Robert Pinsky is the author of numerous books of poetry, including The Figured Wheel, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and prose, including Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry. He served as United States poet laureate from 1997 to 2000. He began his unlikely journey to becoming a poet in the late 1940s in Long Branch, a historic but run-down New Jersey shore resort town, in a neighborhood of Italian, Black, and Jewish families. Descended from a bootlegger grandfather, an athletic father, and a rebellious tomboy mother, Pinsky was an unruly but articulate high school C student whose obsession with the rhythms and melodies of speech inspired him to write. In Jersey Breaks: Becoming an American Poet (W. W. Norton & Company), he traces the roots of his poetry back to the voices of his neighborhood, music, and a distinctly American tradition of improvisation. His influences zig and zag from Mark Twain and Ray Charles to Marianne Moore and Mel Brooks, Dante Alighieri, and the Orthodox Jewish liturgy. Writing poetry, he reflects, helped him make sense of life’s challenges.