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Pulitzer winner wants his readers to question their limits

July 22, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
When Gregory Pardlo found out he won the Pulitzer Prize for his book “Digest,” he thought there had been some mistake. Jeffrey Brown speaks to Pardlo -- the author of two collections but not previously well-known within the poetry community -- about finding his path as a writer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: an unlikely winner of a major literary prize.

Jeffrey Brown profiles a poet who captured the details of daily life in verse.

GREGORY PARDLO, Winner, 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: “I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen, a skillet whispering my name. I was born to rainwater and lye.”

I spend so much time in the classroom, and then I come home and it’s washing dishes, and cleaning the kitchen, and doing laundry. And I don’t want to leave any of that stuff out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gregory Pardlo is a teacher, student, husband and father, and now a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. His reaction when he heard the news?

GREGORY PARDLO: The kind of cliche of, I’m sure they made a mistake. Well, yes, I was absolutely certain there was a huge mistake.

JEFFREY BROWN: He had reason. His prize-winning book, “Digest,” is just his second, and Pardlo isn’t well-known even within the small poetry community.

He grew up in a middle-class family in Willingboro, New Jersey, near Philadelphia. His father, an air traffic controller, was one of those fired by Ronald Reagan during the 1981 strike.

GREGORY PARDLO: I remember walking the picket lines with him. It was an inspiring time for me. It was a very hard time for my father, because this was his narrative. This was the big story of his success in life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gregory Pardlo would face his own struggles and circuitous path to poetry, dropping out of Rutgers, for example, doubting he was good enough to succeed. He says he worries about that with his own students.

GREGORY PARDLO: Watching that just reminds me of the little kid that I was who had, not necessarily ambitions, but certainly thought anything was possible for a long time, until I bought into the stories about African-American boys.

And I guess one of my missions, if I can say that I have one, is to have my students and have my readers question the limits that they place on themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Having left school, Pardlo joined the Marine Reserves and later managed a bar for several years where jazz musicians, working for peanuts, taught him an important lesson.

GREGORY PARDLO: Watching them night after night and becoming familiar, starting to understand what actually goes into the discipline of an artist, of a musician, certainly, and having a regard for, having a respect for how much work that it actually entails.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, with several degrees in hand and now a teaching fellow at Columbia University, Pardlo and his family live in Brooklyn.

It gets into his poetry, as do seemingly disparate ideas and people, the ancient philosopher Heraclitus and the contemporary comedian Chris Rock.

GREGORY PARDLO: That actually speaks to the title of the book, is that I’m a digest of all these — of all these identities, of all these interests.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much of you, your family life, your history, the books you read, how much of that do you want to put into the poetry?

GREGORY PARDLO: All of it, as much as I possibly can.

When I have a speaker on the page that is predictable — I think the one thing that a poem cannot abide is cliche. And I don’t want the speaker to be predictable. I don’t want a single line to be predictable.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pardlo speaks openly of other struggles he’s had, including a battle with alcoholism. He says his family, his wife, Ginger, and their two daughters pulled him out of it. And now the Pulitzer gives him a new sense of responsibility.

GREGORY PARDLO: I want to be happy. I want a life that I feel good about. I want a life in which I feel productive.

He who does the work gives birth to his own father. And I want a life in which, you know, to whatever extent my words have an impact on the world, I at least feel like I’m in the conversation about what we do with the society we live in.

The one rule I set for myself is to make decisions that are good for my family and my kids. I want them to be proud of me. I want them to be happy. That’s a cliche I can live with.

“I was born passing off the problem of the 20th century. I was born. I read minds before I could read fishes and loaves. I walked a piece of the way alone before I was born.”

JEFFREY BROWN: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.