C. K. Williams

After a sudden revelation at Penn, the would-be basketball player used Philadelphia as the foundation on which he built a successful career as a poet.

Photo by Tommy Leonardi

It was a homecoming of sorts. Here was C.K. Williams (C’58), the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, sipping coffee in a Starbucks on South Street, a street he remembers well from his 25 years of residence in Philadelphia.

But today’s South Street is a far cry from the funky, artsy strip he remembers. “The word ‘tawdry’ came to mind as I was walking up, which is sad,” he said.

It wasn’t the same Center City, either — all those tall skyscrapers, he said, “sort of tore the heart out of Center City.”

Williams’ poems explore the complexity of human relations and comment on society and nature with a keen eye for detail. Perhaps he will chronicle his views on the sad decline of the city in verse soon. So perhaps it’s fitting that his most recent collection, “Repair” (Farar, Straus & Giroux, 1999), won the 2000 Pulitzer for poetry.

And he probably would not have reached this pinnacle were it not for a sudden inspiration at Penn. We talked about that and other aspects of his life and work last spring, shortly before Williams gave a reading in Philadelphia at the Cornerstone Arts Center, part of Project HOME.

Q. What got you started as a poet?
I really don’t know. I just finished my last class [in his first year at Penn], which was a required class in English, and I wrote a poem, and I just really liked the feeling. And I kept going. That was the first thing I felt that I really loved to do that could be a life.

Q. What had you thought about doing with your life before then?
Well, when I was an early adolescent, horses, and as a middle adolescent, basketball and girls. I went to Bucknell my first year, and there it was basketball, basketball, basketball — and girls.
   I actually left Bucknell pretty much because I was tired of playing basketball. And in those days, when you transferred, you lost a year of eligibility, I don’t know if you still do. So when the year was over, I sort of vaguely thought of it — I even went down to the gym. And I got out on the court and I realized that this is not what I wanted to do with my life. And it was at the end of that year that I started writing.

Q. What sort of things inspire you to write?
Mostly questions and problems that I see. And then emotions, strong emotions and unusual perceptions, as many things as I can figure out.

Q. I got the impression from what I read that a lot of it is based on the things you see around you.
Yeah. Well, sometimes that’s a little deceptive, because sometimes I’ll have an idea, and then I’ll have to find the thing that embodies an idea, and so then I go to things around — you know, find ways to make that happen.

Q. What would you consider a good example of this?
In [“Repair”] there’s a poem called “Not Soul.” And the idea was about the way we’re devouring the earth, really leaving nothing and destroying it. And that was the idea, and then I found the way to talk about it.

Q. What was going on during the years you spent in Philly?
It was really a wonderful town. It hadn’t been urban-renewed to the degree it is now. It was a town that was growing sort of haphazardly. South Street, for instance, really happened because a bunch of artists moved in.
   And there was also a very interesting community of people, because if you went to New York, which I subsequently did, you usually had enough people in your field so that [they were] who you spent your time with. Here, there weren’t enough of anybody. So while I was here, I knew people from every walk of life. Two of my best friends are carpenters, one’s a psychiatrist, several painters, one worked for the city and was a social worker, so it really gave me a vision of the city, and in some sense of reality, that I’m almost grateful for. I’m more aware of things than I would have been if I had moved right into a community of writers.

Q. What led you to leave?
First I had some jobs. I went up to Lancaster — I was [teaching] at Franklin and Marshall for a semester, then I was at Irvine, Calif., then I was at Boston University, and gradually I had the feeling that I had sort of used up Philadelphia in some way. And the idea was to move to New York — I ended up living in Brooklyn. And I live half the year in Paris now.

Q. When did that start?
Well, when I met my wife in 1973, we started spending a part of each year there. Now it’s about seven months there and five months here.

Q. Is your wife French?

Q. How did you two meet?
We met at Kennedy Airport waiting for a plane. [laughs] A late plane.

Q. And you both flew to Paris together?
Yeah. By way of Amsterdam. We spent two days waiting for planes, and by the end of the two days we were good friends. And still are.

Q. And “here” is still Brooklyn?
No, Princeton.

Q. How do you like Princeton?
I really like the town. We live right in the center of town. And it’s not city, so it’s quiet — I’m getting to like being out of the city.

Q. That’s interesting, because your poems are so full of city life.
I know. [laughs] Maybe I did too much city life, and it’s time to do some nature poems or something. I’m just kidding, but it is nice to be out of the city.

Q. Are there any writers or poets who you would consider strong influences on your own work?
Oh, yeah, many, many. The last two would be George Herbert, the Renaissance poet, and Rainer Maria Rilke, a German poet, has been an influence all along. But over the last few years, it’s been mostly George Herbert. Now I’m writing about the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, and he’s very important for me right now.

Q. When you read just to put your mind at ease, what do you usually read?
You mean just to use my mind, when I’m not working? I try to read sociology and history and things like that. Anthropology I also like to read, and sometimes philosophy. And I tend to read novels. I actually wrote an essay talking about how I disapprove of the novel in many ways — the essay starts “Some of my best friends are novelists.”

Q. Has winning the Pulitzer Prize changed your life any?
Well, so far, it’s been a lot of interviews and things, [but] I don’t think it’s changed it in any central, essential way. It’s not a problem. And definitely to be recommended. [laughs]

Q. How did you find out you won?
I was in a class and my wife came. She had the secretary call me out, and she told me. I went back in and told the class. It was great fun.

Q. So has anybody come up with a camera and asked if you’re going to Disney World?
[laughs] This is poetry, after all.

On the cover: Williams reading his poems in Philadelphia at the Cornerstone Arts Center, part of Project HOME.

Above: Williams with a display of his prize-winning collection of poems at Cornerstone.

Originally published on September 14, 2000