In DuBose Heyward’s poem “Dusk,” the Porgy author writes of the profound influence that Charleston has on his art and perception of the world. Equal parts muse and motivation, Heyward concludes his ode to the Holy City by stating, “Hers are the eyes through which I look on life and find it brave and splendid. And the stir of hidden music shaping all my songs, and these my songs, my all, belong to her.”
Taking into account the outward beauty, troubled history, and uncertain future of Charleston, it can be difficult to put into words all that makes up the city. But now we have one voice to speak for us as best he can.
Marcus Amaker now serves as the first poet laureate for Charleston. The writer, designer, and musician officially holds the title as the voice of the city. But Amaker doesn’t see the honor as a personal accolade to pad his resume. Instead he hopes to heighten the profile of all the literary talents that call Charleston home.
“I’m treating this more like an honor for the whole poetry community, not just for me because I’ve definitely been connected with a lot of different poets in town ever since I moved here. It’s really amazing to really realize that the city is honoring this art form because there’s always been amazing poets all over the city,” says Amaker. “I haven’t really thought of this as a thing for personal gain, which is kind of interesting to me. It’s all about outreach and community. I’m definitely hoping to work with a lot of nonprofits and businesses around town to really push poetry into the forefront more because it definitely deserves a bigger stage.”
As a part of Amaker’s responsibilities as Charleston’s poet laureate, he is tasked with implementing community outreach efforts, leading educational programs to encourage writing, promoting literacy through poetry in schools, and composing works that speak to, for, and of the region. In selecting the city’s official wordsmith, officials looked to South Carolina poet laureate Marjory Wentworth and director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs Scott Watson. Each city poet laureate will serve a two-year term before assisting in the selection of his or her successor. A major part of Amaker’s first year in the position will be promoting Charleston’s inaugural poetry festival, which is planned for late October. As the first poet laureate, he plans to lay the foundation for whomever follows in his footsteps in more ways than one. Not simply thinking of who will be asked to fill his position at the end of his term, Amaker will also be working with students to guide Charleston’s next generation of poets.
“Once you present poetry to kids, they love it. They almost treat it like it’s hip-hop. It’s sort of like music to them and magic and that’s really, really awesome,” he says. “That will definitely be a big part of my plan — to get more poets in schools and get schools to really realize the importance of having poetry there.”
Recalling the moment when Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg reached out to see if he was interested in serving as the city’s first poet laureate, Amaker remembers being thanked for his willingness to take on the responsibility. In the past, Amaker’s work has touched on deeply personal subjects and intimate sensuality. More recently, his poem “Black Cloth,” which first appeared in the City Paper, dealt with the pain of the tragic shooting at Mother Emanuel and the harsh reality of racism in today’s society. Amaker and Marjory Wentworth later collaborated on an original work, “Reimagining History,” for the inauguration of Mayor Tecklenburg. Now, as Amaker has seen the scope of his work evolve, he’s curious to see how the new role as Charleston’s poet laureate will influence his future writing.
“It will be interesting to see how this affects my ego because as a poet I started out just writing for myself and that’s what a lot of people do. And I still write poems that I just keep for myself that I don’t share, but obviously there will be more pressure to write stuff for other people,” he says. “So with that in mind, it will be interesting how that affects my writing as well as just how my voice will change. I do feel like I’m in this position because of my voice and a lot of the stuff that I’ve written — 99 percent of it is not for other people or it wasn’t with that in mind. It will be a really awesome challenge for me artistically to write specific pieces for people but also just having more of a lens on my work. There is a responsibility there, and I welcome that because I feel like, hopefully, I’m inspiring people to write.”