Interview with: Gregory Pardlo
By Samantha Torres, SR Fall 2015 Editorial Assistant
Gregory Pardlo is the 2015 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his book Digest. He was born in Philadelphia in 1968, a graduate of Rutgers University, Camden and currently teaches at Columbia University in New York. He recently visited and read at SUNY Plattsburgh.
How does it feel to win a Pulitzer Prize?
In a sense, I feel like you have to be careful what you wish for. I’ve always wished for this, but never imagined it happening. It was something that ran me over like a truck; however, it’s still an honor.
Do you feel pressure to produce the same quality of work?
Not really, I feel more mental pressure than anything else. It’s more anxiety of being available to the whole world.
Does it feel weird that you can Google yourself and everything about you pops up?
Yeah, definitely! There’s no more hiding! Everything everyone would need to know is all out there.
How are your families and friends reacting to all this newfound publicity?
They’re pretty much the same, but my daughters get annoyed at all the attention because I’m busier than usual. They’re always asking me when I’ll spend time with them and take them to the park or something.
I’ve looked up some of your works, and in your book Digest, you focus on the cultural differences of being American and African American. Have the latest incidents with police brutality influenced your work in anyway?
Not really, I’ve always been aware of these incidents. I’m old enough to remember what it was like to be targeted by the police for the most ridiculous things—broken taillights, followed through stores, and stopped for random things. It hasn’t changed my writing, but I feel like I would’ve written lots of pieces differently. There’s one poem I wrote, I can’t remember the name, about a young male getting pulled over—I wrote the piece so tentatively since it’s relatable to readers, but now it’s more prominent.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
In Junior High, I started writing rap lyrics. When I was in High School, I wrote a lot of song lyrics, and eventually began writing poems. Yet I didn’t know I could be a poet. I thought a writer was someone like James Baldwin or Ernest Hemmingway. “One did not set out to be a writer, you know?” But over time I started taking incremental steps and acknowledging that I wanted to pursue writing. Originally, I played guitar and wanted to be a musician. Then I thought about going to law school, but I didn’t have any interest in the law. I thought about attending law school because it would be something people would respect.
What advice would you give to students aspiring to become writers?
You have to suffer through it. The world isn’t going to change and every writer has to go through that trial of “is this for me?” I mean, why wouldn’t you want to save yourself from rejection or poverty? But overall, I guess the best advice I could give them is: if you can go without writing than you shouldn’t be a writer.
I also read that you moved around a lot. What was that like?
Well, I grew up across the river in Jersey right by the water. I spent my adult life in New York, but I feel like a bad sports fan. I switched over to Brooklyn sports teams and I’m dedicated to them.
What’s it like teaching at Columbia University?
I thought they [the students] were going to be spoiled brats from the upper class just attending a private school; however, it was a learning experience for me because people really are universal. These students are struggling with the same insecurities I had. They have the same drives and ambitions I did; they’re all in search of that same love, comfort, and secure future we all hope for.
What are you teaching in Columbia?
Right now, I’m teaching undergrad writing and nonfiction essay, but each semester we change the program, so hopefully I’ll teach some different classes.
Are you the type of professor that refuses to read his/her works in class or are you willing to read your pieces?
Not typically, but towards the end of the semester one student will have my book on their desk and ask me to read. I’ll only read my work when someone asks.
How do you maintain the balance between writing and teaching?
I used to struggle with finding time, but not anymore because you get used to it. It’s been a while and I’ve been able to border the line between work and writing. I feel like I’ve become more conscious of something when it happens, like if I get inspired in class and can use an instance to write a poem about it