Poetic Injustice

The fired director of the UA Poetry Center learns he shouldn't build an audience faster than a bankroll.

In the otherwise oblique, Machiavellian maze that is the University of Arizona, one thing's for certain: Jim Paul got the boot.

Indeed, only 14 months after being hired to head the UA Poetry Center, Paul is cooling his heels--and still drawing a good salary (funded by taxpayers, mind you)--while his predecessor, Alison Deming, steps back into her old role.

And get this: He wasn't fired--or "reassigned" in university-speak--for not putting in long hours, or for failing to effectively run the esteemed center, or for an inability to attract internationally acclaimed poets to the center's highly popular reading series. Nor was he dismissed for failing to keep the institution vibrant and contemporary, or for not tapping innovative ways to make poetry relevant to broad-ranging groups in the community.

Nope. According to his supporters, Jim Paul got fired because he wasn't a good little whore.

A whore, that is, for the UA's tribe of ivory tower fund-raising elites, and the long-dead, predominantly white wordsmiths they mostly hanker for.

Not that anyone will tell you this on the record, of course. Try to find exactly who prompted the sacking of Jim Paul, and the buck gets passed quicker'n corn through a goose.

But unfortunately, when it comes to heavy clout, fund-raisers are the folks increasingly wielding the UA's fiscal stick. Like self-serving barnacles, they cement themselves to the university vessel and set sail on a vast ocean of business networking, often to self-glorifying ends. Over power lunches at the Arizona Inn, they schmooze and cajole and bank on a public institution's prestige in order to build crustaceous monuments to themselves and their compatriots.

It's a corrupt money game, plain and simple. And it sanitizes like a charm: Even the likes of Kemper Marley--the sleazy, late liquor magnate irrefutably linked to the 1976 murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles--managed to get a UA building named after him when the family coughed up enough jack.

Yet sometimes this sanctimonious tribe oversteps even its own far-reaching bounds. Some alarmed poetry fans say it obviously did so in the case of Jim Paul.

But the story behind this ace grant writer who has also authored four books, is a Wallace Stegner fellow and boasts a Guggenheim award, is about much more than Jim Paul himself. It's about the direction of the Poetry Center nigh on its 40th anniversary, and about the ethics of university-related fund-raising that lets outside money hustlers dictate who gets what job.

Or in this case, who gets the door.

"The deeper story here is that the State Legislature is not paying for higher education," says one source, speaking off the record (typical for UA employees fearing retaliation). "And that means people like Jim Paul are supposed to go out hat-in-hand to people who have dough. And people who have dough have very different agendas from people who are otherwise involved in the community, or are even involved in higher education."

In other words, they're more interested in monuments than cutting-edge culture or thought.

"I think the agenda is out there that a good artist is a dead artist--long dead," says the source. "It's a conflict between contemporary art and an archive mentality. And that tends to divide along class lines.

"So what you can see is, as the university becomes more dependent upon fund-raising, the more removed we become from living contemporary art to dead archives and rare book stuff."

WHEN JIM PAUL WAS hired as director, part of his job description was helping to raise cash for the center's strapping new $4.5 million, 19,000-square-foot home, to be built north of Speedway Boulevard. That center will house extensive archives, administrative offices and a small area for humanities seminars.

It won't have an auditorium for the ever-popular reading series, which has been a hub of the center's existence. Still, some donors will certainly have their names hanging above some rooms.

In all, it will make for a very tasteful museum.

From reports, this isn't exactly what Jim Paul had in mind.

Paul himself doesn't want to make much comment on the issue. "I still want to live in this town," he says.

But during his brief directorial stint, he was known for trying to open the center on Cherry Street to minority groups and young people across Tucson who had always been alienated from the rarified university world, and from poetry in general. All these efforts to bring cultural diversity into the center apparently ruffled some feathers.

The highlight of Paul's unorthodox outreach--or his divergent Waterloo--came on October 27, when the center hosted a kinetic night of hip hop and poetry that packed downtown's Rialto Theatre. Guest stars at Mondo Hip Hop included DJ Renegade from Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn's Tracie Morris.

"I kind of expected them to be far out, but they stood up there and quoted Shakespeare and Dante," Paul says. "They were just so rock-solid in terms of their background, and their work just knocked people over. But to counterbalance that, I also brought former poet laureate Robert Hass to read at St. Philip's in the Hills, and that worked, too."

Still, the raucous Rialto scene might have been a bit too tan for the stodgier tastes on the fund-raising campaign committee. ("I still believe that there is some racism behind this whole situation," says the source.)

BUT OTHERS SAY THAT Paul was canned because he didn't live up to money-raising expectations, and that campaign committee members were behind the putsch. Among those mentioned are chairwoman Helen Schaefer, and UA alum Randall Holdridge. Chairwoman Schaefer is the wife of former UA President John Schaefer, and the ultimate university insider.

She denies claims that she or Holdridge engineered Paul's dismissal. "That's absolutely not true. Randall and I had nothing to do with it. That's an internal university thing."

Perhaps. But Charles Tatum, dean of the College of Humanities, did reassign Jim Paul. And Tatum says it had nothing to do with Paul's management of the Poetry Center. "I can tell you that it wasn't because of his capacity as artistic director or poetry director of the series. That, I think, speaks very favorably for his performance."

Tatum won't say anything beyond that, citing personnel confidentiality issues.

Holdridge, who co-chairs the campaign committee, says Paul was simply too weak in the fund-raising department. "I can show you dozens of e-mails and other correspondence that substantiate the frustration that I and other members of this committee have had," he says, "trying to do what it is that people who have accepted these sorts of responsibilities are supposed to do. And we have not had follow-up [from Jim Paul].

"Jim Paul is a nice guy," Holdridge says. "Don't get me wrong. But I don't think he could coordinate the raising of $4 million."

Oddly enough, chairwoman Schaefer seems quite satisfied with Paul's cash-harvesting acumen. "He seemed to be raising money, and doing events at various places and so on," she says.

Which inevitably leads back to the fresh strategies Paul employed to revitalize the Poetry Center. Allegations that this prompted his departure are roundly denied by Schaefer, Holdridge and Tatum.

"One ostensible reason that is apparently making the rounds is that his poetry series was controversial," Tatum says. "I think people have referred to the Mondo Hip Hop at the Rialto. And I've got to tell you that is bogus--I celebrated the scheduling of that event. It has nothing to do with his reassignment."

When Holdridge is asked about the Rialto event, his reply is abrupt: "Don't know a thing about it," he says. "I didn't attend. What I can say is that it doesn't fit into my personal scheme as far as people I know, but I'm sure there are people who would be positively impacted by that, and see that as a good opportunity for something to happen. And I think it could be good in terms of connecting the Poetry Center to other communities that didn't have a previous sense of participation or ownership.

"But I would not know people [to whom] I would say, 'Gee, I need an event to raise money,' and that taking them to the Rialto for a hip-hop festival would be appropriate. But that doesn't mean that it wasn't a good thing to do--even if it didn't have anything all to do with fund-raising."

True, it's tough to imagine many hip-hoppers with a few thousand extra bucks to fund a new monument to dead poets.

All of which adds up to a depleted poetry culture in Tucson, says Kalí Tal, a professor at the UA-affiliated Arizona International Campus; she's also a leading member of Tucson's POG poetry group, and founder of Burning Cities Press, which inexpensively prints and distributes cutting-edge academic books. Like Paul, Tal knows a bit about the Sturm und Drang of battling the UA's big cheeses. She felt the brunt of it a few years ago, when she successfully fought her own dismissal.

"I was just stunned when I heard they had fired Jim," she says. "Everything at the university is so arcane, and there are so many underground currents that it's hard to figure out what anything is about. There are always five different stories from five different places."

But from her perspective, Paul's fund-raising was anything but lax: "He was always running off to meet with this person or that person," Tal says.

Nor does his departure spell good things for the new Poetry Center, she says. "With Jim Paul there, it would be a big open center that would benefit the entire community of Tucson. Without him there, I think that's unlikely, because the poetry center has never really benefited the community of Tucson."

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