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Cambridge poet Frank Bidart wins National Book Award

Robin Platzer/Twin Images

National Book Award winners (from left) Robin Benway, Masha Gessen, Jesmyn Ward, and Frank Bidart.

By Kaitlyn Locke Globe Correspondent 

Frank Bidart, one of America’s most respected living poets, won the National Book Award for poetry Wednesday for his latest work, “Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016.”

Among his other honors, Bidart, a Cambridge resident who teaches at Wellesley College, has been a finalist for the National Book Award four previous times, but this is his first win.

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“It turns out that the dice can roll and roll, and every once in a while it turns out different,” Bidart said in a phone interview with the Globe.

“Half-Light” is a collection of Bidart’s poems from over the past five decades, including all his previous books. He said that looking back, he’s able to see how his work has changed over the years.

“I don’t in any way repudiate earlier poems,” said Bidart. “In fact, what I’m hoping . . . is that when the books are read together, it’s clearer what the project is — they make a whole — which I’m very much pleased by.”

Bidart’s poetry is often autobiographical. A Harvard graduate who was raised in conservative, oil-rich Bakersfield, Calif., Bidart came out as a gay man while still in grad school.

He said that his poems blend “fiction and fact. . . . I’m the only person that knows when it’s one, and when it’s another, or itself a mixture of the two,” adding that it has been “remarkable” how memories “about every phase of [his] life” resurfaced while compiling “Half-Light.”

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“I’m 78 now, and this has involved reliving my life in a way that has been both moving and grueling,” Bidart said. He added, “The poems were always an attempt to understand my life. . . writing the poems was how I survived.”

The other winners of this year’s National Book Awards were (from left, with Bidart) Robin Benway, whose “Far From the Tree” won for young people’s literature; Masha Gessen, whose “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia” took the nonfiction prize; and Jesmyn Ward, for “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” the fiction honoree.