When I call Morgan Parker to discuss her life and the brilliant poems that emerge from her experiences, she's in a bookstore. She's been there for two hours, and I feel a twinge of envy as I've just left work and haven't been near a bookstore in ages. Don't judge; staying away curbs my book-buying addiction. I also have an intense writing/work life at the moment. Taking the time to speak with Parker is a dreamy respite. She is currently on tour with her new poetry collection, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, a book that explores nearly every crevice of being a Black woman in America in a commanding and unflinching voice. We chatted about our mutual love of therapy, truth-telling art, her gift to the world, Beyoncé and more.
Ashunda Norris: Who are the Black women that have inspired and influenced you?
Morgan Parker: I mean, its gonna start with my Mama and my grandma, right? My aunties. That's how we learn, not only just how to be, strong and beautiful but how to be fed up. That it's okay to be fed up. How to keep it moving, how to care for people around you in the community and how to make humor and art and love out of what is traumatic. It's something that Black women have not only passed down in lineage, but also around each other. We have this kind way of not even having to speak anything and understand how each other is feeling and how to care for one another. It's mythical in a particular of way where it's just a sixth sense that we have of relating to each other and communicating. Our experiences are so unique, particularly in America... our lives are depleted and ignored and troubled and mythologized. Sometimes it just feels like Black women alone are the only people who understand me. And not just because we are all like the same but, because we all are battling the same set of systems and the same set of negation and trying to work against that.
AN: Your poem, All They Want is My Money My Pussy My Blood in particular, these lines: "Okay so I'm Black in America right and I walk into a bar./I drink a lot of wine and kiss a Black man on his beard./I do whatever I want because I could die any minute." For me, the last line burns with a really direct truth because I feel like someone is always trying to drown us and not always in the most direct ways. Can you talk about the thought process behind the poem?
MP: I wanted to write about this multi-pronged attack of just being in the world. Sometimes very subtle and sometimes really extreme. Some people don't understand that Black art can also be contemporary art. Their extremes of Blackness are rooted in history and trauma. That's a painful thing that happens in my day and also just like, here I am on a date with a white guy and there's no indictment. It's all very connected, and I wanted to write about the American capitalist, misogynist world where it's all about consuming of my money and consuming of my body and not only in a sexual way, but also in a violent way. I wanted to point to a lot of instances where I felt like that.
AN: You write about sex and the intricacies of relationships Black women have with their partners. It's not always perfect Black girl love. As in the poem When a Man I Love Jerks Off In My Bed Next To Me And Falls Asleep. How do you write poetry full of vulnerability and not shy away from how the audience/readers will react to your honesty?
MP: I'm just like really scared, and I've sorta given up being charming in a way. In my poetry, I want to entertain, I wanna make myself laugh, I wanna feel myself when I reading. Often sometimes, what is required of me is actually saying the truth and sometimes the truth is just not that cute. It's almost like an active thing. When I'm writing it, I haven't even really processed these moments that I'm pulling from so the writing of it is actually really painful. When I finished it, I was just like uggghh. I was like really struggling. I was like I'm never gonna show this. I still talk to that guy. And it's like weird. Should I publish this? If I do, what is he gonna think? Is he gonna recognize himself? Will other men recognize themselves? What does it mean to be publishing that work and then interacting socially? It's weird and it's also art and it needs to be said. Again, with that poem, I really wanted to think about violence on myself and this hating of myself and believing that I deserve pain. Whether it be neglect or sexual violence or punishment in this biblical sense. I wanted to track that. It really is about living and investigating what I'm feeling. What is at work? What is at play? What are my long held feelings about myself and the world that are making me feel this particular way? What have I internalized versus what do I really believe? Who is at fault? That is not just one person. That's me. That's the world. That's the bible. I'm really interested in figuring that out in the poem. It's really just about making the link. It's not just Black women's bodies. It's also about systems of oppression worldwide. The way that we think of service and how suffering has a purpose somehow. I wanted to make connections. I never want someone to read one of my poems and say it's this! The reading of the poem has to be plus this, plus this, plus this. It's a compounding of things and connecting them all together.
AN: You mentioned not fully processing what had occurred when you wrote that piece. How do you push past the initial insecurities of panic and put the poem into the world?
MP: It's not necessarily so much getting past it as it is living with it. That is what I have tasked myself with as a writer. Not everyone wants to do that. I have made it my mission to speak truth even when the truth is really scary to me and doesn't make me look good or whatever. If I really am gonna say that that's what I want to do, I have to do. That is very uncomfortable, but in the long run, and in the bigger scheme of things, that is what I'm tasked to do as a writer. It is making space for other people to say their own truth even if they are afraid to do so. Younger folks, my homies, other writers, they all have something to say and don't want to or are afraid. I'm taking one for the team. I'm the one who looks crazy so that other people can come through the door and feel okay with that. I look at a lot of other writers who are unafraid, artists, and people who are really putting their minds and bodies out there and truly I believe this is my offering to the world. It's not always gonna be the most beautiful rhythms it's not always gonna be the funniest thing. It will be the truest thing that I can muster that is what I have to offer to folks.
AN: I like what you said about taking one for the team because when I read some of your poetry, I was like thank you for giving me permission to write these kinds of things some things I was very uncomfortable putting into the world. Your mission is working and it's bold and brave.
MP: That's awesome. That means a lot to me. That's what so cool about having the book out there and being able to talk to other Black women who are like thanks!
That makes me feel better and it makes them feel better and we all just feel a little bit less insane. I've put something out there. I'm surprised at how far it reaches and how many people can identify. There's this weird myth we create: I'm the only one who's ever felt this ever before and that's just not true.
AN: The way you write about therapy eradicates shame specifically for Black women. I'm in therapy, and I feel like I hit the jackpot with a Black woman therapist.
AN: Yeah, and in L.A. too and she's changed my life in a different way from other therapists I've had. Can you talk about your relationship with therapy and how it informs your work thematically?
MP: I would not be able to do this kind of work, this rigorous truth telling if I weren't in therapy. I see folks who wanna go there in the work but then once it's open, they don't have a support system to deal with that stuff. Sometimes you can surprise yourself with what you put on the page, and it's scary. For me, it's a lot of taking that first step in my therapist's office to put the words together because otherwise, it's just sitting in you. That building the own narrative that is your life and that really just informs the narrative that I put in my poems. I've been in therapy for such a long time. I think that everyone should be in therapy. It was such a thing for me when I first started going. I felt ashamed and it was dramatic and it was so secret and that is bullshit. It doesn't make sense. It's just a thing. I go I see this doctor. She's dope and that helps me. It's much healthier than a lot of other ways of coping. It's not about being mad or hysterical. It's just about taking care of yourself and also trying to get to know yourself and of people don't wanna know themselves. That is a scary thing because sometimes you don't like what you see. I don't have to just survive. I can maybe thrive, I can maybe feel a little bit better.
AN: I've read that you hated poetry in high school. Can you talk about when the art finally spoke to you? When did you know poetry was a thing you could actually really do?
MP: I mean, I still don't know that. [chuckles] I definitely didn't have a vision of being a poet. That wasn't something that felt available to me or even a viable option. I always wrote them so I thought that I would always write these poems. I grew and I became surprised at how much the form allows for me to do. A poem is so flexible. It's playful and it's about breaking rules and that really identified with me. When I was writing poems in college, I took a workshop and the teacher was like: Morgan, do you know that these poems are really good? I was like: I did not know that. [laughs] It really was news to me. I was just trying to have fun, make myself laugh. It was foreign to me, and I really didn't have Black female poet role models. There's Maya Angelou, but I'm not gonna write anything about a bird. That's just not gonna be me. It took a lot of audacity. I don't really see anyone doing what I'm doing as a Black woman. It took me just putting stuff out there and being okay with it not being well received.
AN: Let's talk about using Beyoncé's name in the title and writing about her. Can you speak to that process? Because Beyoncé has become this huge spokeswoman for Black women and how we live. It feels timely since you've been writing about her for quite a while.
MP: She was not politicized at all when I first started this book. It's really funny and I swear to God she's been reading my poems. When I first started writing the poems, I was getting a lot of flack. A lot of people were saying: 'I don't understand. I don't get why Beyoncé out of all the people to talk about Black women in this political way.' It's been funny and timely and in a way that I didn't expect. I feel that more people understand how to read it whereas before it was almost jarring to people and inappropriate and it felt like this juxtaposition of things that do not go together. I kind of feel vindicated. It's a testament to deciding that you want to do something and then people saying you should not do this thing and you saying I'm gonna do it anyway and then it all works out. Trusting your own vision and your own crazy ideas and seeing those connections. so much of being a) a woman and b) a Black woman in America is thinking that you're delusional about a lot of things. It was important for me to say: I see the links here and for it to come true that feels good. So often we don't say the thing because we think it sounds crazy, but we be knowing!
AN: I was just about to say that you were so ahead of your time. You knew, Morgan! As artists we see these things that even within the art world that other people are not seeing.
MP: Yeah, and it's really about having a specific version of popular culture. I was looking at how popular culture brands itself and changes and how it interacts with the world. What if celebrities are politicized? I was writing all of this in the Obama era. What about Black celebrity but the celebrity is the President or the President's wife? And Beyoncé and Jay Z and what does that all amount to? Even in the early days of the Obama presidency, when they were all homies, she [Beyoncé] wasn't necessarily making political art yet. I just wanted to have fun. I love pop and I love thinking about how pop is a canon of sorts. I really don't need to invoke classical art. What I'm invoking is Diana Ross. It's important to think about my life and my politics but also and to not leave out these things are considered more low brow.
AN: Do you have a specific writing practice? Are you lying on the couch drinking wine and a poem pops into your head?
MP: I mean, a little bit of that. I like have several jobs, and I'm crazy. There's no daily practice in the life that I'm living right now, but I do think a lot about a kind of constant writing. I take notes in my notebook or on my phone. I usually mull over things. I'll write down down a phrase, and I usually kind of just collect for a long time. And that includes sitting on the couch at the end of the day and I'm not really writing a poem. It's a lot of collecting until I do actually have the time to sit down and construct a thing. When I do sit down, I have all these notebooks and listening to music. It's almost like collaging or sculpting. I have the materials, and I'm shaping it. That goes on for a while. I just don't sit down and write.
AN: Your career is prolific. Do you feel like an MFA helped contribute to that and make you more disciplined in writing?
MP: What the MFA did for me was allowed me to see my voice in opposition, in conversation, up against other people's voices. It was a matter of seeing what other people are doing and it helps to understand a little more of what you're doing it and how it's different and how you might not want it to be different. Those types of things and the honing of my own voice. That was helpful for me especially since I did come to poetry so late. I didn't know what I was doing. I was just fooling around. Forging my identity as a writer and my voice was really important to me. I knew that period of my life was all about reading and studying and writing poetry. My goal was to create community, and I did that. My other goal was to conceive of a manuscript that would become my first book, and I did that. I learned more about myself as a writer. I don't think it's a thing that is like you have to or you don't have to do. It really is what you make it. Having those very specific goals and accomplishing them were important to me. Sometimes I kinda of miss it. That time in my life was just about making the art. That was my biggest priority. That is a very cool thing.
AN: Do you consider There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé a love letter to Black women?
MP: Oh, for sure. A love letter but also a living document for and on behalf of [Black women]. I think that I'll always be doing that. In doing that, the work becomes a love letter to self even when I'm talking about hating myself. It still is about acknowledging that and still finding beauty in it. Even in the title, I really wanted to point out that we can find and create our own beauty. We don't have to align with what is classically or contemporarily beautiful as proclaimed by the masses. It can be up to us to define what's beautiful to ourselves and sometimes it's not what you would expect. It is that kind of permission giving to be like messy, to be flawed and for that to be beautiful.
AN: Five books to read and five albums to give a listen to?
MP: Omg ooh let's see ...
Black Girl Mansion by Angel Nafis
Book of Light by Lucille Clifton
The Collected Poems of June Jordan
Kitchen Table Series by Carrie Mae Weems
Hollywood Forever by Harmony Holiday
Ego Death by The Internet
The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady by Charles Mingus
Adventures in Paradise by Minnie Riperton
Any album by Sade
Greatest Hits of Earth, Wind & Fire