Spotlight On: Morgan Parker

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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, and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Coconut Books 2016). A Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor for Coconut Magazine and The Offing, Morgan also contributes writing to Weird Sister and co-curates the Poets With Attitude (PWA) reading series with Tommy Pico. She lives in Brooklyn and at www.morgan-parker.com.

Congratulations on your many recent accomplishments! Your first book is being published on an explicitly feminist press (Switchback Books). What does that mean to you and to your work?

I was so excited that my first book got picked up by a feminist press. Not only do I think it’s a perfect way to frame and read my work, and I’m never afraid to wear the label “feminist writer,” I also strongly believe in the necessity of feminist presses and presses committed to solely publishing women. My second book will be coming out with Coconut Books, and while the editor, Bruce Covey, doesn’t label Coconut a feminist press, I really appreciate that the catalogue is overwhelmingly female, and when Bruce solicits work for publication, he is absolutely dedicated to making space for women whose incredible work might be overlooked by other presses. The VIDA counts, for example, are clear evidence that not enough women are being published, and editors clearly have a bias, whether conscious or unconscious, toward male writers. I’m so committed to supporting organizations that make a conscious effort to battle that by championing women’s voices in writing, editing, reviewing and publishing. I didn’t set out to write a book that was specifically feminist, but I did want Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night to have a strong and feminine voice, a complex voice, an intersectional worldview. One of the major themes in the book is comfort/discomfort/privilege/access– who gets what, who gets to say what and feel what– and as a Black woman, these concerns are what shape my feminism.

You’re a writer of both poetry and creative nonfiction. How do these themes of comfort/discomfort and access/privilege inform both styles? Are there big differences in the way you contextualize feminist material in poetry versus creative nonfiction?

I think the biggest difference between writing poetry and prose for me is vulnerability. Even though my poetry style is fairly straightforward and non-elliptical, poetry favors play with language, meaning and metaphor in a way that prose can’t. Writing nonfiction for me is about laying out the truth, laying emotions bare rather than alluding to them. There’s not much to hide behind when it’s only sentences. But both in poetry and prose, I’m drawn to illuminating a thought process, an exploration and discovery. Much of the intersectional feminist material in my writing is presented as interior observations. In my prose, this can often manifest as dialogue or commentary about dialogue, whereas in poetry it’s tied to assertions of the voice in the poem.

In 2012, you were a Fellow at Cave Canem, a non-profit and home for African American poetry. Nikky Finney called Cave Canem “the major watering hole and air pocket for black poetry.” How did your experience there transform you?

I went to the Cave Canem retreat in 2012 and 2014, and this summer I’ll graduate. My experience with CC has been incredibly life-changing, challenging, eye-opening, and I think it still remains to be seen how much of a mark it will leave on my life and career. Being a part of a huge, sprawling, national network of supportive poets is an incredibly lucky thing. There is a sense that Cave Canem is a family– we accept one another and love one another even if we don’t understand each other, even if it’s a cousin you’ve never met in person. What’s been most important to me is the relationships that follow me home after the retreat. These are folks I talk to every day, share poems with, trade manuscripts with, publish, promote, book for readings, call late at night or early in the morning. The retreat is only a week long, but there is an immediate intimacy created not only by the mission and founders, Toi Derricote and Cornelius Eady, but by the sheer specialness of being surrounded by only 50 other Black poets. That comfort has a way of opening up one’s work, and for me, it’s also shaped my understanding of what I need and deserve from a poetry community.

Did you always know writing would be your niche? Were there signs of this growing up, and if so, what were they?

I have been a writer since I was nine. I’m not good at too many other things. I love music and visual art, but I’m not gifted with the eyes or ears to pursue those mediums. When I was a kid spending sunny Saturdays at the library whizzing through the YA section, my parents really, really tried to introduce me to other things. Here are some activities I tried and failed at: soccer, ballet, tap, karate, voice lessons, theater, gymnastics, swim team, choir, cheerleading, tennis. One embarrassment after the next. I don’t blame my parents for not taking a nine-year-old’s word for it, but I was certain about who I was and what I was going to be. Finally they let me wear blazers to school and skip dinner to work on my “novel,” which was obviously terrible.

Your second book is called There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. How do you feel about recent news of The Carter Family jumping ship for Los Angeles?!

I feel amazing about it. Honestly I couldn’t be happier. I’m originally from California, and I’ve been whispering in friends’ ears for about a year trying to convince them to move to LA with me, and this is a true gift to my argument. I love New York, but I’ve been here for about eight years now and I am getting cold, rent is rising, I’m really low on sun vitamins. Since I started writing Beyoncé poems– and especially now that I went ahead and put her name in my book title– it’s funny how what happens to her happens to me. When she does anything I get a minimum of five emails or facebook posts from friends waiting for my poem response. It’s actually been really fun tracking her life as poem fodder. Though the project is pretty much complete, and I swore I wouldn’t just become “the Beyoncé poet,” a lot of my friends are still used to hearing my commentary about all things Bey. I really like walking the line between criticism and super-fandom. I get to use her as a vehicle for writing about race, power and feminism, but I also get T-shirts with her face on them as gifts. Anyway, let’s all move to LA.

Imagine you’re going on a solo vacation for two weeks. What five books do you bring to keep you company?

This is a really hard question. It’s honestly always the hardest part of packing for me. At any given time I’m usually carrying around a novel, some essays, and a book of poetry. Currently, Hilton Als’ White Girls, Sara Lippman’s Doll Palace, and I’m revisiting Harmony Holiday’s Negro League Baseball. I received a review copy of Tracy K. Smith’s memoir, Ordinary Light, and I’m excited to delve into that. My favorite beach poems (you didn’t specify a beach vacation, I just assumed, and I would probably choose my books depending on location) are in Eileen Myles’ Skies.

And finally, your favorite feminist quote?

I return again and again (via a tattoo on my left forearm) to Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me” as a Black feminist anthem. There are so many complex layers in this poem, and as a Black woman– specifically, one who struggles with issues of mental health– it’s both heartbreaking and super empowering. I love it. I love the magic of Black women, the incredible stamina and creativity, in spite of society supposedly handing us the shortest imaginable stick.

won’t you celebrate with me

what i have shaped into

a kind of life? i had no model.

born in babylon

both nonwhite and woman

what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

here on this bridge between

starshine and clay,

my one hand holding tight

my other hand; come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.

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