If you’re a poet in Chicago, there’s little chance you haven’t encountered the force that is Nate Marshall. In addition to being one of the most promising voices to emerge from Chicago period, his work transcends most of the boxes that keep poets separate.
Marshall first came into focus within the public eye after being profiled for the documentary Louder Than A Bomb (2010). After its release, the film went on to receive critical acclaim and win numerous awards at independent film festivals, eventually airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Half a decade later, the accolades and attention have continued in the wake of his dedication to writing. Most recently, Marshall has completed his MFA in Poetry from the University of Michigan and been published in Poetry magazine–two of the most competitive endorsements for emerging poets today.
The rich diversity of influence in Marshall’s work stitches together seamlessly in his poetry: meter that comes from a breadth of poetic tradition, including hip-hop; stunning word choice that both begs to be heard aloud and illuminates the page; structure that eases the reader while constructing complexity in meaning.
Marshall’s poems unapologetically exalt black culture, specifically the landscape of the South Side of Chicago. As Marshall notes in this interview, “They [academics] did … question the validity of [my] work because it was about hot combs & gang handshakes.” While Nate Marshall’s work is wholly unique, black poets writing about blackness–and getting this reaction–is not.
For myself and many other Chicago poets, there is no doubt of the validity of Nate Marshall’s poetry. His transcendent voice and polished craft is one of the most innovative of his day, and a source of pride for our often disparate literary community. I was honored to be able to interview him for my June residency with Chicago Literati. This being my final interview of the month, there is no better poet to close it all out.
Many Chicagoans will be familiar with you because of your big screen moment in Louder Than A Bomb, the 2010 documentary. You’ve done a lot since then too. Today, you’re easily one of the most dedicated poets I know, and you have a lot of accomplishments to show for it. Let’s start the beginning: When did you first start writing? At what point did you decide that poetry was your calling?
I first started writing around the age of 12 or 13. I was always a pretty voracious reader though I didn’t really read poetry. The thing that grabbed me and made me want to write poetry was 2 things. The first was seeing Amiri Baraka on Def Poetry. I had encountered poetry before but that was one of the first times when it seemed really active, exciting, and important. The other thing was getting into hip-hop. Specifically when I saw the video for “The Blast” by Reflection Eternal a lot of things changed for me and I wanted to write and really be a person who thought about words. Also I’m not sure if I would call poetry a calling. I love poetry but I think my “calling” if I have one is more about who I’m supposed to impact and the communities I’m supposed to add to through life, not simply what I do as a vocation.
You’re a member of my favorite art collective, Dark Noise. And I say you guys are my favorite because there is no other group of writers whose work I am so excited by and consistently look out for. What brought you guys together, as writers?
Dark Noise was largely brought together by a series of conversations between Aaron Samuels and Fatimah Asghar. They were both fresh out of college and feeling disconnected from arts communities and other young artists of color. Aaron initially invited me into the fold because we’ve been homies since I was 15 and we’ve always been artistic allies and it’s been a great experience. We really do operate as a kind of artistic family and utilize each other to progress professionally, artistically, and personally. Plus we kick it a lot and have a dope time.
You’re from the South Side of Chicago. A lot of your poetry is about that, and I feel that you’re very dedicated to honoring your roots and your heritage. We know the Chicago literary scene is heavily segregated. Do you personally hope for a more unified future Chicago scene? If so, what do you think needs to change in order to get there?
I don’t care about a more “unified” scene. Chicago is a humongous city. There are gonna be different spaces and communities within that city and that is okay and healthy. I think often the folks who complain about a segregated scene are a lot of white folks and folks in traditionally white arts locales in Chicago. Usually when those folks say they want less segregation what they’re really saying is that they want more South Side and West Side folks at their shows. That’s fine but that’s not really a political issue, that’s a personal desire to have an expanded audience. The black artists out south and out west aren’t waiting for anybody. They’re doing their thing and they’re all over the city with their work. I’m from the hundreds (a spot a lot of folks probably don’t even know exists) and I’m all over the city, Bryant Cross from out south does his thing, Malcolm London from out west does his thing, avery r. young been doing his thing, Awthentik does her thing, K Love, hella folks. I think the exchange is happening, it just might be more one sided than people think (but isn’t that always the case).
You wrote a great essay for The Poetry Foundation on code switching. In it, you mention that although you cultivated an early appreciation for hip-hop and language, you were sent many messages that poetry “operated with rules that I couldn’t access.” You also write about how your love for hip-hop brought you to Def Poetry Jam, which brought you to slam poetry, which eventually led you to study creative writing at Vanderbilt and then the University of Michigan. Hip-hop is still crucial to your writing–in addition to it being a method of poetics, I noticed that in all your poetry bios, you’re careful to mention that you’re also a rapper.
Anyway, I know that when I made the transition from the high school poetry slam scene to studying poetry in college, professors responded very unfavorably to my performance background. They had all sorts of criticisms, and basically what they were saying is that what I had learned wasn’t legitimate, wasn’t poetry, and I needed to throw it out the window. I feel like the attitude is shifting now, but I’m wondering what you think — has academia become more accepting of spoken poetics? Or do you still, at times, feel compelled to code-switch?
I think academia knows what’s up, even if they’re not into it. They know some of the most successful writers publishing work today have been a part of the slam world. For some people that might be a barrier but generally those folks just don’t have very much imagination and at this point are more fringe thinkers even in the academic context. What I think though is that there is a bit of disconnect in what works well on a stage and what works well on a page. Often poets who slam are very good at telling emotionally evocative stories but they don’t have a solid grasp of other facets of poetic craft (lyric play, line and stanza structure, etc.). That’s where the disconnect happens. Sometimes slam poets work is best presented with their voice and body and without those tools the work falls a bit flat. That doesn’t make it worse than “page” poetry, just of a slightly different ilk. I think my teachers in undergrad and grad school loved that I loved and was excited by language. That’s where I feel like most at home. I’m not an incredibly physically compelling performer, though I love it.
I had far more resistance because of my content being of a particular cultural context than because I came from the slam. I don’t think people were hostile to what I was doing because it was “spoken word.” They did though question the validity of the work because it was about hot combs & gang handshakes. But meh, I been black. Racism been there. I’m aight.
So you just finished your MFA, which means you produced a thesis, a.k.a. a hopefully forthcoming book of poetry! What was the writing process like? What is the book about? Do you plan on moving forward in trying to get it published? Tell me everything there is to know.
I did produce a thesis. I have no idea what to say about the writing process. Some of the poems are many years old and some where written my last year in grad school. The thesis and manuscript is called “Wild Hundreds.” The manuscript is poems so it doesn’t quite follow the idea of being “about” something but it does have a lot of poems that deal with the South Side and coming of age and leaving and returning and masculinity and violence. It starts with a James Baldwin quote that sort of frames everything: “You don’t ever leave home. You can’t or else you’re homeless.”
I’m submitting the manuscript now to publishers and contests and sending the individual poems out now. We’ll see where it ends up but the plan is for it to have a public life at some point.
A while ago, I saw your talking about your first book and how you hoped it would get boys from the South Side to read poetry. Although your studies have become very important, I know you’ve continued to work with youth a little bit, and obviously you’ve inspired many with your story in Louder Than A Bomb. What advice would you give to a young black boy from Chicago who wants to study poetry in college?
Hmm… I would say to study that in conjunction with something else. Poets need shit to write about outside of other poetry so study the world also. I would also say study other forms of writing. I was an English major with a concentration in creative writing and that gives me flexibility to have some transferable skills if road meets rubber and I just gotta get a job. Studying poetry is a rich man’s game (which is not to say we can’t play, just that we gotta play well).
So, we’ve reached the end of the interview, and I feel like there’s so much more to talk about. Maybe we’ll have to interview again. Where can our viewers at home go to check out more of your work? Any new projects coming up?
I have poems published a few spots you can google and check out. Also Button Poetry is putting out my next chapbook this summer. Its called Blood Percussion. Also my group Daily Lyrical Product is coming with new music soon. Like my page on Facebook and shit. New website will be up soon. http://natemarshallpoetry.com and you’ll be able to get to all that shit from there.
Thanks again for the opportunity and the interest I really appreciate it. Peace.
NATE MARSHALL is from the South Side of Chicago. He serves as a Zell Postgraduate Fellow at the University of Michigan. A Cave Canem Fellow, his work has appeared in POETRY Magazine, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. Nate won the 2014 Hurston/Wright Amistad Award and the 2013 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award. He is a member of the poetry collective Dark Noise. He is also a rapper. His next chapbook, “Blood Percussion,” is forthcoming Summer 2014.
STEPHANIE LANE SUTTON is a poet, performer, and educator living in Chicago by way of Detroit. She has represented Chicago at three international slam competitions, including as a semifinalist at the National Poetry Slam in 2013. This article is part of her June residency for Chicago Literati. Read more about her project here.