RIP Paul Ash, Writer, Publisher, and Visionary

A longtime friend and the man who designed the Future Tense Books website, Paul Ash, took his own life on February 7th in Portland, Oregon. I met Paul around 1999 and for a couple of years we often did readings together and talked about our various publishing projects. I was publishing little Xeroxed chapbooks by various small press writers and he was enthusiastically exploring the world of Internet publishing, first with his website, Sniffy Linings Press, and then by designing eBooks for a bunch of people including myself, Jemiah Jefferson, and some other Future Tense folks and mutual friends. He was the first person I heard talk about eBooks in a serious way. In fact, he was probably way ahead of the times with that stuff.

Shortly after we met, he volunteered to redesign the Future Tense website. He worked for several days on it. What at first was a bright and garish disaster without even one Paypal button, he turned into the cool, clean beauty (featuring the art and lettering of the great Kurt Eisenlohr) it currently is. He built websites for many companies and his talents were vast in that arena. He was influenced by sculpture and art history, two subjects he studied in college.

For the next several years, he was my webmaster. Whenever I published a new book or had a new update for the News page or additions to the Links page, I’d send the info to Paul. Most of the time, he’d do it quickly. But sometimes, he’d take weeks and I’d grow impatient and we’d bicker a little bit. He was working for free after all, though I would give him some money whenever I could. I was a little worried that tossing him forty bucks here and there, maybe writing a $100 check, was perhaps more insulting than anything else, but I knew he made money freelancing for the most part, so I figured anything helped.

Paul seemed pretty solid but I’m sure a lot of his friends worried about him. He described himself (only slightly joking) as “an absent minded disassociated borderline psychotic narcoleptic insomniac” whose past included pills and cocaine. He told me that he hadn’t filed taxes in years, living off of his design work, his art, and even as an electrician. He was suspicious of websites where you had to enter personal information. He wasn’t on MySpace and avoided Facebook as well (though he did pop up on Facebook briefly a couple of years ago).

I think I lost touch with Paul about four or five years ago. He helped me figure out how I could maintain the Future Tense website (after I finally got a decent computer) and then stopped going to literary events around town anymore, so I didn’t see him much. The last time I ran into him, he told me he had given up on writing and was starting to drum in bands again. I think he felt embarrassed because he hadn’t stuck to his writing and I probably felt embarrassed because I hadn’t kept in touch with him better. One thing I only learned this past week is that he had become obsessed with yo-yos. And he was even blogging about them (complete with numerous serious and detailed video reviews). There’s something very funny and fitting about that. But maybe those things were substitutes for other parts missing from his life–like family or romance or a clear mind. A neighbor said, that she heard him shout once, from inside his apartment, “Drumming and yo-yos are the only reasons I have to live.”

Paul was obsessive and fascinated by many things. His small basement apartment, where he lived the last ten years, was full of books, CDs, DVDs, and art. He loved Chris Ware comics, Steve Martin, William Burroughs, and Spalding Gray. He once played me a record by composer Steve Reich and we shared a love of Devo (the name Sniffy Linings came from a misheard Devo lyric).

Paul (left) and me at my birthday party in 2002, at Portland restaurant Poor Richard's.

Paul (left) and me at my birthday party in 2002, at Portland restaurant Poor Richard’s.

I admired Paul in a lot of ways. His readings were more like one-man shows or monologues. He helped and hyped-up the work of others. I like people who actually DO what they talk about and not just SAY they are going to do things. And Paul was a Do-er, a man with a lot of stuff going on and interesting writers and artists floating all through his self-made universe. His own books were full of conversational prose, playful and meditative and sometimes focusing on the weirdness of small details. He would sometimes perform in bath robes, for audiences in cafes, bars, and art galleries.

The last weeks of Paul’s life were full of struggle. In December of 2012, Paul was in a scooter accident that totaled the scooter he’d been restoring and separated his shoulder. He was in a dispute with his landlord and his saw his eviction as a final battle lost (his suicide of an intentional overdose–of what I’m not sure–came just hours before he was to be out of his apartment). He was terrified and having panic attacks about the prospect of being homeless. On top of that, he had also lost his mother and his cat in the last year. His suicide note said, “I’m just no longer able to continue suffering.”

A couple of nights ago, I went by his old apartment to see what it looked like–if there were flowers or memorials for him. There was one vase of flowers and a note nearby that said “Goodbye friend.” I saw a few old Sniffy Linings stickers stuck to his door, which looked like it had been broken down and then nailed back up and sealed shut. For some reason, I knocked on the door and waited a minute before walking back to my car.

If I could have said anything to Paul before he passed away, I would have told him thank you for all of his work, support, and enthusiasm. Not only for me and Future Tense, but for so many other writers that he championed. A person like Paul can affect so many people’s lives. It’s terrible and sad when they take their own. Paul Ash was 46 years old.

There will be a wake for Paul today (Saturday, February 16th) at Aalto Lounge at 4:00. 

16 responses to “RIP Paul Ash, Writer, Publisher, and Visionary

  1. Thank you for writing about Paul. Even though we’d been emailing each other fairly regularly for the past few months, I only found out yesterday about his passing. The last email I had was only the day before he took his life and he seemed more ok than usual and I was hopeful that things were going to pan out for him. The initial shock of hearing about his death is fading and now I’m just sad and angry at myself for not trying harder to help. He was truly talented in many ways yet also rather complicated, which I believe resulted in his isolating himself from his ‘real life’ friends, who (had they known) might have been able to pull him through the bad spell he was going through. Paul, you could be impossible but I miss you already.

  2. Reblogged this on Sumiko Saulson and commented:
    A beautiful commemoration of the life of Paul Ash, who recently passed. This was bought to my attention by Jemiah Jefferson, who deeply respected the man who gave her a chance and published one of her short stories. Remember – whoever you are, your life touches the lives of others, and there is someone who respects you and doesn’t want you gone. No matter what you think about how little what you do is, to someone else it is very large – so stay strong. One Love.

  3. A very sad story. These are really trying times and we’re often left clinging onto whatever’s around us to hang on. A beautiful piece on someone who deserved a lot better.

  4. What a beautiful tribute.

  5. Thank you Kevin, I, owner Of Organics to you, have worked with him for over the last 10 yrs, and called him friend!

  6. Thank you for this beautiful tribute and for sharing this picture.

  7. alexander bighill

    after not receiving replies from Paul recently, i eventually made the web search today that confirmed my fears. we’d been meeting about once a month for the last few years to discuss web design, technology, art, books, music, movies, yo-yo’s, and all the other interests that made Paul unique… also the darker topics that didn’t seem so dark when we were able to commiserate in long conversations. though i often resisted the urge to shake him into lucidity in times of apathy, his insights, creativity, and friendship will not be forgotten.

  8. Very sad news, which we just learned, courtesy of our sister Tanya. Very sad news. We first met Paul in the Spring of 1988 — he and his then girlfriend Susan lived with us in Amherst for a few weeks while they looked for a place… We spent time together every few years… Probably the last time was in Portland in 2007 after which we lost touch… Paul was a very special person. One time he taught me how to cast a spell on someone I was feeling pretty negative about…… One time he tried to teach me how to play the drums…. One time he gave me tinctures to ease my anxiety…. One time he took me out for a beer in Portland but insisted that I buy him french fries…. We really enjoyed his writing…. Debby and I are sitting here feeling sad and want to say that we loved Paul. May the King of Peace send his Peace to all who mourn.

  9. Hi Bruce:

    This is Susan. Paul and I came to Portland together in 1986, left, came back, and finally broke up in early 1990. I left Portland, but then returned and have been here continuously since 1997. We kept in close contact throughout most of this time, and I supported him through several crises. Over the last couple years, however, I saw him descend deeper into his own personal hell. It was emotionally exhausting. I tried to help him … and wish I could have done more. I miss him a lot and think about him all the time.

    I have his drum set in my basement, and my almost 12 year old daughter plays it every day. She is quite good.

  10. Thank you, Kevin, and everyone who shares here. For Paul, circa 1996.

    Not coffee or tea: first coffee then tea. Cream and sugar. Rolled cigarettes. It was breakfast, in the company of one computer, of music, and hopefully one pretty, and very kind, friend. The day of a kind of super hero was beginning. There were commitments to honor, images dreamed needed painting, needed welding, band practice friends needed reminding, a children’s art show required phone calls, stories needed releasing onto the page.

    It was not darkness but light that drew us to him. So much of both, so intensely packed into one human being. Talent and generosity, humor and hard, very hard work. Pushing the mind and body and spirit to create and to give, whenever humanly possible. There were apologies to make, and eventually they were made, from deep within an unhidden heart. May the one with the keys know that one day she, too, would have received a profound apology.

    And may you, with a tender heart, be surrounded by everlasting peace and be treasured and comforted with kindness in every eventual lifetime. May you always have a place to call and feel at home. May your fears be quelled and your anxieties disappear into nothingness. May your heart’s desire to love and be loved be remembered and live on. And may you always feel deeply loved.

  11. I was reminded by Paul’s brother that tomorrow, September 7th, would have been Paul’s 47th birthday.

  12. Thanks for writing this. Indeed Paul would have had a birthday tomorrow. This evening I looked through some old photos of the 2 of us, as little kids, he the big brother and both of us looking out of place in the run down and often scary/dangerous neighborhood we grew up in, too well known as “the Jews” in a hostile Irish working class town. He had a hard life, from the start, with parents who were abusive and nobody else to guide us. One correction – Paul did not use cocaine nor was he ever a big drinker; he smoked cigarillos as an adult, and left marijuana behind after his teen years. Despite being destitute and without resources in his final years, Paul continued to do charitable work incognito, from conspicuously leaving fresh fruit and vegetables for neighbors to supporting charities for wayward cats. Try as he might, there was always someone who seemed to make him feel squeezed out of place. In the end, his landlord left phony “immediate eviction” notices on Paul’s door, threatening to physically remove him in retaliation for Paul seeking assistance from the city after a year of rising rent for a flooded, unheated, illegal basement apartment. Fearing the indignity and violence of being displaced without his prized accomplishments – a few pieces of artwork and writings that had been made moldy by the recurrent basement flooding, he decided to follow his best friend, an orphan cat he’d adopted, and our mother, both of whom died that same year. To all of his friends and others who tried to help him see that things could get better, I say thank you.

  13. Paul, who I sought out because of his work on a local website, made my website so cool that I count him as an equal partner in all my success. When I heard the news it cast a light on how alone we can be in crowded city. He was more creative than just about anybody I’ve met in my circles. I’m very grateful I met him and had a chance to collaborate with him. Scott greentechheating.com by Paul Ash

  14. this entire conversation and dialog leaves me so sad. oddly i googled paul/sniffy linings tonight because about 7 years ago he designed my corporate identity/business card/letterhead for a small interior design company, and i thought it would be “fun” to see what amazing things he is now doing.

    simultaneous to my design package i moved from portland to phoenix. i was so proud to have a graphic designer from PDX design my card. while paul was quirky and peculiar i liked his brain and the way he understood me. i am a open minded but not edgy person who liked and appreciated his whatever. yes even his basement apt. my identity package was completed and finalized, and with the help of paul, he assisted me to basic business graphic & website directives. i find tears in my eyes, as recently i thought i should have reach out to paul and chat about some additional work. i truly & sincerely have to say that each time i proudly hand out my business card, if the receiving party doesn’t comment on its’ beauty – they hesitate and look at it….i think because it takes them by surprise as it really is a thing of beauty. now i hope that that hesitation is sending an amazing vibe to paul and telling him that his talents are still alive and well and living in the desert! i am so proud of my ‘branded’ identity and the rare and unusual happenstance that i came to know paul ash and his sniffy linings.

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