In Class With Professor Gregory Pardlo, Director of the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden
A primary mission of Frontier is to provide high quality resources and practical help for serious poets—so we’ve been reaching out to poetry professors to help give clarity to this strange journey and stranger craft. This month, we got the chance to hear from Gregory Pardlo, Pulitzer Prize winner and Director of the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden.
What features do you believe define contemporary poetry today?
Gregory Pardlo: I feel “some kind of way” about trying to define poets and poetry as opposed to thinking about how we come together around institutions and shared values. The literary field is only defined by the ways we talk about it. That said, perhaps the question I’d like to answer is, “how do I choose to talk about contemporary poetry?” Well, I try not to. As soon as anyone can say anything about the state of contemporary poetry, that pronouncement is already outdated. I will say that poetry today is decentered. It’s as mutable as the weather, which might say more about the weather than it does about poetry.
What are the most common pitfalls you see students falling into as beginner writers?
It’s not the subject matter nor the style that makes a poem. The poet’s relationship to their material makes the real difference. It’s also a mistake to believe our heroes have transcended some plane of consciousness when the thing they’re actually good at is just in being true to their own impulses. We have tendency in this culture to exoticize and hyperbolize. Cancel or sanctify. And we do this with our own work as much as we do it with the work of others. This tendency inhibits exploration and risk-taking and encourages slavish imitation.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
Read work that makes you a better poet. I don’t understand how poets can dismiss entire literary movements, styles, and aesthetics if not because they’re confident their aesthetics will remain dominant and that they’ll never have to find their way within an expanding literary field. The problem with this—other than the obvious—is that it stunts growth. How can we develop our craft if we focus on a very narrow canon of work? We should even read work we think we don’t like if only to figure out why we don’t like it. This will help us understand our own work better.
What poets are you teaching this semester?
And we’re reading a couple of essays: “Cruising Devotion: On Carl Phillips”, by Garth Greenwell and “The Craft of Writing Empathy,” by Nuar Alsadir.
I’m always looking for books that teach us about the craft of poetry as much as they delight us in that craft.
Gregory Pardlo‘s collection Digest (Four Way Books) won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Other honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts for translation; his first collection Totem won the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007. He is Poetry Editor of Virginia Quarterly Review and Director of the MFA program at Rutgers University-Camden. His most recent book is Air Traffic, a memoir in essays.