Photo by Kwesi Abbensetts.
Morgan Parker has a long résumé—she teaches and edits—that somehow hasn’t precluded a prolific career as a poet. Her first collection, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night, came last year; her second, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, is due out in 2017.
A few months ago, Parker’s poem “Hottentot Venus” appeared in the Spring issue of The Paris Review. Her use of famous names and long, playful titles (“Ryan Gosling Wearing a T-shirt of Macaulay Culkin Wearing a T-Shirt of Ryan Gosling Wearing a T-Shirt of Macaulay Culkin”) suggests that she’s light of heart—but she is, as one reviewer put it,“as set on understanding the world as on changing it.” Race and femininism are central to her work, which explores ways to look at the present through the past, to examine ordinary life through pop culture, and to consider the events of her own life. We spoke recently about the joys of lengthy titles, how her many jobs intersect, and the process of crafting a personal mythology.
You’re an editor at Amazon’s Little A imprint, an adjunct at Columbia, a cocurator of the poets with attitude reading series, and you are one half of the Other Black Girl collective. That sounds like a lot.
I know. Just hearing my bio out loud makes me exhausted.
I was really taken with “Hottentot Venus,” which I know will be in There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. When did you decide that you wanted to use her as a way of talking about certain things?
I’ve been writing the poems in There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé for a long time. I’m finally at the point where people have stopped e-mailing me every time something happens with Beyoncé. I was living in this Beyoncé space for maybe four years of my life, writing these poems and experiencing everything through the lens of—not necessarily her, but symbols of black womanhood, celebrity, and the idea of performance. I heard a rumor a while back that Beyoncé was going to be producing a movie about Hottentot Venus, and it suddenly clicked that I had never written about Hottentot Venus in relation to Beyoncé—which was shocking, because there are so many obvious connections. One thing that interests me about Beyoncé is who her predecessors are, and how she’s a kind of symbol for all the different ways that black women are revered but also surveilled in a really intense way, put on display. That happens to me just walking down the street. It happens in another way for black women who are celebrities. The whole legacy of Hottentot Venus is one of dehumanization and display. I was interested in that line between awe or reverence—and also exploitation. Where is that line? What does it mean to be at once upheld and at the same time continually made to feel less than? All these questions belonged in the manuscript, which I think of as kind of a tome of black womanhood.
Having read some of your other work, like the “Magical Negro” series, when I saw the title of your next book, I had this conception of what the book is and how it uses celebrity as a way to talk about identity and experience and perception.
Absolutely. Not all the poems in the book are about Beyoncé or even reference her. Maybe less than ten? I’m interested in how that lens shifts readers’ understanding of the confessional poems in the book and their understanding of the poems that reference visual art or jazz. One thing I’m getting at is historical connection. I’m aiming to use my subjectivity to reflect a more widely held experience.
Do you think when you’re using a Beyoncé reference or just a pop culture reference, people respond to it differently than if you reference jazz or classical art?
Yes, which I’ve never understood. My first book has a lot of pop-culture references as well—Jay-Z, the Real Housewives, all kinds of media and celebrities. I write out of trying to archive and record my particular experience. It would feel false if I didn’t include all those things that really shape contemporary life. I’m not the first person to do that. O’Hara did that, Eliot did that. I don’t really see what is so difficult for folks to grasp about it, but I think it’s a debate wrapped up in class and race, and what constitutes high and low art. I’m using pop references, but not in a light or gimmicky way. The poems are exploring and troubling something. My references may look different from someone else’s, but in my life I experience the Real Housewives more than I experience Greek myth. These are my contemporary myths and symbols.
Some of the opposition is about dating the poem—imagining having to explain the references in the future.
That’s true. Some writers want to write something that doesn’t exist within a time, but I’m not interested in that. I want to capture particular moments in time. In college, I double majored in anthropology and creative writing, and I’ve always found the two practices very connected. I’ve always seen my writing as an attempt to document and be specific in that documentation.
In your poem “A Brief History of the Present,” you start out referencing the movie In the Heat of the Night and then segue into talking about contemporary events that echo between the past and the present, which is key.
That’s one thing I’m obsessed with, especially in talking about black womanhood. I was talking to a friend earlier about how I really experience all time periods—the past, the present, the future—on the same plane in some way. I think “echo” is a good way to describe it. There are so many experiences we have that someone has had before and someone will have again. I am hyperaware of patterns and repetition in society. The way that history repeats and rewrites. It’s a way of connecting with other people who are here, and also with people who are no longer here.
Being a black American, it’s easy to explain in terms of trauma. You’re aware that you’re not the first person feeling and experiencing the thing that’s happening, whether it’s violence or discrimination or exploitation. I think there’s a lot to explore there and I think that there’s a lot to talk about being connected to that history. Our conception of history and its relation to the present is always shifting.
In your description of the Other Black Girl Collective, you wrote, “With energy, brutal honesty, dark humor, anger and pride, we aim to create a new Black Girl mythology—one centered around possibility and freedom.” That use of the word mythology is very intentional.
I think personal narrative is really important for the individual and for a collective and for a people. I think it’s important to have agency in that narrative. There’s so much about contemporary life where one story is written upon the person by the outside world, by circumstance. It feels necessary for me as an artist, and for my collaborator, Angel Nafis, to seek our own understanding of ourselves. It’s in the name, The Other Black Girl, that we’re responding to a held perception. To the tendency of people to confuse us for one another. What is a black girl? Or rather, what is your preconceived idea of a black girl? A lot of those ideas are cliché and a lot of them are dangerous. I think it’s important for us to really explore multiplicity and idiosyncrasy and that’s where the mythology comes in, to create touch points that feel relevant to us and not received.
I think of it as a sort of curation of the things that make up my life. Some of them might be obvious, but others will be surprising. I think it’s important to call those things out and say, This is what’s important to me, this is what has shaped me. The same goes for the way we’re thinking about history. It’s about context. We all are contextualized within something and that gives us meaning and it gives our identities something to hang onto. I exist in the context of these women who came before me or I exist in the context of these television shows that are airing the same time that I’m alive.
And that perception of you that others have exists within the same cultural context.
I try to make my poems fight against—but also acknowledge—that perception. It feels like a very important practice to say, I know what preconceived notions the reader might have, so how can I manipulate that? Even when the reader is me. What are the preconceived notions I have about myself and how can I challenge them?
One of the first things people will notice about your work is that you like long, complicated titles, which I love.
I think that titles are very, very important, and I have so much fun with titles. I think they should be fun. It’s important for me as I’m writing, and for readers, that the title not just be “Today” or “Leaves.” It’s giving you a preview of what you’re getting into, sets up a situation or asks a question. It doesn’t stand on its own, it’s part of the conversation and it’s a declaration. My poems are really different in aesthetic, and different in content and very different in tone. The titles really help to orient and reorient the reader. I notice it especially when I give readings. I’ll read a title and people will settle into their seats in a particular way, then when I move to a new poem, I’ll see them poised in another way, adjusting to the new tone.
You jump around aesthetically a lot from poem to poem.
I get bored easy. The number one thing for me in writing is to entertain myself and challenge myself and scare myself and push myself. Plus, people are complex. I think it’s important to show that a kind of showy, glittery poem about Beyoncé can exist alongside a much quieter poem about depression.
Do you feel pressure to balance your more personal poems against the poems where you’re writing about culture and celebrity?
I don’t think much about it. It happens very naturally for me. Again, I think about myself and my interior, personal poems within a cultural context. Maybe I’m watching an episode of Top Chef and I hear a line and that makes me think about something I said in therapy. It’s not a matter of reaching into one bowl and then reaching into the other. And in that way, all of the poems are deeply personal. I’m often described as a confessional poet. I don’t necessarily self-identify that way, but I do know that I love to confess. It feels necessary to a healthy psyche and a poem’s success. It’s a powerful feeling to admit or come to terms with truth.
How does spending part of your day thinking about yourself, thinking about poetry, thinking about these ideas, affect your roles as a teacher and editor?
I’m very self-reflective naturally—possibly to a fault. If it’s possible for someone to be too self-aware due to too many years of therapy, I have that disease. It’s just how I live, but I do think it helps me when I’m working with other people. So much of editing and so much of teaching is understanding how people think. Understanding what they’re trying to say and helping them to say it better. Really, like a therapist, it’s asking them the right questions to get them there. When I’m editing a short story, for example, I kind of go about it the same way as when I’m editing my own work. What isn’t sitting right? What questions can I ask to get to the bottom of what I’m really trying to say? My editing process is rooted in a curiosity about psychology and how people think—and a tendency not to leave things alone.
Alex Dueben has written for The Rumpus, the Poetry Foundation, the Daily Beast, and elsewhere. His interview with William Gibson was included in Conversations with William Gibson.
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