On September 23, 2016, during the Montana Book Festival, CutBank's online managing editor Nicole Roché had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Gregory Pardlo, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection Digest. The full interview can be found in our latest print edition, CutBank 86.
NR: I have to ask you about the Pulitzer. In a New York Times article from last April, you were saying after the announcement, you felt like you were following around another guy everyone was congratulating. I’m wondering if a year and a half later, if it’s finally sunk in that you are that guy.
GP: Yes, it has sunk in. I mean, it’s been a learning curve. I think I’ve always had a problem with accepting praise and congratulations, so that’s just a character flaw that I’ve always had. But I’ve also had to learn—I’ve had to learn how to give interviews. It’s something that I never thought about doing, or thought would be a part of my job, as a poet. The whole learning curve has just been rethinking how I can be effective in the world in the way that I want to off the page as much as on the page. I guess in that process I’ve integrated the formerly alienated self.
NR: Ira Glass talks about this gap that exists between a beginning writer’s intentions and what actually makes it onto the page. I’m wondering if there was a moment, a period in your writing, when you sort of said, “Hey, you know, I am starting to close that gap?”
GP: No. I think I might be a little different, at least process-wise. I don’t start a poem knowing where it’s going to go. I pretty much have no clue what I’m getting myself into, so I don’t have any expectations on the back end. So whatever happens, and I think this is true about my work in general, it’s process-oriented. What I think is most demonstrated on the page is my thought process. My thinking through formal restraints, or thinking through the historical and social intersections. I just keep shoveling information into the poem and see what comes up, see what I can make of it. So the result is I don’t feel like it hasn’t met my expectations.
Now, of course, it never meets my expectations. Not to say I’m happy with the work. I don’t jump up from the desk patting myself on the back every time I finish a poem. But I can sort of keep pushing to do something beyond what I may have thought was in the poem.
NR: Digest says so much about history, about the burdens of history or the burdens of legacy, including legacies that are played out in increasingly sanitized or domestic ways, like the boys shooting off fireworks—“the household paraphernalia of war”—in “Problemata.” Do you think history leaves a tangible imprint on a place, on people, on the here and now?
GP: Yes. So, it’s kind of reactionary against the notion of realism in literature. We celebrate Hemingway, for example, for this stripped-down style. And the way I had been sold that style is that it gets to the bare “real,” to things as they are, and I distrusted that without knowing why. Part of what I’m interested in in terms of time in this book is that—first of all, I think realism is as much of an affected style as any other form of literature, and it is not getting any closer to the stripped-down real, and why should the stripped-down real itself be something we should want to pursue? So then, step two, I started thinking, why should we want the stripped-down real? Well, we want the stripped-down real because we are so desperately anxious and haunted by the history in our landscapes and in our environments. You can’t look at the American prairie without evoking the ghosts or the crimes from which we all benefit. Faulkner’s “history is in us”—whatever the quote is. You can’t look at a Southern plantation and render that scene with realism, because it’s unreal to do so. It is a contrivance to do so. For example, when I walk across campus at Columbia, I don’t look at the campus without thinking about all of my heroes that have gone to school there, all of the history. The reason I’m there is because of its romance. The reason I’m in New York is because of the romance that I have with New York. I want the history, as sordid and as beautiful as it is. It’s a part of human perception, first of all, that we only perceive place through the associations of time. If it’s a new place, we’re bringing our own projections to this new place. So A, I don’t think its humanly possible not to associate history with a place. And B, I think it’s unethical to ignore the fact that history and place are intertwined.
NR: What are our responsibilities to that history?
GP: I don’t think of it as a responsibility. I’m hearing responsibility as obligation to history. I don’t think we have an obligation to history. But I do think it is a distortion—it’s the motive that I have a beef with. So, if I want to render place minus history, I have to ask myself why I want to do that. And if the reason I want to do that is because the history that is entwined in a place makes me uncomfortable, then that’s a dishonorable motive in my worldview. I guess I want to leave the door open for projects that want to reimagine the history that’s present. So I don’t think there is a rigid record of what has happened in a place, I don’t think there’s a single record of place, but some of those records indict us. And some of the ways we think about place indict us. If I have a guilty motive, that’s a problem. If I have an aesthetic motive… I’m uncomfortable with that, because it seems dodgy. But I think that gets to the basis of what I mean by ethical. Who am I protecting? Am I protecting my ego, or am I genuinely trying to create something?
NR: In that NY Times article about winning the Pulitzer, there’s this grinning picture of you and you sound so incredulous. And now, hearing your thoughts about it—well, you’re such a personable guy. But I think a lot of people would say, “That guy’s made it. He’s totally made it.” Do you feel any pressure now to live up that expectation? Do you fear it has any effect on your work?
GP: To be honest, yes. Of course it influences my work, and it influences how I conceptualize the reader. My reader is much farther abroad now. My reader could be anywhere in the world now, as opposed to a reader within proximity. Changing that relationship fundamentally changes my approach to the poem. That said, I am nonetheless self-doubting and insecure, and a perfectionist. So none of that stuff goes away. Nothing has been lifted from my shoulders. I still agonize. I’m still an anxious wreck when I sit down to write.
NR: As someone who has “made it,” throw a bone to us MFA students and other beginning writers. What advice can you offer up?
GP: Find your superpower. What do you do that no one else can do? What can you put on the page that no one else can put on the page? I think so often in MFA programs, the culture is a competition to write the Richard Hugo poem or to write the Sharon Olds poem. We want to prove our cred by doing what someone else has done before. Some people will say you need to find your voice—I think that’s kind of trite, overworn, and not helpful. But there is something to say for a healthy self-awareness. We’re flawed, we’re beautifully flawed, damaged, and all-powerful beings. And the more of that we can accept in its uniqueness, then the more we can allow to be on the page.
Gregory Pardlo's collection Digest (Four Way Books) won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. His other honor include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts; his first collection Totem was selected by Brenda Hillman for the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007. He is also the author of Air Traffic, a memoir in essays forthcoming from Knopf. Pardlo is a faculty member of the MFA. program in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden. He lives with his family in Brooklyn.
Nicole Roché is the online managing editor and a fiction editor for CutBank. She is a second-year MFA student in fiction at the University of Montana.