Gregory Pardlo is recipient of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Pardlo is author of Digest (2014) and Totem, winner of the 2007 American Poetry Review / Honickman Prize. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, The Nation, Ploughshares, Tin House, and two editions of Best American Poetry, as well as anthologies including Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry. Pardlo is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and teaches undergraduate writing at Columbia University. He serves as an Associate Editor of Callaloo, and is a facilitator of the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop.
This interview took place on June 15, 2015.
David St.-Lascaux: Two guys walk into a bar—a poet and a Martian. The bartender says to the Martian, “Say, aren’t you Greg Pardlo?” I mean, how else could you be communing with the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Robert Hayden, Kierkegaard, Paul Robeson, and Spinoza? Why did you call up their shades in Digest?
Gregory Pardlo: These are people I am reading; I do a lot of research, my mind wanders quite a bit, I have trouble focusing; if it had existed when I was a kid, I would have been diagnosed with ADHD, but the research process and of course Google and search engines being what they are facilitate digression. It’s all too easy for me to say, that’s interesting, what’s that about? So when I reference Boethius it’s not because I’ve deeply read him, but because I came across a quotation in passing; it struck me as something to reflect on. Some of them turn into poems, some of them don’t.
I had some rules set up for these poems. Despite the epigraphs, you’ll notice that these poems are not responding to or thinking through St. Augustine’s project, for example. The poems are superficially responding to the quotations, and in some ways intentionally misreading them. I’ve been called out on this. I’ve said in the past that these are completely offhand and I don’t have any traffic with these philosophers and I don’t use them to suggest the breadth of my reading—my “Martian” status. However, I am not so naïve as to believe that anyone else believes that. So I do get this [criticism] that I am scoring some intellectual points, that there is an impression being made on the reader that I know something about these authors and that just the fact that they are in my purview might suggest a level of reading that might seem Martian-like.
DSL: Tell me about the advantages of this linear structure that you’ve applied. What were the challenges and the pleasures of writing these two series—“Conatus” and “Clinamen”?
GP: Clinamen is a term I first encountered with Harold Bloom, that is the swerve that one makes in reading one’s heroes. As I am reinterpreting Robert Hayden, what’s different, I think, is what Bloom calls clinamen (it’s also a scientific term), is that the word itself started to resonate with me in various ways. One of the things I wanted in that series was to look at my relationship to the environment, and my relationship to other animals.
In the “Conatus Improvisations,” the quotations are all from either physicists or people involved in thinking about motion. Conatus is a kind of inertia, and that word has a lot of resonance, and I thought about that in my relationship to transportation, to travel, and, ultimately, to cars. So those are the guiding principles. You’ll notice that in “Conatus” all of the poems feature a car or some form of transportation, and reflect my ambivalence around our dependence on cars, and my love for old muscle cars. I grew up in the suburbs and my dad at one time had a Corvette, and am now living in Brooklyn and celebrating mass transit and this kind of nostalgia for a dying culture—one that I wish were dying more than it actually is.
In the “Clinamen” poems, I was thinking about urban wildlife. I think we had recently joined the CSA when I was writing that series, and I was thinking more and more about urban ecosystems and urban environmentalism. The anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry had recently come out, and I wanted to write poems that reflected on the Brooklyn wild monk parakeets, and the whale that had been beached.
DSL: You mention the CSA …
GP: Our CSA, sadly, is defunct now. Our farmer was renting the land and he couldn’t afford to hold on to it. So it strikes me as painfully ironic that we cannot afford to live off the land; it’s too expensive to eat healthy food.
DSL: Do you think poets should eat real food? Do you write better poetry if you eat real food?
GP: I would say yes! For me, I think, yes, because as an “urban poet,” I think it is a forward-thinking position or a forward-thinking lifestyle to connect our urban sense of density (and contrivance and falseness) with practices that are traditionally agricultural that put us more in touch with the actual earth. That’s a line in one of my poems.
DSL: You mention Robert Hayden, and you start out the book with him. I learned that he was an adherent of the Bahá’í faith, which is of course relevant, given that Wikipedia says Bahá’í tenets include the belief that:
… all humans have been created in the image of God, God does not make any distinction between people [based on] race or color. Thus, because all humans have been created equal, they all require equal opportunities and treatment.
Why does it take so long for this message to get through? Of doing things humanely for each other, of living humanely together?
GP: We have a tradition in this county. The abstract ideas of freedom and liberty are indivisible from race. One cannot be free unless one defines oneself in opposition to enslavement. And so, over the centuries of our culture, we find that whether it’s legal slavery or a kind of urban segregation like forms of redlining that identify the “Other,” our sense of ourselves is dependent upon the existence of a downtrodden Other. So if it weren’t black people, it would be some other group.
DSL: Do you think that? That our society has to have strata, and hierarchies, and exploitation?
GP: There is a certain level of unemployment that is necessary in capitalism.
DSL: But the Constitution doesn’t say anything about El Capitalismo! Do you think that capitalism is built into the concepts of freedom and private property that are espoused in the Constitution?
GP: I am no economist, certainly, but property … On the one hand, I lived in Copenhagen, experiencing the culture of supporting one another, and shared resources. There is a sense of generosity that I found absolutely thrilling. But at the same time, I recognized that it limits—intentionally or not—an individual’s motivation. So there’s a culture of mediocrity that evolves, there’s a culture of sameness, there’s a value placed on (or virtue of) not standing out that I think is unfortunate. So my relationship to patriotism is another anxiety that runs through this book. I am in favour of capitalist aspirations, and home ownership is a long tradition in my family, the sense of rootedness, the sense of commitment that owning a home creates in a community, when we’re all committed to our own spaces that I think is important. But at the same time I see how that, in the long term, creates a class of people who are perpetual renters.
DSL: You were just talking about the underclass: “If it wasn’t African Americans it would be someone else”; it’s a theme in Digest. You’ve called up the canon of the great black 20th century authors: How important is this theme to your identity?
GP: I grew up thinking about it quite a bit. My father was an activist in the 60s. Racial politics has always been a theme in my family, as it is in most black middle-class families, if not across [black] classes.
DSL: Because of education?
GP: Yes, and because of the history of striving and aspiration, and there are these traditions that come out of the NAACP, for example, and certainly Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement that are built into the culture of African Americans in general. So my grandmother, for example, has pictures of MLK and JFK on her living room wall. It is necessarily a part of my background. If I were to have a religion, that would be my secular cultural practice.
At the same time, I am weary of that conversation, because I see, in terms of teaching, generation after generation, how these certain questions keep coming up over and over again without any seeming progress in the way we think about race. One question that is repeated over and over again is, “How do we solve this problem of poor, alienated, marginalized, disaffected, disenfranchised black people in the inner cities, and what they are contending with, and ultimately how they affect us across America?” That is a regressive way: the crisis mode and the pathology mode of thinking about race, to me, is antique.
The problem is that we assign meaning to race when there is no meaning. There is certainly a cultural history, and there are cultural values that I would not give up under any circumstances, that by holding onto them I announce that I am an African American, I am a black person. But at the same time, I am aware that they are cultural practices and that there is nothing essentially differentiating me from anyone else in the world.
And the fact that we keep taking about race as if there is some biological reason for what are historically produced differences and historically reinforced social differences—that gets me tired. So we look at Baltimore: “All those people just don’t want to work …,” “They are just destructive …,” and as opposed to saying that any people we put under those conditions, and maintain in those conditions for an extended period of time are going to respond in the ways that they are, and it has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with race at the same time.
DSL: Is it unavoidable to be a citizen who wishes to be informed to not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges that we face? 76 African Americans have been killed by the police between 1999 and 2014. It’s not stopping …
GP: It is not stopping because we keep thinking about it as a racial problem. It does matter that the 76 were killed in the last however many years, because if we say “in the last so many years,” then we’re discounting how many thousands there have been over how many hundreds of years … To say, “I am not going to credit the hatred and ignorance that produce the violence against black people by saying ‘Black Lives Matter,’” is misguided, because what’s in parentheses after that is, “Black lives matter, too,”—too. Just as in responding to the violence in a “Please count us into the category of the human race” way seems to reinforce the very logic that produces the distinction.
So we have these generations of structural thinking, generations of racial logic, that keep reproducing the conditions under which certain segments of our population are fetishized (i.e., they are feared, and that there is meaning attached to their personhood that has nothing to do with who they are). Our imagination attends to blackness in a way that allows for these violences to occur.
DSL: Let’s say everyone hasn’t received that message—
GP: Many haven’t.
DSL: Who should read Gregory Pardlo, and what are you hoping they will learn? Do you think about the reader?
GP: I don’t know if “learn” is the verb that I’m looking for. Learn suggests a kind of activism on my part, and rather than produce an agenda, I would like to trouble the logic on which these differences are based. In “Palling Around,” for example, the subtext in the poem is that we can trace the anxieties around 9/11 back to the transatlantic slave trade. Now, were I to make that argument overtly, no one would listen, and I wouldn’t expect anyone to even consider the possibility unless they were already disposed to agreeing with that. So I don’t make the overt connection. I am writing the poem suggesting that these anxieties have been around a very long time, and that they are not founded on race: they’re founded on our fetishizing difference.
GP: Tribalism, yes. It’s the same thing in the “Hulk” poem—“Shades of Green: Envy and Enmity in the American Cultural Imaginary.” So it’s absurd, ha-ha funny, that there is this Hulk figure that we romanticize in this way—that he’s inhuman. Then we have this Lothario of The Mask—Jim Carrey is the mask and he’s inhuman. But it’s paradigmatic, and I want to point out the paradigmatic similarities: What we do, and the way we understand these two characters is precisely the logic that we use to—dehumanize is not the word, it’s—superhumanize black masculinity.
So yes, absolutely, I think about the reader. “Learn” is a functional word for me that I can kind of move around—let’s put that back on the table. So when I think about my reader in the way that I think about students, and I’m learning from my reader, and I don’t want to tell my reader, “This is what you are supposed to take from this poem.” I want to say to my reader, “Here are some things that I’m thinking about that are troubling me, that are giving me agita, keeping me up at night, and it may even be funny the way my imagination goes in various directions, and this is just a silly thought, dear reader. At the same time, by saying, “Isn’t this a silly thought, isn’t this outrageous?” I’m inviting the reader to consider the validity of that thesis. So I’m inviting my reader into conversation, and I want my reader to feel welcome to say, “Well, that’s not what I get out of this poem. I see where you’re going, and out of this poem, this is the pattern I’m seeing with these images.” So if someone asks me if I care what readers take out of my poems, I’m thrilled when readers interpret the poems in ways I might not have seen, because it suggests that they’re engaged in the conversation. I’m not making the distinction, for example, between black readers and white readers, because the logic of race is different, and I don’t want to reinforce the kinds of distinctions that I think are problematic by validating them, by discussing them as if they are real.
This goes back to Hayden and Bahá’í. One of the reasons I’m so attracted to Hayden is that one of the reasons that he was alienated from and ostracized by black poets in the late 60s was because he wasn’t toeing that kind of “black difference” logic. So agenda-wise, I don’t have an uplifting message, or a protest, or any kind of agenda for the poems other than to say, let’s have this conversation. I want to reframe the boundaries of the conversation so that new forms of thinking might occur.
DSL: You know that there are different schools of poetic thought, and one is that—as you mention Hayden—the poet’s purview is transcendent. And so he doesn’t think of himself as a black man because he thinks of himself as a man; that one approach an artist can take is that nothing else matters, and you just consider the ephemeral triviality of the current society to be an impediment at most. Versus activists like Ellison and Wright, in which case one could say that it’s a cop-out not to be an activist in a time that would benefit from that.
Yet another approach would be that, as an educated person, as a person who loves learning, as a person who’s gifted, as a person who loves language, as a person for whom things come down from space to your mind and they come out in automatic writing—or whatever it is that one does, one must write one’s mind. So I look at your situation as somewhat of a dilemma in a sense, because, when your mind works the way your mind works, and you can make all of these connections with all this glue and words, it’s a shame not to leave the world behind, because there are lots of ways to change the world, sometimes by inspiring others.
GP: I laugh because there are plenty of people who would accuse me of leaving the world behind, of not engaging. That I’m not speaking to problems of the day, that I’m not using the art, that there’s a kind of dilettantish …
DSL: … that you’re not taking reality seriously enough. The quotation is that, “Reality is overrated …”
I’m ghost, we say
instead of goodbye.
It turns out that you can designate a “legacy contact” for your Facebook account, as in for after you die. Who would you like to write your poetry then? What late poets would you like to write poetry for now?
GP: If I were to follow the logic of Facebook? Who would I want to take over for? I’ve determined two modes of thinking in my scholarship: on one hand, as a reader, I can admire and go into fanboy mode over Whitman, Hopkins, Crane, and Hayden, but in my practice, there are plenty of poets whose work I don’t necessarily like who are doing things that I admire and I want to expand on because conceptually they are doing a kind of work that I think is important. The question presumes that the two are the same—that my practice as a writer is tied to my admiration for literature. Some would say it is sad that I’ve come to such a clinical view, that I can objectively read a poem like a doctor, and not care for the life of the person I am operating on. Maybe that is unfortunate.
The question is also about the difference between my scholarly practice and my creative practice. These are anxieties that I want to put into play. The foundational anxiety is the tired, trite, worn-out question, “Am I a poet or am I am a black poet?” And what does that mean? What is my responsibility? How does my responsibility to the art differ from one mode to the next? So my style is informed by a bourgeois value placed on book learning; you need to get those degrees …
DSL: Country club dues …
GP: The whole time I am engaged with it, I am learning the language of the country club. I also recognize how that is fetishized.
… boy, she commands, didn’t I tell you?
My father would split the difference. I made you, he’d say. I can un-make you, and make another one just like you.
And then there’s Robby Pardlo [GP’s brother, of the former R&B/hip hop trio City High], with:
What would you do if your son was at home
Crying all alone
On the bedroom floor …
—from “What Would You Do?”
Two poems about parents’ authority, children’s experimental rebellions, and the transformation from child to parent. A song about growing up too fast. What matters in these true stories?
GP: What matters is this: that I am just as guilty or more guilty of this thinking; in the supermarket, when I see the black mother roughly handling her child, my first reaction is, “It is unfortunate that she is perpetuating these violences in black domestic culture; it is shameful and I am embarrassed for her, but the turning point is when I identify rather than alienate, rather than create a distance between me and her, and my daughter provides the turn. When I put myself in the mother’s position and it looks less shameful and more historically contextualized, and the learning that my daughter displays in the end is no different from the learning she displays at the beginning of the poem; she picks up the tone and she picks up the behaviour. This is how this works, and the mother is not a bad person inherently, obviously.
Of all of the images that might speak to something
inside her, this was the one she found worth saving.
—from “Attachment: Atlantic City Pimp”
or, as Oscar Wilde wrote in Lady Windermere’s Fan,
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
Life is short; how can anyone be expected to look at the stars when life is so demanding, and imagination so reliably slapped down?
GP: I mean to be harsh on my aunt in the poem. I want to look at the ways we create and produce these stereotypes. At the end of the poem, the last word is “saving.” That word goes in many directions: the speaker’s understanding (and we are not sure what the speaker understands by the end of the poem). What I hope the reader questions in that final word is whether she means rescue. I’ve come to the understanding that she saved this because she cares about this figure. Or does it mean “hold onto” in the sense that perhaps there is some connection to my father [the intended recipient], or some sense of familiarity or cultural legacy that she wants to hold onto in the midst of this family that is changing: We have this nephew who is this college professor—this vast cultural and ideological difference in this one family. How is she saving this photograph? So the harshness with her as a character throughout the poem is meant to set up the ambivalence of that word.
We are given two names:
one to work like witness protection, and one to carry
mechanically to the grave. I never took my husband’s name.
I imagine that would be as useful as a newspaper covering
my head in the rain …
—from “Four Improvisations on Ursa Corregidora”
What did you learn when you read Corregidora by Gayl Jones? What was it like to look at the world from a woman’s perspective, from that of Jones’s protagonist?
GP: I was taken by the novel; I was horrified and disturbed by it, but the language was incredibly beautiful and I found myself identifying so seamlessly with this character. Ursa’s a victim of domestic violence, she is subject to patriarchal dominance, and she is subject to the demands of history, the narrative of Corregidora’s initial raping of her ancestors. She is able to demonstrate so much agency in the midst of all that she is beholden to. As a character she is rich and complex and demonstrative of possibilities for us societally. We are not allowed to view her solely as a victim. That speaks to us again as a way of thinking about the world that is not primarily pathological; that from the gutter we can still see the stars!
DSL: Were you relating to Jones the author or Ursa the character? As you read, what was happening to you?
GP: It was both. This is another binary I am challenged by: form and content. Jones’s lyricism is driving the novel formally in this dizzyingly lyrical way, and also the emotional intelligence that we have access to through this character.
I loved that boy like redemption loves a sinner, and saw in him the mute pronouncements of the proletariat, mutiny on the Potemkin.
Deacon, daddy-o, doctor, Demosthenes. The ever-receding horizon in the book of Monopolated power and light.
—from “Renaissance Man”
Let us now turn to “Copyright,” another reference to Richard Wright’s Native Son, the novel of African American despair. This is followed in Digest by “Renaissance Man,” homage to Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man. Both books incorporate communists—Jan and the Brotherhood. Wright, Robeson, and Ellison all had affiliations with the Communist Party. What role do politics play in your poetry? In what ways is art (e.g., poetry) political?
GP: I do agree that all art is political, which is liberating for me in that I want to demystify these books and these characters and these authors. You will find my very short essay about Langston Hughes, “Revisiting the Racial Mountain,” on the PEN American Center website. I have received angry emails [to the effect that], “How dare you challenge Hughes as a figure?” My thinking was that Hughes is rooted deeply enough in our culture that he could stand a little scrutiny.
I don’t have that kind of iconoclastic approach to Wright or Ellison. I do challenge the idea of Bigger being Wright’s alter ego, and the claim that we should conflate these characters with their authors, like Ursa with Jones. In “Copyright,” I wanted to show that Wright didn’t have any more access to the character than any of these other authors who were engaged equally in the act of interpretation. And yet we allow Wright this cultural monopoly on that character because of the association we make between him and the author.
“Deacon, daddy-o” reiterates that same question (I’m fascinated with the character Rinehart), and I think this is the intention that Ellison had in saying, “I can be whatever you want me to be”; whatever you see I can read it, interpret it. I think this is a little different from a cultural chameleon, in that it is more than the Du Boisian double-consciousness. It is the refutation of the idea of an essential, racial, central character, of a racial identity.
… pretty as new money floating
ghostly outside the car window as the last pockets of air
pinch off and the water gently closes over your head.
—from “Heraclitus” in “The Conatus Improvisations”
Your poems have endings. What would a poem without an ending be like for Greg Pardlo? Would you feel that it was unfinished?
GP: It is a liability that I don’t have a kind of versatility. Ever since Lyn Hejinian’s essay “The Rejection of Closure,” where she identifies that kind of closure with a kind of masculine aesthetic. I am dominating the material; I am mastering the material by wrapping it up.
DSL: What are the advantages of the masculine approach?
GP: It’s a familiar cultural form. We are culturally conditioned to need resolution, just as in music we go through three chords. We need that last chord; otherwise there is frustration. It is entirely contrived; this is a problem I would like to address in my poems. I tried it in my first book (Totem, 2007), and it was entirely unsatisfying.
DSL: In Digest, you [repeatedly] elevate the mundane to the profound. Is the mundane so profoundly painful, that imagination is necessary? Are you doing this for fun or because you have to?
GP: I am doing it because I have to. My fear, my terror, is irrelevancy. So I look at the lives of my family members and the people I love, my friends. They are so important to me, but at the same time, my fear is my own. I know the people I love are not going through their lives thinking, oh, this is mundane, or oh, I am living for the weekend, I am living for my two-week vacation. They are not burdened by these thoughts. Whenever I find myself being forced into an imagination-deadening lifestyle, I want to react against it. It is frightening, so, like a kid whistling in the dark, I want to call up the monsters, to bring the mundane into view.
DSL: So much of Digest reminds me of Allen Ginsberg’s matter-of-fact, fantastic “Howl,” in part because your sense of humour comes across. Is there something inherent in urban complexity that makes a complex response inevitable?
GP: I am complimented by the connection. On the one hand, I have in mind the Georg Simmel essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” about the argument that urban life produces a way of interpreting reality that is noisy and congested. Is it a necessary result of living in the city? I don’t want to believe it is. But there is merit to that argument.
and he says pardon me Old School
—from “Wishing Well”
By far my favourite poem in Digest is “Wishing Well,” which moves one to tears. It reminded me of my favourite short story by Raymond Carver, “Cathedral.” You not only talk, but you also hold hands with a stranger. When two men walk into the afternoon, what would you like the other man to know?
GP: That I am not afraid of him. It is a question of love; if we are going to practice a perceived peace, then we have to make ourselves vulnerable to one another. I can’t ask other people to take that risk; I have to be the risk in the world that you want to see. So walking into the afternoon, I don’t want to impose anything on the Other; it’s an invitation.
David St.-Lascaux is an arts journalist and poet. His interviews with three-time US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, Lilly Prize winner Marie Ponsot, Brooklyn Poet Laureate Tina Chang and others have appeared in the Brooklyn Rail and Interrupting Infinity. He is author of Le Petit Soubresaut de Mon Cœur (My Little Heartbreak) (2009), performed at the Bowery Poetry Club; L’Oubliette, or Plan A (2010) and the New York culture diary My Adventures with la Femme Charmée (2013).