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Courtesy of Knopf Publishing

September 30, 2018

Gregory Pardlo and Subverting Expectations

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As a writer, there are few things that make me feel grateful to be alive the way poetry does. This past Thursday, the Cornell Department of English hosted author Gregory Pardlo as the first guest in the Fall 2018 Barbara & David Zalaznick Reading Series. Pardlo’s collection, Digest, was the recipient of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In 2007, his first book of poetry, Totem, won the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize. This past April, he published Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood, which was named one of “17 Refreshing Books to Read This Summer” by the New York Times.

I first read Pardlo’s work several weeks ago for my creative writing class. I was enamored with his candor and the ways in which he questions what constitutes poetry through his work; however, nothing compares to the experience of hearing an author read aloud their work the way it was intended to be read. On a Thursday afternoon, in the middle of a hectic week, in the midst of a chaotic semester, Gregory Pardlo made me grateful to be alive.

In the dim lighting of the Rhodes-Rawlings Auditorium in Klarman Hall, Pardlo shared excerpts from Digest and Air Traffic, as well as several unpublished poems to an audience of professors, undergraduate and graduate students alike. He stood at the podium with a humility and openness that encouraged the audience to embrace the emotional and intellectual response his work elicits. Speaking about his late father, Greg Sr., he candidly reflected on the flawed man who raised him without portraying himself as without faults. Pardlo’s writing depicts a strained and complex relationship with an often envious and immature father, who despite it all, Pardlo continued to seek the approval of.

This paradoxical relationship is reflected in the following lines from two separate pieces Gregory Pardlo read for us. The first comes from “Problema 4” in Digest, in which Pardlo recalls asking his father for a tattoo at the age of thirteen and the resulting realization that, in his father’s eyes, he did not “possess” his own body. Pardlo quotes his father: ‘I made you…I can un-make you, and make another one just like you.’

There were audible gasps in the audience from those who could not fathom such scathing words from a parent, accompanied by a knowing silence from those who knew exactly what it’s like. Pardlo’s next poem “Metaphor,” however, exalted his father in its final lines, concluding with  “Greg Pardlo is dead. Long live Greg Pardlo.”

In this way, Pardlo continuously transitioned from criticizing to lamenting his father. His portrayal was honest and multidimensional — it did not seek to demonize or glorify, only to share his experience, and through this, urged us to question the ways in which we are complicit in the culture which breeds men like Greg Pardlo, Sr.

When questioned about how he achieves such honesty and vulnerability in his work, Pardlo explained some of his process to us, his eager-to-learn audience. He spoke of learning to view himself “less as a person and more as a character” in his writing. In working to write about himself as a character rather than a person, he hopes to remove what he calls “narcissistic attachment to self,” so that he does not attempt to hide his flaws in his writing. Instead, Pardlo seeks to contemplate the “ways in which [he’s] complicit in the patriarchy” and hold himself equally accountable.

When I asked him how, as a writer, one gets comfortable with removing that narcissistic attachment and displaying those flaws, Pardlo laughed heartily and replied, “Lots of therapy.”

After the laughter died down, a graduate student asked Pardlo how he knows when a poem is meaningful, to which he responded, “When it subverts my expectations. When the poem ends up somewhere I wasn’t expecting. When I’ve reached that spot just beyond my comfort zone.”

While he was referring to the writing process, I cannot help but see the value of this philosophy in every facet of my life. Gregory Pardlo describes his writing as an “exploration of self-hood” and, is that not what college is for? In the past year, I have continuously pushed myself out of my comfort zone and subverted my own expectations — whether by changing majors, switching career paths or reevaluating my personal priorities. This is the time to push ourselves to do the unexpected, to take risks, to push ourselves out of our comfort zones.

Rebecca Reuning is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at rmr282@cornell.edu.