An Interview with Nate Marshall
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: 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.
When I read the collection not only was so much of it about language, but also about finding new—and sometimes terrible—connections to your name. The first section of the book is called “The Other Nate Marshall” and the poems interrogate the time after you found out there’s this white supremacist who has the same name. What I found interesting is that after the first section ends, the first poem in the next part, “What’s My Favorite Word?” is titled “everything I’ve called women.” It’s kind of a mirror image, all this focus being on your name and the importance of naming, but then immediately talking about forgetting women’s names or how the speaker can “give women a rash of nicknames.” I’m curious, were you thinking about that when you set up the structure of the book? Are you kind of challenging yourself, particularly regarding your relationship with women, about how your recognition of the language you use and have used has evolved?
One of the big threads of the book, as I see it, is this question of gender and sexuality. I found a kind of home or respite in language, quite literally being the poet, but also language has often been this way I connect to people. When I travel places and learn the local lingo, almost as a sign of respect or due deference, it makes me think about how language is full of possibility. But language is also one of the key spaces we use to oppress, to put down, to sort of strip people of personhood. If you want to talk in a basic historical sense, one of the things you do when you’re trying to colonize or brutalize a people is strip their language. You start trying to teach them the language of power. In the context of apartheid South Africa, trying to institute Afrikaans-only instruction. In the U.S., setting up schools like Harvard or Yale for “the instruction of the Indian,” which is part of their history. Certainly, the ways Black people have been stripped in U.S. context, in the western context, coming out chattel slavery. They were stripped out of specific and particular knowledge of languages.
For me, I have to ask, not just where do I fit into that process in the oppressed class, but also where am I a part of the oppressive class or where am I complicit with the oppressive class? Gender is one of those spaces. As a cis man, these are things I have to stare down and interrogate. I think it is part of my responsibility to articulate something thoughtful about that.
I can see that in a poem like “the homies ask if i’m tryna smash,” which focuses on these violent words for sex: smash, beat, hit, pound, etc. Can you talk a little bit more about how you were thinking about gender in this book more broadly?
Well thinking about “What’s My Favorite Word?,” that section title is an allusion to the rapper Too $hort. He has this kind of refrain, what’s my favorite word, and his favorite word is the b-word, often said very gleefully. There’s the poem in there, “my mom’s favorite rapper was Too $hort,” which is true, but part of the thought of the project is to ask what are our investments in things? How do we move from that place of wittingly or unwittingly oppressive behavior toward something different and transformative?
For me, in the process of writing FINNA, I didn’t think I could write truthfully, or as an honest broker, about this white supremacist dude without thinking well what kind of supremacy am I complicit in? I believe in human connection. I believe that we’re all connected and interrelated and that’s kind of what buoys me politically because I think we have a responsibility to other people. If we don’t rise to that, we’re poorer for it. I can reject dude in some ways or reject his thinking, but I also have to be prepared for the ways that I’m like him and imagine a framework for liberation that may include him. A framework that may include many people I find despicable or distasteful or just don’t like, that’s important to me. We don’t get to just throw people away. The logic that makes folks throw people away is the same that locks people up and is the same that creates the structure of policing in this country. That’s just what it is.
In the book, I do try to move and think with some rigor toward how do we imagine this next world? How do we push toward that?
In the poem “Publicist,” there’s a mentor who essentially says the speaker needs to be publishing essays that make them part of the public conversation. Right after that, there’s a line “well motherfuckers / spend every day killing / a Black somebody in Chicago,” kind of pushing against the demand for timely trauma essays that relate to literary work. Part of my reading is that you’re critiquing how marginalized artists are asked to write essays that talk about trauma or oppression in their work concerning some type of news headline or timeliness. The poem challenges that capitalistic request and reveals how it can be exploitative. Can you talk about that particular poem?
I think the reality is we can’t uncouple how we think about crime and violence from this history of race and racism. By that I mean we have this public imagination of Chicago as a kind of violent place, but we should think about where that comes from. Where does that originate? What’s the historical lineage of that space in the American imagination?
Well, it’s a number of things. At a time when there weren’t many places that had a true Black middle class and a true Black elite, Chicago developed those communities, and certainly those class spaces function separately from how they do in white society, even if they’re related. A third of the city is Black, Black people have had an undeniable imprint on the cultural and political life of the city, so there’s a real interest from those in power to paint Black people as somehow degenerate and frightening. People do die in the city from intra-community violence and from police brutality, and I’m not saying this to in any way diminish the tragedy of those things, but there is a sensationalism that feeds into racist ideas and ideas that Black people need to be policed in aggressive ways. I reject that.
The contemporary moment of how we think about Chicago really goes back to around 2009, specifically, there was a killing of a young man named Derrion Albert. It was a terrible incident, one that happened in the neighborhood where I grew up. But what else was happening in 2009? It was the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, a Black man who made his political home in Chicago. I don’t think we can decouple those media narratives. Chicago during that time never had the highest rate of per capita homicides in the U.S. It was on its face false.
I’m always listening for both what’s being said and what is being said under what’s being said. Say we talk about the dude in the White House now, for example, it’s very clear his interest in Chicago has always been about trying to prove the irascible violence of Black people.
That leads to my last question I guess because I did very much feel that in the title poem. There’s a couple lines in “FINNA” that read, “like i come from my southern grandmothers & finna / is this word that reminds me about everything next.” It’s a definition, but also a redefinition, a complex definition, reinforcing the significance of the title. When the reader leaves the collection, what are you hoping they’re looking forward to? What are you hoping they’re looking toward out the other side?
In some ways, it’s all about that last section. It starts with that Audre Lorde quote, “every line i write shrieks there are no easy solutions.” If anything, that’s sort of where I want to leave people. These things aren’t black and white. They’re not good and evil. Things aren’t as simple as these people are bad and must be pushed out of society and these people are good and must be pulled in because I believe that’s a kind of oppressive logic. I hope people come out of the book thinking about love. How do I love people? How do I love the communities I find myself a part of? How do I reach toward love? And not in an easy way, but how do I reach toward a love that is rigorous and complicated and combative, but that is ultimately a fuller expression than anything we’ve been handed by society.
Sure, love is saying sweet things to your partner or playing with your nephew, but it’s also calling your homeboy when he assaulted someone and having a series of hard conversations with him. Saying, I’m not throwing you out, you’re still part of my community, but our engagement has to be around how you can step into accountability and how you can get to a better place, so you don’t reify these harms. Otherwise, what I’m doing isn’t love, just a different kind of violence. It’s not love to tell people what they want to hear, it’s love to help people get where they need to go.