Gregory Pardlo's poems appeared in the February issue of The Collagist. He is the author of Totem (APR 2007). He is recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has received other fellowships from the New York Times, the MacDowell Colony, and Cave Canem. He teaches at George Washington University. His website is pardlo.com.
Can you talk about the inspiration for "Boethius: "The creator moves the slowest bodies and halts those that are too fast, brings back to the right path those which have strayed.” and “Heraclitus: "We cannot know the water, but only its perpetual movement.”? What was on your mind while you were writing these poems?
These poems are part of a series titled “The Conatus Improvisations,” which took a long time to come into focus. I started with a vague and arbitrary interest in the history of physics as it pivots around Newton. In my reading I kept coming across this term “conatus.” But it was difficult to nail down a definition of the term. Because so many people had used it in so many different ways it seemed perpetually in flux. One of my undying intellectual fascinations is with the structures that make jazz improvisation possible—how a form can be both provisional and standard at the same time—so the term conatus jibed nicely with a complex of interests.
Meanwhile, I had been carrying on an entirely different conversation in my head about the posturing behind epigraphs and how name-dropping before a poem more often than not signals a poem that is unable to stand on its own: the epigraph as amulet or gargoyle to ward off close or critical reading. Many epigraphs have little or only tangential relevance to the poems over which they preside anyway so I wanted to lampoon the whole enterprise by taking a series of obscure quotations from austere, Western canonical figures, in reference to an ultimately indefinable term, and write poems responding to these quotations by intentionally misreading them. I riff and signify on the quotes and steer each conversation toward a critique of American car culture, which strikes me as an ironic metaphor for the notion of conatus.
While epigraphs in writing are not uncommon, you’ve taken it one step further, it seems, making the apparent epigraphs for these poems the titles. What was the strategy behind this decision?
Yeah, the more I tried to ironize the relationship between epigraph and poem, the more obstructive I found the titles. The titles became an evolutionary casualty.
The combination of these classic philosophic quotes and the often-modern content of the poem creates a heavy mood, in almost an inexplicable way. In the first few lines of the Boethius poem, we get “Virgin Mary” followed by “GPS devices.” A sentence like, “Instead/of blessing we want clairvoyance and the dust bursts of angels/and demons appearing on our shoulders, though we know/they may only goad us into leading either a high or low-speed/chase while America tunes in at home via eyes in the skies,” is another example of dense subject matter caught in tangle of old vs. new details. Can you tell us about your process of association with this poem?
That has to do with another characteristic of jazz improvisation—wit and playful association—that I sieve through the mesh of gestalt psychology and Olson’s ideas of composition by field. It’s interesting you say it “creates a heavy mood.” I hope by that you mean a kind of dark humor, facetious and arch. But “mood” really is the point. These are lyric poems with little interest in a particular speaker or a particular narrative or even a particular logic, though the subconscious inevitably asserts its patterns of anxiety and aggression and desire.
In an article about you from when you became a member of the faculty at George Washington University, you mention your book Totem and explain that you were “the first person of color to ever win the American Poetry Review's Honickman Prize.” The article mentions the impact that recognition, subsequently followed by your hiring at GW, had on your career and writing since then. A year and a half removed from that article, I wonder how your writing has progressed since taking the position at George Washington and the continued success of your book?
I regret ever having pointed out that “first person of color” stuff. That was mostly posturing. I was trying to big myself up beyond what the prize alone afforded. That was back when I was enamored with the idea of being a prize-winning poet, before I realized such a thing means very little in terms of the material impact it has on a person’s life. It was a heady moment full of anticipation and suspense, but such moments pass and you find yourself alone again facing the blank page. There is a kind of currency in recognition, of course, but now I think it’s a bullshit currency if it can’t cover the copay at the pharmacy. (That sounds dismissive, I know—I don’t mean it to be so dramatic.) The truth is I write in a bubble, as I believe is the case for most writers, usually with little awareness of what my work is or does out in the world beyond me. As a result, I’ve reoriented my focus toward enjoying what I do without being righteous about it. Nonetheless, I am conscious of the fact that my family is dependent upon my position in academia. This means I have to concern myself with publishing and taking advantage of opportunities to promote my work through interviews and the like. But the work is its own reward, corny as that sounds. I am grateful whenever someone says that a poem of mine has reached him or her from across the void. But I find so much of that other stuff is background noise to be tuned out. So I guess the short answer to your question is that the past year and a half has taught me that I don’t have the stamina for careerism. I am humbled and happy to nurture my relationship with the silent reader at the other end of the communiqué who is conjured by my imagination.
What other writing projects are you currently working on?
I’m really interested in eighteenth century America lately, and the way we know ourselves through monuments and public art. Of course, this has a lot to do with my being in Washington, DC.
What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?
I just read and really enjoyed Kiki Petrosino’s Fort Red Border. I’m looking forward to reading Duriel Harris’ Amnesiac. Zapruder’s book, along with my friend Kathy Graber’s book arrived in the mail recently. I also got a copy of Douglas Kearney’s Quantum Spit, which promises to be a mind-expanding experience.