A Life in Poetry and Prose

Gregory Pardlo with fellow poet Vievee Francis at The Graduate Center in April

Pulitzer Prize‒winning poet Gregory Pardlo, a Ph.D. candidate in English at The Graduate Center, recently presented his new book, Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America, along with fellow poet Vievee Francis, at an event sponsored by The Graduate Center’s Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean (IRADAC).
Pardlo’s memoir describes his father’s loss of his job in the air traffic controllers strike of 1981 and the emotional effect on the family, exploring themes of fatherhood, masculinity, and race. Pardlo recently spoke to The Graduate Center about the book, one’s sense of security in society, and his time as a student.
Graduate Center: The book goes into depth about your father's life and your relationship with him. How have his expectations for you influenced your career as a writer and scholar?
Pardlo: My father didn’t have any specific “expectations” for me. His one piece of advice was that whatever I chose to do in life, I should try to be the best at it. “If you decide to be a thief, you’d better be the best damn thief that ever lived,” he’d say. I guess there was something liberating in that.
GC: At the IRADAC event, you said that “people of color, immigrants, African Americans — we don’t usually give our children opportunities to participate in alternative economies” in which the rewards aren’t necessarily financial or material. Can you explain why parents wouldn’t want to give these opportunities? Was choosing to pursue your dream of becoming a poet an act of defiance?
Pardlo: This is true for so many Americans, of course, but I think especially for folks who feel that first-class citizenship or full naturalization is something they have not achieved in their generation. It has to do with one’s sense of security in society. I’ll speak personally here to avoid the generalization: If I don’t feel confident in my own social position, I’m less likely to approve or endorse my kids’ pursuing a lifestyle that does not jibe with standard narratives of success à la the American Dream. As a person of color, I know my kids won’t be forgiven multiple failures in life. Any failure could doom them to one or another pipeline of social perdition.
How I feel as a parent and how I feel as a son are two entirely different things. I discovered early that anything I did would be seen as evidence of some racial stereotype. With failure being typical and success token, I wanted to reject the whole paradigm. Writing poetry was less a dream than it represented my decision to be radically selfish with the terms of my happiness. If anything, it was an act of audacity for me to live as if I had the privilege to risk being a weak thread in the economic fabric of my family and friends.
GC: You've written two books of poetry and won the Pulitzer Prize for the second. Why did you choose to write a memoir, and why now?
Pardlo: The work I envisioned was a hybrid of criticism and research — which have been part of my practice as long as poetry has — and a kind of lyrical, stylized prose that fit more into the belletristic tradition. The personal essay promised that flexibility. My career goal (which can change at any point) is to write something recognizable yet truly unclassifiable. I’m working in that direction.
GC: How has The Graduate Center influenced your writing or teaching career? 
Pardlo: There are few graduate programs, if any, that offer the caliber of instruction that I received at the GC along with the permission to test the distinctions between creative and scholarly practice. I’ve since learned how fortunate I was, having seen how students pushing or working outside of conventions are merely tolerated if not alienated within most doctoral programs. Faculty at the GC had the energy, capacity, and breadth of knowledge to help me figure out what I wanted from my work. They didn’t just try to bully me to get back in line. That’s made all the difference.

Submitted on: MAY 16, 2018

Category: 365 Fifth Newsletter | Diversity | English | Student News