When he was growing up in the working-class neighborhood in south Edison near the old Fedders factory, the Ford auto plant and the Revlon factory, poet Patrick Rosal favored music over literature.
“I didn’t really love books growing up. My brother was actually the reader,” he says. “I had an inclination for language and writing, but it wasn’t something I really cared much about.”
Instead, Rosal embraced sports and hip-hop, and was engrossed in the music and storytelling traditions of his Filipino family. He didn’t discover his love of language until he had flunked out of Rutgers University–New Brunswick—twice—and took an introductory creative-writing class at Bloomfield College, where he was working toward an English degree.
At Bloomfield he met Paul Genega, a teacher who Rosal credits with introducing him to the possibilities of poetry. “He let me know that my passion for music could be channeled into language and that poetry was just another kind of music,” says Rosal. “It led me to experience and practice a way in which my body was a type of instrument.”
After graduating from Bloomfield in 1996, Rosal entered the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, where he began to craft his voice as a poet.
Rosal has written about New Jersey in his poems, as well as his ancestral home of the Philippines. He has explored ideas of otherness, questions of race, love and loss, and more.
The author of four collections of poetry, Rosal recently won the 2017 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his latest book, Brooklyn Antediluvian (Persea Books). The award, presented by the Academy of American Poets, recognizes the most outstanding book of poetry published in the United States in the previous year. Rosal is the first Asian-American to win the prize.
“I’m the first to get recognized by this award but not nearly the first to participate in the traditions of story and song,” says Rosal. “There are so many Asian-Americans who made that happen for me—Lawson Inada, David Mura, Marilyn Chin, Carlos Bulosan, José García Villa and Jessica Hagedorn.”
These days, Rosal lives in Philadelphia and teaches creative writing at Rutgers University–Camden, where he will soon take over as director of the MFA program. He’s juggling several new projects: a book of poetry, a collection of essays, a book about the history of Filipino-Americans and African-Americans, a piece of performance art, and various collaborations with other musicians and artists.
Rosal says he has not been alone on his road to success. “It’s not just me writing these poems,” he says. “These poems are written by the lives of the people around me.” This includes some of the first storytellers he knew and loved, including his parents, brothers, cousins, uncles and aunts.
“If you come from a marginalized group, when you get honored and recognized, it’s not just you that’s being recognized,” says Rosal. “When I see my name on the award, I don’t just see my name. I see everyone who helped me get there, and I see all the people who I want to open doors for.”