Marcus Amaker is a poet but there is music in his words. The city has known that for as long as he’s been writing. What else should we expect from Charleston’s poet laureate? Readers can easily see the flow of his words on the page, but listeners are treated to a different experience, especially when another beloved Charlestonian, Quentin Baxter, is involved. Baxter’s renowned drumming talents were a fitting backdrop for Amaker’s poems on their debut album The New Foundation in 2014, and the two artists are (finally) ready to release a follow-up. Titled empath, the LP features poems from Amaker’s new book, which shares the album’s name. It’s a project that spans across spoken word and written word. Amaker’s ambitions for the whole affair are rightfully high. “The poems and the energy behind this work, to me, felt like a masterwork,” says Amaker.
The beginning of empath‘s story is found in Amaker’s title. After being named Charleston’s first poet laureate in 2016, the writer found himself emboldened by his new label, and in the middle of a creative streak. “I’ve really felt on a high after the poet laureate title came,” says Amaker. “It was really inspiring to me, and I just started writing a lot right after that happened.”
The words “a lot” should be underscored. The rhythmic wordsmith crafted over 60 original works in the year and a half since his crowning as the city’s official poet, and topics range from favorite bars (“upper deck tavern”) to Charleston’s racist history (“bones”). The latter piece describes the Angel Oak as an unwilling participant to lynchings, having to witness some of the most disgusting parts of the South’s past. “She’d tell you about the relentless weight of bones on branches/ How trees never wanted to be co-stars in a play for punishment/ The background of a soul’s curtain call in the absurd theatre of America,” Amaker writes.
“I just always hold up a mirror to my life, and what is going on, and to my city,” he says. “I hold up the mirror to it and it’s almost like Charleston tells me what to write.” And, while there’s a wide range of lyrical topics, Amaker sees a relation running through many of empath‘s poems. “I’ve been thinking a lot about connection, family history, and connection to mother nature, and how things are a lot more connected than we think,” says Amaker. “Obviously, we focus on how we are disconnected instead of how we are connected. A lot of these poems really speak to that indirectly and directly.”
The companion to the book of poems is the second spoken word and jazz album by Amaker and Baxter. “It really coincided with Quentin and I getting back together,” says Amaker. empath the LP features poems from Amaker’s book over drum beats composed by Baxter. Those familiar with The New Foundation know the chemistry these two have. “Quentin and I did an album three years ago that I felt really captured where we were at the time,” says Amaker. “Working with him has always been amazing and I always get to see my work in a different light when I collaborate with him.”
The creation process for the album empath was the polar opposite of The New Foundation. The 2014 album began with Amaker’s poetry. He gave the words to Baxter, who made beats for them. But this latest release has Baxter creating rhythms before Amaker puts stanzas to it. The renowned drummer wanted to remove any influence he might have on Amaker’s words, to keep everything centered around the poetry. “I didn’t really give him subject matter; I just gave him tunes,” says Baxter.
“There’s a really tribal sound to it,” says Amaker. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard from Quentin.”
As far as influences on the compositions go, Baxter decided to think outside the box. “I went into the studio with a lot of different influences in mind, but none of them being musical — more like a headspace,” says Baxter, who engineered, produced, and composed the album.
Music makes Amaker both a writer and a lyricist, and it’s helped him realize how flexible of an art form his craft is. “To a lot of people, poetry is stagnant. It lives on the page, and that’s it,” says Amaker. “And then when I give it to a jazz musician, it has another life.”
empath, the album, is set for a February release date, while the book was released at the beginning of 2018. The energy in the book is high, and Amaker is certain that it will translate well to the recordings. “It’s Quentin and I taking this to another level,” he says.