Allow Morgan Parker to reintroduce herself. Months ahead of the reissue of her out-of-print 2015 poetry collection, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night (Tin House, July), she is reflecting on how far she’s come and where she’s going next. “It’ll be interesting to know how folks come to my work—if they’ve read my other books and are returning to Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night or if this is their first introduction,” she says. “Because as an introduction to me, that’s not me anymore.”
Parker, who is a 2012 Cave Canem graduate fellow, winner of a 2019 National Book Critics Circle award for her sophomore collection Magical Negro, and recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, is known for effortlessly fusing poetry and pop culture, particularly as it relates to Black womanhood. Her previous two poetry collections, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé and Magical Negro, sold more than 45,000 prints units combined, according to Tin House. Thanks in part to those strong numbers, and to the fact that Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night is difficult to find and tends to sell for notable amounts of money when found, the indie press decided to reissue the title—this time with a new introduction written by poet Danez Smith.
Parker’s strong sales are just part of the equation though, says Tin House publisher Craig Popelars. He notes that, since the original publication of Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night, she “has become an important, dynamic, and beloved voice within and far beyond the poetry community,”
The collection exists almost as a pop culture time capsule, with commentary on reality shows (the Real Housewives and Real World franchises in particular), rap (creative takes on Jay-Z’s iconic “Jigga What, Jigga Who” and “Girls, Girls, Girls”), Black femininity, grandmothers, Gwendolyn Brooks, and more. “I was just trying to have fun with it, make jokes and not follow the exact rules. Like, let’s see what happens if I made a sestina with the Real Housewives,” Parker says. “You can see what I was up to at the time, what I was watching, what I was drinking, and what I was listening to. Even now, I don’t watch the Housewives anymore, but I also know that that world is important to my work because it’s the world that I live in.”
Indeed, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night is of a particular time and place—the early 2010s in New York City, to be exact. It began as Parker’s thesis at NYU and would go on to be selected by Eileen Myles for Switchback Books’ 2013 Gatewood Prize. In a blurb for the collection, Myles said, “I can and have read Morgan Parker’s poems over and over. They make me high and think like this; her mind and her thoughts can go anywhere in a poem.”
Speaking via phone from her Los Angeles apartment, Parker says, “There’s more variation of forms in this book than any of my others. I don’t know that anyone else would see that, but I can definitely see that. I can feel the community and workshop vibe more than my other work. It reminds me of people, and places, and times, and bars. I don’t live in New York anymore, so that’s a big part of it. It feels so much like a little relic to me. It is a time I was trying to create a space for myself in Poetry with a capital P, and I didn’t yet believe that it existed. And I would go on to get pushback on that.”
According to Parker, people have only recently stopped questioning whether her work is “real” poetry. In a 2017 interview with The Cut, she said, “It’s racist that people think that because I’m invoking a particular pop culture [reference] that it’s kind of new or different.... 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.”
Today, Parker isn’t seeking permission from anyone but herself. Her YA debut, Who Put This Song On?, was released in March by Random House, and she’s currently working on her fifth book—an essay collection coming from One World. That book is “taking a long time,” she says. “It’s a different process than poems, but it’s similar in that I’m trying to pack a lot of different things into one place and create lines between them. Even if the lines are thin strings, I’m really trying to thread them, but with more words. It’s also cool to take ideas that have been in my poems and pull them out a little bit larger.”
Whatever comes of the essay collection, it’s sure to capture the current stage of Parker’s evolution as an artist. She is more confident in her writing than ever, and even less concerned about following the so-called rules of poetry.
“I can see the growth for myself, not necessarily in terms of content but in focus from book to book,” Parker says. “Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night is concerned with the self in the world. I would say There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé deals with the self and the immediate community, whereas Magical Negro takes up a more aerial, infinite view of the self and one’s people. In my early 20s, I’m trying to literally understand what’s going on with me. After I finished Magical Negro, I wondered if my next poetry collection would be back to the beginning of the cycle or if it goes outward more.”
Releasing a book in the midst of a global pandemic is a disappointment for any author, but especially for this author and this particular book. “It’s a bummer to be releasing this book in a time of inside, because this book is walking around a lot,” Parker says. “There’s shit on the sidewalk, rooms being entered, and that’s really important to my process. I really miss people watching in a random busy location. My first book relies most heavily on looking around.”
As for readers’ reactions to Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night the second time around, Parker says she doesn’t have any particular hopes or expectations. “That’s the thing about this book,” she notes. “It doesn’t respond to anyone. There were no fans to talk to. I didn’t know anyone would read it ever. Something I’ve seen as a Black woman artist, as we all do, is that the audience sometimes wants a specific thing from you, and that is often teaching them how to not be racist. So I’m curious what the response will be, because this book isn’t necessarily talking to people or responding to anything.”
L’Oreal Thompson Payton is Baltimore-bred, Chicago-based freelance writer and editor.