Monday, November 5, 2012

Joe Brainard Part 3 - Some questions for Ron Padgett

Joe Brainard & Ron Padgett
c.1989, photo Patricia Padgett

Ron Padgett is the author of numerous books of poetry, memoirs, and translations. He was in Joe Brainard’s first-grade class in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They became friends in high school in the late 1950s when Ron started a little magazine called The White Dove Review and asked Joe to be the art editor. They remained close friends until Joe’s death in 1994. Ron collaborated several times with Joe on books and wrote a memoir entitled Joe (2004). This year the Library of America published The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, which Ron edited. After reading it, I had a few questions for him, which he was kind enough to answer by email.

Q: Did you and Joe Brainard share poems as you were developing them?

A: Joe wrote mostly prose. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we showed each other new pieces, partly because we were the main audience for them, along with Ted Berrigan and Dick Gallup.

Q: There has been some confusion about the last several years of Joe’s life. If I understand what you wrote, as well as an interview with Kenward Elmslie, Brainard still created art, but he didn’t paint or make art for sale. In addition to his extensive reading, he did designs for his friends’ books and made drawings that he gave away. Is that correct?

A: Yes, he did do some book art and some drawings. Also, recently I discovered a large manila envelope that contained hundreds and hundreds of pieces he had collected for collages, as well as some partly finished collages, which he mailed to himself from New York to Vermont, intending to work on them. Although he didn’t, and although he had withdrawn from the art market, he didn’t stop thinking about art.

Q: Edmund White suggested that Joe stopped making art because he stopped taking speed. I sensed that his inner compass changed. Can you comment?

A: Taking speed gave Joe the energy to make a lot of art in a short time. He made art before speed and after speed. His reasons for slowing down were complicated.

by Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett
illustrations by Joe Brainard

Q: I wondered if Brainard was afraid that his canvases couldn’t capture that elusive “nowness” as well as his other work. Maybe he felt that his technical abilities couldn’t render that pure presence he sought?

A: I’m not sure what you mean by “nowness” and “pure presence.” He was just disappointed by his oil paintings. No one else was.

Q: By nowness I meant his ongoing desire/struggle to capture the present moment. I felt that he was writing about this all the time, but perhaps most directly in I Remember and in the piece entitled “Right Now.”

A: Ah, that nowness. Yes, you’re right in the two instances you mention, but I don’t think he was always going for nowness. He was going for something concrete: visually beautiful, fresh, amazing art works.

Q: Brainard did emphasize being present and kind. Was Allen Ginsberg an influence in this way? As far as you know, did Joe ever study or read about Buddhism?

A: He never studied Buddhism, and any reading about it would have been casual. A number of his friends were Buddhists. But I think Buddhism had a very small influence on him, an indirect one at most.

I'm Not Really Flying
I'm Thinking

Q: Brainard seemed to be an artist who was queer, but not a queer artist. In his work and his writing, his sexuality arrives in waves. It feels like a constant background, but not always a foreground. Do you agree?

A: Yes, I do.

Q: His parents seem mostly absent from the memoir and this new book. Was he ever out to them? Was the relationship strained?

A: He never told them he was gay, fearing that it might upset them. But when his father learned of Joe’s sexuality (after Joe died), he didn’t seem upset at all. The relationship wasn’t strained, but, as I understand it, communication in the Brainard family tended to remain on an everyday, superficial level.

Q: Did Joe sit down and say, “I have to work now, I have to write a poem,” or did he just write when it struck him?

A: His diaries show that he often set work schedules for himself.

Envelope and unfinished collage made by Joe Brainard. Image courtesy Ron Padgett

Q: When did he recognize that he was a writer and an artist?

A: From early childhood he knew he was good at art, though I doubt that at the age of, say, seven, he said to himself, “I am an artist.” His writing came later, when he was around nineteen.

Q: You already explored his life extensively in your memoir. Did the process of editing his collected writings change your view of him?

A: It made me realize that he was even more brilliant than I had thought.

Q: Do you have a different sense of his lasting contribution?

A: This question would have made him smile. In one of his writings, admitting that he had trouble liking Courbet, he added something like, “Someday I hope to understand his ‘contribution.’” He was making fun of highfalutin language. As for lasting, Paul Auster has written that I Remember will endure. I tend to agree, but really I can’t predict future taste.

Q: Do you think there is enough correspondence to do a volume of the letters of Joe Brainard?

A: Easily.

Q: Do you feel that with the Collected Writings, you have finished your work with this material?

A: Gathering Joe’s huge correspondence would be exhausting. I’m leaving that to a younger person, someone with more stamina than I have.

To learn more about Ron Padgett visit

All art works by Joe Brainard used by permission of the Estate of Joe Brainard and courtesy of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.

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