Stock Image of Roads and Buildings for "Celebrating Writers in Our Community" in Pink

Communicating with Spirit: An Interview with Cherise Morris

MQR’s Online Series, “Celebrating Writers in Our Community,” is inspired by our upcoming special-themed issue, “Why We Write.” The series of interviews is a celebration of the diversity of Southeast Michigan writers, their talents, their motivations for writing, and their significance to our community. 

Cherise Morris is poet, multidisciplinary artist, ritualist and spiritual worker born and raised in rural Virginia and based in Detroit, MI. Her work merges experimental writing, poetry and prayer with performance, movement, sound and ritual practices to open loving, audacious and transformative spaces that invite us to explore, imagine and continue the infinite work of our individual and collective healing journeys and new-world building. Her writing has previously appeared in The Iowa Review, Longreads, Black Warrior Review and elsewhere. Her essays have twice been recognized as notable works of literary nonfiction in The Best American Essays Series 2018 and 2019 and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Morris is currently at work on her ongoing project, “Visions of the Evolution: The Ritual-Performance Series,” and her debut manuscript.

Lillian Pearce (LP): Where do you find the intersections of performance or movement and the act of writing? How does your writing interact with the art form of movement? How does incorporating another art form illuminate perspectives or motivations in your work? 

Cherise Morris (CM): Because my work is so informed by the spiritual and an innate understanding of the boundlessness of, well, everything when viewed through the realm and languages of the spiritual, it feels natural that my work lends itself to multiple forms. For me, writing is one mode of communication with and around the spiritual; movement is another, and they both flow together really organically. It’s not something I have to think too hard about. 

Really, to me, all writing and language is movement, dance. It is the movement of the word and the story that compels readers, maintains their interest, and keeps them invested; So, because I see writing as a moving force, in and of itself, translating that to movement off the page to create embodied experiences feels like a natural progression for me. I think a lot of it also has to do with my practice, the way I work through a piece. I get inside a feeling and a groove, and I’m not a writer who can sit for hours and write. I have to take breaks, lots of breaks, I have to be moving, take a walk or dance or roll around on the bed and then return to my computer. It’s in that space of movement where I personally generate the ideas and feelings to bring back to the page. When I’m not overthinking it, I’m able to access my space of brilliance, and it all just comes together. I can’t think about it; I just have to let it flow. 

LP: Do different motivations for writing push you to write in different genres or mediums? Does one provide a stronger outlet for you than another? 

CM: Poetry was always a natural inclination; it’s just the way the ideas come to me. I write the way I like to read. The way I think. And I was writing poetry way before I considered myself any sort of poet. It wasn’t a conscious decision to shift in between forms and, in that, develop my own style; it just happened organically. It seemed to be, to me, the only way I could translate and communicate any of the ideas or narratives floating around my head. I’m not very linear. When I take notes, I don’t make neat bulleted lists. They are not easily translatable. I write loops over multiple pages with lots of confusing arrows and swirls linking disparate concepts, and that’s basically what I do in my writing.  While I have definitely honed and sharpened my skills in the past few years, I’ve always written in a similar way. There was no major shift in my voice; it’s always been poetic and fluid in a sense because it’s how I’ve always thought and, most importantly, how I have always received. I love the act of weaving together disparate anecdotes into one narrative. I don’t journal coherently. I just write bits and pieces and loop them together. I like to think of my writing as the closest I’ll ever get to being a musician or a composer, and I think it has a lot to do with the ways music has shaped me and the musicality within my writing. And lastly, it’s how I communicate with spirit. It’s a very fluid process. But since I was in high school, I’ve always been drawn to the alchemy of melding forms, and maybe it’s a reflection of the fact that I never felt understood, never really fit into any one place that my writing doesn’t conform to just one category and cannot be understood in just one way. I consider myself as much of a poet as I am an essayist, as I am a spirit worker, and so on. I want my work to be expansive enough in content, style, and form to be allowed the type of expansiveness I had to learn to claim for myself, to echo and pay homage to the fluidities of my personal self, my journey into being, and the collective narratives and experience of the Black community. 

LP: In his 1947 essay, “Why I Write,” George Orwell breaks down his motivations for writing into four distinct categories: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. How would you define your motivations for writing?

CM: All of Orwell’s motivations influence me to a certain extent. Although I think I’ve successfully moved past the egoism, or at least I hope, which I think is reflected in my more recent work. My earlier work was very personal. It was a sort of      way of archiving my experiences and relating them to a broader, more universal message, lessons. But my more recent work has shifted in a way that while there is still some personal narrative, there’s much more collective narrative. The voice of the pieces has gotten significantly more universal and disembodied, and I’m really excited to continue to explore that. And to have more of my private life stay private. 

Political, certainly, and I think most everything I’ve written has come from some political impulse. As a Black writer, and I’m not one who minds the moniker Black writer, I don’t care—     it’s true, it’s what I am. I don’t think I could do this without a political purpose. I don’t think I could do anything divorced from politics as a member of a highly politicized community. But over time, it has become more of a spiritual purpose, which I think of as political and so much more. 

When I was seven, I was given the opportunity to write a children’s book on display at my local 

library. On the title page, I wrote, when Cherise Morris grows up, she wants to be a writer and an artist, and I’m immensely grateful to be what I grew up dreaming to become. So in a sense, it was part of a destiny that I recognized before I really understood it

LP: MQR’s special-themed issue, “Why We Write,” seeks to illuminate perspectives and examine the motivations of writers specifically in relation to how they are influenced by social and political conditions and social justice. How do these concepts influence you?

CM: If you hold any marginalized identity, you don’t have the privilege of not considering social and political conditions, either of the current time or the past, which inform our present and future. You can think of that as a burden, or you can accept it as a responsibility. I tend to agree with the Great Ancestor Toni Morrison and believe that “the best art is political,” and “the ones [artists] that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.'” It’s important to note that, to me, political doesn’t have to be confined within the sphere of electoral politics. Political has so much to do with how we treat, accept, embrace, hear one another, the responsibilities we have to the collective. 

LP: In reference to the politically charged time we face, what would your council be for young people looking to find their voices and narrate their experiences in times of uncertainty, injustice, and the unknown?     

CM: If you look at the history of this country, particularly if you are someone who falls outside of the wealthy or upper-middle-class white status quo, uncertainty, injustice, and the unknown have always been a part of our stories. My work is only a progression of the work that the first Black writers began, the enslaved and formerly enslaved Black people who archived their lives, in terms of their struggles and, most importantly, their brief joys, persistent hopes, and future dreams, through storytelling. If they could write then, there’s no reason why any of us, their descendants, should feel too daunted to write during these current circumstances of the world we know and exist within. As we dream towards better futures, we must stay tethered in our connection to our ancestors. That’s what informs the most powerful work. If they could live through, write through and overcome what they did, then we can absolutely live through, write through and overcome this.  

LP: How have your motivations for writing evolved during the pandemic? 

CM: I have the privilege of saying that for the most part, I was a person whose life stayed remarkably similar pre- and post-pandemic. If anything, the veil that was pulled back for the world to see the ways this system lets us all down reaffirmed my commitment to not only imaging but creating the world of my dreams. I think writing in a time of death is interesting, trying to birth new worlds and ideas in the presence of so many dying is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This has really been a special time to be witness to.