FIU Professor Judged 2014 Poetry Pulitzer, Believes Miami Is Next Great Literary City

The Pulitzer Prize is one of those real-deal brass ring honors in the literary world. Writers dream of it from the moment they first pick up the pen, to the last drop of ink they drain.

The award is presented every year in a range of categories. A committee of writers and literary aficionados parse through every prescient work in the sea of submissions, which must be published since the prize was last bestowed. Really, there's no understating the importance of the title "Pulitzer Prize Winner."

This year, one of the committee readers who decided winners in the field of poetry was respected poet and FIU professor Campbell McGrath. Recently, Cultist had a chance to speak to McGrath about the process of picking the Pulitzer winners and the state of verse in Miami.

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This year's Pulitzer Prize wining poetry book was 3 Sections, written by Vijay Seshadri. The Big Smoke, by Arian Matejka, and The Sleep of Reason, by Morri Creech, were also finalists.

"There's a board of 20 people made up of journalists, and publishers, and writers, and they're in charge of the whole process," McGrath explained. "Every year they pick a jury of three people for each subject. This year, I was one of the three people for the poetry jury. I don't know how they picked me, but they did. Myself and the other two jurors were sent copies of basically every book of poetry published in 2013, around 300-some odd books. Our job was to pick three finalists and send the decision to the board. We weren't supposed to rank them or say which ones we felt should be chosen, we just picked out three excellent books and they settled on the finalists and the winner. This year it was Vijay's book, and the jury thinks that was a great choice. We love that book."

This marks an interesting, refreshing year for the Pulitzer in poetry, as the three titles that rose to the forefront were neither representative of any consistent cultural trend, nor were they penned by any particularly seasoned authors, circling the prize for years.

"It's a really good book," McGrath said of the winner. "They're all three very good books, and they're all very different. Sometimes, there's a bit of a culture prize, and it goes to a senior figure who, maybe it isn't their best book, but they're a worthy person. This year, it just so happened to shake out that we chose three younger poets who produced three excellent, really diverse books."

In addition to his role on the national stage as a juror for the Pulitzer board, McGrath has more than played his part in the local landscape of poetry. He's had an important hand in the O, Miami Festival, a month-long celebration of poetry and life.

"I was actually the chairman of the board of O, Miami," he said. "I was Scott Cunningham's teacher in grad school, and I'm always in consultation with Scott about stuff. But, he obviously runs the whole thing and has put together such a cool program.

"I said from the very first year, this is the best poetry festival in the country," he continues. "Nobody listened to me then, but now, I think people are starting to realize, because they're starting to pay attention to what the heck is going on. It's the most interesting and diverse community of any poetry festival in the country, that's for sure. It's just an awesome event."

According to McGrath, the sense that people are starting to really appreciate O, Miami has been spelled out fairly clearly by the people he's had the opportunity to celebrate with all around the Magic City.

"After the poetry event at Soundscape park," McGrath recalled, "I had people come up to me and say things like 'Wow, this is a real watershed event. How many years have we been waiting for something like this?' And I think they're right. I think it's extremely important."

As far as he's concerned, it's not just the festival that has it's own special place in the literary world. To McGrath, Miami stands apart from a number of other cities as a fantastic place for writers right now.

"It's funny," he began, "I've lived in New York City, and I've lived in Chicago, and I know those cities tend to have more writers and more stuff going on, but what we always say about Miami is that it's a literary scene that all pulls together and works together. There aren't factions that are competing with each other and arguing with each other, trying to dominate each other. Everyone just kind of says 'Alright, let's make writing happen.' Whether its writers or poets or whatever, there's just a sense of everyone pulling together. It's just a great literary city, and people who don't live here don't know that."

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