English Professor Wins Esteemed Award for Most Outstanding Book of Poetry of the Year

By Tom McLaughlin

Equipped with the tools of his trade – a pen and notepad, a napkin, the back of his hand, anything he can write on – Patrick Rosal quickly jots down a few notes and files them away in his pocket.

Rosal says that he most proud of being the first Asian American to win the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Photo by Margarita Corporan

Like a scientist in the field, explains Rosal, a poet’s work begins by “collecting” observations. Fleeting images, thoughts, and feelings – whatever inspires – are diligently logged for further exploration.

“People have this idea that poets are struck by lightning or set on fire and we see through the eyes of God,” says the associate professor of English at Rutgers University–Camden. “Metaphorically, that’s not how it works; what we do is collect. Through observations and the recording of these observations, and the subsequent reexamination of these observations – that’s where inspiration happens.”

It is Rosal’s adept ability to crystallize what captures the mind’s eye that has earned his latest collection of poems, Brooklyn Antediluvian (Persea Books, 2016), the 2017 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the  Academy of American Poets. The $25,000 award recognizes the most outstanding book of poetry published in the United States in the previous year.

Rosal is quick to note that, while the recognition and monetary award are greatly appreciated, he has never chased after notoriety and instead has focused his career on introducing others to the art of poetry as a teacher and performer.

“What others have learned is all the recognition that I need,” says the 2017 John Simon Guggenheim Poetry Fellow and Lucas Art Fellow, and former Fulbright Fellow to the Philippines.

Most importantly, says Rosal, he is proud to be the first Asian American to win the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. It’s an accomplishment, he says, that has to be personally experienced to be fully understood.

“I don’t know how to impress upon people who don’t know what it’s like to look at pop culture or the literary world and not see people who look like you,” says Rosal, who notes that he is the only person with whom he grew up who has written books and one of the few members of his family to have attended college.

“I hope that this recognition opens up possibilities for others,” he says.

In Brooklyn Antediluvian, Rosal unflinchingly addresses questions of race and race relations in America. The lyrical masterpiece dives to the depths of his identity and experiences as a Filipino American, traversing his childhood growing up in North Jersey and his family’s roots from home to the Philippines.

Ever the skilled “collector,” Rosal infuses his poems with language and imagery culled from a treasure trove of personal experience, including his time working as a deejay and B-boy dancer, and his deep appreciation for an array of music, dance, and art forms.

Rosal shows off some of his B-boy moves

According to Rosal, the book – literally titled “Brooklyn Before the Deluge” – is a meditation on the aftermaths of historical ecological crises, such as hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and Tropical Storm Ondoy in the Philippines, as well as the figurative “floods” that have affected him on a deep, personal level, such as his struggle to stay afloat with the flood of gentrification in Brooklyn, and the torrents of emotion that have washed over him as he learned to deal with heartache and loss.

Simply put, Rosal says, “floods are complicated.”

“Think about all the things that floods do, which is both to destroy and to renew,” says Rosal, adding that the book fittingly concludes with a lengthy poem that is a “flood of language and imagery crossing centuries and continents.”

As Rosal explains, the genesis for his poetry – and his life as a writer – actually began way before he even knew what poetry was. From an early age, he recalls, he was immersed in the rich music and storytelling traditions of his family. Growing up in a house full of musicians – his father played the piano, violin, and flute – he was introduced to folkloric Filipino and classical music, which gave way to his love of hip-hop, rock, and soul music.

The poet’s parents also spoke multiples languages, he says, and all of his family members – some of whom visited throughout the year – seemed to have a natural knack for storytelling. While he wasn’t aware of poetry as a medium, he says, these experiences made him intuitively aware of the inventive power of language and the realization that he was being changed by the stories that he was hearing and reading.

“Participating in storytelling made me a listener,” he says, “and I knew that the kinds of stories that I grew up with weren’t being published or promoted.”

Music and storytelling would become outlets for Rosal and, although they were always introduced as “segregated; always separate” in his youth, he has since focused on bringing these two traditions together in his work.

In his teens, Rosal embraced the hip-hop and B-boy culture sweeping through his working class neighborhood in south Edison and began penning and producing his own music. Label the words any way you want, he says, but looking back now, he realizes that he was putting his first poems down on paper.

“I can’t emphasize enough how the things that we don’t consider writing or literature or poetry were part and parcel to how I make poetry now,” he says. “It is how many people have made – and continue to make – poetry.”

It wasn’t until several years later when, as a student at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, Rosal discovered that a friend wrote poetry and decided to give it a try – consciously – for the first time.

Fast-forward to the present day, as Rosal is the author of four full-length poetry collections. His previous work, Boneshepherds (2011) was named a small press highlight by the National Book Critics Circle and a notable book by the Academy of American Poets. His collections – which also include My American Kundiman (2006), and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive (2003) – have also been honored with the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award, Global Filipino Literary Award, and the Asian American Writers Workshop Members’ Choice Award.

Rosal, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Bloomfield College and a master of fine arts degree in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, has also been invited to read and perform his poetry throughout the world, including making several appearances at the Dodge Poetry Festival, the Stadler Center for Poetry, and the Asheville WordFest.

He has also taught college- and high-school level poetry, creative writing, and performance classes and workshops at schools throughout the country.

Above all, he says, he hopes that students experience two things in their writing, which he hopes they see in him: “rigor and delight.” When working in tandem, he says, rigor and delight can lead to personal and intellectual discovery.

“When I am standing before the class, I hope that my students see a human being who is trying to figure something out, through a rigorous understanding of language and history, and delight in that rigor,” he says. “As writers, we tend to think that we are doing something to the language. But the language is actually doing something to us; it is changing the way that we see the world.”

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