10 Questions with Paul Marion

03/02/2007
By From the Lowell Sun

By David Perry
Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- By day, Paul Marion is director of community relations for UMass Lowell.

But at night, and other hours when he punches in on a different clock, he is a poet. At 53, Marion writes vignettes that showcase Lowell as a city of characters, and a city of character. He has published several previous collections of poetry, but his newest, What Is The City? (Evening Album Media), is his jigsaw vision of the city, featuring Dith Pran, Pinky, Manny and Maria, the Golden Gloves, Bob Dylan, mills, the river, the neighborhoods. Not to mention a first-person account of Johnny Depp's visit to Lowell in 1991, when he famously bought Jack Kerouac's raincoat. (Marion also edited Atop An Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings by Jack Kerouac.)

The job of a poet is at once simple and terribly complex. "Paying attention and doing the work," says Marion. "Writing."

He lives in Lowell with his wife, Rosemary Noon, and son Joseph, 12.

Q: What attracted you to poetry?

A: Really it was the compressed form of the composition. The power in that compression. And maybe because I grew up listening to three-minute singles.

Q: If one wanted to become a poet, what would one do?

A: Read. Read poetry. Read literature. Somehow get in your head the sound of words. If it helps to listen to music, that could work, too.

Q: How many are able to make a living of poetry?

A: If you define making a living as being paid for writing or reading your poetry as opposed to teaching poetry ... those who make a living off their own poetry, it's an infinitesimal number. Almost no one.

Q: What kind of effect does your day job at UMass Lowell have on your poetry?

A: Work takes up a lot of mind space every day. A full-time job crowds out what might be time for creative work. But the word "universe" is in university, and one hour I'll be dealing with nanotechnology, the next ice hockey, the next literature, or health care. It's a kind of microcosm of life here. And there are a lot of intellectually curious people doing innovative and creative things. It's a great setting. It's not like I'm making widgets every day down by the river.

Q: What do you think of Boston City Councilor John Tobin's proposal for a poet laureate for that city?

A: I think it's a sign of a lively community if they do that. It's a symbolic gesture toward arts and culture. If the right person is doing it, it could add a little texture to city life.

Q: What does poetry add to the life of a city?

A: Stories, meaning, a kind of reflection of the community's life. It's a sort of alternative kind of preservation. We preserve a lot of buildings, and poetry has a sort of documentary quality to it.

Q: In what way does Lowell lend itself to the poet?

A: The whole world is in Lowell. One of the great things about Lowell is that it is so various. Every drama you could imagine, every human condition, is here. And Lowell is of a scale you can get your mind around. It's not like Cleveland or L.A. But you have a shot at it with a city like Lowell.

Q: When poets get together, do you all speak in iambic pentameter?

A: (Laughs) When I get together with friends of mine who write poetry, we talk about life, the news, baseball. Years ago, I was doing a reading at a school and one of the kids asked, "Do you write all of your poems sitting under a tree?" There's this danger of stepping out on the poetry plank. Then again, if you walk up and down a typical street and asked people to name a living American poet, I don't think most people could name one.

Q: So, are poets undervalued in our society?

A: Underknown, maybe. You can't be undervalued if you're not known. People aren't aware of the amount of poetry that gets written in this country. The Def Jam poetry thing has had an impact in terms of exposing people to a certain brand of poetry and breaking through mainstream media. The overlap is the style, in the form of rap, and people being more attuned to the lyrics.

Q: People talk about pop musicians as poets. Is that ever true?

A: I think so. It goes back to lyric poetry. The idea of a voice and instrument coming together in some kind of compositional expression. And good lyrics will stand up to good poetry. I think some of the people, certainly in my lifetime, working in pop music can stand up on the page. And that's a key, something I struggle with all the time. Can it stand up on the page as opposed to the experience of just going in the ear? Bob Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell do it well.