Interviews | Lit Issue

In Your Neighborhood

A conversation with Eve Ewing and Nate Marshall

Nate Marshall and Eve Ewing spent years as what Marshall called “Chicagoans in exile”: both born in the city, but departed in the course of their education (Marshall to Nashville then Ann Arbor; Ewing to Boston). But by this fall, both will be back in Chicago full-time. The creation of their new project Crescendo Literary, an organization devoted to community-based art, formalizes the exchange of ideas between the two longtime friends; its first projects, an Emerging Poets Incubator and a block party (both hosted in tandem with the Poetry Foundation, the latter also including The Renaissance Collaborative), took place July 28-30. Ewing and Marshall have both been poets and teachers in a multitude of settings, ranging from Young Chicago Authors to the University of Chicago, and their conversation with the Weekly (to which Ewing called in from New York) traced the shifting balance between art, community, mentorship, and political engagement in their life, work, and promising collaboration. 

How did the Emerging Poets Incubator and Block Party come about? Were those ideas that came to y’all in tandem? 

EE: Yeah, so, the Incubator and the block party were two separate ideas that now are living together in a really exciting complementary way…I thought of this block party idea—it kind of came to me—I was thinking about Afropunk…in the middle part of its lifespan, it went from being something that was explicitly for a black punk rock community to being a space where people regardless of their interest in punk or their familiarity with it could just come out and be together. Or, I think another model, like I just said to somebody earlier, is Blues Fest. Chicagoans like to come to Blues Fest whether or not you think of yourself—there are people there who are blues connoisseurs, and there are people that are there just because it’s a really intergenerational, engaging summer event. So I was thinking, what if we had a literary festival that people came to because it was fun, and not just to signal their participation in an elite poetry community, but because there was fun stuff you could do and you could bring your kids or your grandma could come? That’s kind of where the idea of the block party came from— something that uses poetry as the center of a much larger community gathering space.

NM: Myself and a lot of my friends and colleagues are early career poets. So poets that have, I would say, fewer than three books, and are younger than forty-five, or whatever. That’s a lot of my world. And I’ve stayed thinking a lot about why—like what are the gaps in our knowledge, and particularly not around the artistic development. Because, in some ways—

EE: Because we’ve got that.

NM: Right, right, because MFA programs exist, and workshops exist, and that stuff is sort of clear. But when it comes to, like, what does it mean to make a life as an artist, I think that a lot of those sort of hard skills—for lack of a better phrase… Like there’s no one standing there saying “Hey, you’re like a freelancing teacher and performer, this is how you do your taxes,” or “Hey, you’re curating an open mic in your city, here’s how you build an audience,” or “You’re working with young people, here’s how you create safe spaces that can effectively limit predatory behavior.” There hasn’t really been a lot of widespread institutional thought in the field around those things. In some ways, when I took it to Eve, I was thinking of how we could be of service to people like us, and also to ourselves.

EE: Yeah, and help people think explicitly about all the skills that you engage as a poet that have nothing to do with actually writing poems. What we’ve done is create a gathering space for these twenty-seven poets who all self-identified as community-engaged poets, so poets for whom interacting with a community in some way is an integral part of their artistry, and we’re like, “We’re not just going to have them come together, and talk and learn from each other, let’s put our ideas into practice.” So after they come to this two-day incubator, where they’re going to meet all these wonderful people and learn all these great skills and share ideas, they’ve all agreed to help us out on Saturday with throwing the block party. And it’s understood as part of the agreement everybody’s not going to be on the main stage. There will be some people that are performing, there will be some people who are maybe taking photos, leading workshops, there are some people who might be passing out water bottles on that day. Because each of us—our poetry upbringing has included a lot of that type of work. We both have done a lot of that physical labor and unglamorous organizing and stuff like that that makes these kind of events happen, and so we felt like it was important to use those folks as a resource and it’s going to be really exciting. Some of them will have done an event like this before, and some of them won’t, so they’ll get a hands-on opportunity to practice those skills.

You’ve both discussed community; Crescendo’s website relates that to Gwendolyn Brooks. Could you talk a little about place and poetry, Chicago and poetry, and also how you feel you work in relation to literary precedent like Gwendolyn Brooks? 

EE: That is incredibly important to both of us. Starting with the question of place, growing up in Chicago, it’s a place with an unparalleled legacy of poets who not only are at the top of their craft, but also made community involvement and partnership part of who they were and who they are. I have this phrase I like to use to hearken back to the Sesame Street song: an artist is a person in your neighborhood. I’m very passionate about trying to figure out ways for the broader public and especially young people to understand artists as not these people that live behind a wall of mystique but as people who are like you and me, who have chosen a career path that is viable, and to help make that a viable and exciting career path. Chicago is the epicenter of that, and Gwendolyn Brooks in particular is a—hero doesn’t really even begin to describe it—kind of a life guide in terms of the blueprint of what that kind of work looks like. She really, very early on compared to a lot of other artists, was always very, very engaged in community, and was engaged in teaching poetry with the Blackstone Rangers in Woodlawn, and teaching poetry to children in classrooms. I’ve had multiple people tell me, “Yeah, when I was a kid, Gwendolyn Brooks came to my school and spoke to me.” Several years ago, I had a chance to go look through some of her archive, her personal archive and letters, and I could see letters that children had sent her, and she corresponded with them. And this is somebody that was a Pulitzer Prize–winning person, one of our greatest American poets, who always thought that it was really important to root herself in community, not only in her writing but in her everyday practice. For me, and I think for Nate as well, she’s always been a model of what that work looks like, and a guidepost about who we are and what we’re trying to be.

What distinguishes the way the poetry scene works in Chicago for you, having been elsewhere? 

EE: I think that something we talk about a lot just comparatively is the ethic of collaboration as opposed to competition. There’s an understanding that the work we do together is always better and stronger than the work we do individually. And also the idea of abundance—if I’m doing something and I have this program and idea, and I invite you to do it with me, or we both do similar things, that is a beautiful and celebratory thing, and not something to be threatening, like you’re encroaching on my territory. That’s not found in every community and it really makes a difference, between working with people that you can also not only admire their work but trust them as human beings and rely on them and call them friends, and the contrary, which is not pleasant.

NM: That, and to continue to build: in Chicago, the people that are deeply and meaningfully engaged in artistic communities, specifically poetry, are also deeply engaged in political movement and political thought. I don’t know if that happens everywhere. Certainly everywhere writers are writing and thinking about the politics of the day, but it is not in every city that the people you might find at the meeting organizing or at the table talking to policymakers or at the protest are also the people you’ll find hosting the open mics, publishing in the journals. That’s pretty damn near one-to-one here, at least in the communities in which we are most a part.

Ideally, what would the relationship between art and political activism look like for you, and how does something like Crescendo fit into that? 

EE: I think that all great political movements have an aesthetic movement that parallels them. Whether that takes center stage or is sort of off to the side is up for debate, but I think that artists are always necessary. What is the quote from Toni Cade Bambara that I had the other day? “The job of artists is to make revolution irresistible.” I think that that’s true. I would add to her words that the job of an artist is also to convey, illustrate, and make clear what’s at stake when we are fighting for a more just world. And I think that sometimes when people think about political art or activist art, they think it has to be very explicit—like a painting of a labor strike or a poem about police killing black children with impunity. That kind of art is very, very important, but I think also it’s important to remember that for marginalized people, our very being, our very desire and ability to create and make art that reflects our own humanity in the world in which we live is also revolutionary and has an important role to play. As black poets, I say and think all the time, it used to be against the law for us to read and write. I think about that very often as a framing context for the work that we do. I think that the role of the artist in activism is really crucial, and also that artists are really good at thinking about space and thinking about social change in a different way. Some of our friends have been leading an activist group in Chicago called Let Us Breathe that has a disproportionate number of artists in it, and the way they think about what protest looks like tends to make a much bigger space for beauty and celebration than folks might normally think of.

NM: The notion of Crescendo is all about where art intersects with community, and it does not seem to me either profitable or ethical to intersect with community in sort of benign, nice, navigational, non—not non-disruptive— but sort of—

EE: Non-confrontational.

NM: Yeah, non-confrontational ways. What it means to be artists specifically talking about community, and working with and in and among communities and being a part of communities, is a political statement, because much of a Eurocentric framework for art and artists is this notion of a lone genius locked away who then brings their work to the people—I should say, his work to the people, and then is lauded and supported by benefactors.

EE: By a patron. By a wealthy patron. Like Ernest Hemingway sits alone in a room, and writes tortuously, and goes and takes a walk alone in a park. And then someone gives him money to do that. And that’s art.

NM: So us just saying we’re going to hang out on the corner and read poems and hand them out to young people—and we’re going to do that on that corner because that’s just where we live—is some political shit, deeply political.

You’re now mentors holding incubators, no longer purely participants. How does that feel and how’s that looking? 

EE: It’s a multi-faceted thing. Both of us take teaching and pedagogical thinking really, really seriously. I was a classroom teacher in Chicago Public Schools and I teach college students and graduate students, so the way we think about teaching is really central to how we do our work. At the same time, peer mentorship is also really important to both of us, so being in a position to mentor somebody doesn’t mean that we’re omniscient or anything like that. But rather that we’re trying to be intentional about creating spaces where people can learn from each other. We’re also trying to learn a lot from the mentors that we’ve had, both positive and not-so-positive learnings, and trying to think intentionally about what kind of mentors we want to be and how we can improve on some of the really impactful mentorship we received as young people, and, I’d like to add, continues and scales up, so the people that were our mentors ten years ago are still our mentors and our partners but now they have different things to teach us…. That goes back to what we said about thinking about community. Nate went to Michigan and got an MFA, and in some places, it’d be like, “Wow, he left the hood, and went and got an MFA, and now he’s up here, and the rest of us are still down here.” In fact, it really felt like Nate went and brought back an MFA for the squad.

NM: We all got an MFA.

EE: And now, other members of his collective are going to be in that same program next year…. In the same way that I went to graduate school and I spend a lot of my time now teaching other people how to apply to graduate school. It’s this thing of like, we’re all we got, basically, and we can’t rely on any institution to help us or teach us, especially as people of color—that they’re not really looking for us or checking for us all the time. It’s our job to be like, “This is how you do this,” “I’m going to teach you how to do this thing,” so all of us can be better and have more resources.

How does—not just political work—but this type of community engagement or Crescendo Literary or thinking about teaching influence your creative practice? 

NM: It changes my relationship to art in the sense that my work is rigorous, my work is real, but I have no interest writing or creating things that people cannot access on some level. I’ve had that sort of debate with a lot of artists and I get a lot of pushback. But I want my work to sing in languages that the people who I care about can understand—even if they don’t get all the meaning, all the shades of meaning. That to me is a political decision as well as an aesthetic decision. It comes from being deeply rooted in many communities.

EE: It also has to do with how I think about distribution of work and who it’s for. My first book is coming out next fall, and I’ve been thinking a lot about things I want to do with it and ways to get it in the world that don’t involve bookstores. Like, do I want to do teach-ins in public schools? Do I want to give the book away? Do I want to send class sets to different places? Do I want to do radio or podcast? We often grossly underestimate how much audiences—even audiences in some of the communities that we come from that maybe people don’t think of as traditional audiences for these things—how much people are willing and excited to get down and engage and meet you where you are. I’ve been telling people, millions of people in this country watched Lemonade—that is an experimental film. Avant-garde, experimental film. If Beyoncé was not the person that created that film, you could see it in the MCA or in a cinema studies classroom. I think that we underestimate how much, when you bring work to people and really make a case for it, how much people will go there with you. I recently defended my dissertation at Harvard, and I Periscoped my dissertation defense, so I had a friend sit in the audience and he used Periscope to livestream it on Twitter, and five hundred people watched my dissertation defense. I don’t believe that was five hundred grad students, or five hundred faculty members or academics. And I know that for a fact. I met a girl at a reading we did last week. She came up to me and was like, yeah I watched your dissertation. These are people—they don’t have an academic background in what I do, but they have a vested interest in the nature of my work. We can surprise ourselves when we share with people how much they get it.

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