Where do we start? Morgan Parker asks. We are sitting in June on Court Street on a Saturday night in early February, it’s loud, and we’re drinking. “I’m a 29-year-old, five foot tall, single black woman.” She lives in Bed-Stuy with her beloved miniature poodle, Braeburn. He’s named after a variety of apple—Parker is really into apples. “A lot of my friends here thought my middle name was Apple,” she says. “It isn’t.” Instead, the fruit is “a kind of totem”: an apple was her first tattoo, @morganapple is her Twitter handle. She tells me people give her “random apple stuff,” the types of gifts teachers receive from students.
We’re there to talk about her second collection of poetry, There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé, out from Tin House this month, and we do. We talk about a whole lot of other things besides. We keep ordering more red wine.
“I’m basically an old man,” Parker says. We’re talking about jazz now—she listens to a lot of jazz. “My interior is whatever, sassy black woman, my aesthetic,” she gestures to her outfit (she favors boldly patterned suits) “is old man smoking in a jacket in a chair.” We talk about where she’s from—southern California, San Bernardino—and what she’s doing now—editing Amazon’s literary journal, Day One, and books at its imprint, Little A. “Publishing is, dare I say,” (she does), “awful.” We talk about the truly immense list of her ongoing projects—it takes up three pages in my notebook—an eleven-city book tour, two reading series (“Reparations, Live!” and “Poets With Attitude”), a YA novel, an informal service she calls “Therapist Yelp,” a formal relationship she calls “Mom of Braeburn,” writing more essays, finishing her second book of poems, her work as an editor.
Parker is tired of New York. Parker dreams of California. “If I told my fifteen-year-old self” about her life at 29, she reflects, “she would be thrilled.” Parker grew up in a “super white suburban area,” all gated communities. When she was a teenager all she could think was—“can’t wait to get out of the suburbs.” She did: arriving in New York for undergrad at Columbia (where she graduated in 2010) and not really leaving since. Parker’s been in Brooklyn since 2011. As she’s looked back at her old journals, she’s realized, “I’ve actually done the stuff I wanted to do.”
I get this too; I’m nodding a lot at this point in the evening. Parker got her MFA at NYU (graduating in 2012), published two books, made a career writing and editing, and continues to host and organize literary events. She’s also one of the most (deservedly) buzzed about poets in New York. “But it doesn’t feel like I’m living the dream,” she says. This isn’t a condemnation, just reality. “It feels like life.”
Parker dreams about what a more simple life might look like—California represents that—but has almost no desire to cut back on the number of things she does. “I can’t imagine not doing a little bit of it all.”
There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé has gotten more press than I usually see for books of poetry. In part it’s because Parker is magnetic to watch, to listen to: she’d make a compelling interview subject even if she were selling lumber. In part it’s because Beyoncé is in the title, and Beyoncé. But the book really is that good. My advance copy is full of dog-eared pages. I read it all the way back in August while waiting in line to get fingerprinted by the Department of Education and it was a perfect companion.
“O Beyoncé I love you” goes the poem “Slouching Toward Beyoncé,” “your fragments like a map. / I think I am addicted.” This, I underline.
“I have hated poetry for all of my life,” Parker tells me. “I knew I wanted to be a writer at age nine. I loved how it felt to write, to articulate what was in my head in a beautiful way.” She remembers how angry she got when, after being sent to arts camp, she once got assigned to the poetry class. She called her parents crying. (“My parents love telling that story.”) But this reaction was a logical one: “All the poems taught in high school are horrible,” she says. “What does Robert Frost have to do with me? I don’t even know what a pasture is.” Poetry changed, it clicked, when she realized “I could do whatever I wanted.”
The Beyoncé poems started in 2011, while Parker was in grad school. She’d get comments back from her workshops asking: why her? Why Beyoncé? It took her a while to find the answer. “This is the figure I need,” she realized, to do the “hella hella serious, dire truth telling about America and glitter, champagne and goofing off.” The Beyoncé of Parker’s poems is a vessel, “this catch-all where all these representations of black womanhood can go in and take shape.”
The book in its way is a kind of catch-all. Morgan’s poems are as fluent in contemporary culture as they are lyrical, funny, sad, angry. Parker tells me she was an anthropology major at Columbia. “I really wanted to watch The Bernie Mac Show then read Foucault,” she says. “That’s my aesthetic. That’s my praxis.”
In Parker’s poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Black Girl,” Beyoncé appears alongside names—Michelle Obama, Nene Leakes—and descriptors—“at risk,” “nappy,” “flawless,” “hotep,” “chickenhead,” “diva,” “slut,” and “sex,” which itself repeats thirteen times. Like Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” the poem sketches out a portrait of black girlhood with heartbreaking efficiency: to outline human life by revealing its constraints. It ends with “Felicia loud lost.”
“What would it be like if I put Beyoncé in this place where I’ve been?” Parker asks. “What if I was Bey?” In part, this question poses both “What is it like to be Beyoncé?” and “What is it like to be me?” In part, it also asks about mental health. “I have anxiety disorder and depression,” she tells me. “I can’t stop talking about it. I’m going to drop into any conversation I’m having that I’m in therapy and that I’m taking medicine.” When she wrote down the title for the poem “Beyoncé, Touring in Asia, Breaks Down in a White Tee,” “I was like, ain’t that the truth.” The next poem in the book, called “What Beyoncé Won’t Say on a Shrink’s Couch,” goes
what if I said I’m tired
and they heard wrong
said sing it
“I can hear Bey saying ‘I’m tired,’” Parker says, not as an act of failure but as one of bravery, of honesty. Parker is writing against how “our pain, our beauty, becomes a currency.”
But what about the Beyhive? “The title is not Bey Is Ugly,” she insists. “It’s not Rihanna Is More Beautiful than Beyoncé.” So what are the things that are more beautiful than Beyoncé? The answers are in the titular poem. “Education,” Parker says, recalling them. “Lavender. The fucking sky.” Even Beyoncé would agree with that list, Parker insists. And really, “How dope is it that Bey is beautiful? That all this other shit is beautiful?” We agree, and order more wine.