Interview with Nate Marshall, Co-Editor of The Breakbeat Poets
May 25, 2015
Nate Marshall is a teacher and artist from the South Side of Chicago. He received his BA at Vanderbilt University and his MFA in Poetry at University of Michigan, where he also served as a Zell Postgraduate Fellow. He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Wabash College. Marshall is the editor of The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop (Haymarket Books, 2015) and his first book, Wild Hundreds, was the recipient of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize and is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press. His work has appeared in Indiana Review, The New Republic, and [PANK] Online, among other publications. He was also the winner of the 2014 Hurston/Wright Founding Members Award and the 2013 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award.
Marshall has been a teaching artist with a number of organizations, including Young Chicago Authors and InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit. He is the founder of the Lost Count Scholarship Fund, which promotes youth violence prevention in Chicago. He is a founding member of the poetry collective Dark Noise and has performed poetry at venues and universities across the US, Canada, and South Africa. He is also a rapper, and his rap album Grown is due out Summer 2015 with his group Daily Lyrical Product.
Below, see what he had to say to our Editor in Chief, Tyler Tsay.
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TT: I’d love to start off with a little bit of an intro to you. When did you first get into writing and when was poetry it for you?
NM: I think I started writing poetry and raps at the same time, around 11 or 12. I want to say probably when it really hit me, when it was really like, oh, this is -- I guess when it became a fever -- was probably the weekend after my 13th birthday. It was the first time I was harassed by the police, stopped by the police, and something about that moment changed something for me, or it put something in perspective.
TT: Do you think it’s because you saw poetry’s role in voicing an opinion about that event?
NM: I don’t even know if it was poetry. I think there was this way in which I realized that, for me, it felt apparent that there were these actors in the world who had an incredible amount of power over my life, my body, my ability to move or not move in my own neighborhood, who didn’t really know who I was or care who I was or care who any of us were. Had I not had poetry or some sort of outlet to speak to that and to speak to who I was, it would have driven me crazy.
TT: On that second point about an outlet, what is the Dark Noise Collective itself and why was it formed?
NM: Dark Noise is a collective of artists (poets, but we also all do many different kinds of art-making) consisting of myself, Aaron Samuels, Jamila Woods, Franny Choi, Fatimah Asghar, and Danez Smith. We came together at the end of 2012, right around November or December 2012, and I think it was initially an idea Fatimah and Aaron. I think they were both thinking about how they could intentionally build community and build a family of artists, specifically young artists of color, that could support each other and be a crew that rolls together and was entrenched in a pedagogy of radical [welds]. So that’s who we are.
We’ve been doing stuff for the last couple of years. We’ve done a number of panels at various conferences and a little bit of touring together. We [workshop] all of our projects always. Even individual projects that we have [come] to the house that is Dark Noise. So even if I’m [doing something with Danez] or releasing a book, everything comes through there and gets workshopped.
TT: Where do you see the Collective going from this point on? Is it something that you want to stick with and keep going with touring?
NM: That’s a good question. I think that it could go any number of ways; I mean for the foreseeable future we’ll all remain interesting in touring and performing and that sort of stuff, as well as being interested in that individually. I think it’s nice to do that together. The biggest thing, where should the Collective go -- I don’t know. I think one of the things that I’ve found is starting and people knowing what that is or hearing about Dark Noise and coming to one of our events, and a lot of folks, particularly a lot of artists and peers, are kind of like, “What are you guys doing and how can we do that or something similar?” So in the future, I think it would be really cool for us to think about ways that we can share our organizing model with other folks.
TT: That’s really cool. On to the book itself, The Breakbeat Poets, how did the idea to create such an anthology come about? How did you become involved in the project?
NM: Initially it was an idea that Kevin had, and he submitted a book proposal to a press in about ‘ ‘09, and that proposal was not accepted. But it was interesting because Quraysh was actually on the review committee for the press that got the proposal, and he went back to Kevin and was like, I don’t know if this is going to work but the germ of the idea is a good one, so follow that. So around the end of 2009, early 2010, Kevin approached me with this idea and was like, yo, I have this idea, do you want to help, do you want to build this with me? And I said, sure. So we did that, we brought Quraysh in as another co-editor, and that was where that process started.
TT: Because there are so many diverse voices and because you ranged over so many decades, how did you go about selecting and gathering these poems and figure out which ones you were going to put where, and things like that? It seems like an enormous project.
NM: Well, a few things. So one of the first things we did and continue to do was make a list. We made a list of people who we thought were dope, who fit the aesthetic. And it was work that excited us. So we made a number of those kinds of lists, with dozens and dozens -- well, over a hundred folks on that list, and then we gathered those emails. The thing is about it, especially with a field like poetry, is that it’s a humongous field, but it’s a pretty connected field, so usually most of the people who were on our list were our friends or peers or mentors, and we were able to get direct contact with them. So we made a long list of folks to reach out to, we reached out, and then we also told those folks to pass this along as you see fit, so if there are other people you think might be a good fit, then tell them to go for it. Then we got a bunch of submissions. And we continued to send things out -- I’d discover someone in some journal and be like, oh man, and send something to them. It was a lot of that up until we selected. The editorial process, in terms of figuring out what poems were in and what poems were out, what that looked like, was a long one, and that process took at least a year.
We started working on the book in 2010, it came out in 2015, so the whole process took about five years, but just the actual picking of poems and reading the poems probably took about a year’s time. In terms of the ordering, occasionally if someone had individual poems we’d make decisions about what went first or second if it had multiple poems in it, but other than that, if you look at the book, the order is by the person’s birth year. A number of anthologies do that kind of thing, but specifically what we were giving a nod to is new American poetry, which was started by Donald Hall in the 60s, one of the first places where some of the beat poets and old school poets were published. So it was a shout to that, and I think it’s a nice organizing principle, because you get to see how things develop or change over time -- in some ways, even the idea of time roughly.
TT: Yeah, definitely. When you were going through it, because it’s chronological, how have you seen it progress? How do you think that it’s evolved in modern day? Where do you see poetry now?
NM: It’s hard to say -- I definitely think there are some changes from the first to the last poet over the course of the book. But one of the things I like about the book, that’s really exciting about it, is that these are all people -- with the exception of one poet -- these are all folks that are living, that are in the world doing the work. They’re all still actively producing; the oldest dude in the book has a book of poems that either just came out or is about to come out. Everyone is still very active. One thing I would say is interesting is that as you get later in the book, you start to see some folks that came to poetry earlier in their lives, which is sort of interesting. And it makes sense, because if you have a kid -- the youngest contributor to the book is 16, so obviously he discovered poetry really early. He had to, because he’s only 16. But even some of the poets that are in their early to mid twenties, maybe even to early thirties, a lot of those folks I’ve known for years, because they did Brave New Voices, or we were in youth communities together. And another thing that’s interesting in that respect is that as you get later in the book -- there’s a lot of people in the book who have relationships with each other, who are friends or peers, but as you get later in the book there are people who are formally aligned, which I find really interesting. So for example, if you look at the year ‘89 in the book, that’s all of Dark Noise. Or if you go even a little later, you see Safia Elhillo, Camonghne Felix, and Aziza Barnes all in the early 90s, and the three of them are in a collective together. So I think that’s one of the things that’s really interesting. It’s not necessarily intentional, but there’s a pattern that develops as the book goes on.
TT: Did any poems stand out in your mind, if there are any you can pick from this incredible anthology?
NM: Yeah. I mean there’s a lot of poems. I like all of them; I appreciate all of them, but some just stand out. Joy Priest has a poem in there that’s pretty fantastic. I think what Douglas Kearney and Avery R. Young are doing, in terms of experimental poetry, is really interesting and really important to the aesthetic.
TT: Do you think, because a lot of these poems have a certain beat to it, maybe a spoken element, do you think that by anthologizing it, it might detract from the poems?
NM: No –that’s one thing that to me feels very clear. How can I say it? There are a lot of poets in this anthology who either have a spoken-word background or are just, in their own right, fantastic readers. These are not spoken-word poems. It’s not a spoken-word anthology. I was a spoken-word revolutionary, so obviously we appreciate that community, but the reason we pick these poems is because they stand up on the page, because they are empowering and important. It’s simply in the experience of them written on the page. It’s not to say that you can’t also gain something by hearing them. I think you can. But – and this is maybe a larger conversation -- to me, most poems worth their salt should be able to live both spaces. Not that they don’t live differently, but they should be able to. So I don’t think you lose anything.
TT: Yeah, I definitely understand that. In reference to Kevin’s opening statement, what do you think is left for poets to write?
NM: I think everything. I think the reality is that all times, all countries, all people, all spaces, have their poets, right? Whether or not they call them poets, whether or not they’re sitting down writing these things and publishing them and call it the book, every time and space has their poets, right? I think the responsibility of those poets is to document and think about and speak about, and speak to, the time in which they live. Right? So they’re supposed to add to people’s ability to make sense of things, and also maybe as some kind of immediate time capsule, or long-ranging time capsule, to what was happening, right? That can happen a lot of different ways. That could be a book like Marcus Wicker’s book, that feels super current, relevant, or super of-the-now. But it could also be a book like Adrian Matejka’s book The Big Smoke, that is talking about shit that happened 100 years ago. I think even in his feeling with that subject matter, the way they dealt with it we learned something about what it means to be in the early 21st century, right? So I mean, to me that’s what’s always better poetry.
You know, the particulars never change, like whether we’re testing or telegraphing changes, but there are specific changes but the big-picture things about the human experience don’t really change. You know, like, we’re born, there’s some violence, there’s some negotiations with power, there’s love and loss, there’s joy, some folks die. Like, that’s pretty much it, that’s pretty much what we got. So it’s like, once people had covered those topics, if we had stopped writing, we would’ve stopped writing, immediately. Cause there’s not new shit.
TT: Yeah, I get that. Do you think you’ve learned anything specific by putting together this anthology? Do you think that your experiences with going through all these works, and putting them together, and ordering them, and things like that, has it changed your views in any way?
NM: So for me, in a very clear way, I’m a hip-hop poet. I also make rap music. I’m actively referencing and name-checking rap songs, or the elements of hip-hop in poems – not in every poem, but in many poems. And I think one of the things I’ve learned, that comes through working on this project, is that, to be a poet of the hip-hop generation – what we’re terming a breakbeat poet – means many different things. And it’s a really wide field. Because in many ways, what it is is that we all live in the moment of hip-hop. We all live at a time when this particular culture, this particular music, is set in the center of American cultural production. Which means it’s set at the center of global cultural production. And we sort of take that for granted, especially if we’re young enough to not really remember a time when that couldn’t happen. But that’s crazy. Like it’s actually a ludicrous concept that music made by and for poor black people, poor brown people, in America, is a dominant cultural thing. It’s something so ubiquitous that you could sing it to a white grandma in Kansas and she might not know any of your songs but she knows what it is, she knows that it exists. That’s ridiculous. It’s crazy. I mean, nothing like that has happened really before in human history. Or at least in the modern era, right? So in a lot of ways, I think doing the anthology has expanded my concept of what the aesthetic of what it means to be a breakbeat poet is. Or just what it means to be a poet that’s engaging in so-called hip-hop poetics or in writing within the context of the hip-hop era or post-hip-hop era.
TT: Definitely. I saw that you’re releasing a new book?
NM: Yeah, it’s called Wild Hundreds. It’s coming out on University of Pittsburgh Press in August.
TT: Great. And any last advice for our audience?
NM: Biggest advice I can give any young reader? Hierarchy is bullshit, don’t fuck what you fuck with, and just know that’s what you love and that you’re willing to defend it, in what you read and what you write. And number two is just: read, write, repeat.
TT: Absolutely. All right, thanks so much for talking with me.