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Thursday March 8, 2001

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Poetry Center director removed from position mid-term

By Graig Uhlin

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Jim Paul reassigned to fundraising duties, despite gains made as director

UA Poetry Center director Jim Paul was removed from his position last week by Dean of Humanities Charles Tatum little more than halfway through his term.

Paul, whose contract will not be renewed when it expires June 30, has been reassigned to write grant proposals for the Poetry Center's new facility, Tatum said. Former Poetry Center director Alison Deming is acting as interim director.

Although people from inside and outside the English department have speculated on the reason behind Paul's reassignment, Tatum would not comment on a personnel issue.

Paul also declined to comment.

While there was no specific reason given for Paul's removal, some have suggested the decision is related to the community outreach and diversification of the Center's reading series that he promoted.

"He caught a lot of flack for Mondo Hip-hop (a slam poetry reading presented by the Center in October) and making it (the Center) a more multiethnic place," said creative writing graduate student Matthew Shenoda.

Shenoda, a member of the Center's advisory board for next year's readings and poet-in-residence at Tucson High School - a position funded by the Center - said he was "outraged" by the decision.

"I believe it to be yet another display, in my opinion, of racist conversation coming from affiliated interests in the writing program in the department of English," said Shenoda, who is also a close friend of Paul.

Shenoda said that the decision could have come from outside pressure from conservative Center funders, which may have disagreed with Paul's direction.

"I've heard that our funders are a wide range of people, not affiliated with the university, and seem to have very conservative ideas of what poetry is," he said.

Tatum said no outside factors influenced his decision, however.

The director of the Poetry Center is directly accountable to him, just as any department head is, and the decision was his alone.

"To put it bluntly, I get to decide," he said.

Deming also said donors do "not have the capacity to influence, to change, the mission of the Poetry Center," simply because they might have different ideas about the composition of the reading series.

Deming, as well as English department head Larry Evers, also rejected the notion that Paul brought more diversity to the reading series than in previous years.

"It's always been a profoundly diverse series, in terms of ethnic diversity, in terms of aesthetic diversity," Deming said.

"We always tried to have a range of emerging writers," she added. "We've always tried to bring poets to the community who wouldn't otherwise be heard."

While the reading series may have long been diverse, others say that Paul took it to another level, often citing Mondo Hip-hop.

"What impressed me about (Paul's) lineup was the diversity of poets," said Kali Tal, who teaches humanities at Arizona International College. "That is a lineup that would never had appeared at the Poetry Center before Jim was there."

Tal said the Center typically brings in poets from the creative writing workshop circuit - a "snooty" community of writers from elite programs like the UA and the University of Iowa, who are "very aware of their placement as authors."

"It is very much based on who you know and what institutions you went to," said Tal, a member of a local poetry collective called Poetry Group, which occasionally co-sponsors readings with the Center. "I find that an extremely stultifying environment. I have worked for the last 12 years with poets who have deliberately stayed outside that circle. That is exactly the opposite of what the Poetry Center has been traditionally."

"I really worry that next year it is going back to tea and crumpets again," she added.

Tal said Paul also brought an unprecedented amount of community outreach to the Center, interacting with groups outside the English department.

"AIC has been here for several years and we never had a visit from anybody from the Poetry Center," Tal explained. "When Jim showed up, one of the first things he did was walk across the street, introduce himself and invite us to a reading. That sort of extension of invitation, making the Poetry Center feel like it was welcoming of people who were not in the creative writing or English department, it was very impressive."

"Until Jim got there, there was never a sense of welcome from the Poetry Center," she added.

Deming, however, said that under her previous leadership of the Center, there had been a "tremendous outreach to the community."

She cited the residency program at Tucson High School, which began under her guidance in the early '90s. She added that the Center has also brought visiting poets into local high schools.

While Paul's role in diversifying the reading series and expanding outreach may be contested, Tal suggested that that alone may not be the reason for his reassignment.

"It might as easily be that they never intended to keep him," she said.

Paul, as director, was also responsible for raising $4.5 million for the Center's new facility, a task that Tatum said may no longer be the responsibility of the Center's director.

"I'm thinking of restructuring the administration of the Poetry Center," Tatum said. "It's an extremely difficult job to administer the Poetry Center and raise money to build us a new (facility)."

While Tatum said he is not sure how exactly the director's role will change, Deming said this restructuring has been discussed for years.

"It's too much for one person," she said. "It's a demanding position and we've felt all along, as soon as we began the initiative to raise the funds for the new building, that what we would need was somebody who was a director of development and then somebody who was an overall director."

Whatever the reasons behind his reassignment, Tal said Paul made significant contributions to the Center.

"I think that I would really focus on the fact that he was different," she said. "His differences are going to be missed. I don't think the Poetry Center will see any benefits by replacing him. In fact, I think it will do harm."

Although Paul would not comment on his reassignment, he said he enjoyed his time as director.

"I loved being part of the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona," he said. "My first impulse as director was to help people - at the university and in the community - find the poetry in themselves."



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