Nate Marshall’s words explode Louder Than A Bomb
Written by Gianna Fontana
Edited by Carissa Degen
Feature photo by Carissa Degen
A coffee shop filled with hand-painted signs, repurposed decor and a selection of books for its patrons sits directly across from the Garfield Green Line stop.
Surrounding the well-lit, well-stocked joint that plays old-school hip-hop are vacant parking lots and empty streets. The neighborhood, Washington Park, serves as the primary hangout spot for the young poet. He relaxes in his chair, propped up against the wall. He’s wearing a White Sox hat, a tan, leather-sleeved bomber jacket, marbled glasses that run clear on the bottom rims, a gold watch and a black rubber band with the phrase “#blessup” on his wrist.
He orders a peppermint tea from the waitress who greets him by name, and is interrupted with hellos from several of his friends within the time it takes him to drink just one cup. He is at home here; known for his personality both on paper and in person, and the wordsmith definitely has a lot to say.
Nate Marshall is surprised at his own quick success. With the start of his career at 12 years old, Marshall has been an influential member of his artistic community for over a decade. From being one of the primary subjects in an award-winning documentary about the world’s largest youth poetry slam, Louder Than A Bomb, to publishing his very own book, Wild Hundreds, to becoming a professor of English at Wabash College, his poetry has kept him busy.
With it, he has won prestigious awards such as the Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award and the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and produced works that are featured in publications such as Poetry Magazine. He was also featured on HBO’s Brave New Voices, and received a nomination for the NAACP Image Award. Marshall never expected that all of this was possible for him – at least not all before he celebrated his 26th birthday.
Despite having some credits under his belt already, he aspires to one day win another award.
“I often think about winning a national book award, not to win a national book award, but because you give a speech,” Marshall says. “I think it’d be really terrifying, but I also think I’d kind of clown a little bit, and that would be sort of fun.”
His personality shines through whether he’s breaking out in dance during a conversation with friends, describing his mom as “his favorite Facebook friend” or performing on stage. He’s even exchanged emails with Roger Ebert, the late TV critic, who was a big supporter of his and the slam – an exchange he promises is archived safely in his email account.
All jokes aside, his work is crucial to him. When deciding what level of recognition is the end goal, he considers success different than most.
“It’s about the poem’s ability to live in spaces that I feel like are important to my work – even if they’re not places poems traditionally live,” Marshall says. “It’s not about necessarily being the most popular or the most well-read. Those things are cool, but it’s more about a penetrating kind of impact.”
“Lives like these shouldn’t be shortened / Sentence fragment of a future.”
“How many deaths will it take before this is considered genocide?”
Marshall writes primarily about the experiences of himself and other people of color and the challenges they face. With his background as a south side native of Chicago, the Black Lives Matter spotlight has been shining in his mind for a long time.
“As a kid, my whole neighborhood was black and I knew what that looked like,” Marshall says. “When I went to school in Mount Greenwood, that whole neighborhood was white. I knew that neighborhood looked different and I knew that maybe those things were connected.”
His poetry and point of view have been shaped by these ideals long before issues such as police brutality moved to the forefront of the news cycle. He believes art is something that can be used to talk about issues like police brutality and racial profiling in ways that legal documents or statistics can’t.
“Artistic expression impacts people in a way that a policy paper simply cannot,” Marshall says. “I think that art has the opportunity to reach in spaces that other forms of activism and protest can’t or won’t reach.”
While many are engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement, he says that those who refuse to get involved can be awakened through art.
“There’s a lot of people [who] won’t go to a protest, or won’t listen when folks are speaking politically about Black Lives Matter, but if they’re a fan of poetry, they might come across a poem,” Marshall says. “They might buy my book, or they might see a poem in a magazine, and that offers another way to make [the movement] appeal to people and to begin to make the argument for what we talk about.”
“Every kid killed is one less free lunch, a fiscal coup / Welcome to where we from.” (“Out South”)
the word is excuse me.
the word is gentrify
the word is dispossess
the word is colonize
the word is home
the word is how
can i make one when
you make mine
(“Motherf**ck Gentrification or As I Understand It This is a Free Country A Man Can Live Where He Wants”)
However, the artistic industry is not excused from discrimination. This year the Oscar Awards and its lack of nomination of a non-white performer in any of the four acting categories sparked conversation, one that Nate has contemplated.
“People talk about the Oscars, right?” Marshall says. “They’re like, ‘Well, why are black people so mad?’ And we’re not all so mad, but if you’re a black actor/director in Hollywood and you look at the way you’re systematically shut out of what’s considered the most prestigious thing in your genre, of course you’re going to be mad. Having access to that prestige offers you more opportunities later. To only give those things to folks who look a certain way and say ‘Oh, you know it’s just merit. These were just the best things;’ it’s not neutral.”
Poetry slam is a method that he believes to be important in this regard.
“The slam is so immediate,” Marshall says. “It’s visceral. If you’re at [it] and you’re watching kids spit, if a kid’s dope and he’s from the worst, failing about-to-get-shut-down school on the south side, and he’s dope— then he’s dope. If a kid is dope and he’s from North Side Prep, and he’s dope— then he’s dope. It more closely approximates a neutral playing field.”
Along with the injustices that people of color face, he adds a specific spin on his works by way of where he’s from— he writes for and about Chicago, and oftentimes political events in the city.
“I think all art has a political underpinning,” Marshall says when describing his work as an “articulation of giving value to a group of people that traditionally people haven’t given much value to.”
When considering what liberation for people of color looks like, he finds himself unsure but hopeful that art will help inspire an answer.
“As artists who believe in freedom, one of our biggest and most important things to do is be creative and imaginative, which doesn’t mean we have to have all the answers, but it does mean that we have to begin to think about it,” Marshall says.
Along with dreaming up ideas for a better, more equality-based society, he writes with a certain style—one that pushes his work to win awards and gain recognition—and he credits that to his hometown.
“In a lot of ways I think my poems sound like Chicago,” Marshall says. “I’m often using slang or using grammatical constructions that are emblematic of here and of the neighborhoods that I came up in.”
the poets pencil a new
possible on the page
boomboxes & speakers
amplify the war cry
no one called Black art, art
no one called Black poems, poems
(“1989, The Number”)
“I think art is one of the most powerful tools we have to be able to look at each other across difference,” Marshall says. “There are motherf**ckers that hate black folks, but love motown. My friend Kevin in some ways is a good example. He doesn’t hate black people, but he grew up on the North Shore, and his interest and his love for hip-hop is one of the things that began to allow him to open his eyes up to the plight of black folks in America who were in the American Colonial Projects. That doesn’t happen without art. It offers us the ability to see people that otherwise we wouldn’t really be willing to talk to, think about or engage with.”
Kevin Coval would definitely agree.
As the director of Young Chicago Authors and Founder of the poetry slam, Louder Than A Bomb, he has seen Nate work and has since then co-edited the book “Breakbeat Poets” and created “1989, The Number” with him.
“He’s rooted in the real,” Coval says. “He’s very entrenched in a Chicago tradition of realist, working-class portraiture. He’s committed to the social political nature and tool of using hip-hop poetics as a way to insert himself into the civic space to alter the dialogue better and fresher.”
“Y’all don’t really want it ‘cause I can concuss ya with just ‘yo mama’ jokes, written as new sonnets”
“I’m a big bad gangsta cool kid who, writes about his feelings”
Marshall looks forward to the future, both in the poetic world and his personal life.
He has goals of writing another book, possibly having a “shortie or shorties,” making more music, founding cultural institutions, and working for pleasure and not necessity, or in his words “get this money.” As he pays for his peppermint tea and says goodbye to his friends, he is both playful and polite.
This south-sider has potential and an ambition that rival the intensity of the verses he conceives.