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Gregory Pardlo

College: Graduate Center
Awards: , 2015

Poetry From Life

For Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardlo, the complex issues of identity form the crux of his work. In his brilliant collection, "Digest," he writes about sometimes struggling through his varied roles in life as a new father, Brooklyn resident and black man in America.

However, his poetic journey begins with a voice from the past, the voices of his ancestors in a poem entitled "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.

"One of my concerns, early on in the inception of this book, was that this material is me. So that the discourses that make up our literary traditions become my identity," Pardlo said.

"And this poem takes material collaged from abolitionist literature, from slave narratives, from canonical Afro-American literature. They're images that scholars or even casual readers of slave narratives will recognize," he said. "I don't have any experience with harrow tooths or rainwater and lye. So, a lot of these images are things that are very foreign to me. But nonetheless, I was interested in working with them as material."

Pardlo, a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center and former assistant professor at Medgar Evers College, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Judges cited his "clear-voiced poems that bring readers the news from 21st Century America, rich with thought, ideas and histories public and private."

In "Digest," Pardlo tackles an astounding array of subjects from race to philosophy to family relationships. He also includes poetic references to literary greats like Ralph Ellison, Chinua Achebe and Miguel de Cervantes.

"I wanted to look for ways to integrate my scholarly interests and my creative interests," he said. "So, a lot of the poems in the book are in conversation with other books. The buzzword is intertextuality. That was one of the projects that serves as the foundation for most of the poems."

Pardlo also writes extensively about Brooklyn and explores how gentrification has transformed the fabric of his neighborhood. However, Pardlo says his poems describe people and places in Brooklyn that have largely been ignored by contemporary writers.

"We all know Brooklyn has changed dramatically … and I was really interested in capturing that transition," he said. "And it seemed to me that all the clichés about Brooklyn that are literary clichés were usually referencing coffee shops in Boerum Hill or Cobble Hill and Park Slope, and that wasn't the Brooklyn that I was experiencing on a day-to-day basis. That wasn't the Brooklyn where the most meaningful intersections and interactions between communities and across communities was happening. And I wanted to give space to that. I wanted to make that my territory."

Currently, Pardlo is working on his dissertation, which focuses on the visual agency of African American poets and writers in the early twentieth century.

"That is, what did black authors, in their texts, give themselves permission to report seeing, having seen or witnessed," Pardlo explained. "How are these forms of sight, insight and witness conveyed in the work?"

When asked what advice he would offer to young writers and aspiring poets, Pardlo said, "Make the work, itself, the thing you enjoy. Make that the reward."

"What got me through a lot of the fallow times was just the sheer joy of writing a poem and pursuing it against my own sort of resistances, my own fears and inhibitions, and the sense of growth that comes out of every poem that feels like I've done the work necessary that this poem demands," Pardlo said.

"And that's a joyful moment for me, and that's the thing that I look for each time.”