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Birney Imes: The man who composes poems while he walks


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Birney Imes writes: This column has undergone significant edits after initial publication. Quotes have been added and links to the subjects work provided. 


Leading up to the most-quoted passage in Longfellow's "The Courtship of Miles Standish," an eloquent but bumbling John Alden attempts to make a case for marriage to Puritan maiden Priscilla Mullens on behalf of his captain, Miles Standish. 


Mullens, charmed and amused by the entreaties of a man the poet calls a "dexterous writer of letters," finally -- and famously -- replies, "Why don't you speak for yourself, John?" 


The story brings to mind Marquet McBride, a modern-day John Alden, who is also a dexterous writer of letters and who once wrote them for hire. 


The first time McBride wrote a love letter for a friend he charged a dollar a page, front and back. That job earned him $2. Word got around Columbus High and soon McBride was picking up $25 a week ghostwriting love poems for young Romeos. 


With his letters McBride offered this advice: Copy it in your own handwriting and only give it to one girl. 


No two were the same, he says. He remembers a line from that first letter: "I care for you more than you think I do, though I've made mistakes." Use that on Valentine's Day at your own risk; and, if you do, be sure to send McBride a dollar. 


A self-described spoken-word artist, McBride was one of a dozen or so performers in a jazz and spoken word program at the Rosenzweig Arts Center last month during the Dream365 weekend. 


There were impressive performers at the event (Homegrown sax sensation Simeon Weatherby and his band provided musical interludes.), but none were as electrifying as McBride, whose words seemed to flow from some place deep within. Poet Elizabeth Simpson has seen McBride perform: "Powerful is the word that keeps coming back in any attempt to describe his work. His 'word art' is clean, sparse, sharp and powerful." 


The week following the Dream365 performance, McBride and I met at the Rosenzweig to talk about his life and work. "Alive" is the first word that comes to mind when describing McBride. He seems fully in the moment. A compact man with bright eyes, McBride speaks the language of the street with a gentle intensity.  


"One of my elders told me what you don't know will hurt you," he said in answer to a question about race. "This is Mississippi. Racism still exists. How we handle that racism is going to determine what we stand for." 


In the life of an artist there is often a moment, an epiphany in which he becomes aware of the power of his gift. For McBride, that may have come after a visit to the principal's office in the seventh grade. He and a friend were there because they had been cutting up in class. The school's librarian, who happened to be in the office at the time, took the two young troublemakers and had them write a rap song for a fashion show she was organizing. A star was born. 


After high school (Columbus High, Class of '95) McBride signed on for four years in the U.S. Army, and after that audited classes in architecture at Mississippi State University. That interest, he says, was rooted in childhood memories of sitting on a Bell Avenue front porch with his grandfather and drawing pictures of nearby houses. 


With a girlfriend McBride moved to Memphis and from there he traveled, performed and sold self-produced CDs. Among the venues he played were Harlem's Mocca and Lennox Lounges. 


The themes of personal responsibility, self-respect and love for your fellow human permeate McBride's poems. 


"The only person stopping you is yourself," he says. 


McBride says he walks between five and 10 miles a day and composes poetry while he does so. 


About that process Simpson said, "That idea by itself is fascinating -- to walk and walk a poem into existence until it is fully formed in the mind. His sincerity and devotion to his art are also impressive. He is completely an artist, which is to say, so aware of everything and everybody around him." 


How a spoken-word artist makes it in a small Southern town, it's hard to say. There's no template. Still, you have to think a guy who can make pocket money writing love letters in high school stands as good a chance as any of figuring it out. 





Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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