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How Does it Feel to Win a Pulitzer Prize?

Photo of Philip SchultzPhoto by Monica Banks

I just returned from a reading tour in the Midwest -- I've probably given more readings since I received the Pulitzer Prize last April than I have in the prior 20 years of writing poetry -- where I was often asked the same question: What does it feel like to win a Pulitzer Prize? It's quite moving actually, being asked this question by biology and economics students, mail carriers, chairpersons, young and old writers, just about everyone. It's a common fantasy, apparently, winning recognition for something on a national, even international level. Many winners of the Academy Award talk about watching the program as a child and fantasizing about winning one. I certainly remember looking at the photos of the Pulitzer Prize winners in The New York Times every year and thinking it must be very special to be included in such a select group.

 

Two days after I won, the man repairing our oil burner, upon seeing me, wiped his hand on his pants and asked if he could shake the hand of a Pulitzer Prize winner. I would've been invisible to him only the day before (in fact, I was). Perhaps the thing that has changed the most is how I've come to see myself through others' eyes, how their expectations of me have changed the way I see myself.

 

My wife and I enjoy recalling how I first heard the news. We enjoy the recollection so much because of the intense pleasure of complete surprise. My wife, the sculptor Monica Banks, hurriedly noticed a nytimes.com headline about six journalists winning the Pulitzer and immediately went to the Pulitzer Web site where she saw my name among the winners. Neither of us knew when the prize was to be given or expected 
any kind of news.

 

There's no nomination process. The winners are announced online and news organizations call the winners for interviews. I was out walking our Border Collie mix, Penelope, when my wife heard the news. She quickly put our son in her car and went looking for me, wanting to tell me before I heard from anyone else. She was so excited she missed the entrance to the dog park. I saw her and Augie running toward me and feared bad news about my older son. Why were they here in the middle of the day, running? Augie, having rehearsed his delivery with my wife, screamed, "Daddy guess who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction?"

 

Junot Diaz had just read for our school, The Writers Studio, a private writing school in Manhattan, the previous Friday. I guessed that he had won, wondering why they had come all this way to let me know that. Then Augie shouted, "And guess who won in poetry?"

 

I looked into my wife's eyes and understood that it was me, I had won, and I couldn't speak. Finally I said, "Please don't joke about anything like this." She just beamed. It wasn't a joke.

 

Later that night, unable to sleep, I found my wife sitting at the dining room table. We stayed up most of the night, trying to imagine how our lives would change, how this had happened to me, to all of us. We were in a state of shock, a state I've remained in.

 

I come from very humble stock, from an immigrant world where tolerance for thinking of oneself in anything other than modest terms is considered something of a blasphemy. I write poetry because it gives me great pleasure, and because I have to. And the fact that I'd won such recognition for a book about my father's business failures and early death, about the most confusing and shameful time in my life, only compounded my surprise. Such is the mystery of art, that shame can be turned into joy and private pleasure can become public recognition. Irony is the wrong word. Mystery, surprise and profound gratitude come closer to an explanation of how it feels to be so acknowledged.

 

-- Philip Schultz (B.A., '67) is the founder and director of The Writers Studio in New York. He won a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his book of poems, "Failure" (Harcourt, '07). His wife and son delivered the good news in an appropriate setting; the hero of the long poem in the book is a dog walker.

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