Ching-In Chen with Gregory Pardlo

Gregory Pardlo
Gregory Pardlo. Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

This conversation with Gregory Pardlo is part of Intersecting Lineages, a series focusing on conversations with poets of color following a series of cross-community solidarity readings and panels among poets involved with organizations such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, Canto Mundo, RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers), Institute of American Indian Arts and VONA (Voices at Our Nations Arts Foundation).

Ching-In Chen: I’m interested in the choice to begin Digest with “Written By Himself,” which at first, felt more familiar in its music of anaphora and its lyric strategies. But that title begs a twist to what follows. It makes me wonder if such attention is called to authorship, who wrote those lines, where they came from and which speakers have been brought before the reader to witness and for what purpose(s). And when I return to this poem after reading the book, it hints towards what’s to come, with your longer sequences and variations (“Marginalia,” the Improvisations series). What kinds of conversations do you envision curating on the page for your reader(s)? Has this changed from your first book, Totem, to Digest?

Gregory Pardlo: Since Totem, I’ve gotten more self-conscious about sincerity and authenticity and the emotional range I, a person assigned to the social registries of, among others, male and black and American, am allowed to articulate before my words are pronounced false or unrecognizable by the audience, my auditors. The slave narrative genre is like a starter kit for all my obsessions in this regard. Slaves weren’t supposed to have access to the kind of subjectivity necessary to string together a narrative. And they certainly weren’t supposed to be literate enough to record their narratives by their own hands. Someone—sometimes several someones—had to serve as witness to verify the conditions under which the formerly enslaved person claimed to speak. That is, someone had to confirm that the text was indeed written by the former bondsperson him or herself. This gets me thinking about the ways my own or anyone’s work relies on various types of—usually institutional—mediation to be heard and recognized. While reading slave narratives I wonder how does the author’s awareness of the reader’s blind spots or threshold for credence influence the writing process. What performance does one have to give, what pass/words does one have to recite, to gain admission to the fellowship of intelligibility—or any institution for that matter? When I consider the word “written” do I mean arranged, curated, inscribed, mimicked, published, appropriated? And the strangely third person subjectivity of “himself”: from whose subject position is the reader supposed to enter the narrative frame? Who “authorizes” me to speak? Who licenses this “I”? (Even in this, I hear “who takes this bride,” the constant hum of patriarchy.) In some ways, my suspicion is that I can’t get much farther than the assertion “I was born” before having to negotiate with a public (however internalized) that is prepared to judge my performance of myself as implausible or unacceptable. The slave narrative foregrounds these problems of narrative authority.

I hope “Written By Himself” prepares the reader for my wrestling with selfhood more generally, too. I accept, for example, that my identity is a digest of discourses, and that my engagement with the world is mediated through these discourses. There is a voiceover in my head that asks, “What would the character appropriately cast for this situation do if I were playing that character?” This is common for the media saturated life. But even when I can tone down (to my satisfaction) the what-would-my-character-do kind of posturing in my work, I still have to shake off whatever theoretical discourse I’ve used to make that problem legible. I realized there’s no peeling the onion. The onion is egotism. Maybe trying to get beyond the ego is pointless (and egotistical). So instead of chasing romantic notions of sincerity in each poem, that is, instead of chasing my tail, I decided to look at my relationship to some of the frameworks I’ve used to shape my thinking and feeling. I decided to interrogate my relationship to books.

I’m ready to take a shot at a grand statement now: “Written By Himself” is an attempt to make apparent the discursive performance of racial identity. I want to make that performance almost burlesque in its self-consciousness. There is no singular, coherent speaker in the poem. No image in the poem comes from a firsthand experience except in the sense that my firsthand reading gleaned the images collaged in the poem. In this sense, the poem could have been “written” by anyone. Anyone fluent in African American literature could have rendered that performance of blackness. I want to push the pretense of an authentic speaking subject to such an extent that a kind of truth, a kind of sincerity, might be possible (as in, but not exactly, Camp). Through all the putting on of voices and texts, I’m hoping to cause a rupture, a chance to walk on my own in the world of language, momentarily, even if I have to imagine my way back to a pre-verbal state, a stage before I was born into narrative consciousness.

Of course, I might read the poem very differently next week.

CIC: Usually, when I read, I experience the words I’m reading as one strain in a busy landscape accompanied by my own life—with music and/or news show going, cooking and other conversations in the edges. I could not do that when I read Digest. My experience of your lines is as you write in “Bipolar”: If every line is a horizon, what when/I have two? So much was laden with multiple sensory collisions and conversations that I found I had to shut everything else off and focus on each word. I had to wait for a silent place, read, pause, re-read, and return. Can you talk more about how you think about constructing the line? I know that you are also writing non-fiction, so I’m wondering if there’s a relationship between your prose and your poetic lines?

GP: That’s kind of you to say. So kind, in fact, I’m inclined to be deprecating and respond in a way that probably says more about my self-image than my self-awareness. I’ve long been attracted to poems that resist, without being adversarial, classical unities of time and place by trying to inhabit two or more of each at once (One of my favorite poems, James Dickey’s “Slave Quarters” comes to mind). That’s one motive I have. In terms of practice, I admit it’s just difficult for me to stay focused on a single idea. I am in constant fear of digression, which means I am constantly entertaining digressive thoughts (otherwise, I would have nothing to fear). To keep the poetic line stable, to keep it from blowing away in shreds of subordinate clauses and recriminations, I try to load it with lyric compression. Like sitting on an overstuffed suitcase to get it closed. As a result, I see my line as distracted with its attempts and failures to seem under control. I suspect this is what accounts for the humor. I’m trying so hard to cover my ass that the line ends up—like Lucy wrapping chocolates on the production line—exhibiting a slightly unhinged urgency.

CIC: In some ways, this book seemed to be a compendium of reading and thinking—a concrete, lived experience (of place, fatherhood, and various intimacies) mapped onto a framework shaped by others’ words and thinking. I loved the humor too which you included (such as the course description as a poetic form). Can you talk about the vantage points your speakers inhabit?

GP: All but a handful of the poems play with the logic of ekphrasis. In an essay I published in Callaloo a few years ago, I tried to chart a variety of subject positions from which a poet might, in writing ekphrastic poems, approach her art object. I’d already been thinking about this for a long time, and some of my strategies in Digest come out of that pursuit. In other words, Digest represents some of my experimenting with various forms of object relation. To better deal with a given emotional complex, I wanted to give it a spatial form. This is an overcooked way of saying symbol, I know. But I wanted to think about the symbol working in both directions. I wanted symbols that could talk back rather than passively carry my emotional baggage. I hope this isn’t just an overcooked way of saying literary allusion. I made a conscious decision that those interactive symbols would be texts. In some cases I considered the textual object (which could be a book, a performance or a quotation) a form to inhabit, just as I might speak from within the frame of a painting.

After I thought I’d finished answering your questions, the mail carrier delivered my copy of Notes on Conceptualisms, by Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman. It was lovingly packaged by the folks at Ugly Duckling Presse, and after admiring the presentation, immediately (on the first page) I underlined this: “In allegory, the author-artist uses the full array of possibilities—found and created—to collage a world that parallels the new production (collectively) of objects as commodity. Words are objects.” In this, I think they mean allegory gives “words and concepts… additional ontological heft as things”—a process that parallels or echoes the production of, say, vitality in the form of a pair of cross trainers, or sex appeal in the form of a toothbrush. Perhaps what I’m after then, if not symbol or allusion, is allegory. Perhaps I’ve just figured out that I spent the semester in Conceptual Writing 101, rather than the course I thought I registered for, which was Lyric Narrative 101.

CIC: I’d love to hear about your writing after Digest.  How has your writing changed?

GP: Analysis and affect often repel each other like two magnets with the same charge, though I keep trying to bring them together in some sort of harmony. My writing is tipping toward the former these days. As you point out, I’m writing personal essays, which is a comfortable (and fashionable) move for a poet. I’m revising a collection of essays titled Air Traffic. My father was an air traffic controller in 1981 during the strike when, after failed negotiations, Reagan fired 13,000 striking controllers. In the way someone who’s had his home torn apart by a tornado might be consumed with a need to chase them, I’m fascinated with the dynamics of class mobility and the forces arrayed to check or stimulate that mobility. As a tradition, the essay gives me access to analysis and affect in a way that conventional poetry does not—though the genre distinction is dissolving as we speak.

CIC: Can you talk more about what the essay form gave to you that the poem form could not?

GP: The difference between the poem that appears in Totem, “Winter After the Strike,” and essays collected in the manuscript Air Traffic follow this tipping from affect to analysis. With the poem, I was content to aestheticize my memories of the period. The essays want to process the memories like a crime scene.

Gregory Pardlo is the author of Totem (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), which received the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007, and Digest (Four Way Books, 2014), which was nominated for the 2015 NAACP Image Award in poetry. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, The Nation, Ploughshares, and Tin House, as well as anthologies including Angles of Ascent, the Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, and two editions of Best American Poetry. He is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a fellowship for translation from the National Endowment for the Arts. An Associate Editor of Callaloo, he is currently a Teaching Fellow in Undergraduate Writing at Columbia University.

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