love me some Joe Brainard

“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).

Joe in Calais, Vermont, about two years before he died of AIDS-induced pneumonia (photo by Pat Padgett).

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.

Brainard’s “Chewing Gum Wrappers” (1971)

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. 

C Comics No. 2 (Boke Press, 1965)

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.

“Nancy Diptych” by Joe Brainard

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.

Untitled (Still Life, 1968)

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. 

Back and front covers of ARTnews Annual 34 (1968)

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.

Brainard’s “Nancy as Mona Lisa,” (1968)

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.  

Untitled (Mixed Media Collage, 1972)

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.

Untitled and undated

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!

*

Untitled (Puppy, 1962)

*Copyright © 2022 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

37 thoughts on “love me some Joe Brainard

  1. I remember sending in box tops and money to get a Rice Krispie doll.
    I remember singing a song called Jelly Beaner while the Soupy Sales show was on, and making myself a badge with a jelly bean attached to it.
    I remember playing with my Shirley Temple and Barbie dolls with my two best friends.
    I remember playing kickball in elementary school, the only year I liked gym.
    I remember making a birthday cake from my mashed potatoes. I stuck yellow waxed beans in the potatoes and put ketchup on top, which served as the candles. Then I ate the whole thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, love your list, Laurie. That mashed potatoes cake sounds like it was quite a masterpiece. And that badge with a jelly bean attached to it sounds so cute. I knew of Soupy Sales but didn’t watch him enough to remember the Jelly Beaner song.

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  2. I remember…playing communion (recovering Catholic here) with the insides of oreo cookies.
    I also remember why I love visiting your blog, Jama, because you introduce me to people like Joe Brainard. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember walks in the rain by myself and loving it!

    I remember otherworldly chickens I saw in the Cotswold’s—and more adventures in the rain there…

    I remember going to the bowling alley and Chinese restaurant just us kids on our own…

    Loved your “I remember” Jama and Joe Barnard’s too—have to look for his 📕 Great post, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I remember a friend who used the “I remember….” format for her whole eulogy for her father and how beautiful, moving, and effective it was.

    Thank you, Jama! Looking forward to reminiscing in this format!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I remember lots of lovely blog posts, specifically by Jama Kim Rattigan, over the years, including a few featuring my own books, but this one may be my all-time favorite.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I remember that Joe’s book is one of the most treasured on my bookshelf, and needs another (third time) reading! Thank you dear Jama!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for sharing these memories. I remember almost all of those things too. I remember playing “horses” in our backyard. The older girls made me be the Shetland pony because I was the smallest. I wanted to be a wild stallion. : )

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I used to play horses with my cousins in my grandma’s back yard! So cute that you were the Shetland pony. Just learned recently that Queen Elizabeth’s first pony was a Shetland that her grandfather gave her when she was 4.

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  8. So happy to see this featured today! A friend gave me “I Remember” years ago–he was done with it and passing it along–and I was so happy this book came into my life by chance. It does spark so many memories.
    (There’s even an REM song that uses the “I Remember” format: “I Remember California”)
    As for me, I remember school blackboards with cards of cursive letters hanging over them. I remember candy bars at the 7-11 for 10 cents, including one called Choc-o-lite. I remember going to fireworks on the 4th of July, and how it took forever to get dark enough for them to start, and covering my ears for the loud bright white flash-bangs.

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  9. I remember all those things too, except for the Choc-o-lite. You can’t get anything for a dime anymore. How wonderful that your friend passed on the book. Off to find the REM song on YouTube. Thanks, Jenn!

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    1. I LOVED paper dolls (my favorite set was the Lennon Sisters). SuzyBakeOven? Only heard of the EasyBakeOven. Now I feel doubly deprived (I wanted an EasyBake but never got one). Yes, I remember people using baby oil to tan. I remember wanting knee socks so badly but it was just TOO HOT to wear them in Hawaii. I bought some while visiting my aunt in CA, but it was too hot there too.

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  10. I love your memories. I share quite a few of them, and had forgotten some like rubber-tipped classroom pointers and two-part popsicles. Great list. And I love Mona Lisa parodies.

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, these are baby boomer memories. I wanted to be a teacher just so I could use one of those pointers. 😀 Those popsicles were frustrating when they broke across instead of vertically.

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  11. Verbal collage…I’m all ready to go write an I remember prose collage. I have that feeling of OH! That’s what I like to do is. It has a name. Thanks Jama, I love, love, love this post…especially your memories.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I can connect with so many of your memories, Jama, and also the memories of other commenters!
    I remember practicing cursive in fourth grade with special pens that we only used for that purpose.
    I remember playing four square at recess.
    I remember metal bandaid boxes.
    I remember the way my cat, Boots Toots Jeanette Renee Hahn, would clean Winnie the Pooh’s face.
    (You’re right…once you get started…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a great name for a cat!! I don’t know how my resident bears would feel about having their faces cleaned by a cat though. 😀 Love those metal bandaid boxes. Played jacks or jump rope at recess instead of four square.

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  13. Thank you for this wonderful post, Jama! I remember so many of the things you remember. I can see this prompt as a powerful way to get your brain in writing mode, to spark an idea, or to get unstuck.

    I remember my mother’s Waldorf salad of apples and walnuts and raisins in lettuce cups – a special treat.
    I remember Sweet Sue and Betsy Wetsie.
    I remember hiding with my sister in her bedroom the night the bat got in the house.
    I remember stopping by Jim’s on the way to school to buy jawbreakers and Mary Jane’s.
    I remember the librarian’s special pencil with the date stamp on the end used to mark the check-out card.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What great memories, Rose. I love Waldorf salad. Sweet Sue, Betsy Wetsie and Chatty Cathy are the dolls I wanted but didn’t have. Sounds like a harrowing bat adventure!

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  14. I remember how the librarian knew me well and let me take double the number of “Childhood of Famous Americans” books out, a stack of 20, because school was out for the summer. I could hardly carry them.

    I remember flea markets and yard sales where I searched, in high school, for mod clothes to recycle as punk fashion. I was wearing those black and white patent stilettos the day the Wesleyan rep came to my school; when he said, “I like your shoes” I knew where I was going to college.

    I forget that, as much and as many as I know, Jama will always introduce me to someone that “before he came into my life, I missed him so bad, I missed him so, so bad.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a great story about the stilettos! Wonderful to hear about your librarian friend too. Taking home books always made me feel so, so rich.

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  15. I remember my mother telling me that she was feeding me as a baby when she heard about JFK, and because the night before she had dreamed he’d been shot, she had to run to throw up.

    I remember acting out the stories in my Walt Disney storybook LPs.

    I remember using a Slimline wall phone in the kitchen to get the recorded time and weather. I remember our phone number there: 644-5386.

    I remember playing horses, and I wanted to be different, so I was always a mule. I remember collecting model Breyer horses, one by one.

    I remember playing “Living Together” (instead of “House” – those were the times!), and I wanted Bobby Sherman to be my boyfriend.

    Thanks for this thought-& memory-provoking post, Jama, and for sharing Joe Brainard with us.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Oh, Jama, this walk into my past is the most wonderful post! So many memories here match my own. I remember drive in movies. I remember party phone lines and our number was 110. I remember drinking Zarex, Bosco, and also milk mixed with molasses. I remember prizes in Wheaties boxes. I remember chocolate covered vanilla ice cream shaped like a pine cone on a stick. It was a Maine thing! If your stick had a red tip, you got a free ice cream. My brother used to dip his plain stick in Mecurachrome and fooled the shop clerk. Thanks for so many memories-yours and your readers’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing these great memories, Joyce. I almost forgot that we also had a party line. I had Bosco, Ovaltine and Neslie Quik, but no Zarex. I was more into Alphabits than Wheaties, though. 🙂 Funny about your brother cheating with the Mecurachrome. Anything for free ice cream, right? 😀

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  17. Just finally getting to this post a week late, and I love it! His work is so intimate yet familiar, and I remember nearly all the things he remembers…which is thought-provoking and endearing. thanks for sharing, Jama!

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