Posts Tagged ‘W.S. Di Piero’

Stanford writers bag an awful lot of prizes this year

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

It’s easy to forget the caliber of the people you are rubbing elbows with every day.  So let me take a moment to blow their collective horn – especially since they’re so humble.  Many of you may have seen the recent New Yorker article about high-tech Stanford’s close relationship with Silicon Valley.  Fewer people, alas, know that it also has one of the top-rated faculties in English and Creative Writing anywhere.

This year has been a banner year.  Stanford and its alums have bagged a Pulitzer, a Ruth Lilly Prize, a National Book Award, a Guggenheim, a presidential awards.   Everything short of a Nobel. Are you listening, Stockholm?

From a piece I wrote recently:

Turning 40 is a landmark for many, and poet Tracy Smith was no exception. She planned to celebrate in style with champagne. But what she didn’t expect was the biggest present ever: her husband told her The New York Timeswebsite had just announced that she’d won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in poetry.The new Pulitzer for Smith, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, is one of several awards that have put a spotlight on Stanford’s top-ranked English Department and its renowned Creative Writing Program– a sometimes overlooked triumph on a campus that more often prides itself on its technological savvy.

Simone Di Piero, Photo credit: David LiittschwagerPoet W.S. Di Piero got the news that he had won the 2012 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize on April 1.  “They called me on April Fools Day.  So I had to ask twice if they were serious.  They said it was on the up and up.”

“In the land of poetry it’s a big prize,” said the emeritus professor of English.  His new collection of poetry, Nitro Nights, was published in December, but the $100,000 award honors lifetime accomplishments.

According to Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine, “He wakes up the language, and in doing so wakes up his readers, whose lives are suddenly sharper and larger than they were before. He’s a great poet whose work is just beginning to get the wide audience it deserves.”

Poets weren’t the only ones to get prizes: English Prof. Denise Gigante got a coveted Guggenheim Fellowship, topping a year that had already brought stunning accolades: The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George, was named a New York Times Notable Book for 2011 and an Editor’s Choice in The New York Times Book Review.

Denise Gigante, photo credit: Raul DiazThe Guggenheim will give her time to work on her new book, The Book Madness: Charles Lamb’s Midnight Darlings in New York, a study of 19th century bibliomania, the formation of important libraries and literary culture in America, and the half-forgotten English essayist Charles Lamb.

“Americans were fascinated with the figures of British poets,” said Gigante.  “Culture was imported from Britain – that’s not true today.  And library-makers were the cultural brokers of the time.”  Her book will be “an experiment in literary critical form,” she said.

Gavin Jones, English Department chair, said, “Denise is the rare scholar with the power to tell a story that’s also the biography of an age and an intellectual culture.”

The list of awards continues:  President Obama awarded Prof. Ramón Saldívar a National Humanities medal in February. (Arnold Rampersad, emeritus professor of English, received the same award a year before.)

The English Department has consistently been at the top of U.S. News and World Report rankings of graduate programs. The creative writing program, which does not confer an MFA, is considered by many to be the best in the country.  Its Stegner fellows form a tight-knit, ongoing society.

Pulitzer prizewinner Smith, at Stanford from 1997 to 1999, said her years at Stanford “pushed me to move towards a mature sense of what I was doing. To be honest, I didn’t know how to do that.”

The program’s focus on moving from manuscript to book “frees you from the person you were as a student and into what you will be as a poet.”

Smith, now an assistant professor at Princeton, was awarded for her collection Life on Mars. The New York Times called her “a poet of extraordinary range and ambition” whose book “first sends us out into the magnificent chill of the imagination and then returns us to ourselves, both changed and consoled.”

Although many may have seen The Descendants, a critically praised film with George Clooney that won two Golden Globe awards (for best picture and best actor in drama), few know it was born in the English Department. Kaui Hart Hemmings, a Stegner Fellow from 2002-2004, was working on the novel while at Stanford.

Jesmyn Ward, photo credit: Adam JohnsonJesmyn Ward became the out-of-nowhere winner of the prestigious National Book Award for 2011 with Salvage the Bones, a novel about a working-class family confronting the disaster of Hurricane Katrina.

Novelist Tobias Wolff said, “One of the great pleasures of teaching in the Stegner program is seeing the manuscripts we discuss in our workshops turn into books, distinguished, remarkable books, and recognized as such by the larger world.”

“Jesmyn Ward’s recent success is but one of too many examples to list here,” said the professor of English.

Eavan Boland, one of Ireland’s leading poets and director of the Creative Writing Program, called it “a stellar year” for the English department – but cautioned that  “our entire focus has to be on the writing and not the recognition. The writing life is an end in itself – that’s what the program stands for.”

“We have many outstanding Stegners who don’t win awards and go on to be significant writers through their commitment to that life and its outcomes.”

For the award-winners, however, the recognition certainly doesn’t hurt: “I’ve done a lot of the research, but the writing needs the fellowship,” said Gigante. “I needed to have this award. The timing seems perfect.”

For Smith, now working on a memoir, the birthday bash was even bigger than she had planned. “A lot of champagne was involved,” said Smith. “It was put to good use, very quickly.”

What will Di Piero do with all the money? “Of course the first thing that came to mind a really hot, fast car.  I don’t own one, so if I’m going to buy one, I should get serious.”

“But in order to buy a car, I need a parking space, and to have a parking space, I should buy a house. And even the Lilly prize doesn’t go far enough to buy a house in San Francisco.”

W.S. Di Piero and “qualia”

Friday, January 20th, 2012

"who we are becoming"

W.S. Di Piero‘s “Only in Things” begins:

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…

Who does not weep for the world?  David Bespiel wonders how experience affects a poet’s imagination over at the Oregonian:

Di Piero says that “qualia” is at the center of human experience. Qualia? (Don’t move. I already looked it up.) A philosophical term, qualia, according the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a peer-reviewed academic resource, is pronounced kowl-ay and are the “subjective or qualitative properties of experiences. What it feels like, experientially, to see a red rose is different from what it feels like to see a yellow rose. Likewise for hearing a musical note played by a piano and hearing the same musical note played by a tuba. The qualia of these experiences are what give each of them its characteristic ‘feel’ and also what distinguish them from one another.” So these perceptions that Di Piero says “we feel in our stomachs” aren’t literal or literary. They are dynamic and nameless. And they inspire a poet’s imagination into awe and into language. The qualia “make us who we are becoming.”

He concludes, “By making artful poems and being alert to qualia, a poet learns to become aware of his or her inner life.” Read the whole thing here.

Celebrating Mark Twain, with or without Halley’s Comet

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

twainFor most famous dead people, we celebrate the anniversary of births rather than deaths, unless they’ve been assassinated or canonized.  This year, we’re making an exception for Mark Twain.

Or perhaps not:  While it’s the 100th anniversary of his death on Wednesday, this year also marks the 175th anniversary of his birth.  “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835,” he famously said in 1909.  “It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it.  It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet.  The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh, I am looking forward to that.”

In any case, at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, April 21st, Shelley Fisher Fishkin will share excerpts from The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works, which she edited for the prestigious Library of America series, at the Stanford Bookstore. (Zachary Baker will read a brief selection by Maks Erik that he translated for the book, in Yiddish and English.  Cintia Santana will read her translation of José Martí, in Spanish and English.)

The book is unexpectedly addictive, including writing from Marina Tsvetaeva, George Orwell, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, William Dean Howells, William James, Helen Keller, Ursula LeGuin, Norman Mailer, Somerset Maugham, H.L. Mencken, Barack Obama, Eugene O’Neill, Franklin Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, Lionel Trilling, Gore Vidal, Richard Wright and others.


Twain’s “Is He Dead?” at the Cinnabar Theater this month

For my money, I like Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s essay:  “The brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument it raises,” she writes.

Twain would appreciate the attention, under any terms.  Fame enough for the man who said: “I can live for two months on a good compliment.”  Twain, who called himself “the most conspicuous man on the planet,” also said: “If it can be proved that my fame reaches to Neptune and Saturn, that will satisfy me.”

This year has also seen another performance of the play that Fishkin, author or editor of 33 books about Twain, rescued from oblivion and produced on BroadwayIs He Dead? just finished a 3-week run at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater.

Another book to celebrate this year: Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travel Writings, edited by Roy Blount Jr., also from the Library of America.

Fishkin summarized the forever appeal of the journalist-turned-novelist for the Philadelphia Inquirer recently:  “He learned to tell the truth, and he learned to tell a fantastic tall tale.  Both stood him in good stead as a reporter and as an American writer.”



W.S. Di Piero

The hour-long Fishkin reading leaves plenty of time to hike to over to the Terrace Room of Margaret Jacks Hall for a 6:30 reading by poet, translator and essayist W.S. Di Piero.

According to David Kieley over at Bookslut:

“…W.S. Di Piero reads like a cop. In his charcoal suit, burgundy shirt and silver tie, he looked a lot more like his South Philadelphia roots than his current home of San Francisco. His speech was punchy and accented, his commentary sparse and to the point. A few times during the reading I closed my eyes and laughed at the ease with which I could pretend that Al Pacino was reading me a poem.

I don’t mean to rag on Di Piero; it was the sense that he felt cornered at the podium that made him seem sincere and relieved my fear of literary pretense. So let’s trust that he still is W.S. from the block, even if he’s “mixing it up” in a teaching gig at Stanford, because his book, like his persona, is all about finding the shepherd in sheep’s clothing.”

A few words from the poet himself:


“Take away whatever you want,

but deliver me to derangements

of sweet, ordered, derelict words.