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Nate Marshall

Years: 2014


Nate Marshall is from the South Side of Chicago. His first book, Wild Hundreds (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. He is an editor of The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop (Haymarket Books, 2015)His rap album, Grown came out in 2015 with his group Daily Lyrical Product. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Wabash College. He formerly served as a Zell Postgraduate Fellow at the University of Michigan, where he received his MFA. He is a founding member of the poetry collective Dark Noise. Nate’s work has appeared in Poetry Magazine, Indiana Review, The New Republic and elsewhere. He was the star of the award winning full-length documentary “Louder Than A Bomb” and has been featured on the HBO Original Series “Brave New Voices.” Nate is a recepient of the Hurston/Wright Founding Members Award, Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award, and a 2015 Ruth Lilly/Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship.


nigger joke


so this nigger walks into a bar in this gentrifying neighborhood & orders fried chicken & the nigger gets a craft beer cause the nigger went to graduate school & the nigger is waiting for his fried chicken & this white man walks up & sits down in front of a half drank tallboy & calls the nigger’s phone a big ass phone & the nigger laughs because the phone is big & bought for with his graduate school money & the nigger keeps his eyes up at the football game & the white man extends his hand & the nigger takes it with kool-aid strained cheeks because the nigger thinks about this week & all the wrong that white people have done & maybe this is a start of a different story & maybe the white man tells him something honest over the liquor & buys him drinks & something so anyway the white man asks the nigger if he lives in the neighborhood & the nigger is new around here & the white man says welcome & assures the nigger this is a good bar the white man talks about how he’s here most nights has never seen a fight & he talks about how whites & niggers & latinos drink here in peace & talks about the last 10 years & the buildings he bought here a decade ago that are multiplying his pockets & the white man talks about his catholic school past & the white man talks about making a corridor from downtown to the suburbs & he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop always & cop more buildings & get more rents & he asks the nigger where he’s from & the nigger says south side & the white man tells the nigger what south side is & the white man talks about cop blocks & assures the nigger all of south side isn’t a wasteland because there’s cop blocks over there too even & the nigger tries to shift the conversation to the south side white neighborhoods because the nigger went to elementary school in one & the white man talks about those cousins he has there & how they are on an island & how the south side is so bad but not where the white folks live & the nigger tries the college town he lived in & the white man’s dad went to school there & the white man got in but white man’s dad wouldn’t pay for that school on his judge salary so the white man went military academy & the white man got cop brothers & other family & the white man talks about his second house in the state of the college town & how up there he’s a Catholic & the not Catholic white men look at him different when they find out & then the white man says i never been oppressed except one time & he says in Virginia everybody’s a nigger & the nigger says nothing the nigger eats his chicken which got there awhile ago the nigger eats the chicken & listens to the nigger joke & the nigger joke says nothing & looks at the football game & the white man says pardon me if saying the nigger word offends you but the nigger joke just nods & the nigger joke waits for the white man to finish his story & the nigger joke eats the chicken with a singular focus & hopes the bone plunges into his throat & the nigger joke isn’t hungry & can’t stop eating as fast as possible & the nigger joke hopes the white man stops talking about the protestors who are probably college students who should probably protest college tuition & not other cities but the nigger joke isn’t listening the nigger joke is repeating the prayer his mama taught him this prayer starts with the good elementary school & then the good high school & then the excellent college & then the incredible graduate school & how it was all merit scholarship & also the high test scores including the awards & honors of course the publications & acclaim & the nigger joke finishes his prayer & the nigger joke sees somebody’s prayer answered when the nigger joke pays the waitress & tells the white man have a good night & cries the walk home.



Oregon Trail


for my great aunt & Jonathan Hicks


my first venture west was in Windows 98

or Independence, Missouri. class in the computer lab

& we were supposed to be playing some typing game

or another. the one i remember had a haunted theme.

ghosts instructing us on the finer points of where

to put our fingers. these were the last days

before keyboards as appendage, when typing

was not nature. i should’ve been letting an apparition

coach me through QWERTY but rather

i was at the general store deciding between ammo & axles,

considering the merits of being a banker or carpenter.


too young to know what profession

would get me to the Willamette Valley

in the space of a 40 minute period.

i aimed my rifle with the arrow keys, tapped the space

bar with a prayer for meat to haul back to the wagon.


this game came difficult as breathing underwater after

trying to ford a river.


i was no good at survival.

somebody always fell ill or out into the river.

each new day scurvy or a raid was the fate of a character

named for my crush or my baby sister.

this loss i know, how to measure what it means

to die premature before a school period ends.


i can’t understand the game coming to a late end.

an elderly daughter grieving her elderly mother.

reading the expansive obit in a suburban

Detroit church is a confusing newness.


when the old do the thing the world expects

i retreat into my former self. focus on beating

video games I’ve always sucked at, brush up

on Chicago Bulls history, re-memorize

the Backstreet Boys catalog, push

away whatever woman is foolhardy enough

to be on any road with me. i pioneer my way away

from all the known world. i look at homicide rates

& wish we all expired the way i know best. i pray

for a senseless, poetic departure. i pray for my family

to not be around to miss me while i’m still here.

i want a short obituary, a life brief & unfulfilled,

the introductory melody before a beat’s crescendo into song,

the game over somewhere in the Great Plains.


i want to spare my descendants the confusion

of watching a flame flicker slow. keep them from being

at a funeral thumbing the faded family pictures like worn keys,

observing the journey done, the game won, the west





Originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of POETRY