amaker's work. "I didn't want money to step in the way of people experiencing the poetry. So many times I'll be at a poetry show and people will want one of my older books, but they don't have any cash so they'll go home without it. This way, it's easy," he says. "Whatever energy I put into this book, I hope I get it back. And that doesn't necessarily mean money."
Amaker is asking readers to share their own mantras on social media using the hashtag #mantrapoems, and he plans to include those crowd-sourced mantras in an updated version of the poetry collection. He thinks of Mantra as a collaborative project, he says. "Ultimately, it becomes less about me and more about the truth and the work. I think that interaction with an audience will definitely inspire me to write more."
Editor's note: Amaker is an occasional contributor to the Charleston City Paper.