Spotlight: Morgan Parker
photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Interview by Peter Longofono
PL: You’ve seen the Complex piece (I know, I know) on To Pimp A Butterfly by now, I’m sure, and probably at least seven reactionary thinkpieces (it is in itself a response to Clover Hope’s thoughts for Jezebel). Reading it, I’m reminded of these lifejackets you sometimes throw out on Twitter: classic Cannonball Adderley and Chet Baker album covers, “Horace Silver saves the day”… jazz seems to be a bulwark or a bastion for you, maybe even a safe haven or a replenishment. Does Kendrick’s music work the same way for you? Does it have important/useful ugliness, and if so, should anyone be surprised if it hurts to hear?
MP: Jazz keeps me solid and unabashed, and its aesthetic is a huge influence for me. I remember wearing a vintage dress and white gloves to my middle school graduation, slipping them on while listening to Benny Goodman. We know the jazz aesthetic is unmistakably cool, but it’s more than that: it’s a dedication to free expression, to collaborative vulnerability, to soulfulness, to experimentation, and to being chill as fuck.
That’s why jazz is my heartbeat. It’s where I go to feel still, to form a barrier around myself. There’s a wistfulness and yearning in Miles, in Nancy Wilson, in Getz, that centers me almost as meditation. So much of my work, like Kendrick’s, is ruthlessly invested in reality. And reality is ugly. And messy and noisy. And being so committed to showing the world itself (ourself), I use jazz to go inward when I start to feel unstable in all of it. Kendrick knows this, too. That’s why he paired Ron Isley with political indictments and battle cries. The push and pull between honoring the painfully real bullshit of modernity and the wisdom and trial and sorrow of the past, that’s blackness. That’s what we hold in our skins. It doesn’t always feel good.
This question comes with a prerequisite: that readers give their full attention to your Sixth Finch poem for a minute. Let’s talk about lines, specifically as these ones compare to “If You Are Over Staying Woke.” Did these poems start on the page the way we see them now? There’s so much movement and turning—even turning on themselves, especially as they wind down. Is that tension something you rework and relineate as the poem develops? Do you tend to “write into” these modes until a cadence crystallizes?
It’s really interesting that you bring these up side by side, not because they operate in almost opposite forms, but because they’re two of very few poems that started in these forms. “Matt” is a story, a character sketch, and I wanted to draw attention to the narrative and its twisted fairy tale quality. It’s about a trope, in my life and throughout American history, and prose felt like the only form to communicate that. Poetic form works that way for me—it’s medium and message, both the gift and the wrapping. “If You Are Over Staying Woke” needed to be written in tiny, broken, stair-like lines. It needed to be palatable, bite-size instructions. The poem is a checklist for neurotics with racism-based fatigue. I began with clear, lucid directives (“drink plenty of water,”) but wanted it to tumble out of control, to become nonsensical (“drink the white”).
My usual writing process is closer to what you describe. After collecting phrases and ideas, most of my writing and editing is about arriving at the poem’s form, which in turn informs the tone, the arc, the content.
In your Equity in Publishing roundtable discussion for PEN America, you talk of the necessity of moving from “it would be nice” to “it’s essential” when steering the conversation towards real equity/empathy. There’s this frustration with the echo-chamberhood of editorial boards asking you to validate their recognition of a problem instead of concretely addressing it. Among other things, do you think this flailing comes from a basic, core-level fear of work? As in a deep suspicion of effort in the first place?
Yes, I do think that’s part of it. I think editors—and writers, and curators—sometimes hold a romantic idea about the process. They like to think a perfect manuscript floats in through an open window and lands at their desk. They like to think that publishing is merely about merit, and isn’t party to the same systematic biases that affects every other societal structure—and truly, every person’s world view. Part of that is a sort of warped sense of democracy, the editor acting as a kind of passive vessel, leaving the onus on writers to submit. In that way, it’s about not wanting to take accountability, not wanting to admit to a fault. Because once you’ve admitted to a fault, you have to realize that “we just published the best writers” isn’t a valid excuse, that there isn’t room for excuses, that passivity is damaging. I think the current conversation considers “diversity” a nicety, an added bonus, something optional. In reality, it means that we as a literary community are committing to correcting an ancient problem, and to do that there is much undoing and restructuring ahead of us. Not everyone is up for that task. Some people like the way things are. And change can be scary, even when it’s right.
Schomburg said “violence is so beautiful because it reminds us that we’re going to die” and the Mongrel Coalition promptly tore that down. Then there’s Baldwin: “When you, in the person of your President, assure me that you will not tolerate any more violence, you may think that frightens me. People don’t get frightened when they heard that, they get mad. And whereas you’re afraid to die, I’m not.” It all seems to come back to that fear (of what, ultimately?). In your opinion, what constitutes fearless poetry? Is there any way to apply violence in poetry without torching the whole project?
It’s about truth. Culturally we understand that lies are often acceptable when they are helpful in creating an image, in making people feel good. I lie all the time, about why I was late to a party, about the last time I exercised, whatever. It’s because I’m concerned about my feelings and everyone’s feelings. When I feel like I’ve been most fearless in my poems is when I couldn’t give a shit less about anyone’s feelings, not even mine. My mission isn’t necessarily to confess, it’s about creating a portrait. Of myself, of America. And feelings can get hurt when people who aren’t used to it see themselves honestly. A mirror’s reflection can feel like a violence.
The Offing: your campaign to amplify marginalized voices and encourage aesthetic risks. Simple and actionable help for great writers still behind closed doors. Anything to add? Glad to share it.
I’m honored to be part of The Offing, and there isn’t a poem we’ve published that I haven’t loved. Our writers aren’t just incredible artists, they’re important. They’re passionate. They’re necessary. And I’ve never been part of a more enthusiastic and committed staff. As much as I am vocal and steadfast about my commitment to celebrating different and exciting voices in poetry, my fellow staff members are always challenging and inspiring me to work even harder at that, to always be surprising and disturbing and transforming myself and our readers with what we publish. We really put our money where our mouth is.
Two books down, going strong: knowing you, that’s not even close to enough. Where do you aim to see your name next? Are you, for example, working more with translators or English-speaking communities elsewhere on the planet? More visual art work? Fragrance lines?
Not even close to enough! In my spare time these days, I’m editing and arranging the second book, as well as working some poems that I hope will be part of a new manuscript. I’m also in the early, messy, what-exactly-is-plot stages of a young adult novel based on my life as a sad teen in the suburbs. I’m building The Other Black Girl Collective with my dear friend and collaborator Angel Nafis, aiming for some European touring next summer. I’m planning the next iteration of Poets with Attitude (PWA) with Tommy Pico. I’m also slowly, very slowly, conceptualizing a collection of essays, and just being attentive to the world in order to do that. I tend to be surprised, frankly, by my own direction, impulsive and receptive to a lot of random things that come my way. So, there’s more, I just don’t know what it is yet.
Your piece for Literary Hub does some fascinating things with technique and diction. There are moments where the pace condenses, accordion-like: “He is a man who shot a boy. No, a suspect. Boy.” And then moments where, without checking the “lyric” box, the apparatus compounds on its own momentum, accelerating by quick leaps: “What began to leak, then, from the laceration (the Sergeant’s name was Koon, and repetition is a literary device, and paranoia is a weakness of the oppressed—we cannot be mentally sound) was discipline, which for the slave is a tic of survival, and for a nation is the practice of denial.” Are these remnants of the research that went into the composition? Or of interruptions in the process? I love that you won’t abide smug “sheen” in your work.
This piece was arrived at strangely. I was asked, along with many other writers, by Adam Fitzgerald at Literary Hub, to reflect on the one year anniversary of the injustices in Ferguson, MO. How I did this was up to me. I chatted with Adam—and was frank—about how for black writers, the year wasn’t only one in which the contemporary literary landscape became energized with politics, but also one in which we were forced to plead our humanity and reckon with our mortality. For me, it meant ditching an insensitive therapist. It meant crying at work. It meant obsessively texting my brother to account for his whereabouts and safety when he was even 30 minutes late home after work. I was tired of writing elegies, thinkpieces, calls to action. And I was tired, full stop.
I wrote this piece while watching In the Heat of the Night, which I reference in the first lines. Thinking about composing this piece, I’d been carrying around two things: 1) the overwhelming and suffocating reality that the previous year had not actually been a year, but rather a century, several lifetimes; and 2) the violence and audacity of the New York Times profile of Darren Wilson—essentially, an ode to a monster. I was thinking about the casual ways in which the very humanity of people of color is disregarded and undercut. While the piece is obviously full of emotion, I wanted to try to present everything scientifically, as fact. Its writing was quick and harried, and though I intended to leave behind many of the interruptions and parentheticals in the poem’s draft, they remained—offering the reader the whole experience I had and continue to have realizing how closely things are connected, how history and present are conflated, how words are imbued with recycled trauma. It’s a piece that burrows its way to an exhausted end.
In your (phenomenal) interview with Melody Nixon for Apogee, you position one of your poems as “a response to—honestly, the desire for black writers to be quiet about blackness—I wanted to be over the top” and later describe the ‘white notion of blackness’ as “oppressive, limiting, terrifying, and not-very-well-researched.” When preparing for a reading, what’s your approach when keying in on the nature of a specific audience? How often are you last-minute switching out a poem or two in order to negotiate Vocal Blackness?
Lol at “vocal blackness.” I want to piggyback on my past self and add that an intentional “over-the-top” performance of blackness isn’t only important in its reaction to oppression. It’s about self-determination, self-definition, pride, and staying healthy. It’s what we need to do in order to not hate ourselves and our histories. It’s about saying, I don’t adhere to your notion of how I should act in order to make you comfortable. And for me, especially in performing, I want to also make the audience think about why they’re uncomfortable with what I’m saying and how I’m saying it.
I’m not interested in pandering to readers or audiences, but I am interested in being heard. Saying things that can be understood. I used to plan out every reading setlist to the minute, including banter. Now, much to the chagrin of reading series organizers everywhere, I don’t really prepare ahead of time. Performance is spontaneous, temporal. I want to be able to respond to the energy of the room. It’s almost a sort of code-switching, or maybe just understanding people and reading situations. To me, there’s nothing worse than reading a joke and being met with silence, or reading something brutally true and realizing that it hasn’t resonated. I think being misunderstood is one of my biggest fears.
Tell me about the documents you’ve got open when writing a poem. Do you keep collections of phrases, quotes, vocabulary, etc.? Do you “warm up” by reading your own work or others’ immediately beforehand? What’s your wine game look like? TV volume?
I fill Google docs and notepads and post-its and iPhone notes with lines, stanzas, title ideas, overheard conversations, memories. Once I find a pattern or question or joke in the notes and I sit down to write a poem, I like to start out by being distracted or pulled in a lot of directions by music, tv, texts, art books, old emails, whatever. I surround myself, I pull in bits of everything. At some point the poem comes into focus and I can’t hear anything else. I say the words out loud. I try to make myself laugh. I don’t often intentionally start out with other poets’ books in front of me, but I’ll often jump up to my bookshelf to reference something, to inhabit a rhythm as I’m working. Unless I’m editing simultaneously (I’m rarely working on one poem at a time—that’s too much pressure for me), I don’t really read my own work, because every time I write I am hoping to create something wholly new, even if it’s part of a series of poems or a chapter of a book. What I think I’m saying is I get bored easily. Finally, dear Peter, you know my wine game is always on point.
Morgan Parker is the author of Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books 2015), selected by Eileen Myles for the 2013 Gatewood Prize. Her second collection, There Are More Beautiful things than Beyonce, is forthcoming from Tin House Books in February 2017. She works as an Editor for Amazon Publishing’s imprint Little A and as poetry editor of The Offing. She teaches creative writing at Columbia University and co-curates the Poets With Attitude (PWA) reading series with Tommy Pico. With poet and performer Angel Nafis, she is The Other Black Girl Collective. She lives in Brooklyn.
Peter Longofono is our reviews editor.