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An Interview with Nate Marshall

Aram Mrjoian

Nate Marshall is an award-winning writer, rapper, educator, and editor. He is the author and editor of numerous works including Wild Hundreds and The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. Nate is a member of The Dark Noise Collective and co-directs Crescendo Literary. He is an assistant professor of English at Colorado College. He is from the South Side of Chicago.


FINNA—​the much-anticipated follow-up to Nate Marshall’s debut, ​Wild Hundreds​—begins with a prose poem, “landless acknowledgment,” which, in some ways, functions as a key to the whole collection. Ending, “maybe ain’t no home except for how your beloveds cuss or pray or pronounce,” the poem points to many of ​FINNA’​ s larger themes: an erasure and severing from ancestral homes, criticizing and acknowledging complicity in oppressive systems, and a fascination with the migratory and idiosyncratic nature of language. That is to say that ​FINNA ​is interested in origins and evolutions, as well as real and imagined definitions. By rediscovering wonder and poking at the flaws in familiar geographies and concepts, Marshall guides the reader toward the type of intimate and honest personal analysis that leads to a more accepting future.

Marshall and I spoke via Zoom. This interview has been lightly condensed and edited.

—Aram Mrjoian


Aram Mrjoian: Tell me if I’m reading too much into this, but your last collection, ​Wild Hundreds,​ begins with this quote from James Baldwin—“you don’t ever leave home. you take your home with you. you better...otherwise you’re homeless.”—and “landless acknowledgment,” which kicks off ​FINNA​, also talks about home. In the middle of the collection, there’s a poem, “another Nate Marshall origin story” talking about moving to Colorado and this idea of a fixed place. I guess I’m interested in how you’re thinking about—through both of these collections, but particularly in ​FINNA—​the idea of home not as a fixed place. Maybe another way to put this is how you’re thinking about movement. Both collections talk a lot about Chicago, but you’ve moved from there. Has that move changed your perspective as you get ready to bring this collection out into the world?

Nate Marshall: That’s a good question. Chicago has been and remains an important space for me personally and artistically. I was born and raised in Chicago, both my parents were too. My family has been in the city for maybe over a hundred years, so in a real way I feel deeply rooted, but I also have thought a lot about this notion of home, this notion of place, both its potential and its limits. For example, I think about my friend Safia Elhillo, who’s a Sudanese American poet. She’s writing about home and geography as slippery concepts. I think about the orientation of folks who are more recent immigrants or folks who come from parts of the world where we see borders constantly shifting and moving, not that it doesn’t happen in the United States, it always continues to happen because the process of colonization remains, but there is relative stability of state power, so we don’t have to think about it a lot.

Coming out of ​Wild Hundreds,​ and as a sort of continuation of that thought, those are things I’ve had to wrestle with. You bring up “landless acknowledgment,” but that was one of the last poems I wrote in the book. In a lot of ways, the thought-work behind that poem was very much—in part because where I am in Colorado—the practice of land acknowledgments. Being in the West, being in a place with a more pronounced indigenous presence, it’s a more common feature of the cultural landscape here—thinking that’s a structure for most Black Americans and perhaps Black people in the western hemisphere more broadly. For folks who are descendants of the slave trade, finding that point of origin is not really available to us. I’m from Chicago, cool, but before that my people were in Alabama and Mississippi. Before that, who knows. It’s an open question with a painful answer. That poem was trying to think through the dynamics of that question and answer.

I could see that when I was reading. Besides thinking about what you’re talking about in terms of place, I was also interested in your focus on language and how language migrates and follows people. In “welcome to how the hell I talk,” you provide the different significant influences of your lexicon: “demographics: 35 percent Missibamaisiana-isms from the Up South old folks. 20 percent / magnet school doublespeak. 15 percent white girl whispering in the suburbs or summer camps. / 18 percent too many rap records. 12 percent my mom’s work voice.” The largest percentage there is from the South. It isn’t until the collection’s penultimate title poem, “FINNA,” that you provide the word’s etymology: “finna comes from the Southern phrase ​fixing to.​” From my reading, a lot of this collection felt invested not only in the language you choose to use in your poetry, but also in your day-to-day life.

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve always been fascinated with language. I remember there’s a sort of particular excitement, a sort of insecurity and wonder when you’re a kid on the basketball court and someone says something and your mind goes ​I think I know what that means​, but you have to read the context clues and figure it out, even when you’re not sure if you’ve heard something right and have to listen harder and tune in. Part of the process of writing this book was redoing that thing one is always doing, relearning new language and finding that meaning. When I went to school in the South, Black Memphians have this word, “junt,” which is similar to if you go to Philly and they say “jaun.” It’s a word that can sort of be anything. Much of the process of writing ​FINNA ​was turning my ear back toward that initial interest in language.