Gregory Pardlo on Trusting What’s on the Other Side of Sobriety… and Poetry
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the new essay collection, Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Jordan is joined by Pulitzer-winning poet and memoirist Gregory Pardlo—currently teaching at NYU in Abu Dhabi—to talk about sobriety, understanding the stories of one’s life, and answering the self-imposed question “What god are you serving, Pardlo, when you write?”
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From the episode:
Jordan Kisner: Did you experience sobriety, at the time, as the kind of rebirth or productive reincarnation post-crisis that you imagined it to be? Did you think at the time that you had reached the last one?
Gregory Pardlo: No, no. That’s a great question. I think what that particular crisis taught me was the kind of falseness of previous crises. Because, as I say, there’s some crises like quitting my jobs or crashing my car or breaking up with loved ones in relationships, these are all contrived crises, and I would enter into them with the anticipation of this rebirth afterwards. So there’s this perpetual shooting myself in the foot. But the lesson of sobriety was that I could not imagine what was on the other side of it in order for it to be the threshold that it actually was.
Jordan: Do you mean you truly couldn’t, or you felt like you shouldn’t?
Greg: I think both, and I’m trying to figure out if there’s a distinction there. Because it wasn’t the first time I attempted to get sober. Previous times that I tried to get sober, when I imagined a life post rock bottom, that process of imagining my life would cause me to drink again because I didn’t like the life that I was imagining. I didn’t want that life. I wanted a life in which I could still trick myself into “oblivion” on occasion—I’m using air quotes there. So part of the necessary process was not imagining what was on the other side, giving up a desire to know what was on the other side.
As I’m talking about this, I hear myself talking about the writing process very much, in entering into a poem. As soon as I try and predetermine “this is what the poem is going to say,” it falls on its face. There’s a kind of faith that I’ve been—toying with isn’t the word, but kind of cozying up to. I don’t know if it’s a function of my age, I don’t know what it is, but I have been expanding my idea of what constitutes faith, and in that is a notion of trusting what’s on the other side and not needing to construct it imaginatively in my mind ahead of time.
Gregory Pardlo’s collection Digest (Four Way Books) won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Other honors include fellowships from the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center, the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts for translation. His first poetry collection Totem won the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007. He is Poetry Editor of Virginia Quarterly Review. His most recent book is Air Traffic, a memoir in essays.