~from English Department Communications Intern Courtney Satchell
When I went to go see Gregory Pardlo read at the ballroom in the LSC recently, I had been in a bit of a rush. Under the belief that I was late, I hurried to the LSC building where I ended up running into Camille Dungy, who had arranged Pardlo’s visit to CSU. While I was relieved that I was not late, and everyone was just getting there, I still felt a little nervous.
Gregory Pardlo had, after all, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry with his book Digest. To say I felt a bit starstruck was an understatement. I had studied his work in a classroom setting and his poetry can only be described as amazingly subversive and dense. One can easily spend hours with his poetry and still not completely understand it.
Lyrical language and rhyme can often determine how the flow of a poem works and where the reader (who might not have the benefit of hearing it performed) needs to put emphasis. It also gives a poem some aesthetically pleasing qualities, but that is not all that makes up a poem. There is this misconception that form needs to be approached separately from content. Form is not what defines the content, rather content shapes form and they’re crucial to each other.
What makes Pardlo so brilliant is not just his push back against the conventional lyric form but also his subversion against people’s assumptions. Pardlo cross references American pop culture, historical events, and literature to break down this idea that “Americans are culturally distinct.” He uses these points to fuel his imagination.
“Imagination is the starting point to subverting other’s assumptions despite the fact you can’t control other’s world views.” That is what makes Digest so powerful. It isn’t simply the plethora of literary references that are woven throughout the work but rather the layers of meaning that Pardlo asks his readers to examine. Digest poses some real questions about identity and race.
Pardlo’s smart use of form challenges the reader’s concept of authenticity and constructions of race and how it plays into the reality that we have created for ourselves. His poem, “Written by Himself,” is the perfect example of this. It plays with traditional narrative tools such as slave narratives to play with preconceived notions about blackness, yet Pardlo, at the time of writing this poem, by his own words had only been south of the Mason-Dixon Line twice in his life. The poem emphasizes this issue with reference to Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman” Speech, which had famously been altered to make Truth, who has been enslaved in the north, sound southern.
While I’d like to claim the title of poet for myself, my own personal work is nowhere near as well crafted as Pardlo’s and I was trying my best to act cool about this whole thing with arguable success. Thankfully, as I found a seat beside my fellow classmate Cesar, that nervousness that had made me jittery had calmed down and as the reading began only excitement remained.
The night had a family focused theme, a theme that is echoed all throughout his work. As he read from his book, the poems he selected either directly spoke to his interpersonal relationships with his family (i.e “Attatchment: Atlantic City Pimp” and “Problema 4”) or how moments with his family would inspire a poem. When he gave the audience background to these poems he said “I am deeply interested in the ways we fuck up family.”
His poems spoke on fatherhood and how his relationship with his own father shaped his writing and his experiences as a father himself. When asked by an audience member about how he was able to write such personal and not always flattering portraits of his family, he responded that how we write about other people tells us more about ourselves than it does about the subjects of our writing, and it is crucial that when we immortalize another person through our writing that they must already be “a whole and complete person.” The use of caricatures is a sign of poor writing.
Overall the night was light and fun; Pardlo’s explorations and reflections upon his own writing were beautiful and funny.
I didn’t get a clear idea of his thought process behind his writing until the graduate seminar he held with Professor Dungy the next day. This seminar was a great opportunity for me. Since I am only an undergrad, it would have normally not been open to me. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I was excited to once again have an opportunity to speak with him since I had been so hopeless the night before, but I couldn’t guarantee that my nervousness wouldn’t once again get the best of me.
However, before I could even come up with a game plan, I ended up running into Professor Dungy, Gregory Pardlo, and Laura (the graduate student who had been in charge of introducing him the night before) right in the parking lot. Introductions were quickly made as we walked over to the Morgan Library where the seminar was being held. As we walked and talked I began to feel more comfortable, and I even began to tell this nonsense fact about Elizabeth Taylor. As this slipped from my lips the conversation began to flow and the awkwardness melted away. I no longer felt as nervous as I had before. It was in that moment that Pardlo stopped being a famous Pulitzer prize winner and instead became a person to me.
During the seminar, I had the chance to really understand his thought process behind his writing. Pardlo’s writing style resists the traditional lyrical form in Digest. Despite the fact that he proclaimed himself to be as “conservative as possible” in regards to the poetry cannon and his regard for lyrical poetry, Pardlo specifically resisted lyric forms in his work because complying with those forms would not allow him to do the work he wished to do. “The Lyric poem is the California Roll of poetry” he said, as he described his focus on form within his work.
His approach really speaks to me because as a poet, there is this expectation for poets to have mastery over classical form, like the sonnet, and while I can appreciate those forms, forcing myself to use those styles is a disservice to the creative talents.
His visit meant a lot to me. Not just as a writer but also as a student. I always had dreams of becoming a writer, a dream I was actively discouraged from. I was told that writers, especially poets, do not make enough money to support themselves, and it wasn’t an achievable dream especially for me. Of course I didn’t let it stop me from pursuing those goals. I became an English Major with a focus in Creative Writing anyway, and I do my best to write as often as I can, but sometimes I can get discouraged.
It can be too easy to listen to those voices that tell you that you don’t belong. Seeing Pardlo gave me a much needed reminder that my dreams are achievable and that I am not alone.
The final reading of Fall 2016 is TONIGHT! Free and open to the public. More info here: http://english.colostate.edu/events/creative-writing-reading-series-writers-harvest-festival/