Both in person and in her poetry, Morgan Parker believes in putting everything up front. She says this makes her horrible at first dates but great at poems. Her debut collection, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night, was selected by Eileen Myles as the winner of the 2013 Gatewood Prize from Switchback Books and published in April. This past summer, shortly after Parker returned from the Cave Canem retreat for African American poets, the Poetry Foundation spoke with her about the responsibilities of editors, the fine line between exoticism and appreciation, and the pleasures of extremely long titles. The following exchange was condensed and edited.
You’re active on Twitter. This morning, you tweeted “Can you pay my bills”—a reference to the Destiny’s Child song “Bills, Bills, Bills” and a fair question. Can you talk about how, if at all, your writing on Twitter relates to your work as a poet and an editor? And, how do you pay your bills—as in, what do you do for a living? Most of us can’t survive off the profits from our poetry.
I love Twitter. It’s like a place where I tell jokes to myself, which is exactly how I think about writing poems. Maybe this is something I shouldn’t broadcast, but a lot of my poems and essays start as tweets; they start with observations, jokes, questions. Sometimes, I’ll say something to a friend or tweet something that I later realize could be delved into more. It’s like Twitter is my public notebook, a strange map of what I’m watching, considering, laughing about. To pay my bills, I’m an editor. I am, however, much like Destiny’s Child, open to someone else’s paying my bills for me. As artists, I think, we really need to talk more about how we make our money. We all have bills, most of us have student loan debt, and most publications and readings aren’t able to pay contributors and performers. Yet I think it’s absolutely important for artists, particularly black artists, to value not only life but quality life. Not only being but well-being.
That essay you wrote about finding someone to pay your bills was titled “My Dreams of Being a Feminist Housewife.” Your first book, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night, has just been released by Switchback Books, a feminist press. How did you end up at Switchback?
I landed at Switchback when I submitted to its Gatewood Prize for a first or second collection by a female-identified poet. I was a finalist with some incredible other female poets, and the contest judge, Eileen Myles, selected my book. I didn’t know a ton about Switchback when I submitted, but I felt comfortable and at home sending my work to a press that was actively soliciting and publishing work solely by women. It’s important that women and marginalized folks have a place where they can feel safe and not tokenized. Because I write so much about my identity and experiences as a black woman, tokenizing is something I’m very sensitive about. While I remain committed to my own intersectional feminist politics, I might argue that it’s less important for a press to explicitly label itself feminist (though yes, it would be great if all people/presses were comfortable doing so!) or exclusively publish women than it is for editors to commit to being inclusive. Inclusivity, by the way, is equality. It isn’t merely slapping one or two female writers onto your catalog. It’s valuing and promoting a variety of female voices.
You work as an editor at Amazon’s publishing imprint, Little A Books, and as poetry editor of the online magazine the Offing. There’s been a lot of discussion recently about publishing and privilege. What responsibilities do you see yourself having as an editor in terms of fostering diverse voices? Do you see these as responsibilities all editors share?
I take my work as an editor—as a content maker—very seriously. I absolutely think it is the responsibility of all editors to be active in showcasing diverse voices and shifting the status quo. And I mean active. Seek out women and writers of color instead of lamenting that they haven’t come to you. Besides, where’s the joy in re-publishing the same writers again and again? Literature is about conversation and exchange. I’m very thoughtful about having gender and racial balance in all the publications I work for. And honestly, it takes work. Even though I’m plugged into a rich community of writers of color and women writers, I am always seeking new voices by going to readings, asking for recommendations, scouring other literary mags. I don’t expect writers to do the work for me, and I don’t believe that my job as an editor is complete by just living in Brooklyn among other writers. Being a culturally sensitive, radical, and diverse editor means being a culturally sensitive person as well. I love this Writers of Color database that was started in response to editors’ saying they “couldn’t find any” writers of color to publish, and I’m so glad folks are seriously using it, but. I also might add that if you’re socially engaged in a literary community that isn’t diverse, that seems to be the first problem to address. It isn’t normal or acceptable to have an all-white reading lineup or an all-male panel or a non-inclusive journal. In fact, it’s boring. Demand more accountability of yourself and your audience.
Your forthcoming second collection is called There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. Can you say why you wrote about Beyoncé in particular and what role celebrities and pop culture play in your poems?
Invoking celebrities is tricky—it can come off very opportunistic and disingenuous. Or worse, it can feel random, like the celebrity’s name was just dropped into a poem about trees so that the poet can say, “Hey, I’m modern! Culture!” It absolutely depends on the cultural figure the writer is using. When I started writing Beyoncé poems, it was originally a project with a friend of mine. We decided, over a craps table in Atlantic City, to do a collaborative project inspired by Beyoncé and Lady Gaga’s collaboration with “Telephone” and “Video Phone.” I’d start with a poem in Beyoncé’s voice, and he, a white male, would start with Gaga, and then we’d switch. We never switched. Each of us had trouble inhabiting the new voices. So much of writing about pop culture demands that you consider your relationship to it and your own personhood. I use Beyoncé to write about black womanhood. I’m not using Beyoncé for the sake of Beyoncé. She’s a symbol, a mouthpiece and vessel through which I’m able to explore my own concerns and ideas about feminism, American blackness, exoticism, sexism, loneliness, and performance.
A poem of yours that I like a lot, “Let Me Handle My Business, Damn,” takes its title from the Jay Z verse of the Kanye West song “Diamonds from Sierra Leone.” I teach a college class in which part of the midterm is to pick a poem to memorize and recite. One student e-mailed that he couldn’t find one that spoke to him and asked for my recommendations, so I sent him suggestions, including this piece. He wrote back that he wanted to use your poem but had reservations. We talked about this more, and he said it was because he’s a white male and the speaker of your poem is a black female, and he didn’t want to overstep. He ended up performing it, and I was glad he did because it seems that literature should put us in the shoes of people other than ourselves, but I get his hesitation. I’m curious to hear your take on that—on reading and reciting across difference.
Wow, I love this story and this student. This is a very complicated conversation. At the risk of seeming rigid, I’d say I agree with the student’s concerns about overstepping. In so many ways, black women are already voiceless enough—isn’t it almost violent for a white male to co-opt our words? Ironically, the poem explores that. What does it look like for a black woman to handle her own business, to have agency and autonomy and, finally, power? But poems are public, and it is absolutely valuable to thoughtfully and critically engage with other identities and viewpoints. That’s why I’m happy to hear the student chose to recite the poem; it’s intriguing to consider what effect it had for him to place himself in the speaker’s perspective.
Still, there can be a delicate line between blackface or cultural appropriation and appreciation or engagement. When does celebration become exoticism? My poems are for everyone; when I publish them, I relinquish them to the world. But at the same time, my poems are for me—for my freedom and self-exploration—and they’re for other black women who understand and experience similar trauma. Though I often use humor and performance as a device, I’m not writing a sitcom or a stand-up routine. There is real, felt pain that I’m exploring and confessing in my work. The problems arise when the poems are reduced to novelty, when readers see or acknowledge only the glam and sparkle and not what is underneath.
Your poems manage to be simultaneously serious and funny. Your titles are frequently referential or citational (such as “Young, Sassy, and Black,” which calls up Nina Simone) or lengthy, such as “On Children, How I Hate Them and Want to Corrupt Them, How You Know I Hate Them, and What That Could Mean.” How do you decide what to allude to, and why do long titles appeal to you?
I love long titles. I really like the idea of putting everything out on the table up front. There’s an urgency to it—I need to say everything there is to say, immediately. It’s an impulse that makes me horrible at first dates but great at poems. The same goes for the way I often conflate and commingle serious and funny. I’m definitely the kind of person who undercuts a deep confession with a joke. I tell a lot of jokes in therapy. I laugh at myself. It’s how I process trauma, both personal and communal. As you mentioned before, pop culture plays a huge role in my poems, and references enter mostly organically, rather through a selective process. I often free associate when I write and pull from my everyday life. As a black woman in 2015, my everyday life includes a lot of media and references—names of friends and celebrities, quotes from movies, song titles, artworks, books.
People often ask me about this as a poetic device, its roots in modernism or the New York School, but it’s fundamental to hip-hop, which I see as part of my lineage as much as poetry. Rap verses are jam-packed with intricate, complicated references, names, inside jokes, wordplay. I want my poems to mimic that, to be as full as possible—full of people, of emotions, songs, voices. I don’t want to leave any emotional stone unturned, any aspect of my experience unexplored. It’s an exhausting and an exhaustive practice but one I see as my central mission as a writer: to witness, to tell my story in my own language. As a black American woman, I know that if I don’t, someone else will tell it for me and probably leave out the best parts.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...