Nate Marshall: The Poetic Lives of the South Side
Casey Rocheteau Talks Mixtapes, Hip Hop, and Reaching Across Identities
Hailing from Chicago’s South Side, Nate Marshall is a poet who commands language with elegant accessibility and precision. His debut full-length collection, Wild Hundreds (named for the south-side Chicago neighborhood spanning 100th to 130th streets), portrays aspects of coming of age in a time and space populated by the complex entanglements of violence and love. The collection earned the 2014 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, and Marshall was the recipient of the 2015 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. At a time when public discourse around blackness in America is focused on the anti-police brutality movement, Wild Hundreds details day-to-day life in the kind of black neighborhood often dismissed by outsiders as violent and wild, going deeper than hashtags. In this way, Marshall’s work contributes a vital perspective on urban black life and provides a balance to so many explicitly negative depictions of “Chiraq.”
Casey Rocheteau: When did you start writing? I know you were a Brave New Voices superstar.
Nate Marshall: Pssht. I started writing when I was 12 or 13. I started taking it seriously when I was 13 or 14. When I was 13 I started doing Louder Than A Bomb poetry slam in Chicago and that was the thing that made me really want to do it. Before then I would write little poems, but going to Louder Than A Bomb made me want to do it for real.
CR: Did you envision it at that time as what your life was going to be, that you were going to be a writer?
NM: Oh no, hell no. I still expect to have to get a real job. It was just something I thought was really cool. Even when I went to college, I studied English and African American studies, and I sort of assumed that I would have to get a real job after school, even though I knew what an MFA was. I wanted to do that, but I never actually believed it would all work out in the way that it has. I’ve just continually dared the world to say no, and it hasn’t entirely yet.
CR: How did you put Wild Hundreds together? Did it start with your MFA program?
NM: I wrote a good number at my MFA, but the majority of it is actually from 2009. When I was 18 I put together a manuscript, because I was a nerd. I realized none of the poems are the same, but it’s kind of conceived in the same way. In some ways I’ve been working on this since the end of high school.
CR: Did you have an audience in mind as you were working on this book, and did that change over time?
NM: In some ways yes. I try to reach for poetry as this most expansive thing. I believe that poetry, like all art, has the ability to cut across all kinds of identities. I don’t think you do that by being bland and not being challenging. I think you do that by being specific and speaking difficultly. NWA, whatever we think about them, are a good example because they were cultural icons, and 25 years later remain that despite the fact they’re talking about things that are so small and insignificant sometimes.
My idea of an audience is pretty broad, but I do think about my work speaking to young people and young black kids, and people who poetry isn’t necessarily written for. As the project progressed I realized to have that broad audience, there were things I had to do. I had to be smart about how to control the language. For example, when I was a kid, even up until recently, I always wrote “wild hundreds” out numerically: Wild 100s. When I was in grad school in one of my workshops, I mentioned wild hundreds in a poem, and someone else read the poem aloud as wild one hundreds, and I realized people will read that in that way maybe, unless I figure out ways to control that language. Every book and every poem and every poet kind of has to teach people how to read itself. I thought a lot about that in the way the book is sequenced.
CR: There’s a way in which you have a lot of details of the landscape, but it’s not descriptive, it’s not a pastoral. I’m interested in what certain things are doing—like the “High School Love Letters” throughout the book—how did you come up with that idea?
NM: Those poems come from the chapbook I did, Blood Percussion. Blood Percussion was originally written as a single long poem, and because of that I was looking for ways to build in refrains or hooks. So I had the “High School Love Letters” and this series of short lyric poems, so they come from that—just thinking about what could give continuity, but once that broke apart from the single long poem I sort of realized the power of those. I don’t really know what made me think about the numbers, but at a certain point I got obsessed. I was on FBI homicide tracker, and for me when I think about love and violence and conflict, those are often the same thought—they exist in the same space, and this was kind of an opportunity to show that. Once you even go to the point where you read the note at the end, it makes you re-enter the poems in a different way. I think about that a lot—what are the multiple ways to enter a poem, to read, and how to subtly make a poem hold all those meanings at the same time.
CR: I was thinking about that interplay of violence and love. So “Learning Gang Handshakes” is a poem I can’t classify, it’s not an ode, I’m not sure if Lucille Clifton is rolling in her grave, but I’m interested in the way you use her poem “Won’t You Celebrate With Me?”. What do you think this book is a celebration of?
NM: Aw man, I always connect that Lucille Clifton poem to hella hip hop songs, because the poem is all about side-stepping one’s own mortality, right? For me, all those little moments of survival are a space where that happens. Straight up, how to shake up GDs (Gangster’s Disciples) or knowing gang lit saved me at a certain point. It was the thing that tried to kill me and failed. I always think about Gwendolyn Brooks, not to mix my metaphors. There’s an audio recording of her reading “We Real Cool” where she talks about the poem and how she wrote not how she thought about those boys, but how they thought about themselves. Not coming from a place of judgment, and not displaced generosity, but considering someone as fully human. For me, that’s a lot of what the book is trying to do, to celebrate the various ways people are living and thriving and surviving without making a judgment about it. So like a drug dealer—this is how he is getting from his point A to his point B in a given day. That’s what the book celebrates.
CR: Do you think of this book as being your version of Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid//m.A.A.d City?
NM: Oh wow! I kind of like that. Sort of. In the sense that the genius thing about that album is that it’s sort of a time capsule. Like 20, 30, 100 years from now people will be able to listen to that and have some inkling of what it was like to be a young black dude in this particular part of the world at this specific point in time. I guess my book is sort of like that, but that album is only one album that does that, there’re plenty—the records that do that most, Good Kid/m.A.A.d. City, Me Against the World, maybe even Illmatic, in some ways College Dropout. To me College Dropout is super interesting, because it’s sort of like what we’re living in. It’s the aftermath of the generation that were middle-class strivers, the generation that were kids during Civil Rights, but for the most part they grew up with some chance at social mobility and were really buying into this idea of being black and socially mobile. And what happens when you’re the next generation down from that? To me a good hip hop record is a time capsule, and I tried to do that with the book. I think every book does that.
CR: Sure, but not every book is so rooted in time or place. One of the things I wonder as a reader is, what was 15-year-old Nate Marshall like? Sitting by a window taking notes?
NM: [laughs] It’s funny because my memory isn’t great, and it gets me in trouble with my girlfriend when I can’t remember her friend’s names, but I can remember things from 15 years ago, like they’re carbon dated in my head. Some of those things in the poems happened to me directly, some were folks I knew, some were interpolations of a couple of stories smushed together.
CR: There’re characters that come in and out in the poems, but there’s a way in which death becomes a character, almost a personification. I wondered how you situate your book within the current political climate, with Black Lives Matter, dealing with death and blackness on a more personal level.
NM: This isn’t a book I started writing when Trayvon got killed. I know people are thinking about the book a lot in those terms, which isn’t bad, because it is connected, but when I think about the death present in my book, most of it doesn’t involve white people. Black folks kill black folks all the time, but when white folks kill black folks, there’s a different weight to it, even if it happens less frequently because there’s all this power invested in that act. One of the things that made me start writing was the first time I got stopped by the police, and I’d gotten jumped before, but it was such a large-scale violation. It put me on the path that I’m on. The reason we know each other is because the police fucked with me in 2003. To be honest, one of the things I like about the book is that there aren’t a whole lot of white people in it—it’s in the tradition of A Different World or an August Wilson play, set in a black world that doesn’t have to be at the whim of whiteness. White folks show up from time to time, but the story is not about them. That’s also how my life is, and I think most black folks lives are—but it’s not how our stories are ever told in media.
CR: I didn’t connect it to BLM, but I feel like it’s a reference point for non-black folks at this point, like, “how do you fit in to this?” I was thinking about how black death operates in the book because of a project my friends and I put together called Black Death Mixtape, and I wondered what would be on your black death mixtape?
NM: One thing I like doing is building mixtapes around projects that I do, so when I’m bored I’m working on a mix for Wild Hundreds, and for Break Beat Poets, trying to document every song that’s in the ether of the book. Number one song I would put on my Black Death Mixtape would be “Walk With Me” by D.A. Smart because it might be the thing that most influences the book. It’s either that or Gwendolyn Brooks. It was the first time I ever heard “wild hundreds” in any sort of public space. I love that song and it’s about black people dying. What’s interesting is when we talk about Black Lives Matter and the conversation around black death—when I was writing a lot of the book, a lot of the conversation was focused on Chicago being this black dystopia, so it was in my head, but in the mid 90s there were way more deaths in Chicago, but it wasn’t talked about in the same way. I don’t know if I say this explicitly in the book but I was thinking about why in the Age of Obama, we have a black president who made a home in Southside, why isn’t it profitable to create professional and economically sustainable conditions there specifically.
CR: And finally, your favorite Harold’s Chicken Shack location?
NM: 103rd and Halsted. [note: #27]: It’s one of the ones in the hundreds, and it has a Kanye West platinum record inside. Malik Yusef—a spoken word poet who’s a co-writer on almost every Kanye album—it’s his record.
Nate Marshall’s Wild Hundreds is out now from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Photo courtesy Xavier Ramey.