SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Nate Marshall has a new collection of poems. It's called "Finna". And we'd like him to open with a poem that seems urgent in these times when seniors - especially seniors in Black families - may feel vulnerable. Mr. Marshall, can we ask you to read the poem "What Can Be Said"?
NATE MARSHALL: Yes. Yes, absolutely.
(Reading) Tonight, I'm feeling tender because it's another time with my granddaddy, and he's still here. And if he could remember, I would ask him about when he was young, what he would say to the women so they knew he meant whatever he wanted them to know he meant. But he's not here in that way, so I say, how you livin', young man? And he answers, slow motion. And I believe him because I can see him tentative when he lifts himself out of the chair. Once Alzheimer's does what it do, you never really have conversations. It's more a man becomes a poem - a lot of repetition and love with something indecipherable in between.
SIMON: Nate Marshall joins us from Colorado Springs, where he teaches at Colorado College. His previous book of poems, "Wild Hundreds," has been wildly acclaimed. He has also written plays and released three hip-hop albums and is a leading poetic voice of Chicago's South Side. Thanks so much for being with us.
MARSHALL: Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.
SIMON: Can you fill us in on the title, "Finna?"
MARSHALL: Yeah, absolutely. So it comes from the southern phrase fixing to - right? - which is, like, about to. One of the things that I love about that and that is a kind of central thing of the book is it's all about what happens next. It's this thing that is informed by history but that is all about looking forward - all about possibility here. That's sort of what I hope the poems do - is that they - I hope they sort of wrestle with history but also look forward.
SIMON: I'd like to hear another poem if it's all right with you - "Telling Stories."
MARSHALL: (Reading) A few times each year, I am convinced of the end of singleness - the beginning of a singularity. I become convinced of the infinite curve of love. My grandma - like all Black grandmothers, perhaps - told me, do not tell stories, by which she meant, do not lie. Except we couldn't say lie, which was a curse word in her house. My grandma - like all Black grandmothers, perhaps - told me stories about where we were from, and who we were from and the unbroken string of happy accidents and hapless miracles that made us possible. My grandma used to say worst thing in the world - a liar or a thief. And I know I have been both these most deplored before. My grandma used to say, I love you. My grandma gone - my convictions gone, too. Does that mean an end to the long curve of her love or mine? Does that mean I love you is always bound to end up a story? If so, what kind? The worst thing or one of the small impossibilities that put us here?
SIMON: That phrase, the unbroken string of happy accidents and hapless miracles that made us possible, I've never heard it put more beautifully than that.
MARSHALL: Thank you.
SIMON: How did you find poetry and vice versa?
MARSHALL: So my grandmother was a - she was a librarian. She passed away when I was 16. She was just a person that always, like, put books in my hands. I remember even as a kid, like, she kept two dictionaries underneath the table of, like, the kitchen where we would always sort of sit together. And whenever she said a word that I didn't know, I'd be like yo, grandma, what is that? And she'd help me sound it out and spell it out and then look it up. And from that, I kind of started to just look for interesting words in the dictionary and I think that was, you know, in many ways, the beginning of, like, a real engagement with language.
SIMON: Yeah. How do you think poetry shapes the way you see the world now?
MARSHALL: I think - OK, I'll tell you the point at which I knew I was a poet. I was 16. It was maybe a few weeks after my grandmother had passed. I was taking the bus home from high school. And I'm getting off the bus, and these four guys jumped me, right? They were on the bus. They, like, came off the bus behind me. One of them grabbed me. And, like, they sort of gang up on me or whatever, right? This all probably happens in, like, less than a minute. I'm fine, but I'm, like, shaken up and, you know, a little battered. Once they sort of ran away and I realized I would be OK, the first thing that I thought was, man, this is going to make a good poem. And...
SIMON: Boy (laughter).
MARSHALL: For me, like...
MARSHALL: So I guess, like, if that says anything about how poetry shapes the way I see the world - is I think I'm always thinking about, how does the lived life translate onto the page?
SIMON: Yeah. We are both loyal Chicagoans. In fact, almost the last lines of this wonderful book, you say thank you to the city. Chicago over everything. South Side over that. I would like you to read a poem that I think compares favorably to Carl Sandburg's "Chicago." And it's the poem...
MARSHALL: (Laughter) Wow, thank you.
SIMON: It's the poem "When I Say Chicago."
MARSHALL: Capital city of the flyover, crown jewel of the jailhouse, a town in love with its own blood, a blood browned on its own history and funk, hometown of the riot and the riot gear, the gang and the loitering law, misfit blocks of dark-skinned cousins and thick-knuckled Slavic uncles who call each other their worst names. What this country know about a rust belt dipped in salt and vinegar and sold as marked up and rustic? My city is the city, not your close-enough suburb not subject to the suppression of tape and the tapping of phones. How can you say anything about our blocks and schools and children that you refuse to see? Don't tell us what is wrong with all of our cousins you've never known. You do not govern what you do not love. When I say Chicago, I mean that first Haitian cat who could pronounce it right. When I say Chicago, I mean the stopped and frisked. I mean the euphemism of frisk. I mean the beat down and tight cuff. I mean the drop off in Bridgeport or Mount Greenwood. I mean the lessons taught to an uppity one. When I say Chicago, I mean the lake, and I mean all of it. I mean the candy lady at Rainbow and the paleta man at Calumet and the kids careening across the green at Montrose and the jogger in midwinter daring a death for fitness. When I say Chicago, I mean Cabrini and Stateway and Ickes and Ida. The city I'll tell my kids about in the past tense. I mean the rents that sometimes make me mean Georgia or Indiana or Dolton. When I say Chicago, I mean the restaurants with no chairs - just a window, a bulletproof sneeze guard. I mean a Michelin star for all the ethnics slanging their seasoned meats and language. When I say Chicago, I mean my mama's house that was my grandma's house, I mean the neighborhood that was our neighborhood because we said, we'll make a home here, and we'll stay.
SIMON: What an utterly great poem. Nate Marshall - his new book of poems, "Finna." Thank you so much for being with us.
MARSHALL: Thank you for having me.
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