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Pardlo’s poetry ties together multi-faceted identities

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet reads from his book, discusses complexity, accessibility of his writing

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardlo performed a reading of his work at the McCormack Family Theater on Thursday as part of the literary arts department’s “Writers on Writing” series.

Pardlo’s collection “Digest” won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize when he was a doctoral candidate at the City University of New York. “Totem,” his first collection, was selected in 2007 by Brenda Hillman for the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize. He is also the recipient of several other honors, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Currently, he is the Poetry Editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Pardlo’s poetry ties in cultural references, discussing history and philosophy and weaving those themes into the intimate details of the everyday. As he began his reading, Pardlo challenged the audience to think about the “growing layers” in the pieces he selected.

Between readings, he brought up a famous quote from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman. “I contain multitudes,” he said, referencing how the poem highlights the complexity of the seemingly benign. In his work, he argues that readers need not look far to access a rich variety of inspiration.

“All the references I make are ones that are readily available in our culture,” he said.  He tries “not to buy into the false distinctions” between types of discourse, he added.

The idea resounded with members of the audience as well.

“He manages to make us know that there is not this break in different discourses; in fact, discourse is a continuum,” said Cole Swensen, professor and current chair of the literary arts department. Pardlo has an ability to bring together a vast range of ideas and thoughts in his poetry, she said.

According to Swensen, the literary arts department chose to showcase Pardlo’s poetry for its impressive scope. “I knew that he would represent a wide range of voices, a wide range of possibilities in poetry, while also being accessible,” she said.

By choosing this particular poet, the literary arts department aimed to reach a broad audience. Swensen emphasized that attendance to the reading was not limited to the two undergraduate courses studying Pardlo’s poetry. “We love it when people come from other disciplines and other departments,” she said. “One of the things we (at the literary arts department) like to do is to blend communities,” she added.

Karis Ryu ’21, a student in the “Writers on Writing” seminar, noted the personal significance of Pardlo’s poetry. Pardlo’s work resonated with her, as she identified “as somebody who has dealt with having multiple labels throughout (her) life,” she said. “To see somebody who can balance all of that, and is in academia, is really inspiring,” she said.


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