Joe Di Prisco bet on literature and won big


WHEN HE WAS A GRADUATE STUDENT at Berkeley in the 1970s and 1980s, pursuing his doctorate. in English, Joe Di Prisco would often come out of Wheeler Hall to bet on sports games from public phones on campus. It wasn’t the only angle he was working on at the time. Di Prisco was also part of a local card counting team that hit blackjack tables from Vegas in the Caribbean to Sun City in South Africa, where his success at the tables was eventually overly noticed and he was banned. of casinos, not just in South Africa. , but back to the United States too.

Joe Di Prisco is a full-fledged and rather prolific author with 11 volumes to his credit, including fiction, poetry and two books on adolescents.

The game may not seem like a promising vocation for a young scholar in training, but Di Prisco not only survived the rigors of academia, he flourished, finishing his thesis on Mark Twain, advised by English professor Frederick. Crews (best known for The puzzled bear cub, his satirical elimination of academic pomp), while racking up a multitude of rewards. He has been a James Phelan Fellow in Art, a two-time Eisner Prize winner in Poetry and Prose, and a five-time Samuel C. Irving Prize winner for American humor and wit.

Decades later, Di Prisco quietly added to the list of literary awards associated with Cal when he led the Simpson Literary Project, a large-scale collaboration between Berkeley’s English department and the Lafayette Library and Learning Center Foundation. . Named in honor of the late Bay Area philanthropist Barclay Simpson and his wife Sharon Simpson, the project, renamed in 2021 New Literary Project, sponsors the annual Joyce Carol Oates Award, which rewards $ 50,000 in cash to writers of “emerging and still emerging” fiction.

Di Prisco is a full-fledged and rather prolific author with 11 volumes to his credit, including fiction, poetry and two co-authored books on adolescent psychology. The latter is a subject he has known well for two decades spent teaching English in middle and high schools, including seven years at the prestigious University High of San Francisco. He also wrote two memoirs, Metro for California (2014) and Brooklyn Pope (2017), who both exploit her family’s roots in Brooklyn and her father’s run-ins with the law.

In the summer of 1961, 10-year-old Joseph Di Prisco was walking on a country road near his grandparents’ farm on Long Island with his father and younger brother, John, when they saw their house ” was surrounded by black and white police. cars and other … police tanks, ”he recalls in Metro for California. “It would take me longer, a lot longer, to get a feel for what the FBI wanted with my dad and what drove us away from home.” He later learned that his father, a player and bookmaker, was a star witness and informant in a case against corrupt cops who rocked bookmakers.

Senior Di Prisco, known in his neighborhood of Greenpoint as the “Pope,” felt it was better to hit the road, rather than face the dual prospect of testifying in open court and potential retaliation from the crowd. Rather than surrender to authorities, he took off across the country, landing 3,000 miles at Berkeley.

Growing up, Di Prisco attended parish schools. After graduating from Saint Mary’s College High School, he did a novitiate at the Christian Brothers Monastery in Napa Valley. “It wasn’t a good fit,” Di Prisco said of his short-lived vocation. “One day the abbot called me and said, ‘Brother Joseph, you are making too many jokes.’ “

From the monastery he went to Syracuse University in 1969, where he mixed activism with literary aspirations, managing to graduate summa cum laude despite an incident in which he and other protesters seized the school administration office. His mentor in Syracuse, the renowned essayist and alumnus of Cal George P. Elliott ’39, MA ’41, wrote a commendation for him at his alma mater. “He wrote me a really nice letter of recommendation, a two-line recommendation… they were pretty good,” says Di Prisco.

It probably didn’t hurt that Elliott also said a nice word for his protégé with poet and Cal faculty member Josephine Miles, one of the leading figures in the English department.

Di Prisco was accepted to Berkeley in 1973. Despite the aforementioned awards, the path to his doctorate has been a struggle. He still vividly remembers the hostility he braved from a professor on his oral examination board. He insisted on resuming the oral exams immediately and was successful, graduating from the program in 1986.

Di Prisco first met Sharon Simpson at a dinner party in the early ’90s hosted by their mutual friend Katharine Michaels and her late husband, acclaimed novelist and Berkeley professor Leonard Michaels. “We were invited, along with Joe and Patti, for dinner… and we fell in love with each other and we hit it off right away,” Simpson said. “I was on the [California Shakespeare Theatre] board… so I approached him a few months later and said, “Joe, would you be interested in being on our board? “… He said” yes “and we were delighted. “

“The success of the Simpson Literary Project and the Joyce Carol Oates Prize is in large part due to Joe’s ability to take people for who they are and bring out the best in themselves.

Di Prisco, in turn, approached Simpson with the idea of ​​the literary project. He knew her husband Barclay’s love for books and library support and wanted to do it in her honor, Simpson recalls. “In a way, I didn’t know what to say… I told him straight away that I would not contribute, that I already had so many irons in the fire and commitments that I had made to others. organizations, ”she said. “And he said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, that’s okay.’ So, of course, all these years later, I’m involved – and yes, I give them some money.

She is amused by Di Prisco’s unconventional background and appreciates his larger-than-life character, adding that Joe and his glamorous wife Patti have made a beautiful figure (“like something from the 40s”) even in mundane moments. like driving to Joe’s prestigious Maserati grocery store. She was also impressed with her success in recruiting legendary author Joyce Carol Oates, visiting professor at Cal from her regular duties at Princeton.

“Berkeley was an alternate reality for me,” Oates recalls via email, adding that Di Prisco made her feel welcome in her “somewhat ‘borrowed’ background.” The two grew closer after team-teaching a memory class together at the Lafayette Library in the spring of 2019. “It seemed a bit, to my husband Charlie Gross, to be a transplanted Brooklyn-ite, which was welcome. (We weren’t aware at the time of our first meeting that Joe’s family history could have been filmed by Martin Scorsese in the fashion of Goodfellas…). “

Oates is excited about the Simpson Foundation’s deep and “somewhat unusual” commitment to mid-career writers. “Helping ’emerging’ writers is at least as crucial as helping new writers, of course. In some cases, the “emerging” writer may face more difficulties than the beginning writer. “

In 2017, the first winner of the Joyce Carol Oates Award — originally called the Simpson Literary Award — was former student of Cal T. Geronimo Johnson, whose exuberant novel Welcome to Braggsville was greeted in the New York Times as “the funniest send off of identity politics, academy and white racial anxiety to come into the picture in years.”

“Joe tackles big issues – life, death, family, God – from all angles: through poetry, comedy, memoir, novels and even non-fiction works that explore the emotions of adolescents. . “

Johnson, who taught writing at Stanford and Cal, where he gave the English Department’s keynote address in 2017, described Di Prisco in an email as “one of the general ambassadors of Literature “. He added, “Joe is an excellent poet and prose writer, but also a hell of a poker player and a man of the people. I realize that’s a slippery term at the moment, but it’s Joe’s most admirable quality; he straddles the academy and the real world, engages people on both camps with equal enthusiasm, and treats everyone with the same respect. Much of the success of the Simpson Literary Project and the Joyce Carol Oates Prize is due to Joe’s ability to take people for who they are and make themselves the best of themselves.

The following winners include Anthony Marra in 2018, Laila Lalami in 2019, Daniel Mason in 2020 and Danielle Evans in 2021. According to the award announcement, Evans, author of the collection of stories The Historical Corrections Office and Before smothering your own fool, will be completing a short-term residency at Berkeley during the spring semester of 2022.

The new literary project is not limited to the price. Other efforts include the Simpsons an anthology of stories featuring works by Oates Prize winners and finalists and writing workshops at libraries and schools, including Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall. And Di Prisco recently produced a filmed performance titled “Shakespeare & the plague. “As The Norton Shakespeare editor, Professor Stephen Greenblatt – formerly of Berkeley, now at Harvard – reminds viewers in the introduction to the mash-up, the bard “has lived his whole life in the shadow of the plague.”

These projects did not prevent Di Prisco from pursuing his own literary efforts and ambitions, which are noble. As his longtime editor and Cal alum colleague Regan McMahon puts it: “Joe tackles big issues – life, death, family, God – from every angle: through poetry, comedy, memoir. , novels and even non-fiction works that explore the emotions of adolescents. McMahon said she wouldn’t be surprised if Di Prisco had a lot more manuscripts than he hasn’t had time to show her yet in his office at his Lafayette home.

In fact, Di Prisco recently turned to a relatively new form for him: the new one. “When the pandemic hit, I [was]bewildered like everyone else, ”he recalls. “And I looked at some of my recent poems and I said, ‘These are stories. »… Writing a novel is like opening a business. A poem is like shoplifting. The news, he says, gave him “a new lease on life as a writer” and served as a coping mechanism for the barrage of what we were faced with.

Despite the many challenges of 2020, Di Prisco maintains a vision of the future full of hope, and for literature. In a year-end message, Di Prisco wrote to supporters of the project, acknowledging that the pandemic had hit the project and the community at large hard. But, he insisted, “we are not giving up. We have a story to tell, and it’s your story, and our story. Storytellers forge a literate and democratic society, and this is a truth worth fighting for.

Paul Wilner is a longtime journalist, poet and critic who lives in Monterey County. He is the former editor-in-chief of San Francisco Examiner’s Magazine, Chronicle of San Francisco style section and editor of the Hollywood reporter.


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