Gregory Pardlo, the 2015 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, returns to teach at Rutgers–Camden, where verse became his passion 20 years ago.
On the day that he arrived to teach his first class last fall at Rutgers University–Camden—where a poetry workshop two decades earlier had set him on a path that led to a Pulitzer Prize in 2015—Gregory Pardlo noticed a new landmark: a statue of Walt Whitman in front of the student center.
“One of the first things I did was take a selfie in front of it,” says Pardlo CCAS’99, who returned to Rutgers–Camden to join the faculty in the M.F.A. program in creative writing. “Leaves of Grass was mind-bending for me when I read it for the first time as a student there.”
In bestowing the award on his poetry collection Digest, the Pulitzer committee praised his “clear-voiced poems that bring readers the news from 21st-century America, rich with thought, ideas, and histories, public and private.” But it was his professors at Rutgers–Camden who first recognized the potential of that voice in a student who had taken several detours on his road to college.
“I had a horrible first semester; I would even go so far as to say that it was tragic,” Pardlo says about his first attempt at college in 1986, when he enrolled at Rutgers University–New Brunswick right after graduating from high school in Willingboro, New Jersey. There was no second semester that year. He enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves, worked for the Yellow Pages, and then tried again at Rutgers in 1989, when he did better and wrote some poems for university publications. He next fell in love with a Danish woman, an interest that took him overseas.
But in 1996, he was managing a jazz club his grandfather owned in Pennsauken, New Jersey, Serengeti Café, that drew some Rutgers–Camden students. “One of my waitresses enrolled, and she kept encouraging me to go back,” he says. “And, lo and behold, there in the course catalog was this thing called a poetry workshop.”
He started winning awards there for his poems, earned a graduate degree at both New York and Columbia universities, married and had two daughters, and taught at several universities before returning to the place that inspired one of his early poems, an homage to Whitman called “Vanitas: Camden Ferry,” which has been much on his mind lately. “The setting brings me back to the place in my imagination where I was creating that work,” he says. “And I can reconnect and have a greater appreciation for the distance I’ve traveled.”