Poet Of The Week

Marshall Gillson

     December 23–29, 2019

Marshall “Gripp” Gillson is a genderfluid/nonbinary writer and technocreative based in New York City. Gillson graduated from Morehouse College and the Georgia Institute of Technology and is currently an MFA candidate and Turner Fellow at Stony Brook University. Their work is multimedia and interdisciplinary, ranging from written word to performance art to electronic installation. They have appeared onstage as an actor and a poet, self-published and been printed in literary magazines, built digital chapbooks and Twitter bots, taught college courses and workshops, and have written, produced and appeared in short films. Much of their work is fantastical, surreal and absurdist. It confronts race, gender, mental imbalance, loneliness, existential dread and sometimes robots. In their spare time, they enjoy board games, avoiding attention, and writing biographies in the third person. Gillson is the runner-up for the 2019 Yawp Poem of the Year award from Brooklyn Poets for the poem below.

Author photo by Carlie Febo

Black Boy Climbs into the Gorilla Cage to Ask for Advice


the black boy cranes his neck up at the gorilla

sees a glint of the familiar in the face watching him

feels the fear leave him peaceful as blood

pooling on a city sidewalk

and he whispers: i have so many questions

the gorilla straightens its back

then ask me

so the black boy asks:

how do you survive your cage?

and the gorilla shakes its head and responds:

no one ever survives

and the black boy says:

youre missing the point

not at all, says the gorilla

the black boy thinks for a moment

and the gorilla sees the panicked onlookers

gathering around the fence, pointing

shaking like the barrel of an unsure gun

and the black boy says:

but how do you stay alive?

where do you hide your anger?

and the gorilla says:

i never hide

and the black boy says:

youre missing the point

not at all, says the gorilla

the black boy notices the commotion

outside the gates and says:

they are coming to protect me

these hunters have been waiting

the gorilla scoffs

silly human who believes in protection

these hunters and their bullets

never wait. they may make trophies of us

but we are not yet. we are still alive

and the black boy says:

but how are you still alive?

how do you survive your cage?

and the gorilla says:

this cage is not mine

and the black boy says:

youre missing the point

not at all, says the gorilla

i didnt choose this cage. i was placed

these people with their wide white faces

come to see us dangerous

to watch our hands ready

to tear living flesh from a skeleton

we pound our chests and roar

as though we are not born of captivity

as though we are not stolen children

as though we do not live at their discretion

they mistake our wailing for anger

but it is pain, the sound of the held

growing too big to be restrained

it is the sound of our demands

they imagine us without chain

but never open the gates

never want us within armslength

of their fragile necks

they turn our turmoil to spectacle

and call us animals

do not mistake the cage for yours

it was built to contain you

to hold you in place for observation

you want to know how i survive?

boychild, youre missing the point

no one ever survives

you should know this; you are black

like me you were born almost-dead

and have been molting pieces of your alive since

and the black boy says:

then where do we go?

how do we stop the pain?

and the gorilla says:

i have only learned one way

outside the cage

the hunter loads his rifle

swings the barrel up slow as nightfall

he sees every part of the gorilla

through the sight

its chest, its throat, its temple

the hunter relaxes, takes a deep breath


Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote this poem in 2016. That May, there was a high-profile national news story about a black child who was rescued from the gorilla cage at a zoo. The zookeepers decided to shoot the gorilla to save the child. That summer, I went on a writing retreat with my slam team and we all spent a weekend mining for new poems. Our coach gave us a list of potential prompts and that news story was one of them. I finished the first draft of the poem that weekend.

Our conversation about the incident centered on the way that white society and media treated the killing compared to how they treated (and continue to treat) state-sanctioned murders of black people. I wasn’t following the specifics of the story closely, but I did observe a lot of the discourse around it. I saw a lot of black people expressing disillusionment at the outpouring of sympathy for the dead gorilla from people who were indifferent to racial violence, which is the primary emotion that drives the poem.

What are you working on right now?

So many things! I just finished the first semester of an MFA in TV Writing. This semester I wrote a spec episode of Atlanta (basically academic fanfic). Next semester I’m going to start a feature film and write the pilot for an original series. A play I co-wrote debuted in Boston this year and we’re hoping to stage some shows in NYC soon. I’m finishing up a book of closet screenplays. I’m working with a few friends/collaborators to develop some indie television ideas. And a host of side projects and hobby larks on the side …

What’s a good day for you?

A night.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

School. I moved here from the Boston metro in August after quitting my full-time computer programming job.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

As I understand, what is currently Brownsville was first occupied by various Lenape tribes. It was stolen and colonized by the Dutch. Brownsville has a history of housing NYC’s impoverished, since it was considered too far from Manhattan to be valuable. Through the mid-1900s, it was primarily home to Jewish immigrants (my peoples). The demographics shifted in the latter part of the century to mostly black (my peoples). Poverty and oppression have been rife.

I hesitate to call it “my neighborhood,” since I only just moved here. I know it is suffering gentrification. It belongs to the people who have lived here longest and taken care of it most. But it has nurtured me. I’m something of a recluse but I’m learning my haunts and appreciating my time here.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

In middle school, I wrote an essay about Jackie Robinson and somehow managed to misspell it Brookland. When my teacher pointed it out, I changed it to Brooklynn.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

I was a competitive slam poet for many years, so I ended up competing in and forming ties to local poetry communities in a few different cities. Most communities of any kind, I think, reduce to a group of people organizing toward their shared idea of some human value. Opinions differ on what constitutes human value. Nonetheless, I think communities tend to be most successful when they are open, honest and accepting, when they readily acknowledge individual uniqueness as well as our inextricable dependence upon one another. Most of the poetry communities I’ve been in strive toward those maxims. I’ve been to a few shows since I got to Brooklyn, but I haven’t really involved myself much in poetry community here. Primarily because I’ve been writing other things.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Hip-hop saved my life. You can run the list of poets on that one. I definitely listened to a lot of Jay Z. I listened to a lot of Masta Ace. Those two in particular definitely influenced my flow.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

My development as a poet was concurrent with my development as a performer. Many of my mentors have been simultaneously my slam coaches. I appreciate them a lot for curating welcoming spaces, encouraging me to learn about myself through art, and teaching me how to both craft and receive useful critique.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

This is sort of esoteric, but I’ve been evangelizing this book called Writing for the Cut. It is a book on screenwriting recommended to me by a professor. It talks a lot about what is important about a screenplay from the perspective of a film editor. It gave me some tools to think how to translate my ideas into effective scripts, particularly since I’m used to writing poetry.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I’ve got a neverending list, but let’s go with The Revolution Starts at Home.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I read voraciously as a kid. A lot of sci-fi and fantasy novels. For a while I was really into pop science books, but I started to find them repetitive; there are a few really popular anecdotes that a lot of them mention. I read and have read a lot of independent poetry from a lot of people I’ve met at shows. I definitely dip in and out of books. I read a lot, but nowadays have trouble committing to long-form content (cognitive science class was excruciating … so much reading). Consequently, I end up reading excerpts, or ingesting a book piecemeal on the train over the course of a few months, or jumping around to get a sense of how things relate. The internet has definitely changed how I receive information. I have a huge pile of get-to-eventually content to read and watch and listen to. Sometimes I’m in the mood for something specific and go looking for it. I usually have a couple of half-finished books in my backpack so I have something to pull out and read at any moment. I prefer physical books but they’re often inconvenient and I don’t mind screens. I don’t take notes in books or in classes because I find it distracting.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I’m trying to write better song lyrics. I’ve written a lot of rap, but always felt there was a different art to writing lyrics that are meant to be sung. But there’s not a strong line between rappers and singers anymore, so I’m gonna dust off the baritone and figure it out.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I actually find it very difficult to work at home. It’s just too much my space. My whole life is there. It’s full of distractions and so it has a way of unnecessarily extending tasks. Recently I’ve been posting up at diners to write. New York’s diner culture is way more popping than Boston’s, but I still wish more of them had free WiFi.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY. Shoutout public libraries. Support them and fund them. They’re some of the last spaces where they don’t ask you to pay just to exist.

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

After “Brooklyn Go Hard”


love brooklyn, love biggie, surrogate father

taught me how to see me as martyr / taught me theres no

armor / i turn 25 issa honor

gotta have the cash before you barter / gotta watch ya

back / gotta dodge a cap / gotta jack em smarter

you could set the game up in the parlor / i could take you

farther / than youve been / we could win / yeh we could do it

yeh i swear its such a sin / when the pen / spilling the fluid

Why Brooklyn?

How could you do this Brooklyn? What was going through your mind Brooklyn?