When the poet Paul Violi passed away last spring, his friends and colleagues created a poetry prize in his honor. It is a fitting tribute, considering he inspired incredible loyalty and enthusiasm in his students at the New School’s MFA program, where he taught until his illness.
Alex Crowley, a recent poetry graduate, won the first Paul Violi Poetry Prize. He will join dozens of poets who will share Paul's work at a memorial reading on Friday, December 2 at 6:30 p.m.at the New School (Lang Center, 55 W 13 St, NYC). The thirty-year-old grew up in Central Massachusetts, studied sociology at Vassar, and has lived in New York for seven years. You can find him writing in Bushwick, running the Mental Marginalia Poetry Series in Williamsburg and jamming with his post-hardcore band Warmth.
I had an opportunity to interview Alex at The WEST café in Brooklyn last week. But first, I'll share a poem from his winning submission:
First Time As Industry, Second Time As Dross
All the mills I know are factory outlets now.
Museums for modern art or condominiums
With glossy sales brochures. This one has its own water taxi.
The one next door, a spa. Free of Bolsheviks and other neighborhood delinquents
They've found a way to scam & cheat on the collective
Bargaining agreement. Now is not the time to quote
The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
Or tell everyone about my indigestion, how it stems from an anxiety
Over chronic indigestion. Am I getting enough fiber? My skin's begun to seep
Caffeine. Every day I ponder quitting, thinking that might make me
Better as a person or a lover; a green
Patina on weathered copper. Exactly what
I’m still not sure yet. I’ve lost the manual for how
To replace this multicolored vinyl siding. Gimme clutter, maybe paste
To make pastiche. Wipe the grease off
Grubby fingers, stubbled workers grumbling on
About pulled punches and pork sandwiches. The menu changes
Day to day. It would be nice to feel invested, have some input
On an outcome, not just paid to waste my time
Corroding in the bowels.
SP: Did you get a chance to study with Paul Violi?
AC: I didn’t ever get a chance to work with him, although one thing that is really cool is everybody that was really close with him says, ‘He would have liked your work, and he probably would have liked you because you’re on the fringes of things.’ All the stuff I’ve read of his is brilliant. I’m excited for this event, the Paul Violi Memorial Reading in December, because I think he’s someone who should continue to be recognized, just given the effect he’s had on our peers and people that are good friends of mine, people who loved him so much.
SP: What most inspires you about his work?
AC: His ability to transform the mundane into the extraordinary. That’s one of those things I think people are talking about when they ask, ‘Can you teach writing?’ The ability to take something that you observe regularly and find that place in it where you can just poke that place, and it just transforms into something new. You don’t just look at that thing differently; you look at the whole world differently. I think that’s what writers like us are seeking in some measure. We have all this material -- where do we start poking it? How do we know when it’s transformed? There's no way to know if the equation is going to work beforehand but you know when you get to the end if the equation doesn’t work.
AC: I had sent work out to five different places, and I had just gotten my fourth rejection out of that pile. [Poets] Christian Ochoa and Kevin Shea were texting me the news [that I had won the prize], and I thought they were playing a practical joke on me. When I found out, I was sort of taken aback. I’m really happy with it. It was a nice way to get acknowledgement of my work.
SP: What were you thinking about when you wrote the poems you submitted?
AC: Those were written the previous summer and fall. By the time May rolled around, I was finishing my thesis, and my personal life was in turmoil. It was a really, really conflicted period from late April through May. It’s kind of an odd blur of things, which is another reason I was shocked. Coming out of that time, everything I’ve been working on is really different.
AC: Writing often ends up being the way I work out my own mental issues. It’s always been that way. I’m just sort of a ponderer. If I’m sort of sated or happy or doing well in certain respects, my work suffers from a bit of complacency. The things that happened in the beginning of spring really spurred me on. I can’t help but work, basically. I also am in a band, and we’ve been consistently productive in this time as well.
SP: Do you write songs, too?
AC: Yeah. Me and my drummer co-write everything. It’s a very collaborative process, whereas poems are very individual. You go into a practice space, write a bunch of riffs, jam out on stuff, and it slowly congeals. I’ve actually been able to translate a lot of what I’ve learned in the [New School MFA] program over to doing music, which has been invaluable, and vice versa.
SP: How does music inform your poetry?
AC: I see the way that the world of poetry works on its different levels. You have mainstream poets and people who are well known, and then you have this vast, vast underground or below-the-radar stuff that to me is just a lot more interesting and a lot more challenging and a lot more fulfilling. That’s the world I exist in musically, and it’s the world I’ve come to embrace in poetry. And it’s opened its arms to me, too. I’m pretty much completely unknown, but the connections I’ve made are all in that world and it’s where I feel most at home.
SP: Along those lines, how do you think poets of our generation are shaping the world of poetry, or will in the future?
AC: One thing I see repeatedly is people talking about the dire state of American poetry, which I find flabbergasting because there are so many of us doing this. Just the sheer number of really cool journals out there both in print and online [Forklift, Ohio; Caketrain; Sixth Finch; LIT]. I went to AWP [The Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference] in the spring, and Table X was basically the weirdoes and the punk kids and the island of misfit toys for poetry. Everybody’s super-supportive of each other’s work, and it’s a great place to put stuff out there and fail and be able to get back up and do something else and see what happens. It’s very fertile and very regenerative, or just generative in the first place.
SP: When you say “place,” do you mean this unspoken community?
AC: Yeah. It’s so vast. The Mental Marginalia series is a good example.
SP: What’s your ultimate goal for the reading series?
AC: Just to be fun and different. I didn’t go to poetry readings. When I was in college it was all spoken word stuff, and I was never at home there. It was just a lot of the really stereotypical people getting up and reading really self-interested, self-focused poems to a room of semi catatonic people, you know? I think that is unfortunately the dominant view of what happens, whereas I have seen so much more lively stuff in the world. People come out and say, ‘that was so much fun.’
Nobody goes out to a [music] show to not have a good time. You would leave, and I think it’s the same way with a poetry reading. If you go and it’s boring, why would you stay? You should leave. You’ve got to make it fun. There’s a performative aspect. Even if I’m reading stuff at home, I don’t want to be bored by that either. I don’t want to be bored by anything – life is too short to be bored. There’s too much awesome stuff in the universe.
SP: How did this New York MFA community come together?
AC: One cool thing that happened last year was Argos’ anthology Why I’m Not a Painter, [featuring MFA poetry students in New York City]. That was a great idea by them, and it brought a lot of people together because the programs don’t always overlap in the way you would expect them to.
SP: Have you always liked poetry?
AC: Umm, no. I’ve always written from the perspective of a musician. I didn’t even know people were still writing poetry in the way poetry is taught in high school. When I was in high school, I didn’t know anything was done after 1950. I had no idea. It wasn’t until about three or four years ago, and since then, one of the best things about getting into the MFA program was finding out what other people knew and what they were reading and where to go find it and read it. The thing that probably always held me back was not knowing what contemporaries were doing. Now I have stacks. My entire bedroom is filled with books. I can’t get to all of it fast enough.
SP: Which poets got your attention?
AC: My senior year in high school, our English teacher loved Yeats, so that’s as far as we got. I did a poetry project on E.E. Cummings just because he was the weirdest poet I had seen. In college, I knew Whitman’s collected works, then somebody gave me an Ashbery book. A girlfriend gave me a vintage book of contemporary American poetry. I tore through it and said, ‘this is fascinating. Now what are people my age doing?’
Going back to earlier, there’s so much good poetry out there. There is a far vaster amount of terrible poetry, but it’s the same as in any artistic medium. It’s the same as any field of anything. I don’t know pop music, and some people think I’m a fascinating anomaly because I go to metal shows. Poetry’s like that too.
SP: What is your process like?
AC: I always keep a notebook in my pocket. I’ll write stuff out, take everything from the notebook and punch it into the computer. I keep all of these long files.
One of the things I started doing this summer was listening to and watching science videos online and writing while the videos are playing.
SP: Do you incorporate found language?
AC: Oh yeah. I also have my own blog. I will cull a sentence from whatever I’m reading and then put it into a document, hyperlink it and then craft it into a prose poem. So you can read through them as if they’re prose poems, but also, it’s hyperlinked back to the original article so you can go read the article. And to me the important part is – I mean it’s very time consuming, which is the irony of it in the modern age – but you can go back and see what I was thinking when I put this together, why did I latch onto this sentence, why did I find this article interesting? There are a lot of consistent threads through there.
SP: I love that. It’s like creating a poetic map of your process.
AC: It’s like a weird way of using hypertext, in a way that I don’t know if anyone else is using it. … I just posted my 23rd today. I think the potential of all this stuff is – I like working with it.
Interview by Stephanie Paterik. Photo credits: back and white, by Ash Adams; Governor's Island, by Christian Ochoa.