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Pulitzer winner Gregory Pardlo on the intersection of public and private

Watch Gregory Pardlo read his poem “Written by Himself” in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he lives with his family. Video produced by Frank Carlson.

Gregory Pardlo, whose collection “Digest” recently won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, had a complicated path to success. Pardlo grew up in a middle-class home in Willingboro, New Jersey, where his family struggled after President Ronald Reagan fired his father during the 1981 air controller strike. Pardlo attended college at Rutgers, later taking a hiatus to join the Marines and manage a bar, where he was inspired by the jazz musicians who played there. They led him “to understand what actually goes into the discipline of an artist,” Pardlo said.

The Pulitzer committee lauded Pardlo’s work for examining the interconnected histories of individuals and society, saying “Digest” contained “clear-voiced poems that bring readers the news from 21st Century America, rich with thought, ideas and histories public and private.” Pardlo told the NewsHour he hopes to speak to that history in his work. “I want a life in which, 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.”

Written by Himself

I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen a skillet
whispering my name. I was born to rainwater and lye;
I was born across the river where I
was borrowed with clothespins, a harrow tooth,
broadsides sewn in my shoes. I returned, though
it please you, through no fault of my own,
pockets filled with coffee grounds and eggshells.
I was born still and superstitious; I bore an unexpected burden.
I gave birth, I gave blessing, I gave rise to suspicion.
I was born abandoned outdoors in the heat-shaped air,
air drifting like spirits and old windows.
I was born a fraction and a cipher and a ledger entry;
I was an index of first lines when I was born.
I was born waist-deep stubborn in the water crying
ain’t I a woman and a brother I was born
to this hall of mirrors, this horror story I was
born with a prologue of references, pursued
by mosquitoes and thieves, I was born passing
off the problem of the twentieth 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.

Gregory Pardlo’s collection “Digest” recently won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Pardlo won the APR/Honickman First Book Prize for his first collection, ‘Totem’ (2007). He is the associate editor for the literary journal Callaloo and is currently earning an MFA in nonfiction at Columbia University, where he is a teaching fellow.

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