In Conversation with Morgan Parker on 'Magical Negro'
by Leah Johnson
Morgan Parker is the author of the poetry collections Magical Negro (out February 2019), There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, and Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night. Her debut young adult novel Who Put This Song On? is forthcoming in late 2019 and her debut book of nonfiction will be released in 2020. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Tin House, The Paris Review, The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, Best American Poetry 2016, The New York Times, and The Nation. She hosts Reparations, Live!, co-curates the Poets With Attitude reading series with Tommy Pico, and with Angel Nafis she is The Other Black Girl Collective. She lives in Los Angeles.
[This interview has been edited for clarity.]
Leah Johnson: When did it become clear to you that the stories you were interested in telling were going to require a lot of different mediums?
Morgan Parker: It's not that I have so many different stories to tell, but it's been exciting to see that the same story can be told in a lot of different ways. It's an exercise in finding new audiences and letting the story be heard by a lot of different types of people. I never want folks to feel like, “Well, I don't read poems, so I can’t.”
When I started writing essays it was because I felt that I needed to use sentences, basically. I needed to articulate things in a really direct way. My poems are really direct anyway, but there's a way in which the poem can straddle a lot of different meanings and realities. And I like when prose does that as well. But there's another level of understanding that you can get at in prose that you can't with poems. And if I'm saying things I can either say in the line of a poem or in a sentence, I think that's really fun for me to play with, and just hone in on what I'm really trying to say. It's a way of challenging the content.
LJ: And I'm wondering if—on a structural, language level—the way that you conceptualize storytelling changes from medium to medium?
MP: The way I think about narrative fiction is in an emotional way. So, they were always like, "This is great! However . . . something has to happen.” The actions were almost irrelevant. So, it was actually fun for me to figure out how plot can help in that emotional narrative. I had really thought of plot as almost beside the point because I'm always led by the emotional journey. So now, it’s about having that tool of, "Okay. Well, how can I have plot points and these actions contribute to that journey?"
It’s really like making a case, building an argument, throughout a book of poems. When I organize them I'm very obsessive about that, and it really comes down to trying to underscore my thesis, if that makes sense.
LJ: I want to actually rewind to an idea that you’ve spoken about before. This idea that, in grad school, everyone is saying, “Listen, you’ve got to choose. What are you doing?” You’ve said the type of work that you were doing was met with a sort of push back or derision in workshop spaces.
MP: Oh yeah, they didn't like it. No one was into it.
I mean, I had a couple of friends, and honestly, my buddies were like, “This is cool.” But no one was like, “Oh, yeah. This is going to be the person from our MFA cohort that makes it.” You know what I mean?
There's such a competitive vibe, obviously. But there is a sense of, “This person is way ahead.” Maybe they have more publications, or their voice sounds like a poem that would be in a book. You know what I mean?
And everyone's so insecure. And, you know, I remember being like, “This person's gonna be the person that gets a poem in The New Yorker. This person's gonna be the first person to get a book.” And there's a lot of that. So, even if people were enjoying my work—and they were—no one really thought that there was a place for it in the contemporary Poetry-with-a-capital-P space as we knew it. And I believed that. I was kind of like, “Okay, I can see where you're coming from: ‘I could never see a poem about the Real Housewives inThe New Yorker.’” And I get that.
LJ: Or a poem with the word “pussy” in The Paris Review.
MP: [laughs] In The Paris Review, I know! I'm just out here with bucket lists.
I often tell people this, about the moment when I thought, “Okay, maybe that's true. Maybe I won't be this traditional, capital-P-poet." But what does that mean? Am I gonna stop writing this poem? No. I tried once for a workshop to write a poem that sounded like "A Poem," and I did not include any pop culture, and it was just so bad. It was so—it was like a Mad Libs of poems. It was like, “Honey, bougainvillea . . .” I was just like, “I can do it too!”
I think the moment when I decided, “Okay, I'm still gonna write my poems, even if that doesn't mean that I'll enter this already-built world of poetry. I'm still gonna do it,” was when everything got unlocked for me. I do think about my career as always changing, and pretty much, all of the major things that [have] happened in the course of my career have been totally out of left field. And I think there's a little bit of adventure in it. And a little bit of, “I'm not really sure what I'm doing, and maybe there's not a space for me, but I know that I can at least build a space for my own body.” And go from there. There's got to be someone out there that is also interested in what I'm doing.
That's been my way of moving forward. I'm not basing my path off of anyone else, I guess, and that's probably because I never wanted to be a poet, per se. So, I'm not, you know, stuck on all of those particular goals, if that makes sense.
LJ: I'm curious about the role that going to Cave Canem played in your career after you got out of your MFA.
MP: Yeah, my first year at Cave Canem was the summer after I graduated. That was intense. It was really weird. I went to NYU. It was not very diverse. It is much better now, due to a lot of conversations, but there weren't a lot of black kids in my cohort. And it was odd, you know? Like, I grew up in a white suburb, and at Cave you're there with only 50 other black poets. And that's it. So, it was really a breeding ground for a) the things I knew that I had after getting out of my MFA, and b) this anxiety about not being enough of a black poet. Especially because I had just been not enough of a white poet, basically, at NYU. So, my first year was tough.
I had trouble in one world, and then I'm going to another, and at every turn I was like, “Wait, but how do I find the medium that is me?” It was a great experience, but it was really tough. And it was especially tough because I'd just gotten out of grad school. So, it was also like, “Oh, I've spent all this time ensconced in this very particular community. And then over to another.”
But it was great. I did my whole three years. During that time, I really grew a lot as a poet. And my confidence was growing simultaneously as a poet and as a person. I feel like it was—it didn't start out as, but ended up being—a really safe place for me to explore a lot of different things. And remains a very good place for me. Which is really helpful, especially because this job can be really lonely, and it can be really exhausting, and the thing about Cave is there are Cave Canem poets all over. So, it's really nice when I'm on tour or something, and I can just go and visit someone.
It's really grounding. I really appreciate having that community.
LJ: I love that. So, let's get into the new collection. Which technically, I think, is what I'm supposed to have been asking you about this entire time, but I was like, “I'm not gonna get on the phone with Morgan Parker . . .”
MP: It's all—it's all relevant.
LJ: Right, I was like, “We're gonna get there.” So, at one point when you were talking about There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, you said that the collection “toes the line between the glamour and tragedy,” like so many of your influences. I'm wondering which voices and ancestors you're evoking in Magical Negro.
MP: It's a really—this is a really hard book, and you're one of my early interviews. So, I'm grateful because I still haven't quite figured out all of the language around talking about it.
And the book itself—I’m terrified for it to come out. And I think every book feels like this—but it feels like the hardest book I ever wrote. The most serious one I ever wrote. I think a lot of that is because what came out of some of the poems. Some of the ancestors that I was meditating on are my grandparents, my aunties, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass. Random figures that have been important to me, including Diana Ross, etcetera. But I think what happened, surprisingly, was that all these other voices—who I don't have a name for—also brought themselves to the page. So, when I look back at a lot of what’s in the poems, I was like, “Did I write this?”
I think there was a little bit of divine conversation happening. It's hard to talk about, but I do feel like someone else was in the room. Many other people that I don't know were part of making that book and it feels very historical in that way. I think and talk a lot about carrying ancestors around, in our bodies and in just the space of us. I think Magical Negro is of that world. When you see one figure, you're also seeing a hundred others.
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé felt very full in terms of references and colors and places and people and songs. This one felt full as in, like, a heavy book. It really feels like its own kind of country, and it just felt full in a heavy way in terms of the history. There are references to slave ships, there are references to songs. A lot of phrases are repeated throughout. There's a focus on echo and repetition, if that makes sense.
What I'm experiencing is so particular to me, but also almost inevitable in a particular way. I'm trying to encapsulate what my senses are and everything that has led to them.
LJ: If you could put your finger on one thing that has evolved most about your work since Other People's Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night, what would you say that thing is?
MP: I'll actually use the words of one Jayson P. Smith who, when I first showed them some of the poems from Magical Negro, said, “Oh, so you don't care about being charming anymore.”
[Laughs] Even though, I mean, I do. But for all intents and purposes, there was a lot more of, “Okay, you didn't get that? Let me just lay my fucking body on the ground, and see if you get that.” It's like, because of all the bullshit, I have no more jokes for you. This is just what the fuck it is. I think it's not necessarily charm, but it might be seduction. I still insist there is charm, but I think I was very concerned in my first book, and then parts of my second book, about scaring people away. I really wanted to draw readers in, and that's part of the work of the Beyoncé book. It was like, “Oh look, a shiny thing!” That's what I was trying to do, almost like a bait-and-switch. There's an urgency [with this book] that doesn't allow time for any of that. There's not really space created for any kind of tricks.
That's also a part of why repetition feels important to the book. It's an insistence. I think that almost obnoxious insistence on the same thing is important to the book, and it's something that I was afraid to do in the past. I also think I would have been afraid to so blatantly and so comfortably claim my experience as valuable to everyone.
I think in my first book I was really focused on telling my story in order to articulate it for myself. There's a focus on just the self. I wrote a lot of those poems when I was in college in my early twenties. So, there is an attempt to figure out how to self-represent. I think now I feel a little bit more like I'm not the only one responsible for who I am.
I think because I'm often talking about my depression and my particular ailments that not everyone has, there's a lot of—I have a lot of pressure. I put a lot of pressure on myself to take responsibility for all of it. And I think, as these books have progressed, I'm clinging to all the other things that have made me, both good and bad. All the influences from the transatlantic slave trade to Diana Ross to my mom. I think there's a little bit more of taking a wide lens of the self and all the things that make up a world [in this book].
LJ: Yeah, yeah. For sure.
MP: And also, I’m getting older! When I read poems—not that I was ever really trying to be that cute because I'm up there with a potty mouth—but I do feel more aggressive. Less of a people pleaser, in body and in poem. And for my readers. I think that also comes with, I have readers, you know what I mean? I have readers that will go read those things. And when you're starting out, there's a pressure to not alienate anyone, but that's where my project is pretty important, that I do alienate folks, and that they keep coming back. Like, that's part of it. It's feeling alienated, but getting something out of it.
LJ: Right. And you said earlier that making the book There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé was sort of like a bait-and-switch. Like, I'm gonna give you this thing that's an entry point for you, but the book is going to be about all of these other things.
LJ: Do you feel that's how your career is functioning too? Like, “I'm gonna give you this book that was an entry point for you, but when you come to this next book expecting that same thing, it's gonna slap you in the face.”
MP: I think that has been inadvertent, but that's there, you know? And when I gave this book to [Jayson P. Smith] and they were like, “You don't care about being charming?” I was like, “Yeah, all the white women who you see reading my book on the subway, they are going to drop it like a fucking hot potato.”
Because I don't want to believe that. But it's like, “Alright, you gave me this much? Now I'm gonna keep going.” And that's in the book, that's in my career, but it's also just, like, a natural way to move, make change; “Okay, now that you're in here, lets see what we can really get done.”
I understand that that's how people work. I could never start with a Magical Negro and think that people are going to understand the nuances of how we got there. A person can come to that book first, but I think that it's important for me to just lay it out in this order to have the confidence to put out poems like this. I've really broken it down in a lot of different ways, and now this is where we are. I am thinking about the books that have been written, and I'm thinking about my career building—I'm not thinking about each project as a one-off.
LJ: What else are you excited about right now?
MP: What am I excited about? The revolution, for sure. Whenever they come, I'm excited about that. I'm excited about discovering and possibly inventing new forms, new mediums I feel like there's so many other avenues, and I'm looking forward to discovering what they are.
Leah Johnson is a writer, editor and hopeless Midwesterner currently moonlighting as a New Yorker. Leah received her MFA in fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College and is a 2018 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow. Her work—which can be found at Bustle, Electric Lit, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Establishment and elsewhere—is centered on the miracle and magic of black womanhood.