Nate Marshall is a published writer and educator, among many things. Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago in West Pullman, Marshall is the author of Finna, his latest book of poems illuminating Black vernacular, and Wild Hundreds, the award-winning rhythmic classic that paints a picture of the urban experience.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you start writing?
Initially, I started writing probably in my early teenage years. I was interested in hip-hop and rhyming, and then I saw the show Def Poetry. That was just very cool to me. It kind of gave me this notion that poetry could be a thing, or that poetry was sort of more active than the thing I had thought about it being in my head.
The first thing that I really wrote: we had to do Young Authors, this contest thing, it was required for our school. You had to write a book. For me, I was in the 7th grade, so I was like twelve or I probably turned thirteen. And I was like, “yeah, okay, if we have to do this Young Authors, and I don’t really feel like writing a real book, if I write poems it’ll be easier because poems”—I knew enough to know—“don’t have to take up the whole page.” I was like, “a book of poems doesn’t necessarily have to have a beginning, middle, and end,” so I didn’t have to come up with an idea. So I was kind of trying to not cheat, but finesse. So I wrote this thing and won for my classroom and then for my school.
My English teacher was like, “we’re going to start doing this poetry slam thing, you should be part of it,” and I was like, “no, that sounds terrible. Why would I want to do that? I wrote this thing because we were required to write a thing, and I did it.” But then she kind of made me do it. Then I went to Crossing The Street [the kick-off event for the competition formerly known as Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB)], and I was like, “okay, yeah, this is very cool, actually.” The rest is history. This was 2003.
Why do you find it important to write about the South Side?
I think it kind of comes back to when I started writing. I went to Keller Elementary, sort of in Mount Greenwood. It was weird because part of the thing about going to that kind of school is kids were being bused from all over the South Side. There were a lot of kids from like that Mt. Greenwood-Beverly-Morgan Park area. I remember doing a social studies project on neighborhood history, and there was something, to me, that was really both frustrating and interesting about that project. Because I think I didn’t really understand what a neighborhood was or understand myself as living in one. For me, what a neighborhood meant was a place like Beverly or a place where all the lawns are done, and there’s signs that say, “Welcome to…”, and there’s white people—that was confusing to me in a way. But also around that time, too, I remember one of the things about going to school with kids who were from outside your neighborhood, there’s that thing of like, when you make friends with somebody and you’re gonna hang out, this sort of negotiating happens. And I remember at that point certain friends not wanting to come to my neighborhood or their parents not wanting them to. That hurt my feelings, I just didn’t understand.
Going into a space like Young Chicago Authors, like Louder Than A Bomb, at that time, it really opened up—it was the first time that I really began to navigate the city independently, in a broader way. I’m from West Pullman. West Pullman to Mount Greenwood, they feel very different, they’re very different parts of the city in some ways, culturally, but they’re like ten minutes away. When we did the first LTAB, Crossing the Street was at Noble Street High School, then the whole event was at the Chicago Historical Society, now Chicago History Museum, right in Lincoln Park. And I’d never been over there. I was like, “what is this?” I remember seeing Jewish people wearing Stars of David and thinking they were GDs! That made sense to me. It was like, oh, okay, cool. Why would I really know what that was? I was coming from a place where, in some ways, my vision of the world was so small, I thought all white people were Catholic. It didn’t occur to me that other white people even had religious diversity.
I think the sort of very place-based writing was a way of processing my own place in the world, and all the complications with that. One of the things about being a child who was bused to school and then for high schools traversing so far to go to school, where you’re from then takes on a different kind of meaning. It’s not a neutral thing. This is maybe not an experience others have until they move away from home, or they go away for college or that kind of thing, but for me, I was having that kind of experience from a pretty young age. So I think it made place central to how I think about the writing. Some of the writing that I first responded to was about place.
One of the poems that still is one of my favorite poems is Beverly Hills, Chicago by Gwendolyn Brooks. The reason why is because the poem is all about the sort of experience of riding through the neighborhood, Beverly, and being like, “damn, they have more money than me.” How does that make them feel? The complication of that, or the minimizing that class does. And that was my experience every single day from first grade to eighth grade, going from West Pullman to Mt. Greenwood. Beverly is where you had to drive through on the bus. I just think all of these things have made writing about Chicago, specifically to the South Side, specifically the Black South Side, a very important, grounding element to my work.
How does where you’re from shape your personality?
There’s two components to that. One is that I’m from Chicago, from the South Side, like born in Roseland Hospital and was pretty much there my entire youth, and so that has really fundamentally shaped me. But the other thing that I think is also true of me, that has also shaped me, and maybe it’s part of, again, why place plays such a big role, is because I feel like I’ve also been really defined or really shaped by being distanced from. What I mean when I say that is going to school outside of the neighborhood and being bused, which is the thing that I really do for pretty much all my schooling, does something that’s particular perhaps, and then the other thing is when, from like age nine up until I went to college, I would go away for at least three weeks every summer, sometimes for much longer, to like various sort of academic summer camps. Those things really shaped me, because part of the thing I think happens a lot [is that] growing up in one place has particular quirks versus living in another place has particular quirks. People there do certain things, they say certain things or whatever. But until you leave that place, you don’t know that those things are particular. So like, you don’t understand that everyone doesn’t call it “pop” until you go somewhere that calls it “soda.” But because I had that experience from a very early age, both in like micro and in bigger ways, it had me constantly negotiating that part of myself that was shaped by place and thinking about what I liked of that, what I didn’t like, what was good, what was also negative or what would be stigmatized coming out of that experience.
It’s place, but it’s also identity—it’s a race thing, too, because like when I was going to summer camps I was often one of the very few Black students, particularly like Black men, and particularly if there were other Black men, that their parents were immigrants, which is a little bit of a different experience, right? So that meant that people would then ascribe certain things to me. They’d be like, “Oh, he’s from, he’s dangerous, whatever, whatever.” And then, I just had to decide what I wanted to do with that, sometimes you use that and feed into it in ways that might benefit you, sometimes you’re trying to butt up against that, sometimes you’re just like, “Whatever. I’m just gonna ignore you.” For me, these things have always been working in concert.
Who do you write for?
In so many ways, a lot of people. But I think also recently I’ve begun to think “what if that were a bit more of an intimate practice for me?” Very early in my writing journey, I was introduced to performance and stages. And that has been really great for me, but part of what that does is it makes you think of that question of “Who do you write for? Who’s your audience?” as literal. What it means is sometimes you get in the habit of processing things that are really personal to you for a literal crowd of people who also might have a different relationship to those things. And so recently, I’ve started to want to think about that question in a more intimate way, like, what if I write a poem, or what if I write this thing, and I’m only thinking about a single person? How does the poem change? How does it shift? What is the difference in the materiality?
More broadly, the people who it means the most to me whenever they really respond to it is young people. I’ve had the privilege of corresponding with a couple of incarcerated folks who read the work or have dealt with the work. And those conversations have been really rich. So when I think about the audiences that most excited me, those are certainly the two.
What are you excited for? What’s new?
I’m excited to be back living in the Midwest and to be back closer to home. I’m getting married in a few weeks. I’m excited to read. I feel like the pandemic, one of the many ways in which it fucked up my life was that it destroyed my ability to focus on things. I’m hoping to recultivate that, and I’ve been reading more and it’s just exciting to be like “ah, yes, this is the thing I really enjoy.” It’s the thing I enjoy.
Chima Ikoro is the Community Organizing section editor for the Weekly.