The 2020 Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday afternoon via livestream, but Vermont poet laureate Mary Ruefle did not tune in. Ruefle, who lives in Bennington, doesn’t own a computer; her sole portal to the internet is her iPad, which she checks a couple times a day to stay apprised of the news.
Later that evening, as she caught up on headlines while making dinner, Ruefle discovered that her poetry collection, Dunce, was one of two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. She went on cooking.
“Did I celebrate? No. I told my husband when he came in from walking the dog, and I texted Jericho,” she told Seven Days by phone. Jericho Brown, the winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize in poetry, is a friend of Ruefle’s. “He is absolutely wonderful, and absolutely deserving,” she said.
Ruefle had no inkling that Dunce had been nominated. “They do not tell you, they do not announce anything. I think it’s great, the way they keep it wrapped up. It’s very classy.”
The National Book Award, for which Dunce was long-listed, involves a great deal of foreplay, Ruefle noted: “They do a long list, then a short list, and then they make everyone on the short list go to a dinner, and then they tell you there. I do not approve of that.”
The Pulitzer Prize jurors described Dunce as “poems of wildness and wit that swerve away from the predictable as they balance comedy and melancholy.”
In “Maria and the Halls of Perish,” Ruefle casts a child’s longing to understand the origins of existence as an interminable scavenger hunt: “The beginning of the universe / reminded her of the time / the toy factory blew up / and she found a little clown / on the shore, and then another, / until she was determined to find / them all, the whole shebang…”
In some form or other, tiny clowns often show up in Ruefle’s poetry; in an interview with Seven Days last December, she professed her love of miniature things: “If you put me at a buffet, I'm going to pay attention to the little man made out of a radish.”
Ruefle is the author of 17 volumes of poetry and prose and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Whiting Award. Previously, she was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a winner of the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. This year marks her first foray into the field of Pulitzer Prize honorees.
“I was happy to be nominated,” said Ruefle. “But I don’t think the goal of being an artist or a poet is to win an award. So in that sense, everything remains the same. I don’t think that’s modesty; I think that’s wisdom.”
And, she added, far more pressing matters are facing the world right now, including a global pandemic. “I want to laud Governor Scott,” she said. “He’s doing an incredible job.”