| Catapult Extra
Excerpts A Conversation with Morgan Parker
“I will always write about black womanhood and I will always be influenced by popular culture and our contemporary myth.”
Morgan Parker is one of the foremost poets of this generation, and that is not an understatement. Besides being published in The New York Times and The Nation, among many others, BuzzFeed listed her forthcoming book There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (out February 14) as one of the most exciting books to come out in 2017. I was lucky enough to be able to talk with Morgan about black womanhood, our enigma, and our struggle, as she prepares for the whirlwind of her book release and imminent tour:
I want to talk about the cover of your book for a second. There’s so much to say about the color scheme and the positionality of the black woman and I want to know if you could go into more detail about how and why you chose this image.
The image was created for the book. Mickalene Thomas is an artist who I’ve loved for a long time and she inspired moments in the book. I always thought of her aesthetic as being in conversation with mine. I contacted her and asked her if she would be interested in reading my book and licensing something. She read it and excitedly created something based on my book. It was a collaboration, and I was very honored. I wanted the reader to confront the physicality of a black woman. It felt important but I wasn’t sure how to do that without making readers wonder if it was Beyonce, or me, or someone specific. I wanted readers to confront a figure. I wanted an image where you can’t see her face. I showed it to some friends and they liked how they didn’t know if she was throwing her head back as if she’s pissed or she’s cackling.
One thing that was both a relief and frustration while reading your book is the desire to be wanted. I felt relief because I was like, whew, finally another black woman is talking about her need for intimacy but then I was like well damn, why isn’t she getting it? Would you like to speak on that?
Yes, it’s very personal to me. We can cross-reference with my therapist about the reason for all of this. In the book and as a poetic practice, I’m trying to build a profile of a black woman and a lot of that is about not being desirable—whether or not that is happening in reality to each and every one of us. That is our profile and the narrative that is placed on us. Also there’s this idea of sacrificing intimacy in order to be powerful or to take care of one’s self. I think it is kind of important that the characters in my book are single or solitary, whether or not they are coupled or with a group of friends. They are on their own. There is so much external language and influence in the book, but as much as there is that, the other half of the book takes place in quiet moments. It’s very reflective. Loneliness is directly linked to being hurt and traumatized. As black women, that is a legacy we carry. There’s also the idea of not being seen the right way.
In “These Are Some Dangerous Times, Man,” your metaphor usage is astounding. I love in your poems, you make the black female body out to be a whole continent of different tundra, flora, and fauna. How? What is your process for choosing the right words and how it relates to history?
It definitely relates to history. I think about making poems as creating a room or an environment. That’s why each of the poems in the book has its own register and pacing. I focus a lot on tone—whether or not it’s celebratory, loud, quiet, sad, or fun. I also think about where my influences are. If I’m listening to a song or watching TV, I pick up language from all of those places or language that I associate with those spaces.
Your book reminded me of Solange’s “A Seat at the Table,” and one of the themes that others have picked up from that work was afro-pessimism. Would you consider your book to have afro-pessimistic vibes?
I actually feel like this book is optimistic in comparison to my first book. I don’t think that we only need to celebrate the most perfect moments. We need to celebrate the trials and tribulations. The book can feel—not pessimistic, but certainly dark—at moments, but there are so many peaks and valleys in it. In the end, the woman is triumphant. I thought a lot about the journey of the book. I am obsessed with telling a story through the order of the poems. The last poem in the book is called “So What?” It’s named after a Coltrane song. Honesty can look like pessimism. We are encouraged to be not completely honest if it sounds discomforting. In all of my work, I am saying what is honest and not necessarily “woe is me” but this is how it is. I think it would be disingenuous to write a book like a vision board. We have enough of that at Hallmark and Barnes & Noble. I am trying to write poems to make you feel like you have permission to be yourself and be seen. That’s more important to me. We underestimate how comforting it can be.
If you could use three words to describe black womanhood, what would it be?
I would say “more than that.” I’m really dedicated to talking about multiplicity and our contradictions. I want to create more space for other narratives about us. People think they know exactly what “black womanhood” is, but what does that mean? It means something different to you than it does to me. How can we trouble that and make it an “and” situation rather than an “or” situation?
When it came to the title, did you rack your brain over it for a while?
It came to me in the bathtub. I have a poem in the book that has that title. It was toward the end of the year and I was thinking about why I was writing about Beyonce and why I was so obsessed with using these pop cultural references. I really wanted to write about beautiful things. The journey of the book is trying to find beautiful things. I’m not saying that Beyonce is ugly. I was just taking my lavender bath, wrote that line, and thought, “Oh my God, what if I did this?” My friends were like no but I did it anyway.
Do you intend to create more pieces or books that center on a black female icon and from there expand on black womanhood?
My next manuscript is not centered on one black female icon and I would say that this book doesn’t either. Beyonce is in it, but so are a lot of people. I will always write about black womanhood and I will always be influenced by popular culture and our contemporary myth.
It seems like you’re becoming a bit of an icon yourself with shout-outs from Lena Dunham and those writing essays about you in Catapult. How does that make you feel?
Good. It’s weird because I told myself not to attach my writing to anything external. Obviously I want to be successful but part of me doing the work that I do is not caring how it is received by the masses. It’s wildly surprising and exciting to see that I can communicate with other people. That’s why I write: to connect with other folks. I’ve waited my whole life to be understood and seen. That is really satisfying when someone hears me and hears me correctly.
Which poets are you really excited about right now?
Right now, I’m reading a book by Shane McCray. Angel Nafis, my collaborator and bestie, is crafting some incredible new poems. Danez Smith and Alex Dimitrov both have new books coming out this year. There is a generation of poets right under mine that I’m so excited to watch and support. They seem to have more freedom and permission than I did when I was starting out. Poets like Jayson Smith and Nabila Lovelace—I’m so excited about their energy. And it’s not just individuals, these are entire communities that I’m stoked for because they are strong together and have a lot of reach.
What’s next on your docket? Because I know that not only are you a poet, you’re also an editor and teacher.
Right now, I am slowly working on a third manuscript called Magical Negro. I’m also working on a YA novel. Novels take a long time and are hard. This is the first time I’ve written one, and I’m basically teaching myself. It’s fun but it’s a slow-moving process. I’m also getting ready to go on book tour so I’ve been planning that, which is a job on its own. I’m editing some books right now for Little A. I also edit Day One , which is weekly, and that’s where I find a lot of new, exciting writers. I’m always scheming, taking meetings, and just hanging out with my dog.