W.S. Di Piero was born in 1945 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and earned degrees from St. Joseph’s College and San Francisco State College. A poet, essayist, art critic, and translator, Di Piero has taught at institutions such as Northwestern University, Louisiana State University, and Stanford, where he is professor emeritus of English and on faculty in the prestigious Stegner Poetry Workshop. Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2001, Di Piero was awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2012. He lives in San Francisco.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Lock yourself in a room for years with the big, singular voices of poets who came before. Noise can be musical but don’t fill your head with contemporary poetry-noise. If you want to be a poet, learn how to write, and the proof of that is finding your own sound not only as a poet but as a prose stylist.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
I don’t cruise YouTube, but I have seen one that I’ve visited several times. The actor Vincent Cassel often plays gangsters and bad guys (his two-part movie about the French criminal Mesrine is tops), but he started out as a dancer and taped a short homage to Fred Astaire: he dances with a bentwood chair. Such lightness, such grace:
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
No favorites, but there was a priest a few generations back in the Di Piero line, in Italy, in the town of Castelfrentano (where it seems most people with my last name originated, as did my father and his parents) — this priest, a Di Piero, had a child by a prostitute to whom he left all his worldly possessions.
He was a priest, so who knows what “worldly possessions” means, but that’s the story I was told, though in my family if you questioned stories, people didn’t explain, they shrugged their shoulders, wisely, knowingly, as I’m trying to do here.
What’s wrong with society today?
If we ever did have a sense of an American commonweal — maybe something like that existed for a while after the Great Depression — it’s gone for good. The fear and resentment toward poor and people of color won’t go away. We’re a selfish, politically small-minded, self-righteous, generally conservative culture. Why (outside centers like San Francisco and Manhattan) is there so much contempt for progressivism?
What kind of writing do you most admire?
I don’t follow the fights but like reading about them. Liebling‘s The Sweet Science is one standard, but I’m partial to Gerald Early‘s The Culture of Bruising (which has stuff about boxing, American culture, and literature). And if I have to choose between the latest serious novel praised in the NYRB or the NYTBR, and a true-life book about charismatic serpent-handling sects in Appalachia, I’ll choose the snakes every time.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
What other major American city has such reliably crummy public transportation? Or so many cabs available on sight to so very few citizens?