“If I’m as normal as I think I am, we’re all a bunch of weirdos.” ~ Joe Brainard
I love it when one good thing leads to another.
Kenneth Koch’s poem “Permanently” (which I shared last June), sparked my interest in New York School artist, writer and set designer Joe Brainard (1942-1994).
Both his visual art and writings were new to me; unlike his more famous contemporaries Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Ron Padgett, James Schuyler, Andy Warhol, Fairfield Porter, and Koch himself, Brainard had somehow slipped under my radar.
If you’ve been a Brainard fan all along, then you know he was a prolific creator who left behind an impressive oeuvre of innovative, pop culture inspired collages, assemblages, paintings, drawings, and comic book collaborations, as well as multiple collections of mostly autobiographical poetry and prose.
As a poet, he is best known for his lyrical prose-poem collage memoir, I Remember (1970), deemed by New Yorker’s Dan Chiasson as “one of the twenty or so most important American autobiographies.”
Earnest, funny, charming, poignant and unpretentious, I Remember is a 130-page litany of simple declarative statements each beginning with the words, “I remember.”
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.
This organizing principle — simple yet powerful — fuels an epic incantation on a wide array of subjects ranging from friends and family, to school and holidays, to popular culture, sex and the body, to objects and products.
I remember zipper notebooks. I remember that girls hugged them to their breasts and that boys carried them loosely at one side.
I remember white bread and tearing off the crust and rolling the middle part up into a ball and eating it.
I remember ‘Your front door is open.’ Or maybe it was ‘Barn door.’ Or both.
I remember ‘Payday’ candy bars and eating the peanuts off first and then eating the center part.
The seemingly random, unchronological list of close to 1500 entries never feels tedious or self-absorbed; it refreshingly lacks any trace of pomposity as Brainard deftly juxtaposes the banal with the emotionally distilled, offering disarmingly candid memories from his childhood days in Tulsa through his first decade in New York.
I remember many Septembers.
I remember one day in gym class when my name was called out I just couldn’t say “here.” I stuttered so badly that sometimes words just wouldn’t come out of my mouth at all. I had to run around the field many times.
I remember how rock and roll music can hurt. It can be so free and sexy when you are not.
I remember two-piece bathing suits. Alphabet soup. Ozzie and Harriet. And pictures of kidney-shaped swimming pools.
With his painterly eye for detail and natural gift for storytelling, Brainard makes the small (sometimes miniscule) and deeply personal moment, universal and revelatory, proving everything is worthy of attention. We remember what it means to be young, curious, and open to whatever the wide world has to offer.
I remember Creamsicles and Fudgesicles and Popsicles that broke (usually) in two.
I remember the chocolate Easter bunny problem of where to start.
I remember red rubber coin purses that opened like a pair of lips, with a squeeze.
I remember ‘pick-up sticks,’ ‘tiddly-winks,’ ‘fifty-two pick-up,’ and ‘war.’
I remember ‘spin the bottle’ and ‘post office.’
This friendly, unassuming verbal collagist has generously made his memories our own.
He describes his great enthusiasm for the project in a letter to friend and poet 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.
That’s the secret of the memoir’s lasting appeal. You think you’re reading about Joe, but often feel you’re reading about yourself. He endears himself to you by making you a collaborator. He’s human and flawed, insecure and self-effacing, winning you over with casual observations you can relate to.
You also applaud his honesty and courage to write about stuff you’d be way too embarrassed to write about yourself, and you admire his “unstructured structure” because ultimately the piece has its own unique brand of musicality and aesthetic beauty. Since there was great cross-pollination between his visual art and his writing, it makes perfect sense his memoir would consist of various and sundry life snippets arranged just so.
Have you ever used “I Remember” as a writing prompt? Ever since Kenneth Koch first introduced it in his creative writing classes years ago, writers of all stripes have continued to discover its inherent magic.
Here are a few of my “I Remember’s.” This was a fun exercise and I was surprised at how easily the memories flowed with such clarity and detail. Once you get started, you can’t stop!
I remember my Little Lulu costume for Halloween. I changed my name to Lulu when I was six and wouldn’t answer to anything else.
I remember Ovaltine and Nestle Quik. The strawberry flavor was never as good as the chocolate.
I remember small cereal boxes with dotted lines to punch out so you could eat right out of the box.
I remember Barbies and how sad I was when my mother gave mine away to my younger cousins.
I remember Little Golden Books, 25 cents each. My mother gave those away too.
I remember princess phones and paper fortune tellers, magic slates, Red Whips, and Romper Room.
I remember Captain Kangaroo, Bunny, and Mr. Green Jeans.
I remember Colorforms, typewriter ribbons, carbon paper, View Masters and hula hoops.
I remember the day JFK was assassinated.
I remember when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.
I remember wanting tap shoes.
I remember “The Wizard of Oz” as the first thing I ever saw on color TV.
I remember blackboards and pull down maps, and pointers with rubber tips on the ends.
I remember looking forward to my turn at clapping the erasers.
I remember walking home from school with Gail and stopping at B-Sweet to buy pistachio nuts, shredded mango, and creamsicles.
I remember then going to my house where we pretended to be runway models.
I remember the rich feeling of taking home a bag of books from the library.
I remember the crunching sound of crinolines.
I remember Dippity-Do and Breck Shampoo.
I remember often thinking librarians are the kindest people ever. Sandar (quirky in addition to being kind) wore bright outfits with two different colored socks and usually ate tuna salad for lunch.
I remember hot pants, mini skirts, A-line dresses, bell bottoms and Simplicity patterns.
I remember Dick Clark and American Bandstand and wanting to be grown up like the dancers on the show.
I remember loving the Rascals with all my heart.
I remember riding the tube in London.
I remember tea at Harrods with my third period students. We also used to frequent a bakery nearby that sold the best bread, warm from the oven.
I remember one of my students throwing up during the middle of an exam. I cleaned off her desk with paper towels and sent her to the nurse. Too much champagne for breakfast.
I remember my favorite scene from “Notting Hill,” and trying to come up with something suitably pitiful to share in order to earn the last brownie.
I remember the distinctive gray light of London skies, and the feeling of not ever wanting to be anywhere else.
As I said before, I love it when one good thing leads to another. I highly recommend reading I Remember if you haven’t already done so. You will get caught up in the joy and energy of Joe’s original, free flowing method of telling a life story — you will laugh and be moved, relate, and remember . . .
Please feel free to add some of your own ” I Remember” snippets in the comments. 🙂
Lovely and talented Rose Cappelli is hosting the Roundup at Imagine the Possibilities. Zoom on over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared around the blogosphere this week. Have a nice weekend!
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