Nate Marshall is from the South Side of Chicago. He is an editor of The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. His first book, Wild Hundreds (University of Pittsburgh Press), won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. His rap album, Grown, is due out in 2015 with his group Daily Lyrical Product. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Wabash College. He formerly served as a Zell Postgraduate Fellow at the University of Michigan, where he received his MFA. He is a founding member of the poetry collective Dark Noise. A Cave Canem Fellow, his work has appeared in POETRY Magazine, Indiana Review, The New Republic and elsewhere. He was the star of the award winning feature-length documentary Louder Than A Bomb and has been featured on the HBO Original Series Brave New Voices. Nate won the 2014 Hurston/Wright Founding Members Award and the 2013 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award.
Phillip: Thank you, Nate, for spending time to talk with me about poetry, politics, and life. I know you’re a busy man.
Nate: It’s all good. Thanks for talking to me. I appreciate it.
P: I want to start with the beginning and move quickly toward the present. I think origin stories are dope. Can you tell me who you remember being the very first poet with whom you interacted on the page? What was that moment like? How old were you?
N: Damn. I like that question. It’s a different way to ask it. Often people ask me about my earliest times writing or becoming enthralled with poetry, and those things are for me more performance based, but the question of text changes it. That’s an earlier genesis for me. So the first poem I really remember was “My People” by Langston Hughes. I think I memorized it in 3rd grade or so for a speech competition. I remember loving the poem. I think it came in a book of Black poetry for kids or something like that and the page was this dope picture that was painted like a night sky. It felt important because it was talking about how people like me and my family and community were beautiful and it was maybe the first time I had the opportunity to couple beauty and my own self in word and thought.
P: So you’re about eight years old and this poem about Black beauty comes into your life. What poet came into your life during what you called the later genesis, the spoken word era, who reiterated this beauty, and did that message feel different hearing it versus reading it?
N: Two folks. Amiri Baraka and his poem “Why is We Americans” and Malik Yusef’s poem “I Spit.” Baraka’s piece was crazy to me because I didn’t realize poetry could be something that felt that pressing and active. It had real stakes. “Either give us our lives or prepare to forfeit your own.” That’s the last line! Yusef for the clear rhythm and hip-hop influence in his. It sounded like how my friends and I talked and also at the end of his performance he says “Wild Hundreds, stand up.” That was crazy to me. I had never heard my hood acknowledged in that way on TV. I didn’t know it was allowed until that moment.
P: What are the “Wild Hundreds”, for those who don’t know? Funny typing it like that when you and I know it as the “hunnits”. I know your debut full-length collection of poems, Wild Hundreds, is also titled this so it’s clearly important to you.
N: Haha. It is certainly the “hunnits” but you code switching and such. Basically the Wild Hundreds is a part of the far south side of Chicago. From 100th street on the North to the southern city limits, and probably most everything east of Vincennes Avenue. That’s maybe too much information about borders, but yeah. It’s where I’m from and it’s a part of the city that is often talked about only in reference to crime and other negative things.
P: So would you say you naming your book after your neighborhood is a way to pay homage to your hometown or were you just thinking about where home is for you. It’s one thing to think of a place and want to make a new name for it and another to say “Forget that. It is what it is, and for those who know, they know, and for those who don’t, too bad.” How would you say your book brings to life the “Wild Hundreds”?
N: Hm. The title is certainly a way to pay homage to the place. I think it is also thinking about where home is for me and reclaiming that. I was having a conversation recently with my mom about the book and the neighborhood. For her, she was really uncomfortable with the ‘hood being called the Wild Hundreds because when she moved out here as a little girl it was a very different place. It was further out in the city and a place where black folks could own homes and have yards and kind of achieve a certain kind of middle class ideal. Obviously political forces and structural racism has changed some of the fortunes of our communities and others but it’s all still maybe a bit messy.
I think there’s something to the idea of remaking the name Wild Hundreds into something that my mom can find some pride or comfort in. It’s a book all about the code switch and all about multiple points of entry so certainly there are things that the outside reader won’t understand but there are also gestures in the book to educate those readers and give them some access and even beyond that there are hopefully facets of the book that are ultimately about the human experience that anyone could connect to emotionally. The book brings the Hundreds to life by just talking like how people there are talking and telling some of the stories of some of those people. That’s a powerful thing, I think.
P: I would agree. In particular during this time where the name Chi-raq has become an unwelcome nickname to Chicagoans that the media and even celebrities seem infatuated with perpetuating. But there is always money in a kind of stereotyping, a kind of infatuation with violence without knowing the source of said violence.
Would you say poetry, without being sarcastic or ironic, saves lives? Did it save yours?
N: Chi-raq is a funny name because Iraq is a place of incredible historic and contemporary significance. It is one of the cradles of civilization and it’s been now kind of exploited and stripped of resource to where it’s a punchline. That sounds like some Chicago shit. I rock with that nickname because of that and because of the complication of those truths.
I would certainly say poetry has helped save my life. In a lot of my darkest times, especially as a young person it was a kind of North Star for me. For example, my grandmother died right before my junior year of high school. I was extremely close to her and devastated. I was also a very involved kid. Junior class president, academic decathlon, all sorts of stuff. I quit pretty much all of it. I would have very likely stopped going to school then except I didn’t quit the poetry slam team. That team also met before school so once I was in the building to do poetry I tended to stick around and eventually go back to class and I don’t know what would’ve happened without the motivating force of having poetry there to get me in the door.
P: I think you should write an essay revising the term “Chi-raq”. I’ll only rock with the name once the predominant narrative shifts from sensationalism to the type of complication you’re talking about and, too, only if you say it haha. Eventually, I want to talk about your poetry, because you do have this dope book coming out with this fantastic cover, painting by Max Sansing:
I want to ask a kind of Hip Hop question first, though. So, beef is real and it’s not usually that terrifying thing people like to make it out to be where two or more rappers start beefing and actual shots get fired after the lyrical ones. So, notwithstanding the fear that beef brings to the heart of novices, let’s think about more recent beefs: the representations of East Coast versus West Coast in the forces of Biggie and Tupac, Jay Z and Nas, and now… Meek Mill and Drake – I guess? But if you had to have beef with another poet, who would you beef with and why?
N: Well first off let me quote Mos Def: “Beef is not what these famous niggas do on the mic/ beef is what George Bush would do in a fight”.
(Listen to his verse ^)
I’ll say this. I love the competitive nature of hip-hop culture. I think a lot of that gets bastardized by destructive kinds of masculine identity and destructive militarism-based forms of market capitalism. At its core though, competition within the context of a community that is ultimately caring and accountable can do so much to unlock greatness. So I say that all to say that I wouldn’t engage in the negativity of “beefing” with another poet but I would super fuck with a really challenging and rigorous battling of other poets. I think we do that in some way in Dark Noise. Other than that, I’d wanna battle someone who was real different from me in style, just for the contrast.
P: Name names, Nate Marshall!!
N: Hahaha. Damn. You don’t let up. I’ll say R. Dwayne Betts. Not that I’m trying to battle him but I’m reading his book now and I fucks with it tough. I would battle him on some publicity type shit to bring more eyes to both of us. Does that work?
P: That’s up to you. I was thinking you going toe-to-toe with, like, Rachel Eliza Griffiths would be dope, poem for poem. Y’all are so different.
N: Ha. Damn I would love that too. She’s a beast.
Also, I’ll rap battle any poet. Any day anytime anywhere. I’m gonna go on record and say that none of these poets can see me on a beat in the booth, for real.
P: Dylan…Dylan…Dylan Dylan Dylan! Haha, ok Nate.
As a co-editor of The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, you got a chance to read poems that spanned across decades, as poets who were born in the 60s shared space with poets born in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. For those who have yet to pick up the anthology, can you briefly talk about what you noticed changed or stayed the same as it concerns poetic styles, interests, and themes?
It’s also really cool that the idea of Hip Hop in this anthology is incredibly flexible, and some could argue too much so. Were you concerned at all with creating a thesis in a way with the title that could be misconstrued as being more prescriptive than you meant?
N: I think there are definitely some changes over time as the writers get younger but I don’t know if I fully know what they are stylistically just because of the incredible range in the work from poet to poet regardless of age. I think one thing that I notice about the younger folks, potentially, is a comfort in thinking of themselves as literary artists and performance artists, and seeing those things blend together in some cool ways. For example I think about Reed Bobroff. His poem in the anthology is shaped in a way to actually mimic the directional nature of the native dance that it describes. That is totally the instinct of a performer playing out on the page.
Also, I don’t think I was ever too worried about the title making things too tied down, or anything like that. I just thought the title was fresh and engaging and clever and would make people pick up the book.
P: Let’s get into some poems. In “praise song” you write:
praise the child smile on my face, the fun
plunging a knee into a cheek of my best friend.
praise his blood, the brightness of it, a sun i bask in.
praise my blood, the nose flowing wild with effort,
the mess and taste of it, praise the swallowing,
salt and its sweetness.
What is prayer to you? Can you talk a little about how this poem got its beginnings? I’m very interested in the violence, the blood, the brotherhood, and, of course, the Hennessy that seems to be both a kind of pouring of libations and an incantation with how it repeats in the poem.
N: Damn. What is prayer to me? That’s a heavy question. I think for me prayer is all about submission. It’s about kind of giving yourself and your joys and troubles over to the higher power you’re appealing to in prayer. I think in thinking about submission and ultimately thinking about vulnerability I naturally think about violence, or at least the potential for it. The thing about the fight in that poem is that it doesn’t resolve, even if it seems to kind of end or suspend. For me, that’s a lot about what a friendship or relationship is in some ways. The give and take of submission, either to the person or just to the idea that you can trust this person with yourself. That’s why that mixing of the blood at the end is so important.
Also, the beginning of the poem was New Year’s Eve and too many homeboys with too much alcohol. It was all fun though. Haha.
P: You have a poem called “1st love song to the black girl at smart camp” which is really interesting in how it considers desire and race. The last two stanzas read:
even before i saw you
every kid on campus
sung your song
to me: she is your
type, your kind
of girl, you like
it like how
You get the way kids talk in the end, the too close “likes” in the italics, but that also plays with a strange kind of perception. It’s not “how she is,” which is an actuality, rather a simile, “like how she is.” How did you see this poem, if you did see this poem, playing with how we see people when we are younger versus older? What is the work of perception and how can we be fooled or fool others with what is seen versus what is “seemed”? How do those two “likes” work in your eyes?
N: I think this poem is dealing a lot with desire and with how some of what we desire is very much a learned thing. Part of this springs from the joke of being the only friend of some identity in a group, so what happens is your other friends sort of try to push you towards people that are of that same identity. It can be funny, but it can also be wrapped up in a lot of paternalism and such. I guess this poem is trying to get at the genesis of those moments and see a time when they happen before we have all the tools to really process why it’s happening. The “likes” are all about playing with that tension of similarity.
P: You won an award called the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, which is how your book, Wild Hundreds, got picked up for publication. How long had you been writing this book? To how many contests did you submit? I remember you calling me from a Greyhound – I think when you found out you won – and you seemed a bit breathless by it all, which was wild to me because you have always been someone who’s experienced success. I knew it had to be a big deal if THE Nate Marshall was so thrilled. So, what did winning this prize mean to you?
N: Ha, yeah I was shocked. I’m still shocked. I think winning the prize was humbling and also terrifying. It confirmed that these little poems that have felt so important to me could have a life outside of my own head or my own circles but it’s a scary thing to let something so personal as a book out into the wide world.
I’m not exactly sure to how many places I sent the book, maybe 10? The earliest poems come from 2009 and I started submitting the book for publication in late 2013. It got picked up about a year after I started sending it out.
P: What do you have planned for the rest of this year and next? What other projects should people be on the lookout for? Feel free to tell us your website and Twitter so people can get connected with you directly.
N: I’m getting ready to start teaching at Wabash College in Indiana. Really excited for that. I’ll also be doing some touring for my book and for The BreakBeat Poets. You can always check out natemarshallpoetry.com or breakbeatpoets.com for updates about readings and all that. Also, @illuminatemics on Twitter for my random thoughts and for actual info, too. Also, my rap group Daily Lyrical Product will put out our project soon. That will be out. If you follow me you’ll see it when it comes.
P: Thank you so much, Nate, for talking with me. I look forward to holding your book in my hands and, too, hearing tracks from Daily Lyrical Product.
N: Thanks so much Phillip. This was a lot of fun.
Curated by Phillip B. Williams.
Phillip B. Williams is a Chicago, Illinois native. He is the author of the book of poems Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books, 2016). He’s also co-authored a book of poems and conversations called Prime (Sibling Rivalry Press). He is a Cave Canem graduate and received scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers Conference and a 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Anti-, Callaloo, Kenyon Review Online, Poetry, The Southern Review, West Branch and others. Phillip received his MFA in Writing from the Washington University in St. Louis. He is the poetry editor of the online journal Vinyl Poetry and the 2015-2017 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Emory University.
His book of poetry Thief In The Interior comes out January 12, 2016, and is currently available for pre-order.