September 14–20, 2015
Gregory Pardlo’s most recent collection of poetry, Digest, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Digest was also shortlisted for the 2015 NAACP Image Award and is a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His first collection, Totem, received the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007. Other honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Pardlo’s poems appear in the Nation, Ploughshares, Tin House, the Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, Best American Poetry and elsewhere. He lives with his family in Brooklyn. On Friday, September 18, Pardlo will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series as part of a Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend Event with Natalie Shapero and Rachel Eliza Griffiths.
I dragged my twelve year-old cousin
to see the Broadway production of A Raisin
in the Sun because the hip-hop mogul
and rapping bachelor, Diddy, played
the starring role. An aspiring rapper gave
my cousin his last name and the occasional child
support so I thought the boy would geek to see a pop
hero in the flesh as Walter Lee. My wife was newly
pregnant, and I was rehearsing, like Diddy
swapping fictions, surrendering his manicured
thug persona, for a more domestic performance.
My cousin mostly yawned throughout the play.
Except the moment Walter Lee’s tween son stiffened
on stage, as if rapt by the sound of a roulette ball.
Scene: no one breathes as Walter Lee vacillates,
uncertain of obsequity or indignation after Lindner offers
to buy the family out of the house they’ve purchased
in the all-white suburb. Walter might kneel to accept,
but he senses the tension in his son’s gaze. I was thinking,
for real though, what would Diddy do? “Get rich
or die trying,” 50 Cent would tell us. But my father would
sing like Ricky Scaggs, “Don’t get above your raisin’,”
when as a kid I vowed to be a bigger man than him.
That oppressive fruit dropped heavy as a medicine
ball in my lap meant to check my ego, and I imagined
generations wimpling in succession like the conga
marching raisins that sang Marvin’s hit song. Silly,
I know. Outside the theater, my cousin told me
when Diddy was two, they found his hustler dad
draping a steering wheel in Central Park,
a bullet in his head. I shared what I knew of dreams
deferred and Marvin Gaye. (When asked if he loved
his son, Marvin Sr. answered, “Let’s just say I didn’t
dislike him.”) Beneath the bling of many billion
diodes I walked beside the boy through Times Square
as if anticipating a magic curtain that would rise,
but only one of us would get to take a bow.
–“Raisin” from Digest © 2014 by Gregory Pardlo. Appears with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I got the idea for the poem around the time Jesse Jackson, unaware that his studio microphone was on, was overheard threatening to castrate Barack Obama for being insufficiently deferential to—as I understood it—the hierarchy of the black church. And I wondered how much of his indignation came out of Jackson’s resentment of Obama’s success. This reminded me of my father’s insistence on my subordination, and the way his insecurity (his fear of me?) informed our father-son relationship well into my adulthood. The moment in A Raisin in the Sun that the poem centers on seems to capture a version of this intergenerational drama, and I wanted to explore how much that drama is informed by structural racism, our fears (internalized and societal) of black male desire and ambition. I think our inclination is to view the tension in that moment in the play as existing between Walter Lee, the black head of household, and Lindner, the white homeowners’ representative. But if we can get over our tendency to privilege racism over familial bonds, we see Lindner, like racism, is merely a device to highlight the more relevant tension between Walter Lee and his son—in the play, at any rate.
What are you working on right now?
Lesson plans for my undergraduate writing class.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day starts with brunch—preferably in Bed-Stuy, somewhere like Alice’s Arbor that offers free coffee refills. I’d spend the afternoon writing and finish with an evening at home cooking and having dinner with my kids.
How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?
I’ve lived in Brooklyn for fifteen years, ten of which in the great Republic of Bed-Stuy where you can still hear, occasionally, music for grownups wafting across the backyards of our brownstones. It is a place where I know most of my neighbors by name, and someone will ring my doorbell if I forget to move my car for street cleaning.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
Around 2003, a kid tried to mug me in Prospect Heights. I ran. I was reminded of the saying that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. As the victim of an attempted mugging, I find I fall into a curious—and I think common—disposition in the Brooklyn political imagination.
Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?
Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?
Greenlight and Unnameable Books are my favorite bookstores because of the readings and events they host, and the way they support diverse writers.
Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I prefer to go to Outpost on Fulton St. in Clinton Hill, but it’s usually so crowded these days that it’s better for socializing. Instead, I go to Panera Bread downtown near Fulton and Adams. They have an upstairs dining area with comfortable seats. It’s more often quiet there, and I love their mango smoothie.
Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?
Brooklyn Bridge Park and Coney Island are at the top of that list.
Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?
Diane Seuss’s Four-Legged Girl is just wonderful.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate our upcoming block party,
And what I share and tweet you shall share and retweet,
For every tweet mentioning me as good mentions you.
I love Brooklyn, and I choose to live here, but it’s also true that the alternatives frighten me.