Beyoncé inspired Morgan Parker's book title, while boxing influenced her writing
In an old newspaper clipping, a photo of boxer Thomas Parker overshadows the text, his tough eyes focused, oval head tilted down and fists ready.
"My grandfather was super gregarious and performative," poet Morgan Parker says, remembering him. "I feel like you need that kind of personality to be a boxer."
Thomas Parker idolized boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who was loquacious in the ring and a poet outside of it, giving reporters lines like, "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee -- his hands can't hit what his eyes can't see."
Like her late grandfather, Parker is gregarious and focused, and she has hands ready to write. One Halloween as a child, she dressed up as a boxer to commemorate him, with red and white leather boxing gloves hanging around her neck, her cheery eyes competing with her sly grin. Witty and attentive, she is not at all interested in sports, despite her parents' best efforts, but she does use her genetic predisposition to boxing in her work as a poet.
When writing, the California native says she thinks about certain lines as punches. Parker knocks the reader out with:
what if I said I'm tired
and they heard wrong
said sing it
--Parker's poem "What Beyoncé Won't Say on a Shrink's Couch"
"I think a lot about boxing in terms of the way I play with language and the way poetry allows for that," Parker says. "Boxing is closely related to dance, but it is not always beautiful."
Throughout her poems, Parker is disciplined and unafraid of mentioning the hard work she had to endure to perfect her collection of poems.
Took me awhile to learn the good words
--"Let Me Handle My Business, Damn"
Writing and boxing are both solitary professions. For some, mental toughness is required to mute negative feedback. Parker had an epiphany in her Brooklyn bathtub when she decided to name her second collection of poetry using Beyoncé's name in the title, even when some friends insisted she shouldn't. The pushback Parker received was satisfying.
"Of course, I wanted to do it more," she says. "Poetry is so playful, right? You don't have to follow constraints of sentences that work in a straight line."
Like a left hook from Ali's antithesis, "Smokin" Joe Frazier, Parker's reluctance to work within straight lines and rules makes sense when she talks about her youth. She was never an athlete, though her parents made an "overwhelming attempt" to encourage her to try all sports, from tennis to soccer.
"I need to read books because I'm going to be a writer. Of course, it sounded crazy to them coming out of the mouth of a 9-year-old," she says. "So I don't blame them for committing me to try all these things."
She pulls no punches when writing about her childhood of forced athletic competition:
or I am still angry with my parents
for traumatizing me
through organized sports
--"Heaven Be a Xanax"
Yet she is now a top competitor in the literary world, and she displays all the skills of a serious athlete: practice, discipline and dedication.
From her second collection of poetry, "There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé," Parker shows us a poet who is light on her feet and strong in her hands. She deftly weaves her personal story with pop culture, writing about black womanhood, former President Obama's hesitation to use the word "black" and mental health.
Naming the book after the Grammy-winning artist, Parker clarifies, means Beyoncé's name is attached to all black womanhood throughout the entire collection -- as a mother, woman and friend. She explains: "Beyoncé is everyone, and everyone is Beyoncé. Sometimes, it's Beyoncé with Blue Ivy. Other times, it's me and my homegirl sitting on a therapist's couch."
Similar to a boxer, Parker circles around her subject as if she is in a ring, alert and ready. Her commentary in "Poem on Beyoncé's Birthday" addresses race, the physical shape of a woman's body and perfectionism:
Drinking cough syrup from a glass shaped
like your body I wish was mine but as dark
As something in my mind telling me
I'm not woman enough for these days
She is quick to point out that her collection is about more than body image. "It's wanting the reader to confront a lot of different types of black women," she says. "I'm trying to represent our multiplicity."
Her honesty and directness, traits she says she inherited from her grandfather, are apparent in "Poem on Beyoncé's Birthday," which speaks directly to the silent insecurities many women feel when wondering if their bodies are "enough."
Parker is comfortable in these spaces of dual identities and does not force herself or her work into just one.
"Two things can stand next to each other and be totally opposite -- and both be true," she says, referring to herself as a writer who uses the same methods as a boxer.
Like any well-trained boxer, Parker is preparing to step into her own literary boxing ring. Her first stop is at Brooklyn Academy of Music, where she will have a conversation with thinker and curator Rujeko Hockley on Feb. 15, followed by a list of other events.
She carries on the legacy of her boxing roots and holds on to the sweatshirt she wore that Halloween, emblazoned on the back with "Smokin' Mo."
Jenisha is an associate editor at espnW. Follow her on Twitter @iamjournalism.