A California poet won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize on Monday for a book of poetry that she feared she would never finish after she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.
"Versed" is Rae Armantrout's 10th book.
"I'm stunned," said Armantrout on receiving news of the award, according to a news release issued by University of California, San Diego. "This was not on my radar screen at all. Tomorrow is my birthday, and this was a very nice birthday present."
The first half of the book, published by Wesleyan University Press, focuses on the dark forces gripping the United States as it fought the war against Iraq, she said. The second half looks at the dark forces taking hold of her own life after Armantrout was diagnosed in 2006 with adrenal cortical cancer.
"It was easy enough, in a way, to make that kind of metaphoric leap from what was happening to American society to what was happening to my body with the cancer," said the 62-year-old poetry professor at the UCSD.
The Pulitzer committee called the book striking for its wit and linguistic inventiveness, offering poems that are "often little thought-bombs detonating in the mind long after the first reading."
"I love that," she said, laughing. "That's very flattering and exactly what I wanted it to be -- a little thought-bomb. It sounds dangerous."
Armantrout, who writes her poetry by hand first, said she "actually was expecting to die during the second half of the book" but she also found the act of writing consoled her.
"I felt as long as I kept writing, I wasn't really dying," she said.
Her cancer went into remission after she underwent surgery in June 2006.
Armantrout, a native Californian, is a founding member of the West Coast group of Language poets, an avant-garde group or tendency in American poetry that emerged during the ear of the Vietnam war that analyzes the way language is used and raises questions to make the reader think.
"Versed" also won the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
She is the author of several collections of widely anthologized poetry. Her "Collected Prose" was published in 2007, and her short memoir, "True," was published in 1998.
Armantrout said she was shocked to learn she had won the Pulitzer. Many of her colleagues were not.
"Rae Armantrout is a unique voice in American poetry," said Seth Lerer, UCSD's dean of Arts and Humanities.
Poet and critic Ron Silliman said in his blog: "Trying to read a book by Rae Armantrout in a single sitting is like trying to drink a bowl of diamonds. What's inside is all so shiny and clear and even tiny that it appears perfectly doable. But the stones are so hard and their edges so chiseled that the instant you begin they'll start to rip your insides apart."