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Friday, May 18, 2012

Ron Padgett remembers his friend, the writer and artist Joe Brainard

The poet Ron Padgett, a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his most recent book, How Long, recently spoke with us about The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, the new collection he edited for The Library of America.

How did you meet Joe Brainard? Describe your friendship.

Joe and I met as classmates in the first grade in Tulsa in 1948, but it wasn’t until high school that we became buddies. At the age of seventeen we published a small art and literary magazine whose contributors included Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and many other luminaries. After high school Joe and I came to New York together, remaining close friends until his death. He was like a brother to me—a good one!

What is significant about this volume? Why from The Library of America?

The Library of America is thought of as the publisher of what is generally categorized as classic American writing. That the LOA has chosen to recognize the life’s work of a writer whose ardent following has been largely underground until now shows an adventurousness and freshness of purpose that are parallel to those same qualities in Joe’s writing.

How has your sense of his writing changed? Why should people care about it now?

Fifty years ago, when I read Joe’s first pieces of writing, I was struck by how Joe they were, really unlike anyone else’s. Later, when I read his book I Remember, it confirmed not only his originality but how in some mysterious way he was speaking for everyone. In collecting his life’s writing for the LOA volume, I realized, for the first time, that all his writing fits together, forming a self-portrait stunning in its honesty, good humor, variety, and depth. I hesitate to tell people they should do anything, but I will break my own rule by saying that people should care about this book if they care about being more fully human. This book is full of humanity.

What strikes you as the most unusual thing about JB as a person?

That a person who seemed so mild and acquiescent—meek, even—in his outward behavior could be so courageous in the way he wrote and made art and determined the way he lived.

Why did he have so many friends?

People loved Joe because he was friendly, kind, generous, gentle, funny, and able to produce art and writing that were utter delights. What’s not to like?

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