The Play of Voices

An Interview with Gregory Pardlo

By Theresa Sullivan 

Gregory Pardlo is the author of two full-length collections of poetry: Totem and Digest, which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He is also the author of Air Traffic, a memoir in essays to be released next year. His writing challenges the borders of identity and form, deftly blending the personal and familial with pop culture, history, literary allusion, philosophy, and high art. He spoke with us about crafting voice, poetic exploration, and the possibilities within a deeply engaged writing process.

You’re leading an upcoming workshop at the Garrison Institute on voice. How do you define or explain voice?

Not to be confused with tone or mood, voice on the page is the personality or spectrum of identities that gets evoked through the poet’s choice of, for example: idiom, dialect, jargon, syntax, or folksy asides. We can work with voice in infinite ways over the course of a poem to create a variety of effects in what I think of as the “metadata” of the poem; that is, all of the information that can be gleaned from a poem—the assumptions we are led to make about the speaker and their social disposition—that is not explicit in the content of the poem. Voice on the page may not always coincide faithfully with the identities we embrace or perform in our daily lives.

And yet many readers who are new to poetry enter a poem with that expectation that the speaker’s voice represents that of the actual poet. Even regular readers can catch ourselves drawn in by the first person and make assumptions about the poet’s biography or inner life. Do the reader’s expectations influence your development of voice in a poem?

Probably the biggest thing that keeps poets from recognizing voice as a function of craft is the difficulty of distinguishing between the voice we are crafting on the page and the people we are in the world. We might think it’s somehow dishonest or inauthentic to approach the page as a canvas rather than a mirror, and we tend to develop a narcissistic attachment to the voice on the page so that we are unable to see that voice an effect of prosody. And you’re right, we want to make the reader’s assumptions our excuse for not taking risks that could make the difference between an okay poem and a really good poem, when the truth is that our own shame and ego are the ones at work policing the imagination. So no, I try not to use the reader as a straw man to influence the way I write a poem. Instead, if the texture the poem calls for or would be served by a vocal shift, then I’d like to have the option to explore that.

The first poem in Digest, “Written by Himself,” seems to announce itself (and perhaps the collection) as a personal creation story, but it quickly eludes the possibility that it’s a truly biographical poem as it swells to include echoes of other powerful writers. The poem seems to naturally discover these additional voices as it unfurls. When you begin writing, do you already know who is speaking, or is the discovery inherent in the process of composition?

I find that tinkering with the voice lets me “see” different possibilities for the poem. It gives me access to different image systems and metaphors, which, in turn, suggest new directions for the poem. In a lyric poem, I am interested primarily in the movement of language. It’s very process oriented. In this case, I was interested in the play of voices and how each voice suggested ways to revise and recalibrate the whole. I may have started out with an original guest list for the poem, but then those guests showed up with unexpected friends of their own.

I love that you describe these echoes as a “guest list,” because the act of trying on different voices within a piece of writing can be so expansive. What emerges from the exercise can feel revealing and liberating, or even appropriative or transgressive in some way. Has writing from a different perspective ever allowed you to say something you couldn’t, or wouldn’t, normally say?

I like that you say “trying on” because voice is many ways like an article of clothing. And as anyone who has ever gone shopping knows, our choice of garment can catalyze surprising aspects of our character. I’m not necessarily pretending to be someone other than myself when, for example, I buy a new suit. When I wear an Armani suit versus cutoff jeans and a tank top, I’m appealing to different contexts that imply different norms and imperatives weighing on the voice.

Your poems are so rich in a variety of these characters and contexts. Many critics and readers have noted that Digest, particularly, feels very American in its searching and collaging approach towards understanding the self and identity. Do you think there’s an American voice? Is that even possible?

I am most aware of my Americanness when I am overseas. We Americans have a unified cultural disposition that we have trouble seeing at home because it’s larger than any of the census categories we’ve concocted. So many of our problems as a nation result from this shortsightedness.

We know that good writing, writing that’s engaged in discovery, complexity, and nuance, can be a powerful counter to shortsightedness. You’ve spoken about this exploration before. In an interview last year you shared this thought: “So if the future of American poetry looks anything like the way I see it, the way I want to see it, we can expect poets to explore new ways—brave, risky, maybe even controversial ways—to construct the pronoun ‘we.’” Do you have a “we”? Are there any poets you particularly admire for their construction of the “we”?

Just to clarify, the pronoun itself is not the thing I’m talking about. I’m talking about the practice of identification. Every “we” can’t be infinitely inclusive because then there would be no need for the concept in the first place. I just think attempts to distinguish whose cultural expression belongs to whom—they all amount to Solomon’s deal in the end. Whether we’re talking about taxes, history, art, or geography, there’s no way to partition the baby without causing it lasting harm. I want to write with that understanding in mind.

To give you an obvious example, if I write from or about a particular cultural and historical moment, and I make little or no effort to contextualize that moment for readers who may not be familiar with it, then I’m signaling to those unfamiliar readers that they are outside my construction of “we,” and that they must do some homework on their own if they want to join my circle of identification. That might strike some readers as antagonistic. On the other hand, I don’t want to footnote every reference I make in a poem. It’s a difficult balance to strike.

Diane Seuss is a poet who gets it. It seems like no matter how idiosyncratic Seuss’s poems are, they make me feel welcome and not like I’m eavesdropping on the text. She’s neither tour guide nor apologist. I’m sure that says as much about my own hang-ups as a reader as it says about the poems themselves, but I do think she’s practicing the kind of radical inclusion I admire.

We’ve discussed strategies to craft different individuals and collectives on the page, so now I’m also curious about your personal process. Writing is so often characterized as a mindful sort of “going in”—an activity fueled by introspection, then driven by a need for self-expression. But of course writing also offers us a way to consciously not be ourselves and to turn towards other truths, lives, facts, or experiences. Do you think you favor one approach over the other in your process?

Yeah, I happen to think that we access those other truths precisely by “going in.” In other words, I contain the multitudes already. I don’t think Whitman was just boasting. There is no “going out.” I also think of the Terence quote: “nothing that is human is alien to me.” I don’t just favor the inward turn, I abide by it.

On December 15-17, Gregory Pardlo and Robert Polito will lead a weekend workshop at the Garrison Institute titled “Experimenting with Voice Along the Borders of Poetry, Fiction, and Nonfiction.”

Theresa Sullivan is a writer and editor from New England. She earned her MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, where she worked as a poetry editor for LUMINA. She lives and writes in Boston.

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