Gregory Pardlo is the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his collection Digest, which was also shortlisted for the 2015 NAACP Image Award and is a current finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His other honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts; his first collection Totem received the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007. Pardlo's poems appear in The Nation, Ploughshares, Tin House, The Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. Pardlo lives with his family in Brooklyn.
Below, see the answers he had to our questions:
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One of the first things anyone to read your poems & interviews notices is an inexhaustible knowledge of history. To me, your poems have a tendency to blur personal & impersonal history: your “Attachment: Atlantic City Pimps” poem, for instance, and your Awl poems jumping between the perspective of ancient philosophers and scientists – Aquinas, Occam, Gassendi – and you and your friends polishing cars that, in a moment, also become Incan quipu and Jefferson repurposed in terms of materialism. How do you delineate between yourself & history?
Welcome or not, Thomas Jefferson’s intellectual legacy is no less an active presence in my life than, say, the Stevie Ray Vaughn tune that just shuffled through my playlist. I wouldn’t say I blur personal and impersonal history so much as I am reluctant to distinguish between them.
“Delineate” has a negative charge in my vocabulary. It’s in league with “belligerent” and “inimical.” And “repurposed,” I think, is just a funny word. Of course, I understand what you mean. But that sense—the sense that someone or something has a predefined or innate purpose, this is what I try to resist.
What’s the role of audience & perspective in your active process of writing?
Many difficulties in reading come from either our inability or our reluctance to “become” the person the text asks us temporarily to be. I want to be conscious of what I’m asking the reader to take on in my poems. In every poem I write, I am asking the reader temporarily to assume what I assume, and to understand the world as I imagine it to be. Some poems ask readers to flatten themselves to broad clichés of demographic categories, categories that reinforce the status quo. Didactic poems insist the reader take on a very narrow and specific identity. Abstract poems are “difficult” because they don’t give the reader very much stage direction at all regarding the character the reader should take on for the sake of inferring the poem. I assume anyone coming to my poem is doing so willingly in an attempt to see the world as I see it. I want to acknowledge that effort and generosity, that vulnerability, and as much as I can, to be a good host. That is, I try to speak to the reader’s individuality, to the extent I can, given the limits of my imagination. This may end up being a pantomime in a one-way mirror, but I believe (and I must for any hope of success) there is an already specific and unique someone on the other side of that mirror who is as amused with life as I am.
In “Are You My Mother?”, Alison Bechdel refers to Donald Winnocot’s theory of motherhood – that in order to actualize herself and preserve her relationship with her mother, that she must destroy her mother and her mother must survive. You’ve referred to Yusef Komunyakaa in a similar manner, as the lion in your path you had to destroy to attack to survive and begin creating your own work. What of Komunyakaa do you feel has survived in your work, and what do you believe is unique?
You’re right to point out—or to remind me, as the case may be—that Komunyakaa is an important influence on my work. I accept, as Komunyakaa writes in “Venus’s Flytraps” that, “I know things I don’t supposed to know.” There’s a sense of forbidden awareness in Komunyakaa that I’d like to think I’ve inherited. The difference is I’m fascinated with the circumstances that determine I am or am not “supposed to know” these things. In other words, I’m curious about why and how we rope off certain areas of the social museum as much as I am interested in ducking that rope when no one is looking.
If someone was to treat you as their lion, what would you want them to learn from you?
That’s a great question! Conventions, traditions and influences, if we use them right, should be like stencils and clipart. We should adhere to them and use them until they no longer serve the needs of our imaginations. Until then, our choice of clipart conditions and informs the images our minds are able to produce, yes. It’s true, this is a reciprocal relationship, but the urge should be toward using no more clipart (unless the project is conceptual and foregrounds the very artificiality of clip art). So maybe I’m trying to avoid answering your question. The literary aesthetic DNA I’d like to pass on, I guess, would be this understanding that the world we depict in our poems is not given, but that it is a function of choice. If you decide to use clip art, children, don’t fool yourselves into thinking you had no control over that decision.
At the moment, you’re a Teaching Fellow in Undergraduate Writing at Columbia. What are the particular frustrations and joys of your work? What was the most striking part of the transition from student to authority?
The question assumes I experience a transition between teaching and learning. I can’t even say I’m always moving between the two because I see every classroom as a laboratory environment. Everyone is an authority of something, and therefore has something to contribute. That may sound like a panacea, but I really do think it’s that simple. My eagerness to learn from others’ expertise has no impact on my sense of my own authority.
Jane Hirshfield writes that “there is no other life”. If there was, for you, a restrictive ‘or’, what would you engage with other than poetry?
Architecture, landscape design, urban planning. I think of Ed Robeson’s high-altitude perspectives on landscape, June Jordan’s collaborations with Buckminster Fuller in urban planning, or even Percy Shelley’s ambitious and misguided utopian experiments. I think poetry has always been a metaphor for the arrangement of social as well as physical space.
What impact did earning the Pulitzer Prize have on your life? What’s changed?
The change was so sudden and so complete I still have not caught up to it. It’s culture shock. The person I am in my head does not correspond to the person the abstract world seems to think I am, and I’m not sure how to navigate between the two. It’s an identity crisis I experience when I read various renditions of my story that appear in the media. The bottom line is I know my work is visible in a way it was not before. I should also say that random people—baristas, my dentist, other parents at my kids’ school, my mom—seem much happier to see me these days.
A lot of your poetry sculpts rhetorical questions in order to provoke a kind of philosophical discomfort with unspoken, accepted ideas. Though you manage them with expertise, rhetorical questions are generally one of the more dangerous devices in terms of how easy it is to misuse or overuse them. What drew you to the rhetorical question as a device?
I’m not sure I was aware of that. I mean, I’m not sure I ever thought of the rhetorical question as a necessarily flawed device in poetry. I guess anything can be a bullshit device if the stakes aren’t high enough. I see rhetorical gestures as a way to modulate tone and momentum. I turn to rhetorical questions when the statements those questions stand in for, I expect, are potentially alienating to the reader. So it’s also just good manners. It’s like I’m saying to the reader, for example, “race is such a crazy and sensitive thing to talk about, isn’t it? And by the way, would you like some pie?”
If you could give any advice to high school-age writers, what advice would you give?
Speaking to someone who is precocious enough to make a lifelong commitment to writing as a teenager and have a reasonable expectation of maintaining that commitment past age twenty-four, I would recommend travelling. Not necessarily abroad, but in as alien a context as possible. Teach yourself to be cool with uncertainty. Know humility, if not hunger