I’m over at The Billfold today, talking about the new BFAMFAPhD census report on working artists (hint: inequalities among working artists mirror the inequalities of society at large) and what data about people making art means for our cultural institutions and habits of cooperation. You can read the post here.
At what point in your writing life did you decide to get an MFA? Why?
I was in college taking my second ever-poetry class with Josh Bell, during my sophomore year. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. When, in his office hours, he told me my poems were good, I was totally shocked. I had never heard of an MFA when he told me I should consider getting one. At the time I was just writing funny poems or depressed poems and reading them to my friends at parties. So the world has J. Bell to thank (or blame) for steering me in this direction and, basically, helping me to take myself seriously as a poet. I went into my MFA program straight from undergrad, wide-eyed about the possibility of nerding-out with other poets and becoming a more confident, focused writer.
What were you initially expecting to do after the degree? How did this expectation change (or not)?
Immediate worldwide fame. Just kidding. I really wasn’t sure. I was very focused on completing a manuscript by the time I finished school, and I didn’t see much past polishing and submitting it. While I was in grad school, I worked four days a week in the Visitor Services department at MoMA PS1. I’ve worked in the visual arts since college, so I was hoping to find a full-time job in the arts that wouldn’t distract me from writing. What I didn’t anticipate was the amount of work that goes into being a professional writer. It’s more than writing– it’s editing, it’s submitting, it’s ordering manuscripts, phone calls with publishers, giving readings, marketing, applying for fellowships and residencies– and it’s a lot of work. The balance between “work” and “other work” shifts all the time, and it’s taken me a while to get used to that fluidity and the fact that as a writer, you’re always working.
Were you ever interested in staying in academia? Why or why not?
I’m definitely interested in it to some degree. Maybe one day there will be a Dr. in front of my name, maybe not. I know that the adjunct hustle is not for me. I have a lot of other hustles that keep me occupied and oppressed. I do love teaching, and I look forward to pursuing that more, maybe in academia, or maybe in a more nontraditional setting. In the meantime, museum education plays that role for me.
Your undergraduate degree is in Creative Writing and Anthropology. To what extent do the concerns of the social sciences influence your poems? Do you ever find yourself using ethnography or other parts of an anthropology framework in your work?
Yes– my majors always sounded like a weird combination to other people, but it made total sense to me to study people and how and why we act the way we do, particularly in relation to other people. Anthropology, for me, is about curiosity, observation, analysis, sensitivity, history, “culture,” rituals, all that good stuff. All of that fuels my work, or rather, the way my poet’s mind works. My anthropology studies were very interdisciplinary– I took English classes, African-American studies classes, a jazz studies class, even a class on “posthumanism.” I think of my writing in the same way. I draw on everything that surrounds me and interests me: race politics, feminist theory, pop culture, advertising, music, history. My work is about what it feel like to be this particular human, and I definitely think the anthropological side of my brain is very interested in that.
You’re now the Education Director at MoCADA – were you involved in the museum education/ visual arts world before starting to work there? How did you acquire the background and skills the job required?
MoCADA is my my first job in museum education, though I have worked in arts education/administration at previous gigs. I’ve been working in the arts for about six years now. I didn’t study art history but it’s a personal interest and passion. Since I took my first college job in arts administration, I’ve always loved the idea of being surrounded by artists and visual art. I was at PS1 part-time for almost four years, during which I became really connected to the art world and very in tune with how arts organizations run. I was able to talk and work with almost all of the departments, and tried my hand at everything from bartending for the rich and famous to climbing a ladder in heels to help out with installation. After teaching during my MFA, I was hungry for more opportunities to share my excitement about art, which is essentially at the heart of museum education. Working at MoCADA blends so many aspects of what I love: working with and within the Black community, teaching and spreading excitement about the arts, communications, and curating programs.
Many of your poems deal with contemporary American issues that impact the Black community (such as police violence). Does working at MoCADA give you opportunities to blur the line between what you think/ talk about in poems and what you think/ talk about at work? If the line is blurry, do you like having that cross-pollination, or would you rather keep your day job and poetry lives separate?
The cross-pollination is really, really key for me. The work I do and experience at MoCADA, in particular the conversations and debates I’m able to have with both coworkers and museum visitors, has totally transformed my writing. These are issues that color my life– not just work issues or themes I explore in writing. Art, Black communities, racism, intersectional feminism, activism– these are my concerns all the time, and I love being able to address them with my personal art and in a different way at work. Different strategies, same essential goal.
Do your colleagues know about and support your writing?
I’m really the luckiest girl when it comes to this. My co-workers are incredible fans of mine. They come to readings, I send them poems, and they’re genuinely interested in my work and my success as a poet. Once, I hadn’t written a poem in months, and I took a day off to write. I signed onto my email in the middle of the day and was promptly accosted by g-chats telling me to go write poems! That kind of support is invaluable to me. But it’s also in the culture of working in the arts, particularly at such a small, inclusive institution. All of my coworkers are wildly talented artists of some kind, and we push and encourage each other.
How do you create time for writing around your other work obligations?
The real secret is that I can work in front of the TV. While I’m sippling wine and catching up on Top Chef or whatever I’m usually drafting or editing something. Also, I’m single. So, like, what else am I doing? But honestly, and most importantly, I have a really great community of writers who push me. I’m really into meeting friends to write at a café or bar or hosting “writing days” at my apartment where we just listen to records and drink spiked coffee and write for hours. At this point, I’m proud to say I don’t even usually think about it, I just do it. I have to.
The artist collective BFAMFAPhD recently released a census report noting that in New York City, only 15% of artists make a living from their creative work alone, and that those who do earn a median of 25K/ year. (And of those, 74% are white, non-Hispanic). The collective’s response to this data is that artists should attend/ support alternative arts education institutions rather than go into debt. Do you agree? What other ramifications do you think this data has for the future of the arts in NYC?
I definitely agree. I’ve seen this report floating around on social media (confession: my newsfeeds are mostly made up of non-white, non-male artists) and in terms of ramifications, I think that awareness is the first step. And our response should be anger. We should demand more. We should agree to change the system. Because I surround myself with visual artists and musicians as well as poets, I wasn’t even the least bit surprised by this data. The art world is a dark, rich place. In some ways, I think that when one decides to become an artist, there’s a bit of giving into that super-capitalist system and almost agreeing to its rigidity and exclusion. So I’m excited by this information being fuel for revolution, for refusing to put up with these traditions. I think part of what drew me to museum education was an interest in alternative education, community-led education, and artist-as-educator models. And when I say we should demand more, I don’t just mean money. I mean worth. I mean investment in ourselves and the power of art. Alternative education can absolutely help this, as can community organizing around how to expand one’s art practice to allow for more optimal living.
What advice would you give to young writers just starting an MFA? To those doing a degree in New York? To writers of color specifically?
Try not to get distracted, but let yourself get distracted. Write what you care about, not what other people care about or want to hear. If you don’t care about anything at the moment, don’t write about anything at the moment. Go to readings. Give readings. Go to office hours. Be hard on yourself but forgive yourself. Write shitty, terrible drafts of things. Get super used to rejection. Do like Jay Z says and brush the dirt off your shoulders. Find community. And I don’t just mean friends (though those are great, too), I mean people you can trust and who understand not only your work but you as a person. In the NYC MFA community, you probably won’t naturally find a community of writers of color waiting for you in the classroom, but they exist, so don’t be afraid to seek them out. Don’t think you don’t need them. Say you’re gonna go to law school, but don’t. Say you’re gonna go into I-Banking, but don’t. Submit everywhere. Ask for favors. Do people favors. Read everything.
Morgan Parker is the author of Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (Switchback Books 2015), selected by Eileen Myles for the 2013 Gatewood Prize, and There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (Coconut Books 2016). Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including the anthology Why I Am Not A Painter, published by Argos Books. She works as education director at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) and a poetry editor of Coconut Magazine.