One On 1 Profile: Chapters of Poet Gregory Pardlo's Life Read More Like a Novel

EDITOR'S NOTE: In recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize, NY1 presents this profile of Gregory Pardlo, which originially aired on November 30, 2015.

Poet Gregory Pardlo says it was years before he gave himself "permission" to be a writer. His many admirers are happy he did. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.

Gregory Pardlo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, but the chapters of his life read more like a novel, such as dropping out of college, joining the Marines and working as a translator of...Danish?

"That's another odd feather in the cap that tends to surprise people," Pardlo says.

"At 13, I asked my father for a tattoo. I might as well have asked for a bar mitzvah," Pardlo adds, laughing. "I knew there was a connection between the decorated body and reproduction. This was why I wanted a tattoo."  

Pardlo was already well-regarded in poetry circles thanks to "Totem," his 2007 collection. When his next book, "Digest," came out in 2014, it sold modestly. Then, it won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Now, Pardlo is a poet in demand, speaking all around the country and all over New York. And attention is being paid beyond the poetry world.

"Now, I'm expected, my work is expected to stand beside the work of fiction Pulitzer Prize winners, for example, and the scales are just completely different," he says.

Pulitzer Prize winners usually don't know they're even being considered. On the April day when the Pulitzer was announced, Pardlo's phone started buzzing out of control.

"My hands were shaking too much to text. So I called my wife at home and said, 'Can you Google me and find out what's going on? Something is happening. She looks up and she says, 'There's something here about you and winning a Pulitzer,'" Pardlo says. "My knees just went out from under me."

Pardlo is both teacher and student. Degrees? He's got a few. The one-time Rutgers dropout teaches at Columbia, where he's also getting a second masters in nonfiction writing in the School of the Arts writing program. In addition, he's getting his PHD in English at CUNY.

Pardlo often writes in the kitchen of his home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, after his two kids have gone to bed, with his wife in the other room.

Part of the beauty of Pardlo's work is the rhythm of the words. He also has a facility for seamlessly weaving together a wide variety of references.

Pardlo likens his use of various and underlying themes to the popular fold in created by cartoonist Al Jaffee in Pardlo's beloved Mad Magazine.

"This complexity is absolutely a metaphor for how I envision my own work," Pardlo says. "You’re looking at one image, and there’s another image that’s tucked within that, and there are deepening layers of meaning. That’s absolutely how I come to the page."

Pardlo grew up in Willingboro in southern New Jersey, the son of an air traffic controller. His life changed dramatically in 1981, when his father and thousands of air traffic controllers went on strike and were subsequently fired by President Ronald Reagan.

"And we waited. And we waited and waited. And the bills started piling up. The electricity went out and the lights went off," Pardlo says. "It was bad."

He went to Rutgers, the first in his family to go to college, and promptly flunked out, returned home and, at the urging of a friend, and much to his father's chagrin, joined the Marines.

"He told me, 'You won’t last two weeks.' So, OK. Now it’s on" Pardlo says. "And everything that I have since is directly traceable back to the skills I learned in boot camp."

Pardlo spent two years in the Marines. He then could imagine making his visions reality. But there were more detours. He moved to Copenhagen to be with a woman who eventually became his first wife, then moved back to New Jersey to help his grandfather run a jazz club.

Pardlo met musicians passionate about their craft, and that freed him up to pursue his own passion.

Back in college at Rutgers-Camden, Pardlo took a course in poetry, and he was hooked.

"I wanted to be in that room talking about poems, writing poems, sharing poems," Pardlo says.

Pardlo enrolled at NYU to study poetry and get a masters in fine arts. At the time, his younger brother Robbie was part of a very successful hip hop trio, City High.

"My brother is literally a rock star, being driven around in limousines," Pardlo says.

Pardlo: If poets are broke and are not living on a terribly financially secure lives, then graduate students in poetry are doing substantially...
Mishkin: The money is just flying in.

In 2010, Pardlo's brother Robbie appeared on the A&E series Intervention because of his alcoholism. Pardlo says the show forced him to deal with his own drinking problems.

"Early on, I was smitten with the bad-boy writer mystique, and it was all very self-destructive," he says. "And it's all romantic at a distance. but it doesn't work when you're actually in it at all. "

Pardlo says there are psychic costs of writing lyric poetry. The process can be intensely personal and painful.

"Digging into those spaces and confronting things that I don't want to confront in order to make art out of them, it can be harrowing," he says.

In a way, Pardlo has come full circle. Early on, he discovered an African-American poetry community collective called Cave Canem in Philadelphia. He attended a reading, only to stand outside.

"So I watched from the window, from the bushes outside the building, and of course, it’s raining," Pardlo says, laughing. "In the rain, listening to the poets reading their poems and thinking, 'Wow, what an amazing thing to be. One day, I hope I can be on that side of the window, this window.'"

That's exactly where he is.

ONE ON 1 EXTRA: Poet Gregory Pardlo explains the structure of his poems and reads from his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Digest."

ONE ON 1 EXTRA: Poet Gregory Pardlo discusses the impact of the 1981 air traffic controllers strike on his family.

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