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[LITERATURE] BY KEVIN COYNE
NJ-Bred Poet’s Road to the Pulitzer
DURING BOYHOOD SUMMERS in Willingboro, Gregory Pardlo often bicycled to
the public library, where his mother had
enrolled him in a reading program. “She
wanted to make sure I didn’t spend the
summer just goofing off,” he says.
The strategy worked. Pardlo has
emerged as an insightful literary voice
whose latest work, Digest (Four Way
Books, 2014), won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize
for poetry. “Clear-voiced poems that
bring readers the news from 21st century
America, rich with thought, ideas and
histories public and private,” the citation
reads. On November 7, Pardlo will return
to his hometown to read from the book.
His poems are as varied as his biography,
employing a wide range of voices and
locations from Atlantic City to Brooklyn.
It was a long road to the Pulitzer from
needed to be in school.”
He enrolled in Rutgers-Camden, still
intending to become a lawyer. A poetry
workshop and the lessons he absorbed
from the musicians who passed through
the club changed his compass heading.
“Being exposed to people who were doing the thing they were passionate about
on a daily basis and managing to feed and
shelter themselves—that was a revelation,” he says.
These days, Pardlo, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Ginger, and their two
daughters, is a teaching fellow at Columbia
University and is working on a graduate
degree in non-fiction writing. His Pulitzer
is the sixth in the last 15 years awarded to a
poet with Garden State ties—“a depth and
breadth of literary history that is special to
New Jersey,” he says. ■
IN THE TRADITION:
Gregory Pardlo is
the sixth poet with
New Jersey ties to
win a Pulitzer Prize
in the last 15 years.
Willingboro, where Pardlo, 46, grew up in
“a family that always put a very high premium on education,” he says. His mother
was a graphic artist for the Yellow Pages,
his father one of the air traffic controllers
fired by Ronald Reagan after they went
on strike in 1981.
At Rutgers in New Brunswick, he studied political science, aiming for law school,
and contributed to campus publications.
“That’s where I got the writing bug,” he
says. But Pardlo left Rutgers for the Marine
Corps Reserves, moved to Denmark briefly
and then back to New Jersey, where he
managed Serengeti’s Café and Jazz Club,
his grandfather’s nightspot in Pennsauken.
“I always looked forward to my friends
coming to the club and talking about
literature and art and politics,” Pardlo says.
“It was just oppressively obvious that I