W.S. Di Piero writes a lot. He’s a poet whose new collection TOMBO, his eleventh, is just out from McSweeney’s. He’s an art critic for the San Diego Reader, an essayist with four books of prose to his credit, and a translator of Euripedes as well as the Italian poets Leonardo Sinisgalli, Sandro Penna, and Giacomo Leopardi. In 2012, he received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for Lifetime Achievement.
I first met Di Piero when I was a Stegner Fellow in 2003, and got to know him over the two years I was at Stanford. I was already enamored with his nervous, jittery poems and his incisive essays on art and philosophy, but it wasn’t until I met him that I saw just how much the writing reflected the person behind it. Di Piero is all energy in person, brilliant and bitingly funny, and I learned more about oysters from one night in Kezar’s than I had in a lifetime living near the Gulf of Mexico.
This interview was conducted via e-mail.
The Rumpus: I was struck by the closing lines of the first poem in TOMBO, “The Running Dog,” which read “while we keep trying to say / here by the stove or on your street / exactly what it’s like” because so many of your poems seem to attempt that level of specificity. What drives you to try to capture that level of detail in your work?
W.S. Di Piero: The process of work over the years has brought me to this specificity, but specificity for its own sake—realism—doesn’t matter to me. I’m a poet of sensation. I’ve never been much of a deliberative poet—ruminative, I mean—but paying attention to what’s visible has always mattered. If I look intently enough and say what it feels like to experience the hard, bright particulars of the world, maybe that will break open other orders of experience, non-material ones. You ask what drives me to try to capture that level of experience? It’s my nature. I mean, that’s the kind of person I am. Not only the driven-ness but the embodiment. It takes very little for me to feel overcome by physical reality. In one of his letters, Keats says he likes to intensify the taste of claret by putting a little pepper on his tongue before taking a sip.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that you mention Keats, as he plays a part in one of my favorite poems from the new book, “Injun Joe as an Avatar.” Is Keats one of those poets you return to often in your own reading?
Di Piero: I still read Keats and Coleridge (of the lyrics) for their music and excitability. Who cares about the sense of “Startles the wild bee from the foxglove bell” or “The frost performs its secret ministry”? Their voices are always in the room with me, I suppose. That poem you refer to is a manic eruption about the isolation of writing poetry and the derangements and pains that come with it. The poet it refers to, J. T. Barbarese, is someone I’ve known a long time. He has one of the biggest voices but has still only a very small public reputation.
Rumpus: Since you mention Barbarese as having a big voice but a small public reputation, can you think of some others who fit into that category? Poetry has this reputation as being an art practiced by a few for a very small audience, but I know from experience that it’s near impossible to keep up with even a small fraction of that world. So who would you say deserves some more attention?
Di Piero: One of the books I liked most last year was William Hathaway’s The Right No. Wild, righteous poetry. Also David Breskin’s Dirty Baby, a book of ghazals that dance with images by Ed Ruscha. And I like D. Nurkse’s work quite a bit; I’m not caught up on the Reputation Brokerage so don’t know how much attention his work gets. (I like Atsuro Riley’s work, too—he lives here.)
Some poets fade fast once they pass—fade unjustly, I mean. A favorite of mine for a long time has been the Scottish poet W. S. Graham. Same with Alan Dugan. She dates way back, I know, but does anyone still read Ruth Pitter? Is she even in print here? Do translations count? I don’t know how much attention went to Christian Wiman’s translation of Mandelstam, Stolen Air, done in collaboration with Ilya Kaminsky, but the vocal range is astounding—they re-imagined Mandelstam for us. And I like the poetry of someone maybe best known for his translations, David Ferry: his poems have terrific immediacy and richness of feeling.
Rumpus: It seems to me that place has always played a large role in your poems. Philadelphia shows up a lot in some of your earlier work, as does Italy, and in this book I recognize Marfa and Louisiana as well. But San Francisco always takes precedence. What is it about the city? How does it capture your imagination in such a powerful way?
Di Piero: I spent my first twenty-one years in South Philadelphia. I’ve now lived twenty-three years in San Francisco. The first twenty-one years were formative, the recent twenty-three either works-in-progress or summative. There were several places in between. San Francisco isn’t special as an entity, it’s where I happen to have made my home. My poems express the emotional reverb of places where I’ve lived, their nervous contents, but the poems are re-imaginings of place, they’re not reports. Poems in my recent books are bound up in my life here and now in San Francisco, yes, but TOMBO also includes two poems that have to do with Bologna, and that red thread runs through my earlier books. Chicago, too, shuffles its boots through several poems in other books.
I’m an excitable poet—I write off my nerves, I’m not cool or canny and I don’t ponder much—and cities are excitable locales. What does it mean to be inspired by a place? Inspiration—the heightened state of lost time, the sensation of sound breathed through me—is an actual occurrence, but inspiration also means taking in the world as it is, with surprise and astonishment, even if the experience is painful. So much of what happens when I write is involuntary, instinctual, and that entails what the world offers, chaotically, randomly—that offering is inspiration. Being ready, available, is everything. Staying alert and exposed is part of the work of poetry. You can be doing nothing and still be at work, still waiting. “Nocturne,” one of the poems in TOMBO, expresses that condition of yearning and desire.
Rumpus: I get that sense of “taking the world as it is” especially in the title poem, about the young man in the Safeway who sits on the floor and, for lack of a better term, evangelizes to the shoppers. I’m especially drawn to the lines “My poor belief lives in the only and the all / of the slur of what these are, and what these are / streams toward loss in moments we live through.” It’s the sense that everything we experience tends toward loss that tugs at me, because I recognize the truth of it, the older I get. And yet the idea isn’t depressing, is it? There’s a hopefulness in the sense that we must have experience in order to lose it, because the other option is that we’re no longer living.
Di Piero: No, it’s not depressing. Poetry, any art, can terrify, unnerve, thrill; it can break you down. Today I read the last pages of Cather’s The Professor’s House and listened to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and both left me in pieces, but who would want anything less than that intensity, that exaltation? No, poetry doesn’t depress. If anything, it clarifies, it illuminates, and in ways I don’t care to understand, the illumination can’t be separated from poetry’s mystery. The recognitions poetry brings into forms, no matter how hard or unsavory they are, do not depress. They can really disturb mind and heart, yes, but it’s a turbulence that lets through light. If poetry communicates suffering, it’s intensifying life, not stifling it, even if we know (in the moment of joy or pain) that we’re hostage to loss.
Can I mention something else? The first poem in TOMBO says “Life is lived in its transitions,” but most of the poems, I know very well, don’t themselves always have structural transitions. I have this vision of each moment being columnar, a kind of cylindrical sound chamber in which every sensation triggers some other, every moment reverbs somehow with another. In my life, that associative swarming dizzies or disorients me, makes me sometimes sick. Not for nothing do the poems I write try to enact that feeling.
Rumpus: What are you working on currently? And are there any readings set up in support of TOMBO?
Di Piero What am I working on? I’m writing poems, slowly, always very slowly, and also what may turn into a book-length prose thing. For years I’ve been writing a regular column on the visual arts for the San Diego Reader. My February column is about a bunch of small-format Chicano paintings from Cheech Marin’s collection. Next up will be photography in the Victorian era.
March 26: Penn State.
April 7: Blacksmith House, Cambridge.
April 8: Tufts, Boston.
May 1: Exeter Academy, New Hampshire.
October 13: Portland, Oregon.
Featured image of W.S. Di Piero © by Beth Weber.