Published: November 6th, 2015
Gregory Pardlo is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet whose first book, Totem, received the American Poetry Review/ Honickman Prize in 2007. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, The Nation, Ploughshares, Tin House, and two editions of Best American Poetry, as well anthologies including Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African 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. He has received other fellowships from the New York Times, the MacDowell Colony, the Lotos Club Foundation and Cave Canem. He is an Associate Editor of Callaloo.
Howl: What is your writing process like?
Pardlo: Lately, it’s much different from what it used to be because I’ve been kind of scattered for the past few months as you could probably imagine. Optimally, I start off doing a lot of reading in the morning. I like to read books of literary theory and philosophy. This is not to sound like I know what I’m doing, but preferably to get used to something over my head to a point where I kind of forced a scramble for meaning. And this usually works out pretty well as mental calisthenics to kind of get me going.
I often have many poems working at the same time. To begin with, a poem will usually start with an idea, some kind of tension, some kind of unresolved or unresolvable contradiction or paradox that I start thinking about and assigning images to. Very often I’ll put sheets of butcher paper on my office or kitchen wall or the hallway, and associate images with several poems. I’ll have columns, for example. You can imagine as I do a lot of work on the blackboard in classrooms, each poem idea having its own base where it starts accruing ingredients. Much like a cooking analogy which is what I’m leaning towards. At some point it will take on a momentum and decide if it’s either a narrative poem, a lyric poem, or a dramatic poem - a persona poem. So I’ll generally move into one of those directions and start to narrow it down.
Howl: What advice would you have for budding writers?
Pardlo: Other than read, translate. That’s not to say, “go out and learn another language if you don’t know one already.” And in fact, if you know another language, you probably want to find a language you know less well. And find poems in that language, get a dictionary, and translate word by word, and try to figure out what that poem means, what the poet was trying to get at. The majority of our work is in the reading rather than in the writing. I’d say 60/40 in favor of reading in far as your classes. So translating has been a big help for me in my development.
Howl: That brings up an interesting question. As a translator, have you found that there are certain words or phrases that are best expressed in a particular language that can’t quite be conveyed in English?
Pardlo: Oh, absolutely. People I know who are speakers of other languages, when they make conversation...I love when they say, “what’s the word for this?” And we can’t think of it and find one in English. Language is a technology for understanding reality or comprehending reality. It’s not even producing reality. And so all of these things that are subject to politics, social relations, institutions...these things are very different from one community to another. So it stands to reason that one language is going to apprehend reality than another.
Howl: Poetry can be so personal and yet is read by so many strangers. We think specifically of your poem, “837. Wilsom, Shurli-Anne Mfumi. Black Pampers: Raising Consicousness in the Past-Nationalist Home.”
It reads as though you are writing it to your child. How do you balance the personal aspect of what you discover in yourself versus knowing that a larger and unknown audience will read your work?
Pardlo: Well, I write for the general public. I have every ambition for my poems to be read. That’s why I write: to speak to the world. I will say that my work changed or shifted slightly when I became a father, but that’s because my world view shifted slightly. My poems were more egocentric before I became a father. They spoke to my immediate desires and fear, whereas I matured and learned to put my children and other people before me.
[from “837. Wilsom, Shurli-Anne Mfumi. Black Pampers: Raising Consicousness in the Past-Nationalist Home”] “How and how soon should you intervene if you suspect your child lacks rhythm?” - that’s a joke. But the joke being the perceived biological roots of race. My intention there is to make fun of people who believe that race is real. That there is some biological foundation for it, where then race is a cultural construct. But then, in the next spread, “When do you prepare your little one for the historical memory of slavery?” there are very potent and life-affecting rules that result from race. So then this kind of one-two punch with the joke and then deadpan, if not horrifically serious, follow-up...that’s not so much out of a sense of wanting to convey something to a child or trying to convey something to a reader, as it is an aesthetic view. And you might notice a lot of my poems go from what might be a sarcastic or ironic or facetious tone in one breath to a very serious, pointed if not arched, tone in the very next line. That’s something I do as an art, as a poet: manipulate the readers’ sense of gravity and levity.
Howl: What attracts you to poetry as a creative medium?
Pardlo: I’ve long been frustrated with reading for data. We’re trained to read just to get the information, like how one would read a newspaper. So how do you tell if a journalist is a great writer? Most people have no clue or have never thought of such a thing. And that is by design. The writer is supposed to be invisible. And I’ve long been interested in the craft. I know this person is putting a cultural spin or making their cultural assumptions.
And so poetry allows for more honesty as far as I’m concerned - greater honesty in the sense that the poet is on the stage. And when we read a poem, not reading for data or the information inside the poem, we’re reading for a very intuitive and empathetic connection that I think most forms of communication in our society are very actively trying to avoid. Poetry allows for a greater sense of human connection between the poet and the reader.
Howl: So what’s next for Gregory Pardlo? Anything in the works?
Pardlo: So yeah. In fact, I’m wrapping up a collection of essays now. My father was an air traffic controller in 1981 and the controllers went on strike and rather than negotiate with the union, President Reagan at the time, fired them all. 13,000 federal employees. And so this had a huge impact on my family and me personally. But also it was the beginning of what could possibly be the end of organized labor as we see the politicians celebrating the death of unions and prevention of collective bargaining, not just in the U.S., but around the world. All that, I think, can be traced back to August of 1981. So I’m interested in labor history and in how we formulate communities and unions and how we serve collective interests.
Howl: So this brings up an interesting point, that you write in different genres. When doing so, do you consider the different audiences for the various genres? Is there a consciousness there?
Pardlo: That’s a good question. I’m still figuring out who my prose reader is because I’ve never published in that regard. So I guess the reader of my essays, in my head, is still the readers of my poems. And that is to say mostly poetry enthusiasts and college-educated people.
Howl: And given that you write both poetry and essay, would you have different advice for a writer of longer pieces, such as prose, verses advice given to a poet?
Pardlo: Write poems.
Howl: Write poems?
Pardlo: Yeah, in addition to what you do, study poetry. There’s a consciousness and awareness of language as material, language as a medium. And a lot of my students, who are typically first year students in college, have a hard time wrapping their head around the notion that language is a tool. I think there’s a presumption that we’re getting this information immediately...word choice, character, speaker we are constructing on the page, the quality of our syntax. So all of these things we learn how to attend to in the practice of writing a poem. And that’s the kind of micro-level attention that makes a superior prose writer, or writer in general.
(837. Wilson, Shurli-Anne Mfumi. Black Pampers: Raising Consciousness in the Post-Nationalist Home.
Blacktalk Press, Lawnside, NJ, 1974. 642 pp., illustrator unknown. 10 ½ x 11 7/8”.
Want tips for nursery décor? Masks and hieroglyphics, akwaba dolls. Send Raggedy Ann to the trash heap. This tome is a how-to for upwardly mobile black parents beset with the guilt of assimilation. Revealed here are the safetypinnings of the nascent black middleclass, their leafy split-level cribs and infants with Sherman Hemsley hairlines. Of interest are bedtime polemics on the racist derivations of “The Wheels on the Bus.” Chapter headings address important questions of the day: How and how soon should you intervene if you suspect your child lacks rhythm? When do you prepare your little one for the historical memory of slavery? And the two cake solution: one party for classmates, and another one you can invite your sister’s kids to. Indispensible to collectors for whom Aesop’s African origin is no matter of debate, a more appropriate title for this book might nonetheless be, “What to Expect When You’re No Longer Expecting Revolution.”
Usual occasional scattered light foxing to interiors; contemporary tree calf
exceptional. About-fine condition. $75.00)