The poet was nationally recognized for a lifetime's worth of writings.
When W. Simone Di Piero received the phone call telling him he was to be awarded the annual Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, he didn’t believe the caller for two reasons: One, it was April 1, and two—“This kind of stuff doesn’t happen to me.”
But it had. A $100,000 cash prize awarded annually by the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation, it’s among the most prestigious and lucrative honors in the literary world. And Di Piero, 67, born and raised in South Philadelphia, was being recognized for a lifetime’s worth of writings: 10 books of poetry, as well as five collections of well-received essays on topics ranging from visual art to personal memoir.
Though he left the city at 23 to go to school in San Francisco—where he lives still, a professor emeritus in the English department at Stanford—Philadelphians and Philly images still resonate in Di Piero’s work. For instance, a typical passage from the poem “Jewana Got Gypped,” which appears in his 2007 poetry collection Chinese Apples:
He comes down Watkins Street, Thursdays, at dusk,
[….] He hates us more than we hate ourselves. Ma va, stronzini!
I’ll punch you little fucker faces and fry your balls for breakfast.
Then you’ll see who got gypped! We like him,
but we’re afraid of his craziness. He’s not us.
“I grew up in a village,” Di Piero says. “South Philly was a village. I came of age listening to the language of my people.” His dad was “what was then called a ‘maintenance man’” at Temple University Hospital; his mother worked on an assembly line in a factory in northwest Philadelphia that manufactured circuit breakers.
And while all his family is still in Philly, he says—calling himself “the only one who left”—he no longer visits the old neighborhood. “Of course you have to stop coming back… when it doesn’t give anything back to you. If I had grown up in a house with a garden, some mythic garden, I’d write about that—but I didn’t. No one in South Philly did.”
Di Piero’s characters and images are mostly urban, whether they’re placed in Philadelphia, San Francisco, or the many places he’s visited. What’s consistent is Di Piero’s ability to see beauty in everything from homeless wanderers to high-maintenance women. The absence of judgment in regards to class and caste is also consistent, and rare when covering subjects such as his.
Poet J.T. Barbarese, a professor at Rutgers’ Camden campus, comes from the same Italian Philly background. As a peer both professionally and geo-socially, he suggests that Di Piero’s perspective on the city is best exemplified in his essay “Gots Is What You Got,” which appears in the book City Dog. Di Piero sums up the South Philly attitude thus:
“My people always seemed to be picking a fight with circumstance, with the very fact of circumstance, and in the absence of specific aggravating circumstance the cosmos would do. I did not know how strange or peculiar this was until I left it behind and found outside my culture a broader and more pliable medium for moral feeling. Nor did I realize how deeply its music had settled in my heart until I heard in my poetry that same extremity of unease and rage at circumstance.”
It’s a pure expression, Barbarese says, of Philadelphia’s longstanding neighborhood culture—of the nature of that “village” Di Piero grew up in. Yet the poet’s words have resonated with readers far and wide. The New York Times gushed over Nitro Nights, his 2001 book of verse, Skirts and Slacks, saying: “With language that’s as simple as it is musical, Di Piero sets dazzling moments amid plainsong.”
“If I’m lucky,” Di Piero says, “the Lilly will give my work more presence in a world of writing and poetry that depends so much, too much, on rumor, gossip, and permissions. I’m an old rat, so the prize won’t have any effect on my habits and rhythms of work. In my life, I don’t own a car—so with the prize money, I take more cabs.”
Barbarese, his colleague, has a simpler perspective on Di Piero’s award: “It’s about fucking time.”
"St. Agnes Hospital Archive" By W. S. Di Piero from Nitro Nights (2011)
See these scars? Like razor cuts. Dead palms.
PW's Summer Guide 2015