&you too if you feel it.
&you know by feel it
i don’t mean bought it
&i don’t mean studied.
&you know by feel it
the whole nation head nodding
to niggas they tried to lock up or out
or i mean my whole talk a cakewalk
every time i’m on the phone tricking you
into my humanity or on my CV deceiving
you into hiring a maroon.
&you know by feel it
i don’t mean
you opted in. i mean my people here
&been here making genius from gristle
&every moment you declare a renaissance
is just every moment you fools been paying
the right attention.
&we not stuttin that cuz we’d rather you pay
&attention my good people
or bad people
or not people:
what you do unto the least you do unto me.
cause every time you decided i was acceptable
or articulate or actually okay
you don’t know who you let in.
you let in my mama
&my greasy greasy grandmammy
&all the folks who taught my flows
&all the ones you think are drug dealers
&my fine fine fine
the homies ask if i’m tryna smash
our language for sex:
stain smash bang beat hit
this is where we live
a land of impact & soiling,
a gaggle of boys boasting
over hurt. our tongues
wagging, stupid flags
of this dumb country. our love
for each other measured
in what we lord over. we poor
timekeepers, consider our preposition here:
bros before ______.
we anti-historians. we unmakers of ourselves.
we failures of science & courage.
we ugly. we ugly. we ugly.
we a bankrupt vernacular,
a slang as prophecy,
a linguistic imperative toward
aubade for the whole hood
today i offer my self
all the small kindnesses.
i’m out here
with breath in my body
though it may be stank
& body in my control
though it may be too soft
or too large or not enough.
today i offer the whole crib
a jam we ain’t heard in a minute
& permission to turn the news down
& move a hip like a suggestion
to a lover.
on this day i declare the pockmarked
street i grew up on a miracle.
i declare the bills, even the overdue
ones, a blessing. who knew
that we would still be here
to see these injustices. how can we measure
the disrespect of lack against that precious surprise?
today i tell myself truths
other than the one that makes me low,
i give myself the gift of a joke with the homies.
today i stay woke
to all the terror
but also to my favorite food
or my favorite place
or my best hope for our people
& i work to make all
my best lives possible.
A few good words with Nate
PDS: You’re a writer, educator, music-maker, Chicagoan-at-large—how/where/when do you make time to make art? I feel like I get to hold onto a secret when writers I love talk about their processes, it’s often such personal and private (unacknowledged) labor.
NM: Ha. I wish I had a good answer for this. I’m not the sort of writer in my life who’s super disciplined about how/when I write. I think mostly it goes in peaks and valleys. I have good months where I’ll produce a good amount of work consistently but mostly I always feel like it’s been a year since I wrote a poem and that longing will send me to the page.
PDS: The end of “the homies ask if i'm tryna smash” really stuck to my ribs & heart: “a slang as prophecy, / a linguistic imperative toward / pain.” I think a lot about languages, Black ones in particular, think on the joy and trauma inherent in our linguistics. Tell us more about your relationship to your language(s)—how you love them/school them/know them in your writing (or even in your mouth).
NM: I think about language all the time. Maybe this isn’t surprising because I’m a poet but I think since a young age I was fascinated by language and the ways it could be deployed to make people feel powerful or weak or loved or hated or whatever. In the book I’m working on now I’m trying to think a lot about what the component parts of my language(s) are and where did I learn those parts. I’m trying to decipher the ways in which language can be a site of possibility or a site for destruction in hopes that I can move more fully toward possibility.
PDS: You’re a member of the Dark Noise Collective (with Aaron Samuels, Danez Smith, Fatimah Ashgar, Franny Choi, & Jamila Woods)—what six writers (living or dead) could you imagine in an artist’s collective of their own?
NM: Wow, that’s a wild ass question. I think my answer would have to be Jupiter Hammon, Phillis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, Lucy Terry Prince, Ottobah Cugoano. All Black writers writing in the 18th Century and imagining freedom. We owe all of them a debt. Get into them.
Nate Marshall is from the South Side of Chicago. He is the author of Wild Hundreds and an editor of The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. Wild Hundreds has been honored with the Black Caucus of the American Library Association’s award for Poetry Book of the Year and The Great Lakes College Association’s New Writer Award. His last rap album, Grown came out in 2015 with his group Daily Lyrical Product. Nate is a member of The Dark Noise Collective and co-directs Crescendo Literary with Eve Ewing. He completed his B.A. at Vanderbilt University and an M.F.A. at The University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers' Program. Nate has received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Poetry Foundation, and The University of Michigan. He is the Director of National Programs for Louder Than A Bomb Youth Poetry Festival and has taught at The University of Michigan, Wabash College, and Northwestern University.