The interview took place at Violi's Putnam Valley,
New York home in May 2004
MS: How do you look back on thirty years of doing this, of doing this "poetry life" - both in terms of your life as a whole, and how the poetry has developed over that time. I know it's a big question.
PV: It sure the hell is - and a good one. I got a phone call about four months ago, that I'd won the John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award. Good news of course, but it gave rise to two almost opposite feelings simultaneously. I was quite happy to get the award but it was that "lifetime" modifier - "Lifetime Bereavement" is what I also heard. Sounded more like a gong than a bell. A "Hey, don't rush me!" reaction. The check hasn't arrived yet. Now that always has a rejuvenating effect.
MS: You figure you have some left... But thirty years is still a long time.
PV: Well, yes, but I feel I have a lot more to do. I've gone through manuscripts to sort things out, and imagine what I'd include in a selection or collected, whether I'd arrange them chronologically or not. With "Breakers" I opted for a selection of long poems. I mull things over but then it occurs to me that I would be enjoying myself more if I were concentrating on a new poem. It's too much work, too much indecision. I hope I have the critical sense to do myself a favour...
MS: You've been included in some pretty major anthologies, like the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry that Paul Hoover edited, Carey Nelson's Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry...
PV: I don't know if I'd let another anthology reprint "Index" - it's been in about seven and I'm thinking [laughter], give it a rest. Then again, I just came across two written comments on that poem, one calling it a "recent contribution" to poems that adapt prose forms, another on someone else's doing a poem in that form, saying, "Didn't Violi do this a few American centuries ago?" [Note: "Index" has subsequently been further anthologized as one of 2 Violi poems in David Lehman's recentish "Oxford Book of American Poetry".] Looking back, I obviously see how one thing I like to do - and how long I've been doing it - adapting prose forms, still might appeal to me, if one pops up. I'm not sure I consider them prose poems, the timing and lineation are too careful. Part of the pleasure of writing is impersonation, and I see how in a lot of poems I'm impersonating a character - a radio announcer, a horse race announcer, whatever - and at some point it starts to become something like a poem when I insinuate myself into it, one way or another, and the impersonation breaks down or goes in an unexpected direction. I'm doing something similar when I adapt prose forms, I treat them as if they're stock characters. I'm sure it sounds like a great challenge to an actor [laughs] - impersonating and index or a book catalogue, animating, exploring the deep and complex character of a fireworks catalogue!
MS: When you look back over your work, over those years, can you identify a line of development over time? Because not every writer is able to do that.
PV: Yes and no. I'm still the wilful twelve-year old who wants to do what he feels like. I still think anything is worth a try, I'm still mixing things up, different genre, forms, styles, - different elements, and hoping I don't look like a mad chemist. A poet's resources and inspirations seem to remain constant, but our curiosity about forms and techniques renews the art for us. Narrative has always appealed to me, it leaves so much room for mischief. Some contemporary poets seem to have thrown the baby out with the bath water. "You can't do that anymore," I hear. I mean, that's the kind of autocratic pronouncement that's close-minded enough to make me want to do it. It's an odd thing to say, something a more rigid traditionalist wouldn't say...
MS: That "you can't"...
PV: The whole impulse behind the experimental tradition is to increase the possibilities, not close them off. I keep coming across these false, simplistic dilemmas, such as, that aesthetic values are precious and "literary", an escape from reality, from political exigencies. I wonder if people who say things like that have appreciated much great poetry. I guess they've never read Byron.
MS: Do you consider yourself part of the New York School? I think I already know the answer to this one.
PV: They certainly inspired me, mainly their inventiveness, the informality, and the way they each had a recognizably individual style. It was exciting, being exposed to all that in the late Sixties. The influence of the original "school" is of course quite pervasive now. I often find types of poems in experimental as well as mainstream magazines that I first saw in mimeo magazines decades ago. And, amusingly enough, some by poets who once disparaged New York School Poetry.
MS: How long do you think that's been the case here in the US? I mean, in the UK, apart from that period and those writers like Tom Raworth who always had the New York connection, I think it's been in the last, what? ten or fifteen years? I hesitate to say it, but joe soap's canoe was certainly the first magazine in the UK to publish your own generation of New York poets, and the wider knowledge of O'Hara and Koch and Ashbery and all seemed to follow on somewhat from that.
PV: They began over a half a century ago and a few were being considered "major" in broader realms a quarter century ago.
MS: But the knowledge of them is very current at the moment. They're a recognisable point of reference when people talk about poems now, which was not always the case.
PV: I'm amused by how strong a reaction, a negative reaction, you can still generate by praising them. I also think there is something adolescent about poets depending so much on labels, on a group identity to define themselves when their poems don't back it up. Movements are exciting if they're genuine, not compensating for uninteresting work that doesn't justify the theorizing behind them. There's the excitement of exploring new territory together, but ultimately writers should be independent. Labels can be clarifying but also restrictive.
MS: Koch struggled, didn't he? He may have had books out from major publishing houses, but he was hardly a name on everyone's lips.
PV: I'd say Kenneth was famous, but again as a radical poet, at times dismissed as a comic poet. Traditionalists had a hard time attacking him because his inventive ease with traditional forms threw them off. They didn't know what to say. He was doing something truly new. And those who tried to imitate him, The Sons of Ken, often sounded, well, imitative. I think New York City should build a fountain in his honour.
MS: And there was the teaching poetry to children, and the associated books...
PV: And that he was one of Columbia's great teachers. I don't think he ever taught Latin or Greek but he despised pretension and jargon and kept things simple and brilliant the way I think the best Classics professors do. His teaching was as spirited as his writing.
MS: That's one interesting thing about teaching, isn't it? If you're lucky you get something wholly unexpected come along, whether it be new insights or great new writers, and it kind of throws you back on yourself.
PV: Teaching allows for spontaneous discoveries. And it's a pleasure to watch students develop. They force me to reconsider my prejudices and keep me open to things. What might dampen my enthusiasm is reading a lot of bad poetry. [Laughter].
MS: That doesn't happen, does it?
PV: No, never. [Laughter]. What I love to find in young poets is that excitement, that feeling that they have to read it all.
MS: And it always scares me a little when I come across people who seem to keep up and who seem to know everything that's going on. I don't know, it kind of scares me and bewilders me. It arouses my feelings of inadequacy.
PV: It is daunting. Not only what's going on, but what's been done. If it's good, it's all contemporary. I just came across a great first line: "Love still has something of the sea" by the 17th century poet Charles Sedley. The rest of the poem is a conventional conceit, but that first line, the casual tone of it strikes me as completely fresh. I felt I should have known about that poem a long time ago.
MS: So are you in this New York School or not? What was the answer to that one?
PV: [Laughter] Yes, in that I found them very inspiring back then and their poetry continues to inspire me. Especially the way each of them went in his own direction. The main thing about the NY School was the openness, the adventurousness, the links with artists and painting.
MS: Which kind of returns us to our starting point. Really, you're writing for yourself?
PV: Yes. Initially and primarily. I don't sit there wondering if what I'm writing is going to conform to others' expectations.
MS: Does that render the whole process as finally a selfish one?
PV: Not at all. It might be paradoxical, but it's not selfish if it leads to a poem someone else enjoys. If you write to meet an imposed set of ideas, that sounds a bit automatic, a bit like hackwork. One of the indications that you're onto something worthwhile is when you surprise yourself, and that's not going to happen if you're doing something predictable.
MS: You trust yourself. You have to - otherwise it's an endless process and a pretty pointless endeavour. You write personal poems, even love poems, but you're probably better known for a different kind of poem. We've mentioned the much anthologised "Index", and there are poems like "Police Blotter" that people in England may know, and many will have heard you read. Do you recognise the distinction between types of poems?
PV: Yes, but I hope the different types complement each other, and in some poems, like "Wet Bread and Roasted Pearls", merge.
MS: I have a wonderfully unanswerable question, which is, How do you write a poem? I guess I mean to get at whether you tend to have a sudden burst of unpremeditated writing, or do you get an idea and carry it around for a while, work it out in your head. Or what?
PV: It varies so much I'd hate to say, "I do it this way" because it just wouldn't be true. There might be a pattern in that more poems were written when I got an idea and carried it around for a while, take some notes on it, and see what happens when I type it up. And often I'll write something and it just doesn't work... but I'll keep it around for years and go back to it. And other times there it is -- presto! The poems simply happen. I can't claim either spontaneity or discipline as virtues. I'm too impulsive and too patient. For instance, over thirty years ago I watched a counterman in a delicatessen make a sandwich. He did it with such impressive dignity, artistry and pride and served it with a manner that bordered on disdain, I knew I'd write it about it. I just did, two months ago. It came out as a sort of skit.
MS: You certainly seem to have poems that have been a long time in the making.
PV: Again, I've kept some more than a few years before publishing them. It's that Horatian idea, though I don't know how much even Horace stuck to it... Othertimes, I've written them up and sent them right off.
MS: Many of the pieces in "Selected Accidents, Pointless Anecdotes", a book of prose pieces, some of those go back quite a long time...
PV: They're taken from journals. It's not poetry, it was a matter of resisting the imagination. It's reportage. I look on them as verbal cartoons. No editorialising, but just sketching out what happened in a simple, objective way. I stay truthful and accurate but still try and shape the way it's told. Thinking about poems I'd sit on for years, reminds me of those I've written almost instantaneously. I'm sitting outside one summer night reading John Wain's "Life of Samuel Johnson" and it starts to rain and the raindrops are falling on the page where I'm reading about Wedgewood's amputating his own leg because its painful condition was inhibiting his business career [laughter] and the raindrops are increasing along with my astonishment or incredulity. I went inside and typed it up, raindrops and all. I didn't carry that one around at all, it just Blip, Blip, Blip, Blippety Blip...
MS: That's almost a signature Paul Violi manoeuvre... What are you up to at the moment?
PV: I've got a series of poems now called "Toward a February Songbook". It grew out of a collaboration with Dale [Dale Devereux Barker], we agreed to work on grey as a theme, and that sort of led me into February, and winter and they're a bunch of mainly serious poems. Dale came up with the title "Gris Gris" - he's got a great way with titles - and this title catches two people working on different sides of the Grey theme and also the sort of magical conjunctions collaboration allows, how things jump ahead of the usual cause and effect procedure. As often happens, I kept going with it after we finished the collaboration and now I'm working on "Toward a February Songbook" and have thirteen or fourteen poems set in a grey February. It's the shortest month, obviously, and that led me into poems about midgets and dwarfs who did great things. And I think when I was in England in '91 we went to Durham, and I picked up a pamphlet about this English dwarf, Joseph Boruwlaski, who led an amazing life... and I'd also come across, skipping through a 1930's Brittanica, an item on Jeffrey Hudson, a famous cavalier. Another poem depends almost entirely on a footnote about the poet Philetus of Cos who was so small he had to wear lead shoes or the wind would blow him away. It seemed the shorter these guys got the more remarkable their lives got, and I ended up with three poems on three different dwarves which conclude the sequence.
MS: And whether you're cataloguing disasters or accidents or writing love poems, your work is full of a sense of wonder. I think it always has been.
PV: Well, I'm happy to hear that.
MS: The collaborations with Dale - we've both done that - I think you've done more than me...
PV: I don't know about that...
MS: Well, I've done two.
PV: I''ve done four.
MS: So you're winning then... Have they come about from scratch, as it were, new ideas, or from stuff that had been kicking around?
PV: Well, the first one we took off on the idea of accidents, hence "Selected Accidents, Pointless Anecdotes". And he was using accident as a way or working and I was using fast prosey accounts of accidents more as a theme. I'm usually very deliberate in my descriptions and he's very spontaneous in what he's doing. It was a nice mix. I'm always overwhelmed by his prints. Keep in mind we work an ocean apart, though I flew over to check on what he's up to. For the second one we took off on imagery...
MS: That's "The Hazards of Imagery".
PV: That title came from that morning we were all in Aldeburgh and Ann was looking through these used books, a bookstall on the street, and she picked up an English grammar, called me over and, pointing to a page heading, said, here's a Violi title, "The Hazards of Imagery". You know, ever since I was a kid I had that William Butler Yeats anthology - the Oxford Modern - and as a tribute to Walter Pater he starts off by taking Pater's description of the Mona Lisa and breaking it up into lines. Pater is a great, great writer, though much too fancy at times, for sure. When he wrote he'd write each sentence on a page of it's own! And here I am with an English grammar book with as an example of how NOT to write - and example of what to avoid - is Pater's description of the Mona Lisa. It led to the series of poems on the history and vicissitudes of art. In the form of a mock art catalogue, of course [laughs].
MS: And I was going to ask you about Pound, and maybe this is the place, even if it's a tenuous link. I know you rate Pound very highly.
PV: It's funny, I think if I were a young poet now and were reading Pound for the first time - the Cantos - I don't think I'd have the patience.
MS: That's something I was going to ask you. I mean, I wrote something recently to the effect that when I read Pound, and go back to him, I tend to read the same few bits, and he remains something of a mystery to me.
PV: I find him incredibly difficult at times - as if I'm not reading him but translating him from a language I don't know very well. I take the Pisan Cantos as a love poem, something to be read as an interior monologue. He's in bad shape, physically and mentally, and he's trying to hold on by recalling what and whom he loves. The recollections of the poems and the women he loves are mixed in with what he's hearing and seeing in the present, in the prison camp, in the cage. It's a drama, it's a wildly dramatic poem. He's on the verge of losing it. He's lamenting the defeat of fascism, he's wondering if he's going to be taken out and shot, he's planning on what he can say to Mao and Stalin to convert them to his economic ideas! Sometimes I don't know what the hell's going on. I wish it were color-coded to identify the variations in the music, states of mind, or various speakers. What Faulkner wanted to use in "The Sound and the Fury", different coloured inks for the different voices or states of mind to help you follow it. I guess like many good poems you have to study it and read it as a piece of music you're asked to play, and so you take it line by line, phrase by phrase, and then you can read it with the whole orchestra. The Cantos are an incredible mix of quotation and styles - quoting convicts, quoting Chaucer, it's all locked together...
MS: Going back to reading a poem line by line - where does that stand in relation to, for example, people wanting to read a poem and get it quickly, as opposed to reading it the way you say, slowly, and getting to know it over a period of time?
PV: I love both types and all the types in between. I don't mean to say that all poems should be difficult but some that I love are. I love short, simple poems too. There must be something that grabs me the first time I read a poem, and then gives me reasons to return to it. There are poems I've been reading for decades and they're still giving me reasons to read them again. Keats' "On First Looking at Chapman's Homer" - That's magnificence! Images of vast silence used to describe astonishment at a "loud and bold" voice. Not bad for a 21-year old. And then there's the matter of going back to things that put me off but finding I've grown into them. I tried to read "Tristram Shandy" as an undergraduate and found it impossibly frustrating. Now I think it's hilariously frustrating. A marvel. Utterly radical in it's technique. The kind of prose that inspires me to write poems, or not care whether what I'm writing is prose or poetry. The plot falls apart, of course, but - a rare thing - the satire is ultimately benign. Sterne had such a humane spirit.
MS: And I guess what you're really saying is that poetry should be positive, and ultimately restorative.
PV: Even if it's sombre or nasty, it at least gives an intimation of amplitude, superflux. It extends our experiences, our sense of life, a sense that it's about more than we could ever contain or sustain for long.
This interview was first published in The North, #35
© Paul Violi & Martin Stannard, 2004