Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet Is a Columbia Teacher and Student

April 23, 2015
Gregory Pardlo, Columbia teacher, student, and Pulitzer Prize winner

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Gregory Pardlo, a poet and writer, was picking his daughters up from school on Monday afternoon, April 20, when his phone began pinging and vibrating with dozens of text messages, all saying "congratulations." He had recently been nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, so he assumed that's what the kudos were for. Then he saw that one of the messages had the word "Pulitzer" in it. "I didn't faint, but I did make a really embarrassing mewling sound, like "wwwhhhaaaaattt?'"

In fact, Pardlo won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry this week for his second book of poems, Digest. His award has a special distinction at the University, where the Journalism School administers the prizes: he is both a faculty member and a student here, teaching in the Undergraduate Writing Program while earning his MFA in nonfiction at the School of the Arts.

Several days after his win, he is still “gobsmacked” by the honor—not least because he had no idea his book was nominated. “I imagine my publisher submits every book as a matter a course,” Pardlo said. "I found out about the prize just like, and at the same time as, everyone else."

Q. You’re both a student and a teacher at Columbia. What motivated you to come here at this point in your already-well-established career?

I left a teaching position in Washington, D.C. in 2011 that required me to commute weekly from my home in Brooklyn. I have young kids and I hadn't anticipated how miserable I would be separated from them half the week. So I left that position to come home and finish the Ph.D I'd already completed the course work for at the CUNY Graduate Center. I had also been working on what I thought was a memoir and I was very unhappy with it. Somehow I got the bright idea that I might work on the memoir and my dissertation at the same time. I applied to the School of the Arts to work with professors Phillip Lopate and Margo Jefferson and all the amazing teachers here in the nonfiction program.

Q. What do you teach in the undergraduate writing program?

I teach academic writing, from close textual analysis to research-driven essays. I try to devise fun and creative exercises, like asking students to make hashtags for essays, or passages within essays, as a way of synthesizing ideas. The first reading I assigned this term was an essay titled "Pottermania: Good Clean Fun or Cultural Hegemony?" which takes a look at corporate efforts to commodify childhood. I also assign readings that investigate the production of identity. My hope is to get students into the habit of questioning our most deeply held assumptions. At the end of the term, we review their first essays and see if they can identify in their own work unchallenged assumptions as perhaps overlooked opportunities for analysis; identify relationships between ideas, and patterns across seemingly unrelated areas of discourse. The payoff for me is in seeing a student take stock of her own growth as a writer and treat her work as a process rather than a series of isolated products.

Q. And as a student, what classes are you taking this semester?

I'm currently taking Phillip Lopate's Essay Film course in the writing program, and a graduate course on W.E.B. DuBois and visual culture taught by Saidiya Hartman in the English Department.

Q. Is your dissertation related to poetry?

I am doing an academic dissertation. I’m interested in the visual practices of African American poets and writers. During slavery, and long after, a black person was prohibited from looking a white person in the eyes—sometimes with mortal repercussions. I'm examining the ways such prohibitions become cultural and aesthetic practice, and might then be evident in literary production.

Q. What do you enjoy most about being here at Columbia?

I get to teach. I get to feed my creative and scholarly brains (not that I experience them as separate entities). I get to work with great and talented teachers and classmates. I've got a good thing going. I'm not sure how this Pulitzer is going to upset my apple cart yet, but I'm bracing for it. And of course, I'm incredibly honored by it. Floored and honored.

In the News
Gregory Pardlo Pulitzer Winner for Poetry on His Sudden Fame, The New York Times, April 23