Thursday afternoon, 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gregory Pardlo brought his work to JMU’s Festival Highlands room in an event hosted by the Furious Flower Poetry Center.
Born in Philadelphia, Pardlo grew up in the suburbs of Willingboro, New Jersey. From a young age, Pardlo took an interest in writing. His mother was a commercial artist, and he was always envious of the way she could form images on paper. Frustrated by the fact that he couldn’t do the same, Pardlo decided to describe these images in writing instead.
“I always tried to reproduce the imagery and the visual aspect of the work,” Pardlo said.
Pardlo went through what he calls a “series of permissions” before he finally became a writer. Growing up, Pardlo’s family had high expectations of his future career and becoming an English major was “out of the question.” After going in and out of school three separate times on different career tracks, Pardlo finally let himself become an English major and pursue a career as a poet.
“It was a series of permissions that I gave myself to do the thing that I wanted to do, to do the thing that made me happy,” Pardlo said.
During a question and answer segment, Pardlo talked to the audience about how he creates his poems and what motivates him to write. A self-proclaimed scatterbrain, Pardlo uses the analogy of letting farm animals out of a barn to describe his writing process.
“When I’m writing my initial drafts, I think of opening the barn doors and letting all of the farm animals waddle out and go wherever they want to go,” Pardlo said. “After a while, after all of this stuff is on the page, I step back and play self therapist and say, ‘What is going on here? What is the crazy me trying to say through all this stuff?’”
As for his inspiration, Pardlo says he draws most of it from confusion.
“The act of trying to wrap my head around things makes my mind do things that it wouldn’t normally do,” Pardlo said. “That shakes my language up enough that I get my animals up walking around.”
Following a brief introduction by the director of Furious Flower, Joanne Gabbin, Pardlo began by reading his poem “Double Dutch,” a piece full of imagery-induced lines that showed evidence of Pardlo’s envy of painters. In “Suburban Passional,” Pardlo gave an ode to his childhood days in the suburbs. He showed his mastery of the slave narrative in “Written by Himself,” a style he describes as the “quintessential American story.”
Pardlo went on to read poems covering subjects such as developing stereotypes and aggressions that bind the family together. He showcased multiple “form style” pieces, a style he writes in frequently, including one in the “how-to” style of a catalog description about his parents. Pardlo hit the audience hard with powerful lines like, “At what age should you begin initiating your little one to the historical memory of slavery?”
Following the reading, a question and answer segment was held with members of the audience. Students as well as other attendees asked Pardlo a flurry of questions about where he gets inspiration, how he’s seen his writing change over time and how he found poetry as his calling.
Gabbin was delighted to have Pardlo perform a reading at JMU. She met Pardlo a year ago when he was speaking at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and is a fervent fan of his work.
“I think his work is striking and sure,” Gabbin said. “He takes you to an average place and makes it seem magical.”
Senior dance major Vaden Vasteen loved Pardlo’s poetry and admired how it spoke to his own personal experiences.
“I really enjoyed it, his work is so poignant and interesting,” Vasteen said. “It speaks to such specific experiences and it was just really beautiful.”
After his reading, students excitedly rushed up to Pardlo to speak with him. One student mentioned that he was doing a project for a class on Pardlo and his work. Pardlo explained that this particular student was new to poetry and hadn’t been excited or enthusiastic about anything until now. Through his reading, Pardlo hopes that he could get others like this student interested in poetry too.
“Turning people on to poetry is the thing that I hope everybody really got.” Pardlo said.