Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Anne Lauterbach, Brad Gooch, and Edmund White on “the real thing,” Joe Brainard

Last week the McNally Jackson bookstore in New York City circulated a quite splendid email celebrating the new Library of America volume The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard. “Artist, poet, book designer, cartoonist, memoirist, and gay icon, Joe Brainard is almost uniformly celebrated by those who've read him and too-little known by those who haven't,” read its opening.

The impulse that prompted this email—the impulse to share the discovery of a writer who seems to defy easy categorization yet who makes a lasting impression in an unusually intimate way—is strikingly similar to what motivated the creation of “I Remember Joe Brainard,” a page where thirteen friends and fellow artists offer video tributes that try to recapture what made Brainard such a captivating personality and influential artist.

Here is close friend and confidante, art consultant, poet, and essayist Anne Lauterbach on the flavor of the time:
It was an interesting moment in American poetics. There was a withdrawal from confessional work, which had dominated the literary scene in the 50s, and then in the 60s there was a riot of all of those notions of importance or significance. It all got very confused, and for someone in our generation it was a real turn. The first generation of the New York School looked at a lot of things, not all of them American. So they set a new kind of constellation in motion. Barbara Guest looking at H.D., reaching back to another formulation of modernism. Of course [John] Ashbery had a deep immersion in French culture before anyone else did. And then [James] Schuyler and [Frank] O’Hara, too. That group of people made this very interesting nexus of connection among the arts, wanting poetry to be in relation to the other configurations of culture. And Joe was very conscious of that, which is why he did both writing and drawing. There was a great moment when those were not separate arenas. You didn’t have to make this kind of singularity out of your work. You didn’t have to be one thing. . . .

I think there is an irony that the main piece of writing he created was I Remember and around the period of his leaving too early there is this recuperative remembering of Joe. To me, there’s something about that that is oddly accurate, a fit that makes you conscious.
Brad Gooch recalls what it was like to be writing poetry at the same time as Brainard—and now to be teaching him:
In terms of writing poems myself, Joe was part of a world that became a kind of aesthetic. He was a hero worshiper of Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler, poets I was also a worshiper of and influenced by. Both of them were very experimental, gay, and tended to write about their friends and daily life. They tried not to be conventional, academic, or corny. All of that came through Joe, and them. The interesting thing with Joe was that he was closer to my generation. Joe, from the Midwest, has a kind of American adolescent voice and casual appearance—ease—that seemed more contemporary. He could write a poem so simply out of your own memories, your own raw material, and it could be as exciting as The Wasteland.
When I teach creative writing at William Paterson University in New Jersey, students always respond to I Remember more than any other poem. It’s the greatest inspiration for their own poetry, because everyone has memory. Somehow Joe gives them permission to write what they’re actually thinking and feeling, rather than what they’re supposed to be thinking and feeling. Certainly being around Joe, he did give me that kind of permission. He was incredibly supportive. I felt sheepishly honored in a way that he was being my friend. All of these things had an influence on me. He was an encouraging kind of guy. Sometimes it was odd to realize he would beat himself up about his qualities that were making his art and poetry great. He had a side that maybe he was supposed to be Whistler or W. H. Auden. He didn’t act on that, but it was interesting that he struggled with that. That struggle made him seem more contemporary than more distant figures.
Edmund White was already an established writer when he met Brainard in the seventies, yet found the young writer affected him personally:
I don’t think his work impacted mine at all. I was quite old when I met him, so I’d already written a lot by that point. I was also a very sophisticated writer who wrote books that were infused with other works of literature. I had been a professor, a critic, everything he wasn’t. He was na├»ve; he was immediate in his taste. His taste reigned supreme in his world. If he liked something, that was it and he didn’t question it. I never heard him speculate about psychoanalysis or artistic theory. That wasn’t him at all. But he had a great influence on people’s lives, and their values. I think he made everyone feel slightly shoddy. He was so pure that you felt compromised around him. He was the real thing. I think that was the influence on our lives. He was calling us to something ideal.
Discover more from these reminiscences and from those by Frank Bidart, Ron Padgett, Robert Pinsky, among others at “I Remember Joe Brainard.”

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