What does it mean for poetry to feel like—to be experienced as—intimate talk, as if you’re hearing from an old and trusted friend? I mean the kind of talk so many of us, introverted or otherwise, crave. What does that kind of poetry look like, sound like?
Morgan Parker grew up in San Bernardino County, spent her twenties in New York, and lives now in Los Angeles, where she writes poetry, YA fiction, and lately a screenplay adaptation of her novel Who Put This Song On? Her poems have a sensational—you feel them in your mind and your senses—mix of ferocity, humor, tenderness, genuine joy, and profound melancholy, even a fatalistic melancholy. The style is immense. Immense, but at the same time manifestly intimate-feeling. Magical Negro is her most recent collection, and you can get a glimpse of it, and of the way she calls forth a tradition, a community, while also speaking about the particular pain of living as a Black woman in America, here in the opening to “Magical Negro #217: Diana Ross Finishing a Rib in Alabama, 1990s”:
Since I thought I’d be dead
by now everything
I do is fucking perfect walking wreck
reckless and men
I suck their bones until they’re perfect
I don’t sleep with accolades I don’t get touched
in the night all men do is cry
and ask me to be their mama …
Immense: Parker’s style has the game energy of LeRoi Jones and the take-no-prisoners confidence of Amiri Baraka. The headlong nervous vitality of the New York School and the poignancy and punch of Derek Walcott. To other poems there’s an anaphoric Whitmanesque grandiosity, to still others a spare piercingness that puts me in mind of Lucille Clifton. But onto Clifton’s ageless earnestness, Parker grafts the comic timing of good stand-up. The poem I’ve just quoted ends in the icy clarity, or the dream of such clarity, about the brutal seeming-unrealness of reality:
When I think about them tasting me I don’t
I mean don’t Google my tits when you can just
Unfortunately I have a body and I’m the only
one in charge of it you know where I eat the bones too
I’m in the world I’m in the world
nobody cares where I came from
Woven into the pain is a richness of irony and transpersonal curiosity. The self is the subject of history, and also of the poem, even as the poet roves from voice and parody to litany and memorial. Another poem, for instance, is called “Let Us Now Praise Famous Magical Negroes.” And so she does. Along with Diana Ross, we hear from and about Gladys Knight, Sammy Davis Jr., Frederick Douglass’s cousins, Jesus Christ (“Magical Negro #1”), Charlie Parker, Michael Jackson, and many others. This calling up and speaking back to history, a move essential to the forward progress of humankind if we are to escape the fatalism of originalist thinking, all culminates for Parker in the final poem.
The book, I should say, opens with an epigraph from Gertrude Stein, a passage awkward (to say the least) to a modern reader’s ears, and Parker takes the key line—“It Was Summer Now and the Colored People Came Out into the Sunshine”—for the final poem’s title, turning it, after the dazzle of her style, into a triumphant kind of transhistorical coming together, and a cry of war. Famous members of the Black community step forward, or at least their features do—“The choir is led by Will Smith’s flat top.” And, as if to remind us that recognition is the ally of all articulation, “The gap in / Angela Davis’s teeth speaks to the gap in James Baldwin’s / teeth.”
JESSE NATHAN: Your writing seems to weave the present and the past together in a way that says history is never over, that says the future is always about the present as much as it is the past. How do you experience time? And how do you think about it in your writing, about the representation of time? Does a poem stop time, for a moment?
MORGAN PARKER: Does a poem stop time? Probably not. Maybe it creates room for a pause. Or it happens in between heartbeats, or something. For me, poems—and a lot of other things, for that matter—are about in-betweeness. This is what a poem does that a sentence can’t, it creates meaning in the space between lines and in the manipulation of language as we define it. Poetry doesn’t rely on the structures of tense, time, or anything else that governs. I joke to students a lot that “there’s no poetry police,” but it’s a sincere reminder. We think of poetry as rigid, ruled by trochees and tetrameters, but no authority governs a poem. Sometimes not even the writer. A poem exists in spite of its regulations, not because of it. It aims to engage directly with the logic of the senses. Poetry disregards linearity, but so do our memories. Sentences aren’t how thoughts come to us naturally, and there is no present that doesn’t carry messages from its future and its past. Everyone is influenced by what they’ve seen before and where they want to go.
In my writing I try to collapse time. It’s part of putting everything on the same plane: high and low art, pop and philosophy, comedy and tragedy, personal and political, past and present. One thing echoes another; it’s impossible not to hear an echo. I try to create juxtaposition and conversation by bringing all the echoes into the chorus. Letting the dead speak, I guess. I try to invite this into my writing process, and I try to enact that with language.
Ishmael Reed says, “Time past is time present.” That’s sort of how I feel too. I guess I experience time cumulatively, in layers, and through filters. I mean something like déjà vu, the inkling of having been here before. I think if you tilt your head the right way, the present looks like the past. A poem can be that head tilt.
I say time is fake because linearity doesn’t make sense. Every day I see history repeat for the thousandth time, in so many ways. Above my desk there’s a Baldwin quote: “A writer has to take all the risks of putting down what [they see].” I see repetition, patterns, cycles. I see the phases of the moon and I see each generation’s rebellion against the last. I see president after president after CEO looking like they could be the same guy. I see rights withheld, granted, revoked. I do not see a clear beginning to a straight line moving continuously forward. I, too, love narrative. It’s a device that helps us make sense of the in-betweeness of everything, and everything that doesn’t make sense—but it’s too neat. We are more history than we like to admit. Our chapters are not in progressive order. Evolution isn’t chronological. In the first poem of my first book, one of the final lines is this: “What do you think of the idea of progress.” I think I’m still asking that question every time I sit down to write.