When I called to talk with Morgan Parker about her formidably titled and thoroughly excellent new book of poems, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, I accused her of being "cool" and "poetry-famous." Not only because she was drinking a glass of wine at the Soho Grand Hotel in New York City at the time, but also because of her recent successes in the field.
In the last few years, she has published in poetry's most prestigious magazines, she has received high-profile write-ups in places like New York magazine, Mother Jones, and Nylon, and her work is already being anthologized.
But she laughed me off. "That doesn't mean I'm cool!" Parker said. "Being poetry-famous? That's actually the opposite of cool!"
She's right. Being poetry-famous might get you a free glass of pink wine from another poet every once in a while. Being Beyoncé gets you a whole Beyhive of people scrutinizing your every move.
In her book, Parker uses Beyoncé's hyper-visibility to explore the many facets of black womanhood. The poems are melancholy, highly allusive, formally various, tonally dramatic, introspective, vulnerable, and just plain good.
There are so many persona poems in here. So much building up and breaking down of selves. Are you obsessed with the self?
I went through so many therapists just trying to figure out what an authentic self is, what perception is, what "performance of self" is. I love theory, and so I'm very in my head about how we interact socially, how we construct ourselves and our minds.
And I'm obsessed with being a new self all the time, like every single minute. And that's very true in the book, where I'm moving in between a lot of things that can all be true at once. It's the least static thing in the world, the self.
I noticed a pattern of speakers embracing various things that define their personal blackness in one poem, but then the next poem will present a speaker feeling melancholy about those same things being used as stereotypes and as the basis for violence.
Yeah, a major theme in the book is performance. And I think a lot about this weird thing where you're performing, but you know that you are. You know how the viewer is seeing you, and you kind of use it to your advantage, but at the same time you know it's painful to do that.
That's super-particular to black womanhood. We're not starting from zero. We're starting from negative 100. Because when we're born, we're born into all of these stereotypes and expectations and dangerous histories.
So in order to find ourselves and connect with our own identities, we first have to break all that shit down. Then we're left with the question of who we actually are. That's a constant negotiation for black women, and in the book I wanted to focus on that practice. I want to be myself, but who is that? And how do I know that I'm building that self or if I'm just internalizing some shit I've been told since I was born?
Building and maintaining the self is a constant struggle.
It's this whole hamster wheel of not being able to hang on to authenticity because there's so much outside noise and so much history that we're taking in—it kind of feels like you can get close to feeling empowered but you can never quite grasp it. I'm using Beyoncé as a figure for that feeling, which happens in a lot of black women but is easy to see in a celebrity.
At the end of the poem "Please Wait (Or, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé)," you set up the idea of having an authentic self as the thing that's more beautiful than Beyoncé. But is it even possible to inhabit an "authentic self"?
It happens momentarily. There are so many moments in the book where I find it, but then it goes away. And I think awareness of that cycle and that process is valuable to the speaker, as is becoming okay with the fact that the empowering moment will pass but then you'll find it again.
This book seems to be about beauty just as much as it is about Beyoncé. What did you learn about beauty while writing this book?
The things I like to explore in my poems—always—are the small things in life that are beautiful but that we don't think about. So, like, chicken boxes in the street that have grease on them.
A gin-soaked olive.
Exactly. I think, "What is more real and present in my life right now: Beyoncé or an olive soaked in gin?" I'll see an olive soaked in gin today; I will not see Beyoncé today.
The title means so many different things, but that's one I don't usually talk about: How can we find what's beautiful to us and in our lives and not have to create this fictionalized—I don't know—white whale of beauty?
I also just wanted to talk about femininity and blackness and all the ways that I am made to feel not-beautiful. So it's about beauty as much as it is about ugliness and pain. I wanted those ideas to sit right next to each other.
I don't think there's a scrap of beauty in this book that isn't bleeding, loaded down with the legacy of slavery.
You have to look in the face of horror in order to find beauty. I think that's part of what I found while writing the book. I'm not going to sit here and say, "This sunflower is beautiful and pure." Nothing is beautiful and pure—this is America!
The book is full of so many different references to other art. You've got Carrie Mae Weems, Beyoncé, Jay Z, Nelly, Wallace Stevens, W.B. Yeats, Peanut Butter Wolf, Gwendolyn Brooks. Were there other writers or influences working secretly behind the scenes?
Frank O'Hara, always, is on my shoulder. Lucille Clifton. A little bit of Patricia Smith. My homies—Angel Nafis, Danez Smith. But, honestly, I was thinking less of writers and more about music and visual art in this book.
I was looking at a lot of Wangechi Mutu, Lorna Simpson, Jean-Michel Basquiat. I was listening to a lot of Diana Ross, Ella Fitzgerald, and also a lot of bossa nova jazz, as I do. And movies! I wanted the book to be super-visual. I wanted it to have this crazy soundtrack. So I consumed a lot on purpose because I wanted all of it to be filtered out in the words. Oh, and Nicki Minaj! She's important.
When you're pulling from these sources, were you pulling from moments in the art that reminded you of yourself?
This is what's so tricky about the book. Obviously it's very personal to me, but I'm also trying to create and honor a bunch of other people. I'm trying to build this multiplicity of black womanhood. So those moments I selected remind me of either me, or my cousin, or my friend, or my mom, or someone I once was or always wanted to be—anything that felt familiar and relevant.
I think of the book as a bucket of things that I find related somehow. Not everything I include is my favorite shit. I put in a lot of it in order to represent the dynamism of who we can be. I think it would be a shame if I cited only rappers and hiphop artists but not Mad Men. That wouldn't seem fair, and it wouldn't be true to me! Part of the book is putting those different things side by side and saying, "So what? This is all correct."