Celebrate the Life and Work of Paul Violi by Martin Stannard (pt. 4)
For part 4 of our Paul Violi celebration, we are lucky to have Martin Stannard’s beautiful memories of Paul filter through his exceptional essay. Also, be sure to read Stannard’s review of The Tame Magpie here.
POSSIBILITIES: thoughts about my friend Paul Violi
- July 2014
Paul was one of my best friends for almost 30 years and I still can’t believe he’s not around. When I came to write about him again (I’ve written a lot about him before. Now it’s July 2014; so much time has passed.) I did a couple of things. One was to chicken out and not really try to write anything particularly new. I just re-visited earlier pieces I’d written and re-worked a few parts and juggled them around and dropped in a fresh comment as and when it occurred to me. The other was to realize that something I never really do is “re-visit” Paul’s poetry and his presence. It’s (he’s) always here. I recall someone (perhaps it was Paul Hoover?) saying something once about writing with the idea of the perfect reader looking over your shoulder as you write, a perfect reader who not only would “get” what you were doing but would also be the reader you’d use to figure out if what you were doing was right, and good enough.
I never re-visit Paul. He’s always here, looking over my shoulder or, what’s more likely in what I wish were the real world, sat on the couch with a coffee and a cigarette, and sharing a joke. It would be stupid to say I write the way I do and think about poems the way I do is all because of Paul, but it would also be pretty stupid to try and deny how much of an influence he’s been, too.
Anyway, most of what follows I’ve said before and has been printed before, albeit sometimes in slightly different ways with different words – but often in exactly the same way with exactly the same words.
In 1982 I had been editing the poetry magazine joe soap’s canoe for about four years, publishing what I liked to think was a range of exciting poetry – mainly from British poets, and mainly from British poets familiar in small press magazines of the time. I had published a poet called Nigel Thompson, who for reasons I’ve forgotten was living and working in Florence, Italy. One day he sent me some poems by an American poet whose work he thought I would like. I can’t remember how come Thompson had these poems, but he did. The poet was Paul Violi, and “Exacta” was one of the poems:
And they’re off!
Babe Wittgenstein takes the lead!
It’s Babe Wittgenstein
and Pigs in Moonlight
I’d never read anything like it before. And my life was changed.
My two best poetry buddies at the time were also bowled over by Paul’s poems, and one of them, Rupert Mallin, “performed” “Exacta” during a poetry and music event at The Quay Theatre in Sudbury, Suffolk: recreating a racecourse of the imagination, he chalked the horses’ names on a blackboard, and orchestrated the audience to cheer the field – he did it so well that everyone seemed to think they were at the races. Bets were placed. Pickpockets circulated among the crowd. The din of cheering and shouting raised the roof. Rupert’s yelling of the poem in the manner of a slightly demented commentator was almost completely drowned out, and it wasn’t very much like a poetry reading and much more like a race meeting. It was quite memorable.
In the meantime, I had written to Paul and I think the canoe was the first place to publish his poetry in the U.K. Thus were sown the seeds of a friendship that became valuable in all sorts of ways, as real friendships are.
- 1988 (American Express)
I eventually published a pamphlet collection of Pauls’ poems – American Express – under the joe soap’s canoe imprint, and didn’t sell many, but sales didn’t matter much. (It’s worth noting, I think, how so-called “New York School” poetry was not such a big deal in the UK back then, unlike now when people with absolutely no real affinity with it at all seem able to drop the famous names without batting an eyelid.) The collection begins with one of my favorite Violi poems, “One for the Monk of Montaudon”. It’s a favourite primarily because it’s wonderful and takes in so much, but also because it exemplifies the way in which Paul’s poems can make me see and feel the way I do see and feel when I have my wits about me, which is not often enough in a world full of the banal and the beautiful, the sublime and the pathetic, the incomprehensible and the all-too-obvious. It’s also a favourite because it’s a great example of the freedom certain poems maintain and champion:
I like to order another cup of coffee,
light another cigarette and admire the paint job,
check out the insects sealed under a third coat,
or see yet another sullen short order cook
bitch and grumble above the grill.
I love the way the waitress
can chew gum and sing while she wipes
the dust off a plastic plant
and then stop and talk about the weather.
And I love the dramatic weather:
the way the air changes with us,
the way another world arrives
in an avalanche of clouds,
the way the continents meet and separate again
while I jot down my immediate impressions
on a sheet of yellow paper;
taking note of little things, like the scorpion,
the first creature to walk on land;
or craters of illusion, great assumptions of normalcy,
where Ohio once was, or never was.
And I’m glad of a chance to meet people,
like Miss Ohio,
(‘Five foot nine, eyes that shine’)
if for no other reason than the pleasure
of shaking hands or the opportunity
of leaning into the distance
while a strand of smoke lingers, and rises,
and turns like an unheard but legible desire.
By ‘freedom’ I don’t mean the freedom that says you – the poet – can just write away, let the words come and it’s all going to be great because you wrote them and who cares about form and structure, control and discipline. All those things – form, structure, control and discipline – are in this poem as it moves with an inner logic and a progression of thoughts through its eight or nine pages from “a coffee shop above the sea” to
the deep empty well
that Pliny told astronomers was the best place
from which to watch stars move in daylight.
And though he meant that as practical advice,
it sounds to me like a prayer
from one of those barren, cloudy lands
that I’ve seen and liked,
forgotten and wrote about.
No, it’s the grand range of what is embraced during the course of that progress that constitutes the feeling I mean: this poem’s freedom is liberating for the reader, in that it opens up a whole theatre of idea and image, seriousness and play; also, it’s liberating for the watching poet. This is not a little poetry of anecdote or, worse, event worked up into something so-called important: this is a big poetry that revels in the challenges it sets itself, and never ceases to be readable, accessible (which doesn’t mean you don’t have to think) and (and I love this) it sounds like someone. It sounds like a real person.
- 1983 – the 1990s
Like I said, we met via the mails back in the early 80s, and I think the canoe was the first place to publish his poetry in the U.K. We met in person on my first trip to the U.S. in 1983, and a friendship that came to mean more to me than I can say was immediately formed. Paul visited England on a number of occasions, sometimes for readings I organized, and for one especially memorable tour when he curated an exhibition of Kenneth Koch’s collaborations with artists at The Wolsey Gallery in Ipswich. I was the town council’s community arts officer at the time, and my friend Rebecca (who is now married to printmaker Dale Devereux Barker, with whom Paul collaborated on some marvelous art books) managed their art galleries. Between us we cooked up the most wonderful idea: Paul would curate the exhibition, helping Koch gather the works, and both of them, Paul and Kenneth, would come over to England for the show. And I’d organize a reading tour for them, so when they were finished in Ipswich they didn’t just have to fly home. I can’t begin to describe what a stellar experience the whole thing was. Can you imagine driving around England for a week with Koch next to you, because he insisted on sitting in front, and Violi in the back seat…… Wonder and laughter and erudition in equal measure, I think. Exactly like the poems of both men.
- 1997 (from Very Funny and Very Serious, Often at the Same Time – a review of The Anamorphosis)
Violi is always making the mundane approach wondrous and the marvellous appear wholly comprehensible and there, before your eyes each moment you can be bothered to look. Making any of those things happen involves engaging the imagination, poet’s and reader’s. (The alternative, which is not to use the imagination, leads to poems about ironing, I think.)
- 1999 (from Bright With Light and Intelligence – an essay of sorts)
Much is often made about Paul’s “forms” – the poem as TV guide, the poem as police blotter, the poem as index of a book – but the poetry doesn’t rely on these inventive forms. It would surely become a tedious novelty if it did. Whatever the form, the poems are made out of words, and this is a poetry that does a number of things: it makes you smile, even laugh, and then confronts you with something horrible, moving, or sad. Sometimes it does this within the sweep of a line or two. Violi can show us a drenched dog shaking itself dry on the shore, and
in the whirl of spray
a fluffed dandelion scatters, a moment flares.
This is no mean feat. Violi never says everything is great, and isn’t life wonderful. But he allows a morbid blonde and pigs in moonlight to exist, as they do, in an environment at once attractive, pleasing and crazy and alarmingly like real life, I think. This is poetry that sparkles on the surface, is a pleasure to read (and how important is that pleasure!) and repays multiple readings by never flagging in its energies, nor ceasing always to be continually revealing and so intelligent. But it’s intelligent without thrusting the poet’s erudition in your face. It’s just so charmingly and disarmingly smart.
The first poem I ever heard Paul read in person was “Totem Pole”. It was wonderful to watch the (English) audience gradually realize that what they were listening to was a list of people who had lost their head (heads) ….
(You can have adventures in poetry if you believe in it enough.)
And it seems like stating the obvious now, but the spirit of play informs a great deal of this poetry. Paul remarked, in an interview, how he was once smitten by a couple of lines by the Troubadour poet Guillaume IX of Acquitaine:
…. (he) has lines that go ‘I think I’ll write a poem, take a nap, then go and stand in the sun.’ What a great beginning for a poem. I’ve tried innumerable times to begin a poem with those lines.
– the essence of which, it seems to me, is relaxed and life-enhancing and real, and damn good to remember.
Just as whittling down one’s poem until you’ve left more or less everything out is not new, neither is leaving everything in. The trick, as ever, is to have something original to be doing or saying in and with the poem. What you are after, after all (among other things) is a poem nobody else could have written. This has nothing to do with ego but everything to do with the poem as individual and an individual’s creation. Poems celebrate that individuality (“among other things”). Once they run with the pack, or sound like someone else, they fall from grace.
- 1999 (a letter not sent)
A brief note: Charles North, in his essay on your poetry in No Other Way, draws attention to what he calls your “yoking together of the totally dissimilar: “Slow Lightning”, “squat elegance”, “champagne in a dirty glass”, “a pile of junk and generosity”, “absurdity and squalor”, “flowering contradiction””, and notes that “contradictions that flower seem to be at the heart of [your] poetic impulse.”
As I recently read Splurge for the umpteenth time it occurred to me that it’s not only in such startling juxtapositions that these contradictions flower. Opening the book at random, I came across a poem called “Silencer” which includes the lines (you probably know this)
Now I wish I were on a sea
that’s the color of your left eye,
following you as my memory follows me,
black hours passed from wave to wave,
cast off an idea,
another earth hung beside this one
visible as fruit in the darkness;
and the moon is its pit
and I drink to it.
which, apart from reminding me of your gift for lyric grace and beauty, strikes me as an example of the enormous vitality of your imagination at the same time as evoking a much more grounded melancholy. If I was trying to write a critical piece, I would have to say something about how the tension between the two forces enlivens the poem, and all the poems – that sometimes these forces take the form of humour and horror, as in “King Nasty” – well, you write poems that make anything and everything seem possible, even this:
Have the goons and zealots
bugger the aristocrats
after they lock them in the guillotine.
Have them signal Big Boy to drop the blade
as the gagged and screeching aristos
die in a boing-eyed shudder
just as the buggers’ frenzy peaks.
Don’t overdo it.
But this isn’t a critical essay, and I can relax and just say I think this is great stuff. Thank you for it all.
- 2011 (fromOn Paul Violi, an essay for The North magazine’s Violi retrospective)
I remember talking with Paul about the poetry life soon after we first met, and we both immediately knew neither of us had a clue how to shape a poetry career, or cared at all about it. “Career poets” didn’t so much not interest us as we simply didn’t understand the notion of a career doing this. Paul’s priorities were always elsewhere: the poem itself, and the sharing of his knowledge and his enjoyments with others.
Anyone who knew Paul knew too that his poetry is absolutely a poetry of the self, by which I don’t mean autobiography, but personality: funny and serious, learned and charming, perplexed and bewildered and filled with a love of life despite and even because of its reverses. He was one of those rare creatures who possess a seeming insatiable thirst for life, its joys and its pains. I envied his capacity for endless curiosity, and his limitless generosity, all of which is in the poetry. These are poems written by a human being, someone open and giving and full of good humour, someone you’d love to sit around and spend time with. And I always go back to what he once said to Mark Hillringhouse in an interview: “Poetry should ultimately delight.” Just being with him was an education, not just in poetry, but in how to be.
- August 2014
What we shared always, I think, was the knowledge that the poem is at once one of the most serious and the most enjoyable of things to be making. And I think of this always. But, to be honest, most of all when I think of Paul I think of what he taught me about life and its possibilities – possibilities that extend far beyond any poem and any reading of any poem. Showing me those possibilities, for which his poetry stands as one our finest examples, is what I really thank him for.
Martin Stannard is a poet and critic from England. He was editor of the magazine joe soap’s canoe from 1978 to 1991, and was the Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at Nottingham Trent University, 2007-8. After a couple of decades ekeing out a living as a poet visiting schools, leading workshops, and doing (very) occasional readings (including at St. Marks and the KGB Bar in New York City) he moved to China, where he teaches English and humanities subjects at Beijing Normal University, Zhuhai.
He is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently Faith (Shadowtrain Books, 2009) and How To Live A Life: Selected Uncollected Poems 2002-2009 (Argotist eBooks, 2010). Two collections of his reviews, critical essays and occasional writings have also been published: Conversations with Myself (Stride, 1999) and Respondings (Argotist eBooks, 2011). He has collaborated with English printmaker Dale Devereux Barker on two art/poetry books, and with poet Mark Halliday on a series of short plays, a few of which have appeared in print in The Indiana Review, The Colorado Review and some other journals not all of which have the word “Review” in the title. His website is www.martinstannard.com
For David Lehman’s poem for Paul Violi, see part 1.
For Michael Quattrone on Paul Violi, see part 2.
For Reagan Upshaw’s poem for Paul Violi, see part 3.