Gregory Pardlo on the Psychology of Tennis, Historical Omissions, and Wanting to Be an Architect

Gregory Pardlo’s poetry collection Spectral Evidence is available today from Knopf, so we asked him a few questions about his readers, when he writes, and his favorite book to recommend to others.


Who do you most wish would read your book? (your boss, your childhood bully, etc.)

Maybe someone in the NYC Parks Dept. will pick up my book and stumble across the little tricked-out villanelle about the Lafayette monument in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. The monument features Lafayette, his horse, and an unnamed black man whom many believe to be James Armistead Lafayette, a hero of the Revolutionary War.

It’s been a few years since I visited that monument. Maybe the omission has been corrected already, but it is painful to imagine the good people of Brooklyn trooping past the image of the rightly-celebrated Marquise de Lafayette and this other guy, unidentified and random as a lawn jockey, holding the reins of Lafayette’s horse.

It’s bad enough that wealthy people in early America, when commissioning portraits of themselves and their families, liked to include anonymized black people as testaments to their wealth and power. It’s troubling to think that a public memorial would be allowed to do that today—with a Revolutionary War hero, no less. Maybe someone in the Parks Dept. will agree and affix a plaque to Lafayette’s monument elaborating this history.

What do you always want to talk about in interviews but never get to?

The First Amendment, cancel culture, fascism, academic freedom, Palestine, COINTELPRO, structural racism, environmental justice, Sudan, reparations, reproductive rights, meritocracy, fragility, the NYC public school system, evangelicals, Cuba, Drag Queen Story Hour, and, you know, that other thing.

Which non-literary piece of culture—film, tv show, painting, song—could you not imagine your life without?

I could not imagine my life without tennis. I’m constantly amazed at how well I can imagine myself playing, and how well my subconscious mind thwarts that execution. That all of this gets worked out in the presence of someone else who is caught up in the very same internal conflict—this is what makes tennis sublime.

Ultimately, tennis is theory of mind. The ball is a projection of our vain attempts to escape the subconscious, to get outside our heads. The ball materializes as a thing in itself only where its location is most disputed—it’s on the line! It’s outside the box! Otherwise, the ball is little more than a metronomic backbeat punctuating the players’ struggles to capture their equally elusive sense of being.

Sometimes, I find myself watching grainy old footage of famous matches on my laptop where the ball itself is barely visible. The players look like two cats chasing a laser dot aimed by their opponent. But it doesn’t deter me. The dance is the thing.

What is your favorite way to procrastinate when you are meant to be writing?

I write an inordinate number of blurbs and letters of recommendation. I serve on countless juries, committees and advisory boards. I tell myself that silently martyring myself to the advocacy of others is a calling more noble than making my own work. The truth is, this “giving back” is less altruism than it is a way of managing guilt for good fortune I’m not so sure I deserve.

If our paths cross, dear reader, I may offer to perform some service for you. Even if it is to read your uncle’s memoir or write limericks with your kid’s third grade class during their poetry unit, please do not enable this weak old man by accepting.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you do instead?

If I had another career left in me, I’d be an architect. As a kid, I liked to draw my dream houses. The houses always had a stream or some internal waterway allowing inhabitants to swim or tube or kayak from one part of the house to another. In true mid century fashion, naturally, my houses were all split-level, and they often had a slide or Batman pole in addition to elevators that would serpentine their way to different elevations. There were stairs, too, in case of a fire emergency.

In first grade, I had a pet hamster named Maximillian. Max I & Max II. He was one hamster who inhabited two bodies. When Max’s first host-body died, my parents reincarnated him in another hamster body. Anyway, along with Max, came my passion for Habitrail units. I wanted Max to be able to explore the most stimulating environments. Contained if not pseudo-freedom. The result was a kind of domestic sprawl that I only now realize made a deep impression on my aesthetic sensibility.

The dream houses I later drew were distinguished less by the quality of habitation they inspired, and more by the ease of circulation they facilitated. I think this interest turns up again in my penchant for the discursive long poem. It might be why Whitman and Campbell McGrath’s long poems, for example, made such an impression on me. I still dream of being an architect. My next book might be architecture-themed.


Spectral Evidence by Gregory Pardlo is available via Knopf.

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