Published: Nov 24, 2015
Greg Pardlo submitted “Digest,” his slim book of poems, to the major publishers. All rejected it. He sent it to Four Way Books, which is, like the poet, literary and decidedly non-profit. In 2014, Four Way published his 75-page book.
When Pardlo won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, “Digest” had sold 1,500 copies.
I missed that announcement, and so, when I was asked to interview Greg Pardlo at a benefit for Four Way, I had to find out who he was. The short answer: much traveled. He’d worked in a restaurant in Denmark, joined the Marine Reserves, helped run a jazz club. Along the way, he’d stumbled into poetry. He teaches at Columbia, is a candidate for a Ph.D. in English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two daughters.
I read “Digest.” And was knocked out. The poems contain multitudes: Brooklyn, fatherhood, academia, music. They sizzle (“I was reborn at the crime scene”). They bite (“Nothing holds a family together like irony and a grudge”). Sometimes they make you laugh out loud (“I finally friended my brother”). Here is “Written by Himself,” the first poem in the book.
As you may imagine, Four Way Books has gone back to press for a second printing — and a third. [To buy “Digest” from Amazon, click here.]
The edited version of our conversation can’t begin to suggest how much fun it was simply to be in a room with Greg Pardlo…
Kornbluth: The greatest tabloid headline I’ve seen was on the front page of The New York Post: “Headless Body in Topless Bar.” The second greatest appeared in a Columbia University newspaper: “Columbia Non-Fiction Student Wins Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.” Non-fiction student?
Pardlo: You live your life one step at a time, you make decisions: “Well, let me try this, I’m interested in this, let’s see where this goes.” And after a while, you turn around and look back, and you’ve left this kind of encyclopedia of details in your wake. My father was an air traffic controller, and when the air controllers went on strike in 1981, Reagan fired them all. I remember walking the picket line with him. I was very proud of him. But he lost his job and his pension and my college savings and basically all the family future — which had a very profound impact on our family. I wanted to write about that moment, and to bring my scholarly, academic chops to bear on that. So I started writing a memoir. It wasn’t going well — it was just awful — because I was writing prose as a poet. A thing I’ve learned to do in my life is that when you have a project that you want to do and you don’t know how to get it done, you enroll in a graduate program.
Pardlo; Well, it made sense to me, so I went up to Columbia and said I need help with this memoir that I’m writing, and can I join the program? And they took me in, and so I’d been working on that.
Kornbluth: And then the non-fiction writer won the Pulitzer for poetry. Okay, to the book. “Digest” suggests that it’s a condensation, like Reader’s Digest.
Pardlo: Exactly. But there’s also the implication of the material that I’d been sifting through in my academic work. We’re always re-writing our literary influences. I decided to incorporate as much of my reading as possible, reading that I had, you know, digested, to the extent that I can.
Kornbluth: I used to think there were only two things that could make right angle turns: UFOs and my ex-wives. You may be the third. Because as I read your poems, I felt like they were written in phrases and then assembled, that you’re pulling from notebooks. Did those lines come from different times, like you’re a word factory and then you assemble the poems. Is that how you write?
Pardlo: No. But yes, there is a degree of that. Mostly I’m writing and chucking lines, and chucking images, and re-writing. And each time I come back to the poem, I come back with a slightly different head space, with something else that I’ve read or some other film I’ve seen or some other conversation I’ve had —- each time I come back to the draft, I’m coming with new information. So it’s more like an oil painting. There is a base image, and I keep putting more layers on and taking other layers off, but I’m working from what I see in my head as a solid foundation.
Kornbluth: You say “I’m a huge of Robert Johnson, I’m a huge fan of Led Zeppelin.” I don’t particularly get the sense that you are, as it were, “writing while black.”
Pardlo: And that has caused as much problem as celebration. I hesitate on the question. I don’t want to suggest that the question is a legitimate one, that one’s identity should be performed in a particular way. But we all know that there are forces in our society that say, “What I’m expecting from someone of your demographic is this kind of behavior, this kind of value system, this background — and if you’re not performing that, then you’re doing something wrong, and you haven’t figured how to be The Black Guy from South Jersey.” We live in a capitalist society and we want the label, we want the category. We want to know what it is I’m getting when I go to the The Black Guy from South Jersey. And I resist that. So in that sense I’m not writing while black. I want to get so much into my work that I can’t help but defy those kinds of expectations.
Kornbluth: What can we make of poems that are descriptions of books? Like this one: “Wilson, Shurli-Anne Mfumi. Black Pampers: Raising Consciousness in the Post-Nationalist Home. In the poem, there’s a suggestion that a better title might be, “What to Expect When You’re No Longer Expecting Revolution.” And you write: “Chapter headings address important questions of the day. How and how soon should you intervene if you suspect your child lacks rhythm?” Where were you when you got that idea?
Pardlo: I met a guy who writes descriptions for rare books. And I’m interested in form. I want to find odd forms that allow me to do things with poems that are new and exciting to me. So I decided I’m going to write a poem in the form of a rare book description. What would the book be? It’s got to be something that’s a little obsolete, a little out-of-date, somewhat relevant but not terribly pressing or important — and I thought of my parents. That’s a joke. My father loves that joke. But why think of my parents? Because the typical narrative of middle-class black life is the story of uplift, right? Like “The Jeffersons” — a nicer home, a nicer education, each generation is doing better than the last. Well, that story had the plug pulled on it. And yet we continue to live our lives as if we come from middle-class, well-cultured families. The brat kid in me gets a little kick out of thumbing his nose at that sense of decorum.
Kornbluth: You’ve described yourself as a poetry addict. You say, “I’m chasing the high.” How did that start?
Pardlo: I wasn’t a literary reader as a kid. I read a lot of comic books and MAD magazines. But when I was 25, I read a Pattiann Rogers poem. There was something in the poem where she breaks the fourth wall, as it were, and speaks directly to the reader. And that irreverence thrilled me — it was like a hand reaching out of the poem. That was the initial high. I saw that here was a space where I could act out and explore creatively, and it was socially acceptable. This is the feeling I’m always trying to get back to.
Kornbluth: When I interviewed John Cheever, I asked him what the Pulitzer Prize meant to him. He said, “Nothing. But it makes it easier for other people. It turns you into shredded wheat.” That answer was a lie, but it was clever. What does the Pulitzer mean to you?
Pardlo: It’s a pulpit. It’s a opportunity to bring attention to my press, bring attention to poets and writers who I think are being overlooked. It’s an opportunity to talk about things that I think are important, like diversity in literature. And, obviously, it’s an affirmation that my poems are welcomed and appreciated. But it’s also a lot of work. It’s a full-time job.
Kornbluth: Are your children taking it better?
Pardlo: “Digest” was also nominated for the Hurston Wright Prize, so the family went down for the ceremony. And that evening the girls stayed in the hotel. When my wife and I came back to the hotel, they were like “Daddy, did you win, did you win?” And I said, “No, I’m sorry, I didn’t win,” and they go, “Yayyyy!” [laughter] Yeah, they had enough of the reporters coming to the house.
BONUS POEM: “Problema 3”
The Fulton St. Foodtown is playing Motown and I’m surprised
at how quickly my daughter picks up the tune. And soon
the two of us, plowing rows of goods steeped in fructose
under light thick as corn oil, are singing Baby,
I need your lovin, unconscious of the lyrics’ foreboding.
My happy child riding high in the shopping cart as if she’s
cruising the polished aisles on a tractor laden with imperishable
foodstuffs. Her cornball father enthusiastically prompting
with spins and flourishes and the double-barrel fingers
of the gunslinger’s pose. But we hear it as we round the rice
and Goya aisle, that other music, the familiar exchange of anger,
the war drums of parent and child. The boy wants, what, to be
carried? to eat the snacks right from his mother’s basket?
What does it matter, he is making a scene. With no self-interest
beyond the pleasure of replacing wonder with wonder, my daughter
asks me to name the boy’s offense. I offer to buy her ice cream.
How can I admit recognizing the portrait of fear the mother’s face
performs, the inherited terror of non-conformity frosted with the fear
of being thought disrespected by, or lacking the will to discipline
one’s child? How can I account for both the cultural and the inter-
cultural? The boy’s cries rising like hosannas as the mother’s purse
falls from her shoulder. Her missed step from the ledge
of one of her stilted heels, passion loosed with each displaced
hairpin. His little jacket bunched at the collar where she has worked
the marionette. Later, when I’m placing groceries on the conveyor
belt and it is clear I’ve forgotten the ice cream, my daughter
tries her hand at this new algorithm of love, each word
punctuated by her little fist: boy, she commands, didn’t I tell you?