With 'Air Traffic,' Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet Gregory Pardlo Turns To Memoir

Download Audio
"Air Traffic," by Gregory Pardlo. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Air Traffic," by Gregory Pardlo. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Gregory Pardlo won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2015. In his new memoir, he explores his relationship with his father, an air traffic controller who was fired during the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike of 1981.

Pardlo (@Pardlo) joins Here & Now's Eric Westervelt (@Ericnpr) to talk about the book, "Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition & Manhood in America."

  • Scroll down to read an excerpt from "Air Traffic"

Interview Highlights

On the job of air traffic controller being an intense one, and whether the job shaped how he was raised

"Absolutely, and I think probably all the more intense, because as an air traffic controller, the only job that you're trained for and qualified to do is to sit in that tower. There aren't many transferable skills. So his identity was very much wrapped up in being on that microphone, speaking to the airplanes and conducting things in the air, which he brought home with him — that sense of ego, domination. I think there's a little more than your garden variety masculinity going on in that identity."

On his father's practice of giving him word-based challenges as a child

"It was a punishment that ... well, that was the context that he gave me this exercise in. But the outcome was that I actually gained a love for language and a love for discovering new words, and words that are just sort of outside of my vocabulary.

"My father devised punishments that were cunning and proud. He dropped the family dictionary like a Christmas ham on my rickety desk, and gave me — with no more to go on than the mere attire of its pronunciation — an unfamiliar word. 'Disconsolate,' for example. He would enunciate the word with the monotone of a spelling bee announcer. I had to find the definition of the word, and then find in that definition another word I did not understand. I was then to look up that subsequent word, and so on, until I could prove to my father's satisfaction that I understood every word in the definition clearly, verifying the lexical descent from my original word. At which point he might, or might not, assign me a new word."

"His identity was very much wrapped up in being on that microphone, speaking to the airplanes and conducting things in the air, which he brought home with him — that sense of ego, domination."

Gregory Pardlo

On this form of punishment helping him learn new words

"I think that some of that was my resistance to him punishing me. So if he was going to impose this on me as a punishment, I was going to — and I'm admitting to having the chip on my shoulder now — I was going to turn that around and make it useful for me. Enjoy it, actually. It made a huge impact on my imagination, my sense of my relationship to the language and the way I related to my father through language."

On the PATCO strike of 1981

"It was a pivotal moment in my own life. I mean, I was 12 years old when I remember walking the picket line with him. And people were throwing food at us from cars on the highway, and honking and shouting profanities at us as they went by. And it was really disillusioning. It was really just confusing to me, because I was so certain of the righteousness of what we were doing."

On his father bouncing back after losing his job, and whether Pardlow's resilience after his own stumbles came from his father

"It absolutely did, and this is the double-edged sword, or whatever metaphor you wanna use, two-sided coin. On the one hand, the resiliency I learned from my father, because as I've said many times, he managed to, he and my mother — I mean we can't ... I also feel uncomfortable not centering my mother in these conversations, because our survival could not have occurred had it not been for her resourcefulness. But my father's sort of working through his own demons, and his own screw-ups — he managed to sink a couple of jobs after the strike even. But his resilience was absolutely a model for me.

"But the other side of that is I have found in the past myself playing out this narrative in which I am living into some inevitable crisis that is going to be a turning point in my life, and all that produced was a series of unnecessary moments of self-sabotage. So while I was persevering, I had also been creating the problems through which I needed to persevere. Yeah, it's complicated, I'll say."

"I don't think he would disagree with my representation of us as a family. He would challenge me on it, certainly. I think that would be an interesting conversation. But I don't think he would say anything was wrong."

Gregory Pardlo, on what his father might make of the book

On growing to see W.E.B. Du Bois' concept of the "Talented Tenth" as destructive

"First of all, it divides a population into a 10 percent and a 90 percent, and it says that the 10 percent is responsible for the improvement in life experience of the 90 percent. That puts a lot of pressure on anyone who is inclined to see themselves as part of that 90 percent.

"Second of all, it forces one to imagine that the community — however we conceive of that community — actually wants my, for example, leadership, or needs my leadership. I think there's a kind of built-in condescension when we say, 'I am better than 90 percent of the people whom we identify in America as African-American.' ... The idea of being the first black person to do something, you have to first agree that black people are not part of the general population, that the achievements within this community are not consistent with the achievements of people throughout the rest of society."

On what his father might make of this book

"I think he would be comfortable with the book, and I think he would find some way, in fact, even to be proud of the book. I don't think he would disagree with my representation of us as a family. He would challenge me on it, certainly. I think that would be an interesting conversation. But I don't think he would say anything was wrong."

Book Excerpt: 'Air Traffic'

by Gregory Pardlo

An Introduction

Rt. 66

By some concoction of sugar, nicotine, prescription painkillers, rancor, and cocaine, my father, Gregory Pardlo, Sr., began killing himself after my parents separated in 2007. He measured his health and lifestyle against his will to live, and determined he had ten years left in the tank. Though he did “fuck up and live past sixty-five,” as he was afraid he might, he was only a year over budget. He lived his last years like a child with a handful of tokens at an arcade near closing time. Those tokens included: access to credit, the patience and generosity of his family and friends, and any saleable assets (including, possibly, the titanium urn that contained his mother’s ashes, mysteriously missing from the one-bedroom Las Vegas apartment where he chose to fizzle out). These resources had to be exhausted. He didn’t want to endure penury, but neither would he ever “leave money on the table,” as he often put it.

He died without leaving a will or naming beneficiaries. My brother, Robbie, and I agreed to have him cremated. No medical school would have taken him, and I didn’t even entertain the idea of a casket. Robbie traveled from Willingboro, New Jersey, to Vegas to claim the body. My father had retired as a union representative for the American Train Dispatchers Association (ATDA), but without a will, my mother had to negotiate unfamiliar bureaucracies even to claim the two thousand-dollar grievance pay the ATDA provided to cover his funeral. My father left an assortment of defaulted mortgages, overdrawn bank accounts, and maxed-out credit cards; the remaining balance on a luxury sports car he had all but totaled; and a five-figure debt to the taxman.


He died May 12, 2016, as I was working on the final drafts of this book. Writing the book gave me an excuse to talk to him. Each time I interviewed him by phone from my house in Brooklyn, I was prepared for that to have been the last time we spoke. Yet even with all my psychic and emotional preparation for his death, it was a poignant exercise to have to comb through these pages and change verb forms from present tense to past.

Robbie initially believed—sincerely, I suspect—that our father died of a broken heart. Robbie’s story of our dad’s death and life is very different from mine. I’m ten years older. I have a bigger file on our parents. Our mother and father were kids when they had me in 1968. They were twenty-one and nine- teen, respectively. In the heyday before 1981, before my father lost his job as an air traffic controller in the infamous strike that ended with Ronald Reagan firing thirteen thousand federal employees, my parents’ spirits were high. They wanted a second child—so much so that after miscarrying one who’d already entered the family imagination as “Heather,” they succeeded in having Robbie. Robbie was born in 1979. We were a boomtown under a single roof. The father I imprinted on was infinitely capable and resourceful and, as far as my child’s-eye view could tell, had the world on a leash. Robbie knew a less idealistic, chastened version of our father, by then a man who was resigned to having been blackballed from the career that defined him. By the time Robbie outgrew the hypoallergenic cloth diapers that were delivered to our house once a month, Dad was, if only for lack of alternatives, more involved in domestic life.

The father I grew up with still resented the competing demands of an unplanned offspring. I was the mistake that he felt he was nobly taking responsibility for, and I was thus made to suffer the flexing of Big Greg’s narcissism in all its demonstrative and petty renditions. I don’t mean this in a self-pitying way. Whereas he wanted from me a show of gratitude, I studied him. He interpreted my scrutiny as insubordination. This made our lives adversarial. Robbie, at least symbolically, was a comfort to him. I was a threat. I was my father’s rival, and he was mine. This may sound wildly self-important, but this is the prerogative—my father would agree—of the one who has outlived the other.

There is a picture of me in my mother’s arms on my first birthday. Voodoo child, star child, love child. My first birthday was a Monday, Lunes, day of the moon. It was the day my mother turned twenty-two. Every year, the same tired joke: Happy Birthday! I’d grin, empty-handed and pitiful. I was the gift, the reminder of what she gave of herself, to herself, that she must tow through the cosmos in a contrapuntal orbit. I have always belonged to her, through the infinite umbilicus of fate, a Taoist Return to my origins revealed in this annual eclipse, November 24, the shared anniversary of our births. What grief, what blemished self-image did she need to bury that she would risk an accidental pregnancy with a man as superficial as my father? Yet my guilt over being the unexpected orange detour arrow of her life elevated me in importance over my father’s fleeting diversions. Good and bad, I was beyond evaluation, the fulcrum of every story she might devise to tell of her life.

My parents’ marriage collapsed like a shoddy circus tent on the evening we held the launch party for my first book of poems. The Creative Writers House at New York University, where I’d completed my master of fine arts degree in poetry, hosted the party. It was the fall of 2007. My father was a jealous man for his wife’s attention, the success of others, and the attention of the crowd. This was the kind of crowd he coveted most: my old classmates, colleagues, and writer friends. If I’d only asked him to make a toast that night at the launch party, he might have been in better spirits. If he’d felt acknowledged, he might still be alive. That’s a wild leap, I know, but thoughts like this cross my mind.

Before the party ended, he picked a fight with my mother. After he drove her two hours down the turnpike to our hometown of Willingboro, dropped her off at her father Bob’s house, and told her not to come home, she discovered that he had taken her house keys from her purse. According to my mother, he wouldn’t say what had provoked him or why he was upset. But I know he was throwing a tantrum over having been ignored at the book party. He was acting out. A true diva will not be upstaged.

In April 2015, days after it was announced that I’d won the Pulitzer Prize for my second book of poems, I still hadn’t heard from my dad. Most of our communication was via text message, because he would get winded and need to rest after a few minutes of talking. I wanted to know if the news had reached him. He texted back, “When a Roman general conquered a town, Caesar would send a slave to ride alongside the general in the victory parade, and remind the general that he was only human.”

The last time I saw him was in August 2015, at the party my mother threw at a hotel in Marlton, New Jersey, to celebrate the prize. I was surprised he made it all the way from Las Vegas to Marlton. What a wreck he had become physically; during our rare phone conversations, he complained about the multi- plying failures of his body. He couldn’t walk five feet without losing his breath, so he’d often sit near exits where he could get out easily to have a smoke. He’d lost half his right leg to diabetes, refusing to give up the junk foods he equated with his dignity. He was incontinent. It took a herculean effort for him to “be there” in both the emotional and physical senses, an effort you’d think was motivated by pride in his son’s achievement. But I knew, as perhaps only a son can know, that I was the opening act. My father loved me, and was indeed proud of me in his complicated way, but he came to Marlton for the crowd.

He came with his motorized chair and his life-extending contraptions to give his final performance. He looked glorious, the old bull, in his matching suede jacket and pants. Determined, he ditched the chair and stood on his prosthesis, no doubt imagining himself in the mode of some hard-bitten pirate declaiming from the quarterdeck. He gave a speech that congratulated me by commemorating his own place in history, situated generationally, as he explained, between “two titans”: his father and me. We were the giants standing on his shoulders.

My father didn’t suffer from humility. He thought it was a deceitful affect. He favored potential over humility, and believed that showing the latter prevents indulging the former. Potential is a promissory note always worth more, not more than, just more. With humility, what you see is what you get. My druthers lie somewhere between, and this book studies that overlap. Can one aspire to Saint Augustine’s humility? When I got sober and began working the steps, I got stuck on the one that says, “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” This book is my Step Four. That I have failed is evident in my digressions and indulgences, but the eight remaining steps are full of promise.

Excerpted from the book AIR TRAFFIC by Gregory Pardlo. Copyright © 2018 by Gregory Pardlo. Reprinted with permission of Alfred A. Knopf.

This article was originally published on April 17, 2018.

This segment aired on April 17, 2018.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live