“What we think about as beautiful is so painfully limited.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
You’ve written an intensely personal book. Are you experiencing this phenomenon of people knowing intimate details about you without you knowing them at all?
Oh, totally. That part is really funny because I remain lonely. It doesn't do anything about that. When people come up to me, they're like, "Morgan, it's me! I tweeted at you once!" They feel super close to me, and I'm just like, "I don't know who you are." I feel bad.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's very real.
I like that. I think it's definitely weird, but—I struggle a little bit with being so open and so myself in the text, so that feels like validation of some kind. Because it's painful for me sometimes, and it's awkward, and it’s not about putting my best foot forward. So there is a silver lining to that. And it feels like a public service. I am spiritually getting something by being so open, but I'm not getting any dates or anything. But I do feel like it pushes the boundaries of what we feel like we're allowed to say and advocating for that has been really rewarding.
There's an intense fallibility to the speaker, which makes them seem more three-dimensional.
Right. Right. I was doing an interview once where someone asked me about pessimism, and I was like, "I don't really think that's what's happening. I think it's realist, but—" Actually, when I was ordering my first book my goal was to make it get increasingly more sad. And it ends in the bottom of a creek. That was what I wanted. With There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé, there is a loss that occurs through the narrative of the book, but I do think that there is a kind of success in the end. It's not overblown or overdramatized, but I do think that the speaker comes out okay. And in her comfort with her fallibility lies her heroism.
That's a really smart way to say that. A comfort with fallibility is a kind of heroism. I was just talking with Adrian Matejka for Divedapper, and he told me that his poems didn't really get good until he stopped trying to make himself the hero. And I feel like that's something that every good poet realizes at some point. They realize that a poem isn't an OkCupid profile where you're trying to get the reader to fall in love with how great you are.
For sure. I've never been good at those profiles anyway.
Haha! Me neither.
I don't do dating apps anymore, but once upon a time I did. It really was this weird thing where my friends would rewrite my profile. They'd be like, "Morgan, don't say this! You're supposed to leave out these things." I'm just not good at that. I'm like, "What's the point? Someone's going to find out eventually." I'm not good at the slow reveal of self. It's funny, I remember showing some of my newer poems to Jayson Smith, and they were like, "Oh my God, you're not interested in being charming anymore." And I was like, "Yeah, I guess not." It felt a little like a marker, you know?
Yeah. What do you think did that? Was it an internal impetus that moved you there, or was it an external thing?
I think it's a little bit of both. It's just like a kind of fed-upness that puts way more urgency into the work. I've always wanted to write work that's urgent. When I think about my manuscripts—the first is very inward, the second looks at the people around the self, and these newer poems take an even further step back and survey an even larger swath of people. You can kind of be harsher when it's more outward. That's part of it, but there's also anger. I feel like I'm generally writing around the same themes, and I'm really frustrated with not being heard. I think part of it comes from writing multiple books and still feeling like certain things haven't been picked up on. So, now I'm kind of like, "Let me just say it plainer for you. I'm not going to even bother making it funny, or making it full of glitter, or distracting you with Beyoncé's name. Let me just get to the point because I'm going to die." That's kind of how it is.
Well, in the first poem of the book, "All They Want is My Money My Pussy My Blood," you have that line, "I do whatever I want because I could die any minute." And that speaks to the urgency that you're talking about. It seems like a mission statement.
Totally. First of all, it felt hilarious and second of all, it felt important to put that poem in the front as this ars poetica / mission statement for what you're about to enter. It's kind of like, "Keep all these things in the back of your mind. While you're entertained, while you're going through this journey, just remember that I could die any minute. And here are these young Black people that don't understand that they are people. Just hold these truths in your mind as you're reading." I didn't feel like that poem could just be scattered among the rest of the poems.
It does this work of inertia just in organizing the manuscript, too. I think it's a little different than the typical first poem of a book, where instead of slithering you into the poems' themes, it kind of shoots you out of a cannon. It's a fast poem that covers a lot of ground in a fairly tight space.
Right. That's pretty much my problem with the OkCupid thing. “Here's what it is! And maybe I'll go backwards and seduce you a little bit, but just so you know, here's really what the deal is."
Yeah, that's great! I've talked about this before, but my fiancé talks to me about how, when a woman poet makes a list or makes a catalogue, it's a sort of rejection of this idea that women are not meant to take up very much space—physically, but also socially, psychologically, and vocally.
And a list poem sort of flies in the face of that idea. It's a way for women poets to assert their right to space.
Yeah, for sure.
This first poem, and also your poem "99 Problems" made me think of that. It's this way of stretching your legs out.
Yeah. I really think about it in terms of insisting, insistency. I think that is the one thing that women aren't supposed to do. You can assert, and you can imply, but you can never insist. You can never be pushy. So there's something about repetition and insistence that felt important in this book. Where it feels like déjà vu, where it feels like an echo, that is the point. It feels like that to me, too. And I think that that is something we're trained not to do. Like, "If you said it, be quiet, they didn't hear you, okay you lost your chance." I think there is something subversive about reminding and insisting and being repetitive about something.
Totally. There are examples of this throughout the book, but the one that jumped out to me immediately when you started talking about that is "13 Ways of Looking at a Black Girl," where the word 'sex' just reappears every four or five words. That's not the only instance in the book where the repetition works in the ways you're describing, but that was one that struck me as particularly telling. You list Erykah Badu, and Queen Latifah, and Nikki Giovanni, but then you have the word 'sex' and the word 'dead,' and these words keep infringing upon the space of these Black women.
Yeah. There are all these actual physical bodies and then there are words around these bodies. With a lot of the words I used, like 'bitch,' or 'kitchen,' or 'mama,' I was thinking about the fact that they are different depending on who is saying them. They can be menacing or intimate. In that poem, I really wanted to point to the language that is around us and how it is either violent or comforting based on who is uttering it. And I was worried that the choice to repeat 'sex' thirteen times was too obvious, but nothing is too obvious.
I worried a little bit about being too obvious in this book, but it's really beside the point, especially because I feel like all of the stereotypical things that happen to me as a Black woman are so obvious, so cliché. This is ridiculous. How am I still dealing with this very cliché thing of like, getting called the other Black girl's name, and shit like that? That’s passé. And that's also another thing about being a woman—we're told to be subtle and very strategic in the way that we're presenting our case. It has to be super smart. And you almost have to be two, three, four steps ahead of the male reader. But I was like, "What harm is it going to do to state the obvious?" And there was a little bit of joy and freedom in doing that.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's fascinating. You invoke Beyoncé in the title of the book and it's almost this way to bait people who otherwise wouldn't be having the kinds of conversations that this book asks them to have.
It doesn't strike me as really being a book about Beyoncé.
Oh, no way. Yeah.
But it's almost like an eye-catching link on a website, you know? Like, "You won't believe that this woman wrote a book of poems about Beyoncé," and then you read the article and it's talking about things like being a Black woman in America, or mental health, you know what I mean?
For sure. I definitely beefed up my marketing and PR chops in the packaging of the book. I was thinking about just being really strategic and businesslike about it, even though it’s poetry. I wasn't thinking about press or strategy while I was writing the poems; I was just trying to be as honest as possible and make myself laugh. I had some friends who were like, "Maybe it should just be called More Beautiful Things." And I was like, "No, I might as well just play it up and maybe people who don't read poetry will read poetry." They'll see it on the shelf and be like, "Oh interesting!" and "Cool cover!" And then they'll open it and it's just about my depression. That sort of trick feels important and funny to me. It's almost like there's a little bit of control in it. I know how we are received as poets, as women, as Black women, and like, all the things you could do to essentialize me—what if I just preempt them?
Yeah, totally. And Beyoncé becomes this embodiment of multiplicity.
Absolutely. And obviously there're a lot of other names in here: my name, celebrities' names, friends' names. So, it's full. But also I think that if you use a stand-in, it's almost easier to represent multiplicity. Like, if it's a bunch of Beyoncés rather than, "Look, all of these different women." And so I kind of wanted to get at that. We know that we're all different people. We're all special snowflakes, but I think there's something about having all those split people in one body that felt important. And I also think that's part of it—like, okay if we're all different, then it's like you have the Erykah Badu type, then you have the Queen Latifah type. And I think that we all get pushed into these little roles. What if you feel like both? What does that do? There's something about putting Beyoncé in place of all the things. Not only does it force you to reckon with whatever held notions you had about who Beyoncé is or the type she is, but it also takes that back to the self and you're able to think, "Okay, wait. I am also a lot of things. This makes sense." And that’s something about myself that I've always been kind of afraid of and that I've struggled with.
How do you mean?
I've always felt very splintered and resistant to labels in a weird way. Almost resisting them so much that I have all of them. And that can feel a little bit isolating. It can feel wrong. Growing up, I was like, "Wait, the Black kids don't like me, the white kids don't like me. I'm Black, but I like skateboarding and punk." I've always been afraid of the contradictions in myself and so I wanted a space to honor and celebrate that, and to also point out that it's normal. And it's weird that we do talk about people in these compartmentalized ways. So, the book is really an exercise in that. Like, why can't this woman be feeling herself one minute while walking down the street and looking great, but then also weeping in a bathtub? They both have to be true. Otherwise, I'm insane. That is really what it is.
Totally, totally. This is something that I talk with young poets and students about. Reading a poem where the speaker is just hitting one note is like listening to a song that only plays one note. It's not that compelling to just be sad in a poem. Or to just be King Shit in a poem.
Yeah. That's just not true. We think that it's true because often we approach poetry as isolating one thing. And I want to think more about isolating a moment and all of the many things in that moment.
So many great poems that focus on a single moment deal with both the extreme rush of emotion and also the billion extraneous details. I think that one of the great figures that looms over this book is Frank O'Hara. You're not just thinking about the day Lady died, you're also stopping into a shop and seeing what the Ghanaian poets are up to, you know what I mean? You're doing all of these things at once.
Yeah. It kind of reminds me of when something bad happens and people on Facebook are like, "How can you be posting about this, when this bad thing is happening?" And it's like, "Wait, but they're both happening!" The fact that we think that we have to pick a thing is really stressful.
A really particular and stressful truth about modern living is that we feel like we have to pick one cause—and Black women know that more than anyone. Like, we have to choose between a pussy hat and a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. It almost feels like sacrilege to be like, "Yeah, I'm sad about the day Lady died, but also maybe my mom texted me something funny. Maybe I had a really good time with a friend." And both can be true.
Yeah, and now it would be a thing where O'Hara would post The New York Times obituary and he'd also post about all the other things that happened in that day, and people would get in the comments and yell at him about posting the other things.
Haha! "How could you post a picture of puppies?!"
Haha, yeah! "Well, I also saw puppies today and they were great!"
"And that was nice for a minute!"
And all that to say that I think this book really gets at that. Which is maybe another way of saying what we were talking about earlier—about not casting oneself as the infallible hero who is always thinking and doing the right things. Who has the correct emotional response to every stimulus.
Right. That's just a setup for failure. You're never going to do that. I feel like part of what I was trying to do was remove some of the guilt that we have for that. We feel ashamed that we're sad all day about whatever and then we go home and we're dancing in our apartment. We shouldn't feel bad about that. Because it's regular. And it doesn't mean that you care less. We don’t have to only care about five things and then everything else is out the window.
Yeah. When you go to a funeral and you see children running around the house, it's because they haven't been socialized yet to think that they're only allowed to be feeling the one emotion.
Exactly. And emotions take time. They come at weird moments. Everything could be going wonderfully, but then I'm thinking about Fred Hampton. All of those things exist at once.
Yeah. Yeah. You've referenced a couple times that you're working on some new stuff. Do you want to talk about the direction that those poems are taking?
Yeah, you've probably seen a lot of my newer things. Books take a long time, as you know, so there's overlap where people were like, "Oh, I was expecting this poem to be in this book." And I'm like, "Yeah, I know, but you can only put so many in one book."
So, I have a lot of poems that have been published for a while that belong to this new project, which I'm tentatively calling Magical Negro. And it's all the same shit. It's a lot of anger, fear, and loneliness. It's femininity and sexuality. And it's super racially charged. It's blunt. I'm finding the poems to be less lyrical and more an exercise in stretching a sentence.
Yeah. And that probably doesn't describe all of them. It's the same vein, but instead of focusing in on Beyoncé—I guess it spans time a little bit more than looking around at the contemporary moment. It takes a wider view. One thing I think a lot about is how time is not real. And I also think a lot about repetition and déjà vu. So, it kind of engages with that in terms of asking, "What are the things that led us here, and how can we learn from that, and how exhausting is it that it's literally the same?" So, there's some of that. I don't know. Yeah, it's less charming I guess.
I studied anthropology in college and it's always been very helpful and indicative of the way that I think and write. So, there's a cataloguing that happens. And documentation. And thinking about Magical Negro—so I have like "Magical Negro Number whatever," so it's kind of like a cataloguing of people, and types, and moments. And then I'm also thinking about like, "What if there were field notes and definitions?" Like, "What does Matt mean?" Things like that. I'm thinking about creating this guidebook. Where There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé is a guidebook to the modern day Black woman in different spaces and in different mindsets, this new book is more like, "What are the things around her and throughout time?"
Oh, that's a cool way of thinking about it. Your talking about guidebooks makes me think of Doug Powell and Useless Landscape. And I think that there are a lot of similarities between those poems too, in the way that they have very fallible speakers, and how those speakers are often self-flagellating, but also critical of the world at large.
Yeah, but that makes the speaker so likable.
Yeah, absolutely. Much more likeable than the woefully misunderstood by the universe, glorious scumbag speaker.
But everything about them is beautiful, everything else is just damaged, you know?
What we think about as beautiful is so painfully limited. That's one thing I wanted to explore in this book that I'm pushing even further now. Pushing the kind of perverse, and the gross, and the ugly, and the uncomfortable as beauty as well. And also just allowing space to let pain be there amongst the beauty and amongst celebration. And not being afraid. Not running from the thing, but running into the garbage fire of America and ourselves. Let's see what we can learn.
Interview Posted: August 21, 2017
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