On February 11th, over a hundred colleagues, family, friends, former students, and admirers gathered in Wollman Hall at The New School to celebrate the poetry of the late Paul Violi and to launch a posthumous collection of his poems, Selected Poems 1970-2007 (Ginko Press, 2014), edited by Violi’s lifelong friends, authors Charles North and Tony Towle. Violi, who died in April 2011, had published a dozen collections of poetry, including Overnight (Hanging Loose Press, 2007), Breakers: New and Selected Poems (Coffee House Press, 2000), In Baltic Circles (Kulchur Press, 1973), and Waterworks (Toothpaste Press, 1972). During his lifetime, he had been internationally anthologized and awarded numerous honors and grants, including two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award, and The Morton Dauwen Zabel Award.
Growing up in New York, Violi was not only a prolific writer but versatile in his endeavors. He graduated with a B.A. in English and a minor in Art History from Boston University, traveled through Africa, Asia, and Europe during his time in the Peace Corps, worked for television, served as managing editor of The Architectural Forum, organized readings at the Museum of Modern Art while he was the chairman of the Associate Council Poetry Committee, co-founded Swollen Magpie Press, and taught at Sing Sing prison and numerous universities, including The New School’s graduate writing program.
Even before David Lehman, Poetry Coordinator of the Writing Program and co-host took the podium to welcome the guests, Violi’s influence as a poet as well as a beloved professor was evident in the camaraderie that filled the room. The enthusiastic chatter about Violi’s poetry, the experience of working with him and sitting in his classrooms that pervaded Wollman Hall was so great, someone might have expected Violi himself to walk into the room.
Lehman, who had anthologized Violi’s poem “Index” before he met the man of honor, recounts the time a hired driver had gotten him, Violi, Susan Wheeler, Elaine Equi, and Charles North lost in New Jersey, in a “situation perfectly poised between the ridiculous and the reprehensible.” Violi however, “[made] the best of an ignoble situation,” revealing he was just as, if not more entertaining than his poems.
Lehman notes that Violi was not only an accomplished poet, cherished professor, and “a boon companion,” but also “a fine writer and editor [whose] tact and judgment…would have made him a most astute and valuable critic if he had wanted such a career.” In a letter Violi sent Lehman, Violi wrote: “poems are supposed to compete with each other—that’s part of the fun, seeing where and how you try to top yourself.”
Perhaps it was Violi’s self-competing motivation that made his poems accessible, humorous, witty, and satisfying.
“Paul had a genius”—Towle said—“for taking absolutely unpromising prosaic material…and turning it into poetry.”
“All of us at The New School are committed to Paul’s memory”—said Laura Cronk, Associate Director of the Writing Program and co-host of the event—“working to nurture and develop the kind of poets that he did, with kindness, seriousness, good humor, and a vital enthusiasm for the arts.”
Lehman also had a hand in preserving Violi’s work and memory.
“When [Tony Towle] and I first brought the idea of a Paul Violi poetry prize to David [Lehman]”—North said—“he loved it and set it in motion. And when we approached him about a book signing for [Violi's Selected Poems: 1970-2007, he was very eager to do that too and I don’t think either one would have happened without David.”
After Violi’s death in 2011, the New School established the Paul Violi Poetry Prize for second-year poetry students in The New School's graduate program. Plans to expand the prize are already in motion. The proceeds for Selected Poems: 1970-2007, copies of which were donated by Rebel Arts and Ginko Press, will not only perpetuate the Paul Violi Prize but also, as Lehman noted, “attract seed money for an eventual Paul Violi Poetry Fellowship.”
North, Towle, and the four winners of the prize since its inception--Alexandra Bennett, Alex Crowley, Carson Donnelly, and Justin Sherwood--read poems from the book.
“I imagine the pleasure the sight of this group would give to someone gazing from a higher vantage point,” said Cronk. “To quote Paul on his poem, ‘Snorkeling with Captain Bravo,’ ‘be a true seeker and fall forever upward like an angel bloop bloop bloop.’”
Lehman also read from his poem, "Romulus and Remus" which he had written in honor of Violi: “My late friend/ Paul Violi, whom I still see in the street/ Sometimes, walking along at an unhurried pace/ So if I walk fast I will catch up to him at the corner/ Before the light turns green.”
To which Violi, had he been there, might have responded with his poem, “Toward a February Songbook:” “Ah, now February is springtime for gray/ And I’m at my lighthearted best./ Heart as light as a hornet’s nest.”
Hearing Violi’s poems read aloud brought on an air of nostalgia, uproars of laughter, and a feeling of gratification akin to finding a steaming bowl of boeuf bourguignon upon returning home on a windy winter’s night.