May 3, 2012

Cecilia Woloch on Sharon Doubiago

HARD COUNTRY a book-length poem by Sharon Doubiago, was first published by West End Press in 1982. A copy came into my hands in 1987, when I first began to dare to take my writing seriously.  I'm not sure, now, how it was that the book came into my hands; maybe it was a gift from my mentor, the writer Holly Prado. I'm certain, anyway, that it was Holly who first brought the book to my attention. I fell into it and couldn't stop falling: this was writing as the heroine's quest, a courageous and almost-breathless plunge into psychic and spiritual and historical depths, through the layers of the known world into the not-yet-known, and maybe unknowable, sources of creative transformation and what we call the Soul. The work is long and complex, an interweaving of poetry and poetic prose, an epic journey into the poet's deepest heart and the tarnished heart of her country. I read it in gulps; it seemed to be reading my life as I read it. It taught me everything I needed to know about how to live in the world as a poet, what that would cost me and where it could lead me and how, if I wanted to do my truest work, there would be no turning back.  One section of the poem has been a kind of mantra for me ever since:

     "Until I knew, as Rilke insists
     is the first discovery to make
     if one is to be a poet:
     I will die if I don't write...
     Until I understood
     years in my wild places
     writing is a physical act, erotic and dangerous,
     the lowering of the self
     into a well almost too deep.
     I must bring up the words
     or perish from their rot
     left inside..."

(You can find more on Cecilia Woloch herself here.)

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.)