Slippery and Dark and Brilliant: A Conversation with Morgan Parker
If you’ve witnessed or been a part of the community of active writers on Twitter, it won’t be long before the algorithm suggests you follow Morgan Parker. The algorithm can perceive the influence generated by Parker’s 19.8K followers, many of which are also writers or fans of her distinct voice and there’s a chance that it can detect her unapologetically Black content and subject matter. Still, the algorithm can’t yet decipher the grace with which Parker captures Blackness and incorporates pop culture into relatable experiences of the Black experience. For that one should turn to Magical Negro.
Magical Negro—out tomorrow from Tin House Books and just two years after the phenomenal There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé—covers the insides, outsides, and in-betweens of Blackness, sparking conversation about very specific and personal experiences that illuminate the intersections of Blackness and femininity. Parker captures the braided thoughts of Black identity that are deeply entrenched in American culture, yet somehow considered other. Along the way, she weaves in history, Bible references, and internal Black dialogue, with wordy titles like, “Two White Girls in the African Braid Shop on Marcy and Fulton” and “We Are the House That Holds the Table at Which Yes We Will Happily Take a Goddamn Seat.”
Among her accomplishments, Parker received her BA in Anthropology and Creative Writing from Columbia University and her MFA in Poetry from NYU. Her poetry and essays have been published in various renowned publications, including the New York Times, the Paris Review, and Best American Poetry 2016. Parker is also a winner of a 2016 Pushcart Prize, the recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. She is the creator and host of “Reparations, Live! at the Ace Hotel.” Her debut young adult novel Who Put This Song On? will be published by Delacorte Press in late 2019, and her debut book of nonfiction is forthcoming from One World.
Parker and I recently spoke about the process of organizing Magical Negro, the responsibility of discussing race, and the language we use to discuss American history.
The Rumpus: How are you feeling about Magical Negro now that it’s out into the world?
Morgan Parker: Still terrified. That never changes. Book after book I say “I know how this goes,” but it’s different every time, and it’s always terrifying.
Rumpus: What has the writing process for Magical Negro been like compared to your last book, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, especially in terms of your outlook in discussing Blackness and Black femininity?
Parker: When I was working on There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé it was double the size that it turned out to be. It was a huge manuscript and [Tin House] said, “We have to cut this in half.” I kind of knew that there was a different book inside of [the manuscript], but it was hard to tell because the themes that I’m writing on, I have always and will always write about. It was this weird process where I had all these poems on the floor of my apartment, and I was putting them in two piles, [thinking] I have all these poems, but how do I make it into a cohesive book with a kind of narrative arc? What are the other kind of sub-arts that are showing up, that possibly need more attention and more exploration than I can provide in There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé?
Seeing Magical Negro appear out of some poems that were originally supposed to be in There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé really helped me to see: What are the hints of this brewing book, and how do I finish it? How do I support these poems, [and] build a structure around these poems? What’s different about this book than the other one? What are the things that I want to push on more, or less? What are the ways that I want to approach the same topics differently? I did have to kind of force myself to think about what’s been done in my past books and what is the work that I still have yet to untangle. Magical Negro became that space.
It’s fucking sad, and it’s really dark. I think all my poems are dark and also hilarious, but I see that there is a different urgency [In Magical Negro]. There’s a different tone being taken. It’s a little bit of, “Okay, I don’t have any playtime anymore, so I’m just going to say what it is, and not try to dazzle you, or entertain you.”
Rumpus: I think one of the most exemplary poems of that is “The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady & The Dead & The Truth” which mentions the gap in Angela Davis’s teeth, about which you ask: “Do you ever love something so much that you become it?” How do you capture subtleties within Black history and Black pop culture within poems?
Parker: I feel more freedom in poetry than I do in any other genre. I think that’s because poems can traverse time and space in such a seamless way. You can kind of jump from one room to another, one era to another, one voice to another. That, to me, is very Black.
I think the space of the poem really lends itself to exploring all the levels of Black culture. That’s really what I’m aiming to to do, is explore the simultaneity of Blackness, and a multiplicity of Blackness, the way that the past and present interact with each other and inform each other, and the way they’re both situated at the front of our brains as Black people. There is an opportunity for me to put in a lot of different works of Black people, Black language, or American cultural touch points, and really see what happens if I mash them together. Especially those that you wouldn’t suspect being in the same room. “The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady & The Dead & The Truth” [poem] is playful, and it’s tricky, but it’s also, at its core, entertaining. I think there’s more playfulness in poems than in any other genre, and that feels really central to the way I’m trying to describe Blackness as this slippery and simultaneously dark and brilliant thing.
Rumpus: That’s really taking on a big role, to try to articulate Blackness. What determines your sense of responsibility to yourself, and your readers, when you write poetry?
Parker: Well, I just want to tell the truth. That’s pretty much it… That’s the only way I can maintain dignity as as an artist, as a creator, as a woman, and as a Black person in 2019. It really is, for me, about not only expressing, but kind of explaining, and relentlessly putting on display, a particular truth that is my my truth, and a cultural truth, and not up for debate. I want my writing to be a space where things can be said that don’t really have any other place to be said, misconstrued, dramatized, or heard wrong. I think my responsibility to myself in poems is to be as precise as possible. That’s the one thing I can always hold myself to, that precision and truthfulness. It sounds basic, but it is not in practice. I think I hold myself to it, and that’s a responsibility I have for my readers—not to try to make myself look good necessarily, but to just be truthful.
Rumpus: The truth is, a lot of times, very difficult to come to terms with and articulate. I think of your poems “A Brief History of the Present,” and “The Strong Black Woman.” Do you feel heavy or relieved after you write a piece like either one of those?
Parker: Both, I guess. Actually, no, I don’t feel relieved at all. There is a little bit of something. Something happens… It is a relief. It is pain, but it is real pain that I felt. I didn’t try to mince it. I didn’t try to explain around it. I didn’t try to salvage it in any kind of way, or dress it up.
It’s a tough poem even still for me to read… It doesn’t feel good. But also it feels so necessary. I think a lot of feelings are in this book, and I think what’s scary. The feelings are so familiar. They’re so fresh, and open, and long-held, and I think there is a little bit of shame in just admitting that you feel badly. I think a lot of us are so used to not being dramatic. We’re told keep quiet and clamp down our feelings. We’re very used to only telling part of it and pretending that the rest is okay, or sitting with all those things very privately. I think there’s something that happens in trying to make it universal, or even offering these poems as “Am I the only one that feels this way?” Even that is, I think, a way of healing. It is a step toward something.
I’m not the only one that has to put up with these feelings anymore. Now you do, too. What does it feel like for you, other Black woman, to hear me speaking something like that? What is it like for you, white woman, who doesn’t know the depth of how we feel, to hear me saying that to your face at a reading? It’s one thing to write it. It’s another thing for it to be in the public, and be part of this exchange and conversation with the reader. More than release, it just feels necessary. What the fuck else do you do with feelings like that? I’ve been holding onto these things very privately for thirty years and now you guys have to hear me speak. It’s not all fun and games. It’s not all Beyoncé and Obama; there is this reality that is very painful, and until we can all look directly at it, we’re just going to keep spinning our wheels.
Rumpus: Do you have a Christian background? I noticed a lot of biblical references such as “wheat fields” and “no one can serve two masters” in Magical Negro.
Parker: I went to a Christian school from age three until eighteen. It is a very central piece of my first understanding of myself and the world. [Magical Negro] originally had a lot more references to the Bible. I think that’s something that’s in the back of American minds. There’s so much in the way that we talk about the country and God. All of this kind of rhetoric is very with us. Because I know scripture so well, I can’t look away. I can’t not see it play out in politics and sociocultural relations. There’s no way to kind of extrapolate it because that’s what America is. The ways that I draw on it in [Magical Negro] is really about guilt, shame, and pain. Thinking of “When a Man I Love Jerks off Next to Me and Falls Asleep,” that poem really is where I was trying to connect some dots in terms of this feeling, as a Black woman, of pain as a birthright. I think it’s something that inextricable from the Black experience in America, and the crux of Black and white relations in America. There is no way to express that without also bringing in the kind of good, white, Christian standard of being.
Rumpus: When you speak about not following the “right way” of writing, I think of “Two White Girls in the African Braid Shop on Marcy and Fulton,” and your use of periods instead of question marks, in a poem that poses a lot of questions. What was your reasoning behind that?
Parker: First of all that is a true story. I was getting my braids done, and there were two white girls in there. This is actually a really weird story. It was such a weird experience and it changed my experience. [I thought,] How is this how is this kind of like a case study for America? I like using periods at the end of questions because often the question mark doesn’t need to be there. It’s implied, and a lot of these statements are questions, but aren’t.
Rumpus: Would you say that Magical Negro is more of your process of coming to terms with the subject of Blackness, or is that already solidified for you? How do you hope for it to change the way that we speak about America’s simultaneous separation from and dependency on Blackness? What would you like for it to mean to for others, in regards to how we discuss the way America interacts with blackness and vice versa?
Parker: I’m always hoping that we can discuss and approach Blackness as much bigger than it is. I just want it to have more space, more nuance, more subtlety, more benefit-of-the-doubt, and more fairness. All the discussions are so slanted by white people, Black people, American people, and non-American people. I think the minute something becomes solid it becomes liquid again in your hands. It’s not as if I’m looking back at these neatly organized ideas and themes in my head. It’s all a mess, and it’s all blooming, wilting, taking shape, and changing shape all the time. We all change. People change. The world changes. And it just keeps going like that. I think I want an opportunity to take up that space to be able to morph and change. I think there is a kind of American consciousness of getting past, moving forward, and that is false. Our instincts to run toward that is damaging, I think. I just want a little bit more time and space to get comfortable, and not rush to figure everything out. We’re not giving enough space to figure these large things that are pretty much impossible to figure out. These are big questions and they deserve to have major conversations.
I was watching Drunk History yesterday. I just got to know, in terms of how we talk about certain things. Certain things that have obviously happened in the past. The episode was about the Klan, and they were using past tense to talk about the Klan. Why do we do that with the Klan? It has been happening the whole time. The Klan wasn’t shut down. The Klan didn’t get framed by the FBI or murdered in their beds or et cetera et cetera as the Black Panthers did. We do talk about the Panthers in the past. Why do we talk about the Klan in the past? I think that’s part of the American consciousness, to erase the Klan [as if] that was then and now there’s something else. Things just don’t end like that. They don’t. Unless the government does it, it’s not going to. I thought of that immediately as an example of the way a national conversation can lead you to believe things that are not true. That makes you realize that you know that there is a language… and I don’t think that guy was a part of a government operation to to explain the Klan away. Neither can we. I wanted to be in there with a drink like, “That wasn’t the end.” We do a disservice to keep covering things up. There’s still many ideas about where we are, or how far we’ve come, and I think that’s what makes it hard to tell the truth about our feelings.
Rumpus: What would you say for up-and-coming writers who are trying to discover their voice in political or race-based discussions, and allowing that voice to sometimes come to stark conclusions in a way that still incorporates fantastical, dreamy elements?
Parker: I would say take care of yourself and pay attention to yourself. I think when I was starting out I felt really insecure in my writing. Ownership over poetry, especially Black poetry, I think I was concerned about talking about things in “the right way” or trying to talk to “the right people.” I was trying to work within the system, and all of that I found to really be a distraction from the real work that I started doing, and I’m still doing, which is knowing myself, working to pin that down, and hone in, and sharpen that—rather than trying to fit my kind of burgeoning self into this larger world, and playing off of what another person wrote and what another person is writing toward.
It’s very easy to get swept up in a wave. That’s not to say to block out everyone else. I think there’s a big difference between influence and standard setting. So I would say read everything. Read really, really wisely, and just get to know yourself and your voice. Look for really thinking about how to write a column, how to write a poem about Blackness, or how to address Blackness in your writing, and the best way to express that in a way that only you can.