It occurs to me, now, that I could have done this series with ONLY poets who have once called Chicago home. And asked them ten questions each only about Chicago, and how Chicago has informed them as people, as creatives. I admit, I am biased as someone from the midwest, but we root for each other. And in a lot of ways, Chicago has always been the best shot we have had at the midwest being represented on a large scale. Nate Marshall is interesting to me. I’ve said this a couple of times already this month, but the true tragedy here is that I couldn’t ask Nate 20-30 questions. What really draws me to Nate, even outside of his work, is how he has risen above this idea of being frozen in once space. When a part of your younger life is chronicled, as Nate’s was as a high school student in Louder Than A Bomb, I imagine that it can be hard, as a creative, to shake that. To say Listen, guys. I love that, but I’m actually over here doing this thing now. And yet, Nate does exactly that. There aren’t many writers I have taken in who allow the pride in their roots to show so clearly and strongly on the page. This is always the best joy, really. Sure, no one can take away the fact that Nate Marshall has inspired so many people through film, and has done so much glorious work that still takes risk and reaches, and reaches, and reaches. But what excites me the most is this. Here, we have a writer who is relentless in the pursuit of defining his home on his terms. A writer who will never stop reminding us, Chicago. I’m from Chicago.
The thing that I know we both have in common, even without digging pretty deep, is that we both really love where we’re from. I appreciate the way Chicago is presented in your work, especially the South Side. I think writing about where you’re from with affection is one of those things that seems to be dying out, though it is something I am passionate about reading/doing/engaging in. What calls you to represent Chicago as fiercely as you do?
You know for me much of that fierceness is encoded in the traditions I am from. Chicago has a really strong tradition of writers who document, love, and exalt place. Folks like Carl Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks were some of my early influences and the one of the things that I learned in that work is that place is one of the building blocks of personhood. Also in a hip-hop context its always important to rep your hood. That’s one of the charges I give to my work. I might feel it because I’m a part of the last generation of Chicago hip-hop heads who didn’t have somebody super famous from our city. There’s a kind of chip that Chicagoans in particular from that era carry to represent and I think that I carry even in poems. Another thing that impacts me probably is I spent a lot of time away from Chicago as a kid. Every summer I was sent away to these academic summer camps at elite universities. At those camps I was usually one of very few black males and very few kids from the hood so that made me really aware of my “Chicago-ness” and really proud of it.
You’ve got this natural link to Louder Than A Bomb. Just the other day, I was doing some work with high school kids in Columbus, and they were like, “Yo! We just watched Louder Than A Bomb! Nate Marshall, Nate Marshall, Nate Marshall!” and I was like, “Yeah, man. He’s published now. A lot. Read up.” And we checked out some of your recently published work. And I think they had a hard time processing the fact that they just watched someone who was (then) a kid, doing the same thing that they are, but also someone who grew into doing some of the things you are doing now. What has that journey been like for you, and I most wonder how you look back on that time? What has it been like to know that so many people initially connect with this part of you that you haven’t revisited in so long?
LTAB is home. Youth programming is home. The journey has been really interesting because I’m really where I wanted to be but not where I thought I would be by now. I’ve been really blessed to have a lot of success pretty quickly and that’s mad humbling. I still go back to LTAB every year and help host or do whatever they need. I still try to be a part of that community back in Chicago and across the nation. I’m really proud of the film Louder Than A Bomb. Its mad cool to have such a formative time of my life documented and the filmmakers did an awesome job. If anything it makes me happy because it allows me to connect with young people who might be in similar situations as I was back when. Occasionally it can be weird when people interact with me and their perceptions of me are frozen in 2008 but on the whole its been a really positive thing and it helps ground me in remembering how much passion I had for this work as a shorty.
Your work does a fantastic job on a lot of fronts, but the front that most pulls me in and holds me there is the way that you examine the various levels of black life. You wrap a lot of elements into your work, sometimes all at once. I said it in another interview this month, but I think artists of color have an interesting opportunity to put a lens on an experience that is not often given an opportunity to have a lens on it. What responsibility, if any, do you feel to those stories?
Thanks for those kind words. I don’t know if I feel an external pressure to play hood Crocodile Dundee for outsiders or anything. I do though feel a compulsion to document parts of my life and experience and those around so that we have it. I deeply believe in poetry as an artform that can speak to everybody, including and especially folks who have been told that art is not for them. I love getting love from magazine editors and poetry professors but the illest shit is when I see a kid in a high school or a dude from my neighborhood and they’ve heard me spit and they give me props because they feel reflected in the work. That’s live.
You’re also an MC, and I’m hoping you can talk about how those two relationships collide for you. I think that all of the best artists are more than just one thing, and a lot of greatness happens at that intersection of all of their movements. Hip-Hop and Poetry. Where do the two meet, for you?
I think I approach a lot of poems as an MC. What I mean is that I’m often deeply concerned with the oral quality of the work and also how inventive it is on the level of language. I’m not E-40 or RZA but I am interested in how I can bend my language to create new or unexpected meanings from words and phrases. I started writing poems and writing raps at the same time. When I was in middle school and I saw Amiri Baraka on Def Poetry and heard the song “The Blast” by Talib Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek. Those two pieces were so emotionally active and relatable to me and they made me want to be a writer and figure out ways to connect with people on that level. I mean also I think the idea of the cipher in hip-hop governs much of my personal political and artistic philosophy. There’s nothing more democratic than the cipher and that’s what I think every art space should strive to become.
I’m interested to find out what went on from that moment after you were done with LTAB, and you (I imagine) realized that poetry didn’t have to end for you there. I think, with so many artists, ending a stage of their development often means they’re trying something else, or “that was fun and all, but…” However, you really committed to pursuing poetry pretty intensely. What drove you/still drives you to chase after that growth?
I had a really strong sense of where my passion lived. I knew I loved literature and history so when I went to college I tried to study shit that would deepen my knowledge of those things. I continued because I saw the power of the writers in the slam to move people and I wanted to broaden my ability to make that happen. When I was a kid the poet Dr. Haki Madhubuti came to my school and talked to my class. He told us not to worry about getting into a “lucrative” profession but instead to focus on our passion. He said, “Do what you love, there’s money at the top of everything.” That always stuck with me.
Also I’m stubborn as fuck. I’ve just been daring the world to tell me I can’t be an artist and they haven’t told me no yet.
I read something somewhere, where you talked about your upbringing, and the segregation of Chicago as a city. Growing up in the Wild Hundreds, but going to one of the best high schools in the state, and then going to different areas academically…to kind of play off of the first question, how connected do you still feel to your neighborhood, and also, how did all of those different experiences play into your personal development?
I feel connected. My mama and my sisters are still in the same house. The neighbors are still the same people. When I run across the guys I grew up with we still reconnect and show love. In a lot of ways my relationship with the neighborhood is kind of the same just because I was always getting bussed out to go to magnet schools so I always had this slight disconnect while still feeling very connected.
Recently, I saw you talk about placing poems in a manuscript in order, using inspiration from album intros. That shit really got me hype, because I’ve done that, I’ve thought through that process. So, I must ask. What are some of your favorite album intros of all time?
Damn good question. I think Nas’s Illmatic is crazy because in the first audio clip there’s shit from his first feature (Main Source’s Live at the Barbecue) and the classic hip-hop film WildStyle. That’s super fresh because he really places himself deeply in a tradition and narrative of the hip-hop Kunstlerroman (artist’s coming of age tale).
Also I love Common’s Be, Fashawn’s Boy Meets World, Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap, Gucci Mane’s The State vs. Radric Davis, The Roots’s The Tipping Point, and to many others to name.
Speaking of a manuscript, if you CAN touch on it…when can a full length book of Nate Marshall poems be expected to drop? And what can you tell us about the chapbook you have coming out with Button Poetry?
Damn I wish I knew. Sending it out to some contests and publishers now and we’ll see what happens with the full-length.
The chapbook, Blood Percussion, is gonna be out sometime this summer or fall. It should be a good project. The folks at Button are top notch and I’m really humbled they fuck with my work. Also its gonna be dope to be on the same imprint with folks like Aziza Barnes, Sam Sax, and J. Scott Brownlee who I really respect as writers.
What is your relationship with slam now? Of course, my introduction to your work, in person, came at Rustbelt last year. I think that you have this natural ability to perform and command a stage, even though that isn’t really the route you have gone (at least not overwhelmingly) lately. Where do you stand with the idea of slam, as a participant?
I love performing. I’m a ham. I’m also lazy and don’t like memorizing poems. I feature at a fair amount of slams and host a lot of slams and I love doing that work. I’ll be doing Rustbelt again this year, which is fun. I think the slam can be a great community. I don’t know if you’ll ever see me on an NPS team or trying to do IWPS but I do enjoy the practice of working with a small group of friends to do slams like Rustbelt that you can sign up as a squad. I think I feel slightly weird about other versions of the slam because individual sports have never made sense to me. I like being able to have the squad and just go, like a pickup basketball game of poetry.
But maybe if one day my whole crew Dark Noise lived in one city they would fuck around and make me go out for a slam team. That could be fun.
Finally, I’ve got to ask you this even though it was asked of another poet/MC this month. I’m really always excited to find out who MCs love as MCs. Top five MCs of all time. Go.
Damn I love/hate this question. Okay lemme try…
In no particular order…
Twista- Chicago legend, linguistic innovator, master of styles. He’s more than just fast rhymes when you check the catalogue.
Pharoahe Monch- Most creative rhythmically in hip-hop, best vocabulary
Black Thought- The most consistent MC ever. Has never put a wack verse on record.
Nas- Next evolution of Rakim, technically limited and qualitatively uneven but at his best a profound talent and super influential
Andre 3000- The only dude to convince people he was top 5 off of mostly featured verses. Possibly the most talented MC to ever do it.
Nate, thanks so much for doing this. It has been a joy for me to find your work everywhere and take it in this past year, and I look forward to everything good you have on the way.
No doubt man. Tell these people to follow me on twitter @illuminatemics and like me on Facebook. Shoutout to the Dark Noise crew. Peace.
NATE MARSHALL is a poet and rapper from the South Side of Chicago. He is an mfa candidate in creative writing at the University of Michigan and an assistant poetry editor for Muzzle.