Poet Morgan Parker on Why Beyoncé Is a Metaphor for Every Black Woman

Morgan Parker. Photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Things Morgan Parker thinks are more beautiful than Beyoncé: “self-awareness,” “leftover mascara in clumps,” and “the fucking sky.” Which is not to say that Parker finds her uninteresting; throughout her latest collection, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, the 28-year-old poet uses one of the world’s most famous entertainers as a device to explore what it means to be a black woman in America today.

With lines like “I try to write a text message to describe my feelings but the emoticon hands are all white” (These Are Dangerous Times, Man) or “When I drink anything out of a martini glass I feel untouched by professional and sexual rejection” (Another Another Autumn in New York) and “I am exclusively post-everything” (Poem on Beyonce’s Birthday), Parker deploys Beyonce’s voice to probe themes of sex, isolation, erasure and depression.

The Cut spoke with Parker about pop culture, the complexities of black femininity, and why she’s determined to create poetry that reflects her own experience.

Why did you decide to use Beyoncé as a metaphor? Tell me a little bit about what she means to you.

I love Beyoncé. It’s been really funny, with the title of the book, to hear people [say], “Oh, the Beyhive is going to come after you.” But I would never say anything bad about Beyoncé. I’ve been spending a lot of time with her work in the writing of this book for the past five years. When I first started working on the poems, she was this very textbook, stock pop artist, and of course she’s something very different now. She wasn’t as politicized as she is now. So it’s been really interesting to see that unfold.

In the book, Beyoncé is every black woman — she’s me, she’s you. Her name is this kind of stand-in for everything that we see and are and how folks see us. That’s why I’m able to have her at the Super Bowl, but also have her talking to my therapist; she can play all of these roles, and in that way there is this interchangeability that becomes interesting: what’s the difference between me and Beyoncé? The flexibility and slipperiness of using her name to be a stand-in for anyone was compelling to me. It’s really a way for me to get at the fact that black women are so different and can be looked at in so many different kinds of ways, and somehow by using just one name it points to that kind of multiplicity.

Your poems are so different from most of the poetry out there today. How did you get into writing poetry?

I get this question a lot, and I get a lot of pushback — like, “What is poetry? Is this poetry?” And I’m like, “Yeah, it is.” Honestly, I’m just going to say it: it’s racist. It’s racist that people think that because I’m invoking a particular pop culture [reference] that it’s kind of new or different. Poets throughout time have included visual art and music and just the stuff of their world — but that stuff was like, the room at the Met that I skipped. We think of that as high art. It’s really just white art. That’s not art that I’m looking at; that’s not art that my friends are making. If I’m going to write poetry, it has to reflect who I am and the things that are making up my world and the things that I’m consumed by.

You explore sex a lot in your poetry — particularly how it relates to the objectification of black women. Tell me about that.

One of the central themes of the book is performance and perception. I’m really interested in how people are viewed in public versus who they really are, and thinking about black female sexuality like that — the way that it’s been bought, sold, and distributed — is something I really wanted to fuss with: the difference between being labeled sexually liberated or slutty, being provocative, or being powerful and having agency. We live right on the edge of it.

There’s always some mom who wants to say that Beyoncé’s outfit is too revealing, but then, what does it mean for her to be a symbol of sexual empowerment? It’s about mythmaking, right? So, here’s the myth of the black woman and what the black woman means to the American public. It’s not really saying, “This is how I feel, listen to how I feel”; it’s more of a, “Before we even get there, please know that I know what you’re thinking — I know what you’re assuming.”

Photo: Mickalene Thomas

Mental health is another area heavily explored within your work. Can you talk a bit about why you wanted to focus on that so much?

I started going to therapy and doing meditation when I was 15. I was so embarrassed and overwhelmed by it — I hid it from all my friends. It was like, kill myself or go to therapy. That was what sort of pushed me there. I often think about how if I had heard black women talk about mental health and therapy, then I would have felt so much better. I feel like it’s my duty to create that space and eliminate the shame around it.

It’s also not surprising that it makes its way into poetry, right? I mean, Sylvia Plath existed. But it is surprising that it makes its way into poetry about black womanhood, and I think that line is unfortunate. We should be able to talk about our depression and also not have it define us. That’s what was fun about writing this book: I was having these moments of absolute, bottom-of-the-well depression, but also power and agency and fierceness and control. That’s one of the reasons that mental health is a difficult thing for black women to talk about: because we are strong. There is the myth of the strong black woman, but we also are very strong — we can get through a lot without help and without medicine. But we shouldn’t have to. Even though we know we’ll still come out on top, why suffer?

You frequently use humor in your book, even when addressing more serious topics. Why do you find it effective?

Humor is a very, very, very black tool for [dealing with] suffering, and it’s really gotten us through a hell of a lot. That’s something I’ve internalized quite a bit, especially growing up with depression and being sad most of the time. I needed to be able to laugh at the audacity of things. I already give so much seriousness, I don’t owe anyone anything or need to prove anything. Often, I’m not really laughing, but I need that to fill the space up rather than just have it be dreary. It’s about putting a little laughter in the air because the air is already so thick.

How do you hope black women will feel after reading your book?

It’s a love letter, even in all of its sadnesses and hard truths. It’s full of love for black women and everything they have been and are and will be and could be, and I want that to come across. I want them to have permission to be all of these things at once. I think so much of our existence is about rights and permission and agency being taken and taken and taken away — so much so, that we forget to take anything for ourselves. We forget that we’re allowed to do that. I just want this to be a reminder that, look, you have permission to be as dope, as fly, as beautiful, as naked, as sad, as fucked up as you want to be. I wanted it to be this invitation.

And what about Beyoncé?

In the same way that Lemonade and “Formation” have been these love letters to all of the states of black womanhood, I hope that she would see this project as a similar one. I would want her to be grateful that it’s in the world, and I would want her to laugh and not sue me. I don’t need her to love it. I wrote it for all black women, and Beyoncé is included in that.

Morgan Parker on Beyoncé and Black Womanhood