VerySmallKitchen writes: Ron Padgett has edited a beautiful edition of THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF JOE BRAINARD, recently published by Library of America. It includes the full text of I Remember as well as facsimiles of several small press chapbooks, including Bolinas Journal and The Cigarette Book (his work as visual artist was the subject of Joe Brainard: A Retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum in 2001).
The Collected Writings begins with I Remember, which, for a long time – courtesy of Granary Books – has been the only text of Brainard’s in print. Poet Tim Dlugos could joke – as early as 1977, in one of two interviews included here- “You’re remembered for I Remember… (Both Laugh).” Its 138 pages start off:
I remember the first time I got a letter that said “After Five Days Return To” on the envelope, and I thought that after I had kept the letter for five days I was supposed to return it to the sender.
I remember the kick I used to get going through my parents’ drawers looking for rubbers. (Peacock.)
I remember when polio was the worst thing in the world.
I remember pink dress shirts. And bola ties.(5)
I Remember combines two types of writing found throughout this book: the diaries, written for publication and often arranged by place or time – as in Bolinas Journal, “Washington D.C. Journal 1972” and “Diary 1969” – alongside short prose pieces on a particular subject or object.
These later pieces are not necessarily removed from the ongoing process of diary-making-for-publication, showing Brainard’s intelligence and humour moving through various minimal forms of writing and sequencing, such as the constraint and consequences of writing sentences that begin “I remember…” As Brainard tells Dlugos, this invokes a particular sort of “I” and memoir:
Well, I have a terrible memory, for one thing. I can’t remember anything. But then I began to realize that beyond that point there is another level of knowledge that could be triggered off. It wasn’t really useful knowledge unless it was triggered off; then I sort of used up that and there kept being more and different layers of things that were hidden. It isn’t really there spontaneously. So I got into that. I was unaware of it, for one thing, that all that was retained. (499)
See also: “Twenty-three Mini-Essays” and “Towards a Better Life (Eleven Exercises)” alongside often less than a page length works on “Thirty” or “Sex,” “Ron Padgett” or “A Depressing Thought.”
If there is a dominant stylistic element connecting both of these modes, it is Brainard’s sentiment that “Writing, for me, is a way of “talking” the way I wish I could talk.” The various forms and styles in The Collected Writings can be seen as an exposition of this statement, mostly through a kind of talking-prose-style, but also texts foregrounding line breaks and lyricism as structural devices, or, as in The Cigarette Book, through hand writing, annotation, illustration and collage…
This writing-talking relationship gets most concentrated in numerous short works in proximity to the demands of aphorism, koan, epigram and witticism, such as “30 One-Liners,” which mines a playful shared ground of profundity and the mundane. To quote four from the middle of this collection:
A SEXY THOUGHT
Male early in the day.
One can only go so far without potatoes in the kitchen.
A mother is something we have all had.
Every four minutes a car comes off the assembly line they say. (415)
Throughout The Collected Writings, a crucial dynamic is an intimate self that is also a self-conscious literary creation, connected to a chronicle of a particular social and artistic scene, through what Brainard calls “this “trying to be honest” kind of writing.” (313)
This is a practical matter of names, places, emotions, conversations, events that become notated in published writing, but Brainard expresses it on a grander scale in a letter to Anne Waldman:
I am way, way up these days over a piece I am still writing called 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. I also feel that it is about everybody else as much as it is about me. And that pleases me. I mean, I feel like I am everybody. And it’s a nice feeling. It won’t last. But I am enjoying it while I can. (xviii)
Aged thirty seven, Brainard ceases both exhibition of his visual work and writing for publication. As Paul Auster observes in his introduction here, there are many theories around Brainard’s withdrawal from publication and exhibition, including burn out, a sense of personal failure, and an unwillingness or inability to engage with an increasingly competitive art world, when, for Brainard, writing and art making was principally linked to (Ann Lauterbach’s words) “devoted camaraderie and generative collaboration.”
I wondered, separate from this biographical information, what story emerges from the work itself. I skipped around in my reading of this book and when skipping from beginning to end I was struck by the change in Nothing to Write About Home, a final collection of prose pieces, published by Little Ceasar Press in 1981.
Here a text like “My Friend” seems to extend and fulfill an earlier mode of writing, taking it to near collapse under its own realised attributes. A writing that prepares the ground for something new, which, as far as published writing goes, was a not-doing:
There’s this one little bug – so tiny really – say an eighth of an inch long, and as thin as a sliver – with a very simple and symmetrical design finely enameled upon the shell of his body in red and green – as sophisticated as a zinnia bud, or an Art Deco cigarette case – that is just so beautiful – so worthy in my enthusiasm of being glorified into a central window of a major European cathedral – that has been living on a particularly large sunflower leaf for over a week now. I check him out daily. Never really expecting him to still be there, as with each day more so, it does seem to be a lot to expect. But there he still is – (or was this morning) – : my friend. And like a rock by chance encountered, all mine. To microscopically indulge in. To romanticize. (To write about!) Passing on to you what I find to be so very special – a snapshot – to make life more realistic and rememberable, for me too. (481)
For Auster any theory has to take into account how much the subject of Brainard’s writing was youth itself:
Brainard disarms us with the seemingly tossed-off, spontaneous nature of his writing and his stubborn refusal to accede to the pieties of self-importance. We must remember that he was very young when the wildest pieces in this collection were written – still in his twenties – and what these little works capture most fully, it seems to me, is precisely a sense of youth, the laughter of youth, the energy of youth, for in the end they are not really about anything so much as what it means to be young, that hopeful, anarchic time when all horizons are open to us and the future appears to be without limits. (xxv)
Or as Brainard himself had earlier commented of the perceived unfolding of his writing trajectory:
You know, it’s really funny this kind of writing. This “trying to be honest” kind of writing. For several years now I’ve been doing it, and getting better and better at it. Getting closer and closer to a point (a place) in my head I call the truth.
But now I’m beginning to doubt that very point (That very place).
I mean, what I’ve been working towards just isn’t there anymore (Zap.)
Do you know what I mean?
I mean, the closer I get to the truth the less I know what the truth is.
Wish I could make myself more clear but ——– right now I can’t.” (313)
This ambition and, as Auster proposes, non-tragic crisis, are amongst the reasons why Brainard seems so connected to many contemporary practices. Such a list could continue by thinking about the humor of his work; its concern with everyday sociality become publication and performance; the focus on situations of “camaraderie and generative collaboration”; the hopeful, pleasurable mixture of conceptual and conversational tonalities…
Those who come most immediately to mind here are Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch’s Ten Walks/ Two Talks ( Pop Poetics: Reframing Joe Brainard by Fitch is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive) and, for all the reasons above, the performances and texts of Patrick Coyle and Tamarin Norwood. Perhaps, though, Brainard as legacy in 2012 inhabits the same paradoxical condition Brainard proposed and inhabited when he wrote the short text “No Story”, which reads in its entirety:
I hope you have enjoyed not reading this story as much as I have enjoyed not writing it. (436)
VerySmallKitchen was delighted to re-print Joe Brainard’s “Wednesday July 7th, 1971 (A Greyhound Bus Trip)”, published for the first time in The Collected Writings.
Thanks to Max Rubin and Library of America for permission to reprint. The text was available here from 27/05/12 until 28/05/12.