Morgan Parker On Using Beyoncé To Explore Black Womanhood
The inside scoop on 'There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé'
Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
In celebration of Black History Month, NYLON is running a spotlight series called UNAPOLOGETIC. Every day, we’ll celebrate different aspects of black culture through profiles, interviews, roundtables, reviews, videos, and op-eds. #Blacklivesmatter and we hold that truth to be self-evident.
All eyes are currently on Morgan Parker and her newly released poetry book, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. The collection has been five years in the making with around 50 poems featured in the volume. Despite this being Parker's second book, she wasn't set on being a poet her entire life. Parker didn't find her calling for poetry until she was an adult when it became an important tool for her to articulate her thoughts.
"When people think of poetry, they're not thinking about my work," she says. "It doesn't rhyme, it's not pleasant... I think that people have this idea of poetry with a capital P that is very outdated, and it's white, very male, and very digestible. That's not the power of poetry—the power of poetry is to be able to respond to real life and to politics and to one's body and the most intimate thoughts; to render it in a way that is surprising and sonically interesting, and allowing the reader to feel playful in language, and to push the limits of what language can do. I think there's so much about that tradition of poetry that is problematic, and we don't think of black womanhood as something that's reflected in poetry. So, even that feels subversive."
Many of the poems featured in There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé were written when Parker was a graduate student at NYU, where she received an MFA in poetry. A majority of this body of work comments on popular culture while also tying in Parker's own family history. Other pieces capture the landscape of Parker's hometown in southern California, the only place she knew before abandoning it to earn her bachelor's in anthropology and creative writing at Columbia University. Overall, the book provides commentary on the vision of a black woman's place in America.
"It's been a long journey with these [poems]. It's sad to lose an era," she says. "It was fun to be in this place where anytime there was Beyoncé news, a million people would email me and be like, 'Where's the poem about this?' I think it is notable that I've been working on it for so long, so some of the more recent Beyoncé happenings aren't referenced here because the book was already done and the era of Beyoncé that I was writing into is so different than now."
Also a renowned essayist, Parker published a piece in the New York Times after the presidential election in 2016, titled "How To Stay Sane While Black," which touched on the stigma against mental health in the black community and her personal battle with depression and anxiety.
"I felt so much shame growing up with my depression. It was like a secret, and it really took a very, very dark moment for me to actually go to a therapist and get diagnosed, but after that, it still was like a secret... There was so much shame," she says. "[My parents] always ask me if it was their fault, and it was really confusing and hard for everyone. For that reason, I will never stop talking about it. I think it's important now to normalize as much as possible. Why should I feel ashamed of my illness? That's crazy. Why should I also not want to get better? Why should I suffer? I think there's so much that society's doing to tell us that we should suffer, that we deserve it even, and I think that it's important for me to insist that, no, I don't need to suffer and to convey that and to reach the right people. I was just writing what I needed to hear."
Learn more about how Parker gained the skills to make a career out of creative expression in the interview, below.
When did you start to develop an interest in poetry? How did you initially get involved with this craft?
It's actually really interesting. I hated poetry for most of my life. I'm kind of new to it in the scheme of things, and I think that it's just because the poetry we're taught in high school is so boring. I didn't feel like it related to me. I've always been interested in writing. I tried to write fiction when I was a kid, but poetry didn't feel relevant at all, and it wasn't until I took a college class in contemporary poetry that I realized what a poem could be and what you're allowed to say in a poem and how you're allowed to say it; that really was a moment when I connected with the craft. There's something about poetry that is more in line with the way that our brains actually work. We don't think in sentences. We think in memories and images and thoughts that kind of jump around from one thing to another—it's not necessarily linear. So poetry has this way of being able to capture that better than prose can, though I do write both things. I really hated poetry for most of my life, so it is kind of interesting that I'm now a poet. I still don't like a lot of poetry. I get bored easily, and I am not interested in reading poems about the woods or whatever. I don't know what a pasture is. So, I think the way that I have tried to focus my craft is writing poems that feel relevant to me and my life and reflective of that.
How were your experiences in academia valuable for someone pursuing a creative career?
In undergrad, I double majored in creative writing and anthropology, and that was really essential, looking back on it. Studying anthropology and reading theory and thinking about observation of oneself and of others is really essential to my writing practice. I wasn't able to articulate it at the time, but for some reason, I think of the two as very, very linked, this idea of cultural anthropology and literature. Being able to be immersed in a lot of different types of texts has really helped my writing career and to shape my work. When I got my MFA, it kind of felt like the next reasonable thing. I didn't know what an MFA was when I was in college and a professor of mine was like, "Oh this a thing you can do, and it will give you the time that you need to work on a manuscript." So, when I went into my MFA, I actually had quite low expectations. Taking writing workshops was not about learning how to write, it's more about really having that space and being able to be committed to it. So, basically just the fact that my whole job really for the two years of getting my MFA: to write and to read. Of course, I was working at the time, but that was the focus. So to be able to learn how to practice that is regular and sustained. I think that was really the lesson of my MFA, and it also gave me the time and space and colleagues that allowed me to write my first book.
How did that feel the first time you published a book?
Surreal. I've always wanted to be a writer, but I hated poetry and didn't see myself as a poet, so, of course, I wasn't thinking about it as being a book of poetry with a small press. I don't know. It was something I hadn't expected for my life in that way, but it was fun. I feel like everyone I've ever known was [at my book launch]. Because it was my first book, some of the first poems I ever wrote were in that book, and it just felt like the culmination of a lot of different things. It's scary, putting a book out there. My poems are really personal, so I had to kind of quickly get over that and have my parents be okay with that, but I think the fear is worth it.
Let's talk about There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé. What made you decide on that title?
So, there is a poem in the book and that's part of the title for that poem and I kind of went back and forth on whether or not to name the book that and I did it for fun. I don't know, it's definitely something that gets people's attention, and I like that part of it, pulling people in. I like calling out the fact that the book is going to be an exploration around pop culture, but it also feels a little bit false; like it isn't a book about Beyoncé and even the poem that mentioned Beyoncé or have her name in the title or whatever are not hers—they're all me. So, it is a little bit of a trick. I keep saying, people are going to see the cover and be excited and be like, "Oh this is fun. This is a book about poems about Beyoncé!" And they're going to open it, and it's just going to be my sadness. There's a little bit of a trick there, but there's a playfulness to that; there's a playfulness in going ahead and leading with that title. I felt a little bit of concern at first like, what does it mean to invoke Beyoncé? Even in the title of the book, do I want that? Why not? I'm the type of person that if someone says that maybe I shouldn't do something, I'm probably going to do it. So, that was one of my things were my friends were like, "Well, maybe it could be More Beautiful Things" or "Maybe you shouldn't put it in the title," so I was like, "Well, guess I'll do it."
Are you anxious at all about the potential of the Beyhive coming for you?
I mean, I encourage them all to read the book before [judging]. I actually rewrote the jacket copy for the book, because people were coming up to me and being like, "I don't think you're right. There aren't more beautiful people." And I'm like, "Okay, but the things that I mention that could possibly be more beautiful than Beyoncé are, like education and the sky." I don't think that she would argue with that. It's not like I'm saying Beyoncé is not beautiful. I think people need to take a step back and see it for the reality. It's not a diss on Beyoncé, the poems don't intend to do that, but they also aren't praise. It's complicated and complex, and that's what's fun about it. I have been assured that I won't get sued, so that's good, but I'm open to having these conversations. I'm not interested in people rushing to judgment or conclusions. I'm super interested in having conversations and talking about all the complexities that I raise in the book.
The thing to remember is, it is a book of poetry. This is not a book that is pop cultural analysis or anything like that. That is in the poem, but it is a creative work. I talk about pop culture a lot in my work, but only so much as it bolsters the poem and the more intimate moments in the book. So, I really feel that it's a tool. For all intents and purposes, the Beyoncé in the book is not Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. It's a reflection, an image, it's a symbol, a metaphor, and I think that once people can kind of sign on to that idea, that's kind of where the magic happens and where you can have the most fun with these poems.
I'd love to talk more about the content of your book and these poems. I've read on the site that it centers on the idea of the 21st-century black woman in America and all of those different types of experiences and feelings and ideas on femininity and racism and politics. Could you expand on that?
I just want [people] to realize that the center of the book was this kind of statement on black American womanhood. I wanted then to bring in as many visions of that as possible. It's really about the multiplicity. It's about the fact that we are contradictions—we are so complex, and on one hand, you can be totally praised for your body and the way that you take up space, and at the same time, you can be totally defaced. I think that there are these dichotomies that we all hold in us; we've been subjugated but also are powerful. These are the undertones that I wanted to play with, so the book moves around a lot. The speaker is sometimes super vulnerable, the speaker is sometimes very, very tough, and I think it was important for me to walk that line of all of the different emotions and all the different women that we are. It's playing a role—everyday you're a different woman in the world and responding to a lot of different political moments and pop cultural moments; being in different spaces, like in a classroom of white academics versus being with your girls. It's a lot of that. I wanted to make sure that I captured all of us and everything that we are. I get really frustrated by renderings of black women that are flat or one-sided, so I wanted to create and represent a black woman in this book that is whole and broken and funny and strong and all the things. It really felt important for me to bring in a lot of different voices, which is why I kind of reference not only Beyoncé but also song lyrics and other pop cultural characters, as well as voices of my friends and visual artists and visions; I really tried to conjure a lot of different people and voices within the book.
You also make references to jazz, hip-hop, visual arts, and your own family history.
It feels important to kind of gather up everything. I think about writing these poems as a way of archiving how I felt, what I laughed at, what I cried about, who was there with me, and what I was watching and listening to, and all of that. It's kind of a living document in that way.
What types of reactions are you hoping to get from readers with this book?
I want people to feel that they have permission. I want people to feel that, because I kind of put everything out there, they can then take that as permission to really express themselves and know themselves and to be proud of themselves and to heal themselves, because you need to have that permission. I want to be someone who says, "Hey, it's okay, and you can do whatever you want. You can say what you're really thinking." I want to embolden people.