Morgan Parker is the 2019 winner for the National Book Critic Circle’s Poetry award.
Masha Shollar [MS]: You’ve said that you trick yourself into writing by making yourself laugh. This collection is so intense and not one I would automatically think of as humorous, even though poems like “Matt” and “Brooklyn” for instance are, in ways, very funny. But they still had these dark lines that, almost because you were lulled into laughter, hit harder. I was wondering how you find humor in a collection like this?
Morgan Parker [MP]: Trickery; the same trickery I use on readers, I use on myself. Because I know it’s not funny, not even a little bit. In general, I always try to find a place for humor in my work, and that’s really just, first and foremost, for me, to be able to get through it. That’s part of how I process the world as both a person and a writer, having humorous moments and painful moments back to back. That’s a self-defense mechanism but in the poems, it’s a move, it’s kind of like a seduction and then a stab. Incorporating huge political, historical themes with everyday bullshit and contemporary commentary—I do that by bringing it back to my day to day, and in the span of a day, hundreds of black people are shot and also, someone sexually rejected me. In the book, there exists that same tension of, “ I have to hold this in my head and also this other thing in my head.” It creates this insane pressure.
MS: You mentioned seducing the reader and then stabbing them. How do you know when you’re doing too much seducing or too much stabbing?
MP: That’s something I’ve approached differently with every book. A lot of it is revising. My last book was a little bit more of the seduction. A lot of it is subconscious. It seems like I’m seducing you but really, I’m setting you up for the next punch. I think a lot about comedians like Richard Pryor. It’s a similar move, where you’re going along thinking you’re in a space of comfort and then suddenly, you’re in a space of discomfort, which is both funny and painful. It’s a really effective way to get people to not just listen, but hear things in a different way. How do I present this in a way that is as jarring and upsetting as my experience of confronting it in the world? Part of it is expectation; people get ready to receive that sort of sermon. So to catch folks off guard with material — you think you’re in a different kind of poem, you think you’re just talking about a guy named Matt that you most definitely know and then suddenly, you’re talking about the history of white men raping black women from slavery times — if I just led with that, there’s a way in which sixty percent of the audience isn’t listening to me. Or they’ll hear it, but won’t process it in the same way.
MS: There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce definitely did feel more seductive than this collection and I was wondering if something happened that led you to say, I’m going to try to push more on the other side of this, or if you just wanted to try something new.
MP: I wanted to present the last book as very bright and colorful and sequined. The dark stuff is there but most people don’t approach it that way, which is fine and that’s part of how I wrote it. America continued to happen and I continued to happen and there comes a point where it’s like, ok, I’ve already given you a lot of space and time and leeway and entertainment. And entertainment time is over. Part of it was, wait, I already said this stuff and you’re still not hearing me. So I have to double down and repeat myself in a harsher way. I can’t stand up here and have moments of levity because I’m not allowed to have those moments of levity. Magical Negro is concerned with making an environment that has no air. There’s no breathing room. A friend of mine read some of the first poems from Magical Negro and was like, “Oh, you’re not concerned with being charming anymore.” In terms of the speaker’s voice, it’s true. It’s less the charm and more of that space and setup. I can either take readers by the hand, sit them down, get them comfortable, get them a drink before I start, versus the other way of, I don’t care about being hospitable anymore.
MS: This collection seems to be, in many ways, about performativity, particularly lines like, “I am a costume,” In reading, I thought a lot about the performativity of privilege and how, one of the privileges of privilege is not being aware, even, that you’re performing. How much of the collection is meant to call attention to that privilege? Or was that more of a byproduct, not what you were aiming to do but if it comes out of it, that’s great.
MP: I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, none of this is for white people to take anything from,” but I was thinking, “I know I am speaking to white people and when they read it, they should feel a certain kind of way.” Part of it has to do with the response to the last book and then a bunch of tension building toward this. My greatest fear in the whole world, other than dying alone, etc, is being misunderstood. And I think that’s why I’m a writer. In the last book, there was a poem that said, “What if I said I’m tired and they heard wrong, said, sing it.” Everyone read that and was like, “Yes, oh my god, I know.” And I was like, “But I’m literally asking for help. I don’t know how to say it plainer!” You thought I was just saying it to say it, but I’m saying it because it is painful. There’s a double erasure that happens, of an already erased black woman’s body, then to be making work that’s seen as performance and not an extension of my own experience. I wanted it to be confrontational; “Now you know what I’m saying, it’s not enough for you to just be like, yeah!”
MS: Right. You don’t want poetry reading snaps, you want something more.
MP: Absolutely. And that “I am a costume” line could have been my whole last book. But there are certain things where I feel like I’m saying this, but it didn’t hit in that way. Maybe it’s just how I was saying it then, what it meant in the world then. To me, it always feels like I’m saying the same thing but it isn’t exactly. It’s a second course on the same sort of thing.
MS: Performativity, even in the titles of the collections, moves from seduction to stabbing. Beyonce is someone who everyone, rightly or not, feels a level of cultural claim to. But when you talk about the performance of a magical Negro in pop culture, it evokes a totally different reaction.
MP: It makes you confront how different those things are. If we’re going to talk about pop culture figures, especially black women and how they shape how we think about black Americanness, those are two sides of the same coin. Beyonce is not a magical Negro, but if we’re going to think about Beyonce and the performance of black women as costumes, then we also have to think about minstrels and magical Negroes and Bagger Vance. What’s the use of these figures and these cultural devices? How are they a reflection of how we think about other people? Why does our country need that and what does that mean and how does that affect what happens when someone gets pulled over? How are these things all connected?
MS: There’s a lot in the collection about the body itself. For instance, the line, “My body is an argument I did not start,” which I could at least partially relate to as a woman. And the poem “The Black Body,” which ends with you repeating the line, “The body is a person.” And I felt like there was both anger and exasperation that you had to remind people of that.
MS: But there is something sort of shocking about just seeing that written out over and over. It’s very easy in discussions of racism, and I’m sure I’m guilty of this just as much as anyone, to talk about violence against the black body in an academic way, but not come down to the humanity of it. How do you keep your reader from distancing themselves?
MP: I’ve read a lot of poems that intellectualize. I have written those poems, I have been in those conversations. I got my MFA in poetry, so I’ve sat in classrooms talking about The Body. I’m very attuned to how language is coded to otherize. It’s something I’m tired of saying, that exasperation is so real. That, in and of itself, is Magical Negro; why is there still something to say, that me being alive matters? All of that really unsettled me. I wanted to make people sit and look at that. It’s covered ground. But to say it so simply feels weird to people. Because academics want to be like, “Well, we know, but…” We forget that the more we talk about black lives and black bodies, the less we’re talking about black people. That’s what frustrates me about this country, the difference between the walk and the talk. I’ve had a lot of random conversations with colleagues, other writers, literary people who say, “Yes, this book prize or this panel should be more diverse,” and then, if I go to their birthday party and I’m the only black person there, they’re like, “But that has nothing to do with it.” But it does. That was the shit that was upsetting me in Magical Negro and hearing people say it doesn’t have anything to do with it, that is really scary to me. It’s the same thing as “The body is a person.” And it’s the same thing as “Now more than ever,” because “ever” has been happening, you just weren’t paying attention. It’s hard not to be devastated and just give up. And it’s hard not to just be so angry. But I really want to believe that people can make those connections. The interrogation doesn’t have to be self-flagellation. It’s just the reminder to look around. Recognize that it’s almost habitual for us to erase other people. It’s just what it is. It’s an everyday thing, so it’s not an indictment as much as a rally cry.
MS: I was a lit major so I have a lot of experience distancing myself from texts and asking, what’s the pattern? What’s the authorial intent? But I really struggled to step back from the emotions of this. I was wondering if you did that intentionally. Not that you don’t want people to talk about craft and theme, but if, as much as possible, you wanted to kind of force the reader to sit in these emotions.
MP: I don’t know, I guess. I knew the poems hurt me; they’re uncomfortable and difficult. But I also didn’t think I was saying much that was new. I play a lot with craft in this book and a lot of that was trying to get it right. I did want it to be meaty, poems you could go back to and really do all that investigation. But I didn’t want it to be so intellectual that you were able to distance yourself or so emotional that you were not able to recognize the idiosyncrasies in the craft. Part of that is playing around with form and tone so you’re never quite lulled in one way. You’re pulled immediately to another feeling, whether it be rage or disgust or hope or humor, so that you have to think about it as you’re feeling about it.
MS: I’m curious about the emotion and craft of two poems in particular. One you mentioned already, which is “Now More Than Ever” and the other is “A Brief History of the Present.” Those are such intense poems; how do you write something that emotional? How do you get the emotional distance required to edit?
MP: “Now More Than Ever” was easy. I wrote it in an afternoon. I usually don’t get out an idea that quickly. It was something I’d talked with a lot of people about, why that phrase is so frustrating. I knew I wanted part of Magical Negro to be a kind of ethnography and a field guide. So I thought, what if I just broke this down? To us, it’s so obvious why that would be offensive, so how can I just pick it apart as if I’m an anthropologist looking at our culture? It was fun to be honest, to be able to say it. I think I needed that outside language to say it in a way that wasn’t just, “Ugh, you guys.” Approaching it that way made it a bit easier for me to present the emotion but not just cry on the page. Again, the plainness of, “The body is a person,” the plainness of repeating that. So much of this book is about repetition and echoes. That was the part that came last, the extension of “evers” which, in performance, are however many I want.
MS: I was going to ask how you would perform this.
MP: It changes every time. When I can, I will read it and leave the room still saying “ever.” I want it to be never-ending. It’s fun to play with in the performance because I can see how the audience is reacting. There’s a way the audience is like, “Ok, yeah, I understand,” and then it goes on longer and they’re like, “Hm, yes, deep,” and then it goes on a little bit longer and everyone’s like, “What’s going on?” I can track the discomfort on their faces and wait for level three discomfort. You almost need all that time and space to make your point. I often will just stop, I’ll take a drink, once I laid on the ground. I want to create that feeling of, “When will it end?” Because I’ve tried to just say, “Now more than ever is ridiculous because…” People don’t get it in the same way. They’re like “Yes, but…” They don’t feel it. It’s more like, do you see how you feel right now? You don’t know if you’ll ever get out of this room with me yelling at you? That’s how it feels. That’s “Show don’t tell.” How can I make everyone else as uncomfortable as I am and as black America is when you say, “Now more than ever.”
MS: What about “A Brief History of the Present?”
MP: I was commissioned to write that for a feature in LitHub, a year after Michael Brown. That was one that really hurt me a lot. I felt like, what can be said? It’s a year later and nothing has changed. It was a very challenging poem to enter, which is why it starts with just a scene from In The Heat of the Night, because I was watching that and thinking about Michael Brown and thinking about ever and ever and ever. The poem takes on a lot of different tones and that partially was me trying to keep myself alert and to avoid a ton of emotional bait. I edited that poem a lot. I really wasn’t sure about the shape at first but it kind of had to only be that. I moved the lines around a lot, just trying to figure out the order of presenting all this data. When I started writing it, I had no idea where it would end or even what particular things I wanted to say. It’s complicated and I didn’t know one direct way to address that topic, so I had to come at it from a lot of angles.
MS: The collection ends with the words, “It is time for war.” I kept coming back to that and wondering if there’s a specific meaning we’re meant to take from that. It felt, in a lot of ways, like a call to action.
MP: It’s something the book had been boiling to, which I didn’t know until I wrote it. I didn’t know that would be the last poem, but when I wrote it—I don’t think you could put anything after that. When I got to that line, I stood up from my desk. I was like, oh shit. So much of this book went for me like that. I didn’t exactly know what it was boiling to. And when I got there, I often was terrified and surprised. That was a moment where I felt, there’s nothing else I can put after this line in the context of this book, which would feel satisfying. And it’s not ok, race war time. But it is, now that we have sat with all this, what else? If this isn’t instigating us, then what? We need to turn grief into action, make that grief useful. That comes out of anger, but also out of excitement, out of compassion. There was something so appealing to me about the colored people coming out into the sunshine. And to have that at the end of this book… what then? What are they doing? It’s a moment of hope, and war in that context is hope, it’s revolution, it’s survival. How do you end a book like this, other than in this way? It either ends with a death or a call to arms or a birth. And all those things are in, “It is time for war.”
Masha Shollar is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at The New School.
Morgan Parker is a poet, essayist, and novelist. She is the author of the poetry collections Magical Negro (Tin House 2019), There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Tin House 2017), and Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books 2015); and a young adult novel, Who Put This Song On?
This interview was first published on March 3, 2020 at the Creative Writing at The New School blog, thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School.