NJ-Bred Poet’s Road to the Pulitzer

Poet Gregory Pardlo is the sixth poet with ties to New Jersey to win a Pulitzer Prize in the last 15 years.

Willingboro native Gregory Pardlo is the sixth poet with New Jersey ties to win a Pulitzer Prize in the last 15 years.
Willingboro native Gregory Pardlo is the sixth poet with New Jersey ties to win a Pulitzer Prize in the last 15 years.
Photo by Bryan Derballa/New York Times

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 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 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.

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