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For Pulitzer Prize-Winner Gregory Pardlo, Poetry Offers 'Intimacy' Between Strangers


It's the 100th birthday of the Pulitzer Prizes this year - the centenary of a prize that can change the life and the career of a journalist, a photographer, a biographer, a dramatist or a poet. In the latest conversation in our series to mark the Pulitzer's big year, we welcome Gregory Pardlo. He won the Pulitzer for poetry last year for his collection of poems entitled "Digest." And he joins us from our studios in New York. Greg, thanks so much for being with us.

GREGORY PARDLO: Hi, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Can we hear a bit of your work, maybe from the poem "For Which It Stands?"

PARDLO: Absolutely. (Reading) "For Which It Stands" - for a flag, I answered facetiously. A flag of tomorrow. Fluent in fire, not just the whispers, lisps, not just the still there of powdered wigs, dry winds. Who wants a speckled drape that folds as easy over smirch as fallen soldier?

This is rhetorical. Like what to the Negro is the Fourth of July? A flag should be stitched with a fuse. Jefferson said, for each generation, a flag. Maybe he said constitution. I once raised a high-top flag of my hair, a fist, a leather medallion of the motherland.

I studied heraldry and maniples, which are not what you might guess, little sails and banners down to the vein of a feather. Because his kids were rebel cities, my father loved like Sherman. Because I wanted history I could touch like the flank of a beast.

SIMON: What's that phrase - each flag should come with a fuse?

PARDLO: (Laughter) The flag should be stitched with a fuse, yes.

SIMON: That's beautiful.

PARDLO: Thank you, thanks.

SIMON: Was there a moment when you told your parents, I'm going to be a poet?

PARDLO: (Laughter) No, there wasn't a single moment because there wasn't a single moment when I decided I was going to be a poet. It was kind of an evolution. And by the time I realized what was going on, I was well-committed already.

SIMON: Well-committed (laughter) kind of a double-edged phrase and for a...

PARDLO: (Laughter) Yeah, and appropriately so.

SIMON: Yeah. Has winning the Pulitzer Prize changed your life, your work?

PARDLO: I think the biggest change is my relationship to what I imagine to be my readers. So before the prize, I imagined my readers were mostly undergraduates and graduate students and fellow poets and aspiring poets and specifically readers of poetry.

And now I discover that I'm speaking more and more to audiences and book lovers who might not necessarily be fans of poetry. And in fact, it still surprises me every time I meet someone who says, you know, this is the first book of poetry I've ever purchased. That does have an impact on my sense of who I'm writing for and why.

SIMON: What's the value of poetry in the 21st century?

PARDLO: So I guess the value of poetry - now, I'm hedging because it's terribly reductive - but what is most important to me is the opportunity to imagine a world in which complete strangers can meet in peaceful intimacy, a peaceful moment, in which neither the poet nor the reader is guarded and can risk the kind of connection that otherwise is - really isn't possible and enter a moment of pure sharing.

SIMON: Gregory Pardlo, who won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, thanks so much for being with us.

PARDLO: Thank you, Scott, I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.