Blast from the Past
Skanky Possum Press
$12.00 / 87 pages / ISBN 0970395213
During a recent tribute to artist Joe Brainard at Berkeley's Fine
Arts Museum, former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass introduced a group
of Brainard's cronies, including Ron Padgett, Anne Waldeman, Dick
Gallup, Barbara Guest, and finally Kenward Elmslie, whose new book
Blast From the Past has just been published by Austin, Texas-based
Skanky Possum. As Hass described the close-knit group of friendsmost
of whom came from small-town Tulsa or Colorado Springs and later haunted
New York City togetherit became clearer than ever that poetry
is born of just such circles of folks who fall in love with each other,
fight and fuck, bitch and joke, swap ideas and secrets, and, most
of all, egg each other on to newer and better things. And never before
had a writer like Hassapproved by academy and country, anthology
and awards committee alikestood in such stark contrast as a
sort of teacher's pet next to these snickering back-row clowns, who
collectively may have done more to alter the poetics of their time
than anyone else.
What crystallized for me in that moment of watching them all pay
homage to Brainard with such affection and humor was the notion of
the kreis, as Duncan or Spicer would have it, but in the best
possible sense, not to establish some sort of poetic pecking order
but to advance the group mind by any means possiblesuch selflessness
being illustrated by the collaborative Bean Spasms by Ted Berrigan
and Dick Gallup, in which none of the poems were signed.
It was Brainard, after all, who reportedly developed the "I
Remember" techniquelater to find wide use among most of
the "New York School" poetswhile visiting Elmslie
in Vermont in 1969. Elmslie spends a good part of this book revisiting
Brainard, as well as the "I Remember" way of writing short
vivid memory shots in fluid bursts of prose, full of gossip and hilarity,
to fine effect:
I Remember on my way to meet Igor Stravinsky in the
Philharmonic Green Room, post-concert at Lincoln
Center, Frank [O'Hara], in front of the Hotel Chelsea,
demonstrated with balletic precision how I was to
kneel, teaching me how to pay homage to a Great
Genius, Old Russian style. Or so Frank claimed.
Elmslie began his career as a lyricist and librettist, and his extraordinary
ear for rhythm and rhyme make for some funny and technically stunning
poems, poems that practically beg to be sung as Elmslie himself would
sing them in performance.
From the opening poem "Touche's Salon," we get rhymes
At Touche's Salon,
The ambiance is chichi
It's hard to distinguish hetero from he/she.
And later, "Squeegee Bijoux of '99":
Time to jet up.
Don't get het up.
Hop into Squeegee Bijoux.
Test model, year '99.
Assembly line hype we won't feed joo.
Glam its sleek peekaboo design.
When I read Elmslie here I'm reminded of Lew Welch's self-described
"ear-wash" poems, sharp songs right on the edge of the jingle
or Broadway showtune that were meant to clean out the student's ear
with clear rhymes and inventive turns of phrase, going forward more
by the music than anything else.
In that sense this book is an excellent primer on the larger scope
of Elmslie's career not only does he recount his early encounters
with the bohemian life of New York through John Latouche, a semi-successful
Broadway librettist who inspired his own efforts in that regard, but
he samples many different styles of his writing, from the deliberately
campy songs to the serious odes to old friends, to the plays and prose
of the "I Remembers." Some of the latter, especially, are
particularly moving, especially the 26 that concern Frank O'Hara,
which conclude with a poignant tribute:
I remember waking up from a dream about Frank that
skittered away as I surfaced into morning reality. A
double loss. Dream gone and no Frank.
It's hard to tell sometimes whether Blast contains all new
Elmslie or artifacts from his vast output over the years. Some of
this work has appeared recently in small magazines, some performed
as musicals with frequent collaborator Steven Taylor, or choreographed
for dancers. Dale Smith, publisher, seemed to think it was all new
stuff, yet there's the Brainard birthday poem dated 1976 and the "I
Remembers" sandwiched around sections of Lizzie Borden, a libretto
that dates from 1965.
But that's OK. With all the old photos and drawings of friends mixed
in, what this slim volume ends up feeling like is a funky yearbook
in which Elmslie, always the biggest cut-up of the New York School,
comes across hilariously and powerfully as ever.