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Gregory Pardlo: The Poem as Pursuit

“I wanted history I could touch like a flank of a beast.”

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Image courtesy of Gregory Pardlo.

More than seven years have passed since the publication of Gregory Pardlo’s debut, award-winning collection Totem. While not exactly an anomaly for the poetry world, the years are a reminder of the concentration necessary to create the insightful, musical, and complex poems of his new book, Digest. “Written by Himself,” ends with the lines “I read minds before I could read fishes and loaves; / I walked a piece of the way alone before I was born.” Indeed, there is a preternatural quality to this poet’s work, an intangible wisdom that emerges whether he’s meditating on Heraclitus or Chris Rock. Pardlo corresponded via email about over sharing, confronting misogyny, and being nominated for an NAACP Image Award.

Erica Wright for Guernica

Guernica: In the poem “For Which It Stands,” you wrote, “I wanted history I could touch like a flank of a beast.” How did you choose which stories to explore in this collection?

Gregory Pardlo: The choices came about—I want to say organically, but compulsively might be more like it. On top of whatever else I’m doing, I’m usually teaching some form of composition. The benefit of this is I get to read across disciplines. Often enough (between grading and rereading the texts student essays are responding to) that work spills over to my creative reading/thinking, and I reach a point of saturation where I can’t distinguish between texts and writers and everything starts to blur and smudge together. When I find myself in that kind of unrest, I try to yield to the moment and see where it might take me. So it wasn’t the stories I chose so much as these constellations of ideas that sort of happened to me.

My own emotional health issues were bullying me during the time I was drafting that poem. It was a pressure I couldn’t pin down or diagnose. And like many, if not most, writers I had the self-consciousness to recognize it made great conditions for writing.

Guernica: One of the dramatic monologues embodies the voice of Louis Althusser. What drew you to this particular man or murder?

Gregory Pardlo: My own emotional health issues were bullying me during the time I was drafting that poem. It was a pressure I couldn’t pin down or diagnose. And like many, if not most, writers I had the self-consciousness to recognize it made great conditions for writing. In many ways that was easier than dealing with the problem, and it hadn’t yet occurred to me that I could do both—deal with it and write about/inside it. So I was looking for a story to give shape to my (what else to call it?) sadness so I might better imagine some obverse form of happiness.

I chanced on Althusser’s memoir, The Future Lasts Forever, in St. Mark’s Bookshop (if you remember that discount table in the back by the poetry shelves) and was immediately taken in by his story, which is her story—Helene’s—the wife he murdered. That was something I found particularly haunting. It may not seem like much of a revelation or breakthrough for anyone else, but for me it was terrifying—that confrontation with misogyny, and the search for any similar programming in myself. The poem took me seven years to write because it took me that long to admit to myself what was hiding there, to say it out loud.

Guernica: Your wife and daughters are evoked in several of these poems. Were there any pitfalls you tried to avoid when writing about your family?

Gregory Pardlo: None. In fact, this was another, big reason why I had to write the Althusser poem. It was my hope of inoculating my family against the kind of ambient aggression and meanness that insinuates itself across generations. There was a habit of denial in my family when I was a kid that it took me a long time to figure out was a form of shame. I don’t want that for my children. If sometimes I appear to be over sharing or confessional, oh well. And [my wife] Ginger, you know, she’s more sanguine about these things. For her, I think (but I’ll ask her), visibility and the scrutiny it invites, as people are always going to judge, is also kind of accountability, a precondition of democracy. I don’t mean to get all flag-waving, but it’s difficult to actively engage the world, however our kids might choose to do that, while looking over your shoulder.

I taught for a long time at Medgar Evers College in Crown Heights, a community under the thumbs of gun violence, demagoguery, and neglect. Then a Mitzvah Tank would pull up beside the bus blasting “Hava Nagila” through the bullhorns. How could I not write about this place?

Guernica: I remember at a reading for Totem, you mentioned being raised in the suburbs and how that affected your work. Has living in Brooklyn changed your approach to writing?

Gregory Pardlo: I only moved to Brooklyn to be with Ginger, but soon I was enthralled, fascinated with the place. I never expected to get so attached to Brooklyn. I love the way, after a certain hour, my Bed Stuy block of brownstones can be as quiet as any bedroom community in the suburbs. You can hear the leaves and the cats’ flaring and the car doors closing. Then the stillness is broken by a passerby amplifying the song lyrics he hears in his earbuds. I taught for a long time at Medgar Evers College, CUNY, in Crown Heights, a community under the thumbs of gun violence, demagoguery, and neglect. From the window of the bus I took to get to school, it looked a little like North Philly. Then a Mitzvah Tank would pull up beside the bus blasting “Hava Nagila” through the bullhorns on its roof. How could I not write about this place?

Of course, it is always Whitman’s Brooklyn. Crane’s Brooklyn. But the real challenge I saw was that the Brooklyn I found on the page often looked very little like the place I call home.

Of course, it is always Whitman’s Brooklyn. Crane’s Brooklyn. But the real challenge I saw was that the Brooklyn I found on the contemporary page often looked very little like the place I call home. You know how Toni Morrison says you have to write the book you want to see in the world? I admit I keep a clichéd ironic distance with many things in the world, but Brooklyn is not one of them. This is to say, yes, I made a conscious decision to join the parade of writers who celebrate Brooklyn, but my agenda was perhaps more political than aesthetic.

Guernica: In a poem like “Corrective Lenses: Creative Reading and (Recon)textual/ization,” there seems to be both a mocking of and affection for theoretical language. What are the overlaps or tensions between being a poet and being a scholar?

I tend to integrate poet and scholar is by ironizing the scholarship. My hope is to disturb that space between the two so they can coexist in a kind of mutual uncertainty.

Gregory Pardlo: I’ve found the way I tend to integrate poet and scholar is by ironizing the scholarship. My hope is to disturb that space between the two so they can coexist in a kind of mutual uncertainty. To put it less cynically, both the poet and scholar are trying to learn something. The poem for me is a pursuit. Some of the answers are within. Some of the answers are without.

Guernica: Digest was nominated for a 2015 NAACP Image Award alongside collections by Claudia Rankine, Jericho Brown, Derek Walcott, and Brian Gilmore. What is the significance of this award to you?

Gregory Pardlo: I think it doesn’t really matter what the prize is, does it, when you’re in the company of Rankine, Brown, Gilmore, and Walcott. But I do have a “small world” story about this. For a time, Myrlie and Medgar Evers’s granddaughter was a tenant of ours (that part’s a longer story) in Brooklyn. And Ginger and I once had the great pleasure of hosting Myrlie Evers, former chairperson of the NAACP and widow of the slain civil rights leader, at our raggedy little Ikea kitchen table for dinner. When the conversation turned to my poetry, we raised our water glasses and made mock toasts to my one day having a book nominated for an Image Award. The whole idea was romantically far-fetched. Or so it seemed to me at the time, sitting across the table from Myrlie Evers.

Erica Wright is the poetry editor of Guernica.

Gregory Pardlo is the author of Totem, which received the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007, and Digest, (Four Way Books, 2014), which was nominated for the 2015 NAACP Image Award in poetry. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, The Nation, Ploughshares, Tin House, as well as anthologies including Angles of Ascent, the Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, and two editions of Best American Poetry. He is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a fellowship for translation from the National Endowment for the Arts. An Associate Editor of Callaloo, he is currently a Teaching Fellow in Undergraduate Writing at Columbia University.

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