An Ethnography of the Self: Talking with Morgan Parker
Morgan Parker is many things: writer, teacher, bathtub enthusiast, lover of philosopher, and late night drinks around a table. She is also inquisitive and openhearted, generous, and smart.
I met her at Amazon Publishing, where we both worked, and quickly struck a deep friendship that evolved to being each other’s work wives.
Last February, Parker published her second book of poems, There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé, which was named a best book in publications like the Paris Review, Time, NPR, and BuzzFeed—and here at The Rumpus.
Not long ago, on an unseasonably cool New York afternoon and an unseasonably hot Los Angeles morning, Morgan and I talked by phone about craft, black America, and, of course, feelings.
The Rumpus: Okay, so we’re not here to talk about Beyoncé. So let’s talk about the actual book and something people don’t ask you enough about: process.
Morgan Parker: Talking about process is actually kind of interesting. I think about it as a form of translation. I’ll see an image and think about what would that be as a poem. Seeing Mickalene Thomas’s work: what is this like a poem? What does my apartment look like as a poem? When I think about the music I put into my poems, the colors—that’s all part of it. I want my next book to be like a house that I am going to decorate: that’s really what I’m trying to build when I’m writing.
Rumpus: So we have art, music, sound, and colors. Where does language come into play?
Parker: It is about language, but the source material isn’t. It’s more about finding language for a feeling or an environment. Oftentimes, it’s placing together things that might not necessarily go together. But if you put them together, something interesting comes from it.
Rumpus: You touched on this at your book launch. With a house, you need a foundation. Do you have a consistent foundation, then, when you’re constructing a poem?
Parker: I think it is usually tonal. I want to confess something, to proclaim something, to insist. When I teach, I say utterance—what is the utterance that is the impetus of this poem? But I’m not asking, what is the message? That’s what students usually think I’m asking. What I mean is, what is the heart and purpose of this; why does this exist? What is it trying to communicate? That’s the kind of utterance I’m looking for. Like, “I’m lonely, look at me” or “I’m a badass, look at me,” or even “America is fucked up.” Whatever it may be, it has to be as specific as possible.
I’m writing about the same stuff, always, in my novels, in essays, in poems, in this TV show now. So it’s always getting to the specificity of that particular utterance. Saying “I’m lonely” is not enough. The particularities, the particular type, or in the particular context, that’s where the other stuff, the “decorations,” the objects, music—that’s when it comes in. That allows for dynamism between things that otherwise could be summarized in the same way.
Rumpus: Do you have anything else that adds to your process? In other words, what else inspires you?
Parker: I love aesthetics and I have all these art books that I keep returning to, so that’s also all part of my process. Thinking about particular types of sentences and languages and vernacular. Pieces that are based more on the language of theory or ethnography or even in the language of Richard Pryor. Thinking about what are the different tones and energies around each poem: that’s usually how I start off. With an attitude and a tone.
Rumpus: I feel like a lot of your newer poems—like in “Now More Than Ever”—use that language, that way of conveying information.
Parker: I studied anthropology and have always loved the observational quality of this study. And taking that observation and making a bigger leap into the discovery of the world or society or city whatever it may be. I think about poems like that already, so it’s interesting to think of ethnography as a practice. So what if I take on this tone—almost like taking a step back on my own poetry and self and community? It’s like an ethnography of the self, in that way.
If someone was looking on, how would they describe this? What can we learn from putting things in that context? Sometimes I worry that because I am “confessional” in the work that I’m doing and I’m trying to eviscerate my own feelings and the feelings of the people around me—that it’s easy to write it off if the tone is too emotional. And that’s something women have to contend with all the time. The word emotional is like a no because suddenly you have emotions, you’re PMSing, you’re illogical. And it’s a total misconception to think that emotion can be divorced from logic and clarity—especially in poetry! Often people think poetry is just about feelings but there’s craft involved. I’m manipulating you to understand my feelings. I’m not writing in my diary.
Rumpus: Poetry is another form of response or statement. There is still thought and intent behind it.
Parker: Right! And I get frustrated in the way that people read emotional statements. So in my newer works, using “outside language” to talk about myself and my people, you give it more credence. There are two things happening in the poem: you’re listening and reading the content of the poem but also recognizing that in reading it in that particular language, you’re giving it more credence. And that’s something that I’m communicating to the reader. See how this sounds different but it’s really just the same? Or you’re taking it differently because of how it’s working.
I’m also thinking about really creating documents and archives—I think about my own archives, because we always write off the personal account. But if you contextualize it as academic, as scientific, as the record of how I feel is part of the “official” record of black America—placing it in that context is very important to me and I’ve always done that and it’s always my impetus for writing the personal, the observational. There’s something in using those techniques of anthropology that I’m almost trying to make it clearer that I’m holding this up to this level, that’s the level I’m holding up this individual because that is the communal, that is the societal.
Rumpus: I love how you said that in poems, you’re manipulating a reader to think about your thoughts and feelings. Can someone read a poem wrong?
Parker: I try to avoid that! I know that some people will take some things the wrong way but I think about my own writing, my own poems and essays, in terms of levels. If you’re basically me, or I’m walking you through it, then you’ll understand all the nuances and every little thing. Then there’s another level where you pretty much get it. There may be some parts that are vague and you’re allowed to invite your own particular interpretation.
And I’m just talking about particular lines. It’s fine if no one gets a line, or some people don’t get a poem, but it’s fine as long as I can get particular people to get it. And then there are lines or poems where everyone has to get this line—it’s non-negotiable. So I think about poems in that way; I’m negotiating in this way. How much of a poem do I want everyone to understand or do I care? Because after you send it out into the world, who cares? But the work of editing is to at least have readers get that one thing, that level one understand. The rest is just goodies.
Rumpus: When you send a poem out to a publication, what do you expect the edits to look like?
Parker: I want for editors to point out any moments where I am unclear. I do not like—and this often happens—when they want things simplified or to remove half the argument. I struggle with that especially in essays. To me, everything is already so obviously connected, so I need an editor to tell me to expand or contrast because otherwise I can just write forever. I need an editor to tell me to focus on particulars.
Rumpus: The swirling thoughts in your head—how everything you write is connected—is what is so fascinating about your body of work. You’re not confined to just one medium. So how do you even start?
Parker: I love having the freedom to think about the content of my poetry book and communicate it in a different way to different people. So every idea I have, I think about whether it is a poem or a dialogue or an essay. I used to be afraid that I have to just pick one, so what I’m doing is trying all of it and not being afraid of trying it all. There are different ways to approach an idea so I’m allowing myself to be comfortable with that. The kind of repetition of things, return to things, is pretty central to my work. There’s no way to compartmentalize it into one way. It feels unorthodox and extra, but there could be something exciting that happens on a long scale where you read a poem and see a thought appear later on in an essay.
Rumpus: Can you give a recent example?
Parker: The essay I wrote for Speech/Acts called “New Negro Propaganda.” I’m thinking a lot about these repetitive images and statements that we hear and see and internalize. To that end, my body of work is a propaganda in and of itself. There are these recurring things that become a jingle, a familiar narrative. It’s all replacing the very American, white capitalist viewpoint. What happens when you unlearn that but then have to think about what to fill your view with? What would be the repeating images for me on the TV screen? For me, it’d be like Diana Ross eating a rib! A Richard Pryor joke on loop! What can I do to the reader and to myself when I’m whirling around with these same ideas?
I just purchased a whole set of JET magazines and have them all laid out around my apartment. Something about the multiples and being surrounded is how it feels to be inside my brain and also inside my house. I need to turn around in every direction and be inspired and excited and tickled. I think there’s something about environment that is important to me, and also a way of feeling safe. And I can be unapologetic about that.
Rumpus: We’ve talked about writing as a way of building and decorating your foundation and now you’re literally doing that with your new apartment. You lived in New York for almost eleven years—almost your entire twenties. How is Los Angeles affecting you and your writing?
Parker: I feel slowed down, and that is hard to me. I’ll get used to it but I knew I had to force myself into a different environment to slow myself down. In New York, I was piling all this stuff, and I don’t know how to sit with myself with all this stuff. So I’m trying to train myself to not worry as much. I’m also thinking about my own myth and where I’m going from here. It feels really significant and healthy to say, “Let me slow down and recalibrate and be intentional about what next steps I’m taking.” I would prefer to live in that discomfort than to repress it and to be living towards nothing—to let living happen to me. I just dare myself to do shit.
Author photograph © Rachel Eliza Griffiths.