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Remembering Brainard

On Friday, January 26 at 8pm, poets Ron Padgett and Kenward Elmslie will be reading at the Albright-Knox to help celebrate the opening of Joe Brainard, People of the World: Relax! at the UB Art Gallery. Both prominent members of the New York School of poets, which included luminaries such as John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan, Elmslie and Padgett were close friends and sometime collaborators of the late painter and writer Joe Brainard, whose work will be on display at the UB Art Gallery through March 3. I recently had a chance to interview Ron Padgett via email.

MICHAEL KELLEHER: Even though you and Joe Brainard are often associated with the “New York School” of poetry and painting, respectively, your friendship dates back to your adolescence in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to know one another and how you ended up in New York City?

RON PADGETT: I met Joe in 1948. We were in the same first grade class. The next year I went to another school, and we didn’t reconnect until high school. He was the school artist and I was the school poet, therefore we were both “different.” We even published a little avant-garde magazine together, The White Dove Review. When I came to New York City in 1960 for college, Joe accompanied me, on a visit, before his art school started in Dayton, Ohio. But after a few months in Dayton he quit school and moved to New York for good. We remained good friends for the rest of his life. He was like a brother to me.

MK: Talk a little about how you know Kenward Elmslie, and how he fits into the whole New York School scene. What was his relationship to Joe Brainard?

RP: I was already a big admirer of Kenward’s poetry when I met him in the spring of 1964. He was a friend of Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and James Schuyler. Kenward had come to poetry by way of writing lyrics for songs and Broadway shows. I believe he met the New York School poets through John Latouche, who not only wrote Broadway shows himself but also held a glittering salon frequented by a variety of writers and performers, such as Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Paul and Jane Bowles, and Lena Horne. Latouche introduced Kenward to John Meyers, the Tibor de Nagy Gallery director who knew Kenneth, Frank, John and Jimmy. Kenward’s poetry readings, which include his singing, always make me feel that I’ve been to a mysterious, witty, moving show with big production values. Joe Brainard and Kenward were companions and collaborators for 30 years.

MK: Joe Brainard collaborated on works with many of the New York School poets, including yourself, Kenward, John Ashbery, and Ted Berrigan. I wonder if you can talk about collaboration as an element in your work and as a means of working collectively with your peers. Is collaboration still an important part of what you do now that you’re a bit older?

RP: I’d say quite a bit older! I’m still doing collaborative works, after more than 40 years, now mainly with the painter George Schneeman. It’s as exciting and scary as ever, because we never quite know what we’re going to do until we do it, and then we can never figure out how we did it. It’s as if a hybrid of us forms a third person, the one who actually does the work. Having to work with an unpredictable collaborator has rubbed off on to the solo work I do. It has made me more open, more willing to take a risk, more trusting in whatever it is that makes us write poetry and make art.

MK: Humor is another pronounced characteristic of a lot of New York School writing, especially in your work and Kenneth Koch’s, but also in O’Hara’s and Berrigan’s and Ashbery’s—and in Joe Brainard’s writing as well. Why do you think humor is such a crucial part of your work? Where does your sense of humor come from? Have you ever found it difficult to be taken seriously because there is so much humor in your work?

RP: I like to laugh, and I also like the kind of wit that makes my mind laugh. Humor is the nephew of happiness and optimism, without which life would be unbearable. My penchant for comedy probably started with my Ozark hillbilly grandparents, who had a spunky sense of humor. My dad, who was a bootlegger, was quite a prankster. And when I was a child I was crazy about comic books. There are some literary people who think that for poetry to be valuable and meaningful it must be utterly serious at all times. I don’t see why poetry can’t be as big and various as life itself, and that includes humor. And of course comedy can be serious in its own way, too.

MK: I have two images of Joe Brainard in my mind. One is the Joe Brainard of his book I Remember, which is an image of a very lively, intelligent, sensitive person with a breezy sense of humor he deploys even when talking about the most difficult and trying events in his life. I see some of this person in his more pop-arty kind of visual work. But then his paintings and portraits and collages strike me as quite serious, almost despairing at times. I don’t know if you see it the same way, but I guess I am asking if you saw Joe as a person who tried his best to put on a pleasant face that may or may not have masked a kind of suffering he didn’t or couldn’t show to the world?

RP: At the age of 19, Joe wrote a diary entry in which he talked about this very question, concluding that he had “so much undressing to do.” (In my book Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard I quote from his diary.) By “undressing” he meant stripping down to one’s basic self and being honest, a mission he was true to for the rest of his life. Both his visual art and his writing range from the very funny to the very serious, but in all instances I think he tried to make beautiful art that was personal and even intimate. It’s a very friendly art that reflects Joe’s own sweetness and generosity, a generosity that led him to give the world all the beautiful works he made.