Let's make "Finna" the word of the year for 2021. A Q&A with poet Nate Marshall

Nate Marshall/Photo by Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

Nate Marshall/Photo by Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

Nate Marshall’s new collection Finna feels like an open house with the door flung open welcoming everyone. That image came to mind because typically I approach poetry like I approach a get-together. With apprehension. Unsure if I want to go in. Convinced it will feel unfamiliar and like it’s humming along on mysterious rules. But Finna is not like that.

Finna is uplifting and inviting. It’s got the verve of a novel and the hard punch of reality. Finna’s one-hundred-eleven pages contain stories that will break your heart and observations that will make you laugh so loud that if you were at a party, the people on the other side of the room would be envious.

The poems, which Nate says, “often consider themes of Blackness,” frequently fuse poignancy and humor like in “Harold’s Chicken Shack #2”:

… ain’t nobody got a monopoly on your good feeling or your proper crunch.

Or in the poem “what can be said” which finds parallels between his grandfather’s Alzheimer’s and the structure of a poem:

… a man becomes a poem

a lot of repetition & love with something

indecipherable in between.

Another poem is called, “I THOUGHT THIS POEM WAS FUNNY BUT THEN EVERYBODY GOT SAD.”

The power of language is a theme running throughout. Language can reflect history and connect people. But powers-that-be can also weaponize language by delegitimizing words not rooted in the white mainstream. Words like “Finna.” Which means fixing to take action towards the future.

As you will learn in Finna, there is, of all things, a white supremacist also named Nate Marshall in Colorado – which happens to be where poet Nate Marshall now lives. But Finna’s Nate Marshall, the award-winning 31-year-old poet, author, playwright, rapper, and Assistant Professor of English at Colorado College, grew up in Chicago’s West Pullman neighborhood, attended Whitney Young Magnet High School, won literary prizes at a young age and inherited a love of language from his grandmother, a librarian in the Chicago Public schools. Professor Nate Marshall has some definite thoughts about the other Nate Marshall and you’ll find those in Finna, too.

On December 9, our city’s Nate Marshall will receive the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 21st Century Award where he’ll be honored alongside Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson.

Nate kindly spoke with me by phone about growing up in Chicago, encounters with the police, the importance of language and comedy, and how we can go from imagining a better world to bringing it into existence.

ALL READING IS FOOD

Teme: How did Chicago influence your writing and poetry?

Nate: Chicago is such a rich place to be from, artistically speaking. Chicago has a real sense of history. Chicago is crucial. I started working as a writer as a kid. Being in Chicago allowed me a tremendous amount of resources. I was able to have access to organizations and mentors like Avery R. Young, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Kevin Coval and other young Chicago authors. Where I’m from in the city is pretty far south, so being in a city that had public transit allowed me access.

Teme: What were your favorite books as a kid?

Nate: My grandmother was a librarian in the Chicago Public Schools for forty years. She was probably the first person to put books in my hand and to encourage a love of language. She kept two dictionaries under the table and whenever she used a word that I didn’t know, I’d be like, “Grandma, what’s that word?” Then she would tell me to look it up. Then I just started looking around the dictionary for fun.

I started asking for books for Christmas probably around late elementary school. A lot of those books were important to me; the Harry Potter books, Native Son by Richard Wright, 1984 and Animal Farm by Orwell, Roots, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley.

One of the things that I really loved with my grandma was that she had a saying. She said, “Reading is good. It’s all food. It’ll all feed you, so you can eat what you want so long as you eat.” If it was a thing that I could read that I was interested in, she was down for it. If I wanted a magazine subscription or a book that maybe wasn’t what a lot of people would have thought age-appropriate or very good, she didn’t care.

So in that vein, one book that I loved as a ten or eleven-year old, was a book called Pimp by Iceberg Slim, which is super smutty and violent, and kind of terrible in its way, but it was a thing I could read and so my grandma was like, “I trust the morality of this action.”

APPRECIATING MRS. CAP AND THE SURPRISE WIN

Teme: I read that a teacher first inspired you to read poetry out loud?

Nate: When I was in seventh grade, our school had a contest called “Young Authors” where you had to write a book. It was required and I didn’t want to do it.

I figured the way to sidestep the assignment was to write a book of poems. If it was a book of poems, they did not have to connect to each other, so I didn’t have to come up with some story that was robust enough to stretch across several pages. Also, poems take up the whole page. So I could be like, “Cool. It’s fifteen pages. There!” So I did this book of poems, turned it in, and it won the contest! Which shocked me. I mean, I was really just trying to get out of the assignment.

My English teacher Mrs. Cap told me, “We’re going to do this thing called ‘Louder Than a Bomb.’ You should be a part of it.” At the time, ‘Louder Than a Bomb’ had a thirteen-year-old cutoff and I had just turned thirteen. I didn’t want to do it. Number one, the idea of reading my own poems in public seemed terrible. And number two, all the other kids on the team were eighth graders.

So I didn’t turn in the permission form thinking I would let the deadline pass, and be like, “Oh, I was irresponsible,” and then I wouldn’t have do it. And Mrs. Cap was like, “Nate, I know it slipped your mind, so I signed you up. Tell your parents and show up at this place at this time, or I will fail you.”

I didn’t want to fail so I went and I did the thing.  I remember walking into that room and just immediately being like, “Oh! Turns out this is the coolest place I’ve ever been.” Just being immediately taken by the whole notion of what was happening in the room.

When my first book came out, we did a big event in Chicago. I tried to invite all the people who were instrumental at some point of the process, and I invited Mrs. Cap. She was the first one there. I think maybe she was there before me. She literally was there an hour early. It was her and another one of my former teachers. I cried twenty-eight times that night approximately. When I started signing her book, I started weeping.

FINNA

nate-marshall-finna-coverTeme: How did you decide on the title Finna?

Nate: The title poem comes from a speech I gave. A few years ago I was the graduation speaker for Perspectives Leadership Academy High School [in Chicago]. It was cool because my niece was in the graduating class. Part of the charge of being graduation speaker is to be forward-looking and hopeful. I really enjoy thinking about that kind of hopefulness as an orientation towards the world.

Finna is one of my favorite words. For a long time, it was a word that I was ashamed of liking because it’s “not a word.” Its “not-a-word-ness” is racialized. It’s also regionalized because it’s a southern phrase. So it has all these social penalties attached.  Naming the book Finna is an imperative toward hopefulness and towards a certain kind of future. It’s also reclamation from this thing that is a part of my lineage and that much of society has tried to make me ashamed of and tried to make me look away from.

HUMOR IN POETRY/POETRY IN HUMOR

Teme: You write on very serious topics, but you also have a great sense of humor threaded throughout your poetry. What most inspires your sense of humor?

Nate: I love that question. I’m so glad someone asked me that question. I find that comedy is the genre that holds the most in common with poetry. I love comedy and I’m fascinated with the standup comedian as a figure. Sometimes if I’m stuck, I’ll read little things from this old book that I keep on my desk. It’s The Book of Negro Humor by Langston Hughes. It’s this collection of jokes and comedic stories going all the way back to slavery up to the mid-twentieth century.

Dave Chappelle’s Inside the Actors Studio interview is one of the best things I’ve ever seen of an artist just sitting and talking about their own coming of age in their own artistry and the stakes of what they do. It’s one of the most brilliant artistic statements I’ve ever seen. I probably watch that once a year.

I have this deep respect and deep fascination for comedy. But aside from that, I believe that part of what poetry is trying to do and what comedy is trying to do is one and the same.

When Richard Pryor is talking about relationship troubles or drug addiction, he’s trying to get a laugh, but he’s also talking about the most painful things he’s experienced in his life and the only way he can manage to disclose those things and to deal with them is by also offering you the laugh.

What a poem is up to is quite similar. We’re trying to find pathways that allow us to talk about and ultimately, hopefully, deal with and wrestle with difficult truths about the world, ourselves and our communities.

WHO YOU BELIEVE IN …

Teme: One of the poems in Finna is “let me put it to you like this fam.” It’s got one of my favorite lines in the book which is, “Who you believe in is a matter of who you mattered to.” Who did you have in mind when you wrote that?

Nate: That line is in a poem about this moment when I was sixteen, when I was jumped coming off of the bus going home from high school. It was about that experience and other experiences I had dealing with the police where it was very clear that they weren’t taking the thing that we had to report seriously. It shaped my orientation towards the police at an early age.

They [the police] would hop out of their unmarked car and tackle me and harass me about the birthday money I had in my pocket or accuse me of selling drugs. But if someone committed a physical transgression against me, they weren’t a place I could go to for any sort of reliable recourse. Often I’d be treated with, at best, a sort of incompetence.

That time [when I was jumped], the police eventually came to my house and did a report. Me and my mom were sitting there, and my mom did this thing that a lot of Black mothers do when their children are transgressed upon, which is that they start extolling the virtues of their children as if to say, “And these are the reasons why this shouldn’t happen to him and why you should take this seriously.”

Michael Brown’s mom said, “He graduated high school. Not a lot of Black men here do that.” In her moment of terrible grief, that was her saying he did not deserve what happened to him. My mom’s version was, “He went to Whitney Young.”

I’ll never forget this. One of the cops, his kid was trying to get into my elementary school. So he asked me, “Oh, do you still know people over there?” Yes, I did. I was the fucking student council president. I went back every year to volunteer and hang out with the kids, and I knew the principal, and they loved me. But I wasn’t going to be like, “Yeah, and I’ll help you get your stupid kid into the school after you disrespected me literally in my living room being like ‘we’re never going to catch these people [that hurt you], this isn’t important to us, we’re literally here doing the bare minimum because this is the minimum required of us.’”

I think about the unrest of this summer and the century and the eon. There are reasons that police step into communities and express little care. It’s deeply unsurprising to me that people subject to that sort of treatment would act in some of the ways they do, the sort of lack of regard for formal law, for certain law enforcement, and it’s particularly comical that anybody would look at the set of facts and imagine that anything different could happen. Many people in our society express shock. I myself am deeply un-shocked.

Teme: Because it’s not surprising that this system has resulted in these injustices?

Nate: Yeah. They’re not surprising, and they’re not a matter of “bad apples.” They’re a matter of a design built to produce a bad outcome.

Teme: What will it take to alter that design?

Nate: A tremendous amount of re-imagining. One of the most important poems in the book is the poem “Imagine.” The line that comes to mind is, “You better imagine like your life depends because it does.” This is frightening to people, and it makes sense that it’s frightening, but it’s our duty right now to begin imagining the things that seem unimaginable to us. There was once a moment when the idea of a world without slavery felt unimaginable to people. That was, at one point, a crazy idea.

One day that crazy idea became a good idea for the far-off future. An “irrational” idea became an idea that we were debating, then became the thing that just barely happened, and on to become the thing that now we all say, “I can’t imagine the world where this wasn’t the case.”

So now the responsibility of all of us, and particularly artists, is to say, “What’s the next thing we can’t imagine being?” And let’s imagine it into being.

ENJOYABLE/DIFFICULT.

Teme: Which poem was the most enjoyable to write and which was most difficult?

Nate: One of the most enjoyable was “I THOUGHT THIS POEM WAS FUNNY BUT THEN EVERYBODY GOT SAD.” Humor is always present for me in my work, but I’m unsure if other people are getting it. There are jokes all through my books and all through my poems. Maybe I’m the only one that’s laughing at them, but that’s actually okay with me.

So I like that poem just because it was fun to include the spectrum of jokes; the knock-knock jokes, and the guy walks into a bar jokes, the “your momma.” That was a fun one to write because it was playful in its way, though it does speak to the more sinister, more serious issues.

Most difficult were the recurring “Other Nate Marshall” poems. They were challenging because the premise was to think about a person with a worldview that I find reprehensible. How do I interrogate them without doing the thing where we strip them of their humanity or strip them of their potential to change and to grow?

That was challenging because our society pushes us towards punishment and retribution and writing people off. So to write poems that were clear-eyed about someone and how they created harm without discounting them wholesale was really difficult.

There are kinds of jokes and critiques that a lot of us find reprehensible, but that we might be okay with someone using in reference to Donald Trump, like, “That fat motherfucker. I hate him.” We’re cool with that, right? But maybe in the rest of the parts of our lives, we understand body-shaming to be a shitty thing.

We understand that his physical body does not have a bearing on the fact that he’s cruel.  But how often in our society does it become a trope to make people that are not classically attractive or the right body size into villains?

Think about how most of the bad guys in Harry Potter are ugly or fat.  So I’m like, yeah, I want to critique this person or their actions, but I don’t want to do it in a way that robs them of their humanity because I recognize that to be simultaneously robbing me of some of my humanity.

I tell anyone if given the chance, I would slap the shit out of Donald Trump. I would fistfight him. But how we regard other people’s humanity, even people who are deeply reprehensible to us, is really important. When we start having some give on those things, that’s where the logic of exploitation is created, that’s where the logic of imprisonment, that’s where the logic of enslavement comes from.

THE OTHER NATE MARSHALL 

nate-marshall-nate-marshallTeme: How did you first learn about the other Nate Marshall?

Nate: It was early 2016. My first book had recently come out and I put a Google alert on my name. There was this story about a radio show host with my name getting pushed out of a Colorado state primary for ties to white supremacist neo-Nazi organizations.  I thought, “Well, that’s not me!”

I was like, “What else can I find about this dude?” So it became this saga. At the time, I was teaching the book The Other Wes Moore and I shared with my students, “Here’s this other Nate Marshall,” and they said, “You should write him!” I’m like, “Absolutely not.”

But out of that, I started to write a little bit about him and think about him. I said to my friends on Facebook, “Here’s this dude’s Twitter account. I don’t want you to be mean to him. Just compliment him in ways that you might compliment me in hopes that this confuses him or disconcerts him.” It was a very funny, light troll because I was like, “Do not be mean to this dude. Just hand him compliments that make no sense to him.”

Teme: What happened after that?

Nate: I think he was very confused. He started blocking all the people’s accounts who said anything to him. A few months later, he found my author Facebook page. I think he thought it was a hoax. He started commenting like, “Stop using my name. You’re not Nate Marshall. I am Nate Marshall. You’re fake.” So there’s actually a poem in the book that is a bunch of his language from those posts.

HOW TO MAKE THIS WORLD BETTER

Teme: What are questions that you hope to answer with this poetry collection?

Nate: How do we imagine a world that’s better than the one we sit in? How do we look towards the future and have that not devolve into a dystopic terror or just be a replication of the systems of injustice and systems of inequality that we live under right now? That will require an honest reckoning from all of us. From men, from straight people, from cis people, from white people, from the able-bodied, and from those of us who have the privilege of citizenship. The collection thinks a lot about race, gender, sexuality at these intersections, and also language.

I don’t think that it approaches an answer, but the hope is that I provide an example of what it means to wrestle with some of the oppressive language that we have and how we might begin to think towards a new vocabulary. When I say vocabulary I mean literal language, but I also mean a new set of actions, a new set of orientations towards the world and towards other people and towards ourselves.

MEMENTOS OF CHICAGO

Teme: Do you have anything in your home that has special memories of Chicago?

Nate: Yeah, a ton. In the room in I’m right now I have this tryptic called “Legacy Legacy.” I love these because they were made by [Chicago artist] Krista Franklin. I bought them when I bought my house in Chicago in South Shore as a housewarming thing for myself, but also because the text in them comes from this poem by Dr. Margaret Burroughs called “What Will Your Legacy Be?” Dr. Margaret Burroughs is a Chicago luminary, one of the founders of the DuSable Museum, and someone I was able to meet before she passed. Also, Jamila Woods’ album is named Legacy Legacy, which is a reference to the same poem.

FINNA

Teme: Absolutely anything else you would like to add?

Nate: I really hope the book is useful to people. It was not an easy book to write. A lot of the things that it thinks about are complicated and hard topics for us; race and racism, masculinity and harm, sexism, homophobia. These are not easy things, but I hope that they do offer people a way to a greater personal reckoning, and hopefully, a better ability to have crucial conversations.

——————————————–

More about Nate Marshall at nate-marshall.com.

Finna is available at local independent bookstores and wherever books are sold.

You can watch the Chicago Public Library Foundation Awards here on December 9 at 6:30 p.m.

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