Earlier this year I created my first class with Paul Violi, which was an attempt to know more about the poet’s inventive writing style and strategies for navigating life’s great joys and uncertainties. I scoured the Internet for clues on Violi’s literary habits, international forays, and teaching work. The search returned extensive praise for his poetry and overwhelming anecdotes on who he was as a friend and colleague.
Continuing my hunt, a website listing the poet’s surname surfaced. I was curious, as the site had nothing to do with creative writing. It was instead for a personal trainer named Alex Violi. The photos on the site revealed an extremely fit individual, someone who pushed himself to the limits of physical prowess. Might this be the grown-up version of the Alexander mentioned in Violi’s “Little Testament”? I wondered.
Responding to my inquiry, Alex confirmed that he was indeed the poet’s son, and in true Violi fashion, he amiably agreed to speak with me. We met one evening last February at Saint Alp’s Teahouse in the East Village. Alex wore all black and his head was shaved except for a mohawk leading into a braided ponytail. He spoke with a quiet confidence, and it wasn’t long before I saw the “golden attitude” that his father had used to describe him. Alex’s own sly humor flashed in between reflections of his father’s life and insights into the ways their lives converged. The following is an excerpt of our conversation.
How do you feel that you and your dad are alike?
He told me that we were alike in the way that we knew right away who we would like and who we wouldn’t like – who we could be around and who we knew we couldn’t be around. I guess he had a good read on people, and he said that I did as well. I think that just comes from being in New York. You learn how to read people throughout the years. Eventually you just get good at it. But we would debate as well.
Are there ways that you see yourself as being different from your dad?
Yeah. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. He was a heavy, heavy smoker. I couldn’t stand it. I don’t eat meat. He was a huge meat eater. He hated gyms. I hate gyms, but it’s also like a love-hate thing. He drove in. I take the subway.
I also lost my license for speeding, so I guess in that way we’re really similar, too. He lost his. He used to get really mad at me for my habit of getting speeding tickets. And then I found out he was getting his license suspended around the same time. So that argument stopped. I guess it was genetic. I don’t know.
This is interesting because there’s his poem “Extenuating Circumstances,” which is directed to a police officer who’s just pulled him over:
I don’t know how fast I was going
but, even so, that’s still
an intriguing question, officer,
and deserves a thoughtful response.
With the radio unfurling
Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, you might
consider anything under 80 sacrilege.
particularly on a parkway as lovely
as the one you’re fortunate enough
to patrol – and patrol so diligently.
And I never put two and two together. But I found out that he had to go to court and explain to the judge why he was going 37 miles over the speed limit or whatever it was. Luckily, the cop didn’t show up, so he got out of a $650 ticket, and he was in a much better mood. He warned me that if I drove around looking the way I did that I would get pulled over all the time and I would get tickets, and he was absolutely right.
So your dad warns you and says, “Hey, there could be a perception about you.”
Well yeah, he said a little bit more than that. It wasn’t that politically correct, but yeah.
I wouldn’t consider his look to be counterculture in any way.
I found the pictures. He would definitely give me grief about having long hair, a mohawk and stuff when I was like thirteen or fourteen. And then I was going through his stuff, and I found pictures of him. I didn’t even recognize him at first with really long hair leaning against a motorcycle and he has side burns, and that was like my ticket. Now I had a chip to argue with. When they would say, “Well that was the way everybody looked then,” I was like, “Well this is the way my friends and me look now.” Eventually he just ended up becoming mad at the cops that would pull me over all the time. He took my side more so.
We always got along well, pretty much always. But the older I got the better we got along, which tends, I think, to happen to most men. As they become men, they kind of see where their father was coming from more.
Putnam Valley. I’ve never been there.
No reason to ever go. It’s about 40 minutes up the road.
Your parents chose to live there even though your dad was, for the most part, working in the city.
He commuted a lot at night, or he would come back a lot at night, so I guess it wasn’t that bad. He probably made it there in 45 minutes, hence the speeding tickets. It was cool, though, since he worked down here and I worked down here, we could still meet up, or I would bump into him.
A few years ago he was driving across the street, and he was swinging around the corner coming toward me. He waved me by, and I looked at him and I kind of raised my arm, and he was like “Oh!” So he pulled over, and we chatted for a while. So yeah, I would literally bump into him or almost get run over by him occasionally.
You and your dad have an interesting history with cars and driving. When you were growing up, what would a Saturday look like in your house?
I would be crawling into my dad’s office and annoying him when he was trying to write. You would always hear his typewriter. If the door did open, a huge cloud of smoke would come out of his office, and he would kind of be revealed through it as he walked out. It was like a movie or a play every single time he walked out of his office.
Do you have a lot of memories of him writing?
Yeah, it was constant. If he wasn’t grading papers he was writing, or trying to write, with two kids, and a wife, and a dog, and two cats, and neighbors. We made it challenging, especially me, because I was the youngest and I was there.
Do you remember what he would say to you if you were bothering him?
He usually didn’t get angry, especially when I was younger. He was good at steering me in a constructive direction. I do remember always hearing the typewriter. Always. I know some of that may not of been him writing. It was probably him grading papers a lot, stuff more for work as well.
As a teacher, I think that’s inspiring. He took a lot of time with his students’ papers.
He was very “marathon.” When he would start work, he wouldn’t stop. He already had coffee with him. I think he could get an incredible amount done in a very short period of time. He put a lot into it. That was one time you couldn’t disturb him. When he was grading papers, he was very, very focused on grading papers.
I like that consistent memory of always hearing a typewriter. I’m wondering what it’s like to grow up with a poet-father?
I’m not sure I was aware when I was younger that he and his friends were poets. I thought they were teachers. I knew they wrote, but I don’t think I understood the gravity of the situation. He was pretty humble about that side of his life. If you’re not in that scene, you don’t know that any of those guys he was hanging out with, be it Tony Towle or Billy Collins or whoever, if you’re not familiar with that world, you don’t know that they’re known. To me it was just like my dad’s friends. They would come over in the summertime and have barbeques. They would do that every summer. His friends would come up, come up to Kelly’s, Tony Towle and some other people from that whole circle, and stay for a few days. I don’t think I was aware that they were – I don’t even know if I knew they were published at that point. I do remember going to his readings when I was a kid. That’s when I became more exposed to that world.
Do you remember having some sort of feeling seeing your dad read his work?
I always knew he was good. I always knew that he had a presence that a lot of people didn’t have regardless of whether or not I understood the content.
You went to a reading when you were like thirteen at St. Mark’s Church. There may have been like 80 or 90 people there, and Allen Ginsberg might’ve been there, but you don’t know who that is. You don’t know that 80 or 90 people are a good crowd for a poetry reading because you think that’s not very many people. Until you get immersed in it you don’t really get it at that age. But when I would see him read, he had a presence and a voice that people seemed to respond very well to. And he had a humor, and you could always tell when somebody hadn’t heard him read before. They were always laughing. Loud.
Do you remember a moment when it clicked and you understood more fully who your dad was?
In my early twenties I think it started to occur to me that he was really, really good at this. But still, though, if he did win an award or something, he wouldn’t tell me. A lot of his friends and neighbors didn’t know that he had anything to do with writing or poetry, at all. I think they knew he was a teacher, but I don’t even think they knew he was a professor.
What do you think it was inside of him that he didn’t need to have this status, and to say to people, “I am this, this, and this”?
Well once when I was like sixteen or seventeen and still living at home, I got off the phone and I told him, “I think me and my band mate are actually going to get paid like $400 to play this show.” And he was like, “Wow, that’s poet money.” That’s kind of the only thing he said to indicate he was a writer. He would never really bring it up. That’s really the only time I remember that he referenced – I guess he didn’t even reference himself as a writer.
Do you think that if your dad could have done something else he would have chosen a profession besides teaching?
It would be hard to picture him not teaching or writing. I mean, I’ve seen him do other things in a literal sense, but as a career it would be really hard to imagine him not doing that. It’d be like having a Porsche and not driving it. It’d be weird.
You’ve probably seen this poem, but you’re in one of the pieces in the Selected Works:
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,
the 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.
I remember that, yes. I was wondering which one it would be. Luckily it was one that flattered me.
What is it like to show up in your dad’s writing?
In that way?
Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about that?
He enjoyed hearing stories about me in those kind of weird situations. And I enjoyed hearing stories about him in situations where it might’ve gotten sketchy for a second but he came out all right.
If someone had only three hours with your dad, how should they spend the time to get to know him?
You’d have to be in a situation with him where somebody had somewhat of a violent reaction toward him so you could see his sense of humor. You have to go through these things in life to get to know somebody. So hopefully it would be a really adventurous three hours. Maybe go through airport security. I don’t know.
You have this unique perspective because you’ve seen a writer’s life, both when you were aware of it and when it was just in your subconscious. Now you’re in the health and fitness world, and you know that lifestyle very well. Do you make any connections between the two realms?
I think what people don’t realize is that if you want to do anything on that kind of level, like if you want to be a writer, it’s a lot of work. It’s definitely been pointed out to me that a lot of people say they’re writers but the amount of hours, endless, endless hours that go into actually being a writer, I don’t know if I could ever do that. Even if I had the ability, I don’t know if I could put that much time in. It’s a unique discipline, and I think you just have to have it.
One of my clients pointed that out to me, too. Anybody can say that they’re a trainer, but if you’re not training people or if you’re not coaching people, you’re not a coach. If you’re not at least attempting to write anything, you’re not a writer. And if you don’t have whatever it takes to put all the time into that, and especially that kind of writer – poetry, that’s a very unique thing. It’s not an account of actual events all the time necessarily.
That’s interesting coming from your perspective because I feel like there is insane discipline associated with your field also.
To me, it’s not discipline because it’s just what I get up and go do. And there are people that I know that make me look like a ninety-year-old woman. And they take it to a whole other level of actual insanity.
If you were going to speak for your father, and there was an aspiring young poet or writer, what do you think he would say as a form of advice?
I don’t know if he would necessarily be comfortable telling a younger person, “Don’t worry about your rent, just go all in.” But it’s a different environment now. There’s the Internet. You can’t really sell stuff. People can just view what you’ve written or music you made or whatever. I think these days you kind of have to have a job as well. You know? Even he was a teacher. You kind of have to have some kind of job. People don’t buy anything anymore. They don’t buy books. They don’t buy music.
But I think he would say to be all in, dedicated. He would tell me he would never go out during the week. Ever. They would just study all week long when they were in school. And on the weekend occasionally they would go out. And I think they would go crazy when they went out on the weekends, but they would never go out during the week. They would just study.
That was when he was in college?
Yeah, I remember him telling me that. I think that’s something he took very seriously. Even though you’re young at that age, I think that’s when you decide in a way if you’re really capable of doing it, if you’re willing to put that much into it.
One more question to spin off of that. If we were just going to ask your dad for advice on living, what do you think he might say?
Don’t date anybody who has more problems than you do. Hope I don’t get in trouble for that one (laughs). But that was good advice! I wish I had taken it.
Anything else you would add?
He did say to me, “Life is one hard thing after another hard thing.” So thick skin helps, especially if you’re going to live in this city. And he was really nice, especially in his critique of people, but a lot of people aren’t.
Alex Violi is a certified personal trainer and strength and conditioning coach. He has over a decade’s experience training clients of all abilities and levels in New York City.
Alex Bennett received her MFA from The New School in 2013, where she won the Paul Violi Poetry Prize. Her writing has appeared in The Sosland Journal, The Best American Poetry Blog, The New School Writing Program Blog, Insights Magazine, and elsewhere. She teaches at Parsons School of Design.