Gregory Pardlo: Far From the Tree
Gregory Pardlo’s writing is influenced both by his unconventional early life and his uncannily keen eye for observation.
Gregory Pardlo is an award-winning poet and essayist. His collection Digest won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2015.
He was born in Philadelphia in 1968 and raised in Willingboro, NJ. His father lost his job as an air traffic controller in the strike of 1981, an experience Pardlo revisited in his 2018 memoir Air Traffic. He served in the U.S. Marine Corp and studied English at Rutgers University–Camden. He completed MFAs at New York University and Columbia University and is a doctoral student at the City University of New York.
Known for his evocative yet concrete verse, Pardlo published his debut collection of poetry, Totem, in 2007, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize the following year. His Pulitzer-winning sophomore work, Digest (2015), was shortlisted for the 2015 NAACP Image Award. His poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, and The Best American Poetry anthologies, among other publications.
Pardlo is poetry editor of Virginia Quarterly Review, associate editor of Callaloo, and a professor of English at Rutgers.
(Excerpt from Gregory Pardlo’s “Problema 4”)
At 13, I asked my father for a tattoo.
I might as well have asked for a bar mitzvah.
He said I had no right to alter the body
he gave me. Aping what little of Marx I’d learned
from the sisters down the street who wore torn
black stockings with Doc Martens, I said
I was a man, because I could claim my body
and the value of its labor. This meant I could
adorn it or dispose of it as I chose. Tattoos,
my father said, are like children. Have one,
you’ll want another. I knew there was a connection
between the decorated body and reproduction.
This was why I wanted a tattoo.
In a different century, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardlo would’ve been properly famous, the kind of person who might need to plan diversions as they move through the world. These days, though, even very fine poets like Pardlo enjoy a much more muted public profile.
Gregory Pardlo: I was on the subway last week, and I walk on, the subway’s crowded, and I hear, “You’re Gregory Pardlo!” And I look up and there’s a young man. And I said, “And you’re a poet!” And he says, “Yes.” So, he asks, “How often do you get recognized?” And I said, “Every time there’s a poet on the train!”
Pardlo is today a professor at Rutgers University, but at 18 he had all but given up on school. He was the child of two young activist parents, who were less than amused when their eldest son accidentally joined the military.
Pardlo: I had a friend from high school who was home on recruitment duty, asked me just to come in and sit in the seat. I had no intention of joining the Marine Corps, but you know, you go in, and as a naive kid of, yeah, I was 18, the recruiter just made the world sound absolutely limitless, and enriching, and adventuresome, and I got caught up in it!
Pardlo left the Marines long ago, but he says that what he learned there fundamentally changed him.
Pardlo: I got so much out of Marine Corps boot camp, just the–
AJC: Just in terms of instilling discipline in you?
Pardlo: The discipline, the stability. The way I grew up, our family life, it was like I was raised by wolves! My parents were kids, and we were figuring it out, but I’d go to school on my own, come home on my own, feed myself, we ate dinner here or there as we could, the old TV dinners, very often. So, having a ritual, having a reliable schedule, having a reliable social structure, framework, in which to operate, proved to be really comforting to me. And I think it has a lot to do with my, well, it wasn’t called ADD at the time, I was just labeled hyperactive. But I’m pretty certain what I have is a form of attention deficit disorder. Having the Marine Corps structure really settled me down, and allowed me to think through problems. It wasn’t just the structure, actually, it was also the physical training. And in some ways, the violence of that structure, right? The threat of that structure.
AJC: That’s what I was gonna come to.
Pardlo: Yeah, yeah.
AJC: You don’t have a choice.
Pardlo: You don’t have a choice!
AJC: They say, “Jump,” you say, “Yes, sir.”
Pardlo: Right, right, and all throughout my life growing up, there was always a back door. “Mom, I really don’t wanna do this.” “Oh, okay.” “Dad, come on, this sucks.” “Alright, fine.”
No such luck for his own kids. Pardlo has two daughters, 11 and 14, who feel the influence of their dad’s Marine Corps training every day.
Pardlo: So, my daughter’s doing her homework last night, in fact, and she’s writing this essay on Malala, and she’s frustrated that it’s not working out. It’s a three-page essay, and she’s got five pages of notes, and I’m like, “It’s practically done. Just whip it into shape, and go to bed!” I come back 10 minutes later, her head’s on her desk, she’s weeping, very lightly, and I said, “This has to get done. “Quit your whingin’,” you know, like, “Buck up, kid, and get the work done!” This is the Marine Corps training. There isn’t an option. At some point, you’re on your own, and I try and prepare my kids for those moments when there’s no one else to rely on. You will, in most cases, be alone in your responsibility of getting something done.
Pardlo can be as to-the-point in person as he is on the page. He observes and dissects emotional subjects in a way that reads like reason. This is especially true of his first book of essays, 2018’s autobiographical Air Traffic, which also explores a pivotal moment in his father’s life. On August 3rd, 1981, Gregory Pardlo, Sr. and around 12,000 other members of PATCO, the air traffic controllers’ union, went on strike. President Ronald Reagan ordered them back to work.
Ronald Reagan: If they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.
Most refused, and were fired, including Pardlo’s dad.
Pardlo: He felt his job was worth more than the pilot’s job. But I think throughout the union, throughout PATCO, there was a sense of jealousy. There was a resentment that the controllers were not treated with the same deference that the pilots got. They wanted their dignity, they wanted their work to be respected. I get it, yeah.
After losing his job, Pardlo Sr. succumbed to depression and addiction, draining the family’s resources and developing a toxic relationship with his son. In Air Traffic, Pardlo Jr. didn’t hold back.
(Excerpt from Air Traffic)
The father I grew up with still resented the competing demands of an unplanned offspring. I was the mistake that he felt he was nobly taking responsibility for, and I was thus made to suffer the flexing of big Greg’s narcissism in all its demonstrative and petty renditions. I don’t mean this in a self-pitying way. Whereas he wanted from me a show of gratitude, I studied him. He interpreted my scrutiny as insubordination. This made our lives adversarial.
AJC: When you were writing the book, your dad passed away while the book was being written, and I know that you went back, ’cause you had to change the tenses of certain things. What was the push and pull, or was there any, between now having to write about somebody who wasn’t there to defend himself, and whole respect for the dead? Did you go and fix anything in the book besides the tenses?
Pardlo: No, the book was largely written, it was largely done by the time my father passed away, and I was in the editing process anyway. And keep in mind, my father had been sick for a long time, and in the last few years of his life, his mind was certainly distorted by whatever drugs he was on, whatever painkillers he was on. And his behavior was very erratic, and so I had accustomed myself, I’d grown used to the idea that he wasn’t any longer the father I grew up with, in his good days and in his bad days. So, my relationship to the man on the page was already kind of objective and emotionally, not detached, certainly, but I had–
AJC: You’d worked through it, right.
Pardlo: I had some distance on it, right, yeah.
Gregory Pardlo, Jr. holds no grudges against his dad, thanks in part to the catharsis he has experienced by writing about their troubled relationship. In death, as in life, his father remains a powerful influence.
(Excerpt from Winter After the Strike)
In ’81, when Reagan ordered you back to work. You were President
of the union local, you steered with your working-man’s voice,
the voice that ground the Ptolemaic ballet of air traffic to
a temporary stop.
You crossed the picket line I walked
with you outside Newark International.
I could see the dark Turnpike for miles, the somber
office buildings winking insomniac cells, the tarmac
spread before us like a picnic blanket. And you, like a jade Buddha
suffused in the glow of that radial EKG.
You’d push the microphone in front of me, nod, and let me
give the word.
I called all my stars home, trajectories bent on the weight
of my voice.
You say you miss tracking those leviathans, each one snagged
on the barb of your liturgy.
I, too, get reeled in by the hard, now rusty music
of your pipes.
I follow it back to the day of your accident in the story you tell:
You were sixteen, hurdling the railings dividing row-house porches
from one end of Widener Place to the other to impress Mom.
I imagine the way you cleared each one like a leaf bobbing on water, catching
the penultimate. The rubber toe of your Chuck Taylors kissed
by the rail, upsetting your rhythm, and you roiled in the air
arms outstretched, reckless toward the last like one hell-bent
or sick to the stomach. The way you landed, on your throat,
could have taken your head clean off. Since then, your voice issues
like some wartime communique, a ragged, typewritten dispatch
which you swallow with your smoker’s cough, black as a tire
spinning in the snow. That winter after the strike,
we were so poor you sold everything but the house. Tell me, Dad,
when you’d stand at the door calling me in for the night,
could you hear me out there, speaking to snowflakes falling beneath
Could you hear me out there, imitating you imitating prayer?
Pardlo: My dad.