“All I'm trying to do is humanize.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
How long ago did you start writing the poems that would be in Wild Hundreds?
The earliest poems in the book are probably from 2009, from when I was an undergrad.
Where were you when you found out it won the Starrett Prize?
I was on a bus in Vermont. I was headed to feature at this open-mic up in New Hampshire. I was on a—not a greyhound—but one of those kinds of buses. And the editor of the series, Ed Ochester, he called me. At first I didn't get the call because I was in fucking Vermont and I didn't have reception, so I got this kind of weird message, it was like "Hello, this is Ed from University of Pittsburgh Press, give me a call back." And so I called him back on this bus and he was like, "Yeah, you won this prize. If your book is still available, we would love to publish it." And I think my initial response was, "Are you sure?"
Haha, that's great. It's a beautiful book. I love the work that Pitt does, just generally. And the cover image—if I got a vote, it would be my vote for Cover of the Year.
I just love it. It's so striking. How did that come about?
Basically, it felt important to me to try and work with someone who was a Chicagoan, if possible, particularly if they were from the South Side, or if they were Black, or a person of color. I wanted that process to feel representative of the work in the book, so like all great things, it started with a Facebook status. One of my homegirls, Jamila Woods, suggested Max Sansing's work. He's from Chicago, from the South Side. He's a really interesting cat because he sort of lives in between multiple art worlds. He runs with graffiti writers, and he's also doing fine art stuff and gallery shows. In a lot of ways, that blurring of worlds, that duality, is similar to the shit that I'm doing.
So, I found his work, and I was really taken by it. I think I had five pictures that I was choosing between and I just kept coming back to this one again and again. I hit him up, and I was like "Yo, I'm putting out this book. Can I get that?” And he obliged. He's been great. He's a great guy. I bought that painting and another one from him.
Oh, that's awesome. I love it. It's the sort of cover that would make me want to buy the book even if I didn't know who you were.
Yeah, that's the other thing about it. When I was in New York, not that long ago, for the Brooklyn Book Festival, me and my homeboy sold a couple of copies on the train. At first it was on accident. I was looking at it trying to figure out what poems I was going to read for a reading and fam was like, "Yo, what is that book?" and I was like "Oh, yeah, that's me, son."
That's amazing. I think one of the things that I have the most to learn from your book is its formal inventiveness. You know, you're writing a series of poems about Harold's Chicken Shack, but then you're also writing sestinas.
And then there's the poem "Pallbearers," where you're talking about five dollar pizzas and PlayStation games, but it's written in this wrenching traditional form.
Sure. That kind of comes from that duality, from having both trainings, and also loving both things.
I went to Vanderbilt and Mark Jarman was my biggest mentor there. He's one of the standard bearers of the New Formalist movement, of that school of thought. When I was taking intermediate poetry workshops and was an arrogant-ass sophomore writing some of the first poems in there, he was like, "Yeah, this sestina don't work. This is why."
That semester was a really hard time for me, but it was also a time of immense growth because he was throwing all these really traditional poems at us: sestinas, iambic pentameter, sonnets, all that stuff. I was dealing with it by retreating into subject matter that felt like home because I couldn't use forms that felt like home to me. I was writing a lot of poems about rap, I was writing a lot of poems about Chicago, just about my interior world, and the world that felt closest to me culturally.
I don't know that those initial drafts were very successful, but that stuff definitely comes through in the book. Me and Mark continued to grow, so I ended up taking another workshop with him, and then eventually doing an independent study with him that was all about hip hop poetry. I don't know if you know of the anthology that I co-edited, The BreakBeat Poets?
Yeah, of course.
So much of the underpinning work to that actually started then with Mark.
In a lot of ways, I think it comes from having those traditions, and also learning from Mark, and being able to apply that to what I was already doing. Just take the rap verse, which is the most iconic and difficult poetic form of the contemporary day, right?
Once you're able to take it all as, "Okay, this is all writing and it all has a kind of form," and you figure out how this form is functioning, then you can kind of forget and depart and do all manner of things.
Absolutely. It's fascinating to hear you talk about how some of your first drafts as sestinas weren't super successful, but that the process of writing them was still fruitful for you.
Yeah, of course.
Did you ever play the Sims? Where you're painting for an hour and the little Sims meter above your character is going up? That's what I was thinking of when you were talking about writing the unsuccessful sestinas. Your poetry skill meter is still filling up.
Right. Or if you've ever played basketball—you'll practice free throws. You're not going to make every free throw, but if you miss one, or if you miss ten in a row, that doesn't mean you should stop practicing, that actually means you should practice more. It's a difficult work of improvement.
That's well said. You sort of nodded to The BreakBeat Poets anthology and that's become a sort of huge phenomenon, you guys had an issue of Poetry and everything. You guys tour as well.
Yeah, that also started a long effing time ago. I think Kevin approached me with the idea in the beginning of 2010, and we did some of the foundational work that summer. And then life happened. Those guys were putting out books and I was trying to finish undergrad. So sometime around 2012, late 2012, we got serious about it, and we were like, "Okay, we really want to do this. Haymarket really wants it. It's time." I also think I had developed a lot more, obviously just grew up a lot, and by the time we really started in earnest on the work, I was in my MFA program. I was a little more able to manage some things with this project.
That's kind of the nuts and bolts of it, but in terms of why—hip-hop was and is this foundational thing in terms of our art making and in terms of the way we think about what it means to contribute to a creative culture and also what it means to be a writer, right?
In a lot of ways, some of my best and favorite albums have almost read like syllabi—they push me to books, and films, and television shows, and sporting events. Also, the practice of being an MC is, for me, inextricably linked with the practice of the poet. The first time I ever saw a freestyle live was the first time I walked into a poetry slam. The first time I saw the culture live, I knew I was interested, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. The first thing that gave me access to it was poetry.
And I always loved reading. I always wanted to read and was very much a reader, but the first thing that really taught me about reading, as a kind of work and as a kind of applicable work, was hip-hop. When I listened, when I really paid attention to the MCs that I loved, I realized that they were people of the world, they were people about the world. I was like, "Oh shit, I need to get into that. I need to.”
I was a part of a scholarship program in high school, and they were like, "What tools do you need to be a better version of you?" Whatever that means. And I asked them for newspaper subscriptions and a subscription to The New Yorker. I was a 16 or 17 year old, and I was getting The New Yorker and reading it, and getting The New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune, and looking at them every day because I had to know what was going on in the news, what was going on in art, in culture, in literature, in sports. Because hip-hop is such a highly allusive form, I have to have a mental encyclopedia that I can continually pull from. And I bring all that into the poems.
There is definitely a way in which your poems have this sort of hyper literacy with the whole world around them. It's not just like you're writing about the inner turmoil of the speaker's psychic life. There's a holisticness to the poems that I think is really unique. It's like the Hundreds, as you write them in the book, is this fully realized ecosystem.
Well, thank you.
Yeah, it's remarkable. Down to your engaging the history of the form and the history of the place. I'm thinking specifically of "Alzheimer's," where you begin by sort of invoking the patron poetry saint of Chicago, Carl Sandburg, and his, "I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again."
Can you talk about how that poem came about? That's one of the standouts for me in the collection.
Sure. Yeah, I wrote the first draft of it that night.
Yeah, so it was the night of the Trayvon verdict. It wasn't the fourth of July, but it was around then. I was hanging out with a bunch of Black folks I went to school with and we hadn't seen each other in a minute, people were in town visiting. We're in Chicago, right west of downtown, and we had this on the TV and we're all like "Man, clearly he murdered this young man. There's no question. We're going to be good. Cool." And part of it was he wasn't a cop. He seemed to be a little unhinged. It wasn't like he was this person who one could argue for this bullshit sterling reputation, upstanding citizen narrative. That seemed pretty clearly not the case.
And when he got acquitted, I didn't know what to do. I just left. I was just like, "Woah." I left. I just started walking and one my friends who was leaving, too, saw me maybe half a mile away on the road. He was like "Yo, let me give you a ride back to your car." So he takes me back to my car, and I just get in the car and start driving, and I don't even know where I'm going. I don't know. I ended up going back to this neighborhood, Mount Greenwood, which is kind of funny because Mount Greenwood is a neighborhood in Chicago that's pretty historically Irish Catholic, and also very racist, and it's also a place where a lot of cops live. I don't know if it's like this everywhere, but definitely in Chicago there are cop communities, and cop blocks. And that's definitely one of those areas. It's a place where, if you're Black, you don't go to Mount Greenwood, not without business. But I was out there, and I parked behind my elementary school and just started crying. And then I went to this park, a little east of there in this neighborhood that I also referenced, not in "Alzheimer's," but in an earlier poem, "Beverly." I just sat there and wrote out a draft of that.
That's amazing. You don't often hear about people writing still in the throes of whatever psychic trauma. You think about emotion recalled in tranquility, you never hear about people sitting by their wife's deathbed writing their elegy, or something like that. But it comes out hot. Like "whitefolk / violence isn't hypothetical to me. it's not historical / or systemic. it's elementary school / like Pokémon or sleepovers." It's interesting that you were literally sitting there at the elementary school.
Oh, yeah. If you go to Chicago, and I imagine many cities, you'll see that many of the windows, particularly first-floor windows, have bulletproof glass, or gates on the windows, something to protect—to keep out or keep in. We had those on our school in Mount Greenwood. I was in the school the first year the school's new building got built, and we didn't have those because of gang violence in the neighborhood or anything like that. It was because the neighborhood kids would attack and deface the school. One of my homeboys from elementary school told me, I think he saw in a civics textbook in college, or some kind of textbook later in life, he hit me up and he told me in '95 or '94, right before we got to Keller, our elementary school, someone burned a cross —
Yeah, so that shit was very real. And with that school in particular there was always a lot of attention because the first year I was there they got a new principal who was a Black woman, and since then the leadership of the school has been Black. I think the neighborhood was reacting to that. And also, the school was very diverse, and the school was predominantly Black, or at least significantly, there were a good number of Black kids, because Chicago being what it is, and the nature of public schooling in Chicago being what it is, the public school system was like seventy percent Black and Latino. So, you have these people that had this really high quality school in their neighborhood and either couldn't test in and so they didn't have access, or, even if they didn't want access to it, they just resented its presence and the presence of these people not from there.
It was static. It's a weird thing to have it normalized. I don't know that I was really conscious of that tension until much later, you know, because it was normal to us. One time we were at a Halloween party at school and some of the older boys were trying to walk out of the school because they caught wind of neighborhood kids coming to vandalize, coming to egg the school. And it's like, yeah, sometimes you gotta walk outside of your school with bats.
Hearing you talk about all this reminds me of that Amiri Baraka quote, "A man is either free or he is not, there cannot be an apprenticeship for freedom." And it seems to me that this whole book, and what you're describing, and what so many of the literary responses of people of color in the past fifty years or so, has just been sort of demonstrating the way that there is this sort of apprenticeship that white people are trying to pass on as being real freedom, you know? And a rejection of that apprenticeship.
And what you're describing, having boarded up windows in your school, and having to walk outside of your school because you're afraid that people—that doesn't sound like freedom. So much of what is described in this book doesn’t sound like what we mean when we sing songs about freedom.
Yes. Definitely. When these things happen. When the University of Missouri happens, or Yale, or whatever. People are looking upon Black folks to act better, to earn the respect to be considered human. That's not something we ask of anyone else. That's not something that's contingent on good or bad behavior. We talk about people's discomfort with protests at Yale and "Oh, college students and Black people are so sensitive now. Everything's too PC." And it's like, these people are at Yale, they're not degenerates, they're not people who've made a career out of acting bad or being anti-establishment. They're going to Yale.
My elementary school was and is one of the best schools in the state of Illinois, probably one of the best schools in the nation. This is not to big myself up, but to contextualize it.
When people ask for this kind of good behavior and then respect, not only is that fucking stupid, it's also just not true. It's not the way that things function. For example, when I was in eighth grade, out by my house, at this particular intersection, I got jumped. There were five or six guys. I was with two of my homeboys. We were waiting for the bus to go to a basketball game.
Afterwards, the police came to my house and basically were like, "Yeah, look. We're not gonna catch these guys." And they sort of intimated like, "We're not even really gonna look that hard. This is just not really important. Your life, your livelihood, your wellbeing doesn't really matter to us." But there was this moment—there's this thing that happens, I think particularly with Black parents, particularly the matriarch of a family of a Black person that's been killed, the first thing they do is they appeal to the achievements of the person.
Mike Brown's mom is like, "He just graduated high school and it was such a challenge to get him through that, and he was going to go to school." We always talk about, "Oh, she was an honor student, and she played at Obama's inauguration in the band, and she was gunned down." We do this performance of fitness. And my mom started doing that, and one of the cops was like, "Wait a second, he goes to Keller?" And I guess he was trying to get his kid in there, and he asked me, "Do you know people up there?" And I'm like, "I'm not gonna talk to them for you, motherfucker. Why would I? You are literally standing in my living room and disrespecting me. Go home." This is the kind of thing that happens. People get treated as not real until maybe the point at which they can help.
Until they can be useful.
That's not humanity. For me, the whole exercise of the book—you know, the book talks and thinks a lot about violence, and Black bodies, and urban life, and a lot of these things that have been in the media, but I don't think the book is trying to offer a solution. It's not a policy directive. All I'm trying to do is humanize. It's saying, "Black lives matter," not as a political underpinning necessarily, or as a party chant, but as a statement of fact.
That's extraordinarily sad. I think that the anecdote that you just shared, with the police officer who became interested once he saw you as a mechanism by which to get his kid into Keller, it's what I think so much of Black art is confronting, just the age-old reduction of Black life to utility.
Yeah. I'm just thinking about the end to that story. So after that happened, we were like, "Well, we're never gonna hear from those cats again." But my older sister sort of put a word out. I think I happened to know one or two of the guys who jumped us, which is why they stopped. They happened to be from my particular part of the hood, so they knew me and they were like, "Hold on, hold on, that's Nate. He's good." But my sister sort of put a word out to the OG's in the neighborhood. By the end of that week, every single guy that had jumped us came to my house, rang my doorbell, and apologized.
Oh, jeez. That's awesome.
The thing is, when you're confronted with a system like that, where the system that's supposed to offer you justice, that's supposed to protect and serve you, is not only unable to, but is also patently uninterested in doing so, and this other system does offer you some respite—and we're not talking about crazy street justice, no one's getting popped in the head or anything like that, but folks are held accountable in a real way by a community for their actions. It complicates the idea of who is the good guy and who's not the good guy.
And it's humanizing because if you think of a high-ranking gang member, you're thinking of a drug overlord, someone who's obsessed with violence—and this is not to excuse the foul shit that happens in those places because that does happen, I've seen it—but there are certain times when those cats kind of just operated like the police we don't have. That are legitimately concerned.
Yeah, that's fascinating. Ta-Nehisi Coates, writes in his new book about how there's this sort of white obsession with the politics of personal exoneration. I think one of the ways that that is most active, especially in the rhetoric around urban centers, is this warped idea that the social structures of Black communities is inherently broken and violent, so when police are violent toward members of Black communities, they’re just protecting the citizens from themselves.
It's this crazy way of contorting the injustices levied upon Black citizens into an exoneration of white cruelty.
Yeah, absolutely. And I also want to be fair and say that, though it originates in whiteness and white supremacy, it doesn't only live there. I think a lot of Black folks perform a similar kind of, "Well, you know our community is fucked up."
If I had a dollar for every time I've heard from a Black person a skepticism or a critique of Black Lives Matter because there's violence happening within communities that isn't police violence, but it's folks in those communities hurting and killing other folks in those communities—and I mean, number one, that’s such a simplistic, ahistorical, bullshit way to think about it.
Yeah, white folks in the suburbs aren't killing each other, but also there weren't billions of dollars taken out of their communities.
You talk about how the Hundreds, during your grandmother's time, was a place where Black people could have comfortable middle class lives.
Right, that was the dream of it. I grew up on the edge of a neighborhood called West Pullman. Right in between West Pullman and Morgan Park. We're the only family to ever own our house, the house that my grandma and granddad bought, and that my mom still lives in. When they first moved out there where all those houses were new constructions, all the older homes in that community were for middle class, working class white immigrants, so a lot of Polish folks, Italian, stuff like that, and those folks all bounced.
The hospital where I was born, that neighborhood, when my mom was a kid—so we're talking about the 60's maybe 70's—if she rode her bike down there, white folks would throw rocks at her and be like, "Go home, nigger."
And now it's all Black. And these switches, these changes, happened in the course of very little time. It would often be less than a decade for an entire community to totally flip over. And when it happened, I mean, there have been people like Ta-Nehisi Coates that have spoken far more intelligently than I can or will about that kind of divestment, about how white folks are selling their homes for the loss and then having them marked up two, three, five, ten times and sold back to Black families, about the ways in which money was just extracted out of communities and out of people's pockets very intentionally—I'm not interested in having a conversation about these communities and their so-called "problems" without foregrounding that. That's what we have to talk about.
That's what this book does. It gives voices to all the disparate characters that exist within this community. I remember the first time I read the book, and I was reading the Chicago High School Love Letters, and those are gorgeous, wrenching short poems, and I get to the last one and it has the footnote explaining that the numbers correspond to the Chicago city homicides. And it completely changes the way that you read the poems because they become the voices of the recently departed. Some of them kind of read that way in the first place, but that footnote totally transforms them. One of the real miraculous things poems can do is give voices to people who have been muted one way or another, by death or by societal means, and one of the real triumphs of this book is that it gives a voice back to so many that have been muted.
Word. Thank you.
I realize that's not really a question, it's just kind of me praising it.
I'll take it.
Haha. I want to talk to you about "Ragtown Prayer," which is one of my favorite poems of the year.
Word. Yeah, I really like that poem. In a lot of ways it was a sort of hip-hop exercise.
Sure. For people who don't have the book in front of them, this is a poem that's in two parts. The first part is a friend's Facebook status elegizing another friend who had recently been killed, and the second part is you reworking the language of the first section into things like, "better things watching down on us mistakes." Which is totally heartbreaking, and it speaks to the formal inventiveness of the whole book.
Thank you. For me that poem is like— if you ever hear a hip-hop song where they start by giving you the sample, and then you see it flipped, or inverted, or pulled apart.
Yeah, early Kanye does that with like every other track.
Yeah, yeah! Exactly.
Yeah. So, for me, it was an exercise in that, and it was also just like—these things are unfortunately pretty common in the city where I'm from, but when it touches that close, like, this is a kid that grew up across the park from me, and maybe he was there while I was playing, maybe he was in the game. And seeing all these cats who I had these relationships with, and who I have relationships with, mourning him, it's just—one of the interesting things about social media is that you can be apart from a place and still very much a part of it in certain ways. It was partially that, and also just seeing that Facebook status and being like, "Yo, this is a poem."
The sad add-on to that story is that the guy who wrote that Facebook status—I think he wrote it in the winter—actually went away that summer, I think for attempted murder. There was another park very close to us, but sort of a different faction, and he was over there and they got to shooting and he hit a child.
I wrote that poem pretty quick after the young man was killed, and then I felt weird about it after what happened with my man when he goes away for—in some ways for kinda doing the same thing—and I considered dropping it, not putting it in the book, not reading it, not bringing it to the world anymore. You wouldn't know that story if I hadn't told you, but for me that's one of the important things about it because the violence is cyclical.
And while obviously people bear responsibility if they're hurting and killing people, particularly young people, I think that we often forget, when we want to demonize these folks, that they have more than likely been in the seat of the victim, been in the seat of the grieving family.
Yeah, it's the sort of cycle of it. That’s horrible. We’ve gone way over our time—do you want to quickly talk about what you’re working on now?
Yeah, I've been working on this book that's called Finna. In some ways it's a reaction to the reaction with Wild Hundreds, because I think a lot of folks that I know that have read it, they like it but they're like, "Yo, this is a really sad book. This is a heavy book." And I actually don't read that book as sad at all. I mean, yeah obviously death is present, but there's death present in most books. I don't think that automatically makes something tragic, or makes tragedy the only thing present.
For me Finna is an exploration of Black language and a celebration, a sort of joyous moment. The thing that I love about the word "finna" is that it's all about possibilities. It's all about what's gonna come next, "I'm finna take over the world." "It's finna be one." So, first off, I want to celebrate language and the ways I talk, and why, and how those things happen, and also just to try and have some poems that are specifically articulating Black joy.
Yeah, there's a word in the idiom of my people, "insha'allah," which is like "God willing." It's sort of the same thing. You say it after you say something that you're aspiring toward, or something you hope will happen, but you want to couch it in a layer of humility.
Do you think it's going to be with Pitt again, or is it up in the air?
That’s a good question. I don't know. I'm really happy with the work that Pitt has done, and I'd be happy to work with them again. We'll see.
Do you have anything that you want to end with? Any final words of wisdom?
"Do I have any final words of wisdom?” Whoa.
Haha. Not to put you on the spot.
Everyone should read history.
Interview Posted: February 8, 2016
MORE FROM DIVEDAPPER. (Drag left)