Late night. 2009. Wine bar on Upper King Street. Marcus Amaker is posted up by the window, and he isn't drinking. He's watching.
Upon seeing a group of revelers carouse down the sidewalk outside, he writes, "remember the honey-dipped sound of sin,/ stretched out through smoke-drenched/ sorrow, where strangers danced to the/ backbeat of '80s music tickling their hips."
A self-described "recovering journalist" and artistic man-about-town, Amaker has left a long trail of poetry through his 10-year stint in Charleston, self-published in chapbooks and read aloud during Monday open-mic nights at the East Bay Meeting House. In early September, Amaker compiled some of his favorites as well as a few new ones in The Spoken Word, a glossy little retrospective book of poems that range from the overtly sensual to the achingly spiritual. "the youth decay," his poem from the wine bar in 2009, appears early in the mix, along with several other poems that read like crystallized memories of Charleston. The poem "shelter," for instance, deals with the experience of interacting with homeless people in his neighborhood, and "ten years" was written while sitting alone at the bar at Cutty's.
On Oct. 6, Amaker will join drummer Quentin Baxter, bassist Kevin Hamilton, and keyboardist Richard H. White Jr. at the Mezz for a night of poetry backed by a live jazz band. "Musically, I just told them to have fun and improvise on stage. I'm going to be doing lots of poems from the book, and they're going to jam," Amaker says. "It's going to be a sort of conversation onstage."
Amaker is sitting on a couch in the immaculate den of his downtown loft, a slickly renovated portion of an old church where he has space for a few musical instruments, a massive vinyl record collection (he is an obsessive fan of Ani DiFranco and Prince), and not much else. The loft functions as his home office, where he uses a laptop to build websites, design graphics and logos, and edit videos for a growing list of clients including Barsa and the Gibbes Museum of Art.
Many still remember him from Charleston Scene, the Post and Courier's weekly arts-and-entertainment supplement where he worked alternately as an editor, designer, and reporter from 2003 to 2011. The drab environs of the P&C office make at least one appearance in The Spoken Word, in a poem titled "the tapdancer," which he says was inspired by certain coworkers who complained about their work and couldn't "see how beautiful they really are."
He writes, "your shoes./ they must be tired/ of walking back and forth,/ here./ i can't help but wonder/ how they would move/ if you were on stage,/ if they had more than just/ hallways/ to work with."
Still, Amaker doesn't sound bitter when he talks about the newspaper years. To the contrary, he says the time prepared him for self-employment. "Because of the connections I had made through Scene, I was able to connect and work for a lot of different folks around town and do my own thing," he says. "I just have a lot of skills that I have learned that I know I can help people out in the community."
Reading through hundreds of his old poems to compile The Spoken Word, Amaker says he came to realize how he had changed as an artist. "I just feel like I'm writing from a different place, from a less egocentric place and a more universal place," he says. Some of the older poems dealt with specific issues from romantic relationships or were written as gifts to women, and he revised a few to capture more general sentiments before putting them in the retrospective.
One piece that appears early in the book is "the soft paper cut," a 2007 poem that bridges the gap between his lady-killing early work and the introspective latter-day stuff. He writes, "if you were a book of poems,/ i'd wake up every morning/ with ink on my fingertips/ and the smell of fresh paper/ etched in my mind."
The rhetorical leap from loving a woman to loving the written word was not a hard one for Amaker. "It was about this feeling of being really, really high on life and making that into a feminine personification," he says. "So I was sort of wrapping that feeling up as a woman — and wrapping that up in my love of writing as well. It's almost like a love letter to the feeling that I get whenever I write."