In 1963, the braggadocious author Norman Mailer staked his literary prowess against the fighting fitness of boxer Sonny Liston, claiming "10,000 Words a Minute" to Liston's similarly rapid jabs. Poet Marquis Burton, aka Ten Thousand, could knock you over with a feather. Burton has had a long association with the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, extending back to his youth. From site-specific performances for Swoon: Seven Contemplations to the gut-checking workshop series Explore Your Truths he led for the special exhibition In These Truths at Albright-Knox Northland, Burton's poetry may only exist in the moment of his freestyle improvisations, but it is making an indelible impression on our memories. We spoke to Burton about his work and life.
AKG: What’s your history with the museum?
Marquis Burton: You always know about the Albright-Knox in some capacity, especially growing up on the east side of Buffalo. Like maybe you go on a school trip or with your parents, but early in 2006 the Albright-Knox hosted the Nickel City Poetry Slam. That was run by Gabrielle Bouliane, who ended up passing away some years later. She brought the top poets here, Albright-Knox provided space and also the funding for us to go to national competitions.
In 2008, I won Slam champion that year. Me and three other poets: Jennifer Elinge, Nikki Germany, and Lovely (Jenny Keys). We all went and competed for Buffalo at this the National Poetry Slam in Madison, Wisconsin, so that was like my first time being in the Albright-Knox as an artist competing within its walls.
AKG: But not the last time…
MB: A friend of mine who works in the Advancement Department, Tori [Claflin], she contacted me about doing a performance in 2020 for Swoon. All of my work is based on energy, space, and experiences. So I went in there with a videographer, and it was all freestyle. There was no written component to it. I just use the energy of the space, and this space really spoke to me, because it shows someone trying to navigate grief, trauma, with splashes of hopefulness, but constantly riding that wave of existence.
AKG: You relate to that?
There’s times where you have hopefulness, and there’s times where you are constantly being triggered or triggering yourself to reexperience your trauma. And how do you pull yourself out of that? And even when the joyful moments come, are you fully invested in it or are you still tethered to that old trauma?
Watch the only performance of Marquis Burton's poem inspired by Swoon: Seven Contemplations:
AKG: Wow—wait. Before we go there, let’s go back. Where did you grow up? How did you become a poet?
MB: I grew up on the East Side. My childhood house is on Dodge Street, which is in the Cold Springs area, and is my father's childhood house, a big yellow house that was owned by a wealthy lawyer back in the early 1900s. I liked growing up in that house. You had stained-glass windows, you had a hand-carved fireplace. But it was a crime-riddled neighborhood. The neighborhood started out more families, and drugs really got into it.
I grew up with our grandmother (Melissa D. Jones) being like a second mom to all of us. She would always be in our house over at Town Gardens. She passed away from lung cancer back in 1999, and then in July of 2000, we moved to Amherst, and I went to Sweet Home Middle School, fifth grade. It was a huge change culturally and emotionally.
AKG: How was that?
MB: You know, I would be playing sports a lot as a kid. Sometimes with sports, you tend not to get out what you're feeling. Sports allows you to lock it away in a locker, and then go out there and be physical. You have to will yourself to deal with the thing you have in the locker. You’ve got to take it out and take it with you to the field. When I moved to Amherst, I couldn't fill that void with sports or being physical anymore.
I wrote my first poem sitting in the cafetorium at Sweet Home called “Outcast,” because that's how I felt. And then I just kept writing poems.
When you go through levels of trauma and levels of hurt, especially as a kid, you tend to go within yourself, you build these rooms of comfort, and they allow you to have different conversations with yourself, and you pick up different language, you pick up different experiences from yourself.
I self-published a book when I was nineteen called Thoughts of a Young Man, and it categorizes poems from ages fourteen to nineteen, and the idea was you go from a community where you're a majority, you’re a majority in your school system, you’re a majority in your neighborhood, and you move out to the suburbs, and you feel like—by society’s standards I am already labeled a minority—but you physically feel like you're a minority out there. There were some classes where I was maybe the third Black person in that class. I just felt like I was on the edges, looking at everything.
When I was seventeen, my English teacher, Mrs. LaBrake, who still teaches at Sweet Home, told me about a poetry slam up [University at Buffalo's] South Campus. I went there and competed in the youth one and got a perfect score in the first round. I ended up taking second. And then I did the adult slam, and I didn't do well, but I was hooked.
AKG: How did you develop as a poet?
MB: The place actually trained me for real was going to the open mic at Em Tea Coffee Cup over there on Oakgrove Avenue, right near Canisius, tucked away. All the top, heavy, hidden poets around Buffalo went. On a regular Tuesday night, we’d all be there, especially in the summertime, spitting poems, doing cool pieces.
My friend Howard, we would be standing outside, he'd be giving me words I never heard before. I'd be like, “Oh, tell me these words!” He’d say, “Spit a poem to it.” He’d tell me the definition, I'd spit a poem to it, too. He did that every week during the summer. Just those years of being privileged enough to be around those heavy hitters was my training around.
The summer going into my senior year, I was freestyling at Uncle Johnny's that was on East Utica, and there were two older poets, James Cooper III, who was also an amazing painter, and D. B. Hands (Danny Barleston). They gave me the name “10,000 Strong,” because we were just freestyling and he was like, “You got 10,000 poems in your heart, mind, and soul all at the same time.”
My older brother used to freestyle rap. He still does freestyle rapping. I learned how to freestyle like he did. About ten years ago, I stopped writing poems down on paper, everything's been freestyle for the past decade, everything. Anytime you see me out, any performance you see, that's all how I'm feeling in the moment.
So when I freestyle people give me words. I see so many different images, everything pours in. And it's like a movie trailer that plays. But the craziest part is I can sort between what movie trailer I want to see, so they're almost like slideshows, and they have their own play. And then I just pick, and through the years, they've gotten so good that I'm able to edit while I'm speaking and adjust what I want to see, and the best time is when I go with the flow. When I try to fight it and create my own agenda, that's when it gets choppy. But when it's like butter, when it's flowing like melted butter, it's good to go. A lot of it is trusting yourself with what your self knows is best.
AKG: What made you decide to stop writing poems down?
MB: I feel more freedom freestyle. Through the years people come to me, eight, nine years later, you came to my school, “You did this poem?” “What I did a poem, what was the poem about?” And we talk, and now that [poem] is a connection that you can create with people. And I think it's more, it's more of a pure, pearl wonderful experience when we have this connection, and then you don't find it in a book two years later. Like that whole FOMO energy that it creates, it’s a beautiful thing, and then I just feel more free.
My father was a pastor, I learned from one of his college friends that my dad used to do that [freestyle] back when he went to Buff. State. He used to ask the girls for words. He’d spit poems for them. I asked my father about it, and he said, “You’re going further with it than I ever could have imagined. Go on with it.”
AKG: Poetry isn’t just your own personal practice, it’s also something you teach.
MB: For years I was already training any poet who was interested in either slamming or just performing their work. I have taught young adults and children to discover themselves and their voices through spoken word poetry. In 2014, I helped found UB Speaks along with students from UB, where I trained them to compete in regional intercollegiate poetry slams. In 2016 I became a Slam Coach for Buffalo’s National Poetry Slam Team and I trained them to a top twelve finish. In 2017 we didn't do so well, and I learned a lot as a coach but then in 2018, we also got back into the top ten. The whole process requires the team to dedicate their whole summer to training for the competition in early August. We would practice three times a week, sometimes four times a week.
AKG: The way you talk about “training,” it makes me think of athletics, like you’re taking poets to the gym.
MB: A perfect example, let's say if you want to go and do the International World Poetry Slam: in that competition, you get a four-minute poem, a one-minute poem, a two-minute poem, a three-minute poem, so you need those poems.
I'll start working with you to categorize down: what is the true subject of your poem? Sometimes people are like, “Oh, I'm writing a love poem.” No, is it a happy love poem? A sad love poem? A ‘90s and ‘80s rom-com love poem? Once we get the writing done, then it's your job to memorize it, and then we started doing performance work.
Some performance work consists of standing in front of the mirror reading your piece: if you’re going to say something sad, look sad; you’re going to say something happy, look happy. And then I started training, it's like run the piece. Run the piece. No, you messed up there. Nope, I didn't feel it, start over, start over, run it again. Run it again. Run it again. You didn't move your hand this way, you didn't gesture this way. Come on, run it again. The whole idea is to get you to get that muscle memory.
AKG: How was it running the workshops with In These Truths?
MB: It was a great success. Because the people that participated were older. You had people as old as seventy and people as young as twenty-four, twenty, all mashed together, and they all shared, all contributing, and they loved it.
People got up and shared. It gave space for the older adults, and they even said, once you get over a certain age, there's not a lot of spaces that allow you to explore your creativity that don't cost an arm and a leg. So they felt comfortable, and it was wonderful. I was able to employ all Black women to help with it, and two of them were my mentors. I think that’s something that can live on as a yearly thing, because we are all trying to navigate toward our truths.
AKG: Feel free not to answer this, but you spoke about “Outcast,” and where your poetry came from when you started; does that still hold true now?
MB: Poetry came from being disconnected, then it went to living out my traumas and speaking out my pain, and living in my pain. But now it's more of, it's more of. . . you're able to create. It's more of an abundance, more of a joy, more of a challenging thing. My poetry is a lot more hopefulness, it’s way more hopefulness, way more “what tomorrow may bring,” way more “I know all this pain and chaos and all this darkness is there, but as long as you got a flickering of light in the distance, you can walk towards this.” So that's where it's coming from.
About Marquis Burton
Marquis Burton is a poet, visual artist, writer, and educator. He has partnered with Shea’s Performing Arts and countless other nonprofit and educational institutions to teach young adults and children to not only discover their voices but also the power within to use them for over a decade. He has coached the Buffalo poetry teams at the National Poetry Slams to Top Ten finishes in two out of four years. Burton has also held the position of curator of poetry talent for the Music Is Art Festival for the past several years. Since 2016, he has partnered with artist Tara Sasiadek to create visual art installations for events such as Play/Ground and partnered with Naila Ansari to create immersive interactive dance and poetry experiences that explore joy in play, resistance, community, and self.