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22 December 2010, 1:00 pm No Comments

Fifteen from 1984: Gay History Week 15: Kenward Elmslie

This post was submitted by Philip Clark, former TNG history and books columnist.

This summer, I was doing research in the George Fisher papers at Cornell University.  Fisher was an airline steward who, as a side job, ran a massive gay mail-order bookselling operation, Elysian Fields, from 1972 until near the time of his death from AIDS in 1990.

In the course of working my way through boxes of letters, catalogs, and flyers from Fisher’s business, one of them caught my attention.  It advertised the autumn 1984 reading series at the New York City outlet of the bookstore A Different Light.  Every week for 15 weeks between September 11th and December 18th, A Different Light hosted a free reading by a different gay or lesbian literary figure.  What was amazing was the sheer quality of this assemblage of talent.  I highly doubt that any similar reading series could be launched in one city in the U.S. in 2010 – not one with such frequency and consistency of talent.

Let’s return to the fall of 1984.  Each week, we’ll look at that week’s novelist, poet, playwright, and critic.  What had they done by 1984?  What have they done since?

Week 15:  Kenward Elmslie

At 81, Kenward Elmslie is the oldest writer still living who was featured in the 1984 fall reading series at A Different Light.  A postmodern poet, a librettist, a playwright, even a novelist (The Orchid Stories), Elmslie has pursued his unique artistic vision over the course of more than six decades.  It is a testament to how many books he has released and how many projects he has worked on that I have no idea which of the many he was promoting at A Different Light.

Elmslie at his 80th birthday party, Photo courtesy by Star Black

Elmslie was born into a life of privilege as the grandson of Joseph Pulitzer, and he graduated from Harvard University in 1950.  Beginning in the 1950s, Elmslie split his year between New York City and an 1840s farmhouse in Calais, Vermont, where he would spend his summers.  This house eventually became known as “Poet’s Corner,” and it was visited or provided summer residence to a number of Elmslie’s close friends from the city.

Kenward Elmslie became associated with writers in the New York School of poets, including James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O’Hara, starting in the 1950s.  His earliest publications were in literary magazines, such as Folder and Kulchur, that heavily presented the New York School.  New York gallery Tibor de Nagy released his first book of poetry, Pavilions, through their publication program in 1961.  By the end of the decade, Elmslie was firmly associated with the group by his inclusion in such works as the Ron Padgett and David Shapiro-edited An Anthology of New York Poets (1970).

Elmslie fell deeply in love with the young artist Joe Brainard upon meeting him in 1964.  They were partners for over the next decade and remained close friends until Brainard’s eventual death from AIDS in 1994; Elmslie was at Brainard’s bedside when he died, and some of Brainard’s ashes were spread at Elmslie’s home in Vermont.  In addition to being partners in life, the Elmslie/Brainard meeting spawned a prolific artistic collaboration, starting with The Baby Book (1965), a send-up of baby books.  Along with Brainard’s providing cover designs or illustrations for many of Elmslie’s books, the pair worked together on everything from comics to records of their readings.  Bare Bones (1995) provides Elmslie’s poetic remembrance of his relationship with Brainard.

Elmslie was also committed to a variety of musical and stage work.  His work for the stage includes librettos, such as those for The Sweet Bye and Bye and Lizzie Borden (published 1966).  He was also heavily involved in the production of The Grass Harp, for which he wrote the book and lyrics; this musical version of a Truman Capote novella lasted for only 7 performances on Broadway.  Elmslie’s offbeat website (http://www.kenwardelmslie.com/) includes sections that discuss his musical and theater collaborations, including work on The Grass Harp (http://www.kenwardelmslie.com/interactive/flash/nav_gh.html).

As an editor and publisher, Elmslie also provided a home for a number of authors through Z Press.  Z Press would publish books by Elmslie, including Tropicalism (1975) and Moving Right Along (1980), along with works by Ron Padgett (Tulsa Kid), Joe Brainard (12 Postcards; 29 Mini-Essays), Bernard Welt (Serenade), James Schuyler (The Home Book), and John Ashbery (3 Plays; The Vermont Notebook), among others.

Elmslie continues to live and work in New York City and Vermont.  His papers are held at the Mandeville Special Collections Library at the University of California, San Diego.

Recommended reading:  It’s really hard for me to make recommendations of Elmslie’s work, partially because I’ve only read a fraction of his extensive writings.  His poetry is full of dense imagery and word play, almost calculated to make someone looking to parse it lose their minds.  Bare Bones is lovely, but not quite representative.  Moving Right Along has some relatively more accessible work, but is difficult to find.  My best recommendation is to try some samples of Elmslie’s poetry on his website (http://www.kenwardelmslie.com/interactive/poets_corner/poets_corner.html), then move on to Routine Disruptions: Selected Poems and Lyrics (1998) if you like what you see.


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