At the New School's Tishman Auditorium on Tuesday, May 8, writers who knew and loved Joe Brainard (1941-1994) read from the Library of America's new edition of the artist's collected literary works. Joe, a modest man, whose "modesty" (John Ashbery once wrote) "is the modesty of the gods," would have been astonished to find that his poems and prose have been published so handsomely under an imprint so prestigious as that of the Library of America. On hand was Ron Padgett, Brainard's closest friend, who edited The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, Padgett was among those who read their favorite Brainard pieces, as was Paul Auster, who contributed the volume's introduction. Other presenters included Frank Bidart, David Lehman, Edmund White, and Library of America editor-in-chief Geoffrey O'Brien.
A beautiful Brainard anecdote told that evening has Joe on holiday with three friends touring Sicily. Whenever the group reached a new destination, an affectionate postcard from Joe awaited each of them. Edmund White said thaton their first date the notoriously shy Brainard brought along a pad so the duo could pass notes back and forth in lieu of talking.
Portions of I Remember were read aloud as were prose poems, diary entries, aphorisms, sui generis writings, and a play. Some Joe lines: "Writing, for me, is a way of 'talking' the way I wish I could talk." "Actually, I am practical. It's just that, sometimes, being impractical seems practical to me." Or, in a different register, "I remember my parents’ bridge teacher. She was very fat and very butch (cropped hair) and she was a chain smoker. She prided herself on the fact that she didn’t have to carry matches around. She lit each new cigarette from the old one. She lived in a little house behind a restaurant and lived to be very old."
In a letter to Padgett in 1965, Brainard wrote, “I find myself with a certain talent that Frank O’Hara has, and that is to say something quite simple so absolutely that one, without even thinking, assumes you are of course right.” Simplicity and honesty combine in Brainard's "I Remember." The recurrent use of these words at the start of each new entry in a list has become a poetic form and a standard poetry workshop prompt. From an interview with Anne Waldman on the subject of "I Remember": "I feel very much like God writing the bible. I mean, I feel like I am not really writing it but that it is because of me that it is being written ..."
The Collected Writings does us the service of printing the whole of "I Remember" (including "I Remember More" and "More I Remember More") while simultaneously showing us how rich a trove Brainard left us beyond this signal masterpiece. And all this writing was done in the twenty-year period when Joe, on speed, created his paintings and drawings and collages -- hundreds and hundreds of them until the day he quit taking speed. For the last fourteen years of his life Joe Brainard produced no new work. What did he do? He stayed in his SoHo loft smoking Tareytons and reading great Victorian novels.
Joe was a sweet man. As an assistant professr at Hamilton College I arranged for a retrospective exhibiton of his work to be shown at the Root Art Center in the winter of 1978. The exhibiton coincided with a course I was giving on the New York School. The show featured such collages as "Yellow Madonna," "Butterfly Madonna," "Flower and Butterfly," "Smoke," "Morning Glory," "The End," "Let Me Entertain You," "Shower," and "Eight of Diamonds," as well as a pencil sketch of Jasper Johns," a self-portrait, paper cut-outs, oil-painted canvases, watercolors, gouaches, and numerous mixed media pieces. In all, seventy-eight of Joe's pieces were on display. We invited Joe to spend a January week at the college, during which he gave a reading and a gallery talk. I remember most vividly the afternoon that we had a very large art studio at our disposal and everyone in the class was encouraged to collaborate with a partner on a painting or drawing, a piece of writing, or some admixture of the two. Joe and I filled two dozen pages of a sketch book with our collaborative efforts that afternoon.
If you're wondering, Jacques Bernard is a nonexistent personage. In "I Remember" Joe recalls when he signed his paintings "by Joe." There were also times he thought of adopting a pseudonym -- Bo Jainard or Jacques Bernard. Such an impulse might last a week. But Joe was always Joe in his art, whether painting an Ernie Bushmiller icon (as in the "Nancy Diptych" above) or the whippet on the cover of The Best American Poetry 1998 -- or remembering that, as a boy, when he read "after five days return to" in the upper left corner of an envelope, he thought that after five days the recipient of any letter should return it to its sender.