Morgan Parker Talks Black Womanhood, Mental Health, and What We Can Learn From Queen B
When poet Morgan Parker was in grad school at New York University working on her MFA in 2010, pop star Beyoncé kept making her way into her verses. It was the era of “Video Phone” and “Telephone,” collaborations between Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, songs that also beget elaborate, cinematic music videos that ran constantly on VH1. “I was drawn to the dichotomy between the glamor and celebrity and the very deep and complex legacy of black women,” Parker says. But Beyoncé had not yet become who she is today — she was popular, but far from the peak of her career. Parker remembers thinking: “These poems are going to be really irrelevant in a year.”
Instead, Beyoncé has become arguably one of the most powerful and influential female artists of all time. She symbolizes black femininity at its most magical and most vulnerable — something Parker writes about beautifully. And Parker’s poems are far from irrelevant: They’ve appeared in places like The Paris Review, Lenny Letter, and The New York Times Magazine and caught the attention of essayist Roxane Gay, who called Parker’s work “outstanding,” and poet Terrance Hayes, who called Parker a “fearlessly forward and forward-thinking literary star.”
Parker continues to use pop culture as a lens to examine race, social justice, and gender. In “The President’s Wife,” she writes, “Sometimes I wonder/Is Beyoncé who she says she is/Will I accidentally live forever/And be sentenced to smile at men/I wish were dead.” The poem ends with a question: “What’s it like to be first at anything”?
In Parker’s second collection, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, out from Tin House Books on February 14, she draws a stark contrast between black female celebrity and white female celebrity, using Beyoncé and Lady Gaga as foils, while also contemplating life as a black woman struggling with depression and anxiety. I caught up with Parker to talk about how the new collection came together:
Mother Jones: How did you start building poetry around Beyoncé?
Morgan Parker: In grad school, a friend and I gave ourselves the task of writing poems in the voice of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga after they did the collaboration for “Telephone.” I just kind of kept going. That was quite a while ago — Beyoncé meant something very different then than she does now. At the time, I think Lady Gaga was more popular than Beyoncé. I remember thinking, these poems are going to be really irrelevant in a year.
It’s been interesting to look back on those works and see all the things that Beyoncé has done and become for us in the meantime, because back then, folks were like, “Why Beyoncé? I don’t get why she is kind of the symbol for black womanhood.” There was something about her that felt like a vessel, I guess, that I could kind of impose all of these feelings and thoughts onto. I was drawn to a little bit of a dichotomy between the glamor and celebrity and the very deep and complex legacy of black women, and what that means in terms of performance. The ways that we have been on display, the ways that we have performed on behalf of other folks with comfort. I liked the idea of using this mega-star to talk about all those things on the tiny scale of my life.
“There was something about [Beyoncé] that felt like a vessel, I guess, that I could kind of impose all of these feelings and thoughts onto.”
MJ: What do you mean by the title: There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé?
MP: That’s a question I could spend about 30 minutes answering. I also don’t want to narrow down the interpretation for readers — there are so many ways to read the sentence, and all of them are applicable. I guess the only thing I’d say is it shouldn’t be read as “Beyoncé is not beautiful.”
MJ: What’s your writing process like?
MP: I always say that my artist statement is to not be afraid to talk about the messiness — the unpleasant feelings and happenings around my life. I also try to convey what it feels like and sounds like and smells like and looks like inside of my particular skin, to move through the world as a black American woman in her mid-twenties. Language from songs and TV shows feel integral because it helps to create the environment and describe the full picture.
I spent a lot of time trying to layer upon layer upon layer as I wrote. I think that’s often the fear of a writer, that little nuances won’t get picked up. I also think that that fear came from, “Okay, I’m going to have Beyoncé in the title, and people are just going to think, it’s Beyoncé poems. It’s light and fun.” I was kind of super-conscious of that. It’s kind of like this weird trick I’m playing, where you’re like, “What an interesting, fun cover, and then the name Beyoncé.” Then you open it, and it’s just about my depression. All of it belongs together.
MJ: Mental health is a theme in the book. Do you feel like it’s harder for a black woman to get mental healthcare or to even seek it out?
MP: Yeah, absolutely. I struggle with depression and anxiety, and I have since I was a teenager. I spent a good chunk of time being very ashamed of that. Now I feel committed to talking about it and trying to normalize it as much as I can. There’s so much about the strong black woman stereotype that makes us forget that we do need and deserve help and care.
“There’s so much about the strong black woman stereotype that makes us forget that we do need and deserve help and care.”
It’s hard for black women to ask for help. We think we don’t need it. We’re used to being in pain and living with it. It’s always hard for me to find a therapist who is a black woman or even a woman of color. It’s something that we’ve always been told is not for us. It’s top down. I don’t think that there are as many black women or women of color becoming psychiatrists, so we can’t find them and then we feel looked at and studied and that’s part of what is damaging to us. It’s hard to find therapy that is actually a tool for your own liberation. I think we can be really distrustful.
MJ: I felt like a lot of the poems strike this balance of being vulnerable but unflinching. When you’re writing something so personal, do you ever feel like you need to prepare yourself for it to come out?
MP: It’s something that I’m still working on. It never gets easier. So much of my writing process is trying to eliminate any kind of shame or fear of the thoughts that I’m having. Where I would usually backspace, I stop and say, “You know what? This is important, that I say how I feel and don’t sugarcoat it, and don’t avoid it.” In my experience when I do try to avoid something, it makes its way into the work anyway. To be in front of it and just make friends with it is easier for me.
MJ: It’s going to come out whether you consciously want it to or not.
MP: Totally. After a while, being so honest and so vulnerable on the page ends up affecting my own kind of self possession in the world, because I am not afraid of myself and my own thoughts. I think so much of being a woman, of being a social being, of being polite, is quieting those thoughts. There’s so much we try not to say as we go through the day. There’s a lot of tempering and self-editing. It is a relief to make writing that space where I don’t need to do that.
MJ: It does; as a woman who struggles with that, it’s really awesome to read. In thinking about your first poem, “All They Want Is My Money My Pussy My Blood” — do you think black women in America today can truly be free?
MP: Yes, I do. I think that we need to make it our goal to define freedom for ourselves. So much of the world and the systems that we live within are made to keep us from feeling like we’re free. The way that black women in America came to be is just diametrically opposed to being free.
We kind of have to rewrite our own stories and our own ways of being free. Sometimes it’s just rejecting stereotypes, sometimes it’s creating work. Sometimes it’s just blocking out the noise.
MJ: I keep hearing people say the most beautiful art comes out of some of the darkest times for equality. Do you think that that is true?
MP: Absolutely. Art movements are always linked to some kind of turmoil. We can look at history and see that [political turmoil is] fertile ground for art. I also think that it gives artists something, a way of kind of processing. My friends and I have all been super motivated to work and to do the work that we need to and want to and think should be in the world. Hard times are really a fire under your ass to prioritize and think, “Okay, how can I challenge myself to put something in the world that wasn’t there that can reach other folks and help them to process?”
MJ: The Mickalene Thomas cover art is striking. How did you choose it?
MP: Mickalene is an artist that I have admired for a long time. So much of her work inspires me — I spend time looking at her work when I’m writing. I feel like we’re working toward the same themes, and I see our work in conversation, whether we know it or not. I contacted her to ask if she would be interested in licensing something, and she ended up reading the book and creating some original work for it.
The book is quite complex, and I was worried that it would be marketed as one-sided or flat, and I knew that Mickalene’s work would be able to encompass all the many states of being that are in the book. I wanted it to be colorful. I wanted it to be evocative. I wanted a figure of a black woman that the reader has to confront.
MJ: I don’t think anyone could accuse this of being a flat piece of work — I feel like I need to read it four or five times to fully absorb all of it.
MJ: What are you hoping people take away from this collection of poetry or gain from it?
MP: I think often if people don’t have a lot of experience with a particular type of person or a particular type of brain, they can make dangerous assumptions. That’s one of the reasons that I’m so interested in contradicting and troubling held thoughts about black women.
I don’t claim to say, “All black women are like me,” because they’re not. One type of black woman can exist, but also another kind can exist. I also really hope that people feel permission to talk about their own troubles, but also to celebrate themselves. Sometimes I feel as though I’m trying to take a hit for the team so that other people then can move forward. I’m like, “Look, I just laid out all of my stuff, so what’s the worst that can happen?”
“If people don’t have a lot of experience with a particular type of person or a particular type of brain, they can make dangerous assumptions.”
MJ: I saw your tweet that said you dreamt about “futurism, fascism, and the obsession with linear time.” What’s that about?
MP: Since the election, I’ve been thinking about a lot of theory. Lots of Foucault and Marx, thinking about different systems, thinking about power. Trying to figure out what I can take and learn from history as a tool for getting through whatever is happening right now, which feels very significant and major. There’s something about us using the word fascism and thinking about, “What is it? What does it mean, and what are the tenets of it?” I’ve been thinking a lot about folks denying what has happened in history, or just not acknowledging it. I think there’s something that’s fascist, and something that I think we could probably learn from, in terms of the energy in the world right now.
MJ: What are you reading right now?
MP: I’m working on a young adult novel. I’ve been working on it for a while, because I don’t know how to write a novel and I’m teaching myself. For that reason, I’ve been reading a lot of YA, which I never have before. It’s totally new to me. I’m not reading any kind of fantasy or Hunger Games or anything like that. It’s more just like geeks with crushes. It’s very sweet, and I’m enjoying how honest they are, and I’m enjoying the humanity in them. I’m reading one right now that is about a girl with OCD and she just joined a secret poetry club. Obviously, I’m loving it.
MJ: It sounds like it was written for you.
MP: I know, right?∎