Nate Marshall’s favorite word is “scruples,” because he likes the way it sounds. In moments of silence, he flails his hands to convey emotion. From moment to moment he seems joyous and lighthearted, and as such it is hard to believe that the poetry he writes is born from personal experience. That is, until he reads it. At a reading at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center this past Friday, Marshall, a former contestant in Chicago’s annual Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry slam, spoke forcefully of the guns, the violence, the addiction he witnessed growing up in the South Side’s “100s.”
Like many of the participants in Louder Than a Bomb, Marshall found solace in slam, a form of spoken poetry that gave him, and still gives other teenagers across Chicago, a voice. Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel’s 2010 documentary “Louder Than a Bomb”—screened alongside Marshall’s performance—documents the way the festival gives teenagers like Marshall, many of whom recall being labeled by society as unmotivated and unable to accomplish anything substantive, the ability to rise in their own way. The film shows young people, including Marshall, as they tussle with messages of hatred, respect, distrust, and—most prominently—love for their own art.
A question-and-answer session with Marshall and director Greg Jacobs followed Friday’s screening. The last question was directed at Marshall: “How do you know when you should write and something?” He transitioned straight into a performance of several of his poems, reciting stories about racial discrimination on the South Side, the unjustified arrests of his friends, about a childhood marked by turbulence and frustration. These words spoke for themselves.
This comes years removed from Marshall’s appearance in Louder Than a Bomb. Yet even after graduating from Vanderbilt and beginning an MFA at the University of Michigan, the emotion Marshall feels toward slam hasn’t changed from what he expressed in the last line of his winning poem in 2008: “I thank this forum for help making me so strong, for letting me talk about sex, drugs, basketball, and moms. Fond farewell to this chapter and to all the joy and laughter this for every kid, whose voice has been louder than a bomb.”