May 1, 2012

Megan Volpert on Stephanie Paulk

This was probably five years ago. I was sitting in someone's basement with a bunch of local writers, and I was mid-lamentation--going on and on about something I was doing that I thought was just so edgy and asking for suggestions on what to read that might in some small way speak to this very profound, pioneering thing I was working on.  This was how the late Stephanie Paulk (who published as J.S. van Buskirk) brought herself to my attention. Stephanie, lodged in a corner but maintaining perfect posture, quietly interrupted me to slash my throat with, "have you read Alexander Pope?"

Oh, I died! I absolutely died! That moment will haunt me forever, because she could not have been more right. Here we go, all of us trudging dutifully into the future. No shoulder checks. So in curating this month's Delirious Hem action, my idea is to focus on older books. I consider it as homage to Stephanie, who ridiculously few people have heard of, but who taught me perhaps the most obvious lesson I had not learned. And I am not the only one who ought to learn it.

Lately, I often have that feeling of "why hasn't anybody heard of this book" or "why am I the only person reading this." This is compounded by the annual end-of-year "best books" lists that appear everywhere, which to me are like tiny tidal waves washing over just a huge amount of shit that was written years ago that I still haven't gotten to read yet. Including most of Alexander Pope.

So, I've rounded up a dozen or so ladies who are willing to look defiantly over their shoulders and point out older/obscure stuff that people are missing out on. The rule is that the book (which doesn't have to be a poetry book, but simply a book of interest to poets) has to have been published before the year 2000. Each poet has written up 200 words or so on why the book is cool to her, maybe including some choice quotations. I told each of them that I was also interested to get an mp3 of the poet reading an excerpt from her chosen book, so you'll also have something to listen to.

That's the story, and the mission of the project that is going to roll out in front of the readers of Delirious Hem this month. Thanks for your time and attention to these recommendations. Now, here's mine...

Stephanie Paulk. Duh. Her collected works are located at Each of her projects is innovative in a completely different way, and from a time in my life when not many things managed to surprise me, Stephanie never failed to make a deep and lasting impression on me without much trying. I spoke at her funeral, but in some ways, this recommendation is the obituary I never got to write.

My favorite among the pre-2000 projects displayed on the website is Spot the Dog, an existential comic strip she wrote while in college. I would wear a t-shirt with any of these comics on it. It contains the seedlings of many things that I have come to view as trademarked for Stephanie, things that are also on display in the anecdote about Pope. Stephanie was herself such a lover of old books that she once summarized the entire works of William Shakespeare on Twitter, one tweet per drama. She also connected radically to the visual arts, tying much of her major work to collaboration with the artist
Julie Puttgen. I'm not including an mp3, as you ought to hear Stephanie in her own voice--particularly, look up Unless & Until.

Stephanie Paulk was so odd and perfect. And perhaps she will be missed a little less by those of us who knew her well if a few more people who have never heard of her click on through the wonders of her website.

(You can find more on Megan Volpert herself here.)


Anonymous said...

Brilliant! Stephanie was as perplexing, inspiring and prescient as her work.

Jenn Kelley said...

Thank you for this Megan (and Randy for sharing it). Stephanie was one of my closest friends at Columbia and I lived with her at the time she was developing Spot. I haven't gotten to a point where I can properly express what she means to me and the influence she's had on my life, but I love knowing that she has had the same impact on others and that you are still spreading her genius. I was a pretty stodgy philosophy and great books nerd, and Stephanie opened up a joyful world of pop culture including Tarantino and the X Files. I love that more than anyone I've known she was able to seamlessly and joyfully traverse those worlds and help the rest of us do so as well.