Celebrate the Life and Work of Paul Violi by Andrew McCarron (part 5)
PART ONE: VITA
Yesterday also has its leaves, newspapers
blown down the bare avenues
and streets of yet another city
entering the wide morning behind you, surprising
you that this light, often unnoticeable breeze
which constantly blows in your face,
which carries sights through your eyes
like leaves through air,
can move these cities farther away
than islands driven by an ocean stream…
—from “Harmatan” (1976)
Paul Randolph Violi was born on July 20, 1944, in New York City. The Violi family soon moved to Greenlawn, Long Island, shortly after the Allies defeated Japan. Paul was the middle child, with an older brother and younger sister, with whom he kept in regular touch. His mother and father were born into first-generation Italian immigrant households in Brooklyn. They met young, around the age of ten, and a family legend has it that Paul’s father ingratiated himself by throwing either a snowball or tomato at his bride-to-be and hitting her on the caboose. His father came from a family of fifteen that valued the arts, in addition to pasta dinners with lots of talking and red wine. One uncle was a prodigy on the piano and another received a Master’s in comparative literature from Columbia University. Opera and jazz, notably Caruso and Ella Fitzgerald, were frequently played on the phonograph at night and on Sundays.
On the rural North Shore of Long Island, Mr. Violi co-owned and managed Russwood Drugs and, in time, two other drugstores. Paul and his siblings were put to work at the age of ten, stocking shelves and helping with inventory, and later working behind the lunch counter. Paul describes his father as supportive, loving, determined, sensible, genial, and easy-going. He never really got mad, rarely consumed alcohol, and—aside from one memory of his having said “There’s the son of a bitch!” in response to seeing his former captain in the Navy appear on one of Edward R. Murrow’s televised interviews—Paul can’t remember his father ever cursing. A World War II navy veteran stationed in the South Pacific, he was quiet about his war experiences until his seventies when he started opening up more. Paul gained a sense of who his father was as a young man when he read his wartimes dairies after his death in 1995. He learned, for example, that his father had taken a long train trip to see the western United States after being drafted at the age of twenty-four. He also read about his father’s experiences on a PC 173-foot submarine chaser amid the threat of typhoons and “suicide bombers,” and the intensity of seeing Tokyo in ruins after the incendiary bombings ordered under the command of Colonel Curtis Lemay, aka “bombs away Lemay.”
Paul characterizes his mother, who was suffering from dementia during the time of our interviews, as supportive, though nervous. She was “a pretty feisty lady,” he explained, “with two sisters with whom she was very close. She was full of vitality, very loving, and determined.” Both parents were encouraging of his early interest in poetry and made sure to supply him with anthologies of verse, which he read with great interest from his early teens on. They also placed a good deal of emphasis on education by sending their eldest son, Peter, and then the following year, Paul himself, to The Stony Brook School, an Episcopal day and boarding school located in Stony Brook, not far from Huntington. Paul describes its “preppy” demographics as comprising 200 students, including “two Catholics, one Jew, two blacks, and one girl.” Morning chapel was mandatory and the boys were required to wear gray slacks, a blazer, and a blue and white striped tie.
After his sophomore year, Paul felt bored and intellectually restless and no longer wanted to attend Stony Brook. At the time, a cousin was going to an all-boys Catholic school in Mount Vernon run by Marist Brothers called Mount Saint Michael’s. His cousin liked it there, so a decision was made to enroll Paul as well. So he attended for his junior and senior years, boarding during the week and taking the train home to Greenlawn on weekends, where he enjoyed “hunting, trapping, and having fun.” Paul describes himself as having been “very wild” during high school but in a way that generally avoided parental detection. Part of this had to do with the fact that Mount Saint Michael’s was closed for saints’ days, which meant that Paul was free to roam around the city with friends on days and nights when his parents thought he was in school. “My father wasn’t religious and my mother went to church on Sundays,” adding with smile, “not every day some saint was being celebrated.”
When I asked him to recount a memorable episode from his days at Mount Saint Michael’s, Paul told of being smashed across the face by a brother and history teacher named Brother Charles Patrick after a morning assembly to first day of class. Brother Patrick asked Paul to stay behind as the other boys filed out for class. Paul remembers sitting as Brother Patrick made his way up the bleachers—and then cracked him across the face with an open hand on the grounds that he was talking during the assembly. Humiliated and stinging with pain, Paul spent a moment deciding whether or not he should shove the man backward down the steep bleachers to the gym floor. Instead he took his punishment quietly, though vowed that he would wait for the right moment to retaliate. An opportunity arose at the annual student/faculty football game a few weeks later. “I tried to hit him every play,” Paul explained. “And eventually I put him out of the game. He couldn’t raise his arms.”
Paul loved sports, whether football, wrestling, baseball or track and field (shot-put, discus and javelin). He also did a fair amount of dating from an early age. Anne, however, was his first love and vividly recalled seeing her for the first time. He was in a boat with friends in Northport Harbor on the North Shore and watched as a pretty young girl swam from the shore to the boat and surfaced in a bikini. Her face appeared through the water next to the boat and he remembers thinking that she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Ann was from nearby Centerport, New York. He had a number of girlfriends through his teenage years, but there was something special about Ann, something he had a hard time forgetting when they were separated. Like Dante’s Beatrice or Petrarch’s Laura, she is the muse in many of Paul’s poems, especially ones written during his twenties and thirties. Take the opening lines of an erotic poem, “Centerport, N.Y.”, from Automatic Transmissions (1970), which was the first pamphlet that he ever published:
her clothes slid off
with the ease that makes smoke rise
and we waded in gradually
two thoughts entering a consciousness
dove and came up
and laughing as the water laughed
against her belly.*
COLLEGE, PEACE CORPS, AND JOURNEY EAST
We are undertaking a voyage
to an ancient island
separated from the continent
by more than water and dialect,
boasting on its own heritage
and rules of governance.
—from “Brochure” (1981)
Paul studied English and Art History at Boston University from 1962 to 1966. He was not always a serious student and read what he wanted to read. Some of the coursework, however, interested him quite a bit. In particular, he recalled influential upper-level genre classes: one on satire, one on Renaissance Literature, and another on Wordsworth and Coleridge. The great satirists—mainly Pope, Swift, Dryden, Voltaire, Rabelais, Byron—played a hugely formative role in his literary sensibilities, in addition to the Romantic and Victorian poets and contemporary novelists like Amis, Donleavey, and Heller. When he wasn’t reading books, a good deal of his time was spent exploring Boston, hanging out with his friends and dating a series of women. Boston’s Back Bay “was a great place to be single and to have your own apartment,” he said with a suggestive grin.
When it came to meeting other poets he had far less success. “The poets whom I met there, who were deliberately making themselves known as poets, I didn’t like much. They struck me as pretentious. And also, at that time I was writing stuff that… well… it was good that I didn’t publish it. It was dull actually.” Much of Paul’s early work was influenced by the imagist poetry of Ezra Pound, which derived its technique from that poet’s idiosyncratic reading of classical Chinese and Japanese poetry that stressed precision, clarity, and economy of language, while forgoing conventional rhyme and meter. Paul’s next poetic stage (after graduating college) involved writing cryptic symbolist poems that were largely inaccessible to anyone but himself. Paul purposefully destroyed virtually all of this work in late ’67—either thrown away or willfully lost. This was the same year that he moved back to New York. After college, he spent a little less than a year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria and then an additional year travelling across Europe and Asia until he reached Nepal.
The Peace Corps required that after graduation he go to California for training, immediately followed by seven months as a surveyor and mapmaker in Nigeria (from December 1966 until June 1967). Shortly after landing in Lagos, a number of his fellow volunteers, when they encountered the heavy humidity and saw that the walls in the airport were riddled with bullet holes, literally turned around and went home. Paul, on the other hand, had no desire to return—he was seeking adventure, much as he had as a child and much as he would continue to do through his life. In the six months that followed, he completed maps and surveyed land for the Nigerian government; camped and hiked; rode motorbikes into remote villages that seldom encountered white people; was attacked by various wildlife; dealt with dengue fever and dysentery; and encountered tribes on the brink of a bloody civil war. Seven years later, in 1976, he published a book-length poem in forty-nine sections that chronicled his Nigerian experiences. Called Harmatan, the book is Paul’s most transparently autobiographical. A period review characterized it as “accomplished as most of Violi’s work, but contains little of the language distortions, tv-generation wit, or structural fireworks of his other poems. It is instead an almost prosy, straightforward series of impressions: the impressions of a poet distanced from events in order to report them as objectively as possible.”
The narrative voice in Harmatan is set in the second person singular. When I asked about this decision, Paul said: “I was talking to a different person in a different place, and given the abrupt transitions of the time, both seemed remote. It’s a poem about memory, and each section is organized around a different place and the rest of the section clusters around it. To resort to a trite metaphor, it was like putting down a bunch of metal filings on a piece of paper and then placing a magnet underneath and then they all shoot together and form a dramatic, imagistic pattern. So, each one of those sections is just what popped up, coalesced, fell into place. I would remember a place and then other memories would cluster around that place. I wanted a poem based on plain language and direct observation.” Section five, for instance, begins with the line “Kaduna’s tin roofs glistening in the afternoon.” This line is immediately followed by an associated memory-cluster:
Peanut sacks piled into hundred-foot pyramids.
Groups of lepers and beggars
converging on customers outside of stores.
Streets thick with exhaust fumes.
Khandee’s heavy breasts.
Cock-eyed and hipless. Flowery skirt.
Keeping mosquitoes off you all night.
Sweet, stoned, perpetually drowsy.
Black leg next to a white leg in candle light.
Tongue leading a cool breeze over your skin.
Many of the sections contain funny vignettes and images:
Another invitation from the emir
to come over for a few beers
at ten in the morning.
Free sales demonstration.
Made it himself out of spare parts.
the length of a sawn-off shotgun.
How can he tell how much powder
to use when he’s pouring it in the dark?
But just as quickly, the images gather into a darker human portrait of superstition, prostitution, extreme poverty, the effects of malnutrition on children, and the haunting aftermath of tribal warfare:
Staved-in doors. Ransacked rooms.
And on the other end of Kano, right outside
the old city’s wall’s eroded embrasures:
mass, unmarked graves
and past them, more fields, mud compounds,
bundles of firewood, children with bad teeth…
As is characteristic of much of Paul’s work, a redemptive premium is placed on the absurd and strange, neither of which was lacking for a young American who hadn’t traveled beyond the United States:
An oven made by packing mud
around discarded fuel drums.
A tongue for breakfast.
Unsliced, lying in the tin bowl
as if it had just pronounced its last syllable.
Also in the montage are moments of arresting beauty and wisdom:
Fine dust above the goat paths
suspended in the sunlight
then drifting upward
as if the ground were raining on the sky.
A cloud looks snagged on a tree.
Spring water flows off like excess clarity.
In the village, the women never stop
to take a breath, but sing
with the ease of a stream,
of the earth ceaselessly emptying itself.
Feeling the buildup to a civil war, later known as the Nigerian-Biafran War, Paul hastily abandoned his Peace Corps assignment and attempted to cross the Sahara but was denied entrance into Algeria. So he made his way, alone, to Côte d’Ivoire where he met a young woman with whom he travelled to Paris. After a brief romance, she continued on to Ireland to visit friends, and he to Italy. Paul described his progress eastward as follows: “Then I thought I would go to Greece. It wasn’t so far away. And then I figured I’d go to Turkey, and once in Turkey I thought Iran is just down the road, so I went to Iran… and that’s how I ended up in Nepal eventually… I think of it all as an accumulative blur. But it was a lot of fun; it was very interesting; being an American at that time was a blessing because it was such an admired country throughout the world, despite the escalating war in Vietnam.”
In a twist of fate, Ann, who was also in the Peace Corps, happened to be in Turkey while Paul was travelling through the country. But he didn’t learn she was there until after his return. A poem in his book Splurge (1982) called “Anatolia” reflects upon the Turkish winter with a consciousness of her presence:
Snow falling on the desert, snow falling on the sea, wake
up in between, wind filtered through bullet-ridden stop
signs, taste the cold spoon of dawn, the crazy birds are jump-
ing in their nests, your hair is my black moon, your lips touch
my ears, breathe the sound of beautiful new cars speeding
past me as I drive through Turkey again, only this time I
know you’re there too, though don’t know exactly where…
Other poems contain images from his journey east. Examples include “Scrounge” in In Baltic Circles (1973), about India, and also a moment in the long poem “Wet Bread and Roasted Pearls” that recalls a striking visual memory from his time in Mumbai:
where one afternoon, leaving
that city on a slow, quiet train,
above flooded fields,
no land in sight,
I could see nothing
but sky mirrored in water
and the tremendous sun drawing
its hour-long reflection
across horizonless blue.
When I asked if his year travelling was the highlight of his life, he grinned and then said that it was the highlight of that time in his life but that there have been many since.
RETURN TO AMERICA
Before Americans’ color preference
For most major appliances
Changes from Avocado to Harvest Gold,
You will have learned to seek harmony and trust.
—from “Dry Spells” (1982)
Paul recalls feeling let down upon returning to the United States. Much of this had to do with where the country was in regard to Vietnam in 1967; also, he felt a growing disenchantment with what was called “the consumer society” or “conspicuous consumption” at the expense of American values. His return was colored by an acute awareness of social injustice: “…I went from places where sick and starving children were ubiquitous and then came back to America and worked on a cruise ship and the contrast gave me whiplash. Also, I was very politically involved at the time in response to what was going on in the world. I mean LBJ and Vietnam—and I thought the war was all a total sham—no justification as to why I should kill Vietnamese. It didn’t make any sense to me. I’m not sure it was as transparently a sham as the Iraq War, but I felt just as strongly. Congress didn’t declare this war, and it violated every sense I had of politics and the American Constitution.”
Although he attended antiwar demonstrations, his experience of becoming politically active was mixed at best. While he opposed American foreign policy, he was simultaneously critical of “the radical left,” which, in his words, “[tried] to manipulate legitimate protest to a more extreme action, or an extreme end, which is just to blast the whole thing apart… and I resented seeing the way they tried to do that… They took a Constitutional right to speak up and took it to a place that reminded me of the Bolshevik provocateurs…”
Luckily he was never drafted and recounted his elation upon being declared 4F at his draft board interview in the early summer of ‘68. Going into the interview was jarring because he had been working as a clam digger on Long Island: He was tan and in good condition physically, just the kind of specimen that the army was looking to send to the frontlines. He changed into a button-down shirt on the way to the interview and buttoned it to the wrists and neck. Furthermore, he devised a strategy of showing a lack of interest in anything political. He figured that the government was looking for any attitude that was strongly held, the psychology being that someone who vehemently opposed the war could as easily channel that intensity into killing Vietnamese. In addition to his apathy, having contracted Dengue fever and an extreme case of dysentery while abroad, and a purposefully low score on the intelligence test, disqualified him from the draft. Upon hearing the verdict of 4F, he left the federal office building and did a series of cartwheels in the parking lot before climbing into his girlfriend’s Mustang convertible and speeding away into a beautiful summer afternoon.
Others of course were not so lucky. Two friends from Boston University were drafted and came back psychologically damaged, drug addicted, and/or alcoholic. One of the two wrote Paul and Ann regular letters, which were incoherent and at times painful to read. Although the PTSD was overwhelming, Paul pointed out that his friend’s sense of humor hadn’t been entirely destroyed. Decades later, the friend came upon a Holiday Inn “Tudor Room” restaurant that was being demolished and took several large portraits of sixteenth century aristocrats. He then proceeded to send three of the portraits, 2×3 feet in size, to Paul and Ann as postcards by writing their address on the back and placing several hundred stamps at the top right corner.
It amazed Paul that some returned from Vietnam relatively unscarred, whereas others were reduced to lives of pathos and dysfunction. Paul discussed the second of the two veteran friends in an interview he did that was published in Pataphysics magazine in the nineties. In it, he recounts attending a David Letterman taping when the friend came to New York City for a visit:
I was with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, and I was dismayed by the way he looked. He was still a young man but Vietnam and booze had turned him into a frail, trembling old man who had to use a cane. He had tickets to the show, and I thought that was an odd thing to do. He had a pal with him, a big guy who was on crutches, and they had been drinking quite a bit. When we entered the studio the perky minions who seat the audience took one look at us and panicked. We didn’t fit their demographic. They didn’t want us anywhere near a camera angle. I think we were wearing black raincoats. I naturally insisted that we sit in the front row; they wanted us in the back row. We compromised and they seated us in the second-to-last row—in a corner! [Laughter]
MARRIAGE AND NEW YORK CITY
And I like the sweet, weary feeling
of going sleepless, aimless through city streets,
have the action and ebullient tones
carry me like the first wave-borne beer can
to near a pristine shore…
—from “One for the Monk of Montaudon” (1981)
After working as a clam digger and being declared 4F, Paul moved to Manhattan and reconnected with Ann. The two were married on June 29, 1969 and lived for a while in an affordable apartment Paul found on the Lower East Side. Wanting to make inroads into the downtown poetry scene, Paul began spending time around Saint Mark’s. As mentioned, The Project offered Monday and Wednesday readings, much as today, and poetry workshops on other days, several of which Paul took. Although the majority of his classmates were ambivalent about the material he was writing (not to mention its sheer quantity), he felt encouraged by his workshop leaders. Tony Towle, who Paul thought was the most talented poet around the place, ran the most valuable workshop of all. His initial impression of Tony was of a man who knew art, music, and literature inside and out and who was very much involved with contemporary New York poets and artists.
Tony was magnanimous in the attention he gave to Paul’s work and willing to share his connections, getting Paul and Charles (North), who was also in the workshop, invited to a number of literary gatherings. “It seemed like the three of us were just naturally compatible friends, in terms of humor, our take on poetry,” he explained. “We became friends very quickly. There were a lot of after reading and after workshop get-togethers at bars. We were interested in literature—you know not just the poetry scene. And our humor—our senses of humor complemented one another’s. We had a lot of fun and I also learned a great deal from them.”
Paul found himself writing more than ever, and publishing too, although with a “mindless prolixity” he’d later regret. Some of this work found its way into his first pamphlet, Automatic Transmissions, which came out in 1970. It was a work that he’d express ambivalence toward later on. I emailed Paul to ask why it wasn’t listed on his author website, to which he responded:
Good question about Automatic Transmissions: good in the sense that I never clearly decided why I left it out, just knew I didn’t want to include it for a number of reasons and had and still have mixed feelings about it: (A) I felt that some or all of it had been subsumed by the later book, In Baltic Circles, therefore making it superfluous. (B) I had outgrown it, didn’t care much for it, and pretended it never happened. (C) I disliked the cover and still do. (D) Pamphlets are supposed to be ephemeral, except the ones I still like and have elevated them to the rank of book. (E) Sometimes I read it and think I should list it.
The pamphlet was published by a small press Paul co-founded called Swollen Magpie Press, after a line from Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos in which the poet refers to himself as “a swollen magpie in a fitful sun.” At the time of its publication, Paul and Ann were spending the summer in New Hampshire where Paul was working a construction job. In the evenings they would hang out with a group of young men and women in the area, one of whom was an artist and volunteered to do the cover. Paul agreed without ever seeing a sample of the guy’s work. The cover consists of a rather unconnected grouping of black line drawings, including the hood of a car, an old woman’s face, a young seductive girl kneeling, and a small classical looking building behind a well-dressed man.
Regardless of how the cover looked, there was hardly any time to worry about it. Things were happening, and there was a great deal of excitement in the air. New York life was a whirlwind of aesthetic energy and social happenings, the nexus of which was Saint Mark’s Church and the Poetry Project housed there, where he taught workshops and was briefly interim director, as well as serving for years on the Advisory Board. The Poetry Project of that day was full of colorful personalities and lots of interesting, albeit erratically organized, workshops and reading series. Paul met lots of new people and packed his days with readings, art shows, and get-togethers. He enjoyed long nights of socializing with other poets and artists affiliated with the downtown scene. He was introduced to the paintings of Rivers, Oldenburg, Dine, and later Grooms, all of whom he felt were able to create beautiful things “in quite original ways.”
Also influential was a postmodern architectural turn that came about in urban centers in the late-’60s and early-’70s, namely the work of Robert Venturi. Architecture caused Paul to think and feel in ways that began to affect his writing. He put it like this in a conversation with me: “What appealed to me was the freedom, the openness, the allusive playfulness with which they drew on the past to counteract the cold and brutal severity—you know—all that concrete and [those] sharp angles. What mattered was not a clean wholesale break with the past, but a continuing homage to or conversation with [the] poetry I loved.” He began writing a lot of new work and various people in the New York City art world began to notice. On May 11, 1972, out of the blue, Paul received a letter from someone named Lita Hornick. Lita was the head of The Kulchur Foundation and publisher of Kulchur Books. She and her husband, Morty, were wealthy art collectors and patrons who had a spacious Park Avenue apartment which they opened up each year for a legendary poets’ and painters’ party. The letter read, “Dear Mr. Violi: I have seen some of your work, and am interested in possibly publishing a book of yours some time. If you are interested, please contact me at the above address. Sincerely yours, Lita Hornick.” He contacted Lita and soon after she published In Baltic Circles, his first full collection.
Lita liked Paul immensely and in the late-’70s and early-’80s ended up asking him to run a reading series at MoMA. She and Morty also invited Paul and Ann over to their weekend house in Rockland County and to their city apartment for dinner parties, where they met many well-known art world “players”. Paul reminisced about Lita’s generosity with warmth and affection. After she became infirm–and Morty had died of a heart attack—he kept an eye on her and every so often would escort her to dinner. “I liked them a lot,” he explained. “It was the least I could do when she started to decline.”
FATHERHOOD AND LIFE UPRIVER
Here—Welcome to Putnam Valley
—and luster there,
Where pollen so fine it drifted
Through the screen, enaureoled
The cherry wood windowsill.
—from “Envoy” (2005)
In 1972 Paul and Ann were living 60 miles north of the city in Beacon, New York, where Ann headed an English-as-a-second-language program. While in Beacon, their first child, Helen, was born. After a less than enjoyable spell working as a regular substitute teacher, Paul was commuting each day to Manhattan where he found a job working for a fledgling newspaper, The Herald. Even though he lived upstate, he continued spending many of his non-working hours downtown socializing and partying with the poets and artists he befriended around Saint Mark’s. Since he was on the Metro-North commuter train for hours a day, he used the time to write. Some of In Baltic Circles and his next book Splurge (1982) were written while commuting. The poem “Boredom” in In Baltic Circles, based on a fire he saw through the train window one evening, is about the endless hours shuttling between the Hudson Valley and Manhattan.
After two years working at The Herald, Paul landed a good job as the managing editor of Architectural Forum. With a master’s in special education, Ann found a job teaching at-risk children in Westchester, so they relocated to Briarcliff Manor, where they rented a small cottage on a large picturesque estate. In 1977, they bought a house in Putnam Valley, several miles north of Peekskill. Shortly thereafter their son, Alexander, was born, though with serious congenital health problems, which caused a stressful few years and near-constant worry. When I asked Paul (via email) to describe the house in which he and Ann raised their two children, he responded in the voice and form of a Pennysaver real estate advertisement. Those familiar with his poetic oeuvre will attest that this is classic Violi, taking an innocent textual form and poetizing it:
As a real estate ad in the Pennysaver might generously say: 2-3 story cedar shake, 3-bedrooms, spiral stair to guest room below, laundry room, office, living room, tile-floor dining area, 2 skylights, fully equipped kitch, 1 1/2 bath, fireplace, slate-floor screen porch, backyard patio.
Chipmunk condos, i.e. stonewalls, dry or masonry, terrace the ledge the house sits on and cross the sloping “lawn” (mostly weeds and ground cover: myrtle and pachysandra). The house and small piece of property are almost completely shaded by a canopy of (90’+?) oaks from which crows torment the occupants and squirrels scramble. Split logs are usually stacked in sloppy cords next to a small vegetable garden that defies the shade. An 8×8 tool shed, once a children’s playhouse, is slowly falling apart at the seams.
In the poem “At The Cottage of Messer Violi,” (1998) Paul humorously described his Putman Valley home in more detail. The first few stanzas read:
The mailbox, painted dark blue,
sits atop a tilted cedar post.
It has a little red flag to one side
and it is altogether remarkable.
The Toyota in the driveway
is very old and is said
to have come from Japan.
There is in the hallway
An immense dogfood bowl.
It is made of iridescent pink plastic.
It is, as I have said, immense
and it is hideous.
In the kitchenette is a statuette
of Ceres, Goddess of Wheaties.
The dishwasher is a Kenmore
and altogether worthy of praise.
I asked if buying a house in Putnam County and having two small mouths to feed hampered his social and aesthetic—poetic—life. Paul explained that having a family was inspiring and fulfilling and that he just went out there and did what he needed to do. He vehemently rejected W.B. Yeats’ dichotomy between the life and the work, insisting that the two actively feed one another. “Energy is energy, and experience generates experience, and if you’re writing you’re writing,” he explained. “I wanted it all. It wasn’t a dichotomy. I wanted a family; I wanted children; I wanted a job; and I wanted to write. That Yeatsian perfection of a life or perfection of an art—I don’t buy it and I don’t think he did either. You learn a great deal about life by having a family, profoundly so.”
Becoming a father marked a new beginning—and a pleasant one at that. Paul expressed great pride in his two children, who live remarkably different lives. At the time of our interviews, Helen, who has a Ph.D. in botany and lives with her husband in Florida, was doing scientific fieldwork in the Everglades. Alexander, unmarried, was a musician, sound engineer, actor, stage manager, personal trainer, and occasionally a model (having had some success in Japan). He was easily recognizable at Paul’s readings, consistently being the only person in the crowd with conspicuous tattoos, a dyed Mohawk, and facial piercings. Paul reminisced about how witty his son was when he was little. For example, at the age of three Alex was standing on a dock looking at fish through the water and referred to them as “wobbly boys.” “Look at those wobbly boys,” he said with a smile. Paul later used the image in a poem.
Helen and Alexander appear in Paul’s poetry—usually in anecdotes that convey his abiding love of fatherhood. The poem “Little Testament,” written shortly after Paul’s fortieth birthday and modeled on a mock testament written by the fifteenth-century French poet François Villon, includes a few of these touching anecdotes:
Item: To my son, Alexander,
I bequeath with love and admiration
The Arc de Triomphe.
And here’s why:
the golden attitude you displayed
in the first moments of your life,
he magnificent arc you made
when the doctor
held you aloft in the cold air
and you twisted and turned,
in the delivery room
as you pissed all over us.
Helen is mentioned shortly after:
Item: To my daughter, Helen,
I leave a prime Elysian lot,
you rode into
late one afternoon
and let your horse wade at will,
stir up wildflower
in the purpling blue,
so that the silver seed
hovered far around you,
made you smile
amid innumerable smiles
and raised in a casual swarm
years of waves and glinting wings.
POETIC TURNING POINT
We, the naturally hopeful,
Need a simple sign
For the myriad ways we’re capsized.
We who love precise language
Need a finer way to convey
Disappointment and perplexity.
—from “Appeal to the Grammarians” (2007)
Paul’s second collection of poems, Splurge, was published in 1982 by Bill Zavatsky at Sun Press and was seen by Paul as a poetic turning point—or at the very least a more realized version of what he began in In Baltic Circles. He wrote the following to me in an email about the book: “I used to think Splurge was a big change, but now I’m not so sure. Flipping through In Baltic Circles I see poems in various forms and characters: excerpts from imaginary magazines, calendars, diaries, blurbs, mock travelogues, realistic narratives, surreal travelogues and narratives, magazine galleys, reportage, anecdotal pieces, take-offs on famous poems, distorted sonnets, mock tanka and haiku, gratuitous jokes. All seem to be continued—to better effect, I like to think—in Splurge and later books. One thing that fortunately fell away was the misty, mushy obscurity.”
The first poem in the collection, “One for the Monk of Montaudon,” was inspired by translations of troubadour poets. Paul came across a collection of songs about likes and dislikes written by a monk from Montaudon. The collection enthralled him. As he explained it: “I thought I could write a long lyrical poem using that concept of a list, a catalogue really, but make it move like a celebratory ode… So, I included things I didn’t like in addition to things I did like; and what got me going was writing about things I didn’t like… like Mormon Architecture… as if I did… and that got me rolling.” The poem reflects a deep appreciation for the incidental moments that fill up life, elevating the quotidian to something magical:
And the sight of a cat, undisturbed,
curled in the sunlight, pleases me;
or ketchup smears on table mats
of Venezuela and its hideous flowers;
or the sight of boys splattering peaches
against an ancient stone wall.
I just like to sit back and take it all in,
watch the sea and sky move together
like memory and imagination,
move me out of a dripping indolence
to a dripping cathedral, like Chartres,
(“walls of glass, roof of stone”)
where I can stand outside, see
whatever a summer sky can do, doing it all at once…
Although Splurge was met with positive reviews—even getting a spot of national attention with a laudatory review by David Lehman in Newsday that characterized Paul as “one of the most inventive poets around”—the ’80s found him scrambling around for employment. For starters, Architectural Forum folded in 1974. A series of deflating jobs working for various commercial or trade magazines left Paul with a displeasing taste in his mouth. Most notable was the period he spent working for a magazine called Merchandizing Weekly. Though the job came with the perk of flying around the country, it required him to write about “fucking washing machines sales.”
Paul began looking around for work as a teacher. Earlier, a few of his students at The Poetry Project who were college professors had encouraged him to consider teaching. And so he began using his contacts to find jobs. Like many college adjuncts, he began piecing together as many classes and workshops as he could, beginning with a job teaching at Bloomfield College in New Jersey, followed by workshops for Poets & Writers, Poets-in-the-Schools, and classes at Scarsdale Teacher’s Institute, SUNY Purchase, Empire State College, Mercy College, Pace University, Dalton School, Sing-Sing Prison, Stevens Institute, and New York University. The experience of as many as nine classes dispersed across multiple campuses (several in different states) was draining physically. He very much enjoyed the teaching despite the logistical absurdity of it all. Besides, if he felt tired, cigarettes and coffee helped do the trick. Not temperamentally suited for corporate business, Paul felt that writing poetry and teaching pulled things together, giving his life a fullness and integrity where previous occupations fell short. He also liked the ever-changing schedule, which abated his dread of routine.
AFFILIATION WITH KENNETH KOCH
Some people have done you great favors.
—from “Dry Spells” (1981)
Paul met Kenneth Koch through Tony in the early ’70s but didn’t get to know him well until the early ’90s. In 1993, Paul was asked by friends in England to curate an exhibit for a museum in Ipswich.** The idea came to him to feature Kenneth’s collaborations with painters. He phoned Kenneth and was pleased by his enthusiastic response. The two ended up traveling to Ipswich together and then, after the opening, arranged two weeks of readings around England, which was great fun for both. At one point they were driving north with their British hosts and Kenneth decided that to pass the time they would play a game Kenneth invented (extemporaneously) called “Merit.” The game was a parody of Sunday morning talk shows, which meant that when it was your turn to speak you had to be dull and uninteresting. The job of the others was to ask you a question to which you gave a response that would then be evaluated according to whether it had some merit; certain merit; or it had merit (and the duller it was the higher the rating). Paul was sitting in the backseat and was rather hung-over because they’d been drinking late the night before—even managing to get themselves kicked out of a pub. It was Kenneth’s turn to ask Paul a question:
And he had asked me this question about teaching and I gave him this answer and he turns around from the front seat and stares at me for about five seconds and he says, “You’re really a teacher aren’t you?” And I had just given this answer showing complete jadedness about grading papers and things academic. And then when we got back, I don’t remember how long after but he asked me to teach a class on Eliot because he was going to be out of town.
Paul walked into the class on the appointed day and was astonished to find himself in front of an auditorium of Columbia students. Kenneth’s courses were wildly popular; over the years he had assumed legendary status within the English Department. The students sat there ready to hear Paul’s take on T.S. Eliot. As he explained it, “I remember teaching this class and I was startled at the end because the students applauded. Soon after, Kenneth sent a case of champagne, and then he phoned and asked me to teach a course called Imaginative Writing.” It was called “imaginative” by Kenneth to avoid the self-absorption so common in workshops. The course also had a strong literature component. Because Paul also shared ambivalent feelings about excessively self-referential poetry, Kenneth pegged him as the right man to teach the course. And when a vacancy opened in 2000, Kenneth asked if Paul might like to teach the class permanently.
The class, however, was cancelled after Kenneth died in 2002 at the age of 77. The English Department, which took issue with the fact that it was billed as an “imaginative” class, moved it across campus to the Creative Writing Program. Paul was unhappy about this. No longer able to choose the students he wanted, he was forced to take any student who signed up, which often led to a workshop of fifteen or more. But wanting to keep an institutional affiliation with Columbia, he taught for two years under these conditions. Luckily, he was approached by Michael Rosenthal of the English Department who told him that he was welcome to come back to the English Department to teach literature seminars, provided that he promised not to teach creative writing. Happily, Paul returned to the English Department and began teaching seminars based upon departmental needs, which included courses on Satire, Modern American Poetry, and early twentieth-century British poetry.
REGRETS AND ONGOING STRUGGLES
And when the smoke alarm,
its battery worn down,
began to beep, the signal
at first indistinguishable
from the birdcalls
but then growing louder,
in their absence, I remained
A man of my word.
And that word is
Fifty-five across: Disingenuous.
—from “Wet Bread and Roasted Pearls” (1993)
Toward the end of our second interview, I asked Paul about life struggles. Up to that point I had focused on events surrounding the emergence of his artistic identity. Despite being warned by a mutual friend that it would be difficult to wrangle personal information out of Paul, especially for a dissertation that could potentially be published, I had found Paul forthcoming on almost every question I asked. When it came to life struggles, however, he was vague in his responses. It soon became obvious to me that there were things that he simply wasn’t going to share. One of my questions was in response to the Pataphysics interview he did with the Australian editor Leo Edelstein. In it Paul mentions a period of time during which he was mourning. The prompting question was: “How do you go about finding material for your work? Do you pay attention to your dreams?” Here is Paul’s ironic response in full:
As for dreams—I rarely have memorable ones, or any that make me think there’s a nascent poem in one. What I imagine is generally more interesting than what I dream. My dreams are either too explicit, often enjoyably so, or obviously symbolic. For instance, I was mourning recently and I had two dreams that struck me as extensions or enactments of the loss I was feeling and suppressing. In one I found myself searching through fallen leaves that were inside my house. I was on my hands and knees on a stone tile floor, reaching under leaves, looking for something I’d lost and was unable to grasp. I was bereft but calmly determined. The leaves were crisp, some were lank, freshly fallen, and they were piling up fast. I finally grabbed a broom to clear them away but the more I swept the more there were and there was no telling how they were entering the house and the whole dream plot was a re-enactment of a realization, of the irretrievable. Days later in the second dream I was trying and failing to understand, to decipher a language that I couldn’t use to articulate the sorrow I felt. I suspected it might be English, but the words weren’t understandable, no arrangement made syntactical sense. Every attempt to make a statement turned into questions. I was questioning the very language and there were no answers; whatever language it was, ultimately all of it was reduced to a pile of ashes, except for these newly forged question marks, very large shiny metal question marks that lay in the ashes. I noticed they had a somewhat elegant design. So, to answer your question: No, I rarely derive poems from dreams.
When I asked whether he cared to specify what it was he was mourning, he responded “No, not today.” Consequently, I made a decision to couch my subsequent questions in general terms—asking him to share a story about a period of time that was especially challenging. Paul answered my version of this query in honest, yet general, terms: “You take it as it comes. Either something good comes along and takes you—helps shift your attention, or something worse comes along… Life is fast…”
Wanting more detail but careful to avoid pushing him too far and compromising the trust I was beginning to earn, I thought it better to skip specifics and ask about his method for dealing with life’s tragedies. He responded, “You know that phrase ‘above all, endure?’ There’s a little truth to that. Simply to withstand things is a virtue. In other words, the crudest or simplest virtue would be strength. You realize that there’s something to be said for just being able to withstand things because otherwise whatever it is that you need to deal with things won’t be available if you’re reduced to a mess and you’re no good to anyone else. Generally, human beings are pretty resilient. I mean everyone gets ambushed… and others often have worse problems.” When asked whether therapy ever played a role in his own process of getting “up off the floor,” he said it hadn’t—a fact he chalked up to either culture or genetics. “Certain people are made certain ways,” he explained. And on a philosophical note: “You mold yourself… as a result of looking at what you’re made of—or how you act—in hopes of either changing the way you are, or staying the way you are. So, introspection is important. But self-absorption is something else… especially in terms of whining or complaining. I mean I can complain, sure… but not in public.” I asked if this was why he avoided personal confessions in his poetry. Paul took a moment and then responded:
Poems are based on feelings. And whether those feelings are conveyed in a personal sense or as a product of what the imagination can turn those feelings into: that’s the beauty… that’s the pleasure of writing poems. I mean your personal feelings are crucial material but you want to make something out of it. Otherwise where’s the challenge? I mean just writing things down the way they are you’re more of a scribe of your self-absorption as opposed to say making something that didn’t exist before, or by taking something in a different direction. By doing that you become more inclusive; and you can do more with it. Creativity is liberating, an extension of one’s self.
Paul did mention that there were some ways that he thinks he could have been a better husband and father, but was careful to point out the futility of coming down too hard on oneself. “I look back and wonder if I could have been a better father or a better husband. But of course you want to do some things differently in retrospect. You do the best you can. It’s nice to kick yourself in the head once in a while but not too often.”
Paul was acutely aware of the important role that humor has played not only in his poetry but also on his outlook: “I think being a human being, things happen to you. You have a sense of the absurd; you have a sense of your own shortcomings; you have a sense of how things could have gone differently if… if… if…. If you believe in freewill—which I do—you have to have a sense of humor. And I think my humor is based on the contradictory aspects of my own nature as well as the way things happen. Good things happen; great things happen; sad, tragic things happen. I think my humor is tied in with that. And if it’s harsh at times it’s because I’m pretty harsh on myself; but if it’s benign that’s because I have an understanding of myself as a mere mortal.”
Poetry for Paul operated in a way that’s analogous to humor and absurdity. As he wrote in the poem “Dry Spells” (1981), “You have a deep sense of the way / propriety and absurdity complement each other.” Both poetry and humor can be a means by which to transform the raw material of living into something celebratory—or, at the very least, into something palatable. They provide a way of converting regret or sadness into something larger, and life affirming.
There it is again, the future,
and it looks the same as the last time I saw it.
—from “Melodrama” (1981)
Paul was pragmatic when I ask about his hopes for the future. Although he envisioned writing at least one considerably long poem and hoped to publish a selected poems with a major house, his primary concerns were financial in nature: “I want to clear the deck, and make sure that everything’s right for my family. I don’t want to leave my family any trouble to take care of. You want to set things right and get things in order.” I asked if he ever thought about his own death, and he joked that he increasingly did but only as a result of pharmaceutical ads on TV. Finally, I asked if he believed that there was such a thing as a good death—to which he responds that he wasn’t sure that such a thing existed.
I successfully defended my dissertation roughly ten months after my last formal interview with Paul. We passed an earlier version of this bio back and forth and met once for dinner in January or February of 2010. To celebrate my Ph.D., Paul, Charles, and Tony invited me to dinner at Café Loup . They insisted upon paying my bill, and Paul patted me on the back as he left for the hour-plus drive home to Ann in Putnam Valley. Before he took off, several of his New School students spotted him and clustered around our table with beaming grins.
At some point that summer I ran into a mutual friend who had seen Paul for dinner and drinks. The friend told me that Paul looked grayer, thinner, and hadn’t touched any of the fries that he’d ordered with his hamburger. We both chalked it up to the fact that his daughter, Helen, had recently given birth to twins and that Paul was taking preventative health measures to ensure that he’d be around long enough to watch them grow up. The following March I received a phone call from another friend who asked if I’d heard from Paul lately. No, I told him, I hadn’t, but was meaning to get back in touch. “You should hurry,” the friend said. “Paul’s dying of pancreatic cancer but wants as few people to know about it as possible. He was diagnosed in early January.” I emailed Paul later that day, not mentioning any knowledge of his terminal condition. We had several email exchanges over the month that followed about poetry and my plans to rework the dissertation and publish it. Paul Violi died at Hudson Valley Hospital in Cortland Manor, New York, on April 2, 2011.
Andrew McCarron in a poet and teacher born and raised on the Hudson River. He currently teaches English and also runs the Religion, Philosophy & Ethics Department at Trinity School in Manhattan, New York. In addition to a collection of poems, Mysterium (Edgewise Press, 2011), his book-length study of Charles North, Tony Towle, and Paul Violi, Three New York Poets, will be published by Station Hill Press in late 2014, and his psychobiography of Bob Dylan will be published by Oxford University Press in 2015.
* Formatting differs from the original.
** See Martin Stannard piece on Violi and Koch here.