INTERVIEW: This Ain't Raphael, This Is Crayola.
12th Street, Issue 1, spring 2008, New School University, N.Y., N.Y
Juta Geurtsen talks to Paul Violi about his poem "House of Xerxes" from Violi's new book of poems, Overnight.
Juta Geurtsen: How did this poem begin? What inspiration led you to fuse the worlds of fashion and popular culture with one of the critical events in ancient history, the Persian Invasion of Greece?
Paul Violi: I'd just subscribed to satellite TV and found myself overwhelmed by the hundreds of channels available, one of which was devoted solely to fashion shows. This was terra incognita to me. When it comes to things sartorial I can most kindly describe myself as frumpy. Fashion is one of these wonderful arts I haven't paid much attention to, though even I could tell Gianni Versace was a genius. Anyway, it was the language-- I was simultaneously amused and repulsed by the commentary. A lot of it was mindless verbiage but also relentless, entertaining, rife with metaphors, rhythmic, lively phrasing, originality, sly tonal variations and asides. At the time, I was also immersed in a translation of Herodotus by Robin Waterfield. When I got to the part where Xerxes' army crosses the Hellespont, the famous catalogue that describes what each contingent of his million-man army was wearing, the armor and weaponry, I thought it was the greatest runway show in history. And of course it precedes a hubristic invasion that led to catastrophe, which struck a contemporary note.
JG :The poem moves fluidly between masculine and feminine elements. For example, "A little raggedy, a little trashy/yet a narrow silhouette./ Narrow but masculine for sure. Just what are these boys up to?" How does this play on ideas of masculinity and femininity serve the poem?
PV: I was looking more for an epicene voice. The poem was first published years before that 300 film appeared, and though I still haven't seen it, the stills I saw of steroid warriors-well, it was as if a hyper-sensitive voice were providing run-on commentary for such a film or a World Championship Wrestling match. The unreality, the absurdity of such a show, the contrast and incongruity seemed easy enough or deserving enough to exploit.
JG: Was this poem written with a specific audience in mind?
PV: I don't write poems with an audience in mind. That would only crowd me.
JG: How do you see humor as essential to the tone and subject?
PV: The bathos was irresistible, the anachronisms enjoyable. There are different types of satire, of course; in this case, it's pretty broad. Blunt weaponry aimed at humanity's failures. This ain't Raphael, this is Crayola. I mean this is warfare and we are susceptible to the excitement, the verbal and visual spectacle, which distracts us from the madness of the reality.
JG: A lot of the language in this poem seems as if it could be overheard under the tents at Bryant Park during Fashion Week. How did you arrive at this language?
PV: The way an actor takes on a character. It's imitation. The persona is oblivious to the irony of his remarks, and is more caught up in the artistry of his delivery.
JG: I am interested in the varying ways in which you use the word "cane" throughout the poem, from the line "Somebody's been smitten by cane", to the cane bows, right up to the final line, "We're raising cane!" What inspired the inclusion of cane?
PV: The problem was not to make the play on Cain and Abel too heavy-handed until the end. I had to tinker a bit, getting "able" in the closing lines without its sounding forced. And there's the self-indulgent, totally obscure play on their respective etymology, spear for Cain and breath for Abel.
JG: Did the form demand the poem or did the poem demand the form?
PV: They arrived at the same time, holding hands. The job of these commentators is to sustain the excitement, phony or genuine, hip or desperately attempting to sound hip. It's theatre. The arrival of another contingent of the army matched a different model walking down the runway, and hence a new stanza, so that was easy. I got sloppy and loose with the facts and shuffled some stanzas to maintain the momentum. The big problem for me was the length; when I'm having a good time I lose track of time. I had to cut the poem back more than once, switch stanzas, trim phrases right up to the book galleys.
JG: Can you describe the process of developing this poem from its early draft to publication.
PV: It was a long time ago, but as I recall I knew I was onto a longer poem, a fast one. Keep it basic, keep it simple. One speaker instead of two. I had the materials, I knew what I wanted to do. I took notes, like a pile of clay, and let the rhythm mold it.
JG: Where does the poem stand culturally? Where do you see it standing politically?
PV: To an extent, the poem is about hucksterism. Indirectly, it's serious satire against the Iraq war. The language of advertisement and commercials is endemically deceptive and devious, a predominantly meretricious enterprise. Politics is more and more determined by marketing and advertising. Let the inferences fall where they may, but the influence of major news media on politics seems more powerful than ever. Yet I was astounded by how the press ignored or downplayed the argument over why the U.S. was invading Iraq, and as a blatant red herring, or so it seemed, played up "embedded" reporters who appeared more interested in what soldiers were wearing and their video game weaponry than on dealing with the reasons advanced to justify the invasion. It struck me as negligence that bordered on complicity.
JG: Would you call it a "political poem"?
PV: Again, to an extent. But I like to think there's more going on. I'm not against writing such poems. They're risky-so many are ephemeral, topical, hackneyed, preaching to the choir. But how can you ignore politics if you're awake in this world and care for what's going on. As Cicero said, "If you don't know history you'll forever be a child." In other words, ignorant and easily manipulated. Perhaps, it's more a "history poem". Ever since I was a kid I enjoyed reading history and it always seemed one of the natural things to do in poetry, though I didn't see much of it in contemporary work I admired.
JG: How much is the voice of "House of Xerxes" carried over into other poems in Overnight?
PV: I don't think there's anything else in the book like it.--Hold it! I take that back. There are a couple of other poems in Overnight that it resembles, namely one or two of the monologues in "I.D., or Mistaken Identities" where the voice is in the forefront, the character and imagery as obvious as cartoon figures.