I sat down with Professor Nate Marshall in his office on the second floor of Armstrong Hall to hear his thoughts on writing, teaching poetry, and the social functions of art. Hailing from Chicago, Marshall came to Colorado College this year to teach in the English Department. He authored the book
“Wild Hundreds” (2015), which received the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. Additionally, he is co-editor of “The BreakBeat Poets “and has been the recipient of the Hurston/ Wright Founding Members Award, the Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award, the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, and the Cave Canem Fellowship. Marshall is also a member of the rap group Daily Lyrical Project and is a member of Dark Noise Collective alongside other Chicago poets and artists such as Jamila Woods.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ABBY WILLIAMS: WHEN WAS THE FIRST TIME YOU CONSIDERED YOURSELF A POET AND AT THAT POINT DID YOU KNOW YOU KNOW YOU WERE GOING TO PURSUE POETRY?
NATE MARSHALL: The first time I think I considered myself a poet was probably in the eighth grade. I had started to do the poetry slam in Chicago and got more into it, and I think it became more of my self-definition then — but I definitely didn’t think I would pursue it into adulthood, I don’t think I thought that far.
AW: DO YOU REMEMBER THE POINT WHEN YOU KNEW YOU WERE GOING TO PURSUE IT?
NM: I still don’t know if I am going to pursue it, I am still on the fence [laughs]. I always sort of think that I might — that maybe one day this poetry thing will let up and I might have to go sell insurance or something. I am always prepared for that possibility [laughs].
AW: HOW DOES YOUR HOME INFLUENCE YOUR PRACTICE AND WHAT IS IT LIKE TEACHING AND WRITING SOMEPLACE NEW?
NM: So, growing up, my grandmother was a librarian so I grew up in a home with a lot of books and that was absolutely a big influence because I grew up as a reader. And I think beyond that, in a broader sense, Chicago was so influential for me because it was — it is — a place where you can have a lot of access to things if you know where to look. It is a really segregated place, so it can sometimes be hard to penetrate through to those things, you just may not know they are there. But if you can find them, they are really there in abundance and there is a lot of opportunity to build community around art. And just being around people who are engaged in the world around them. So that was really useful, I think I came up as a young person, and into adulthood, as a writer, in an artistic community filled with a ton of really, really dope and interesting and thoughtful artists — we were challenging each other a lot and that was a site of growth.
In terms of how a new place impacts me — it’s good, right? For me, so much of writing and so much about making art is about observations and paying attention. Sometimes, being in a place where you have been for a really long time, you can be deadened to paying to attention. You know the way to work, you don’t have to be piqued to know what is there. You know what the flora and fauna look like. And being in a new place, especially in a different region where so much feels so different, is really useful because I find myself paying a lot more attention because I need to … It just raises my level of engagement with the world.
AW: WHAT DO YOU WANT TO TEACH TO COLORADO COLLEGE STUDENTS?
NM: That’s a good question. I think the two things that to me are most important to teach in terms of creative writing, and more broadly, are: the power of noticing and paying attention and that we can learn from anyone, right? Often in my courses I teach a kind of diverse, and some might say a weird, selection of books, and students often don’t like all of the books, or certainly, all of the selected poems. But for me part of the logic in that is — look, you don’t have to like a thing to learn from it and we also don’t have to identify, we don’t have to necessarily see ourselves ref lected. We should see ourselves reflected at points in our education but there will be points when we don’t, and those are also incredible sites for learning.
AW: HOW DOES YOUR ART OR YOUR PRACTICE INTERSECT WITH SOCIAL JUSTICE?
NM: I think [pauses] I mean, you know — there is real power in people, particularly young people, being engaged with the world around them. I came into a kind of political consciousness via engagement in arts communities … from reading books and listening to rap songs and being at poetry slams. Those, when I was a young person, were things that were really instructive to me about the important issues of the day and the issues I cared about and the ways I could begin to think about them and then I had to go on and do further study. I think art is a tremendous way to do that. Most people — I mean, we live in a radically segregated country and world — most people don’t interact with folks who make different money than them, who look different than them, who pray different than them — whatever. But we may get to those people’s art. And so, to me, art is such an important point of connection.
AW: WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF?
NM: Being an uncle.
AW: TELL ME ABOUT YOUR OTHER OCCUPATIONS OR HOBBIES OR INTERESTS OUTSIDE OF POETRY AND TEACHING?
NM: I like playing basketball, I like riding my bike, I like arguing with friends about sports and rap music. I guess this is kind of outside of poetry, but I like making music.
AW: DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE POEM? OR, I’LL EXPAND THIS QUESTION TO FAVORITE PUBLISHED WORK?
NM: I have a lot of poems I love… but I will say “Alabanza” by Martín Espada.
AW: DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR ASPIRING POETS AND WRITERS AT CC?
NM: Read widely and without prejudice.
AW: DO YOU HAVE ANY FUTURE PROJECTS IN THE WORKS?
NM: I am working on my next book of poems, which is coming out next August, and then I am working on an audio play.
AW: WHAT IS A QUESTION YOU WISHED PEOPLE ASKED YOU DURING INTERVIEWS?
NM: I guess… maybe something around what you learn from other genres and other kinds of art making. I have a lot of thoughts about romantic comedies. And, in some ways, how romantic comedies — well, I think about them a lot like poems. Particularly like sonnets or certain other kinds of received forms.
This year, Professor Marshall is teaching Creative Writing
Blocks 2 and 3, Multicultural Women Poets Block 5,
and Introduction to Poetry Block 8. The title of his forthcoming
book of poems is “FINNA” and the working title
of his in-progress audio play is Leaving Chicago. Marshall’s
book “Wild Hundreds” can be found in Tutt Library
and his other poems and performances are published
online by The Poetry Foundation and on YouTube.
If you are interested in reading “Alabanza” by Martín
Espada, it is also published by The Poetry Foundation