Conversation: W. S. Di Piero, Winner of the 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize

BY Jeffrey Brown  April 27, 2012 at 10:34 AM EDT

W. S. Di PieroThe 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize was announced last week. The $100,000 prize given by the Poetry Foundation, which, for the record, helps support our poetry coverage, was awarded this year to W. S. Di Piero. The prize “is presented annually to a living U.S. poet whose lifetime accomplishments warrant extraordinary recognition.”

Di Piero is a professor emeritus of English at Stanford University and has published 10 books of poetry, including most recently “Nitro Nights” (2011, Copper Canyon Press), as well as five essay collections.

I spoke to him by phone Thursday from San Francisco:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. The 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize has just been announced. It’s a $100,000 award given by the Poetry Foundation, which, for the record, helps support our poetry coverage, and the winner this year is W. S. Di Piero. He’s a professor emeritus at Stanford, his newest book is titled “Nitro Nights,” and he joins us now from San Francisco. Welcome to you.

W.S. DI PIERO: Hi, how are you.

JEFRREY BROWN: I’m good. So, a lifetime achievement award is a kind of summing up, I guess. Does it feel that way?

W.S. DI PIERO: Well, I hope it’s not a summing up. I hope it’s just a promise of continuity.

JEFRREY BROWN: Well, I read an interview you did after your selected works came out a few years ago, and you said that in looking back at the life of the work, you said you discovered that when you’re writing poems you’re not aware of the kind you are becoming until after you become it.

W.S. DI PIERO: Yeah, that’s right.

JEFRREY BROWN: What did that mean, and what kind of poet have you become in your eyes?

W.S. DI PIERO: What I meant was that when you’re writing — when I’m writing anyway — I’m writing out of different kinds of preoccupations and obsessions, different forms of drivenness, and so you’re really hostage those while writing. I am, anyway. And it’s only when you finally take the finished thing out of the furnace that you see what it was that went into the making of the thing.

JEFRREY BROWN: And have those preoccupations, etc., have those changed over time?

W.S. DI PIERO: Sure, they do. They accumulate is what they do. Most of it has to do with living in a world of change. Every cliche is true, right? That’s why they’re cliches. And I’ve dealt with other things, other questions. I’ve spent most of my life in cities, and so I’ve always lived with the curiosity about what makes for city cultures and how peoples live in cities, how peoples anywhere manage to co-exist, the public life and the private life.

JEFRREY BROWN: I was wondering how that plays in the newest book, “Nitro Nights.” I was just going through it in the last few days, and there’s a poem like “St. Agnes Hospital Archive,” which in sections, each with the name of a character. Are these actual people, is this an actual experience?

W.S. DI PIERO: The core of that poem is an actual experience. Each of the characters, or voices, in that poem are speaking to the person who never appears in the poem, and the person who never appears in the poem is me. I wanted to make a poem where all the narrative had to do with pain of different kinds.

JEFRREY BROWN: Well, will you read the very first called, “Only in Things.”

W.S. DI PIERO: Yeah, sure.

Only in Things

Some days, who can stare at swathes of sky,
leafage and bad-complected whale-gray streets,
tailpipes and smokestacks orating sepia exhaust,
or the smaller enthusiasms of pistil and mailbox key,
and not weep for the world’s darks on lights, lights on darks,
how its half-tones stay unchanged in their changings,
or how turning wheels and wind-trash and revolving doors
weave us into wakefulness or dump us into distraction?
This constant stream of qualia we feel in our stomachs.
The big-leafed plant lifts its wings to greet the planet’s chemistry,
the sun arrives on rooftops like a gentle stranger, rain rushes us
love to love, stop to stop, these veins of leaf, hand,
storm and stream, as if in pursuit of us and what we are becoming.

JEFRREY BROWN: The title, “Only in Things,” I assume comes from the William Carlos Williams idea?

W.S. DI PIERO: It does and it doesn’t. It didn’t when I was writing the poem, it just was the title of the poem, but you can’t be a poet certainly of my generation and not have deep in your animal brain the comment of Williams, no ideas except in things.

JEFRREY BROWN: I noticed you also quote him at the beginning of the book, so is he important to you or is that idea that’s important to you?

W.S. DI PIERO: You know, Williams is one of the great ones. He’s a poet — he’s an early modern that I go back and re-read. And one of the appeals of Williams to me is that he was many different kinds of poet. He tried out many different forms in his own way of, more or less, formlessness. He was also a poet who could be – he was a love poet, he was a poet of the natural order and he was also a political poet. And the epigraph that I use in my book, “Impromptu: The Suckers,” is about the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, so it’s a little piece that I have epigraphed in the book is from one his political poems.

JEFRREY BROWN: And what about — you translate, especially Italian poetry, you write about art — these are ways of reaching out, staying involved in other things or?

W.S. DI PIERO: They are ways of being writer in the world. When I came into consciousness as a writer when I was in my early 20s, I just assumed that a writer did — a poet writer did everything all at once. I would write poetry, and while writing poetry I would also write work in the world — if I could get into the world. And so I reviewed books, I wrote a lot about movies, I wrote essays, which I tried to peddle to magazines, and I also began translating, thinking foolishly that I’d actually be able to earn money by translating. And so it was that I wrote poetry and worked for hire in the world and did translating for a great many years. I let the translation go several years ago, but I continue to do work for hire, and since 1985 a lot of the prose, though not all of it, a lot of the prose has had to do with the visual arts.

JEFRREY BROWN: All of that kind of work, is it a way looking at things, of getting involved in other things that actually affect your poetry as well?

W.S. DI PIERO: Sure, but you know, when I think about what really matters, it’s not looking at art that has made the most difference or has been most shaping of the poetry; it’s simply living as completely in the world as a politically alert creature, as someone who is both stuck in and also trying to view the historical moment. Folded into all of that, of course, whatever you see in your life. A lot of the stuff that I see, because it’s part of the work that I do, is look at pictures and photographs and sculpture and all the rest of that. I also spend a lot of time looking at the people on my street, and all of it simply exists in sort of this tremendous forceful wash of reality out of which comes, what I hope, are these shapely recognitions of reality, which are my poems.

JEFRREY BROWN: All right. W. S. Di Piero is the winner of the 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and his latest book is “Nitro Nights.” Thanks so much for talking to us.

W.S. DI PIERO: You are welcome.

JEFRREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.