Digest, Gregory Pardlo’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poems, begins with “Written by Himself”: “I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden. / I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.” His lines carry a mythic rhythm that originate with the self, and then extend out, as in “Problemata,” when neighborhood fireworks flare emotions: “My neighbor’s teenaged boys argue who possesses the greatest / patriotism. Just as pit bulls chained to their fists imply / their roughly domesticated manhood, / they seek to demonstrate their patriotism with bottle / rockets, spinners, petards, these household paraphernalia of war.”
I like when poets write prose. Air Traffic, Pardlo’s new memoir, is a masterful consideration of manhood in contemporary America: the lies we tell ourselves, the struggle to find our own identity in the shadow of fathers, and the sweet perils of ambition. Pardlo is poetry editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, and teaches writing at Columbia University. We spoke about family, poetry, and the stories that, sooner or later, we have to tell.
The Millions: Let’s talk about New Jersey, where we both grew up. Your family lived in Willingboro. In 1976, they bought their third home there, and with three bedrooms and an in-ground swimming pool, it “meant the Pardlos had arrived.” There, in one of the three original Levittown communities, your “skateboard reeled in the streets like a length of garden hose.” You don’t live here anymore, but what of this state remains with you?
Gregory Pardlo: New Jersey is all of America under a shrink ray. Colonial towns next to prefab towns next to shopping malls and farmland. Crumbling highways and curated bike paths lined with mulch and railroad ties. The McDonald’s is a venerable old institution in my hometown. Things that some might find kitschy or crude I take very seriously (which is not to say uncritically). Parts of New Jersey feel like they’re below the Mason-Dixon line while at the same time being the historical home of the black middle class. My concept of this nation—its flaws and potential—grows out of my life in the Garden State. The Isley Brothers are from New Jersey. (Mic drop.)
TM: For a state that gets lampooned for other reasons, New Jersey has quite the literary tradition. You won the Pulitzer for poetry in 2015, and Peter Balakian, another NJ writer, got it in 2016. Is our state good for stories? What is it about New Jersey that might elicit good writing?
GP: Stephen Dunn, a literary hero of mine, won the Pulitzer in 2000. William Carlos Williams won in 1963, the year that he died. The list of literary achievements in NJ is long, disproportionately so. Maybe it’s because New Jersey occupies that sweet spot between Philly, representing the aspirations of Revolutionary America, and New York City, representing the talent and dynamism of our immigrant soul.
TM: Air Traffic is a memoir that arrives in essays. Each section’s discrete; each narrative feels somehow both complete and porous, leaning into the next chapter. How did this book grow (structurally, conceptually)?
GP: The earliest drafts were written as straight-up memoir. I was trying my best to write a book the way I thought a book was supposed to be written. I wrote flat grammatical sentences that I hated and that had no relation to the way my imagination actually works. This went on for more than 300 pages. Out of frustration I admitted to myself that I had no idea what I was doing, and I went hat-in-hand to Columbia’s graduate nonfiction program, begging them to let me in. As a student in the program, I discovered I would much rather write essays that would allow me to think on the page while still aspiring to be literary, as opposed to scholarly. I began to cherry-pick chunks out of that original manuscript and develop them in terms of ideas and themes. My thesis had little more than a family resemblance to the manuscript I brought with me to Columbia. I spent another year or so writing new stuff, revising and reorganizing the manuscript with my agent. After we sold the book to Knopf, it went through another major overhaul. Some of the DNA from that ancestral manuscript is still in Air Traffic, but much of what might feel like porousness or consistency is the result mostly of edits, revisions, arguments, and compromises.
TM: Story, narrative, performance, grandiosity: your father’s penchant for rhetorical presence is a theme in this book. “I’d learned at a young age to adjust for the self-aggrandizement in my father’s narratives. Problem was, so much of the way I interpret the world has come from the way he interprets it.” He has many shades and identities in this book, and the metaphor of him as an air traffic controller is not lost—and yet you are the storyteller here. How does your sense of narrative differ from your father? How are they similar? What were the goals and desires of his stories—and what are yours?
GP: If there were some way to chart my father’s narratives and mine graphically, I think the curves would look very similar. They would differ in the sense that my father privileged sound over substance. He wanted to ravish his listeners more than he wanted to convey anything. My father would have been at home among irony-loving hipsters. He avoided public displays of sincerity. Maybe to be contrary, I crave sincerity although I distrust it. I am sincerely in search of truth and revelatory statements. What this has meant for the book is that as I found myself trying to reproduce his lyricism, his voice stayed with me as an editorial influence, amplifying my self-consciousness. I think this had a big impact on the tone of the book.
TM: Your father looms in this book, of course, but your mother also comes alive in these pages. You share a birthday with her. “I have always belonged to her, through the infinite umbilicus of fate,” you write. What did you learn, or understand, about your mother from writing this book?
GP: Early in the writing process, my therapist kept asking me if I’d written about my mother yet. I realized I was putting it off because I didn’t trust myself to represent her fairly. I definitely couldn’t be objective. I knew I would have to sit down with her and interview her the way my teacher Phillip Lopate had interviewed his mother for his recent book, A Mother’s Tale. The conversation with my mom turned out to be less traumatic than I expected. This encouraged me to go back and look at the places where I had ducked or skated over references to my mom in the manuscript. When I thought I had represented her in a way that honored my own truths as well as hers, I let her read the manuscript. As you know from the book, she’s an artist. She would never tell me what or how to write. When she very gently suggested that I might have been a little hard on her “character,” I knew I had to do some soul-searching. She still gives me a little side-eye when we talk about the book, but I think she trusts that the way I present my own biases suggests to readers a margin of error that she can live with.
TM: Before you join the Marines, there’s a great scene in the book when you’re sort of drifting between temporary jobs, having left Rutgers after a few semesters: “More than once I’d stood in line in the parking lot of some warehouse or tool-and-die shop to get a Saran Wrapped tuna fish sandwich, only to find myself overcome by a mild terror when I saw the workaday world rippling in the diamond-patterned stainless steel siding of the truck.” When I read those sentences, we see the poet living in the essayist. Or is it the other way around? What types of stories, scenes, and sentences bring you to poetry instead of prose?
GP: Oh, man, that’s a great question. I remember clearly the internal war sentences like that set off in my head. The comp teacher in me was writing in the figurative margin, “how does this advance your argument, how does this help you reach your destination?” And the poetry workshop teacher in me was shouting, “whoo-hoo, we’re going off-road!” So I guess the two coexist, and it comes down to a series of intuitive indulgences in which I allow one or the other to predominate. There are also plenty of passages that are functional in their delivery of data in which I paid attention to the outcome of the argument rather than the pleasure of the language/moment. The goal is to find a balance or synthesis. If I’m trying to capture a nuanced emotion, I turn to poetry. When I suspect there is an insight to be gained that could potentially contribute to the discourse around a particular issue, I bring my essay game.
TM: I’m torn between “Cartography,” “Tolle, Lege,” and “Behind the Wheel” as my favorite sections of this book—they are each perfect in their own way—but I want to ask about “Tolle, Lege” since it speaks to poetry. You’re a poet, an editor of poetry, a reader and critic of poetry. You talk about the power of turns in poetry, and how poetry doesn’t require “grand epiphany or catharsis,” but it should feel like “I’ve just survived a vicarious encounter with some unqualified measure of intensity that I could not have created on my own.” Do you look for the same things in poetry as a reader, editor, and professor?
GP: The “vicarious encounter” quality is pretty consistent, but each one of those perspectives changes my relationship to the work. As a reader, my needs are self-centered. I don’t care how a poem works for me, only that it does (or does not). As an editor, I’m interested in whether or not the poem rewards re-reading. I want it to work in the moment, but I also want it to work differently the next time I return to it. That way, I can be more confident it’ll speak to a variety of readers who will be bringing various needs and dispositions. As a professor, I want to figure out where a poem promises to take a reader, what route (that is, which “turns”) it takes, and (to triple-dip the metaphor) how close to that destination it arrives.
TM: In the book’s introduction, you imply that your story—your life—is still a work in progress. You speak of failure often. Your story, as you say, contains “digressions and indulgences”—and there’s a literary power in your willingness to step aside from your story, smirk, and wonder at what to make of your life. What do you make of it now, as your memoir is set to be released? What does it mean to tell the story of your life—thoroughly, stylistically—in 2018?
GP: For anyone to tell their story today is a political act. Our stories are not ours alone. I know it’s popular to defend against cultural appropriation, but you can’t tell the story of a culture exclusive of the cultures surrounding it (and I’m not agreeing that “a culture” is an isolable thing either). And it’s even less possible to tell one person’s story without telling the story of the world surrounding that person. On the one hand, to tell my story is to say, “I exist, and I my presence is relevant and meaningful in the social and political landscape.” On the other hand, my story is necessarily your story. It may be on the lower frequencies, but in a very real sense, I speak for you.