Before we start, I just want to say thank you to Chicago for kicking out Donald Trump, says Kevin Coval, setting the tone for the night. Standing next to Coval, Nate Marshall chuckles while three rows of fans erupt into laughter. Under the gaze of a Mohammed Ali portrait, Marshall and Coval grasp their poems and lean forward, poised to perform their free digital chapbook and audiobook, 1989, The Number. The live release on March 11 at The Silver Room in Hyde Park was an exploration of Marshall’s and Coval’s experiences with the politics and culture of 1989.
1989, The Number is one of many Marshall–Coval collaborative projects, and is billed as part of the BreakBeat Poets Series—a sort of sequel to their acclaimed anthology, The BreakBeat Poets. Marshall and Coval also participate in hosting the Louder Than a Bomb poetry competition, run by the organization Coval directs, Young Chicago Authors; the reading was among the events surrounding this year’s LTAB festival.
For a casual hour, Marshall and Coval begin the event by offering thanks and fielding light conversation with each member of the audience. Marshall shakes hands with friends who have shown up while Coval introduces himself to everyone he doesn’t already know; soon, everyone is on a first-name basis with the poets.
When a fair crowd has settled, Marshall and Coval explain that this performance is the result of six days collaborating at the end of 2015, a piece meant to consider the year 1989 and its relevance today. The two make allusions to the fact that 2016 is set to be a politically charged year—see Coval’s joke about Trump—but they draw few explicit connections between 2016 and the past. Instead, Marshall and Coval launch into a medley of personal anecdotes, poetry, and commentary on the audience’s reactions to their thoughts on the year 1989.
Light jokes and emotional poetry are presented as one and the same, bound together by intermittent stories about the authors’ lives.
Marshall: “When I was born, my head was so large.”
Coval: “How large was it?”
Marshall: “It was so large that they x-rayed it.”
When Coval reflects on a childhood bully who used to spit on his Adidas Superstars, the audience’s sympathetic pause quickly turns to laughter.
“I told Joey Jabalon to fight me after school,” said Coval, “but when we got there he showed up with his crew, so I punched him once and ran to my dad’s car to escape.”
Coval turns the conversation to hip house, a music genre combining hip-hop and house, which he nostalgically remembers emerging in 1989. Marshall chimes in, recalling an excessively explicit rapper, Too $hort, whom he and his mother listened to together and who turns up in the chapbook in a poem called, “My Mom’s Favorite Rapper Was Too $hort.” Eventually, the conversation spirals out into the audience, as people begin shouting out their favorite Spike Lee movies.
However, despite the jovial commotion, the audience is absolutely silent for the readings. Each piece, whether performed as a duet or single, packs the words of both poets in a mixture of their characteristic styles. The critical tone and subject matter of Marshall’s recent, much-praised work Wild Hundreds is clearly felt when Coval passionately delivers stories about the South Side.
Some titles are outright belligerent: “Motherfuck Gentrification. Or As I Understand It This Is A Free Country A Man Can Live Where He Wants.” They encapsulate the experiences of both white and black families enduring changes in Chicago. Coval explores a conflicted identity, a white boy exploring black culture, as he recalls being “an anomaly, and aberration.” Other titles are subtler in their criticism: “Machine” addresses greater political unrest in Chicago, commenting on both the racism of the political system and past police abuse.
Both poets write and perform individual pieces titled “The Year I Got Live,” possibly to ground their performance in a universal experience—birth. Marshall recounts how his mother handled his pregnancy: “not-mom was dealing / with the news, teary faced / & stressed.” This poignancy initiates a narrative that evolves throughout the work, describing the difficulties of being black and observing all that the world held out of his reach.
Coval’s poem recalls his early childhood, “twisting tires caps / from expensive whips to fit / on our dirt bikes.” His focus is captured by the culture surrounding his youth, referencing Flavor Flav and the Beastie Boys. When he mentions such popular icons, the audience visibly smiles and nods—like Coval, they’re figuring out how their own lives fit back into 1989.
Marshall and Coval use 1989, The Number to consolidate their experiences of a turbulent era. Why they chose to look back to 1989 now became clearer at the conclusion of the performance, when the audience gave a standing ovation. Intermingled in the crowd of enthusiastically clapping adults were teenagers, including one of Marshall’s students, who, in 2016, is about the same age as Marshall was in his recollections. In 1989, The Number, the young Marshall and Coval pass down their experiences, helping a new generation of young people to inform and understand their own lives.