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.