Nonfiction Student Wins Pulitzer Prize in Poetry

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Gregory Pardlo (c) Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Gregory Pardlo
Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
At first, Monday was a day like any other for Gregory Pardlo. At about 3 pm, Pardlo, a Nonfiction student in the Writing Program, was standing in front of his kids' school, waiting to pick them up. He got a phone alert and looked at his screen.
"I got a text from someone I hadn't spoken to in months," he said. "All it said was 'Congratulations!' My book was recently nominated for a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award so I thought this person was just way late on the news."
But then more texts appeared, and Facebook alerts too.
"Then the phone went crazy," he said. "I called my wife and asked her to Google me to see what just happened to me because my hands were shaking too much to type. She said, 'There's something here about you winning a Pulitzer.' "
Pardlo had just been named the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

"In addition to being incredibly honored and just generally floored, I know the real work is just beginning," he said. "I'm responsible to the literary community now in a more demanding way."

Pardlo holds the distinction of becoming the first Writing Program student to win a Pulitzer while still enrolled at the school. He won for his second poetry collection, Digest (Four Way Books, 2014). In its prize citation, the Pulitzer Board praised his "clear-voiced poems that bring readers the news from 21st Century America, rich with thought, ideas and histories public and private."

The opening of the poem "Chalk Dust on the Air," which is published in Digest, illustrates his ability to blend the faraway with the familiar:
Our hero explains what lines behave as waves
also behave as particles depending upon the presence
of observers, a market of admirers, etc. Think of sifted
sands Tibetan monks spend months to whisk in minutes:
their attack on nostalgia. Think of Milky Ways of water
damage on the bedroom ceiling. The Apollo module
on the dresser and the Ring Nebula is the blur where
Mom tried to clean expletives crayoned on the wall.
Whorls beyond, imagine a can of Krylon ship-shaped
with braided-rubber-band-propeller roped out to
the nosebleeds in the murk of heaven's hood. . . .

After hearing the news of the Pulitzer, poet and Writing Program Chair Timothy Donnelly, who also serves as the poetry editor of Boston Review, reflected on Pardlo's poetic style, as well as his personality.

"I couldn’t be more thrilled for Gregory!" he said. "We’ve been friends for a number of years and I’d been a big admirer of his poems for some time before we met. He’s one of the kindest, biggest-hearted, and most mindful people you’re likely ever to encounter — in poetry, or anywhere. I had the chance to publish one of his poems, a beautiful elegy called 'Palling Around,' a few years ago in Boston Review. It’s a complex poem in terms of its argument and emotion, but it’s so solidly constructed you’re made to feel, as with all his poems, that everything is purposeful — not preconceived, not over-determined, but meaningfully integrated through sound, feeling, sense. . . . Digest is a terrific book — it’s impeccably crafted, engaged, ambitious, inventive; he took seven years to write it and put it together, and I admire the care and scrupulousness implied in that — and moreover, I love how much he loves Brooklyn, and I love how he writes about it. Digest has some of the best poems about contemporary life in Brooklyn that I know of, and it’s exciting to think that the book will now reach an exponentially broader audience than it otherwise would have. The Writing Program is enormously happy for Gregory Pardlo and proud to be associated with him and his remarkable achievement — and can’t wait to see what he does next!"

Phillip Lopate
, the head of the Nonfiction concentration, has worked closely with Pardlo.

"In his two books, Gregory Pardlo has established himself as one of the most exciting, probing and original voices in contemporary poetry," Lopate said in a statement. "Pardlo has figured out a way to imbed intellectual/essayistic discourse into his poems at the same time, as factoring in a warm colloquial, streetwise tone. As it happens, he is also completing an MFA in nonfiction at Columbia, which he undertook to write a memoir, and which promises to be brilliant: his prose is as supple and thoughtful and entertaining as his poetry."

Pardlo's work has been published in The American Poetry Review, Poet Lore, Harvard Review, Ploughshares, and on NPR, among other places. He also has been published in Callaloo, where he serves as an associate editor. His first collection, Totem (Copper Canyon, 2007), won the 2007 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize and was a finalist for several other awards. He translated the poetry collection Pencil of Rays and Spike Mace by Niels Lyngsø from the Danish. His MFA at Columbia will be his second; he earned an MFA in poetry as a New York Times fellow at New York University in 2001. Born in Philadelphia and raised across the river in Willingboro, NJ, he earned his BA from Rutgers University, Camden. He has taught writing at several universities and currently serves as a teaching fellow in Columbia's Undergraduate Writing program. Concurrently with his MFA work at Columbia, he is writing his dissertation for the PhD in English at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Long considered the most prestigious prizes in American journalism and among the top prizes in American letters, the Pulitzers are unusual among writing awards in that the finalists are announced at the same time as the winners, not before. The selection process goes through several rounds. First, any writer can submit his or her book, play or journalistic piece for consideration, any photojournalist can submit his or her images, and any composer can submit his or her musical work. In the case of journalists and writers, newspapers or publishers usually submit work for their authors; Pardlo had not known that Four Way Books had entered Digest.
Then, early in the calendar year, juries for each of the 21 prize categories in journalism, letters, drama and music convene in New York to examine the entries in their category. Each jury chooses three finalists whose applications they send to the 18-member Pulitzer Prize Board. The board chooses a winner for each of the categories, generally from among the finalists, although the board can choose any entry as a winner. In order to win, an entry must earn the support of a majority of the board's members. If, after lengthy deliberations, board members cannot reach a majority for any nominee in a category, the board will not award a prize in that category, as happened with the 2014 award for Feature Writing.

The Pulitzers also are notable for the value that the Pulitzer Foundation places on confidentiality. Jurors are expected to keep their jury participation under wraps until the prizes are announced. Even after the prizes are announced, jurors and board members cannot discuss publicly why a given work was chosen over others as a finalist or winner. Every citation for a winning entry is exactly one sentence long.

"We operate on the premise that the work of the prizewinners speaks for us," Mike Pride, the prizes' administrator and a member of the board, said when he announced the prizes.

Jurors had their work cut out for them this year. Pride said that the juries received and considered approximately 1,200 pieces of journalism, 1,400 books, 200 musical compositions and 100 plays — 2,946 entries in all. Later, the Pulitzer office specified that Pardlo's book was chosen from among 308 poetry entries. The jurors were Bonnie Costello, a professor of English and American literature at Boston University who specializes in modern and contemporary poetry; Cornelius Eady, a published poet and a professor of literature and writing at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo.; and David Orr, the poetry columnist for The New York Times and the author of Beautiful and Pointless, a book on contemporary poetry.

The Pulitzers are most closely associated with the Columbia School of Journalism, which administers the prizes, but in winning one, Pardlo is taking his place in a long School of the Arts tradition. Counting Pardlo, three of the past four winners of the Pulizer Prize in Poetry have been writing program students or alumni. Vijay Seshadri ('88) won last year for his book 3 Sections, and Tracy K. Smith ('97) won in 2012 for Life on Mars. Other past poetry winners include professor Richard Howard, who won in 1970 for Untitled Subjects, and the late professor Mark Strand, who won in 1999 for Blizzard of One. In nonfiction, professor Margo Jefferson won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1995 for her cultural criticism and book reviews for The New York Times.

Also honored by the Pulitzer board this year was professor Richard Ford, whose book Let Me Be Frank With You, the latest in his series about the character Frank Bascombe, was chosen as one of three Fiction finalists from among 507 books. In 1995, he won the Pulitzer in Fiction for Independence Day, another Bascombe book. That title became the first book to win both the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Pardlo said that the honor is still sinking in.

"I still kind of feel like it's not really happening to me," he said. "Like I've been made the assistant of some guy everybody keeps congratulating, and I have to follow him around all day."


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