A brutal (and joyful) honesty: GR Poet Laureate Marcel Price shines light on mental health, race

Marcel "Fable" Price is breaking all kinds of barriers with his poetry, and now he's doing the same by being appointed the Grand Rapids poet laureate. A writer who uses his words to tackle mental illness and racial identity, Price is the first person of color, as well as the youngest individual, to be named the city's poet laureate. 

When Marcel “Fable” Price learned he had been appointed the poet laureate of Grand Rapids, he was more than a little surprised.


“I’m floored and taken aback to go down in city history for work I’ve been putting 100 percent of myself into for years now,” says Price, the city’s first person of color to be named the poet laureate. He is also Grand Rapids’ only poet laureate without a four-year college degree and the first to be under the age of 40.


The Grand Rapids Public Library announced Price’s appointment last week, and he will officially kick off his term on Monday, April 24 at 5:30pm at the GRPL’s Main Library. His tenure will last three years, during which he hopes to utilize his position to expand poetry’s presence within the city.


“I’m looking forward to partnerships to help expand poetry and make it larger than life,” he says joyously. “I’m looking at how to make this into something sustainable, for myself as well as others.”


His enthusiasm for our city is also palpable.


“The beautiful thing about Grand Rapids is that there are a ton of resources for creatives,” says Price, who for years has been pushing our city’s literary landscape to new depths.


The author’s first published book, “Adrift in a Sea of M&M’s,” which came out this past fall, tackles head-on issues of mental disorders and the author’s mixed race identity. Pulling no punches in portraying mental health, he constantly reminds the reader of the internal struggles faced by those who can often feel like outsiders.


“Why at times does it feel like there is nothing left/ when there is everything?” Price writes in the poem “Don’t Mind Me,” quickly swooping into riffing on the absurdities of the pharmaceutical industry’s quest to solve all mental health by medication: “There isn’t a pill to fix that / that is a fact.”


His mission is apparent: Remind the reader that feeling OK or well is not always normal, that normalcy itself is not the only way to be, that there is no one way to be. This is, perhaps more than ever, an important message today, given the yearly rising rates of anxiety and depression among teens and young adults.


This message does not drown in, but rather crests, the sea of sentimentality and keeps its eye on the goal of social progress. “Imagine if everyone stepped back / and could form an unbiased opinion… /Only then could we show and tell the truth, / of what we could become / Humane,” he writes in the poem “Native Tongue.”


He seeks to encourage self-discovery as the start of that vehicle of social progress through which we evolve into our better selves, a message that so desperately needs to be heard in an unapologetically divided nation. He sees the demographics and divisions in our nation, not by their constituent parts and labels but as, “A W.E.B. / webbed - from Dubois to Marley./ from Barack to Malcolm” and continues to wonder what these realities will do to our racial identities in the future. Ultimately, he concludes that, in truth, this is both a goal to be achieved and an ongoing process to hold onto throughout the future. “By 2050, 75 million Americans will be able to identify with more than a single race / Meaning most will actually look a lot like me. / A Picasso - / once considered abstract thought, turned realistic present,” he writes in the poem “Picasso Baby.”


Price’s ability to tackle issues of race and mental health have garnered him high praise from other literary leaders, including poet, essayist and cultural critic Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, author of “The Crown Ain’t Worth Much.”


"In ‘Adrift in a Sea of M&M's, Marcel Price often playfully engages difficult narratives revolving around race, mental health, and our place in the world,” Willis-Abdurraqib writes. “Topics that are normally difficult and burdensome become lights and far easier to navigate through Price's eyes, and through Price's language. If the mission of this type of work is to shine a light on anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, or anyone who has felt like an ‘other,’ Marcel Price has succeeded in talking about shared struggles with nuance and patience. Every poem arcs upwards to an ending joy, or a brutal and needed honestly. Whether it is an assessment of America's issues with medication, or a complex look at bubbles, this collection has everything you need to come out clean, looking at the world in new and exciting ways."

Julie Tabberer, the Grand Rapids Public Library librarian who coordinates the poet laureate program, too has praise for Price, calling him "a force" who is "incredibly passionate and dedicated."

"The poet laureate plays an important role in our community, reminding us of the power of poetry," Tabberer says. "Reading, writing and hearing poetry encourages us to think about the world around us, to sit with our emotions and process the things we experience. As a city and a nation we are having difficult conversations, particularly around race, things that can be hard to talk about and put into words. Poetry is a platform for sharing our different experiences with each other, for hearing other’s thoughts and emotions."

Price first became interested in poetry through a writers’ camp in high school, as well as through poetry slams in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, where he spent his high school years. Now a resident of Grand Rapids,he focuses on high school enrichment through Diatribe, a group of wordsmiths, rappers, hip-hop artists, and storytellers who perform throughout the city and encourages and nurture the spoken word in more than 20 schools in the greater Kent County area.


The message of his poetry is consistent in his volunteering and community work through Diatribe. It is a vehicle with which Price raises awareness about mental health. The poet laureate, who was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder at the age of 14, says that he hopes to “educate others about the nature of these diseases to reduce the stigma and discrimination surrounding them.”


“I’ve lived in Grand Rapids for the last 10 years and have really been focusing on my work for the last four,” says Price, a native of Kalamazoo.


His new position of poet laureate has only fueled his ambition in his outreach, as he says, “I hope in the next few years we can (grow to) be in 30 to 50 schools.”


He is enthusiastic in participating within the local poetic community and is one of the founders of the Drunken Retort, a poetry slam held at Stella’s Lounge that welcomes and encourages new artists to attend. As part of these efforts, Price is helping to assemble a team to attend the National Poetry Slam. Finals for the Grand Rapids area will be held Monday, May 8 at 8:30 pm at Stella’s Lounge. The winners will be given the honor of competing on a team at Nationals.

This level of engagement and enthusiasm Price generates around poetry is one of the major reasons the library named him poet laureate, Tabberer says.

"As the selection committee talked about Marcel, we kept on returning to the work that he’s already doing," she says. "The poet laureate has to be a talented poet, that’s a given, but beyond that we were looking for someone to really engage people. Marcel has already been doing the work of a poet laureate, just without the title. Poetry is his life and he’s out there every day leading workshops, working with students, writing and performing. There’s really no limit to what he can do, and we’re excited to see what the next three years bring."


For those interested in Price and his work, you can find more at mindoffable.com or find him on Facebook at facebook.com/FableThePoet.


For those interested in the poetry community of Grand Rapids, Price has a message for you here:


Andrew Hart, the author of this article, spends his time skipping through literary dimensions and perfecting his homemade curry. Phobic of social media, you can email him here at [email protected].
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