Readers who are familiar with the Library of America's usual omnibus offerings will know how much of a labor of love The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard is: with its many black-and-white drawings and previously uncollected material, this is not their usual offering, and certainly one motivated by the quality and importance of Brainard's work.
A painter and collagist of quietly prodigious talent, Joe Brainard moved from Tulsa to New York in his early twenties, there finding himself tangentially associated with the burgeoning poetry movements of John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara as well as the pop art scenes of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Not quite fitting into one specific artistic category, Brainard thrived on collaboration: in addition to his successful career as an exhibited artist, Brainard worked on illustrations, book jackets, poems and collaborative comics with many of his friends including Ted Berrigan, James Schuyler, and his lover, Kenward Elmslie.
During one of the many trips recounted in this collection to Elmslie's cabin in upstate Vermont, Brainard began one his most important solo projects during a break from painting. In one of two wonderful interviews with the author reprinted in this collection, Brainard recounts the genesis of I Remember:
"A lot of times when I'm not painting - or even when I'm painting - I set up something for me to do. Like I'll say, 'I'm going to paint a peach' or 'I'm going to paint a pear.' Or if I'm writing I'll say 'I'm going to sit outside and describe what's around me,' or 'I'll try to write very short stories,' or some kind of project. And that was a project. I decided one day that I would lay out in the sun and close my eyes and try to remember and just write down whatever I remembered, free-floating. So I did that one day and I loved it..."
This isn't just an intimate photo album intending to transport his audience back to midcentury Tulsa: this is a book that will spark a similar wave of remembrance in each of its readers. If you don't remember "tiny pink tins of deviled ham" or "the chocolate Easter bunny problem of where to start" or remember "wondering if goats really do eat tin cans", you'll wish you did, and you'll want to thank Brainard for being so sweetly candid.
It's difficult to read the Library of America's The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard without viewing the lesser-known pieces as means to reinforce the brilliance of I Remember. Although there are over sixty other works in this collection (including many "intimate" journal entries with an eye kept on their possible publication), there are few standout pieces that come close to I Remember's resonance. In it's close proximity to these other vignettes, readers will find there's even more to love about I Remember: suddenly, the work's rhythm, pacing, and textual layout all reveal themselves to be subtle influences on its immense success.
"I'm sort of a would-be cowgirl without a horse."
"I got bit by the needlework bug in Tokyo."
"If you happen to have a dead tree, turn a blue glass bottle down over each limb. The results are rather eyecatching."
"A friend of mine had a pile of bricks they didn't want so naturally we took them."
"The Friendly Way" lacks the nostalgia and honesty of I Remember but it maintains its celebratory, life-affirming charm: these lines may read like nonsense, but they possess a certain deliberateness and confidence that seems to have fueled much of Brainard's career. Most of The Collected Writings reveal Brainard to be a worrier, uncertain whether or not his work would make a difference in the world. But, it's as if Brainard constantly tried to follow the same rules that govern "The Friendly Way": this is a writer who has genuinely tried to believe in everything he's created, and experiencing his collected work will show readers how rare it is to find that sort of passion and candor.