Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet Gregory Pardlo

The author, poet, and Teaching Fellow at Columbia University discusses his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Digest.

Born in Philadelphia and raised in Willingboro, New Jersey, Gregory Pardlo's poems have been widely published, and universally adored by both critics and readers. His first volume of poems, Totem, received the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007. He is an Associate Editor for the literary journal Callaloo, and is currently a Teaching Fellow in Undergraduate Writing at Columbia University. His latest book of poetry, Digest, earned Gregory the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in April of this year.


Tavis: We are pleased to welcome Gregory Pardlo to this program. The Columbia University Teaching Fellow and poet completed his book, “Digest”, in 2010 and, for four years, amazingly, the collection of poems was rejected by every major publishing house.

“Digest” was finally printed then in 2014 by Four Way Books and those other publishers are probably still kicking themselves because just last month Mr. Pardlo and his book earned the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for poetry. I love stories like these [laugh]. Gregory, good to have you on the program, and congratulations.

Gregory Pardlo: Thank you, sir. Thank you. It was amazing.

Tavis: What did I get wrong or what did I not put enough into to explain how this book floated all around New York City?

Pardlo: Well, it’s a common story, actually, for books of poems to make the rounds through a lot of publishers. So it’s a romantic story of, you know, with all the rejections. We like to hear that story and it’s true. But it’s not uncommon for, you know, the major publishers to pass on a manuscript.

When it came down to it, it took my publisher, Martha Rhodes of Four Way Books, who saw in the manuscript something that she could work with. So it wasn’t like even after the book was accepted, she just submitted it off to, you know, the publisher. We still sat down and revised and did some more work with the manuscript, but the major publishers usually are not interested in doing that kind of work.

Tavis: What did she see–Martha?

Pardlo: Martha, mm-hmm.

Tavis: What did Martha see that the others didn’t see in your work?

Pardlo: I think she knew me personally, first of all, and she knew how I was willing to work on the poems to move them to a place where–she also knew that I’m interested in taking my poems to places that are perhaps uncomfortable and to speaking into silences. So I think it was my ambition that she recognized in the work that…

Tavis: When you say that you are comfortable with taking your work–I’m paraphrasing here–that you are comfortable taking your work into uncomfortable places, what do you mean by that?

Pardlo: Well, you know, growing up in my family and I guess in anybody’s family, you know, we have myths, we have these stories that are these places where we don’t talk about, and even in our own lives. I’ve always been interested in speaking into those spaces, you know.

So one of the things I’m interested in in this book is the kind of daily aggressions that move through a family, right? So we end up taking them for granted. So there’s a poem in there about a woman who is disciplining her child in a supermarket, for example, right? That’s the kind of thing that we’ve seen all the time and we kind of overlook it…

Tavis: We just saw it in Baltimore with this mother…

Pardlo: We just saw it in Baltimore, absolutely.

Tavis: It’s been all over the news for…

Pardlo: Right, yeah. So it gets celebrated in some cases and it gets vilified in other cases. I was interested in sort of analyzing those situations. I think, also, when we talk about race, there are polite levels of discourse around race. And I’m interested in disrupting the common, the more typical, stories. I’m interested in disrupting the ways we perform race, the expectations around the performance of race, yeah.

Tavis: I wonder whether or not you think that poetry is still pregnant with the kind of power that it once had to prick society’s conscience. And I raise that because we literally, you know, just a year ago now, lost Maya Angelou.

Pardlo: Absolutely.

Tavis: Celebrated poet, like a surrogate mother to me.

Pardlo: To you, yeah.

Tavis: I think of the powerful work of Amiri Baraka. I think of Nikki Giovanni. I think of Robert Frost. I could do this all day long, Gwendolyn Brooks, all these great poets. So there was a time when people, you know–Gwendolyn, of course, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer for poetry, so she was your predecessor and she’s a woman, obviously.

But there was a time, though, when people could express themselves via their poetry and society would take note and wrestle with it. Dylan did the same thing. He just put music to it. But what do you make of the place of poetry in our society today?

Pardlo: I don’t think people read poetry anywhere near as much as we should. The up side of that is the popularity of the spoken word. I think there’s a place where a lot of social change can be sort of infiltrated throughout the culture.

Tavis: Is that poetry to you? Spoken word? Is that poetry to you?

Pardlo: Absolutely. No, absolutely, yeah, yeah. My calling was to the page and then part of the reason I gravitate toward the page is because I’m a more introverted person, right? And I’m interested in moving the words around in a more visual sense.

But I think the spoken word is a great place for the kinds of challenges that you’re referring now. For the page to be as effective a social tool in social change as you’re talking about, I think will something will have to happen in terms of education, in terms of how poetry is handled in the schools.

In my experience, people are afraid of poetry on the page where there’s a sense that the poet had one idea and you have to get that idea out of the poem and get it right or else, you know, you’re wrong. One of the things I enjoy about this book is watching all the ways that people interpret the poems.

Tavis: That doesn’t offend you as a poet…

Pardlo: No at all. No, no.

Tavis: That there are multiple interpretations to what you’ve written?

Pardlo: No. It keeps me interested in the work as well, you know. I think, even in writing the poems, I don’t have an agenda for the poems per se. So I’m not writing saying this is what I want to cause, you know, speaking to this idea of social change.

What I do want to do is disrupt and create possibilities for conversation. There are poems in the book where they strike a nerve in me that makes me a little uncomfortable and I may not be sure what that is, but it’s something I want to think more about.

Tavis: I want to go back to this comment you made a moment ago, Gregory, about poetry in the classroom. I’m not sure there is such a thing anymore as poetry in the classroom. We’re barely teaching music in the classroom. We’re barely teaching art in the classroom.

There is a price, I think, our society pays long-term for those disciplines, those arts, being absent the curriculum for school children in this country today. But what say you about the value of teaching poetry, of having kids wrestle with poems and come up with their own interpretations? What’s the value of that in the classroom if we could do that again?

Pardlo: So much is narratives, right? So much of our lives are based on narratives. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, right? And one of the difficulties I experienced in my own educational life was not having narratives to step into and the sense that the only options I had for myself were the narratives that were preexisting.

And it wasn’t until I became more comfortable in reading, comfortable as a reader and comfortable as an active reader, that I began to take that skill and apply it to society, right? So what are the different ways we can reimagine the narratives that construct all the various occupations one can have, the ways one can move through the world?

I think as a tool in the classroom teaching students to read imaginatively without the idea of you have to get this right, you have to figure out exactly what it says, but bring yourself to the page and imagine something into the text, that’s a liberating force.

Tavis: I read somewhere in a conversation that someone had with you for print that part of the framing of this book was your being a father.

Pardlo: Absolutely.

Tavis: And having to–tell me what I read about you being a father and having some young kids and the anxiety that comes…

Pardlo: Well, I’m not sure what you read, but early on in writing these poems, my first daughter was born. Two now, 10 and 7. You know, I was anxious about being a father and I think, you talk about narratives, and having the father that I grew up with, you know, was a colorful man, very domineering man, a man I admired greatly.

But I had some issues and questions about, you know, what does that mean? What lessons am I taking in terms of raising my children? What do I want to pass on? So I was very anxious about that.

And I think, again, speaking into silences, the idea of an African American man doting on his children is a story we don’t hear enough. You know, obviously, it’s all too common. It’s not like the story isn’t out there, but it’s not something that makes its way into our art, that makes its way into our popular culture very often. So I wanted to add to that.

Tavis: I wanted to ask you, before my time with you ends, to read a piece from your book. The book is called “Digest”, the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize by Gregory Pardlo. This piece is called “Written by Himself”, “Written by Himself”. Might you read this for me?

Pardlo: Sure. My pleasure.

Tavis: Thank you, sir.

Pardlo: “Written by Himself”.

“I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen a skillet

whispering my name. I was born to rainwater and lye;

I was born across the river where I

was borrowed with clothespins, a harrow tooth,

broadsides sewn in my shoes. I returned, though

it please you, through no fault of my own,

pockets filled with coffee grounds and eggshells.

I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden.

I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.

I was born abandoned outdoors in the heat-shaped air,

air drifting like spirits and old windows.

I was born a fraction and a cipher and a ledger entry;

I was an index of first lines when I was born.

I was born waist-deep stubborn in the water crying

ain’t I a woman and a brother I was born

to this hall of mirrors, this horror story I was

born with a prologue of references, pursued

by mosquitoes and thieves, I was born passing

off the problem of the twentieth century: I was born.

I read minds before I could read fishes and loaves;

I walked a piece of the way alone before I was born.”

Tavis: I see why [laughter] Gregory Pardlo is the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. For those watching tonight and for those who have situations that you’re going through or friends who are going through situations where they’re about to give up, I’m just reminded that Gregory Pardlo is a living epistle that we should never, ever give up on our dreams.

Everybody in New York City passed on this book and, when the right person found it and gave it the love and the attention it deserved, it goes on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for 2015. So stay with those dreams. Gregory, congratulations on “Digest”.

Pardlo: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Tavis: Congratulations, man. Good to have you on. The book, again, is called “Digest” by Gregory Pardlo.

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Last modified: May 26, 2015 at 3:15 pm