I was a student of Paul Violi's in the fall of 2005, and I worked with him again when he was my thesis advisor in 2007. This was a singular experience -- no one else had chosen to work with him that year, which seems at once totally impossible (considering how awe-inspiring his work and his presence as a teacher was) and also very possible. Paul's workshop was irritating for some in that it operated as a meritocracy (at least the year I took his class). If he didn't like what you'd passed in, it didn't get discussed. Period. If he did like it (or something about the piece), we'd talk about it. I can still hear the chalkboard-nail complaints from my peers as we walked to Spain or Café Loup afterwards. My work, on the other hand, was being discussed constantly. We shared an alma mater in Boston University, as well as a head-turning laugh. We were made for each other (I speak of teacher-student heaven). He truly got my work in a way that went beyond the teacher student rapport and into a kindred-spiritedness.
My favorite moments with Paul are too many in number to reduce into a text-box, so I’ll have to just put my hand in a few times and grab what’s in this bag (my memory) to share with you.
He called me "Miss Lawless,” which was spoken with an ironic head bob evoking all that my surname offers.
When we’d meet to work on my thesis, we would find each other in the courtyard on 12th st. and wander over to Murray's Bagel Shop on 6th Ave and drink espresso. We'd sit and go over all my poems almost every week for four months. He would read a poem quietly, smile, and growl some incredibly witty comment while laughing. Sure there was perhaps a criticism here or there—and each would be presented by someone who knew comedy and the human experience far more than I did: “If you’re working blue, you don’t have to use the word for it to be understood what you mean.” Simple. To the point. Lesson learned. He also turned me on to John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester. Oh that reminds me, Paul was a Johnny Depp fan. He loved Depp’s transformations into other characters. This is significant due to Violi’s ability to seamlessly inhabit the various forms of human expression (e.g., Index) in his work.
Paul helped me in ways that surpassed poetry into how to live life. If I had a crazy ex-boyfriend story, he had a crazy story about an old nutty buddy that blew mine away. If I had a crazy weekend story, he had one from when he was hangin' with the African militia in Nigeria. Or maybe a poem aspiring toward math (????) would remind him of when he worked on a project with Bucky Fuller. By no means am I suggesting that there was a one-upping quality to these stories and conversations. Paul had, quite honestly, lived more than I have. I ate it all up. I could hold my own in the wit department with him, and feel so blessed to have been his favorite student of all time. (Good one, huh?)
Hearing his passing put me into a deep funk because I thought of all the knowledge and human experience and laughter he had and exuded. How is it possible that not one more student will ever get the Paul Violi workshop experience? No one will get that "eye" -- that knowing glance and nod. The succinct 10 word précis of what it took a class ten minutes to mull over. No one will converse with their friend Paul again.
Fans and friends of Paul Violi, please be comforted in the fact that he has touched so many of us all with his poems and his teachings. It's our responsibility to take his lessons and laughter and fun perspective into our own classrooms, onto our own barstool, to our own courtyards, behind our own podiums at poetry readings. This man, who was so charitable and talented and will be in our hearts for life. And most importantly, his eleven books will grace the bookshelves far after we-who-are-here-now shall pass.
I miss you, Paul. Who the hell am I going to look up to now?