It’s difficult not to become entranced by Gregory Pardlo’s story. His poems alone will deeply affect you, but what’s more impressive is just how deserving he is of the acclaim around his work. Patient, skilled writing and a true and honest perspective on influence makes him one of the most compelling poets both to read and read about.
Brenda Hillman selected his debut collection, Totem, for the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007 and his second collection, Digest, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Digest was also shortlisted for the 2015 NAACP Image Award and was a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. Pardlo has also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. His memoir in essays, Air Traffic, is forthcoming from Knopf. In the fall of 2016 Pardlo will join the faculty of the MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden.
The Rumpus: I read in La Prensa [a Nicaraguan newspaper] that you were invited as a guest of the 12th annual International Poetry Festival in Granada, Nicaragua. I actually did research in Nicaragua for a few years during undergrad and one of the lovely things that stuck out to me was how much the Nicaraguan people revere poets and artists. Even in his account of Nicaragua, Salman Rushdie writes about how shocked he was by witnessing how much value Nicaraguans place on poetry—have you read his book, The Jaguar Smile? What was your experience like being in Nicaragua and were you surprised by this value on poetry as well?
Gregory Pardlo: I have not read The Jaguar Smile, but I was surprised, and a little suspicious, maybe, at how seriously Nicaraguans take poetry. One indication that this was no mere foundation-funded festival was that there was a government representative waiting for us at the airport to usher us through customs, avoiding lines for citizens and tourists alike. Another indication was that the government covered all expenses for me and my wife and our two kids.
Earlier in the year, I traveled to Sri Lanka for a literary festival, and I found a similar climate of reverence. I wonder what impact that kind of climate would have on my work if I lived in a country where poetry was revered like that? I mean we can’t just assume it would be a good thing, right? I might feel obliged to write on behalf of the state or the collective or whatever. I might grow dependent on or swallowed up by or end up feeling beholden to that patronage. It’s too easy (for me) to romanticize countries like these because they have such rich and vibrant cultures, and because I’m sympathetic to their being subject to avaricious global forces. But I’m also sensitive to the ways it might be condescending to paint anyone simply as a happy, soulful, art-loving people.
Rumpus: Can you talk about your process? Where does a poem begin and end for you? How do you put a book together?
Pardlo: I think about the hermeneutic circle in relation to my process on the level of the poem and on the level of the book. I write, then I think about what that writing suggests outside itself. Then I place the poem or draft in the context of what I’ve been writing and thinking about elsewhere. I want to figure out what’s at the root of my obsessions. For example, with Digest the object was to give myself permissions to ditch received narratives about what it means to be a lyric poet versus a metaphysical poet, and to see those narratives as noncompeting. I understood this had everything to do with competing narratives within my family, and that understanding would inspire and inform the way I approached the next poem. And so on.
Rumpus: Seven years passed between the publication of your debut collection Totem, and your most recent collection, Digest. What was going on in those seven years? What in your life contributed to the creation of Digest? Were you constantly writing or was it sort of stop-and-go?
Pardlo: My parents separated shortly after Totem came out. Their separation triggered a series of unraveling myths about my family. Over the next few years, it became clear that I could not connect the person I believed myself to be with the reality of the life I’d lived and created.
I wrote Digest in the middle of a riot of intersecting crises. The poems helped me imagine a new selfhood while I was gutting the toxic structure of my then forty-year life. I don’t want to give the impression that the poems were therapeutic; they were the outlet for a lot of confusion, resentment, and longing. They were also the product of a great deal of attention to craft. The poems came slowly. I’m a slow writer, but I’m a constant writer.
Rumpus: Digest acts as a sort of dialogue between writing and other art forms in order to form a type of American identity. Which art forms, outside of writing, are you most drawn to—either in practice or consumption?
Pardlo: Visual art and music are equally essential to my process. Visual art helps me access ideas beyond the scope of literature. Every period in my life has its attendant soundtrack. I listen to music to access involuntary memories. Proust has his cookies, and I have Patrice Rushen.
Rumpus: What can we prepare ourselves for upon reading your forthcoming memoir, Air Traffic? And how does writing memoir-style essays differ from writing somewhat autobiographical poetry?
Pardlo: There is a shift in balance. Poems are more or less driven by music, essays by ideas. I can’t always uphold that distinction, and I make a lot of inadvertent lyric transgressions in Air Traffic. It’s hard to stifle the urge to break out in song even though I know readers who may not be accustomed to viewing the world through the lens of poetry sometimes get annoyed by my code switching between lyric sense and semantic sense. Air Traffic centers on the air traffic controller’s strike of 1981. The strike lasted three days until President Reagan fired 13,000 of these federal employees, dealing a catastrophic blow to organized labor around the world. My father was one of the controllers who lost his job in the strike. I take an aspiringly Whitmanian approach to the material of my life, and see it as a life shared with others. The book examines the ways we form and break unions of all kinds—from within families to between nations.
Rumpus: How would you describe the current landscape of contemporary poetry and what do you envision or hope for as the future of poetry?
Pardlo: No one has an objective view of the literary landscape, right? I mean, we see what we want to see. With that grain of salt, I’ll admit that the current presidential campaigns might influence my reading of the literary landscape right now because what stands out for me in poetry lately are the elegies for a kind of naïve American essentialism untroubled by self-doubt. I’m not coming down on nostalgia as such; the older I get the more wistful my own poems become. What interests me is this shared sense of identity crisis, a kind of recognition that the old cultural order is irreparable, unsalvageable, and that whatever we thought was “great” about America may not have been universally as great as we might have believed—or wanted to believe. I’m using the word “crisis” in its neutral sense here, as a moment requiring choices, and not in the sense of a problem or setback. This is a critical moment, full of revolutionary possibility for poets in the US.
We’re not just a diverse-looking country; we’re conscious of the fact that we are diverse-thinking. This makes it difficult—not impossible—for poets of any background to say, “I’m writing for X group” exclusively or even to say, “I’m writing for myself” without appearing either naïve or privileged or intolerant. Our burgeoning individualism ups the ante on poets to identify the bonds that unite us beyond socially and historically constructed categories. As a reader, I don’t need to see myself reflected in the work, but I do want some acknowledgement that by publishing the work, the poet has—however passively—asked for my attention. No one writes in a vacuum. It surprises me that there are still poets who construct the “we,” that is, those whose subjectivity the poet might access through empathy, in exclusive and limiting ways. When any poet produces a world on the page in which diversity is inconceivable, I wonder if that poet is being willfully regressive. To be fair, I think fears of appropriation often have the effect of further alienating us, and reinforcing our assumptions about cultural differences.
I read an interview with a novelist recently in which he, the novelist, asserted that because he had never loved a black woman, he didn’t feel qualified to include black characters in his novels. I think he believed he was being diplomatic, despite his reducing the literary enterprise to a game of “would you hit that.” But even the toxic frat boy chauvinism is emblematic of the kind of aesthetic I like to see poets moving away from. Granted, this guy wasn’t/isn’t a poet, but he models some really screwy and outdated assumptions that can be found even in our beloved genre: a) that the subjective experience of “a category of people,” as he put it, can be extrapolated from interaction with one; b) that we can think of a category of people in such monolithic terms; and c) that there is something essentially and definitively characteristic about the identity markers that we don’t subscribe to that renders the people who do subscribe to those markers categorically unknowable. This kind of logic is not limited to any particular community. So if the future of American poetry looks anything like the way I see it, the way I want to see it, we can expect poets to explore new ways—brave, risky, maybe even controversial ways—to construct the pronoun “we.”
Author photograph © Rachel Eliza Griffiths.