An Interview with Morgan Parker
by Charis Caputo, Issue 43
Morgan Parker wants everyone to be uncomfortable, even Morgan Parker. The poet, essayist, and soon-to-be YA novelist has a gift for provocation, truth-telling, and self-scrutiny, evident from her first collection, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night (Switchback Books, 2015), which emerged from her MFA poetry thesis at NYU and was selected by Eileen Myles for the 2013 Gatewood Prize. Parker’s subsequent career has been busy, prolific, strewn with accolades—including a Cave Canem Fellowship, and a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Literature fellowship—and projects such as curating (with Tommy Pico) the Poets with Attitude reading series and performing (with Angel Nafis) as half of The Other Black Girl Collective.
In her much celebrated second collection, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Tin House, 2017), Parker’s distinctive voice, at once performative and relentlessly honest, emerges from formally diverse poems that seduce and interrogate in turn. Playful, political, and glittering with pop, jazz, and visual art allusions, Beyoncé articulates a youthful, intersectional feminism that happens to dialogue with Beyoncé’s Lemonade (coincidentally released a few months before the book’s publication) on issues of authenticity, beauty and Black womanhood in American culture. When I first read the collection, I was (like many) drawn in first by the title and the gorgeous Carrie Mae Weems cover image. Then I read the entire book in one sitting, and then read it again, hungry for more and more of Parker’s vivid insights on self and culture. I wrote down lines, memorized them, and quoted them to friends, to much laughter and agreement: lines like “When I drink anything / out of a martini glass / I feel untouched by / professional and sexual / rejection,” and “I type Beyoncé into my phone / five out of seven days a week.” Beyoncé is hilarious, trenchant, bold, but guided by a deep millennial melancholy, suffused with anxious solitude and cheap booze, hot lavender baths and the cool, ubiquitous glow of screens. But at the very center of this lush, lonely striving, there is an urgent and unequivocal declaration of the worth and beauty of imperiled Black lives. The opening poem, a meditation on police violence and non-indictment, announces: “I do what I want because I could die any minute. / I don’t mean YOLO I mean they are hunting me.”
Parker’s most recent collection, Magical Negro (Tin House, 2019), is even more outwardly-focused and leaves out the “courting” aspect (as she puts it) of her previous writing. Anger and urgency rise to the surface of these mordantly observant poems, which scrutinize the very work of humor and performance in a white supremacist society. Alternately inhabiting, venerating, and dissecting various manifestations of the “magical negro” trope—from “The Strong Black Woman” to Diana Ross to Jesus Christ—Parker attempts to construct a new canon, a new mythology of Black America, one that resists erasure and interrogates received history. White America does not escape the collection’s ethnographic gaze, which presents a typology of implicit and casual racism—white guys named “Matt,” who approach interracial romance as a kind of countercultural belt notch; the unexamined whiteness of Nancy Meyer’s aesthetics of romance; the white liberal use of the phrase “now more than ever,” its elision of the burden that Black people have born for centuries and continue to bear “forever and ever and ever and ever.”
Parker is nervous about this new collection. A few months before its publication, she generously spent an afternoon on a video call with me from her vigorously decorated Los Angeles home. She discussed—among other things—the discomfort and catharsis she feels about Magical Negro, as well as about her forthcoming projects in other genres, including an essay collection, a television pilot, and the autobiographical YA novel, Who Put This Song On? (Delacourte Press) out in fall 2019.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You have a young adult novel coming out this year. How did writing fiction compare to writing poetry for you?
MORGAN PARKER: It’s just different. It’s a totally new genre for me, so I kind of am going through it very blindly. And it’s fun, it’s like a total adventure. I basically had to teach myself how to write fiction. It was really weird. I feel very comfortable with my voice in poems, and in essays, actually, but it took me a while to find that in a novel form. Once I did, I found a stride, but it was really hard for me to focus on: okay, what are the rules of fiction? Because there are rules. There aren’t in poems [laughs]. And also, what does my fiction sound like? There’s also the issue of it being a young adult novel, so there are other constraints in both content and voice. Right now, I’m cutting down on the expletives, because I forget that “fuck” is a bad word.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: What motivated you to write a young adult novel?
MORGAN PARKER: Well I had written a little bit about my experiences as a teenager, different scenes from my life. And I guess I just wanted to put it in the world for that person, that version of me. It sounds a little bit out there, but, as I started it, there was something compelling me to finish it, almost to make peace with that version of myself. It was the book that I would have wanted then, so I imagined it filling a space. If I wanted it, then someone else must be out there who wants a book like that. There’s not a Black Bell Jar. So, depression…there’s not really a book like that, not just for Black girls, but for, like, emo black girls in the suburbs. So it’s very specific, and I just wanted to make that.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I listened to your interview with Rachel Zucker, on the Commonplace podcast, and you talked a little bit about how, at that point in time, you were struggling with how to write narrative about depression. Because depression is about the absence of narrative, a lot of the time.
MORGAN PARKER: Yeah, it totally is. It took me a while to build a narrative structure, because I also really think in these vignettes, and a novel has to have this larger arc. Which I’m comfortable with, in theory, but it’s really hard to build a story and build every character and all their desires and where they’ve come from and where I want them to go. It’s just a lot to consider. And, on top of that, it’s about suburban malaise. So there are no monsters, there are no vampires, or anything like that, so what is the drama of this world, where the whole complaint of the narrator is: nothing ever happens, and no one is interesting? How do you build, not suspense, but a compelling story about a not-compelling place and time?
I put an author’s note at the end, written by me at thirty, so it becomes this kind of life-long arc, with a big gap in-between, a narrative about both the character and what it feels like to be that person, to carry that person into the world and continue. It felt important to me to explain that, if you’re in that space, there is something after, and it’s okay to carry your depression, and feelings like that, and they’re not going to go away, but you can live with them. I didn’t want anyone to go away from it being like: What happens, is she all cured at the end? That’s just not the case. I was so unprepared for the life of my depression, and I wanted to just hold the hand of a younger and just say, “It’s gonna be fine. It’s not gonna be perfect, but it’s not gonna be all bad.” If there was someone reading, I didn’t want them to go away from it without encouragement.
I’ve read a lot of young adult novels that told these stories, and I found that so many of them had some kind of victory at the end, and mine just kind of ends. The victory is that this person keeps living. And I just wanted to highlight that. There’s always a love story, or the person gets into college or something. And none of that happens in my book. I didn’t get the guy, there was no guy, I really thought I’d be a different person by this point in my life, but the point is, I’m still here, and it’s all fine. That’s my way of telling a story: it is fiction, but it isn’t. And for these kids it isn’t fiction either. So I don’t want them to be gassed up about, like, oh I’m going to find my great love, and I’m going to feel good all the time. It just isn’t real.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I think that’s very brave of you to try something new, I really look forward to reading it. And I feel like you’ve written so eloquently about depression in your poetry as well, and that was one of the things that really resonated with me when I first encountered your poetry. And speaking to that idea of depression and hope, there’s a passage at the end of There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé where you write: “But one day your shit will be unbelievably together / One day you’ll care a whole lot you’ll always take vitamins / And exercise without bragging and words will fit perfectly / Into your mouth like an olive soaked in gin… Combing your records you’ll see the past and think OK / Once I was a different kind of person.” Have you experienced that moment?
MORGAN PARKER: Totally, I’m a different person, like, more than once a week. But I also think that part of that poem is that the “OK” feels really important. Because it’s not like, “damn I used to be another person.” No shame or longing, there’s just an acceptance. I think there’s celebration of the self, there’s deprecation of the self. And I really wanted it to be like, this is just what it is: once I was different, now I’m me, I accept that. I’m aware of that.
And, also, the smallness of the things. It’s not like, once I was in rags and now I’m in a mansion. It’s like, I’m following up on the things I said I would do, like exercise [laughs]. Like take vitamins. It’s the basic shit, you know? I didn’t used to do that, now I’m doing that. So that can be growth. Figuring out how to speak correctly on your behalf, that’s the word fitting perfectly.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Yeah, so when I read that passage, I literally cried in the bookstore, I found it so moving. And one of the things that’s really striking about your work is that, I read it as a white millennial woman, and there are parts that really resonate with me, but you’re also really clear about the fact that depression is not a racially neutral experience. And I was just wondering if you wanted to speak a little bit to that? About how you think about the relationship between depression and privilege in your work.
MORGAN PARKER: Yeah, well that’s part of the YA novel journey as well. I read The Bell Jar, and I was like: cool, cool, cool, cool, cool…but I still feel wrong. This feels like a white woman in Massachusetts going to prep school, so that means that there’s still something weird about me. I feel isolated by the depression, so I can kind of get that, but that still was a dress that didn’t fit. And I also think that white people don’t realize that most of my therapy sessions are about white women. And that’s fucked up. We don’t remember that a lot of people of color are in therapy to cope with existence in a white supremacist world. And in some ways white people are as well, but the question is, are they aware of that? I think it’s a privilege to even be able to center yourself in therapy. I end up talking about these larger, larger themes, and yet I still can’t go on a date. That’s just way-low priority. Going to therapy is like: I have to in order to make sense of what’s happening in the world. And not: I choose to because I want to better myself. It’s hard, it’s hard to talk about.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You’ve written a lot about therapy, and you have an essay in the New York Times about therapy as reparations, which was so great. And in another essay, you wrote about your therapist asking, “when did the loneliness start” and you respond, “generations ago.” I think that’s so eloquently put and such a great insight, and I guess kind of leads me into Magical Negro…
MORGAN PARKER: Yeah, all the white women who love my books now, they might not like this one. [Laughing]. Maybe you can tell me! Because there are so many white millennial women who think, I know this book isn’t written for me, or a lot of these poems are talking about an experience that I will never understand fully, but they love it! They love There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. And I’m like, “I don’t know if you guys can hang on this next one.” Magical Negro feels so much…angrier, I guess. I don’t know what you think.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I feel like there’s so much humor in your earlier work. And I felt almost like there was a conscious decision to be less funny in Magical Negro. Is that true?
MORGAN PARKER: Not really that, but some things you can’t…there is no good joke about it. There are tiny little jokes in there, for me—because that’s how I trick myself into writing, by making myself laugh—but they are much smaller moments, and they’re much harsher jokes, and they’re not for everyone. It’s just not a fun book. So even when it’s funny, it hurts, it slices. When I first started writing the poems that appear in the book, a friend was like, “Oh, you’re not trying to be charming anymore.”
I still think that I’m hilarious all the time, but it is about: who’s the humor for? I think I got rid of humor-in-order-to-make-the-audience-comfortable. I think I had done that work; in earlier books, there was always something to draw folks in. Like, here’s Beyoncé in the title, and then you open the book and it’s just about my sadness. I always am trying to bring the audience in so that I can tell them the truth. I think with Magical Negro I just skipped a lot of the courting.
It’s hard for me even to read from Magical Negro. That’s not fun for me, whereas usually I’m like, “here’s my stand-up bit.” I feel a little bit like I can’t do that anymore, and it’s hard for me to read a lot of those things. I have read “Strong Black Woman” from Magical Negro one time out loud, and I just…I couldn’t. It’s really hard stuff. And it’s hard to look people in the face while you’re reading those things. Another book I’m terrified to release.
But yeah, it was less a conscious decision and more that I didn’t know how else to say it. And also, there’s an urgency: I don’t have time to entertain, I just need to get this out before I die. There’s so much fear that motivates a lot of those poems. There is such a darkness, a gray cloud of death itself. A lot of those poems just function as a final plea, pointing at all the ways that I look, and see death. I don’t know. I’m still learning how to talk about this book.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: And I think—like you said, “who is the humor for?”—there’s a deconstruction of humor going on in the book. There’s a section called “Popular Negro Punchlines.” And there’s a line where you write, “The Negro is suspicious of the laugh track, and any rhetoric or imagery that inherently denies the space of the Negro body.”
MORGAN PARKER: [Laughing] I forgot I wrote that.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: And also, I read the piece you wrote for “Lenny Letter” on the Cosby trial, and you said you were thinking a lot about the history of Black comedy and how you use comedy in your own work. And you said that, “One thing I love about comedy is the permission to act up, to step out of the Respectable and Well-Behaved skin without consequence.” But you seem to have a lot of ambivalence toward that, in a way.
MORGAN PARKER: Yeah, yeah. I noticed that in my work, which is why I’m kind of exploring it. I mean, I’m not a comedian, I’m not trained in that way. But sometimes I try to think like one. Writing this book really did force me to think about what is comedy in despair? Where can comedy come in, how has that happened? I’m always interested in juxtaposition: Here’s the most painful thing I’ve ever written, but full of jokes. Why do we do that? And there’s something about performance in a room full of laughing white people that’s…I don’t know, it’s worth analyzing.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Speaking of performance, performance is just a really big theme in your work in general. And you’ve written a lot of poems that are sort of in the “perspective” of celebrities. Obviously, Beyoncé being the most famous example. But in Magical Negro, there’s a poem in the perspective of Diana Ross, and of Gladys Knight, and of all of the sort of “magical negro” tropes and characters that you’ve identified. And so, I’m wondering if you think about those as persona poems? Is it more complicated than that? To what extent are you meant to be in the psychology of that person?
MORGAN PARKER: It’s hard to say. In a lot of my poems, the narrator switches up a lot. There are a lot of different narrators. Sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s these characters. I don’t know that I’ve ever fully written a persona poem, it’s always just a mask that I wear and then take back. Or almost…not a prop, but a mood board. Does that make sense? Sometimes it’s celebrities, but often it’s just an image or a song. I use those things in a similar way. I have to set up the vibe of the room before I step into it. And sometimes that inspiration is just the spirit of Diana Ross. Sometimes particular songs, particular films. That helps me to find a voice, a prepared space for the poem to exist. Because I usually don’t know where the poem is going to end, so I just prepare a stage and then let shit happen. Sometimes they even slip out of first and third person, second person. So, it isn’t “persona,” but it is a mask. That’s the best way I can describe it.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: How do you decide which perspective you’re going to use, and does it ever change over the course of writing?
MORGAN PARKER: Oh yeah, for sure. There are a couple of poems that just slipped right out, but most of the time I revise a lot. There’s the original idea for the poem and then there’s what the poem wants to be, and those are two different things. And the revision process, for me, is just a stripping of the ego, getting further away from that initial idea that I thought was really clever, and investigating that, and seeing if it is honestly the best vehicle for the poem. Sometimes it needs to be a direct address. Sometimes I need to say the words “I am” or I need to make a statement about my existence. Other times it wants to be a narrator, be watching and illuminating something. It really depends on, once I get to the end of the poem, what its purpose is and who it’s talking to and why.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I’m very intrigued by that “mood board” metaphor you used. That really articulates the way it feels to be immersed in your work. It feels like you’ve created this whole kind of semiotic universe that is like…Nancy Meyers means a particular thing—
MORGAN PARKER: Yeah!
WASHINGTON SQUARE: And Diana Ross means a particular thing, and Beyoncé means a particular thing, in this universe that you’ve created.
MORGAN PARKER: Totally. It’s kind of weird, right?
WASHINGTON SQUARE: It’s really cool!
MORGAN PARKER: Now that I can look back at all the books, it’s funny the things that people will bring up. Like a “Matt” is a character now. Little things like that. It does have its own little language and shorthand by now, because I build on a lot of the same themes, so it becomes a particular soundtrack. It’s strange. The only way to describe it is that it’s like my house. People come to my house, and they’re like “Oooh, shit! I get it! You live inside your book, like, that’s what’s happening.”
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You mean your literal house?
MORGAN PARKER: My literal house, yeah.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Why, what about it?
MORGAN PARKER: There’s stuff everywhere, there’s a bunch of stuff on the walls, black artists, stacks of books, records, lots of vintage, every pattern ever. And Black Americana memorabilia just scattered throughout. There’s a framed picture of Frederick Douglass right when you walk in my house. I want it to be an experience, in the same way that I think about my poems. So, it’s almost like decorating or interior designing, moving things around, creating a space that the reader and myself are walking into, where the tone and the world of the poem makes sense. I don’t know, it’s weird.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: That’s really cool. It rounds you out, as a person, for me.
MORGAN PARKER: Yeah, I have my thing. It’s my Black Wes Anderson situation. That’s what’s happening.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I was curious if you think of your poetry at all as a form of cultural criticism.
MORGAN PARKER: Sure, yeah. And I often feel like I’m bummed that poetry isn’t something that, when it’s current, we analyze in that way. I feel like, when I’m dead, if people are still reading literature and analyzing it, they’ll spend some time pulling out cultural touchpoints. People won’t really read my poems in that way until I’m dead. A lot of the time, when I’m writing essays—I have a nonfiction book I’m working on—what I’m finding is that I almost just want to expand on the same ideas I’m putting out there in poetry. It feels to me like I’ve said it before, but I’m trying to say it in a different way, to a different audience. In everything that I’m making, I am trying to make some kind of criticism. And that’s because I’m a nerd. And also because I’m obsessed with documentation and analysis; I studied anthropology. So, on one hand, I’m exploring deeply the psychology of myself as a Black American woman, right now, and also doing this ethnography of the world that I live in, from my perspective.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Yeah, there’s a section in Magical Negro titled “Field Negro Field Notes,” and it does feel very ethnographic. It’s full of observations about…guys named Matt, for example.
MORGAN PARKER: Yeah, yeah. Well, originally, I wanted that section to actually be like field notes. When I came up with it, I wanted it to be like: here’s what “Matt” means, here’s what “Now More than Ever Means.” And it didn’t work out like that, but I think that spirit is still in that section. Let me take a particular slice and define it, for me. What are our terms, and how do we create definitions and data?
WASHINGTON SQUARE: In Magical Negro you have more longer poems and denser poems, and there are several prose poems in the collection. And some of the language is kind of academic: you play around with sentences with a lot of clauses, and abstract language that’s used in an interesting way. I felt like the voice in this collection was more authoritative than it has been in your previous collections. Did you feel that way too? Did you feel a shift in the language that you were using and the tone that you were writing with?
MORGAN PARKER: Yeah, I think so. First of all, when I finished this book, I was like: Who wrote this? What. In. The. Fuck. Is. This? Clearly, several ancestors were helping me, because a lot of it came out, and I was afraid of it. And that happened with all of my books, but it was like, woah, I’m terrified of this thing I made, and maybe no one gets to see it.
Also, I think, in my first book, I was mainly examining self-identity and pleasure and confusion and the interior of myself in the world. And in my second book I was looking a little bit more around, into my community. And this book takes a different, further-away view. It is still extremely personal, but it’s presented, like I said, almost as evidence. I wanted it to be that. I did that a little bit with Beyoncé, and I tried to fine-tune it for this book. I didn’t want anyone to be able to write these poems off as feelings.
You’re asking if these poems could be considered cultural criticism—I think so. And I wanted to write in such a way where it was, like, hard data, and more of an in-depth analysis of things we throw around. And aspects of life we say we understand but don’t think through. And it’s not necessarily authority, but it is more sentences, fewer questions. I guess it’s taking authority over certain things, but in my mind it’s a very unsteady and nervous book.
I also see the way that I was working toward writing non-fiction. And for a lot of these poems, I was like, maybe I expand this and it’s an essay. In the end I had to figure that out about certain concepts, where I was like, this can exist in a poem, or I just need to save this and meditate on it for my essays. But I could already feel my mind working in that space. Which I wanted to utilize—that kind of academic language—but also, it’s still a poem.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Yeah, I really loved that about a lot of the poems. That they straddled that line between poem and essay, they’re almost very concise essays. But you have had stuff where you start writing it in one genre and then it kind of—
MORGAN PARKER: Oh yeah. I do that all the time. And in every direction. I think that’s part of why I was interested in working in so many different genres to begin with. I would get an idea, and I would realize, this poem isn’t happening, why not? And then I would realize, oh, I’m supposed to be writing an essay. Or this little joke I have that I thought would go in an essay is maybe a piece of dialogue for my novel. I felt a little bit constrained by having only one genre to work with, I think. Because not every idea belongs in a poem. I feel like now that I have all these avenues open to me, it really feels like I can find the right vehicle for everything.
And in that way, it feels like I’m honoring the work, the idea behind each piece, rather than saying, “I’m going to write a poem,” it’s, “I want to say this.” Which is just a different way of writing, which I like. I like having the different buckets. But also, my agents have told me that I shouldn’t be writing three books at a time. So, I’ve got to work on that. Trying to get it down to two books at a time.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: How many books are you writing right now?
MORGAN PARKER: Well, I’m finishing the copy edits for the novel. I’m writing one book, technically, it’s very early. But I’m also writing a TV pilot. Or I’m learning how to write a pilot. My poetry books, they happen fast. When you look at how a novel is made, or how this nonfiction book is going to be made: I have no idea. It takes longer, there are more words and shit, and I’ve never done it before. So, when I was writing the novel, I was like, I don’t know even know if I can finish this, because I haven’t ever done it before, so I don’t even know how to end a novel. It was terrible. No one should write a novel, it’s a really bad idea [Laughs]. But especially there was a learning curve for me. So I think these next projects will take me much longer, just because I have to learn how to do them.
It’s ridiculous. I could have just kept writing poetry books, I know how to do that, I know that I can do that. But I’m insane, so, I have to pick up a new genre every year, I guess. A big part of me likes the challenge, and a big part of me likes to be uncomfortable.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Can I ask what the TV pilot is about?
MORGAN PARKER: It’s about reparations, of course! But I can’t really tell you much more yet, because I don’t really know. But hopefully I’ll be adapting the novel as well, which is a totally different project. I’m just trying to push the limits of my voice, my statement. I’m of the opinion that everyone writes around the same themes forever, and I don’t want to do it in the same way, and I never have, and I get bored easily. I think, I’ve explored these themes in these ways, but there’s still something yet to be articulated, and what would it look like in this other form? What would the rooms, the mood boards of the poetry book have to look like to be on TV? I have no idea. I’ll find out, I guess. Maybe.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I know that you’ve written about how you tend to take on too many projects at once. And about the “psychology of struggle,” both as an artist and as a Black woman. Do you feel like that has been alleviated at all as you’ve had some successes in the past few years? Or it’s just always there?
MORGAN PARKER: There are more people to slow me down, and I am more compelled to listen to them. I’m realizing that I myself am a resource to be protected. And I think I’m realizing that putting myself behind the work was not conducive to the work, and to my sustainability. I’m working on it. But there is a part of me that wants to do so much and so quickly, so I’m always trying to temper that, and remind myself to take it one thing at a time.
But there is some part of me that wants to go back to when I was a baby poet and took every gig: whatever, you don’t have to pay me anything, no one has to be there, I am just going do it, because I am a hustler. There’s a part of me that still wants to take every opportunity, and I don’t have to, and I almost can’t believe that. There’s a feeling of: How is this possible, and when is it going to end? My only job right now is to be Morgan Parker, and I cannot emphasize to you how wild that is. I’m like, this can’t be forever, so I need to note and enjoy it right now, but I need to remain alert. Also, my folks are working class, and that’s just how I was taught: try to work as hard as possible. And no one in my family is an artist, so I’m really navigating a brand-new space.
I’ve always had a nine-to-five, until last year. Which is ridiculous. How are you supposed to get anything done when you have so many jobs?
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Speaking of jobs, I know you’ve had several jobs in the visual art world. You worked for MOMA PS1, and you were the Educational Director at the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora. And it seems like visual art comes up a lot in your work. You’ve been, at times kind of critical of the art world and hypocrisy in the art world, but you also seem to be really nourished by the proximity to visual artists. So I was just wondering, who are some visual artists who inspire you, and how does that inspiration find its way into your work?
MORGAN PARKER: So many different ways. There’s a lot, especially in my early work, where I’m looking at particular pieces of art, or thinking about particular artists. I think, right now, even when I do that, it’s at a different level. I have a lot of conversations with visual artists friends that inspire me, even though I’m not directly referencing the work. A lot of these conversations I’m having with artists who are trying to talk about the same themes, but it totally different ways, obviously—in film, or in installations. I’m just very interested in visual art. I’m very bad at it—I make an occasional collage—but I do appreciate it and love it and really have an eye for trying to explore what the artist is doing. And in particular, contemporaries. Mickalene Thomas is mentioned, Carrie Mae Weems is mentioned, in my second book. In my first book I mention Keith Haring, I think Basquiat is in there. Roy Lichtenstein. Sometimes it’s particular pieces, I often go to museums to write, I look through art books. I think it’s because I am so visual, and I talk about almost “decorating” a space, and that’s part of it also.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Mickalene Thomas did the cover art for There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, right?
MORGAN PARKER: Yes, I was so lucky. And then also to get Carrie Mae Weems on the second edition. Those are my icons, in some ways. And their work was just fundamental to everything in There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. I have poems for each of them, but the truth is that their work is really underscoring a lot of the book. And other Black woman artists—Lorna Simpson, for example—I felt that, in paying homage to Black women writers and musicians, visual artists are there too.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Related to visual art, there’s a line in Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night that I really love: “I point to culture, no pop all fizzle. / To canvas, a savings account with truffles.” I think that’s such a great line, and I’m wondering, how do you think about the distinction between “high” culture and pop culture, and how do you approach that?
MORGAN PARKER: I don’t care. I don’t believe in it at all, like, obviously. I’m the bitch who will put the slave trade right next to a bag of potato chips, I don’t care. Everything is collapsed for me. But I do know that folks have a real concern about that, and that’s something I’ve always been asked about: high art versus “pop.” And I’m like, dude, I don’t know. How often does Beethoven come up, as opposed to Beyoncé? I’m trying to tell the truth, so it doesn’t matter which is high or low or whatever, I’m just telling the truth about my world.
And it’s obviously racist on one hand. It’s very tilted toward, the “classics”; then, I’m talking about Diana Ross, and it’s “pop.” Like, what the fuck? She’s classic! I am allowed to name my own cultural icons and “high” art. I think that’s really what it is, bringing those things up to the level that I put them at.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Also, you write about the things that people our age are actually experiencing. Like Top Chef! We can recognize our lives in your poems, in a way.
MORGAN PARKER: Right. I often see younger poets who have all this pressure to try to write about what they’re supposed to write about. Or, I have to appear a certain way in the poem. It has to be timeless, whatever the fuck that means; make sure there are no timestamps, no brands, or anything like that. But why? You’re constantly censoring yourself, and you can tell, in those poems, that it’s a strain. You’re trying to do all of these gymnastics to avoid your life, and the truth of your life. And I just don’t have the energy for that.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: This is maybe a related question, or maybe not. I’m interested in the concept of beauty, which comes up in your work a lot. The question of what’s considered beautiful, and who’s considered beautiful. In the title poem of There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, you write “There are more beautiful things than Beyoncé: self-awareness, / Leftover mascara in clumps, recognizing a pattern…There are more beautiful things than Beyoncé: / Lavender, education, becoming other people, / The fucking sky / It’s so overused because no one’s sure of it / How it floats with flagrant privilege.” That struck me as potentially kind of an ars poetica, I don’t know if that’s true. But I’m curious: what does beauty mean to you, and what do you think is the place of beauty in poetry?
MORGAN PARKER: I just wanted to redefine the word, and I wanted to redefine what we value in Black women. That book was swirling around this idea of beauty. I guess it was kind of an ars poetica in a way. Or really a manifesto for the book. When I wrote it, the book wasn’t done, but the concept was getting there, and I took a bath, and I put record on Love Jones—really, that’s how it happened— and I wrote in the bathtub, and I thought okay, what is it I need to say about beauty? And really it was: How beautiful are these small moments? I didn’t think there would be any kind of clamor about that. This thing where I’m saying that Beyoncé’s ugly, that’s not it. The sky! The fucking sky! Of course it’s more beautiful than Beyoncé. She wouldn’t even…who would argue with that? No one. But turns out, people are like, “How can anything be?” And I’m like, “You guys, the fucking sky.”
It’s just that I want to acknowledge beauty where it is, and not say, this is real beauty, or this is the most beautiful thing, when it’s something I don’t encounter, ever. We need to define what’s beautiful for ourselves. I need to believe it’s beautiful to walk down the street in Bed-Stuy and see an empty chicken box that’s greasy, in the plants. That has to be beautiful. I think that poem was an invitation for readers to discover that also: These things are all beautiful, and so is Beyoncé. And actually, come to think of it, so am I! And so are you!
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I’ve heard you say in other interviews that you hated poetry until you discovered the full possibilities of it in college, and you’ve said that, before that, you thought of poetry as a place for only the “lovely” feelings. And related to that, you’ve written some about love poems. You had an essay for the Poetry Foundation blog, where you quoted Barraka, who wrote, “Let there be no love poems written / until love can exist freely and / cleanly.” And I thought of that in relation to a poem in Magical Negro called “Whites Only,” where you write “I guess this is a love poem / another dream of what I’m not / I guess there’s no difference / between a country and a man.” I’m wondering, have you ever written a poem that you would consider a love poem? And do you still feel like there is no place for love poetry in a world where there is this much hate?
MORGAN PARKER: I really don’t know. I don’t set out to write love poems. But I do think the project is that I’m trying to write a love poem to myself, and to my people. But I don’t know if they can be called that. Friends have said, “Oh, I think some of your poems are love poems, and I can read them that way.” But, generally, I don’t feel like that’s my lane. Someone else could do it better. I’m here to talk about the un-lovely feelings, and to talk about lack of love, and what that does. To talk about possibilities of love. Aspirational love. I think that un-lovely things are beautiful. I think that it is paramount that we believe that even these gross parts of ourselves can be beautiful. It has taken me a really long time to accept so many parts of myself, and it’s just ridiculous to hide and act like other people don’t feel bad. I think we have to be honest before we can be celebratory and in love.
Also, I don’t know if I’ve ever fallen in love. I don’t think I have. That’s part of it. It’s just not my experience, so romantic love is not something that I feel equipped to write about.
But I do agree with Baraka. When I first read that poem, I thought, oh yeah, that’s it. How can we dare to write a love poem when many of us feel excluded from love, and our society, in general, is not based upon love and empathy? How dare we act like we know something about it?
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I do get a sense from your work of the striving to love oneself. I think your work depicts solitude in a way that’s very beautiful, and also kind of uneasy. I get a sense of the speakers performing for themselves, at times. There’s a line in Beyoncé about “seducing myself in sweatpants.” That idea of seducing oneself is very interesting. Do you feel like you perform for yourself when you are alone?
MORGAN PARKER: Yeah, sure, sometimes. Performance is something that we all slip in and out of. I think the American experience right now is that we’re performing all the time, so I did want to talk about that. But also, there is a part of aloneness where you’re being several different people to yourself. Another line in that book is: “This is where I kiss myself hello.” I am exploring loneliness and self-sufficiency and how hard that is, and how much courage it takes, and imagination. I used to describe my poems as “what happens when you get home from the party, and you’re just by yourself.” There is this feeling of a ghost of all of these people, it feels very crowded. But it is isolated at the end of the day, you’re by yourself, and what does that look like? To sit with yourself, reflect, take off your clothes, metaphorically and literally.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I did want to talk about “Now More than Ever,” because it’s such an incredibly powerful poem. And maybe this is me just enacting that, like, white liberal stupidity that it talks about, but do you think of it as a poem about the Trump Era?
MORGAN PARKER: I wrote it before. Uh…did I? I don’t know. I never wanted to use that word or refer to that specific person in my book. That was for sure. I mean, do you know how long I’ve been hearing “now more than ever”? It’s not this era. It became a slogan, but I’ve been hearing that for years. Like, “now more than ever, Black lives matter”: what the fuck does that mean? When did I stop mattering, why do I matter now? It’s a mess to me, and I think people use it so freely. There was a time… I’m getting all of these emails from white women telling me “Now more than ever I need to do this event,” and I’m like “get the fuck away from me. I’ve been doing it.” And also, it’s a call for us to watch our language and think about words. And think about what some people are allowed to say and others aren’t. Also, it just feels so obvious to me. And I think that’s why it’s in this, again, ethnographic voice. I need to define this and use this kind of lexicon, because clearly, ya’ll ain’t getting it. I need to break it down. That’s one of the poems I barely edited. And when I read it out loud, I just say “ever and ever” as long as I need to.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Because it goes on for a page and a half in the book.
MORGAN PARKER: And it depends on the audience. I watch. It’s like that face where they’re laughing, kind of, and they’re like, oh I get it. And they’re like, oh I get it. But then there’s another little bit after that, where I’m like, now you’ve actually heard me. You can see people’s faces: I don’t know how to respond, I’m uncomfortable. Sometimes I sit down on the floor. Once I lay down on the ground. I often leave the room just saying the word. I want it to feel uncomfortable. I mean, obviously I always want people to feel uncomfortable. But it is something I felt I really needed to drive home. I felt like Black people just needed that poem to be out there, too. We all know that stuff. And to just say it: this is ridiculous, stop saying “now more than ever” to me. Because “ever” means something so different. Like I said, “generations ago” is when I felt this way. How unfair for you to take that from me. It does feel like a violence, and I just had to figure out how to say that.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Super-last wrap-up question, I promise. There’s a critique about time in Magical Negro…
MORGAN PARKER: I don’t believe in linear time, it’s bullshit.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: What do you mean when you say that?
MORGAN PARKER: That I feel linear time is fake, and there’s so much echo and repetition, and I feel my ancestors very closely. My therapist is always like, how do you even exist, when you’re here, but you’re also in a slave ship, but you’re also in the sky? That is really how I experience the world, artistically and emotionally and politically. Linear time is not a reflection of how I feel in this body. I don’t think that past versions of me are gone, and I don’t think that future versions of me aren’t with me right now.