“The language is constructing our ideas more than we are deploying the language”: An Interview with Gregory Pardlo

Nathan Stabenfeldt

Gregory Pardlo's collection Digest won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, was shortlisted for the NAACP Image Award, and was a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award.. His other honors 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 translator of Niels Lyngsø’s Pencil of Rays and Spiked Mace: Selected Poems, and his work has appeared in the Boston Review, The Nation, and elsewhere. Pardlo is also the author of Air Traffic, a memoir in essays forthcoming from Knopf. In the Fall of 2016 he joined the faculty of the MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden.

I had a chance to chat with Pardlo over the phone about his forthcoming essay collection, the ways in which we define labor, improvisation in poetry, and our shared received narratives. 

Nathan Stabenfeldt: First of all, congratulations on your recent essay in the New Yorker. Is this at all related to your forthcoming memoir in essays, Air Traffic

Gregory Pardlo: Thank you! Yes, absolutely; that was the central essay, in fact more a kind of a Frankenstein of several of the essays in the book. I pieced together a larger narrative for the New Yorker specifically. So that piece points in several directions, for a number of the essays that go much deeper into their various episodes. 

In the book that essay—which I will say is actually shorter than you see on newyorker.com—that essay is titled “Air Traffic.” We’re actually tossing around new ideas for the title of the book, I don’t think we’re going to go with Air Traffic

NS: The version of the essay that appears in the New Yorker is about how your father lost his job as part of the 1981 Air Traffic Controllers strike and the subsequent firings by the Reagan administration, and that one starts with a memory of you marching in the picket line as a child. I feel like that’s a scene that’s being echoed by protests and marches in the current political climate. It feels relevant, like a commentary on the cyclical nature of history or something. I was wondering, was this something you were thinking about as you were working on the essay? 

GP: Not at all.

NS: Not at all, it’s just sort of unfortunate timing? 

GP: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. So in my first book, Totem, there’s a poem called “Winter After the Strike,” which has to do with this, and since that poem I’ve wanted to do something more. I had actually flirted with the idea of writing a collection of poems about labor and the strike and I looked at some models; Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary was attractive to me, some of C.D. Wright’s work I thought about. But ultimately, I wanted to do a lot of research and it just lent itself, seemed to be pushing me more toward prose and the personal essay. And so I started thinking more and more about the lyric essay, the sort of stuff that John D’Agata was sort of popularizing at the time, late in the first decade of this century. I had long had this idea and this ambition to think about that moment in history, and if there is a kind of consistency that I recognize [between then and today] it’s that 1981 was kind of the beginning of the end of organized labor. 

Certainly when I was in grad school, and much later even until now, we’re still having these conversations about the relationship between graduate students and the university and whether they are students or laborers or a sort of a workforce. And so the question of how we identify labor, how we identify the work in relation to the industry that contextualizes that labor, has always been really fascinating to me. I think one of the central questions that motivated me to write about the Air Traffic Controller strike was that PATCO [Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization], the union, was in very much a similar identity crisis. ‘Are we going to be a professional organization, or are we going to be a labor union?’ So is it more like a guild, right, or a labor union? And it all has to do with issues of class and the relationship to the working class. ‘Do we want to identify with poor people, with working people?’ 

To me, that always echoes in questions of race, and how I think so much of what we end up calling racism—and it may very well be racism proper—but I am interested in how racism is also just the mindset of ‘I don’t want to be associated with the reviled, with the alien class, I want to keep as much distance as possible from the people who are oppressed.’ And so these questions were on my mind the whole time, and as you say it’s kind of an unfortunate coincidence that they’ve come to a head now, and in the way that they are coming to a head, but it wasn’t intentional. 

NS: Turning to talk a little bit about Digest: I know you’ve mentioned in the past that you’ve held various jobs that put you around jazz and jazz musicians a lot, and there are a number of improvisation series threaded through Digest. What role does improvisation play in your process, and what sort of personal connections do you feel between jazz and poetry? 

GP: I don’t know if I feel a personal connection between jazz and poetry in the way that I think we most traditionally imagine, and that is the kind of beatnik, beanie-wearing, finger-snapping poet with a saxophone player standing next to him or her; that’s not so much the image that I have. But I am very much interested in the dynamics of, the relationship between preparation and spontaneous expression. I’m not so sure I believe spontaneous expression is possible. I guess I am sort of influenced by literary theory and sort of structuralist ideas that the language is constructing our ideas more than we are deploying the language; the romantic idea that the poet/artist/musician is inspired and untrained just bothers me. 

And these conversations go on in workshops and classrooms all over the place, where somebody says “Allen Ginsberg, he would just riff and whatever came out was what we have and there was no preparation—“ yeah, and Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and Miles Davis, these cats are all sort of riffing spontaneously, but we often overlook the fact that there’s decades of really intense training that goes into creating a foundation, a kind of background through which the so-called spontaneous expressions can occur.

So in my work, when I’m working on Digest and I’m thinking about improvisation, I’m not interested in making an argument about improvisation, but I do want to explore the relationship between a given topic or framework or context and the free play of the imagination: how surprising, how much delight, how playful can I be within a fairly—not necessarily rigid—but a fairly circumscribed form. Certainly in the Corrigedora improvisations [“Four Improvisations on Ursa Corrigedora”] you can see the form, you can kind of tell how the riffs are going and they’re really like—I was thinking about Van Gogh’s iterations of the same image in the paintings, and I wanted to do that with Corrigedora, with a previous text. 

But then the later ones, “The Conatus Improvisations” and “The Clinamen Improvisations,” it’s much more difficult to identify the formal constraints there, and that’s because I’m trying to give the poem ideological and conceptual restraints more than poetically formal ones. For example, the poem has to reference cars in some way, the poem has to deal with motion or fossil fuels; I would have these restraints in the back of my head. And they’re all seventeen lines, I think. The point being that I would come up with a set of standards and rules for the poem that weren’t necessarily foregrounded, and I thought about this as a way that a musician might approach a cover song or the way a jazz musician might expand on a jazz standard. 

NS: Some of my other favorite poems in Digest are poems like “Corrective Lenses” and “Ghosts in the Machine.” I really like the way those mimic some of the language of academic posturing, they mirror course descriptions, and I like these because I think they’re incredibly funny, but also because they encourage the reader to question received narratives that are broadcast at us from all sides. Do you think this is a responsibility of poetry, to encourage that kind of awareness? 

GP: No, I don’t think it’s a responsibility, but I certainly think it’s something poetry can do, and I think that poetry has a unique ability to do it because of its self-referential nature and its self-conscious nature. And I mean that in the sense that, in prose, we’re not often as conscious of the language and the operation of language itself. Our focus in on the content, on what is denotatively produced. In poetry we are trained, or at least readers of poetry are trained, to attend to or account for the structures of language as well as what that language conveys. Given that, one of the things I love about poetry is that it allows us to communicate on that register, that sort of, I wouldn’t call it a shadow register—but to make the reader aware that we’re conscious of how the language is operating in the world and not just what’s it’s saying; that there’s this other level of communication going on. 

NS: I just want to ask one final question. Is there anything that you’re listening to right now? Any album recommendations or anything like that? 

GP: Yeah, so I have two daughters straddling the tween years, and so I often tell people I have the musical taste of a twelve-year-old girl. So I was just listening to Shawn Mendes and—who’s the Irish guy that I really like? 

NS: Is it Ed Sheeran? 

GP: Ed Sheeran, yeah! I’ve been listening to a lot of Ed Sheeran lately. 

Gregory Pardlo will be reading at the Alley Theater in Houston on Monday, April 3rd at 7:30pm with Ada Limón as part of Inprint’s Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.