Jim Paul Guides The UA Poetry Center Into New Territory.
By J. Uschuk
AUGUST 28, 2000: Poet and writer Jim Paul says he believes in "moving on to the next new thing." Last winter that next level led him from a 20-year freelance writing career in San Francisco to a position as director of the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Good fortune had smiled on Tucson.
Asked what brought him here, Jim Paul grins and says in his best Spanish accent, "el destino." He first came to town en route to Ecuador, when a friend living in Tucson enticed him into an overnight stay. "Tucson is what San Francisco used to be," he explains, "before the dot-com people came in." Reminded of San Francisco's Mission District in the old, bohemian days, Jim Paul appreciates the strong arts community here.
When the poetry center's directorship came open, Paul says he felt like "a key that fit the slot." He quit his 18-year residence, rented a truck, and drove down across the desert.
Now celebrating its 40th year of existence, the poetry center is in the process of seeking a permanent home. The three bungalows that currently are able to house only a fraction of the center's great wealth of books are slated to be torn down to make way for a parking lot. "We're like refugees with an endowment," Paul says, "just one step ahead of the bulldozer."
Jim Paul views the poetry center as an underused resource and a prime subject for his next "creative project." "I see no split between work and art," Paul says enthusiastically. His ambition is huge. He plans to raise upwards of $4 million for a new facility.
The center, which is nearly self-sufficient, was set up in 1960 through a fund from Ruth Stephan--a student of Zen Buddhism, poet, and heir to the Walgreen's fortune. Paul keeps her picture above his desk. "She's my patron saint," he says.
Paul's artistic career has taken a winding path to fulfill a destiny of its own. Paul began to write poetry in high school and college, achieving prestigious publications in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. At one time he was interested only in being a poet and living a poet's life.
Then came graduate school.
Attracted to the moderns, Hart Crane especially, Paul found the University of Michigan's English department deficient in that area. So he turned to Medieval literature, drawn by the historical study (as opposed to critical theory) required for this field.
After being awarded his Ph.D. in 1977, Paul accepted a tenure-track position at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. It took five years to realize that the life of academia was not for him.
He tells a story of constructing a chess set that illustrates his feelings about maintaining an academic repetition: "I wanted to carve a chess set and I was OK until I got to the pawns. There were two kings, two queens, two of each piece, and that I could do. But you need 16 pawns, and I just couldn't keep carving the same piece over and over. I never would have finished it."
From job security in the Midwest, Paul made a speedy transition to the artist's life in San Francisco.
In 1990, after being awarded a residency at the Headland Center for the Arts, Paul found himself the only writer among the visual artists who displayed their work in their studios. Not to be deterred, he wrote on the walls. The "Sheetrock Project," as he calls it, consisted of 300 to 400 pages of manuscript that covered 16 panels of wallboard. Ungainly as this ongoing journal proved to be, Jim Paul found that the first layer of a book lay upon the drywall.
Harcourt Brace published Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon in 1991. This book catalogues the process by which Paul and his artist friend Harry found funding for and constructed a working catapult on the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco. Paul finds an "ancient rock," a chunk of Red Creek quartzite, that he hopes will "let [him] feel some intimate connection to the immensities of the past," but airport officials mistake the rock for a weapon. This leads him to the idea for the catapult and a fascinating study on weaponry from antiquity to the present.
Two years later, Paul's second book, What's Called Love, saw publication. This book chronicles an obsessive love affair and a desperate trip to France. Paul draws upon stories of Stendhal, Proust, Petrarch and other frustrated lovers, as he again casts himself in the main role. Jim falls deeply for L., a beautiful and conflicted woman half his age; mixed feelings provide him with tortured inner dialogues and meditations on the history of obsessive, unrequited love. Paul "leaves the lovers panting on the urn" in this delightfully candid book.
Medieval in LA, Paul's third book, is, like the others, labeled as fiction. Here Jim Paul contrasts his self-proclaimed "Medieval mindset" with his life as a modern man. He meditates on the fact that "we have all this information about the actual world ... yet we still live mostly in the old realm, at the center of our own universe, finding our significance, manifesting our own intentions."
Synchronicity figures largely into this scheme, as does the fact that we "ultimately can't know" the truth. Again Paul demonstrates his love of research, recalling diverse trains of thought from Copernicus and Thomas Aquinas to Bertolt Brecht.
Paul regards these works as fiction because they are "novelistic in shape," even though they are factually accurate. Ongoing narratives, they employ the technique of fiction writers while exploring the boundaries of the novel.
The Rune Poem, Paul's favorite of his works, took 20 years in translation. The work gives the names and meanings of the 29 runes used by Germanic warrior tribes. Runes functioned as "supernatural symbols incorporated into divine lore of the north," Paul explains. The poem and the runes bring a touching beauty to the memory of these "people of the horse, riding in the forest." Paul plans to reissue this book soon.
Jim Paul lives in his "sweet casita" on a street bearing the same name as his mother. He writes every day and describes his next work as "a real novel" with a third-person narrator. Attached above his door are runes that translate into what could be an apt metaphor for his art: "Sustenance for the body, glory for the soul."
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