Home » Great MindsSpring 2012

Loving Words, Living Poetry

by Nate Marshall, Class of 2012 No Comment


When I was young, I used to read the dictionary. My grandmother, who helped raise me, was a high school librarian and kept multiple dictionaries in the house at any given time. Whenever I didn’t know the meaning of a word, she would send me to one of those books and eventually I began to dive into them on my own accord.

By the age of about 12, this search was one of my favorite things. That love of language blossomed into more. I was a huge fan of hip-hop music and through that art, I was introduced to poetry. I was amazed by the dexterity of the language exhibited by my favorite rappers and poets and I decided to try my hand at writing.

Poetic Competition

At 13, I reluctantly entered my first poetry slam. The poetry slam, Louder Than a Bomb, is the major youth poetry festival in Chicago. The talent of the top performers astounded me and inspired me to continue writing diligently. Throughout high school, I was recognized as a finalist in that competition and then in 2008, to win it as an individual. I went on to compete at the International Youth Poetry Slam, Brave New Voices, and be a finalist there.

When it came time for me to choose a college, my writing was a major factor. I wanted a place that would challenge me academically and allow me to study and develop my creative writing skills. I wanted a place that would supplement and enhance my knowledge of literature and teach me how to appreciate classic canonical works as much as I had grown to appreciate contemporary poetry.

The Stage to the Page

“Marshall displays prodigious talent, whipping out wordplay the way other kids punch out cellphone texts, and doing it with a keen sense of wit.”

—Robert Koehler, Variety review of Louder Than a Bomb

I’ve found that ideal environment being an English major in the College of Arts and Science at Vanderbilt. The creative writing program here has given me support and guidance in my writing and I know I’m an exponentially better writer after my Vanderbilt experience. It wasn’t always easy but my professors have guided me into bringing the same sort of effort and energy to the page that I bring on the stage.

Vanderbilt is a miraculous community. I remember being skeptical when I applied. I felt like it might be too Southern or homogenous to be comfortable for a young black kid from Chicago. What I’ve found in Vanderbilt is a place that welcomes and engages all. Vanderbilt is a home to all who come to 21st and West End. It is a place that has challenged my perceptions about people, education, and myself, and I am a better person for those challenges.

During my sophomore year, a documentary, Louder Than a Bomb, premiered and began making the rounds at various film festivals. The movie followed the 2008 poetry slam competition that I was part of in high school. The film profiled me and a few other participants. Since it premiered in March 2010, the film has won 17 festival prizes, including 10 audience awards. I’ve had the opportunity to travel all over the U.S. and Canada promoting the documentary and working with kids. I’m looking forward to traveling internationally, as the film has been shown across Europe and Africa. This has added another layer to the whirlwind of going away for school and has been an amazing experience in itself.

I’m a senior now. I’ll be attending the University of Michigan for graduate school in creative writing next year. In the long run I hope to be a professor and also work with youth and creative arts to afford young people the same sort of outlets that were so vital to my education.

photo credit: John Russell

Comments are closed.