FlashbackFriday: Art Talk with Poet and Literary Translator Gregory Pardlo

By Paulette Beete
Poet and literary translator Gregory Pardlo

Gregory Pardlo. Photo by Thomas Sayers Ellis

"We tend to underestimate the psychic costs of writing lyric poetry. It’s already a dangerous effort that requires considerable amounts of character and self-awareness." — Gregory Pardlo

Gregory Pardlo, recipient of a 2006 NEA Literature Fellowship for a Translation Project, is the very definition of a modern poet. He juggles more than a few jobs—poet, literary translator, teacher, and dad. And he's also been known to—as he reveals in the interview below—stash away bits and pieces of new poems in his smartphone. Poet Major Jackson, writing about Pardlo's first book Totem (Copper Canyon Press, 2007) called him "an American metaphysician. His luxuriant mind is discursive, drawing on many intellectual and cultural traditions, and for him, the world is singularly and greatest understood at its figurative core." And it's this wide-ranging interest and intellect that makes Pardlo not just a modern poet, but a modern American poet. We caught up with Pardlo via e-mail where he talked about his early love affair with a Polaroid camera, his fruitful friendship with Danish poet Niels Lyngso, and the relationship between character and the writing of poetry.

NEA: What's your version of the artist's life?

GREGORY PARDLO: I try not to think about what constitutes an artist’s life because I’m too busy living it. And by “it” I mean doing the things I love (and there’s no sarcasm here): washing dishes, folding laundry, sorting the recycling... And lately, when I’m lucky, it also means taking my kids ice-skating or having people shush us in the library when we are laughing at something Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has said or done. Fortunately, these things keep me too distracted to agonize over poems so when I have a chance I just write as much as I can without editing or worrying about whether or not what I am writing is poetry. I typically have four or five drafts that I’m working on at any given time, and over the course of my day I collect ideas for them. I’ve gotten into the habit of entering these bits of thought into my smart phone—a contemporary version of the café napkin—either in text or voice record. I get some of my best work done on the train or bus.

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement or experience with the arts?

PARDLO: My parents bought me a Polaroid camera when I was eight years old. I spent all my allowance on film so I could take pictures of trees covered in snow. At the time, I couldn’t understand what was compelling me to do it; I just couldn’t believe trees covered in snow could be so beautiful. I’m glad my parents indulged me, but I wish they could have thrown in some lessons on money-management while they were at it.

NEA: To date, what would you say has been your most important or most transformative arts experience?

PARDLO: I managed a jazz club my family owned in the early to mid-1990s. One of my responsibilities there was booking the bands (and occasionally, poets). I got to meet many musicians that way, and they were usually nice to me because they wanted me to hire them again. But I remember one musician who didn’t particularly care for the business end of things. He asked me late one night, as the band was packing up, if I planned to be a bar manager for the rest of my life—I was in my early twenties. I said I really wanted to write poems, but that I had to do something for money. He told me, in very colorful language, to commit myself to my craft, and if I did the universe would always help me to support it. He wasn’t wrong.

NEA:  What decision has had the most impact on your arts career?

PARDLO: For years I took a defeatist and evasive stance toward the idea of living a sober life. When my family had a very public confrontation with my brother’s alcoholism (on national television), it brought my own alcoholism crashing down before me like an alien object smoldering and emitting some cryptic signal I finally had no choice but to translate (translation being a theme here). I don’t equate mine with coming out experiences of homosexuals, for example, but the process of owning my recovery, in addition to recovery in and of itself, has made me present to the suffocating power of a disapproving community in a way that I hadn’t been prior. It has also made me present to the depths of character so many of us can reveal only in glinting, unguarded moments. I think this makes me a better poet, and a more liberated poet. We tend to underestimate the psychic costs of writing lyric poetry. It’s already a dangerous effort that requires considerable amounts of character and self-awareness. And when we consider that the fear of coming to terms with one’s own unique humanity is a major hazard in the writing process, it’s thrilling to discover what becomes possible when that fear is diminished.

NEA: What does it mean to you to be an African-American artist?

PARDLO: Being a black poet is my greatest asset and my greatest liability. As an African American I have native access to more forms of cultural expression and cultural memory than many other American poets will grant themselves. On the other hand, with each poem I risk criticism from both inside and outside the black community that I am improperly performing blackness. Whether or not I intend to put my blackness on display, my blackness is always on display. Of course, there is no proper way to perform blackness, but because it is such a jealously guarded quality some people feel the need to tell others how it is to be enjoyed.

NEA: You worked closely with the Danish poet Niels Lyngso on the translation of the poems in Pencil of Rays and Spiked Mace: Selected Poems. Where and how did you first encounter his work? Why did you decide to undertake this translation project? What was it like to work with a living author? What were the particular challenges and/or surprises of working on this project?

PARDLO: I started translating to maintain my modest proficiency with the Danish language. But I soon discovered translating was a great way to warm up when I sat down at my writing desk. After translating for fifteen or twenty minutes, I found my mind bouncing with new ideas for my own work. Experiencing my thoughts sieved through the cheesecloth of another language is wonderfully disorienting. So I began to look for more challenging translation projects without intending to publish any of the results. When I “discovered” Niels’ work, it reminded me of refrigerator magnet poems, really. They seemed arbitrary and just plain weird. If I had approached them with the hope of producing publishable translations, I would have quickly stepped over Niels’ poems for easier, more conventional territory. And Niels’ poems held such a foreign (not necessarily culturally, but poetically speaking) way of thinking for me that I felt under no obligation to do them justice. The more I worked with the poems, and the more intimate I became with Niels’ intentions, however, the more the poems taught me how to occupy their space. And the more endeared to them I became in light of their accomplishment. There were still plenty of instances in which I was stumped completely so I sent samples of my efforts to Niels and kept my fingers crossed. Fortunately, he approved of them greatly and very patiently guided me through some of the more nuanced moments in his work involving specific cultural references and tropes. It turns out that we got along famously and became rather good friends.

He and I met a number of years ago when he was in New York. We got our families, as they were at the time, together for breakfast in Manhattan. In terms of working with a living poet, I am lucky to have been able to spend time with Niels in this way. We have some more projects in the offing, and I’m always eager to see his new work. At some point I hope to challenge him to translate some of mine.

NEA: What do you think is the role of the artist in the community?

PARDLO: The poet-as-artist should drive expression in a way that opens new possibilities for cultural feeling and the perception of our sensory experiences.

NEA: What is the responsibility of the community to the artist?

PARDLO: The community should be patient with the artist and recognize that it benefits us all when her work is challenging and provokes discussion and debate.

NEA: What does the phrase "Art Works" mean to you?

PARDLO: Coincidentally (or not), I think the phrase “Art Works” evokes this idea of art as challenge or provocation in addition to—or at the same time as it is—aspiring to some aesthetic achievement. Something that works has use and value. So I see this phrase as countering the idea that art is a passive luxury that is expendable in times of limited resources. Also, “Art Works” suggests art is a solution. We may not know what it is a solution to, “yet,” as Williams says of poetry, " [people] die every day for lack/ of what is found/ there.”

Listen to a recitation of Pardlo's poem "Written By Himself" by 2016 Puerto Rico Poetry Out Loud Champion Wenmimareba Klobah Collins here.

You can read Gregory Pardlo's essay on the art of literary translation in the 2017 NEA publication The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation.