Gregory Pardlo: How I Write

"I'm interested in coaching, modeling, and teaching various writing practices and less in discovering talent."

Gregory Pardlo
Gregory Pardlo. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardlo has proven to be just as talented with prose as verse. His memoir, Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America, beautifully weaves together the story of his family, his father’s involvement with the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike, and Pardlo’s journey into adulthood. His book is a memoir of essays – each one a testament to Pardlo’s impressive lyrical style. His ability to magnificently blend complex, interesting subject matter on race, class, and identity with extraordinary prose makes this book hard to put down. In addition to writing, he teaches at Rutgers University-Camden and serves as the poetry editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review.

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Formation of the memoir

It was an organic evolution. Originally, it started as a more conventional memoir. I’d never written prose of any length or first-person narrative prose. I knew that there were ways of intersecting analysis, cultural criticism, and lyricism – and the essay was the vehicle that would allow me to do everything at once. After we sold the book to Knopf, they wanted to move the book toward a more conventional narrative structure; then we arranged the essays to suggest the arc of a biography. What I finally published was really organic.

Historical research

That was a lot of fun. I love research. Doing that kind of work, I approached it as a poet rather than a scholar. When I’m thinking about the evolution of commercial air travel in America, I’m thinking metaphorically – not so much about facts and figures. I think about the symbolic meaning, not only in the moments as they reverberate throughout time in various essays but also the characters and the lived experiences of those historical moments.

Air Traffic by Gregory Pardlo
Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America, by Gregory Pardlo

Starting a poem

Rarely do I start with a lyric impulse, and I’m envious of poets who say they hear a rhythmic structure or phrase. I’d love to do that. And every now and then I can pull that it off. No, I often start with a question as big and unwieldy as why do we have children – or what are we investing in when we love and raise our children; it’s a process of looking for structures – images or rhetorical figures – that will contain my questions.

Post-Pulitzer pressure

[Winning the Pulitzer] was a life-changing event that required an adjustment period and processing. It also required me to rethink the narratives I have about myself and who I am in the world. Part of the work has been giving myself the space to figure out who I am as a writer again and to reclaim the space of my desk. It’s been surreal and overwhelming. I got a lot of requests for poems, and some publications would even say things like, “It doesn’t have to be something great.” They didn’t really care about the work but just wanted a Pulitzer Prize winner in their pages. I’ve had to make adjustments to protect my work and integrity. 

Teaching

I’m interested in coaching, modeling, and teaching various writing practices and less in discovering talent. I want students to develop their own unique writing practices rather than impose my aesthetic values from the top down. Who are you, I ask my students. What do you want from your work? What do you want to give to your readers? The process of getting poets present to what they want naturally elevates the work. I work against the idea that one aesthetic is better than any other.

 

Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.