W. S. Di Piero

Distinguished Poet, Essayist & Translator
Winner of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • Poets and Painters
  • A Poet’s Glossary of Terms
  • The Music of Origins
  • An Evening with W.S. Di Piero


“[Di Piero] wakes up the language, and in doing so wakes up his readers, whose lives are suddenly sharper and larger than they were before.” —Christian Wiman

“[Di Piero’s] poems have the texture of American cities, the sights, sounds, and especially the smells of where we’ve lived in the last thirty years, and he has caught our American voices in all their glory and banality, our diction and our inflections, even when we’re talking to ourselves.” —Philip Levine

“[C]alm, grave, firm, sensuous and as deeply refreshing as a cup of well water.” —John Ashbery

W. S. Di Piero, winner of the 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, is the author of eleven books of poetry, most recently Tombo (McSweeney’s, 2014). Of his poems, Lisa Russ Spaar exclaims, “Oneiric, kinetic, cinematic, fugal, inclusive, Di Piero’s…lyrics, litanies, and prose poems arrest the reader not only with his familiar acid bite of voluptuous street-wise music, his mix of Old and New World confluences, but also with an intensified and intimate vulnerability, complicated by fear, the aging body, the inexorability of change, and a restive, ‘fatal cherishing’ of this world.” Di Piero’s other poetry collections include Nitro Nights (Copper Canyon, 2011), Chinese Apples: New and Selected Poems (Knopf, 2007), Brother Fire (Knopf, 2006), and Skirts and Slacks (Knopf, 2001).

His poems have appeared frequently in Poetry, The New Yorker, and Threepenny Review, and he has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, and other periodicals, and he also writes a monthly column on the visual arts for an independent newsweekly, The San Diego Reader. His autobiographical essays have appeared twice in Best American Essays. His books also include translations from Greek and Italian.

A well-known essayist on art, literature, culture, and personal experience, the latest of Di Piero’s five essay collections, When Can I See You Again? (Pressed Wafer, 2010), contains his recent art writings. Other art essays include Shooting the Works: On Poetry and Pictures (Triquarterly, 1996) and Out of Eden: Essays on Modern Arts (University of California Press, 1993). An accomplished speaker on these subjects, his lecture “Poets and Painters” explores the conversation between the languages of the written word and the visual arts by looking at his own poetry and the work other poets (Baudelaire, Rilke, Browning, Pound, William Carlos Williams) who have known or written about visual artists (Delacroix, Cezanne/Van Gogh, Renaissance painters, modern contemporary artists).

In “A Poet’s Glossary of Terms,” Di Piero discourses on Charm, Form, History, Laughter, Uncertainty, Ecstasy, Occasion, Accident in regard to his own poetry as well as that of poets past and present. “The Music of Origins” is derived from two autobiographical essays (“Gots Is What You Got” and “Pocketbook and Sauerkraut,” both in City Dog) about how the language of his poems originated: “It has to do with my childhood, the crazy language I heard around me growing up (and the people who spoke it), working class immigrant culture, the nature of work, how language expresses temperament, etc. Along the way I touch on Keats and Pasolini.”

Di Piero has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Award. He lives in San Francisco.


W.S. Di Piero is the author of eleven books of poetry, including, most recently, Tombo. Winner of the 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, his poems have appeared frequently in Poetry, The New Yorker, and Threepenny Review, and he has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, and other periodicals. Di Piero has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Award.


TOMBO (Poetry, 2014)
No one sounds like W.S. Di Piero. Explosive language, rough sensuousness, unflinching eye—here is a poet who will not look away, and who is always committed to poetry’s first purpose: to bring song. Tombo is a book of lyrics fueled in equal parts by realism and big-fish storytelling, a book of wanderers, foghorns, summer rain, feral cats, and city jazz. Built on heartbreak particulars, these poems are raw, mysterious dilations of the moments of existence.

THE NIGHT OF SHOOTING STARS: SELECTED POEMS OF LEONARDO SINISGALLI (Translation, 2012)
Night of Shooting Stars is the definitive edition of Leonardo Sinisgalli s poetry in English. Selected, translated, and introduced by W. S. Di Piero, this bilingual collection represents work from each phase of Sinisgalli s career, giving readers a comprehensive look into one of Italy’s essential 20th century poets.

WHEN CAN I SEE YOU AGAIN: NEW ART WRITINGS (Essays, 2010)
When Can I See You Again is a collection of Di Piero’s recent short art writings on subjects ranging from Morandi to Rembrandt to Pre-Columbian marine animal amulets. Di Piero has great zest for looking and a prose style equal to what he sees.

NITRO NIGHTS (Poetry, 2011)

“Di Piero’s poems throb with the intensity of urban life, buried anger, and old griefs that still ache.” —San Francisco Chronicle

W.S. Di Piero marries a streetwise, working-class sensibility to an intellectual rigor and precise language in poems that stare down depression, failed love, and urban nightlife. In a fast-paced, half-cracked/half-sane style reminiscent of bebop solos, Di Piero forges masterful poems that “keep it close, loose, and sweaty,” and restore life’s intensity while showing where real hope might be found.

from “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?

CHINESE APPLES: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS (Poetry, 2007)
This “lovely and evocative book” (San Francisco Chronicle) of poems celebrates a quarter century of passionate engagement with real life and its transformation into poetic form: the pull of faith and the poet’s suspicion of transcendence, urban worlds, and the mysterious jazz of street language, desire and sexual need, love and loss. Reading this generous sampling from Di Piero’s first seven poetry collections as well as a group of new poems, it’s difficult to identify prevailing themes or a consistent tone. Like Charles Wright, who shares his interest in contemporary Italian poetry, Di Piero has produced a diverse body of work that’s alternately lush and spare, ranging from raucous character studies drawn from his South Philadelphia youth to somber meditations inspired by the landscapes of his adopted California.” —Kevin Nance, Booklist

CITY DOG: ESSAYS (Essays, 2009)
When a self-proclaimed “lazy scholar” embarks on a trip through his life’s influences—as diverse as girl-group doo-wop, Yeats, and Van Gogh—readers are in for an illuminating ride. This collection of essays from cultural critic Di Piero veers from his early years as the son of immigrants in Philadelphia to his working life in art, film, music, and poetry. Along with a few choice essays reprinted from out-of-print collections, Di Piero’s new work shows him to be insightful about himself and his work despite his protestations against the “boosterism” of autobiography. Through the lens of his sharp artistic analysis, readers see his story—an immigrant story filled with the music and mystery of a multilingual family, the men of his neighborhood wearing so many hats as they worked—as the auspicious beginning for his life of observation and revelation. His prose sings along, tripping across slang, poetry, and painters with the same precision that allows him to nearly dance about architecture. Though Di Piero would claim that his life’s path “lurches and swerves,” his essays prove that he has wandered expansively and with purpose—a city dog trotting across continents, along pages, and through galleries.


THE VIEW FROM HERE

It’s not hard to find them any night, sleeping under autumn stars,
the nameless, swept away or under, dozy, maybe asleep, car heater off,
a gentle poisoned wind blowing through the window, the toddler
kicks and growls like a dog dreaming, the older son’s closed eyes
twitch as if he can’t chase or flee those pictures fast enough,
and the parents, too big and hot, how every hour or so they wake,
touch, nudge to make room in their early model front seat,
fresh water to last the night, chips and Snickers, diapers, gum,
celebrity gossip rags, cover sheets for the children,
breathing inside sullen steel blued by moonlight, under a trestle
or interstate, in an off-season stadium lot, untended campground
or back street, or parked there behind a strip mall’s dumpster pod,
just like last night, times before and to come, if we look to see,
then to imagine the tribes together, hundreds of junkers like tortoises,
in an abandoned drive-in, windows steamy, voices and grunts
as we walk past the secrets of the day jobbers, housecleaners,
nannies, pickers, and busboys camouflaged among us, on their way
to greater goods, dreaming of how we stand here watching them.

The Smell of Spearmint

He told, he didn’t suggest or ask.
So when the unfinished father
told the son to do it, the son obeyed
and laid out razor and Barbasol
next to the bed-tray’s plastic cups,
ashtray, straws, and mucilage
of scrambled eggs. Forty-three,
he demanded to look clean and spare.
We die with habits of self-regard.
The son, seventeen, can’t know
that when he’s his father’s age,
a life’s love would soap his face,
run the blade, nick a nostril
— hold still, you nervous you —
then pass into time’s menthol airs.
He trowels, plumps, pats the lather,
he turns the head, he drags the trucky
brutish double-blade down
jaw and hollowed cheeks:
it planes the meaty manly whiskers,
it resists its task, yet life feels lighter
in his hand, most of all when it lies
lightly on the cabled throat.
One big bone, the father’s head,
in custody of the speechless son,
the untrained hand that never knew
the contents of that bone, does what
it’s told to do, and can’t know
what love will bring back in time.

from “Late Arrivals”

Like most writers, when I’m working well, I’m in a fugue state, unaware of remembering or forgetting. In a fugue state, neuroscience tells us, one is unaware of having lost all sense of personal identity. It’s also physically dissociating, dreamily so—chronic pain I’ve lived with for thirty years subsides, as it does in beatific dreams—and I’m living in lost time, in oblivion induced by the process of work. It’s a form of inspiration, an auto-hypnosis instrumented by Muse or God or neural network. (It’s not peculiar to writers and artists: mathematicians, systems analysts, and cabinet-makers experience the same state.) I get lost in the now but lost to something past, since writing is practically all recovery. I look down at whatever’s under my nose, then look up and it’s three or four hours later. Where have I been? In what labyrinth?

from “Force”

In the autumn of 1995 I fell into despair. How else to say it? The constellated symptoms were those of severe clinical depression, but no aetiology can really accommodate the dimensions of the failure of hope. Hope not as a mood but as a casual existential assumption of life’s continuity that lives in the spirit like involuntary reflex, like breathing. It wasn’t my first time and wouldn’t be the last. Anybody who falls once has usually fallen before and will sometime fall again. The circumstances aren’t important any more, only the recognition that the despair stopped the ordinary circulatory motion of life in me and the physical world around me. Every soul experiences the death of hope in its own way. The wire can be tripped by the most trivial occurrence. I can’t find a pencil, someone’s line is busy, I burn the shirt I’m ironing, no mail comes. The gashing pain that ensues is so out of scale to its occasioning event that the pain can seem operatically silly. All the casual manipulations by which we cinch and stabilize our daily lives melt away into a formless, quivering, all-covering woundedness and frailty. I didn’t wish it on my self and never thought what a dandy subject for poetry it might be. I wanted to be rid of it or it to be rid of me, and the longer it lasted the more it was like an evil smelling visitor to whom I owed some inexplicable obligation of hospitality.

It’s That Time

The silence of night hours
is never really silent.
You hear the air,
even when it doesn’t stir.
It’s a memory of the day.
Nothing stirs. Memory lags.
No traffic hushing up
and down tricky hills
among the camphor trees.

No foghorns, no streetcars’
shrilling phantoms before
they emerge from tunnels.
These absences keep us alert.
No rain or street voices,
nobody calling to someone else,
Hannah, you walk the dog
tonight yet or what?

Only certain things to hear:
The sexy shifting of trees,
the refrigerator buzzing
while Cherubino sings
the best of love is enthusiasm’s
intense abandon, a voice
in song that preys on no one
and is unconscious of its joy.