Behind the Sestina: Nate Marshall

NateMarshall1

From the South Side of Chicago, Nate Marshall is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan, and was the star of the award-winning documentary  Louder Than A Bomb. He has been featured on HBO’s Brave New Voices, and his work has appeared in such places as Vinyl Poetry, Poetry, Learn Then Burn, and The Spoken Word Revolution: Redux,on Chicago Public Radio.He is also an Assistant Poetry Editor for Muzzle.

Marshall has also worked a teaching artist with organizations such as Young Chicago Authors, Inside Out Detroit, and Southern Word. He is the founder of the Lost Count Scholarship Fund that promotes youth violence prevention in Chicago. Marshall has performed poetry at venues and universities across the US, Canada, and South Africa. He is also a rapper.

We asked Nate about “pallbearers (a sestina),” featured in The Incredible Sestina Anthology.

When did you first discover the sestina? 

I first discovered the concept of a sestina at the opening event of Louder Than A Bomb Youth Poetry Slam. One of the featured readers read one and I totally didn’t understand it. I remember thinking it was so odd but I was drawn to the repetition.

Do you remember the first sestina you ever read? 

The first sestina I read I think was Lucy Anderton’s “Eve’s Sestina for Adam” from The Spoken Word Revolution: Redux. I don’t know if I have a favorite sestina but I really respect the sestinas that have very short lines. That’s hard, man.

We’re curious about your sestina-writing life. What got you started? 

‘pallbearers’ is the first sestina I ever wrote. I wrote the first draft of it in 2009 during my sophomore year of college. My professor, Mark Jarman, trashed it pretty thoroughly in workshop, but I still thought it was pretty good. After many successive drafts its much better in my opinion.

What keeps you coming back (or are you sestina retired)?

I love the sestina for the repetition. It lends itself well to narrative because of that and that plays well to my instincts as a poet. Also I really dig the way knowledge of homophones becomes so golden in building a sestina. That homophone use really reminds me of the inventiveness of writing raps.

Sestinas are my go-to form when I have time to kill. They are like poetry sudoku. They are the official form of international flights, long flight delays and MegaBus trips through the Midwest.

Can you walk us through the composition of “pallbearers”? The sestina welcomes and demands repetition, and so I suspect your writing about this particular subject came out of witnessing and experiencing death, life, friendships? 

It’s hard to say. The thing I started with in this poem was the end words. That’s a trick I learned from Mark Jarman. I wanted to use a bunch of small, flexible words and then one that was strange or more challenging. I think coffin became the word because I could think of a variety of ways it could be used and because I often write about how death and loss impact my life and my world. The repetition seemed to fit the storyline naturally because in a childhood friendship there’s often a kind of repeating, almost sitcom quality to the times you spend with those friends. There’s also sadness to when that time in life ends that might be kind of akin to a sort of death. I think though it is important that the poem ends on the image of togetherness and support even in death. That makes the poem hopeful, it speaks to life and the fact that life is ultimately about the relationships we cultivate with each other.

Can you tell us about the important of the poem’s epigraph? Ang13 is from Chicago, as you are, so I imagine that’s a big part of it?

The epigraph is so important. Listening to that song was the thing that sparked the writing of the poem so there’s that. Also I think Ang13 means a lot to the work. She’s a legendary underground female rapper from Chicago. She’s a smart ass, witty, strong woman voice and that makes sense to start in a poem about my grandmother who was also all those things.

Finally, the first sestinas were always dedicated to someone—to whom would your sestina be dedicated?

Oh this is definitely for my maternal grandmother, Mary Frances Griffin. To a lesser extent, it’s also dedicated to my childhood crew: Shaun Peace, Bart Studnicki, Dominic Giafagleone, and Kenneth Kittrell.

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