Ambition and a Small Press that Recognizes It: Gregory Pardlo’s Road to the Pulitzer

by Jacquelyn Malone

On the Tavis Smiley Show, Pulitzer Prize winner and Four Way Books poet Gregory Pardlo talked about the influence of family on the content of his book and about poetry that engages in a discussion of important topics. He spoke of wanting to begin, or at least add to, a narrative about African-American men “doting on their kids.” And at a party celebrating his prize, his audience could see that influence as his two young daughters shared their father’s spotlight, climbing on his lap and selecting the poems he read to the assembled audience – which was charmed by the filial pride the two young girls showed in their father.

Gregory’s route to the Pulitzer was somewhat circuitous. His first book, Totem, won several distinguished awards, including the 2007 American Poetry Review / Honickman First Book Prize. But when he completed his new manuscript, Digest, major presses rejected it. After four years of failing to find a publisher, Four Way Books founder and director Martha Rhodes stepped in. She had followed Gregory’s work and according to Gregory “recognized the ambition of the poems.” She worked with him to do more with the manuscript. According to Tavis Smiley, she “gave it the love it deserved.”

Gregory and his daughters seated with Martha Rhodes. Cornelius Eady, one of the Pulitzer judges, stands behind Martha. Photo by Owen Lewis

Gregory and his daughters seated with Martha Rhodes. Cornelius Eady, one of the Pulitzer judges, stands behind Martha. Photo by Owen Lewis

The Pulitzer judges as well as the individual reader also recognize the ambition of these poems. Not only do they take family and Brooklyn as their subjects, but those same poems also often take on a range that roams through western thought and culture. Take, for example, the 17 line poem “St. Augustine.” The poem belongs in a series of poems grouped as “The Conatus Improvisations.” Conatus is a philosophical term meaning the innate striving of animate creatures to continue to exist and enhance themselves. The seeming topic of the poem is sex, and the speaker is a young man “in pursuit of some unconscious/ joy, certain only that we’d know it if it ever could be found.” The imagery ranges though Prince’s view of a woman’s body, to the Corvette as both a car and “girlie war/ ship,” to the ball turret gunner in a womb (a little echo of Randall Jarrell here), back to cars and naming them and to planes and the air strafes of “red barons.”  The roaming comes back to washing “father’s Vette, fearing both its pliant fire and our need to ride in pursuit.” The poem is packed with leaps that define a young man’s alternating plunges into danger and delight, which include but go beyond sex into an existential search for a kind of joy that may never be found, but that is the quest for something potent as life itself.

The entire poem seems a response to St. Augustine who viewed sex as the original sin but who also saw both power and danger in its pleasure. Like most of the conversations in these poems, it is not necessarily a polemic – he agrees with Augustine about the dangers but the poem is a search, a conversation with the early church theologian that includes exploring and striving for more of what can be felt but not fully articulated. Here is the entire poem:

St. Augustine: If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know.

Prince calls it little because he imagines a woman’s body
waist up, the rest Corvette, which is French for a sort of girlie
warship, a chimerical twist on the Freudian cockpit. Who
wouldn’t want a belly button for a windshield? All us baby
ball turret gunners would submit to mother love as long as we
were allowed the illusion that we commanded the vessel. This
may be why we give them names like Bessy and Lila Mae,
but our cars are more prosthesis that portmanteau. We say
horses that muscle and gun, but idle next to one and hear
its sputtering, Promethean delirium like a hound’s
twitching dream of dogfights in biplanes that strafe
the velvet sky with the leathery helmets of their little red
barons. We would have swooped the oil fields where pilot
lights burned like Zippos at a rock concert to safeguard our
memories of weekends washing father’s Vette, fearing both its
pliant fire and our need to ride in pursuit of some unconscious
joy, certain only that we’d know it if it ever could be found.

St. Augustine" from DIGEST (c) 2014 by Gregory Pardlo. Appears with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.

So much of Digest has this same double focus, the gritty contemporary world and the world of such historical figures as Heraclitus, Cervantes, and Kierkegaard.

Ambition? – absolutely. And isn’t it wonderful that we have small press heroes like Martha Rhodes to champion that ambition and talent!

Gregory read with other Four Way Book poets at this spring’s festival, which occurred a few days after the Pulitzer announcement when the poet was still a little dazed, as though he had just opened the front door to find he’d won a million dollars from the Publisher’s Clearing House. Here is a video of that reading.

You can order Gregory’s book from Four Way Books here.