Ian Macks reading at Troy Kitchen in Troy, NY in 2017

How To Be Real in a World of Superficiality: An Interview with Ian Macks

By Willow Singletary

Ian Macks and I met at a small table in the front of Uncommon Grounds during its busiest hours. It was loud and cramped and he still appeared rather calm in the face of it. That was the first thing I noticed about him was his confidence. He made space for himself and the answers he provided me made it clear that this observation was correct. Ian Macks is here to bring truth to society; he values integrity overall and that can be seen in both his work and this interview. 

Willow Singletary: Okay. Was there anything you wanted to be before becoming a writer?

Ian Macks: I just wanted to be understood. And learn how to communicate. Growing up non-verbal I always had to like use either sign language or go to speech therapy and always play catch up with social skills. And the way that I frame things or communicate it I don’t know- I just always wanted to be understood. So for me it was always just being able to help others and relate to others in a way that didn’t come off as egotistical. In a way that was objective and empathetic and trying to relate. Just my story as well, that was the main thing. I wanted to be a sports commentator because I like sports and talking but, it just wasn’t pragmatic enough. Then I thought about med-field with my mom being an OT as well but writing always just was the outlet that I had for myself and I was really good at it and poetry started to hit and I just went with it.

W: Oh, branching off of what you just said, how do you go from being non-verbal to spoken word because all the videos I’ve found are like, loud and you know? 

I: Yeah, I always had the voice in me. My mom, being the amazing person that she is, she caught it early and got me the right help and really fought for me to be in the right schools in New York City before I moved up here and be around the right proper speech therapist and people to really strengthen my voice. I think that’s the biggest thing- my dad’s also a bassist and a singer too and he can get pretty loud as well so it was always within but, I think for me it always felt like I was trying to get things out so now that it’s spoken word and being able to be out I don’t want to hide anything in terms of, how I go about it. Just be a hundred percent with it and speak to the emotion but not only how I’m feeling but how it can relate to others and be clear with it and concise. 

W: I wanted you to talk about the struggles of being a black poet when black writing is so often stereotyped.

I: Yeah, I think that my writing is definitely questioned with that. A lot of people expect me to be “rah -rah” and social justice at times which I can be however,- Yeah I think for me it was that- I think that you’re always going to have different cultures and different perspectives and for me it’s always nice to kinda change the perspective of, whether it’s white, hispanic, or whatever culture creating what the monolith or non-monolith is to be African-American. I was lucky enough to grow up in a middle-class neighborhood when I moved up here, had a dad who made it out of the trenches but it still carries with him, what he went through in the projects, and I still carry with me what I went through in the Bronx with my mom working two jobs before I moved up here and hustling like that and, just being judged for how I look off of how I look before I even speak let alone when I speak and how I’m supposed to compose myself or how I’m supposed to be. I always try to stress that you should never be put in the box that you don’t want to be in but make your own atmosphere, rather than being pigeon-hole because that’s the only way you can kinda revolutionize things quote-on-quote or change the narrative in a way that’s more fair. 

W: Right. In the beginning, did you feel like you had to fit that “rah-rah” sort of writing

I: Honestly in the beginning I was more of like, the alt like, unhappy, you know? And like, lovelore and  hopeless romantic type and it did fit that narrative at the time because it’s like oh he’s sad, he’s struggling you know, he’s trying to like, find love elsewhere even though like things that were already inserted in my life like my family and whatnot- I was struggling to see that. Now it’s changing more towards like I understand more where my family was like coming from when they told me things growing up. And I’ve reconnected with that side of myself after being lost and then trying to figure it out since high school and you know the past ten years leading up to Identity Crisis were just figuring out what my identity was. Trying to fit what other people wanted and feeling disheartened at the end of it because it wasn’t true. I’d rather stand on my own two feet than sacrificing myself to be something not- so I’m pleasing others but not really giving truth in my own sort and that’s the most important thing that I see in not only poetry but what I’m trying to do in general which is just giving people that opportunity to relate and understand that they’re not alone in what they’re going through. And it may be raw, it may be unsavory but that’s the black experience sometimes and you know we can’t control you know, how we’re raised, how we’re born, and, how society views us. All we can do is stand true and that’s the goal that I have in mind and you know I’m hoping that I’m doing it to the best of my ability and it’s working. 

W: Well, I mean I think it’s working. I noticed in one of your poems- I forget the name but you talk about losing your virginity to a… 

I: A white girl, yeah. 

W: White girl. And I remember listening and I was expecting the regular “rah-rah” and like, that part threw me off because it’s almost like your blackness peaks through your writing but it’s not the core

I: Overt. 

W: Of the writing. 

I: Exactly. You don’t want to make it the only reason why people read. I try to draw in other influences in my life that are human beyond just the color of my skin 

W: Yeah. 

I: In my experience whether it’s toxic relationships or fights with family and parents and misunderstandings between friends and experiences in general with working in life and losing not only people that your cared about or figuring it out that it’s not really what you signed up for in the first place- doesn’t matter what your gender is, doesn’t matter who you are things relate to every human. 

W: Right. 

I: So I write to let it peek through in a way that isn’t just, “Oh here he goes again,” I want it to be kind of like, interpret yourself, you know and based off your interpretation I’ll see how you took it and we’ll move on from there. 

W: Right. I don’t know if you’ve watched these two shows but it’s almost like the difference between watching Black-ish and Insecure. Like Black-ish is all about like black- which isn’t a problem- but it’s all about black issues and it throws it in your face- Like they literally explain it to you whereas Insecure is like, yeah it’s about black people but it’s about people overall instead of just being about 

I: Exactly. 

W: I wanted to ask you, are there any people in your life that indirectly inspire your writing?

I: I mean my mother. Just being the amazing soul that she is and her line of work in occupational therapy, working in mental health hospitals and public schools with disabled students. Just the sacrifice that she made and always trying to see the good in things but being objective and real enough to tell it how it is when needed. My father obviously being a songwriter. Some of his deep cuts were very inspirational for me in terms of writing but my main influence were music oriented really growing up in- and writer oriented from Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, Gill Scott Heron to bands like Block Party, Phoenix, and other indie bands where they were able to take like dance-y, catchy disco, indie rock, and then add some real lyrics to it. I like that nuance to it and that like back and forth like, “What is it? Should I be dancing? Should I be crying?” It’s all part of it. And that’s basically how I try to ball it all up into what I wanted to start writing because it’s original and different and it wasn’t me just listening to a bunch of rap songs and being like, “alright, I’m going to try to be a rapper with no beat.” Even though I do listen to rap and “mumble rap” more per se with like, PlayBoi Carti and like, even though they’re problematic quote-on-quote. You know, that’s real and how different cultures say that’s problematic different cultures say that’s- I just say that’s real but, they’re all listening depending on the setting and that’s the type of power that I want to not be stereotyped for but I also tap into to have a greater effect than just a shock value when in a showpiece. Like Tyler The Creator would be a great example, one of my early poems, “Dracula”, in like 2015, 2016 starts off with, “I’m the Tyler The Creator of the written word,” and it’s true you know, given who I’ve dated and like how I’ve had to adjust living up here from the city where it’s multiple cultures and diverse to like, very A B C 

W: Yeah. 

I: And had to kinda find my own niche and stay strong with it and hopped around. Took some losses, gained some experience and insight and now at twenty-eight it’s finally really starting to come together. So, it’s a journey, it’s a process. 

W: How often do you write? And does it hurt you to do it sometimes? 

I: I try to write like once to three times a week. I used to write every day and it became one of those things where quality over quantity kinda became my intriguement process. There are a lot of things that you kinda just write out in like a journalistic style that maybe are just to get off your chest but it wouldn’t really “hit” in terms of the structure or how you’re going about it until you look it over again. So my process is writing about something that’s in my head bothering me, I write it out just to get it out and then I say, “Okay, how can I structure this into like a story or have a meaning behind it that like is universal or just tells the whole picture,” rather than just one line. Oh he’s angry about this or he’s angry about that or he’s happy about this or that. It’s all about processing life you know, that’s my biggest muse. It’s never about a specific person because people have good intentions and bad things still happen. And I’ve been on both sides of that so, I’ll probably write something tonight because I have something in my head already and you know, I’ve had two poems recently published too but, in the meantime, it’s always about balancing the personal and the professional probably when I’m back in full-time work in a couple of weeks then I’ll probably get back into my old routine but for now, I’m really just trying to live life take those experiences and take the meat of it and put into like, a poem and then, have it be like oh this is what happens, this is what I want, this is the future, and I’m going to be happy.

W: Can you explain your writing process from when an idea pops in your head to like, the finished product?

I: So, for example, an idea can pop in my head, my old process when I lived in Troy, NY, was to go to the bridge put my headphones in, sit by the waterfall and then just write it out let it come to me that way. Now, living in Albany and in a studio; throw on some music like Lofi Beats on Soundcloud, or something that I’m digging at the time- it could even be like harder or easier like, something hardcore and whatnot. Listening to some songs kinda gets me in a mood so it isn’t all rage you know, and have a temper- see both sides and not be too subjective maybe read a couple of books or a couple of chapters in a book kinda like, get a different writing sense. I’ve read like Steven King’s memoirs and read David Sidaris’s “Calypso” you know, just different genres, different influences. Poetry or otherwise. Nonfiction Fiction. And then, just meld it and say okay this is the blueprint for what I want to do with this piece. And then I write the stanza’s out rough. Look at it, read it to myself, see how it comes out, touch this up here or there, and I’ll say I didn’t want to express it that way, format it, edit it, fix it, look at it again, see if it’s good and then submit or, put it on my Instagram. Or keep it in the journal, that’s how it usually works. 

W: Has there ever been a time where someone didn’t like your writing and it like, completely crushed you?

I: I mean, I’ve gone through two relationships where my exes loved my writing at first when it fit their mold. And then, when I started to really be unvarnished and raw with it, after we were done or you know, or stopped really having contact with that they just like, you know, they’d say congratulations and be like, I’m happy that you have a book coming out but, I think deep down it bothered them but at the same time for me, all of the side conversations, all of the things that they- that other people have done behind my back or, that I found out after the fact- that’s the same sort of feeling that I have. I’m very- being raised with the family that I have, it’s all about being real and not being shady with it and just addressing things face to face and for me it’s like when I write something and they’re like not happy with it, they have the opportunity to say something to my face and I had to hold that pain in for being discarded or ghosted or whatever. And turn it- that pain into something beautiful or something understandable. Not only to get it out my system and out of myself but, I’ve made countless friends and acquaintances through poems that I have written and they said, “Dude, that hit me in a way i didn’t expect,” and it shows that those type of things happen everywhere and you’re always going to have critics, you’re always going to have haters per se but, I’ve also had the same thing told to me where it’s like, “If you’re pissing people off you’re doing something right.” And I think for a while I was playing it too safe whether it was trying to like impress somebody or trying to like stay with somebody when I shouldn’t you know, instead of being unapologetically me. Bottled it up and then it just exploded out. I’d rather just be true to me a hundred percent, know what you’re thinking, know what you’re feeling- if you don’t subscribe to it you don’t have to read it or subscribe to it but, if you do that’s great because then I know you’re in it for the right reasons. And you’re not in it just to say, “Oh I’m dating this poet,” or you know “I’m liking this dude because he’s like black dude who’s like you know, known for his writing,” you know it’s less superficial and shallow. And it’s more true to the chest and true to the heart. 

W: I know for me personally, it’s one thing to have a thought or like an idea in your head and when you write it and you read it sometimes you like regret saying it. Have you ever had a moment like that in your writing?

I: I used to because the timing of it would be poor you know, I think back on some of the things that I wrote where- you know what maybe if I had talked to this person, maybe if I’d just let it be. It didn’t have to go there. It goes both ways with that too. I’ve let a lot of things slide and people were trying to get me to say hey why didn’t you like say this before. And that’s the other side of it where you write something and it’s like, I should’ve said this a while ago you know, I should’ve written this a while ago instead of letting it fester, and not only is it out and like it’s good to be out but like, this is truly who I was and truly who I am. And I’m not code-switching and I’m not saying something to say something I’m actually saying what’s real you know, and it isn’t lip service so you know, it definitely goes both ways with that. I prefer that what I’m writing about has already been addressed than been like something that’s like hearsay or you know, gossipy per se but at the end of the day you can’t control how people relate to it or how they probably feel about it personal or impersonal. So, all I have to do is know that I’m at peace with it because if I’m not at peace with a piece or I’m not at peace with something it won’t come out but if I’m at peace with it I’ll let life handle it and you know, when one door closes another opens and good things come to those who wait and stay true to themselves.

W: How do you deal with the pressure of writing in a controlled society? 

I: I think the target on my back has definitely been something that I’ve learned to deal with. And hold proudly too because as an artist whether you’re a musician or a writer you always have to deal with that when you’re expressing yourself and it could either flop. It could either make everyone angry or it could hit in way that is half and half and mixed or successful completely. So, for that response- sorry the last part- I just want to give a good answer 

W: It’s okay. 

I: What was the last part again? 

W: Oh the last part is, how do you deal with the pressure of writing 

I: Oh, in a controlled society. I think the best answer to that would be I was already told that I was never going to talk growing up. Being nonverbal with my diagnosis on the spectrum I was told that I’m just a black dude who should play football or basketball not hockey or baseball. I have to talk a certain way or shouldn’t be in honors classes or AP classes. I’ve always been told what I’m not rather than encouraged for what I do provide and what I am. And that’s like a human thing that’s always like strong with it. And society so controlling in terms of what people are supposed to do, how they’re supposed to manage their money, who they’re supposed to be to fit the mold. I say break it because it’s a lot more freeing for you and you have more control over your life when you stop letting that control, control you. 

W: Was there ever a moment you wanted to give up on writing? 

I: Definitely. I had a lot of people tell me I should give up. I went through two relationships where they were just like you’re not making money off of it like, you’re never going to get that deal, you should do something else or you should just focus on like using your bachelors if you need vacations and just stop it you know? This isn’t going to end in you writing however, when I wasn’t writing; that was when I was at like my lowest point because I knew I wasn’t happy and I was not doing what I had done before all that even you know, that’s been seven years of me just trying to get stuff out you know, in a way that’s beneficial. And I never expected it to be out there. I am just thankful and humble about that. So, I used to be sensitive with it. Take the criticism super hard, and be like, oh if they’re telling me this, they’re right. They’ll love me more if I stop writing this or that and that’s fine but, you should never pacify yourself just to cater to someone else and you got to have that self worth to say, “You know what, I don’t need they’re validation, they don’t need to be a part of my life,” if they don’t accept it, I know my family and the people that have been there from the get-go who know my story will be there. And that always motivates me to keep going with it. And it restarted a couple years ago for me because I was looking at nonprofit and going into that and then just there were some redeeming qualities but it wasn’t the same as like writing and being out there and pursuing that. You only get one shot to really pursue your talent in life and you gotta give it all you got. And for me I couldn’t rest without giving it everything that I had to do something and put out something better than what I did when I first started writing. And Identity Crisis is that for me so, I couldn’t be more thankful for that. 

W: If you could name- it could be either your favorite author or your favorite poet and like, why they’re your favorite writer? 

I: Favorite poet is Langston Hughes. Always has been. “Negro Speaks of Rivers” and other pieces that he’s done- my mom gave me a book of black poets; an anthology including him and Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou and he always had a style about him that was like, classy and digestible somewhat but, it also spoke to not only the renaissance when he first started writing but who he was as a person. The way that he could express his demons and his failures but also his triumphs and his battles was really just like, breathtaking to me. And it’s something that I felt is very underrated in terms of having that power to always put out material and put out more creative things. And push the boundary in a society that wants you to stop. So that would be like the top writer influencing- Bookwise. Growing up I read a lot of young adult novels like, John Green’s Looking For Alaska and- my favorite was Monster by Walter Dean Meyers. As an African-American man in America, seeing that movie on Netflix as well with one of my former partners too, and them not really getting it but trying to get it. It’s something that never changes no matter what age you are. If you’re in the wrong place in the wrong time and you look a certain way it’s game over. And the way that he wrote about both sides of it prosecution and like, white vs. black and just like socioeconomic terms and how the court system and other systems in our society kind of just put a label on before you even say a word. I know that wholeheartedly with just not being able to speak, and that’s something that shouldn’t be laughed at or held uncomfortably. Similar to like, Jordan Peele’s Get Out and movies like that; you got to be comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s the only way that I’m going to be comfortable around you. Because if you’re always comfortable you can’t reason or understand why I am uncomfortable and certain situations that you put me in or what you’re looking for then, it’s not going to end well. But, if you keep that boundary and that communication clear and always like compassionate and trying to understand without pushing too hard or making it about yourself. You’re in the clear. 

W: Separating from your writing, just in general do you think it’s productive to separate race from art or even like sexuality from art? 

I: It’s a blurred line. I’ve always felt like it’s had nuances because if you put my poetry next to Rupi Kaur’s poetry I am sure some Rupi Kaur’s fans would not be thrilled with me and I’m okay with that because I am not thrilled with some of that poetry either. It hits the spot for like certain things but it’s different strokes for different folks. And, I’m happy with the people that like my stroke and I respect the people that like that sort of stroke but, if you like that sort of stroke don’t use that as a barometer to judge or pigeon-hole how I put the pen to paper you know because everybody’s trying to get it done at the end of the day and as long as you’re writing that’s the goal. If You stop writing and say I give up on it who’s going to know? So I always read it, even though I may not dig it you know those Instagram types. At the end of the day without them I can’t really do what I’m trying to do either because we’re all a community at the end of the day. I hope that it becomes more communal and that books aren’t banned, poets aren’t only accepted by certain people and not accepted by others because people can’t handle it. If it’s overwhelming that’s a you problem, because life is overwhelming.

W: Your answer just kind of gave me another question. You seem pretty neutral and understanding of writing that you may not even like but, is there any writing that you just do not like? Or just don’t find necessary?

I: I mean like, I was reading my exes writing and I don’t like that. I mean it’s like, that’s sort of like this is my love story, this guy did this to me, or this girl did that to me, and I was stuck in that peridiem. When I was younger. When I first started writing I was just like, “Oh, this girl broke my heart or this girl didn’t want me or – and that just gets old really quickly. So, I had to become more universal and speak to more pertinent issues that affected my life beyond just who I was seeing or who I was around. So when people are focused on that sort of thing or it’s just infatuation based or it just seems unhealthy then I kind of have to like, say “You know, maybe you should just put this in a journal or do what you’ve been telling me,” which is go to therapy. I’ve seen the stigma of therapy with African-American men just really heighten up and I think that the poetry that bothers me is poetry where its like they have more of an outlet and resource to not be that way and then they still choose to be that way about a power or cause that they don’t really understand. Now if I see one of those SJWs who are from the suburbs writing about like my struggle I’m going to scoff at it- I’m going to be like who do you know? Like Where have you been? It shouldn’t be that way but, you have to show me something. I’d rather know that it’s real and it’s raw even if it’s like a scary thing to write about or something that makes me uncomfortable. I’ll take that over something that’s just like, I’m doing this for attention, I’m doing this for validation, or I’m doing this just because my motives aren’t really true to what I’m doing this for. I don’t really hate on specific writers, that’s a very funny question but, there are definitely writers that I don’t really read. Like, I don’t really read that sort of Instagram poetry with a couple of lines like I used to but, I also don’t mess with anything that could be controversial in a way that just doesn’t benefit the greater good. It just adds pain. Like, if I read something it just makes me like not easy then I’m like I ain’t reading that again. I mean, I am sure they say that about my writing you know, that’s the goal as a writer is to say, “If someone is saying that about my writing what can I do to improve?” So, I think that that’s the best focus on that because you could ask someone else that same question and they could say me 

W: Right. 

I: So you can only be so honest with it. 

W: Is there any poem that makes you uncomfortable that you do like? Like, does it make you uncomfortable in a way where you’re like, “Oh I needed to hear that.” 

I: Yeah. There have been some poems by like, local poets and poets in New York that are- in western New York or downstate where they write about a breakup or a toxic situation or abuse that makes me uneasy. Especially, as a man whose Cis Hetero you know? Like, boundaries and stuff like that are not to be joked with; interracially too. Being a black man who has dated white women in the past, if I read something that makes me uncomfortable coming from the latter about how they were treated by the former or vise versa it may make me sick because it might trigger something that I went through but it also helps me say okay like- that helps me kind of compress what I have been dealing with as well and I appreciate you you know? Like thank you for showing me something that I didn’t understand or something that I’m not even doing that hurt them. Especially with like- everyones got mentals going on as well. It’s a crazy world out there too so, if they’re speaking to like a chronic illness or something that’s going on with them mentally too and it’s very vulnerable but also, you can see that they put the time in- they’re making that choice to go out there that’s the most- not prideful but the most proudest things you can do as a human. So, I think in that regard it could make me uneasy but, I’ll also be clapping at the end of the set and I’ll still be like, “good shit” at the end of it. I’ve read with various types of poets who aren’t even my style but, if they go about it the right way and I read something or they read it to me like, Katy Wolf for example she used to work with- she has a book coming out self-published too. I used to not dig that sort of poetry after awhile but you know, knowing her and knowing her story it hits. And I think that’s the goal of art in general, you shouldn’t care about what they think or who they are- separate the artist from the person in a healthy way and enjoy what they’re at least bringing to life. 

W: Okay, my last question for you 

I: Take your time. 

W: Is there anything you want the people listening or reading this interview to know about you?

I: I guess the big three things for me are, I’ve definitely been through trauma, I’ve been through shit like everyone has but I never let myself get too low and I always try to see what I have that I’m grateful for you know? Not look for what I don’t have anymore or what I lost but what I still have and what I’m still alive and available to gain in life. So, I may come off as a dick but I’m a dick with a heart. I’ve written about that and it may be raw how I put it but that truly is me. You can’t be too giving because if you’re giving to the wrong people you’ll end up becoming bitter and then you won’t give what you need to to the right people in your life. So I always try to temper that with yes this happened and yes this hurt me but I’m going to be stronger for it and I’m going to take new opportunities in my life and not take them for granted because I know how it can end up if you do take it for granted. So don’t judge a book by its cover. I may look more handsome when I get a haircut and stuff but I’m still the same person if I’m going through like, a month or two months in and I’m still going to have that kind heart to at least have a conversation if you don’t want it. And that’s your problem but I’m always and I’m never going to come at you. Even though my poetry might be loud and raw don’t view that as me a hundred percent, I’m actually like really sensitive in terms of like how I care for people and others and I want to see people treated the right way and not judged by where they came form, or how they look, or how they compose themselves, or if they have a car, or if they have this or if they have that that’s all- It does matter in society in certain aspects but you shouldn’t let people be bad people because they have those things. I’d rather be a good person and have less and earn it the right way then be a bad person and have it all and still be hurting people. And that’s basically who I am as a person. You may not like it you may like it but it’s going to be real and I’m going to stay resilient with it. No matter who comes life and who goes because I know my friends, my family, and my faith are the reason that I’m here, the reason that I’m able to speak and the reason that I’m able to have the viewpoints and the perspectives that I have and relate to others that dig it. So just feel free to reach out say what’s good and I’m always open to questions and constructive criticism online on how I go about my art. Don’t run just say what’s good that’s pretty much it for me. 

W: Thank you for letting me interview you. 

I: Yeah. For sure. 

Ian Macks brings a more refreshing and truthful side to poetry. Poetry as a genre, specifically spoken word, can often be used as a shock factor and the realness of it gets lost in its superficiality. Macks fights against this actively and realizes that raw and uncut stories are what is needed most in the world. This interview leaves its audience with the goal to be more uncensored and relish in uncomfortability.