Making a Living as a Touring Poet

by Jia Tolentino

Nate Marshall is a 23-year-old poet from the South Side of Chicago.

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Hi Nate! What are you doing right now?

I’m in Baltimore, walking around the harbor. I was in D.C. this weekend hosting a poetry competition and I came up here to hang out with friends.

What other cities have you visited this year for work?

This calendar year? Let me think. In the last four months I’ve been to Chicago a few times, Tulsa, New York, D.C., L.A., Milwaukee, Detroit just about every week. Also Pomona, Calif., Naples, Fla., Danville, Ky., Dubuque, Iowa. That might be all. I remember that this time last year, I was getting ready to go to Johannesburg, South Africa.

Johannesburg! What were you doing there?

So, this organization that I started writing and performing through — Young Chicago Authors — runs this youth poetry slam called Louder Than A Bomb. HBO produced a documentary about the festival in 2010, following four people in the 2007–2008 school year, and I was one of them.

As a result of that, a lot of other places started their own Louder Than A Bomb, and a poet and organizer in South Africa contacted YCA and asked us to come out. I was there for 10 days doing performances, going to schools, doing workshops at township community centers, stuff like that.

How long have you been doing this? Getting on the road for poetry?

Well, I started doing LTAB and performance poetry around 2003, and in high school, I did a little bit of travel with that organization. But after the film came out in 2010, I’ve been traveling a lot with some regularity, either in promotion of the film or just doing shows — people are now more aware of my work because of the film and YouTube and all that.

And you are in grad school full-time as well. (Disclosure: Nate and I are in the same program.) How often are you out of town?

Probably three times a month.

Is this an unusual gig for a poet?

Yes and no. In terms of people who are in the MFA system, it probably is, but for a lot of my contemporaries who work as spoken word poets, this touring and constant movement is pretty normal.

Can a poet make a living solely as a performer?

Maybe. Very few people, but maybe. I think what a lot of people do is just marry these gigs with different things — working as a teaching artist, a consultant at a nonprofit, stuff like that. There is absolutely a discernible way to make a life doing this kind of work, although it’s not the same as when you’re a musician, and can just book a tour in a way that makes geographic sense — just travel down the West Coast from Seattle to Tijuana playing a show every night. With poetry, you’re often dealing with events that only happen on certain days, certain weekends.

Do you see performance and travel as a big part of your life after the MFA?

I do always want to be performing, but whether it becomes a larger or smaller part of my life depends on what other opportunities avail themselves at the time. I’m open to academia, nonprofit work, educational outreach — that’s at the base of a lot of what I do now.

I’m also open to writing for television or film, any way to keep putting out work. I’m fine with not holding down one single steady gig, pretty comfortable wearing a lot of hats. And I’ve gotten to go to a lot of film festivals because of the HBO documentary, and all that’s given me different thoughts about the ways in which various art forms can work together, all the ways you can shape a narrative.

So you see your work as a poet as something that’s integrated with a lot of different arenas.

Yeah. I think a lot of poets do work that is intentionally inaccessible, and that seems silly to me. At the end of the day, people consume literature because they want to be moved and entertained. They want to hear a story. That doesn’t mean that poetry has to be narrative, but it does mean that poetry should speak to people — and that poetry is speaking to people. The idea of doing work that tries to obscure the story or run away from it does nothing for me.

Is this what you thought you’d be doing when you were little?

When I was younger, I really thought I’d be in politics, or be a lawyer or something. Standing up in front of people giving a different kind of speech than I do now.

When did you get into poetry?

Around 12 or 13, I started to read poetry — I’d always been a big reader, but mostly fiction and nonfiction — and then I discovered the poetry slam, and HBO’s show Def Poetry, and hip-hop. Writing became this thing that was very attractive to me.

Did you have a moment when you decided: I am going to be a writer?

I don’t know if it was a specific moment, but around when I was 18, I was coming to the end of my time in that youth poetry slam scene, and it was big for me to realize that it didn’t have to stop there. My mentors really encouraged me. They were like, “Okay, you’re a good reader, a strong writer, you have a passion for this, you have a skill and a work ethic. It doesn’t have to end because you’ve aged out of a single event. There are many stages where you can work and find an audience.”

Did you get any pushback from family or friends in terms of the viability of poetry as a career?

Oh yeah. My grandmother was a librarian, a very literate person, the person most responsible for me being a reader — and she was literally on her deathbed telling my sister, who is a civil engineer, to look out for me. To make sure I always had a place to stay, because shit might get real, you know?

Yeah, in terms of my neighborhood, none of the guys I play ball with, we weren’t having conversations like, “Yo, I really wanna write poems.” But what I do is very vocal, very oral, and people get it. One time after the HBO documentary aired, some guy I grew up with came up to me while I was home on break and hanging out in the park, and he was like, “Yo Nate, I saw this thing about you on TV, some poems or something. That shit was cool, that shit was hard.”

That, to me, was the most fulfilling thing. More fulfilling than having a journal or an MFA program sort of “confirm” me. Having regular people who do not seek out this type of work appreciate it anyway, that’s the goal.

What was your neighborhood scene like in terms of demographics?

Pretty much all black, working class or less. My neighborhood — the Wild Hundreds — is a reflection of Chicago’s legacy as a notoriously segregated city. But I never went to school in my neighborhood. I went to a magnet school that was very integrated, very diverse, and it was one of the best schools in the state.

So I’m a product of both sides, and I always saw this sort of gap — this gap between my neighborhood and the things in it, and then the kind of schooling I was getting. This is going to sound cheesy, but I always wanted to be a bridge for that gap. Both spaces have a lot of things they can learn from each other and teach each other.

Yeah, let’s talk about that. Poetry is so often thought of as something for cloistered white people, but that’s a limiting idea on both ends. How do you relate to this idea?

I do run into it sometimes. I will get this sort of coded feedback, this sentiment that what I do is not really poetry. Like, “he’s a slam poet, he’s a spoken-word artist,” this phrasing that I am not averse to naturally but often carries an implication that the stuff I’m doing doesn’t have intellectual depth or complexity to it.

But I will say, I think there are a lot of examples currently where people are emerging from this world and doing important work and getting recognized by whatever establishment exists. A good example is Jamaal May, a pretty well-known poet who emerged from the slam. Marcus Wicker, who won the National Poetry Series Prize. The poetry editor of the Iowa Review did slam in the Twin Cities, another girl at Indiana’s MFA did Louder Than A Bomb. There’s a changing of the guard, however slow.

And for me, it’s not a matter of trying to change the way that everyone thinks about poetry so much as just trying to ensure that there’s a seat at the table. Ultimately, people are not going to be able to deny this scene, if just for the fact that crowds are drawn to it. This is a time when poetry books don’t sell, and we’re finding new ways to package the art form. And really what we’re doing is not new at all — it’s the oldest form.

You work with a lot of kids who are surely looking at you, seeing the LTAB documentary, and wanting to do what you do. What do you tell them?

I tell them to read. I tell them you have to read and you have to write. There are a lot of people who are attracted to the life of a poet, whatever that means.

The idea of art rather than the work of it.

Yeah. And what I tell them is like, if you want to be about this, you have to work. You have to treat it as a job. When my dad gets up to go to work — he drives trucks for the water department in the city — he doesn’t get up and say, “I have truck driver’s block.” Motherfucker gets up and drives people to fix the water main.

And, with a lot of the young people I work with — young people of color, although this applies to all young people really — they vacillate wildly between being told their voice doesn’t matter and being very egocentric about what their voice is. I tell them, your voice is important, but it’s not important just because it’s your voice.

How much was that tension between silencing and voice a part of what poetry meant for you?

It’s still my central question. Absolutely.

Nate Marshall has Twitter and Tumblr accounts and you should definitely follow him.

Jia Tolentino lives in Ann Arbor, has a tumblr.

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