Paul Violi: An Appreciation, by Jo Pitkin

(Jo Pitkin is the author of her own wonderful chapbook, The Measure. I thank her for this guest blog about a poet whom I met in passing at the Woodstock Poetry Festival years ago.)

In 2006, I contacted Paul Violi to see if he would be interested in reading at my local library. This might not seem like a big deal. But it was. I live in Putnam County, the same one in which Paul lived. At the time, this entire county had one struggling independent bookstore (which has since shut its doors), no open mikes, no regular reading series, and very few, if any, literary readings by nationally recognized writers. Indeed, Poets & Writers dubbed our teeny county “one of the most underserved in New York” in terms of literary programming.

Given the circumstances, it took a lot to have Paul read. First of all, I didn’t know him personally. I had only met him briefly after a reading in a series curated by Billy Collins. I had no idea how Paul would react to my invitation. After looking up his number in the local phone book, I called him out of the blue. My invitation must have seemed like a prank—I could hear the hesitation in Paul’s voice when I invited him to read. I’m sure he was thinking, “Who is this woman? A reading in Putnam County?” I quickly explained that I had been successfully organizing literary events locally since 2002 and rattled off names of some previous readers, including Michael Burkard and Malena Mörling. By the end of our conversation, Paul had graciously accepted my invitation.

Second, I had to get approval to use the library—one of our few community spaces—as a venue. The director and staff were totally on board and later did a great job of promoting the event with flyers, press releases, a book display, and so on.

Finally, I had to secure substantial funding. When I initially talked to Paul, he had rather firmly quoted me his usual reading fee. “I can do that,” I told him. So I did. In the fall of 2006, the library’s director and I successfully applied for funding from the Putnam County Arts Council, which was all too happy to say yes to a rare application for a literary event.

My idea was to pair Paul, a “local” poet from Putnam Valley, with someone from outside the community. So I also invited Frannie Lindsay, whom I had first met in 1977 at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, to read. If you know their work, you can imagine that it was an unusual but interesting pairing.

For me, their reading was an intimate experience. Frannie, traveling from another state, stayed with me in my office/guest cottage. Since I wanted to have a chance to meet Paul prior to the reading, I asked him to meet us for dinner. On the evening of the reading, Paul and his wife Ann drove the short distance from their home to a restaurant, Cathryn’s Tuscan Grill, on Main Street.

Over dinner, we talked amiably about things that we tentatively had in common: Boston, my studying briefly with Paul’s New School colleague David Lehman in the late ‘70s, other poets. But what I remember most about my very few conversations with Paul is swapping wildlife stories with him. My best one involved a six-foot-long black snake that climbed up a tree and slithered onto my roof; Paul’s was about an intrusive raccoon that once invaded his kitchen.

The reading itself, which took place in June 2007, went without a hitch. I was pleased that the audience was attentive and engaged, and I was impressed that some people even drove a long way to hear Paul and Frannie. It was an occasion that—like the best of readings—gave the listeners a chance to experience poetry’s breadth of style, tone, and craft.

Paul’s wry sense of humor is one of the aspects of his work that I appreciate. Another is his ability to embrace our shared landscape. This snippet from “Envoy” in Overnight (Hanging Loose Press, 2007) exemplifies both qualities:

Here—Welcome to Putnam Valley
New York
Population: 9,500
Elevation: Infrequent

It is often somewhat startling to read a poem that is set in a familiar locale and to recognize its particulars from experience. As a reader, I’m used to drawing on my imagination and on a writer’s use of descriptive details to help me picture a scene. One of Paul’s poems from Overnight brings to life a hiking trail that friends introduced me to one autumn day.

Along Canopus Creek South of Sunken Mine Road

Sunlight above the wreckage,
As startling a gap in the woods
As grief of a collapsed building
Leaves on a city block.

Creek clogged, hillside impassable,
Criss-crossed with fallen oak and pine.
Ragged holes, root mounds, clubs of rock
And clay pried up like tin can lids.

The gale that tore through here last year,
Its roar stopped a moment ago.
A place fraught with immanent opposites,
A sense of aftermath and onslaught.

In the steep uphill glare,
The menace of a rearing dark;
In the looming hush, plunging masts
Of a devastated fleet.

Without the weight those great trees held,
The full sail of leaves and limbs,
With nothing for the wind to grab onto,
Only the dead were left standing.

Paul Violi passed away on April 2, 2011. I’m so glad I made that call.

(A variation of this piece first appeared at bestamericanpoetryblog.)

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