W.S. Di Piero’s new collection, TOMBO, takes its title from a poem about a kind of idiot savant who sits down in a Safeway to extol the virtues of a deity he calls “Master Tombo,/ lord and creator, whose round energy/ lives in us surrounds us surrounds our milk/ our butter our eggs: see Him there,/ in the slurpee glaze upon the freezer case?” Di Piero has published ten books of poetry, and he is a master of the adjective, a master of sound and story.
In 2012, he won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and his poems appear frequently in Poetry and Threepenny Review, and he has written for the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, and many other periodicals. He’s won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Award. He lives in San Francisco, and he talked with McSweeney’s Poetry Series editors Jesse Nathan and Dominic Luxford over email in late November 2013.
McSWEENEY’S: What do you think differentiates TOMBO from your other recent collections?
W.S. Di PIERO: I don’t think about differentiations. My work, for me, is all a weird, present streaming. I’m guided (or driven) by emotion and sounds, so I’m usually not aware of what kinds of poems I’ve written until they’re already written and I see the pattern of the obsession. TOMBO, I see now, is loaded with desire and loss. It does have one poem of joy, “It’s That Time,” or so I’ve been reassured by a couple of people, though for me the poem is more an agonized wish. All my life I’ve wanted to write less intensely, to relax, take it easy, lighten up for Christ’s sake, be clear and plain and funny and loose and whimsical. I’m probably still not quite there.
McSWEENEY’S: What non-literary artists / artworks have most informed your development as a writer?
Di PIERO: There’s a reason why the frontispiece in TOMBO is a sketch, “Ruined Architectures,” by Paul Klee. When I was young, reading the poets who got there before me, I also got caught up by three great visual artists, Giacometti (“Nothing is ever finished; everything fails”), Brancusi (form is aspiration, and you polish until you die whatever seems already finished), and Klee (“Drawing is taking a line for a walk”) for the spaciousness and strangeness and uncanny humor of his imagination. I read everything I could find about him and by him. The Philadelphia Museum of Art had his work—that’s where I got my art education, such as it was. I bought Klee’s Diaries in 1964, TOMBO comes out in 2014: it was time for me and my work to greet PK again.
McSWEENEY’S: How did you learn to write?
Di PIERO: I’ll give the Paleolithic reply, which is also true: I learned by doing it. “Learn” isn’t quite right. That makes it sound active and voluntary, when it was more experiential—I mean, I didn’t so much learn to write as writing was what happened to me. I didn’t come up through creative writing programs. I grew up in a culture mostly without books. Writers are schooled by whatever they read. I took what was available. (Discovering the Philadelphia Free Library was enormous.) All writing occupied the same bandwidth—Freddy the Pig books, Kidnapped, Poe’s and Conan Doyle’s stories, and in particular, when I was very small, the Sears catalogs I studied on Sunday visits to relatives’ houses. I came to love reading about the old west—no kid in South Philadelphia knew more about Wyatt Earp, Kit Carson, Doc Holliday. In high school I read Whitman—he was, still is, so strange, exasperatingly friendly, formidable. By the time I turned twenty-one, it was “sweet sounds together” that mattered. Sound is still important. Subject matter was (still is) whatever piece of life’s procession pauses in front of me (or behind my back).
McSWEENEY’S: Can you say something about the process of writing?
Di PIERO: Can I repeat myself? I tried to answer this question (to myself) in an essay in City Dog. Here are relevant bits: “My books of poems start out as miscellanies. I don’t go looking for subject matter and don’t have ‘projects.’ I write out of compulsions, seizures, preoccupations. … If my poems come out right, they tell what it feels like to live in a world of troubled relatedness. They have to do with hungers and wants more than with satisfactions and consolations. … Certain poets have a deep, irrational sense of the rhythmic shape they want a poem to be. Mine involves mixed tones, jumpy cadences, sound-speeds. The work issues from my feeling that the more we come into consciousness, the more we come into awareness of mortality, and that this isn’t a melancholy or depressing recognition but a thrilling one because it completes us as humans. That there are no easy answers to anything, that sorrow is a complicated thing that may be simply put, that bittersweetness isn’t something arrived at but a place to start.”
McSWEENEY’S: What do you think the main developments/changes in poetry have been over the past several decades?
Di PIERO: No magisterial answers. I don’t read a lot of contemporary poetry by poets under, say, fifty, but much of what I do read feels cool and soundless. My vague sense is that poetry since the early 1980s has become more concept-driven, and talky but not very sensitive to sound, texture, beat. Lots of self-aware control, but not like Crane’s or Bunting’s or Niedecker’s or Bogan’s control, essential to hold in a form (barely) what would otherwise be anarchic feeling.
McSWEENEY’S: How (or why?) has Gerard Manley Hopkins been important to you?
Di PIERO: He believed that those sprung rhythm poems like “The Windhover” and “Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves” were close to actual English speech. I don’t know what he was thinking, but the language does bear what I’d like to think actual speech can (but never does) bear, a tremendous load of felt consciousness, everything all at once. Writing poetry was devotional for him, not just toward his Lord but toward language. Maybe language was his Lord, though he’d be outraged by the impiousness of that statement. My personal favorite is “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” catastrophically gorgeous. But why do you single out GMH? Among poets more or less of his times, Hardy matters more to me, and Browning most of all. Of them, it’s Hopkins who makes my head ache.
McSWEENEY’S: In your prose you’ve written a lot about art. How does that relate to your poetry?
Di PIERO: I’ve written a lot about a lot. Essay-writing for me is autobiographical, especially when I’m talking back at poets and artists (or at The Wire or Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone or at Roy Hargrove or Miles Davis), because I’m engaged with language, or languages, and that’s essential autobiography for me; a stack of facts isn’t.
McSWEENEY’S: Is California a good place to work as a poet?
Di PIERO: Different, not good. Weather and season in the air can determine weather and season in the heart. Live in a climate where autumn isn’t a feathery hot-times flapper and you might yearn for that type of girl, and the yearning might express itself in poems. It all depends on how the heart holds the contents of its surround. Is Jersey a good place to work? Tuscaloosa? Miami Beach?
McSWEENEY’S: What makes you happy?
Di PIERO: Dancing in loud, dark places.
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