I met poet Morgan Parker in London on the hottest day of 2019. I purposely chose a cool, dark basement bar in Bloomsbury. It happened to be cocktail hour. Over a ‘basic’ martini and a Lady Laura-something-or-other, Morgan and I talked making it new and writing it ‘wrong’: influences, culture, lineage and the sometimes-spiritual experience of writing poems. This interview was underscored by the sound of cocktail shakers.
– Rachel Long
Morgan Parker: I was a bit of a ‘black sheep’ on my MA programme. There were moments where I was like: if this is poetry I can’t do it, or I’m doing it wrong, or maybe I need to do it more like this? I was new to poetry. I didn’t start writing it till a couple of years into college.
Rachel Long: That’s brave − to embark on an MA being, or feeling, new to the form.
Parker: I didn’t like poetry before that because I thought it was all boring. It wasn’t until I took a class in contemporary poetry, I was like oh, you can kinda do . . . this? My professor was like, you can do this, this is good for you. I was writing poems for jokes, not taking it super seriously. There was a lot of education around poetry that I just did not have, or even care to have. A lot of my classmates were folks who had been reading poems since they were kids, or their dads were poets. You know what it’s like on these programmes – there’s always a kinda front runner, or folks who are ear-marked to do well after the programme. I was never that person. It was a surprise that I did well because I was not playing by any of the rules.
Long: Despite not playing by the rules do you feel that you are writing from someone or someplace, in a lineage?
Long: Who are your writing ancestors?
Parker: Frank O’Hara. Eileen Myles. Basically, I’m the black feminist O’Hara. June Jordon and Nikki G(iovanni) too, they’re both early influences, before I even liked poetry I loved them. I love Nikki’s unapologeticness, her rhythm, the little jokes she sprinkles in. But how can Frank O’Hara and Eileen Myles be my poetic mum and dad? – but I’m black – who fucked the mailman? Truly, I’m so confused but I love it! I didn’t come from nowhere.
Long: Has anyone been able to match your brain – the way you think?
Parker: Sometimes. You mean doctors?
Long: Partners maybe, friends.
Parker: I like being around people who are concerned about the same things but are thinking and expressing it in a different way. Folks who are constantly reading, fellow nerds who are nerding out in a slightly different way to me. That challenges me. In my community of poets I don’t feel that I have to represent everything. I feel that I can write about things in a particular way knowing that someone else is taking care of it another way. For example, I can authentically write a black suburban experience in California.
Long: What is your black suburban Californian experience.
Parker: My folks are about an hour and half south east of LA. It’s a weird spot. Kinda close to Palm Springs but also not. It’s very white. I write about growing up there in the new book (Who Put This Song On, Tin House Books). I’m really doubling down on where I’m from, down to specific emo songs. I wanted to market the book directly to teens because I felt a responsibility to my younger self I suppose – to speak directly to other kids who might feel like I did growing up. The book is about depression, how it feels to want to kill yourself. There are lots of books about depression but they’re often about white women in the north east. I really had to dig into my particular experience. There are some great books about black girls but they’re not about black girls wearing skater shoes living in a white suburb being called an Oreo (black on the outside, white on the inside). I wanted emo black girls to have a thing. It’s important to speak directly and specifically. We’re not all from the big city, we’re not all from the hood, or New York. Sometimes in interviews with certain people (eyeballs) I’m asked, do you feel a pressure to represent all black women? I’m like what in the fuck, no! That is impossible, why would I take that upon myself, how? I’m not even a regular black girl! (laughs). I’m not a regular or appropriate anything (sighs). The book is about isolation, loneliness, feeling uncomfortable, out of place. I feel lots of folks will be able to identify with the book as these are things we all feel, right? I wanna give other people permission, through my work, to be true to themselves.
Long: Do you feel like you’re breaking new ground with the way you write?
Parker: Yes, for me. But I don’t say this like I’m the first one to do X, Y and Z. Everyone should be thinking about how they do their thing specifically, how they can use their influences combined with their own language, music and experience. But it’s hard to constantly challenge oneself. Magical Negro broke me. It was the hardest book I’ve ever had to write. I gave everything I could. It was just so . . . painful. Afterwards, I was like, why did I even push that hard? I already knew from the last book (There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé) that I’m not trying to be cute. I don’t get dates from my books. When I wrote some of the first poems that would go into Magical Negro my friend was like, Oh, you’re not interested in being charming anymore, huh? I was like, it’s true! Charming is out the window! It wasn’t the point. If I’m going to be uncomfortable going halfway then I may as well be uncomfortable going the whole way. There’s something – not rewarding in talking about the dark stuff – but there is a comfort when the poems are out in the world. Something of an exchange, that you can connect with other people in a way so that life is maybe less lonely.
Long: I love reading your collections on the tube especially. Your titles make people visibly react; shift, smile, frown. I’ve been stopped and asked by at least one hot guy what I’m reading − in a genuine way, not like as a chat up line – while reading Magical Negro. That one is a magnet for hot guys actually . . . Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night is the one that makes the suits frown. Particularly suits on the Jubilee Line.
Parker: (laughs) I love a title. I really do. Sometimes at readings people will chuckle at my titles but not all the time do I mean them to be funny. I’m like, it’s a true statement you guys! Sometimes I’m like, am I allowed to have a whole sentence as a title? I remember coming up with the title of my first collection. I was going through a bad bout of insomnia and I’d write postcards in the middle of the night. I made my friend a postcard. I’d cut out and stuck pictures of Kanye West and of this curator I don’t like and wrote: other people’s comfort keeps me up at night. The next time I saw my friend he was like, that’s your book title! And I thought, yeah, that is essentially it, that is the focus of that book. There were so many different directions and ways I could’ve framed it but focusing on comfort, discomfort, divisions, privilege and feeling unsettled just felt . . . correct.
Long: I find your poems difficult to teach in terms of technique. I find it hard to identify their formula, component parts, their mechanics. I can’t say to my students, look, see how Parker has done this in line X and employed this in line Y, now how can we use Parker’s X and Y technique to guide and inspire our own poems. I find How to Piss in Public and Maintain Femininity (from ‘Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night’) particularly hard. I think it’s because it just bolts. It runs off at thought-speed, right to the end of the page on entirely its own course and direction, it’s difficult to keep up let alone hold it down to eke out what it’s doing. But despite not knowing exactly how it’s doing what it it’s doing, I know it is doing it well. Sometimes I just bring it to workshops to be like, I have no idea how this one is done but let’s just read and enjoy it. I feel there’s still value in sharing and going, oh, wow, hmmm together. Some poems, even great poems, are simpler to unravel and locate the prompt/s inside to pass on to other writers. But I just cannot do it with yours.
Parker: Oh shit, yeah, How to Piss in Public and Maintain Femininity is a hard one. I don’t even think I could teach that because it just starts and then builds upon and builds upon. That poem began really short. It was my first year of grad school and my teacher was like, this needs to be longer, you just need to go out and get drunk more. So that’s the technique, that’s how you should teach it (laughs).
Each time you break a line I’m surprised. How do you decide where to break the way you do?
Parker: I love enjambment! It is so fun for me. It’s such an important way to direct the poem, direct the reader and to surprise them, but my favourite thing is to be able to say two things at once with this one little complication of one line followed by another line. Really there’s just so much you can do with poetry that you just cannot do with a sentence. I love a sentence but I need to play. I need to say several things at once, to jump from one idea to another. I think poetry matches the way our brains work more so than the linearity of the sentence and that’s super exciting to me. I had professors, poets I admire humongously say to me, you can’t do this, or jump from this to this, so it’s pretty wired to say, nah, I’m still going to do this. It’s hard and it’s scary to go out on your own. I think I’m compelled to because I can’t do it any other way. I try to remember that no one else can do this in this exact same way because this is my particular voice. I teach now and can so clearly see when someone is writing like someone else, using someone else’s language, or speaking from someone else’s mouth.
Long: Does writing have a magical or mystical element for you? – I’m going to define this here as a knowledge or sense apart from and/or transcending the intellectual – And perhaps as a more direct extension of this: when have you most felt the presence of a mystical element in your work?
Parker: I did not write all of Magical Negro. I don’t know how a lot of those poems happened. I didn’t feel that with my other books, but I absolutely did with MN. There were lines I was like, who wrote that? There were voices in that book that just wanted to come through. I had to let them. It’s a weird feeling to have but when we make room for those guiding voices, something special always happens. It’s terrifying to not be in control – I’m a control freak so I know – and it’s wild, it feels wild to say now. I joke that the ancestors wrote that book. It was a community project in certain ways. I was in touch with exploring history, lineage and ancestry, I was trying to represent them consciously, so why wouldn’t they come through in my subconscious too? I think most writers, artists, at least all those I’ve spoken to about this, have felt something similar at some point. I think what happens is we hear that voice, or those voices, and then say OK now get the hell away from me, I’m intellectualising this but instead of fighting them why not allow them to happen? Why not write the thing that is asking to be written?
Long: Would you recommend not writing by any of the rules?
Parker: The moment I became confident in not playing by the rules, the poems got better. I got better responses from magazines and journals. As soon as I was like, I’m just going to do my thing and if it is not poetry then whatever. I remember the day I tried to write the poem, you know the one that sounds like everyone else’s. I used all these words like honey, river, whateverthefuck, I thought I’d just plug and play you know, and it was the worst po(clap)em! It was so bad. Everyone was like what is this? It was a disaster! So after that I was like, well I gave it a go, clearly this is not my thing, so I’m going to actually do my own thing and see what happens. I think that spirit has carried through my career. It is definitely scarier to do it this way but I’m happy I had that moment where I was like, well, here are my choices; try to find ways to make my style conform to what is popular or expected or accepted, or just do my own crazy thing. I have a rebel spirit anyway, so it just feels more natural to me to do things differently. Occasionally there is a worry that I’ll be pigeon-holed as being ‘the funny poet’, or ‘the pop culture poet’ and some of that has and does happen but that’s not my problem so . . .
Long: I noticed this, in some other interviews, the term pop culture comes up a lot with regards to your work.
Parker: Right?! It’s such a thing.
Long: Do you even use that term at all to describe your own work/style?
Parker: I mean it’s just culture to me. A reality TV star is literally the president so why come at me trying to separate those things?
Long: On my way here, I wondered whether you watched a lot of TV, maybe because I’d just reread one of your poems about The Real Housewives of Atlanta. I wondered whether you manage to get any downtime when so much of your work is about the things other people do to switch off?
Parker: I don’t watch much of Real Housewives of Atlanta anymore. I now only watch Real Housewives of New York (laughs). I’m endlessly interested in how people act and why, how we interact with each other, I’m always talking about it in terms of an ethnographic experience.
Long: So even when you’re on the sofa, in your pyjamas, watching The Real Housewives of Wherever, are you still ‘on’? Are you still actively thinking: is this material for a poem?
Parker: Yeah, I have trouble with that! I’m not like, is this a poem? more like if something catches my attention then I have to go and write it down. I keep a notebook by my couch. Sometimes I’ll record straight off the TV. I have so many snippets of weird things saved from local news channels where I’ve thought, what is this guy talking about? This could be interesting. But it’s all part of what I’m trying to do – capturing real life and how people are. I’m so interested in how we’re influenced by what we see on TV through what is portrayed, how we act and respond to the world as a result of it. I was talking to one of my therapists the other day about what things would be like if there was no more TV. Would we know how to act without our examples of how to be? Even magazine articles be like: Things you should do/be/buy. There becomes a right way to exist and I’m obsessed with why we are the way we are. I can connect almost anything to slavery. Usually it goes right back there. I’m joking but also I’m not joking. People are often quick to say, maybe that person just doesn’t want to date you, and I’m like, yeah, maybe that’s true but there is also unconscious shit happening and that feels valuable to me. I’m not like, it’s slavery’s fault I’m single, but also I’m like, it is slavery’s fault I’m single. The work is tongue in cheek but capitalism, relationships, power all track in some way. I feel folks aren’t making those connections right now. Instead they’re acting as if things are incidental, saying stuff like, well I didn’t have a slave. I’m like, OK but that’s beside the point in terms of the undoing work. Individualism ignores what is happening culturally. I’ve also been in therapy for hundreds of years. All my therapists are like, you’re so cerebral!
Long: One of your therapists, how many do you have? One for the poetry issues, two for all the rest of it?
Parker: I have two right now. One can prescribe medicine the other can’t. To be honest, it’s hard to find black women therapists who can also prescribe medicine in the US so that’s the real reason. I’d prefer to have one, but anyway I’ve got really good at it. I’m like, hi, here are my issues. Recently one of my therapists was like, do you think that could be a little self-sabotaging Morgan? And I was like, duh, girl whaat? Of course!
Author photographs © Rachel Eliza Griffiths and Amaal Said