A Conversation with Morgan Parker

People have trouble with “pop” culture, but I’m like, it’s culture, right? Pop Culture is the mother fucking president.

Conversation between Morgan Parker, Angel Dye, and Jeremy Flick

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length. A full version of the interview can be found on the New Limestone Review’s podcast, “I Wanted to Also Ask about Ghosts.”

Jeremy Flick: Since we’re a part the MFA program, part of what we like to ask beyond what you write is how you write. So, the first question is workshopping—and we were kind of talking about this on the way in. Who do you send out poems to for feedback? Because I was thinking, I know that some of our cohort, as workshop people, will probably continue to do that. And then, who do you trust with their poetic eye or craft with your work for that feedback?

Morgan Parker: I usually start with my homies. Something I do a lot with Danez is send something and the subject line just says “is this a poem.” And if Danez is like, “Yeah, girl!” then I’m like, “okay,” I can continue— You know, sometimes you feel like “what even is this? Should I keep going or is this nonsense?” And that helps me a lot. That’s another person I often trade manuscripts with, which is really helpful to see a person’s whole book. You know? And be able to discuss it on a poem level.

But certainly a really good editor is Natalie Eilbert. Her book is called Indictus. And she edits for The Atlas Review and I worked with her on that. And I just know her really well, but she like—extensive notes and really clever at picking up themes and things like that, so that’s always someone that I send to, but usually whole projects. Nate Marshall is great at looking at a poem and knowing what I’m trying to do and where I’m not doing it and where I am. Sometimes I’ll send stuff to Angel. Charif Shanahan, is like—we’re pretty early on in the process where we’ll send each other stuff. There’s like one person and she was in my MFA, but that kind of switches. And Matt Rohrer who was my thesis advisor. Yeah, there’s more.

And it really just depends on the thing. Also, I know sometimes I have an essay that I need looked at and you know, then there’s also editors that I’ve worked with in the past, like of lit mags that I trust. So sometimes I’ll dip back into that. People can be really generous even though they’re busy and you know, if you’re a person that also does that, you get a little goodwill. I think that’s just a really important part of it. And sometimes I feel like I can tell when the person hasn’t talked to anyone about what their poem was like. And it’s like, damn, if you had worked with someone else on this, I don’t know, sometimes you can tell that this was made in a vacuum, which I know for me it’s really important to kind of get some outside feedback, ‘cause so much writing just happens in your brain and it’s really lonely.

Also readings are like a really big part of my editing process. I do a lot of readings and I always have, but I will be cutting down on that. But it is really, and it has always been, super helpful for me. If I have a new poem I always read it.

Angel Dye: To get audience response?

MP: Yeah. And also my own. You can kinda tell if it’s a brand new poem that’s my favorite because I don’t even want to read this out loud. And that’s an editing process of like what do I feel comfortable even speaking out loud. It’s a way to figure out which parts are rhythmically off. So that and also reactions. Often, I have a line that I thought was funny and it didn’t land in the way that I thought it would. And that’s just super helpful.

JF: I think sometimes too, as far as reading it out loud… seems like a totally different poem.

MP: Oh my God. Well I read out loud as I’m writing and I suggest everyone do that. That’s what made writing my novel really painstaking cause I was like reading every sentence. Sorry to my editor. But yeah, it’s a essential and especially for poems. The sounds are, you know, 25% of the whole process.

AD: We’ve talked in some of our poetry workshops about writing longhand, on an iPhone, on a laptop. And I’m interested in which of those you prefer and if that changes, I know you travel a lot, so you’re probably getting it in where you can in transit, but which of those is your thing? Like what is your groove with that?

MP: I start on paper. Pretty much all the time. For poems for sure. And everything. I mean it starts on paper. I don’t usually draft a poem that way, but I write everything down and all thoughts and what I am observing. I barely can fucking watch TV without my notebook in my hand, which is annoying— like, I clearly cannot relax but I’ll be watching the Housewives and I’m like, “Oh shit. That, that line.”

My writing process, I talk about it in terms of like these different phases. So the first is like what I call the collecting phase, where you’re just being alive in the world and taking notes and writing everything down, seeing movies.

There’s a germination period that is kind of the longest part of my process before I even go to the computer. I also have several notebooks, then there’s like posted on my desk and sometimes when I feel full up on that or looking back in my notebook, there’s something that’s swirling around and keeps coming back and like, okay, there’s something here that I want to really work on and make into a thing.

That’s when I like go to the computer. So, I guess that’s kind of how my process is. And the writing of the draft I think is the shortest part because then it’s revising, you know. So, first having thoughts and letting them mature, you know, free writing just hella notes and reading books and writing notes from that. And then making the draft and then that just doesn’t take as much time. Sometimes I’m self-editing as I’m writing the poem, which, you know, that obviously takes a little bit more time, but most of writing is revision, that’s how I feel. It’s like arranging, you know, organizing things and looking back and be like, okay, but what am I really trying to say?

And I’m pretty hard on myself in that process also. I’m like, okay, I know I have this and it’s cute and clever and it’s a solid poem. But what’s really going on here and how do I make the poem be exactly what it needs to be with that. Like the whole ego situation. And it’s the hardest thing for people. When I teach it, I feel really bad because I’m like, you just need to take this line out. But they’re like, “but I was trying to”—and I’m like, that’s cool. It’s very smart. However, it’s hard to break that, you know? Someone like almost crying was because I was like, “I hate to say this, but buried in here is this one line that I’m pretty sure around here is really what the poem was trying to say. And I can see that you just put makeup on it,” you know what I mean? Hid it in the middle, because it’s usually the part you’re most afraid of, you know, that’s what the poem is and I think our consciousness and ego has to not put that forward and try to do all this work and acrobatics to make it into something intellectual instead of scary.

I think that that’s really the biggest part is coming from a space of conception and an idea, you know, poems start in that way. What if I did X, Y and Z and I kind of work that way. I give myself little prompts, but it’s like, what if I wrote a poem called, “It’s Getting Hot in Herre, So Take Off All Your Clothes,” you know, and it was a sestina, what if I did that?

I usually start like that with a conception of I want this poem to have this tone and this to be what I’m investigating in the poem. And sometimes the poem pulls me in a different direction and it took me a long time to know when that was happening and also to follow it because we’re stubborn, you know, we want to be like, no, but how do I go back and make that stronger? But sometimes it’s not even worth it. And that’s just truly not what the bond needs to be. I also think revision takes all the time because sometimes, and this happened to me a lot, especially with Magical Negro, I had to become a different person in order to revise and write the real poem. So sometimes if it was like, “Oh shit, I’m actually trying to do this, I can’t do that right now.” I need approximately two more therapy sessions and some kind of shift in your brain. You have to be in a totally different kind of headspace. And you can tell when it’s like, oh, this is just too much for my current version. You know, got to have a software update before I can do that.

AD: That pull you talked about is really interesting to me cause I’m starting to get to that place to feel when my poems want to do something that I didn’t think they were going to do. Especially with my thesis collection. It’s all persona poetry, which is the first time I’ve ever done that. I think these might have been the first persona poems I’ve ever written. And I decided to write an extensive body of them, and certainly like the poems had a voice and a life of their own. And so I might’ve entered the poem thinking, Oh, I’m going to try and write about colorism. And the poem was like actually going here, you know? And I think that’s when you start to hone your craft, when you’re able to yield to that and give yourself space and time to lean in and interrogate, find out what’s happening.

MP: Yeah and you get better at it. I taught last week, just a workshop. It was supposed to be three hours and literally I was there for four hours. It turns out I’m a motor mouth. It was like an editing workshop. So I actually brought in some of my old drafts. You know, you guys aren’t gonna hurt my feelings. I’m not going to start with you.

And then afterwards we looked at everyone’s poems and one of the girls was like, you’re such a fast editor because I would read it and be like, okay, here’s an idea: this, this, this goes here and maybe you should cut this whole part because this is really what you’re talking about. And they were just like, how did you do that so fast? But it’s because I have learned how to do that for myself and it really is taking a step back and you just sharpen that tool. Whereas it would have taken me a long time to see in my first book. And now I also know what my little habits are and what my little tricks are where I’m like, okay Morgan, I see that you were trying to do this thing and like you knew that wasn’t right. You know? So, learning what your own defense mechanisms basically are in poems makes the editing process a lot cleaner and sharper. But it feels worse because you’re not just trying to make something pretty, you’re just trying to make it better, which often is not even close to the same thing.

AD: I had the privilege of hearing you speak on a wonderful panel at AWP with Dawn Lundy Martin and Evie Shockley and it was moderated by Fatimah Asghar and I was sitting in the audience. I’m like, this is like a pantheon of color who I love.

MP: We were all freaking out like that too. That’s what’s so funny.

AD: You all started to talk about form and how you work with form, but also how you work outside of form. I call it “freaking the form,” how you make it do what you want it to do. And you talked a little bit about this inclination or instinct that you have to, you said, to “fuck it up.” I wondered if you could talk a little bit more about that.

MP: It’s just like punk esthetics? I just can’t follow rules. Something in me is like, but how can I rebel? That’s like a fucking Sagittarius/punk influence. Like no, I won’t. It’s just a stubborn, bratty kid.

I was in a craft class where we had to write in all these different forms and I was such an attitude problem. I was like, I’m not doing this. Or I’m not going to be into it. And then we did a blank verse thing and I emailed the professor and was like, you’re not going to believe it. I’m obsessed with blank verse and I’m annoyed by it and it’s your fault. I was just like, oh, this actually works for me, but only if I do it in my way, I wasn’t ever interested in being like, oh, I want to write a perfect sonnet. And that’s dope, but that just feels like not my task in this world. And it feels good to get exactly the meter and stuff. You go with the form until you can’t, you know, until it’s not useful. And it’s just in the way of the poem.

I think a lot about that even before I go into writing form. Be aware of when it just needs to run out of that. And how can you play with that? There’s something really satisfying about seeing a perfect sonnet, but then like one line is way too long or too short or one line is on its own, you know, those sorts of things. I think I’ve written a lot of sonnets that are like 10 or 12 or 13, you know, it feels like a sonnet to me. And that’s me giving myself permission and giving the poem permission to do its own thing even though there’s like this heavy hand of form.

AD: I also think as a black writer, there’s something empowering about taking these really old traditional forms that have been taught and esteemed for years and years and years and taught over and over and over again.

MP: That’s why I hated poems. I almost wasn’t a poet. Until like 10 years ago, maybe even shorter than that. And that’s a shame. The way we educate is a shame. Like come on, I feel like I’ve written several books and I almost didn’t. That’s bad, that’s bad. But I was like, is this poems? This sucks. So, you know, like heavy form in the woods. I never seen a woods, you know, like I grew up in SoCal and I do think there’s something about a reclaiming, right? It is empowering. And sometimes that’s all it is.

How do I make this black? How do I make this more feminine? How do I make this reflect myself and my community? Because the form itself does not. So, to work within a form and make it your own is, a huge challenge to take on, but it is really empowering in that way. Love to stick it to fucking Wordsworth, whomever.

And also I have a pentameter as the heartbeat. So that’s something we can never get away from. It is very natural actually. And sometimes when I feel stuck on a poem, I put it in form or if I don’t know what to write, I’m like, let me write like a fucking pantoum or thing. And it helps just to generate and then you know, whatever happens to it happens.

AD: I’m super grateful that I pursued creative writing in undergrad and now doing an MFA because I know the rules and now I can break them like whenever I feel like.

MP: It’s important to know what the legacy is, how you want to add to it or take away from it or whatever. It’s cool that people can come to poems and have no knowledge of that. But I personally am a nerd and it was special for me to learn all these things. I’m like, oh, there’s so much happening in poems. It’s not just some thoughts or feelings. I get a lot of people, younger folks who are surprised by that or they’re like a stream of conscious.

But there are so many maneuvers you can do and it makes the poems so much stronger and just to know what they are and know what you’re going against. It’s very academic, but I feel happy that I did that in undergrad and did an MFA and got to deeply study what other folks are up to and have been up to.

AD: In all of your work that I’ve ever read, you lean really heavily into pop culture, history, memory and embodied black experiences. They intermingle really well on the page. And I wonder, you touched on this earlier that you’re taking in, you know, many different things before you can go to the page and I’m wondering if you can name some of those. What are you listening to? What are you reading? What are you watching when you’re harnessing what you need to be able to write? Some of these poems are extremely painful. Some of them are really triggering. I heard you read at AWP and you, you said that. You gave a trigger warning.

MP: Yeah. Hell yeah. And you will not catch me reading that poem tonight. You know what I mean? I don’t think I’ve read it for any of the readings I’ve done for this. This book is really hard anyway, it’s just not a fun tour in the way that the last one was. But it is very honest in that way of these are the things that I’m seeing and not even choosing to see.

I see my artist statement as reflecting myself and my experience in the world right now, this time, the places I’m in. And just to do that as specifically as possible to let the reader get as close to my lived experience as possible. And part of that is also bearing witness. I was alive. It felt like this, it looked like this. So it would be really disingenuous if I wrote a book without The Real Housewives or you know, I dunno, Earth, Wind and Fire, like all these things. It just wouldn’t be correct. It wouldn’t be honest.

People have trouble with “pop” culture, but I’m like, it’s culture, right? This is culture. It’s just, that’s what we have now. Pop Culture is the mother fucking president. Why is what I’m doing, so risky or whatever? And people are like, aren’t you worried about people in the future? Like not getting it, but you know, I read The Wasteland and it felt like we had to read a whole other book to understand it. You know, like there’s vernacular and slang and all that stuff. They didn’t have Google then even, you know, so now, what am I worried that someone’s not going to know who Beyoncé is? They could go Google or fuck themselves.

 I watch a ton of TV and I listen to a lot. Although, you know, you guys are saying “pop culture,” but I rarely write about music after the 70s. I’m just like in a whole other space. But I’m creating an environment where there are pictures on the wall and there’s music playing and I really think a lot about writing books as decorating my apartment. I think about it in the same way. I’m creating a space for people to come into and I want it to be reflective of me, immediately. Like a friend came to my apartment, was like, “Oh, I get it.” It’s like living inside of your books. I want to have this image of Diana Ross on wall and also be like brooding about, you know, desirability or whatever and all of those things happening at once. Something exciting comes from that for me. Yeah. What does it smell like? What is the color scheme of each poem? That feels really essential to the spirit of my books.

AD: One of the images that arrests me so much throughout Magical Negro was this return to the gap between Angela Davis’ teeth.

MP: I think about it so much. And I was like, when I started writing Magical Negro, I was like that’s a, you know, that’s an icon that’s, that’s in and of itself a Magical Negro. And I really wanted to change that, change associations with magical negro and build my own kind of like dream team roster sort of thing. What are my Magical Negros, actually?

When I landed, oh my God, my friend’s going to pick me up at the airport and I was like, “Mom, look over there.” There was this negro, oh my God, head to toe, purple suit, purple shirt, lavender hat, head to toe. And I was like, “Look at that Magical Negro.” Like that guy’s a magical negro to me. You know, and really being able to think about the specificities and honoring like those weird little things that we don’t think of immediately. But the gap between an Angela Davis’ teeth is like a black icon to me, you know.

The love, the gaps between the teeth and literally that poem, the last poem in the book, I was like, how do I get the teeth to be like, that’s the gap between the teeth. It’s not the person, it’s the gap between the person’s teeth. And that’s kind of going off of There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. Where I’m just thinking a lot about beauty. I think having written that and then going here, it’s like very clear that it’s similar in that it’s like a meditation on what is allowed to be beautiful and what, um, what do I think is beautiful versus what the world thinks is beautiful and how can I see more beauty in the daily and how can I express to my people that they are beautiful, whoever those people might be.

How do I elevate the simplest fucking thing? A Martini olive and the gap between someone’s teeth and be like, yes, this, this is what I want to put on a trophy, you know, like this is an important special thing that could be overlooked. There’s so much happening and I think there’s so much pressure for us to like pick sides of anything, you know? And the Internet’s stressful to me for that reason. People like if you’re not talking about X, Y, Z, like what do you think of this? Do you like this album? Yeah, it came out yesterday. Fuck if I know, you know what I mean? Like I can tell you in five years, you know, like we need to take things in, in different kinds of ways. And I think the pressure to have an opinion prohibits good opinions and you know, informed opinions.

AD: Who do you entrust your work to? When you named some of your tribe—I’m going to call them— Danez Smith and Nate Marshall and you talked about Fatimah Ashgar and Angel Nafis, all these people that kind of make up your poetic family and community. I’m wondering what that means to you? What does community mean to you and what is the function of it as it pertains to your work? Like what do you need from community? What do you need to contribute to your communities in order for your work to live?

MP: For me it’s mostly permission-giving and also like fire-building, you know. It’s just exciting to be able to be influenced and surprised by just my folk that I like. To see what people are capable of doing and knowing like, oh shit, this makes me feel like I can even push harder, and it gives me more ideas. And just to talk to those people about the poems even, which you know is rare and sometimes it takes a fucking panel to be able to do it. But yeah, I do really feel that engagement as very important just to like know what people are up to.

Also, just like support in terms of “How are you doing?” and “What’s going on?” and checking in. That’s a really big thing for me because I’m an extroverted introvert and I love to stay at home and hide my depressive episodes and all that stuff so folks checking in is a big deal, especially when we’re doing such hard work. And I think often community is like okay, it’s like everyone in Cave Canem, which is true to an extent, but that’s not what I usually mean. We have larger communities, the poetry community, the black poetry community, but then there’s fam, you know. Where it’s like I just want to chill with them and then also talk about poems and then also like come up with an idea for a fucking concert or whatever, whatever we want to do and scheme together and play off of each other.

Tommy Pico is another one. My partner in crime. I was saying how people are like, are you guys “partners”? And I’m like, what? No one has been paying attention. We’re partners in all things except for romance.

Who do I want to really like hear out loud a lot? Who do I want to be placed next to? Who do I want to perform with, who will give me energy? It’s a lot of that. So, I do a lot of the events with Tommy. I do a lot of events with Danez. Nate and I sometimes do events together. And Fati. It just feels good to be swirling around the same folks. And something about like that juxtaposition, you know, like you guys were saying in your cohort, like playing off of people. I think something really cool happens in that and something really cool happens for us. But also for audiences. It just adds to the experience of all the poems. So those are my people.

JF: You’ve been talking about punk culture and stuff too. I’m curious why you were drawn in and are still drawn to the counterculture.

MP: I just feel like a weirdo. In any space I feel like a weirdo and even to myself sometimes I’m like, what is happening? So much of the way I understand myself in the world is, like the dark part of it is isolation. The bright part of it is like individualism and, and freedom to be unique. But usually where I am is like just awkward and like not quite fitting, which, you know, as you get older, you just come to terms with that. And so much of my life has been like hiding that. But I also think that there’s no point in doing that. And so, I feel really connected to this otherness, which obviously I’m a black woman in America. So there’s that. But then on top of it, I’m just like a weird person. And you know, sometimes I don’t feel right in a group of black people, even black women sometimes I don’t feel, you know, like it’s just, there’s something slightly not quite right.

And in those spaces, everyone feels like that. To be among a lot of people who feel very alone in their them-ness and there’s no judgment in that. I think that’s really important for me because I feel like I’m judging myself a lot and you can see it in people’s faces and they’re just like, why are you like that? You know, that that’s not the right way to be. Right? I think I need freedom. I need rebellion. I need to be able to be okay with weirdness and awkwardness and outsider-ness.

And that’s a really hard thing to come around to. I think it’s also a perpetual coming around to that, you know, I need a lot of reminders about that. There’s a chapter in my YA where they’re going to a party and she’s like, “I’m going to a party and I’m going to be like a brand new John Hughes movie suddenly.” And then the next chapter is called, “Obviously, I’m still me at the party.” Well, wherever I go, there the fuck I am.

AD: I love that and I’m so excited for this book.

MP: And I mean, even just writing that was like a gift to myself to point back and also make fun of. I feel like I might not have been able to do it about my current self in the same way and it wouldn’t be as fun or whatever. But there ways that that teenager-ish like hope and then heartbreak and that kind of coming to terms with who you are and what your self is. And there’s a lightness to it in a way because it is low stakes. It was a little bit easier to have fun with that stuff and be really cheeky and you know, I don’t know. That was a fun voice.

JF: So, obviously we’ve talked about music and film and TV and pop culture in general. If you had to make a playlist on Spotify or whatever it might be, what would—

MP: I already did!

JF: Okay. What are some of the artists on that?

MP: There’s some Sly. There’s Funkadelic. There’s like a Clips song on it. Now I’m forgetting.

AD: I’m gonna pull it up.

JF: Is it public?

MP: Yeah, I think so, but it’s on Spotify. There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé has a playlist. I made one for my YA just for myself while I was writing it.

AD: It’s got some Bill Moss Elijah and the Ebonites, Nina Simone, Vince Staples, Herbie Hancock, Paul Wall. Let’s see. Pusha T, Eddie Kendricks, Parliament. Earl Sweatshirt. Kendrick Lamar.

MP: Hella Magical Negroes! A lot of those songs are somehow mentioned or are used and that was the same for There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé where I was like, I can at least start with this. And it’s kind of cool to hear it. I usually make them before the book has come out. So again, in terms of creating a space and a mood, it’s kind of cool to just start with what have I mentioned and to hear it all together to get to know, like that’s a vibe, you know?

AD: Very well done. Morgan, thank you so much for talking with us this afternoon.

MP: It was wonderful.

AD: Congratulations on Magical Negro. Congratulations on your forthcoming young adult novel that I know everybody is going to love.

Morgan Parker 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). Her debut young adult novel Who Put This Song On? will be released by Delacorte Press on September 24, 2019. A debut book of nonfiction is forthcoming from One World/ Random House. Parker received her Bachelors in Anthropology and Creative Writing from Columbia University and her MFA in Poetry from NYU. She is the recipient of a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, winner of a 2016 Pushcart Prize, and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. Parker is the creator and host of Reparations, Liveat the Ace Hotel. With Tommy Pico, she co-curates the Poets With Attitude (PWA) reading series, and with Angel Nafis, she is The Other Black Girl Collective. Morgan is a Sagittarius, and she lives in Los Angeles.

Angel C. Dye is a poet and scholar of literature from Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas. She is currently a second-year MFA in Creative Writing candidate at the University of Kentucky and an alumna of Howard University. Her poetry has appeared in Sixfold Journal, About Place Journal, The Pierian Journal, and African Voices Magazine. She writes in the tradition of Lucille Clifton, Amiri Baraka, and Sterling A. Brown hoping to discover what Audre Lorde calls “the words [she does] not yet have.

Jeremy Flick’s poetry has been published in The Birds We Piled LooselyThe Matador Review, and others. His poetry book reviews are published or forthcoming in The Hollins Critic and Rain Taxi. He has also conducted and edited several interviews for the University of Kentucky MFA podcast. Flick earned his MFA in Poetry at the University of Kentucky. He holds a Bachelor’s in English and a Master’s in Creative Writing from Ball State University. He has taught composition at Anderson University, Ball State University, and University of Kentucky. He is the former Digital Media Editor for New Limestone Review.