by Lauren K. Alleyne
“Listen like a safecracker, navigate
the intricate ruptures by ear …”
—from “Marginalia” by Gregory Pardlo
A master of the image, Gregory Pardlo demonstrates how the poet’s eye can both arrest and transcend time. Consider a poem like “Double Dutch,” in which he describes the movements of a young girl playing thus: “the bells tied to her shoestrings rouse the gods / who’ve lain in the dust before the Dutch / acquired Manhattan. How she dances / patterns like a dust-heavy bee retracing / its travels in scale before the hive. How / the whole stunning contraption of girl and rope / slaps and scoops like a paddle boat.” This exquisitely rendered scene is a carnival of the senses—tantalizing the eye and ear, tickling the nostrils, throbbing with motion and touch—deliciously present. At the same time, the image draws us back to a time that predates the republic, juxtaposing the language of commerce, acquisition, and colonialism onto this girl’s body and its luminous enactment of liberty; it is a portal in and through time and, as Pardlo says, a “keyhole … the possibility of opening.”
Textured with history, myth, allusion, Pardlo’s poems also possess a wry self-reflexivity that reassures readers they are partners with the authorial voice on the journey of the poem, rather than spectators in an esoteric endeavor. However, readers are also expected to pull their own weight, as the poems are vehicles for dense explorations of the limits and complexities of the human condition. “I don’t know what is in me I can’t contain,” Pardlo writes in the ekphrastic poem, “Bipolar,” and indeed many of his poems are transcripts of seeking—the lyric artist painstakingly arranging and rearranging the units of language to code, recode, and question what exists and what lies beyond the known.
Pardlo read at James Madison University on March 23, 2017. In the studio earlier that day, he spoke with me about his projects, his process, and poetry as a means to discovery. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
At the University of Virginia last week, I attended a symposium—they’ve recently opened a center for poetry and poetics—and the subject of the inaugural symposium is the question I’m going to ask you right now: What is a poem?
Well, in my workshops when I’m teaching, I have this exercise that I’m going to give away now, because it kind of gets students to back into the question of what is a poem. So I’ll say, “What’s a poem made of?” We can often start there. And somebody will say, “Words.” (Well, they’ll say a lot of other stuff—“feelings,” etcetera—but I say I’m trying to get to the materials, and then we’ll get to “words.”) Then I say, “Give me some words,” and then I start writing words on the board, all over the place, and it’s a big hodgepodge mess—some big, some small, some cursive. And I step back and I say, “How do you like my poem?” (Laughs.) And the responses are just fascinating. Some people get maaaad! (Laughs.) People get defensive; they get scared …
I say this to say a poem—how we define a poem—is more indicative of the individual’s own perceptions of her/his limits. So, for example, I’ve had students who come from self-professed strict backgrounds, and there’s a lot of fidelity to the idea of a poem. The poem has to be metered and rhymed, and it has to participate in the tradition in a very faithful way. Of course, no it doesn’t, but that’s what they’ve decided. And so what I want my students to do—and often when I’m teaching, I’m teaching myself—so I want my students to think about where they’re drawing the line in terms of how to define a poem, and to be responsible for it.
So. Your next question might be: where do you draw the line?
Where do you draw the line, Greg?
I want to keep finding that line. It becomes a problem when I think I know where the line is. As soon as I fool myself into believing—or being comfortable with, at any rate—the idea that I know what a poem is, then I’m in trouble! I have to always be in a state of doubt and suspicion.
I love that exercise and the collection of words. If you could try, though, how would you define what moves a collection of words, or a feeling, into the realm of the poetic, into a poem?
Well, that’s the thing. As soon as you have language, you have, arguably, poetry. Which is not to say you have intention. I’m very liberal about these things, and I’m open to the idea that at some point what matters is subjective, so what matters is who is looking at it. If I’m the one crafting the thing, I’m the one determining the parameters and the limits, but there’s also the reader involved, and so there’s found poetry all over the place, right? And none of that has any intention. It’s what we’ve projected on to it. When does it come into the realm of poetry? The reader can decide that it’s poetry. For me, when does it come into the realm of poetry? I’d say—and this isn’t entirely right yet—I’d say when there is a central image. I think about the image as a kind of keyhole into the larger poem. I don’t know what’s on the other side of that door, but there is a keyhole there and, therefore, there is the possibility of opening.
You said once that “a poem fails if it’s in service of the poet’s ego,” which is a really wonderful way of putting it. Who or what should a poem serve?
Well it shouldn’t serve the idea. I mean that’s what I advocate getting away from: the idea of the poem being in service of anything. Now, I recognize, too, that there are [other arguments] … I think back to W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous statement—“I don’t give a damn about any literature that’s not propaganda”—and certainly we’ve gone through the Black Arts Movement, where the work is put in service of some communal collective ideal. Great. But what I mean by the poem should not be in service of the ego is that the poem should not—or, rather, the person writing the poem should not wish to have him or herself viewed in a particular way by virtue of the poem.
So the poem is not a mirror of the author.
The poem is not a mirror of the author. Of course, it comes out of the author’s mind and imagination, but if I’m writing, for example, and I want the reader to think well of me, and, by the same token, if I want the reader to chastise me because I’m feeling guilty about something, then I’m using the poem in a way that skews it away from … I’ll use the word “art.”
In some sense, the poem is not in service of art, but its goal is art. Art is the thing that it’s moving toward. Maybe beauty?
Well, that’s the big fuzzy question, which is truth and beauty—how do we know when we’ve arrived there? And you know, I’m happy with it being a big fuzzy question.
How does the poem or the poet fit into the bigger picture, into the bigger organization of things?
So, I will contradict myself. I think the poem, whether it’s intended or not, has an ethos, and that it’s in an ethical relationship to the context in which it is received; that is the culture, the society, the community. So whether or not I have an agenda for the poem, there is going to be a relationship to an environment. As benign as I may think my work is—say I’m writing about mountains and rivers—there is a relationship. That’s unavoidable.
When we recognize the poem has an ethos, my argument is that the poet has some—I’m hesitating to use the word “obligation”—maybe a responsibility to be conscious of the ethos, of how the poem is either affirming or undermining or in conversation with the dominant narratives of society. So if I am writing a poem to be in conversation with a normative notion of race or gender, and I should probably be aware of that, probably be conscious that those are the narratives that I’m operating in. Now the problem is that when you have these big sort of master narratives, it’s hard for most people to be aware of them because we’re so immersed in them. So I guess I think about it in terms of a process of getting to various degrees of self-awareness. There’s no way we can be aware of all the narratives that the poem is operating in, but in the process of writing the poem, I want to keep thinking about those narratives and how my poem is going to communicate within them. That has nothing to do with the content of the poem. I think there’s a difference. How do I explain this now? … Okay, so the metaphors that I choose, the way I construct the speaking voice on the page, the way that the world is seen, these can be entirely interior to or aside from the actual content or what the poem is about. But they, nonetheless, are participating in various narratives, so that’s where I put the idea of responsibility and ethos.
You mention the process: What is your process? How does a poem begin? How does it evolve? And how do you know it’s done?
Well, I can answer the last part of that because I’ve thought about it an awful lot, and I know the poem is done when something happens in the poem that I did not expect. If what’s on the page is familiar to me and does not challenge my perception of the larger narratives or behavior, then the poem’s not done, and I have to keep working at it until something happens that was completely unexpected. The question of process … who knows? Who knows where this stuff comes from? (Laughs.) Sometimes I’m actually intentional about it, and I sit down at my desk and I’m going to start writing until something happens or something begins to happen. Other times, something in the world occurs, and … well, I’m a little cynical about this one, because, you know, anytime people find out you’re a poet, the minute something happens—somebody spills a glass of water—they’re like, “Oh! That’s a poem! You better write that poem!” And you’re like, “No! That’s not how it works!” (Laughing) I guess people want to be helpful; they want to contribute.
So you sit down to write, or something moves you, or somebody spills a glass of water, and you have your image. Walk me through what happens next. Are you writing line by line, are you writing to the image, are you writing to sound? All of the above? Longhand? Notebook?
Absolutely longhand. And it’s a combination. I can’t separate out the writing through sound versus image. But I’m always writing against logic, writing against the kind of predictable semantics. But then I’m also very often trying to capture a narrative. Then there are those times when we have our handy received forms that give us a starting point, you know, a sonnet or pantoum, or golden shovel, for example.
As you mentioned received forms, I’m thinking about modality in your work. And I’m really interested in it because in several interviews you’ve talked about the pain in the lyric, that it’s not without cost, a psychic cost. And many of your poems are lyric, but as you mentioned, you also write narrative, and you use the persona, and I’m interested in several questions there: Are there different costs within the different modes, and can you parse those out? How do you deploy mode? And given that it is costly and painful in that way, why are you drawn to the lyric, anyway?
The payoff is this moment of discovery when something happens that surprises me. I go to and read poetry for those moments, and so when I am writing poetry, it’s just another way of looking for that moment. But it’s a different story when I’m rooting around in my own head looking for these things. And so I guess, like I said, I’m always writing through sound, and if I’m writing through a received form it’s a kind of way of backing into an emotional danger zone, right? I always tell my students we have denial for a very good reason—to keep us sane, to keep us safe, so that we can move through our day with some measure of sanity. But my job when I sit down to write is to circumvent that wall. That wall is crafty! It doesn’t want anybody to get behind the lines, so I have to find ways, to trick myself or distract myself from the project by looking at/concentrating on craft for the first several drafts, then after a while, I can ask, what’s that?
So when you see what’s there, how do you know when the poem needs to be narrative versus persona versus lyric? Let’s take, for example, the wonderful poem “Alienation Effects.” That is an incredible persona, and a really unexpected one. Where did that come from and how/why did you make that choice of the persona?
Luis Althusser had a memoir, The Future Lasts Forever, which I came across in a bookstore and was flipping through. I’d read some of his work as a philosopher, and I was curious and was kind of being nosy, and I noticed this detail that he’d murdered his wife. And I was like, “WHAT?! How does that happen?” And I found myself thinking about it more and more, and so I didn’t know where it was going and the reason that it’s so long is that it took me so long to dig up what was hiding inside of it. I kept looking for something. I guess my clue is if I keep thinking about it, then there’s something there.
I’m still pushing you on mode, just because you choose his voice as opposed to your lyric curiosity or a narrative retelling of that story.
It’s a device. I want to recreate my path to the surprise for the reader, and the way in—one part of that surprise. So if the way in was Luis Althusser, then that’s how it’s going to go down. And when it’s a lyric, when I’m backing in through a list of images, and after a while the images begin to coalesce into something, it’s like “Oh! Okay! That’s where that was going!” But I want to preserve, again, the process, the getting there.
That brings me to the question of the reader. Who are you imagining you’re writing for? And I say imagining because I know you’re not thinking Grandma might read this in order to compose, but I assume that we all have some sort of audience in mind. Your work is layered and textured with lots of references and allusions, so who are these folks? What do they need? What do you want them to come back with from the journey you’re taking them on?
Delight, and it’s horribly overblown or hubristic to say it, but enlightenment. I guess it’s something I aspire to. The reader is, I suppose, the younger version of myself that felt locked out, that felt underestimated, that felt dismissed. I’m writing the poem for that undergraduate who did not have a way in to classical literature, to canonical literature, but could have had a way in through pop culture or a curious question or a swinging lyric—and I want that kid to have access to the poem. Once, in this case, they get in there, I’m going to ask ‘em to do some work! I’m not carrying you! But, yeah, we’re going to work together. And I do want to maintain a sense of generosity. So, that said, I know there are readers who are not gonna stay with me, and that’s a sacrifice that I’m willing to make. And there are readers who are just not going to dig it, and that’s absolutely fine. It’s odd: the one thing I do not want is to be popular….
You do not want to be popular?!
(Laughing) The irony! The irony! It’s kind of cliché at the same time, right, so I’m thinking of Jonathan Franzen years ago rejecting the Oprah Winfrey book selection. I’m aware of the associations with elitism and ego when someone says, “I don’t want to be popular,” and maybe there isn’t a door out of that. How do you save yourself, Pardlo? Get out of this one! (Laughs.)
Well, here’s the thing. I don’t want to imagine a broad readership. I don’t want to intend a broad readership, because that is a disservice to the reader. I’m reducing the reader from a complex individual to a demographic. I’m flattening the reader out to an idea of “general people” and that is the disservice, that is the condescension. So I imagine a very unique reader with a very unique set of interests who is open to change and challenge and who is curious.
I want to go back to that kid you mentioned earlier. What was your first meaningful encounter with poetry?
Until very recently, actually, I have been telling people that it was when I got to Rutgers in Camden and took my first poetry workshop. But I was writing very bad rap lyrics in high school, as well. So I go back to seventh or eighth grade, when I wrote a rap song and a classmate saw it and convinced me that it had to be re-written in calligraphy, and I thought, That’s silly, but fine, sure, okay, you wanna do that? So he takes the paper and I never see it again. And it was really confusing to me. Why would anyone steal words on a page? That was a really productive moment—this stuff has that kind of value? People care like that about it? I was just having fun! But then recently in an interview someone asked me a similar question and somewhere at the back of my head Robert Louis Stevenson came to mind, A Child’s Garden of Verses, and I wondered, Why am I thinking about this book? And I kept thinking maybe I saw it somewhere recently or someone mentioned it, and I was talking to my mother some time after on the phone, and I was like, “Have you ever heard of this book, A Child’s Garden of Verses?” She says, “What? We read that book together every night! You love that book!” And then she started reciting—“Don’t you remember this poem?”—and she recited another. Now I’m getting choked up. But it was wild. Denial, right? The mind puts up these walls, and then says “Now you’re ready to know this.”
That’s beautiful. Who are some acknowledged patron saints of poetry, some folks on the other side of the denial wall, who taught you how to write?
Yusef [Komunyakaa], absolutely. He came to Rutgers in Camden where I was an undergrad at the time, and gave a reading and I was just like, What?! What just happened?! I was walking around in a daze. And the next day I rush to the bookstore, and I get Neon Vernacular, and I’m sitting on the bus in West Philly, weeping, because that keyhole that I’d been looking through had a world much larger than I’d anticipated. I think that’s one of the moments that I want to share. So Yusef was a big model for me in that regard. And then [Walt] Whitman. I was a big Whitman fan, I guess because of the largeness, the expansiveness, the inclusiveness; that was very attractive to me. And Hopkins. I remember reading [Gerard Manley] Hopkins and thinking, What is this guy doing? Why is he torturing the language like this? So I think what maybe if we’re looking for a connecting throughline, there’s a degree of intensity that I’m looking for.
What is the strangest place poetry has ever taken you?
You mean geographically or emotionally?
You once said your advice to poets is to travel, to go somewhere strange, and I had the same response you’re having right now: should poems make us travel to strange places in the world or in our own heads?
Well, certainly, since we were talking about “Alienation Effects”: that took me to some strange places. I dunno. It’s hard to say now because they’re no longer strange once I’ve gotten there. They’re strange in the process, but after … less so.
I can say that there are some poems that have done things in the world that I didn’t expect and never foresaw happening. So it’s interesting to get an email with a link to a YouTube video of some children reciting one of your poems. That’s taking me to some place really …
Where were these kids? Just out in the world memorizing poems?
That is wonderful. And strange. And wonderful!
The poet John Blake did a TED Talk about reading Marty McConnell’s poem, “Instructions for a Body,” and the last line (“Do not let the universe regret you”) was one of the motivations for him to reassess his life. I think that’s a big demand of poetry, but I ask the question because sometimes people have answers like that for it: Has a poem ever changed your life?
There was a poem that I came across, and it had meaning only to me, and it was, I remember, it was Pattiann Rogers’s “All the Elements of the Scene” and she broke the fourth wall, as it were, and I was like, You can’t do that! You know, so my parameters, or the line I’d been policing as to what is or is not a poem was at the level of addressing the reader, and when she broke that rule—made me aware of that rule—it gave me permission to do all kinds of things.
Let’s talk about essays. Did you finish the MFA in Creative Non-Fiction?
Yes, I’m polishing now. I’m in that stage where I could go on polishing for a very long time, but I’m painfully aware that at some point I have to let it go.
How are you finding writing in prose similar or different to poetry?
Digest led me to the essays. And I’m thinking about the sort of landscape of ideas that I could craft within an essay and the way that I could move rhetorically through an essay, the way that I could draw on various materials and all the stuff, everything; whatever you can do in an essay, you can do in a poem, right? But I dunno, there were a bunch of poets-turned-essayists and I guess I just wanted to experiment with the form and then got into it. I’ve been working on a PhD, too, and so I’d done a lot of academic writing, and I was frustrated with the limits of academic writing and I wanted to get out of that context and say, you know, Haha! I’m gonna do it anyway! I’m gonna do what I wanna do! and take the academic essay in a more lyric direction.
But I also had this story, this family story, that I knew I had not in any way addressed. I have one poem in Totem, “Winter After the Strike,” but that doesn’t go anywhere near the depth of the experience of the air traffic control strike in 1981, and I wanted to know more, too. I knew there was a world of knowledge that I didn’t understand, and didn’t have access to, and so the essay allowed me to do the research. But there are the same kind of demands of emotional surprise, the same thrills of transgressing against the form—and I know there are people very close to me who are going to say, “That’s not an essay, that’s way too lyrical, and you’ve gone off the rails!” But it’s fun: I enjoy it.
And so what do we have to look forward to? What’s ahead for Gregory Pardlo?
There are a couple of projects on the horizon. First, this essay collection. The other is a collection of poems that I’m loath to talk about because they’re dangerous for me—very dangerous for me right now. And that’s precisely why I have to pursue them. So there is that.
How exciting! A dangerous collection is brewing!
Dangerous for me. Other people probably won’t find it daunting or surprising. And there’s also a craft book.
Wonderful! Thank you for sharing!
Thank you for a great conversation!
Read more in this issue: Critical Essay | Poems | Writing Prompts
Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014).