by Nate Marshall

again the white me
on the internet appears
& this time he wants
what is his.

our name
is a country
he claims
for himself.

you need to quit
using my name.
it is not your name. you are
fake! i am Nate Marshall. you are
filth!

Nate Marshall calls Nate Marshall
all this.

one Nate Marshall deletes
the other.

every Nate Marshall i know
has an unruly name

                                                a word he can’t trace back.

one Nate Marshall deletes
himself.

every Nate Marshall i know
is mistaken.

 

Poem copyright 2019 by Nate Marshall. All rights reserved.

&
See more poems from Nate Marshall debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: another Nate Marshall origin story” and “Nate Marshall is a white supremacist from Colorado or Nate Marshall is a poet from the South Side of Chicago or i love you Nate Marshall.

 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Review | Writing Prompt

&

Nate Marshall writes from what he knows intimately, whether it be his neighborhood in Chicago– its sounds, smells, characters, seen and unseen markers– using his deep knowledge to interrogate the wider world. In this issue Marshall uses his name as a catalyst to question race, belonging, and America. What questions or possibilities does your name evoke?


Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Review | Poems

By Emily Ruth Rutter, PhD

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The current poetic landscape is as dynamic and multifarious as ever, and Nate Marshall is a key exponent of its kinetic energy. A founding member of the Dark Noise Collective, a Cave Canem Fellow, the Director of National Programs for Young Chicago Authors and the Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival, co-editor of the much-praised The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop (Haymarket Books, 2015), and author of the collection Wild Hundreds (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), Marshall is an artist committed to dismantling the false separations between page and stage, individual and community, and poetry and politics. Moreover, for Marshall and his contemporaries who came of age in the spoken word scene, the performed lyric has to enrapture the audience in a compressed span of time in a genre characterized by often deeply personal expressions of identity and social critique. Both this vitality and vulnerability also characterize Wild Hundreds, the winner of the 2014 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize.

Divided into three sections, Wild Hundreds invites readers into the socioeconomically stark yet culturally vibrant realities of growing up on Chicago’s far South Side in a neighborhood colloquially referred to as the Wild Hundreds, where Marshall himself was reared. Marshall’s dedication to his grandparents for “bringing us to the Hundreds and teaching us how to make home in a new place” (v) and to “the victims of state-supported and -sanctioned black death, from Emmett Till to Damo Franklin to Rekia Boyd” (v) likewise affirms the interlaced personal-political significance of the coming-of-age poems collected here. In an especially rich passage from James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” the narrator ruefully surveys the 1950s Harlem landscape: “These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities” (414). Marshall, writing over a half-century later about Chicago, evinces a similar socioeconomic and political terrain, whereby the “actual possibilities” for black boys and men are curtailed to getting ensnared in the criminal justice system and/or dying young.

Here, boys of African descent, like many of Marshall’s speakers, accelerate to men, their innocence snatched before they have the opportunity to fully revel in young love or dreams of socioeconomic and professional mobility. For example, riffing on both Gwendolyn Brooks’s famous lines from “We Real Cool” — “We / Jazz June. We / Die soon” (337) — and George Gershwin’s iconic tune “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, Marshall’s “Indian Summer” paints an elegiac portrait: “summertime / & dying is easier. june is jazz / or a funeral dirge” (40). Encumbered by soaring temperatures and no relief from crushing poverty and the violence that it engenders, summer on the South Side is a minefield with none of the respite that the season signifies for Americans with privilege.

In fact, Wild Hundreds commences and concludes with the same poem, “repetition & repetition &,” but with the lines inverted, indicating the cyclical pattern that the collection as a whole traces. On the one hand, Marshall represents an affirming community — “ours is a long love song” (3, 65) — and on the other one filled with the knowledge that this affection and solidarity could be threatened at any given moment by the violence within and without the Hundreds. The “long love song, / a push out into open air” must contend with “a pool of grief puddling, / a stare into the barrel” (3, 65). The “repetition” of this pattern is not only a lesson for those within “the hood,” but also for readers, whom Marshall implies need to recognize that these realities are part of our own story: “a national shame / amnesia & shame again” (3), or, put another way, “amnesia & shame again. / a national shame” (65).

At the same time, Marshall utilizes the printed page to illustrate the yearning and tenderness that do not make the voyeuristic news cycle about crime and poverty but are nonetheless powerful testaments to lives that matter. For instance, distinct iterations of the poem “Chicago high school love letters” appear in each of the collection’s three parts, capturing various forms of intimacy, as well as an endemic fear of the hostilities that pervade life on the South Side. The initial iteration marks the “first day of school” with the speaker proudly proclaiming the sacrifice of personal safety he would make to see his beloved:

i would take the bus
to you, walk through
your neighborhood
& navigate the colors. (11)      

With the speaker’s willingness to brave the gang rivalries and neighborhood turf wars that have riven the terrain, Marshall reminds readers of the high stakes of young love in this vibrant but unforgiving landscape.

Indeed, the final iteration of “Chicago high school love letter” (this time a singular, rather than a plural), Marshall marks what should be a moment of celebration with a reminder of the grim statistics teenage South Siders face:

            graduation

                        333.

            hold me
               before
                         i
       disappear. (59)

A plaintive plea (“hold me”) to the imagined recipient of the letter as much as to us as readers, Marshall includes a footnote that contextualizes this series of love letters: “the numbers in ‘Chicago high school love letters’ represent the city’s homicides during the 2007-2008 Chicago Public Schools academic year” (59).

This focus on Chicago’s children and the institutionalized skin privilege and discrimination that determines their fate recurs in other poems, such as “the last graduation” and “the first graduation.” Read in tandem, Marshall elucidates the stark differences between the African-descended eighth-grader whose education, and the hopeful promise that it entails, has come to an abrupt end. Outlined as a series of instructions, Marshall imagines the careful transition from the boy with the graduation gown — “get home & take off the gown. / fold it perfect, put it in a plastic sleeve” — to the young man “ready to throw rock” (51). His change of clothes marks this transformation from childhood dreams to the circumscribed and racialized realities of adulthood:

tuck away the fake snakeskin shoes
& the polyester pantsuit.
reach for the Sox fitted.

it is crumpled;
a dull, deep black
we learn to be. (51)

Here is the “low ceiling” again, with eighth-graders already assuming the “dull, deep black” role that hegemonic forces have scripted for those hailing from the Hundreds.       

In “the first graduation,” by contrast, Marshall imagines an eighth-grader, presumably white, who is irritated at the whole exercise of the graduation: “when my parents try to take a picture / I pitch a fit” (52). Assured that this is only one in a long string of congratulatory milestones — “there will be other / moments to capture” (52) — this young man feels no pressure to undergo the transformation from boy to man that marked the experience of his counterpart. He is not responsible for preserving the moment any more than he is for a future that unfurls brightly before him:

slide out of the dress clothes.
leave them for the help to fold. reach 
for my tattered Cubs hat, the ease
that there will be other hats to wear.
bike to the park, summer baseball
to play. there are throws to make
& every opportunity
to catch. (52)                    

The baseball teams demarcating the boundaries between these two Chicagos — North Side (the Cubs) and South Side (the White Sox)—Marshall poignantly puts the lie to American rhetoric about meritocracy and rugged individualism. In other words, these two geographic regions, so close in proximity and so distant in terms of social realities, produce two very different young men: one with boundless “opportunit[ies] / to catch” and one with “crumpled” dreams whose horizons are delimited to “throwing rock” on “the asphalt pond” (51).  

Within this landscape, Marshall implies, innocence, love, and the intimacy of family and community are all imperiled by structural forces beyond the individual’s control. To this end, “picking flowers” meditates on various floral associations with both beauty and death, suggesting how closely they are intertwined in a grief-stricken landscape: “picking dandelions will ruin your hands, / turn their smell into a bitter cologne” (60). These dandelions are as much a sign of all of those slayed and buried as they are of new beginnings. Stability, therefore, is not characterized by the reassurance that all will be well in the end, but rather by inevitable violence:  

a man carries flowers for three reasons:

        • he is in love
        • he is in mourning
        • he is a flower salesman

i’m on the express train passing stops .   
to a woman. maybe she’s home.
i have a bouquet in my mind,
laid on 1 of my arms like a shotgun.
the color is brilliant, a gang war
wrapped & cut diagonal at the stems.
i am not a flower salesman.
that is the only thing i know. (60)

Marshall conveys a sense of powerlessness that accompanies the experience of living in a society that has deemed certain groups disposable. Even one’s associations with flowers — what has long been, especially in poetry, a sign of ardent romance — is informed by the possibility that the bouquet will be set atop a grave or will mirror the vividly bloody aftermath of “a gang war.” In this landscape, nothing may be taken for granted.    

At the same time, Marshall harnesses the power of the word to map out another kind of liberating “wildness,” an imagined space in which unfettered love is still possible for those within and beyond the Hundreds. For instance, the poem “the break” self-reflexively alludes to the musical starts and stops that occasion radical innovation, resonating with what Fred Moten conceives of “as a generative break, one wherein action becomes possible, one in which it is our duty to linger in the name of ensemble and its performance” (98). Marshall leans into this liminal space and exploits it for its creative possibilities: “the break / is the place in the funk record / everybody goes crazy” (20). “The break,” like much of Wild Hundreds, is borne of strife but is not defined by it:

the break is where drums take center .   
stage. the break is the center. the break
is the party. the break is built
from thrown-out equipment,
unused grooves. the break is struggle. (20)

Social and economic constraints abound, yes, but music and poetry will continue to chafe against those restrictions, constructing new sonic and epistemological patterns out of “used grooves.”

And, if the exquisite Wild Hundreds is any indication, Nate Marshall’s lyric breaks are on the ascendant, along with his brand of socially conscious poetry. “Political Poetry Is Hot Again” declares U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith in a recent piece in the New York Times. Yet, as Ayana Mathis recently observed:

Even as African-American writing currently experiences an unprecedented mainstream appeal and critical recognition, the focus on black expression has another, uglier face: a deadly obsession with black bodies. Thus, it is possible for the Sacramento police to murder a black man holding a cellphone in his grandmother’s backyard and for [Colson] Whitehead to win the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award within a year. How are we to reconcile these truths? (138)

Marshall’s rich portraits of Chicago’s South Side remind us that a prestigious literary award, a coveted academic position, and/or a reinvigorated poetry scene will not cauterize the gaping wounds of systemic racism and abject poverty. Marshall’s Wild Hundreds, therefore, does not allow readers to forget the lives that institutions have, encouraging us instead both to bear witness and to refuse the “repetition & repetition &” of American history.         

 

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Valerie Smith. Norton, 2014, pp. 413-435.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “We Real Cool.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Valerie Smith. Norton, 2014, pp. 337.

Marshall, Nate. Wild Hundreds. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.

Mathis, Ayana. “The Academy.” New York Times Style Magazine, 2 Dec. 2018, pp. 136-141.

Moten, Fred. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Smith, Tracy K. “Political Poetry Is Hot Again. The Poet Laurette Explores Why, and How.” The New York Times Book Review, 16 Dec. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/10/books/review/political-poetry.html 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


 
E.Rutter.Author PhotoEmily Ruth Rutter is Assistant Professor of English at Ball State University. She is the author of two books: Invisible Ball of Dreams: Literary Representations of Baseball behind the Color Line (University Press of Mississippi, 2018), and The Blues Muse: Race, Gender, and Musical Celebrity in American Poetry (University of Alabama Press, 2018). Her numerous essays have been published in journals such as African American Review, South Atlantic Review, and MELUS. She recently completed Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era (Routledge, 2020), a collection of critical essays and poetry, which she co-edited with Sequoia Maner, Tiffany Austin, and darlene anita scott. 

by Nate Marshall

when i first made my name Nate
i was a boy
at summer camp
looking for cool in the muggy shadow
& so when the white boys snipped Nathaniel
to just a touch of the tongue to the mouth roof
it seemed to me a religious moment,
a new confirmation as okay.

this was 2000 &
you must have been
Nate Marshall
for decades by then.

years later, i find you
buried in a google search
& follow you silently
for the next year
like a high school crush.

i tell my students about you
the day when we wonder what if
privilege hadn’t put us in
a college classroom.

i tell my ex about you in bed
& it’s convenient that there’s this other
Nate Marshall to be the liar
lying there this time.

i see your failed campaign & watch how your ties
to white supremacists spelled your demise.
my Black history month paper on the Black Panthers
in 3rd grade wouldn’t color me radical enough & i am ashamed
i’ve never been pushed out of a spotlight for loving
my people too much. your day job is roofing & i just watch HGTV
in hotels. you are the truer amongst us Nate. you, peddler of propaganda
& seller of shingles.

can you show me how to love what you love?

every time i’ve said what’s good nigga
it’s possible we’ve matched
our mouths, symmetrical
around the two Gs in the middle.

i won’t lie to you Nate Marshall
or to myself Nate Marshall
i too have hated a nigga & lived
to tweet the tale.
i too have sat suspicious in my basement
wondering who was coming for my country.
i too have googled myself & found a myself
i despise.

i see you Nate Marshall
& now you’ve left Twitter
after i told my followers to tell you
that they loved you & your book
& your commitment to Black people
& i feel you Nate Marshall.
i’ve left places & loves
when they told me they loved
a Nate Marshall
i didn’t recognize.

Poem copyright 2019 by Nate Marshall. All rights reserved.

&
See two more poems from Nate Marshall debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: another Nate Marshall origin story”  and  “another Nate Marshall origin story


Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Writing Prompt

by Nate Marshall

for the purposes of this story let’s say
turn of the 20th century my great
grandfather Marshall disappeared
so thorough i don’t know what he looks like.

so let’s say he’s super high yellow
so much so maybe he’s swarthy
if he stays out of sun & so
in this story he drops my grandpops
& then pulls out of Mississippi to step west
& stretch his legs as a white man.

so let’s say he has a whole white
family with a little boy.
& let’s say he overcorrects
‘cause he knows the color
the boy carries without knowing
so he tells the little boy
we don’t associate with those people
& that little boy has a whole lineage

who don’t talk to those people.

maybe the name Marshall is just a passing
story we’ll never uncover. maybe he secret
Black like a Hollywood actor. but maybe
he knows & wants his name back
& his body too.

 

Poem copyright 2019 by Nate Marshall. All rights reserved.

&
See more poems from Nate Marshall debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: another Nate Marshall origin story” and “Nate Marshall is a white supremacist from Colorado or Nate Marshall is a poet from the South Side of Chicago or i love you Nate Marshall.”

 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Review | Writing Prompt

by Lauren K. Alleyne

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In descriptions of Nate Marshall’s poems, “dynamic” appears again and again. From their performance on the page, to their lyric and authentic deployments of language, to the tonal shifts — now playful, now urgent — to their embedded and indisputable musicality, these poems are studies in movement. In his poem “in the land where whitefolk jog,” for example, the literal movement of the body is wonderfully depicted

he walk down the road
dark & abandoned
skullcap & scowl
quick stride & limp.
he mug & bump
the sound of fuck you up
in his headphones.

The short lines of the poem, the small pebble of the ampersand briefly tripping up the eye, the plethora of high-energy verbs driving the sentences all collude to keep this poem moving at full speed. But an even bigger jump is the one between the world of the title and the one in which we land in the poem; the “walk down the road” of the first line seems innocuous enough, juxtaposing the pace of the title’s “jog” with the “walk” of the poem’s subject. But that quickly changes by the second line, we realized that we’ve moved into a completely different space, one where how “he” moves is jagged and unsafe with its “scowl” and “bump.”

A few lines down the physical transforms again into a lyric space, muddying where the danger lies — in the real world or in memory — as the poem’s subject both “brace(s) / for everything” and realizes that there isn’t a threat, that the “key between fingers / is for locking & also entry.” The poem switches gears again on the heels of this epiphany and “enters a decade earlier” landing on a run of his own, vastly different than the “peach thigh & sunflower / shorts” and instead is rife with “the glitter / of exploded Wild Irish Roses.” The propulsion of the poem through time, geography and experience is both seamless and disconcerting, and Marshall’s use of language cleverly facilitates this movement.

What is the impetus for this movement? Poems like “hood woods” and “out south” depict the harshness and violence of the South Side neighborhood where they’re set, and the cycles of violence that churn within it — “each street day an unanswered prayer for peace.” Marshall’s poems posit that this constant motion against that cycle offers the only possibility out of it. Enter the motions of love, of intimacy and knowing: the counter cycles that both make friction with what’s there but make a portal for what might be. “Chicago high school love letter 156,” offers one such moment:

i would fight for you
like my shoes or my
boys or any excuse
for contact

The violence of the fight is co-opted as an opportunity for intimacy, is reconfigured as a claim for the value of loving touch. Creating these moments of shift and change is a result of the kinesis of Marshall’s poetry. Finally, Marshall’s work always nods to the traditions of African Americans. His poems reverb with echoes of the middle passage, fugitive escapes, the great migration, and more contemporary moves — to college, Black-owned spaces — to the worlds beyond the spaces meant to confine.

In 2017, Nate Marshall was a visiting poet in the Furious Flower reading series. We spoke about his beginnings in poetry, what it means to be in community, Chicago, and ampersands. This is an edited version of that conversation.

Tell me about your path to poetry.

Okay, so I came to poetry very young. I came to poetry in, like, I guess middle school, around like 12 and 13. I got interested when I saw the show Def Poetry Jam, and I was like, “This is cool!” At the end of one episode Amira Baraka did an excerpt from the poem, “Why is We Americans?” and I was just blown away. I did not know that you could do such a thing, that such a thing could exist in the world, right?

And so that was sort of rolling around in my head, and then I heard the hip hop song, “The Blast,” by Talib Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek, and that was sort of rolling around in my head, and I think it just got to a certain point where I was like, “Okay. I’m just gonna write and I’mma write poems and raps and whatever.” I never really expected much of it, but I think I had some good teachers that mentored me and that insisted that I continue.

Talk to me a little bit about Louder Than a Bomb. What was that experience like, and how does it fit into that narrative of poetry?

For sure. So Louder Than a Bomb is a youth poetry festival that happens in Chicago, and now a bunch of other places. And I came into that space in 2003; I was 13. I was very young and it was one of those sort of life-changing moments for me because I think I saw young people who were just a little bit older than me who were super engaged, super passionate, super intellectually stimulated and were doing art — art was at the center of their lives. And I think I just knew at that point like, “Yo this is — I don’t really understand this space, but this is like the coolest place I’ve ever been, and I want to stay in it for like as long as I can possibly stay in it.” (Laughs.) I was sort of in from there.

How do you see the role of community in poetry?

Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean … so, for me, so much, community has been very central to my poetic practice, so I don’t know if poetry for me exists without community. And certainly there’s a kind of solitary piece or solitary notion in the creation of poetry, but I think that’s true of community, right? Is it the nature of community that you, you know, go inside yourself and you sort of get it together and then you bring what you have to your people, right? And y’all are so in it together, right? I think that they — for me, they’ve all sort of existed simultaneously.

What are some other communities of poetry you find yourself in right now, and what kinds of things do you bring to them and do they bring to you?

 Of course Dark Noise, which is a collective that I’m a part of with Danez Smith, Fatimah Asghar, Jamila Woods, Aaron Sanders and Franny Choi — and that is a really exciting community. We’re all poets but work across many genres, work across many disciplines; we’re all young folks of color; we’re all born in the same year, which is not intentional but is like a thing that just happens to be true. And I think that for me it’s one of the spaces that feeds me the most, because not only are we professional allies and artistic allies but those are also some of my best friends. We take the notion of the workshop or the notion of the collaborative and apply it not only to the artistic work but also bring it to bear on our personal lives, on everything. That, for me is very fulfilling. That’s just one of many [communities], I think.

Poetry is my medium — poetry is the way that I process and the way that I communicate.

Okay, to go to the work a little bit: You dedicated Wild Hundreds to the victims of state-supported and -sanctioned black death, which to me is another gesture toward community. Tell me about that idea of community in relationship to Wild Hundreds.

So lemme sort of go back. When I think about the book, I think of when people ask me, “Well, what is this book about?” Ultimately for me it’s a very long answer to a question that I would get. I remember when I went to college in Nashville, Tennessee, and I would, you know, have that early conversation that you have when you meet people like, “Oh, hey! I’m Nate! I’m from da da da da. I am studying da da da da da,right? And whenever I say, “Oh, I’m from the south side of Chicago,” people were always like, “Oh, my God! Oh! How did you make it out? Da da da da da da.” And that was always deeply frustrating for me, so in some ways the book is a long answer to that question.

Like I remember my sophomore year of high school, I was taking this Black masculinity class, and during the semester the class was happening, this video went viral of this young man, Derrion Albert, getting hit in a big fight, a big sort of melee after school, down from the local high school. He got hit with a two-by-four, and he died. And that was like one of the early moments in that narrative in this new contemporary narrative of Chicago as this ultraviolent place, specifically around Black folks. And, like, Arne Duncan or Barack Obama coming back to the city and being like “We’re gonna institute initiatives …” or … no one knows because these things never happened or they did and didn’t do anything, but anyway, that happened like four blocks from where I grew up. That was my neighborhood high school. I think that kid was like in my godsister’s homeroom, right?

So I felt very close to some of these things and some of these issues. And  poetry is my medium — poetry is the way that I process and the way that I communicate, so those are the issues that I find myself as a person deeply moved by. And so the work is gonna reflect that.

In so many ways, the book is a love poem to Chicago.

Yeah, yeah.

And you talk about other people’s definitions of Chicago. Tell me how do you define Chicago.

Ooooooo, how do I define Chicago?

Yup. What’s your Chi-town, Nate?

You know Chicago is … it’s like it is. I don’t even know! All right, Chicago is an incredibly beautiful, incredibly vibrant, deeply fucked-up place, you know? It’s like Chicago … the best way to describe it is that it’s like your uncle who you love, and who’s the most fun and will give you his old comic books, and, like, when he comes through it’s lit. But he also is an angry drunk who might get into a fight with your dad later at Thanksgiving. It’s that. It is equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. You know, a thing that causes you tremendous harm, and also will embrace you in no other way. And you know, I think it’s a city that is at its core deeply working class, deeply not pretentious, and I think that the art and the culture reflects that in a way that even artists find and sustain community. I think that it has a long history as a union town, and I think that you see that brought to bear across the culture.

So Chicago’s spawned some really awesome poets and artists like you said. I’m currently in love with Kerry James Marshall who’s doing some amazing work; there’s Gwendolyn Brooks, Patricia Smith, Carl Sandburg —  so many. Who are some of the poets you look up to, who inform your work? Who do you think you’re in conversation with now?

First off, my friends — all those folks I named in Dark Noise, but thinking historically of who are my building blocks … Certainly, Gwendolyn Brooks. I don’t know if there’s anyone more influential for me. You know, I’m just gonna rattle off a bunch of Chicago heads: Margaret Walker, Frank Marshall Davis, Margaret Burroughs, yeah, some of those folks. I mean A. Van Jordan, who’s one of my professors at Michigan and kind of one of my early favorite writers. Martín Espada. Sandra Cisneros — yes, Stealth Chicago Cisneros. (Laughs.)

You’re also a musician, so talk to me about the relationship between your music and music-making and your poetry, or just in general, and whether are there influences from that side that you think come to bear on the poems.

For sure! I mean, so I rap, right? And do a little bit of production. And I really came into both of those things — rapping and MC-ing and poetry — kind of at the same time. And in many ways in many of the same places, right? So when I think of the earliest places where I began to find communities around hip hop and around music, they were at poetry slams; they were at open mics. And I think that this is even coming back to the notion of a place like Chicago is like it’s a big city but it’s also like so small — it’s also like the smallest place — it’s a town in the purest sense. So if you’re an artist, you kind of run across all these things, and you fall over each other. There’s a really long history and a long tradition of the poets and the writers and the musicians in Chicago specifically being in conversation. I remember being in high school and being at open mics with the little annoying kid who would become Chance the Rapper and introducing him to my friend who would become Vic Mensa who is, like, opening for Jay-Z right now, and so, I mean, the connection for me is very… you know, I can’t really untwine them, right? And certainly, I think the way that I approach sound in a poem is shaped by having so many break beats just in my head. 

Speaking of break beats, you’re one of the editors of The BreakBeat Poets with Quraysh Lansana and Kevin Coval. Tell me a little bit about that project and how it came to be, but also what are some of the joys and challenges culling that work? 

That project was a very long process. Kevin initially had the idea and he’s a friend and a colleague and also was a mentor of mine, so around 2009 or 2010, he approached me and was like, “Yeah, so I’m thinking about this book, this anthology. You should help me edit this book — you should be like an assistant editor.” And I’m like,Okay, cool.” I was an undergrad — I was, like, super young. So we began to put together some of the early language that would make up the call, make up just some of our thinking around, and we began to put together preliminary lists of some of the folks that we might ask. And then, he invited Quraysh into the project. It took about five years from that first conversation to a book. I mean, you know, the anthology process is one of the most frustrating things that I’ve ever experienced, but I also think, after the fact, like one of the more rewarding things I’ve ever been able to do artistically — to be able to bring together that collection of poets and that collection of work. You know, to lift up some of those voices and put them in conversation with each other and kind of begin to make a kind of aesthetic argument or articulation of the poetics that’s happening in a particular generation feels important.

Speaking of aesthetic and form, this book of yours messes a lot with form.

Yeah. (Laughs.)

The hip hop verse, the 16, if you will, with the 4-bar or 8-bar hooks, is the perhaps the most strict contemporary form that we have. That’s the most interesting form that’s been produced in the last 100 years…

There’re sonnets, ghazals, sestinas — I mean, I’m sure there’re forms I don’t even recognize as forms! So, what’s your relationship to form as a vehicle for producing a poem?

So very early on, I was always trying form and I think playing with it, right?  And once I went to college I think my relationship with form sort of got refined and challenged, right? My primary mentor at Vanderbilt was Mark Jarman, who’s great, and is a new formalist. When I took his intermediate poetry workshop, we did not get along.  He didn’t like me; I didn’t like him. It was bad, right? But in that class he was like,I’m going to take you through all of the building blocks of classical English form. You will have this: you will have the sonnet; you will have blank verse; you will have the sestina,” whatever. “And you can hold all that.” And in some ways, some of the earliest poems in the book actually come out of that class. Because I think I felt almost alienated or stifled by form, so the way that I would kinda try to respond to that or kinda try to deal with it, was to write about the most familiar things I could think of. Like, okay, I have to write a sestina, which felt very weird and felt very awkward, so I’m gonna write about my homeboys who I know better than anybody. I’m gonna just get as familiar as possible and I think from doing that, and from that practice, I really began to find a home and see a home in form. And also begin to understand that you know, again, by virtue of music, that I had been writing in form the whole time. That the hip hop verse, the 16, if you will, with the 4-bar or 8-bar hooks, is the perhaps the most strict contemporary form that we have. That’s the most interesting form that’s been produced in the last 100 years, arguably, right? So then I began to connect these things and be, “Oh! Wait! The sonnet’s like just the verse’s big cousin and I been writing those for years. I’m good.”

That brings me to a question, too, about your teaching: Tell me what you try to give to your students — given that you know — Mark’s position, what do you try to give?

I think as a teacher I try to do a few things. I try to give them a diverse array of work and put that work in its own context. So, like, I don’t know that you can learn Black poetry without understanding something about Phillis Wheately, right? Or Jupiter Hammon. And also understanding Phillis Wheatley as a very young teenage girl, who basically did a doctoral defense in front of John Hancock and all the gentleman of stature in Massachusetts to prove that she had written her poems, right? I think that it’s important to understand that, because that shapes the kind of poem that she creates; that shapes the tone of the piece, the rhetorical moves that it’s gonna employ, right? So I try to do that as a rule. I’m interested in reading lists that are diverse, and that diversity is expressed in a number of ways. So urban poets and rural poets, poets across many racial identities, across many gender expressions and sexual identities, right? So, I think that for me is important.

And then, I’ve done this in a couple of classes. I started off with by showing them poets and critics and disagreeing with each other; so showing them Rita Dove and Helen Vendler’s public spat [around the Penguin anthology], not because I think it’s good gossip — I do enjoy tea, but not solely for the tea, right? — but because I think it’s important to show them that people of immense intellect can disagree deeply. And that that is actually at the core of an academic discourse. So you can like the poems that I put in front of you, or you can hate ’em; great! But do you know why? What I want to get to the heart of is the why — is to being able to articulate what your problem is with this thing, or why you love it, or why this is a thing worth championing? Worth celebrating?

 That makes me think back to what you’re talking about with the putting together the anthology, right? Because there’s something so authoritative about text that, you know, I think our students get books and are like, this is the book. And so, to see that people fought about what was to be in that book, you know, is definitely useful.

And I think that’s maybe ’cause I’m a child of hip hop, and I grew up actually rap battling. (Laughs.) But it’s like that mold makes sense to me, right? I remember in undergrad me and Mark had an independent study and basically it was the beginnings of The BreakBeat Poets. But it was an independent study about hip hop and literature, and I would bring in a bunch of poems for Mark to read — some stuff that I written and the poets I felt like I was in conversation with or inspired by. And then we’d go to his office once a week and basically argue for two hours and he would pull something out of the conversation and be like, “That’s interesting. Next week bring me back 1200 words about that, or bring me back 1500 words.” So, I’m there and I’m blustering, young and arrogant as hell. (Laughs.) And I’m like, “Oh, man, you know, Black people don’t trust books.” And he’s like, “Oh, word? Cool, tell me more — go write a paper on why.” Which I think was such a good way for me to learn for two reasons: number one because he legitimately needed that answer, right? It was a place where we could really bridge understanding. But also, it helped me to distill some of the things that I know intuitively or that I’ve learned through osmosis or the cultivating of my communities, but had never explained or interrogated. 

What are you working on right now?

I’m always doing a million things. I have been editing a number of books: I edited Eve Ewing’s first book of poems, Electric Arches, and also Kevin’s book, A People’s History of Chicago, and I’m editing a couple other folks’ texts. Me and Eve cowrote a play about the life of Gwendolyn Brooks that’s getting produced, and then and I’m working on the next book of poems which is titled, tentatively, Finna. That book is, yeah, I don’t know, it’s interesting; we’ll see what happens to it; we’ll see what it’s becoming. [Note: Finna will be published by Random House/One World in 2020]

So, I’m gonna back up to the play situation. How is it writing across genres, in the dramatic genre?

It was a good bridge, because it’s a play about a poet, about poetry, so there are ways in which it feels very poetic. It’s also a really interesting version of a play, because the theater we’re working with does shadow puppetry. So in the play there’s live performance elements and shadow puppetry elements, and there’s also a live band performing, who are building music specifically for the play, so I mean there’s a ton of genres at the table.  But I enjoy it because I think one of the things in poetry that really moves me is the notion of voice and the notion of who is talking and what they’re trying to communicate, so getting to build that has been really rewarding. And it was kind of cool to do a play that had this sort of historical nature to it, because I kind of got to scratch my undergrad archival itch: We went down to the university of Illinois and looked through Miss. Brooks’ papers, and so the last act of the play almost happens in letters — letters between Miss Brooks and people in the community, or Miss Brooks and young people, or Miss Brooks and like Etheridge Knight or Sandra Cisneros or the school principal of the school she had a continuing relationship with in the projects in Chicago. So, yeah, it was just a really, really fun project to work on.

I just came across a letter from Brooks to Hughes in the archives at UVA a couple weeks ago, and she was just like, He-ey! 

Ooooo! Nice. Yeah, the thing that’s great about her is she’s so funny, that in her personal papers you see her making all these notes to herself, there’s just all this ephemera, and at the point at which she’s very aware that she’s gonna be archived, so like there’s a letter from the [19]80s and there’s like a little note that she writes in the margin and that: “I wanna get tattooed,” where someone — I think a PhD student in India or something — is writing to ask her if they could interview her, or something like that, some sort of request and they’re writing their dissertation about her and Hughes, and the person refers to them as “negro poets,” and this is like the 80s so she has none of that. She’s like, “The name for me and my people is BLACKS,” and Blacks is in all caps. And I was like, “Yo!” Miss Brooks was like, truly the GOAT, truly not having that! There’s so much, man … she has so many fantastic … I don’t know. I’m really interested in how she engages with the notion of her own legacy.

So Brooks is a literary but also cultural icon in a lot of ways: for example, that role you talk about, of her writing letters to people in the community as well as other poets. How do you define the role of the poet in a social space? What’s our job description?

Wow. Man. What is our job? I mean, I’m hesitant to give any large prescriptions for poets, ’cause I think some poets are excellent teachers and excellent mentors, and part of their job as a poet is to usher a next generation, sometimes of poets but also of young people in general. That’s one thing I think that you see with Miss Brooks: She was so interested in the outcomes of young people in a way that feels so genuine, right? And people really respond to that. Being in Chicago, you know, you just run into people and you bring up her name and they’re like, “Oh! I won a Gwendolyn Brooks poetry contest at my school and she like came and gave me $50 dollars” or whatever. There’s countless examples of that kind of generosity, not just financially but just of spirit.  So I think that can be part of it, right?

But I guess like at the core when I think about writing, I think the poet’s job — if anything, if a job exists — is to like bring some emotional intelligence to bear on the world, on the happenings of the world, whether those happenings are the grass growing and the trees flowering, Tamir Rice being shot by a police officer. I think that, like, ultimately to me the poet’s project is one of humanizement.  Or at least that’s I think part of my project.

So I feel like one of the things that Wild Hundreds really manages to do for me as a reader is to witness violence and give testimony of it, but it also manages not to aestheticize or make it beautiful, or to glorify it in any way. I think that’s a really fine line for anybody writing about violence — particularly in terms of racialized black death — to not make it simply a poetic device or a poetic spectacle, but to somehow honor it. Can you talk to me about how you negotiate that as you’re writing these poems?

I think about violence a lot, because I think that like when I think about my own relationship to violence. It’s a developing relationship, and I think it’s a kind of relativism. I think that the reality is that the world is brutal, and the condition of the world is such that every day that you live, your living is enabled by things dying, right? So that means you are a kind of violence — your existence is a kind of violence. So, certainly, that means that violence produces things and sometimes things that are beautiful and necessary or whatever, brutal as it might be. But I think it is essential that we always remember that that shit is violence, right? So that as we’re interrogating the uses and the drawbacks and whatever, that we don’t ever forget that this has a cost.

So, you know, in the book there’s a poem about me and my homies basically getting drunk and getting into a fight.  Like me getting drunk one night and being like, “I’mma fight all y’all,” and then that happening, and that’s a poem, right? But the thing about that poem is that yes, it’s violent, and it’s also deeply sensual; there’s something, dare I say, erotic about it. And certainly loving, ’cause these are, you know, my homies. And the fight is a kind of play, but also it’s not, and I think that that is always a thing that we’re negotiating.

For me, it is important in all times neither to ennoble the violence in a way that lets it off the hook, or make it so gruesome that we feel like it’s a thing that does not exist, cause that’s the thing that produces poor American history — these notions of heroicism all come from that.

Another project in the book is language; in particular, Black and
perhaps even a Chicago dialect — a way of speaking, a syntactical behavior that is in itself conscious about it. Tell me a little bit more about that, like what was the underlying poetics of some of those decisions? 

I think that it was that in many ways, poetry to me is most exciting when it really does sound like how people might sound, because I think that our everyday is poetic. I think there are things that my mother says to me on a phone call where I’m like, “Yo, I’m taking that, Mom. Appreciate it.” (Laughs.) “Thanks for the line!” Or, you know, talking shit at the basketball court with folks, I think that produces poetry a tremendous amount.

And so some of what I was attempting to do, and I attempt to do in all my work, is to display that across the book, across the text. ’Cause I think often there are these notions that the way that Black folks — or not even necessarily Black folks, but also any kind of marginalized community — that that the way that those folks speak and behave and believe and practice is unstudied, unskilled, degenerate, whatever. And for me I’m like, “No no no no.”  (This is kind of going into the next project, but…) “No no no.” These things have a deep set of rules and a deep kind of code around ’em. You just might not know it. 

So back on the next project, I was reading an interview with Kaveh Akbar, and you talk about “the difficult work of improvement.” I’m always interested in the poetic process of going from one book to the next book, or even from the one poem to the next poem. What’s “the difficult work of improvement” that you find yourself embarking on now or in general?

A few things. Number one, I’m tryna study and understand linguistics more. It’s a very … I don’t want to say, like, lazy study, but it’s certainly not academic. I would also say that I’m trying to, make sure that the work stretches in different ways, that I make moves that, how can I say … I want it to be clear that this is a book that I could not have written, like, at the time I was writing this [Wild Hundreds], for whatever that’s worth. I’m also tryna understand meter more, ’cause as much as I’ve been engaged with form, I’ve always had an estranged relationship with meter and am tryna challenge myself on that and just reexamine how I think about sound. And I also think trying to be mindful that all the poems have this, that they present in different ways, they’re not all first-person singular pronouncements that all have a similar move to them and have a similar shape to them.

So a lot of it is craft, and craft-wise, you’re saying you want to make sure the poems don’t present in the same way, but in Wild Hundreds, repetition is one of the hallmark forms, or formal presentations that the book makes: the theme, the title, the collection itself circles back. What were you trying to do with repetition in this book?

The first role of repetition in anything, I think, is emphasis, so it’s a bit of that. It’s a bit of a challenge to myself to say, “Okay, I’mma write as many poems as I can about Harold’s Chicken Shack.  How can I make all those different, or how can I use each one to dig a little deeper to get a slightly different angle to the thing?” I think that’s part of it. Also you know I’m in love with hip hop and I’m in love with the notion of the hook or the notion of the ad lib — the notion of voices returning, so that the fact that Rick Ross or Jadakiss or Jay-Z, you know, all of these different rappers like have, not even lines that they’ll come back to, but like guttural impulses, and you’re like, “Oh, yeah.” Like, “Turn this song up right now, ’cause 2 Chainz is about to come on, ’cause I heard, you know, cause I heard that.” And so, I think about how to do that in a book.

Why the ampersand? I’m always curious about that choice.

Oooooo … I like the ampersand. Okay, so we’ve talked a lot and I’ve sort of mentioned hip hop a lot as a thing that that shapes my artistic thinking, shapes my political thinking, and I think it, yeah it kind of shapes my aesthetic. I like that it makes the line shorter and more compact. And it quickens a kind of line — even seeing many ampersands in a row makes a beat; it kinda creates a kinda percussion. Also, I am a terrible visual artist and am always interested in what, in the spaces where I can produce something that has a visual component, despite not being very good at the actual technical doings of those things, so I like the ampersand for its aesthetic quality.

So, let’s circle all the way back. You started poetry at this super young age, are there things that you would go back and tell young Nate?

Oh, you know that’s hard. “Read more.” I think that would be the thing that I want to say. But realistically, I don’t know if I’d even say that ’cause I really value the way that things have turned out. I’m a very deeply flawed person who makes mistakes constantly, but I do value many of the lessons that I’ve learned along the way through great generosities of other folks and those mistakes and, you know, the times that I was smart enough to listen or shut up, whatever. I don’t know if I would tell myself anything, I think I would just let it ride.


Read more in this issue: Critical Review | Poems | Writing Prompt


Lauren Alleyne_8.24.2018_19Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish (New Issues Press  April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019).

Photo credit: Erica Cavanagh