The Conversation: José Olivarez and Nate Marshall


The Conversation is an eight-part series put together by Aziza Barnes and Nabila Lovelace and hosted by The Rumpus. Read more about the project here. These poems and conversations from José Olivarez and Nate Marshall are the seventh installment.


the voice in my head speaks English now

it finds me underneath the layers. maybe
the cold wants to be friends. take me skiing.
wants me to see the winter isn’t all bad & it is
not, but i’m still shivering. i put on boots
that i like. i put on hats & gloves i look fly in.

it never stops being cold. i trip on the boots i like.
i shake through the hats & gloves. my friends
tell me it will be summer soon & they are lying.
on days that are gray, i wear gold. i tell myself
i can carry the sun with me. i can wear it. i am

lying. the cold is there even when the weather breaks.
my cold hands. my cold feet. my cold mouth.
i fly to Mexico. i look for what i lost. it is so hot.
i am here to surprise my family. they don’t
recognize me. when i walk over to say hello, i freeze.

–José Olivarez


José Olivarez: What’s good Nate Marshall? How you feeling?

Nate Marshall: Man I’m beautiful. Got some cool ish happening in mi vida right now. How you living?

Olivarez: Man. Everything is good. The flu got me pretty good this past week, but I’m almost through it.

Marshall: True. So let’s make this conversation happen. I’m excited to talk to you about this project.

Olivarez: Let’s do it. Would you as a Person of Color and writer in 2016 America consider moving to Louisiana, Alabama, or Mississippi? Why or why not?

Marshall: I definitely would. I think I feel in some ways very connected to the South. It would have to be the right space and it would have to be the proper situation life-wise but I have a lot of family from and still in the Deep South so from that perspective it would actually be great. What about you?

Olivarez: Yeah, I could see myself moving to the South. I think I could see myself on a farm with some cows and plants and writing poems, or possibly in a city like New Orleans. For me, I don’t have deep ties to any one part of the United States, save Chicago, so in theory, I could see myself living in any number of places so long as I had a community there, you know what I’m saying. But yeah, I think The South could be a very dope place to live. Particularly since a lot of my favorite art—be it Jesmyn Ward, or Big KRIT, or who ever—is coming out of the South right now.

Marshall: Hell yeah KRIT and Jesmyn Ward need to stay getting shouted out in sentences together. One of the things I love about both of them is they are really explicitly engaging in a conversation with the tropes and traditions of the South, particularly Mississippi for them. Do you think you use images/tropes of the South in your writing? If so could you talk about how and why and if you feel you don’t can you think through why you might not?

Olivarez: You know, I don’t know that I know 100% what the images or tropes from the South are. A lot of my writing is about home and all of the places and times I have found it, as well as the moments where I lose home. I write about my relationship to place a lot. I don’t know if in doing that I am writing towards some of the same imagery and tropes that southern writers write towards. My hunch is that since many of the artists I admire and was taught by are Black American Chicagoans that in some ways I probably am writing in my own crooked way towards those tropes and images, but I’m not sure. How about you?

Marshall: That’s real. I think I do probably engage with some of those images and ideas because of that connection via the Great Migration. My fam is from MS, LA, and AL so those were the stories I heard growing up from my grandmothers and other family members. It was bayous and sugar cane or chopping cotton and killing chickens. Once I got older and actually went down south for myself a lot of those things really began to come alive for me beyond the stories. It also helped that I went to school in the South (Nashville, TN) so once I got down there I had more access to begin to explore that part of my psyche and my influence.

I’m curious though, while we’re talking about writing and our connections with the region via writing do you feel like you have a connection to the region either ancestrally or creatively or in any other way?

Olivarez: Word. That’s very real. I think I feel most connected ancestrally to the Southwest—to that part of the United States that used to be Mexico and that still has very large Mexican communities. I haven’t really lived in a Mexican community since I moved out of the East side of Chicago when I was four years old, you know. I think I feel most connected to Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama creatively because I consume a lot of writing and music by writers that call those states home. How about you? I know you already mentioned your family, and I know you’ve spent some time traveling through the South.

Marshall: Yeah I definitely feel connected. First off and most primarily it is where all my family comes from before Chicago. I think beyond that I’ve had more chances since I turned eighteen. I’ve been to New Orleans a bunch and then also out to the country where my dad’s people are from. I’ve also done some research in Mississippi and some hanging out in Alabama. It’s definitely a place that feels hella haunted to me but it does feel like a kind of home.

Olivarez: Word. Thinking about travelling. Living in a POC body, do you feel you have mobility in the United States? What spoken/ unspoken rules about mobility have you inherited?

Marshall: Man that’s some shit I think about a lot just given where I’m at now. So currently I live in a pretty small town in Indiana where I’m teaching. The county has fewer than 2% black folks and not much else in the way of diversity. There are so many spaces in this country where I feel unsafe particularly because of my body. When I see Confederate flags hung up on houses around town in Indiana or as I’m on a road trip through Tennessee I definitely feel like those things are there for me to say “this is not yours and don’t be confused about that.” I think moving forward it would be hard for me to live somewhere or visit somewhere for an extended period of time if there wasn’t a decent amount of black folks and other POC folks present. It just does a damage to my psyche to not have that. What about you?

Olivarez: I remember you sent me a piece of writing earlier this year where you were like, while I am here (in Indiana) I’m waiting to live or something like that, and that was when I really started to understand a little of the psychological damage that you’re talking about.

This question is hard for me. I know that I am very fair-skinned and that the danger I face on a day-to-day basis and in different parts of the country is theoretically low. Yet, I’m not white. I’ve never identified as white. I don’t see myself as white. So when I travel through the country, I don’t feel particularly safe because of the name I carry, because Donald Trump is on TV calling Mexicans rapists and there are many people in the country who like Donald Trump, you know, and I can’t feel 100% safe given those realities. I was watching the Democratic debate last night, and it made it very clear that I am seen as an intruder here, and that there are people that wouldn’t hesitate to show me that.

So let me ask you where do you go to see representations of yourself? Where is your mirror in the world?

Marshall: I think I go back home. I go to hoods around Chicago where I can see folks who look like me and hear people who sound like me. I think that also just extends to black communities everywhere. When I think about who I am I think it’s tied up in race AND class. In a lot of ways I just feel more comfortable in spaces populated by poor and working folks who know something of what it is to grind in similar ways to how I came up. I think I often feel a kind of dysphoria because I’m not necessarily in the same class now as where I was as a kid and I don’t totally know how I feel about that. How about you? What shapes your mirror self and where do you go to find it?

Olivarez: Man. I remember when you and I were just starting to become friends we were talking on the phone and you said something that stuck with me. You said something like I like talking to you because I can switch back and forth between academic talk and hip-hop in speech. Something like that. And I think I feel most comfortable around people like that. Where I can be very serious and academic and then turn around and be the silly dude from Calumet City that I am. I think I find mirrors in Mexican grocery stores. In Lechoneras in the Bronx where I can hear people talk like my mom and dad and sometimes they play Vicente Fernandez, but I think the places where I can most fully be myself and feel most seen are among my chosen family of artists and friends that encourage me to by my full self at all times.


they tell me talk about my feelings

& i call bullshit before i give it a try
so let me say today i feel
like the neighborhood handyman’s
slap for cocking my cap on an angle
but there are other days i feel
like an 8 year old’s chest
burning from trying
to smoke notebook paper.
is that not clear enough?
maybe if i told you my heart
feels full as having the chance to lick
concrete instead of kiss it
that would make more sense. stay with me
now. this is a vulnerable moment. my head
is an eviction notice & my eyes
are a pair of Payless shoes. i mean my mouth
is a car trunk of campaign literature for a crooked politician &
my toes are stolen car antennae whipping
the face of my future until i’m far away.

–Nate Marshall


Nate Marshall is from the South Side of Chicago. He is the author of Wild Hundreds (University of Pittsburgh)and an editor of The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop (Haymarket Books). Wild Hundreds has been honored with the Black Caucus of the American Library Association’s award for Poetry Book of the Year and nominated for an NAACP Image Award. His last rap album, Grown, came out in 2015 with his group Daily Lyrical Product. Nate is a member of The Dark Noise Collective. He won a 2015 Ruth Lilly/Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. He is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Wabash College.

José Olivarez i s the co-author of the book of poems Home Court. He is a graduate of Harvard University and the Program Director at Urban Word NYC. A winner of a 2015 Bronx Recognizes Its Own award from the Bronx Council on the Arts, his work has been published in The BreakBeat Poets, The Acentos Review, Specter Magazine, Union Station Magazine, and Luna Luna Magazine among other places. His work has also been featured on Yahoo’s Ball Don’t Lie basketball blog, Chicago Public Radio, and on Mass Poetry’s PoeTry on the T program. He is from Calumet City, IL, and he lives in the Bronx. You can purchase Home Court at and follow him on social media at @jayohessee.


The Conversation concludes tomorrow with Jayson Smith and Jerriod Avant.

The Conversation's purpose is rooted in carving out space for Black Americans to contend with their Blackness & its infinite permutations in the South. Central to The Conversation is documenting contemporary POC relationships to the American South, reformatting the literary conference model, engaging with Southern communities of young writers and the reclamation of land. More from this author →