Monday, April 11, 2011

Writing Prompt #3: Joe Brainard Remembers. Do You?

The late, great Joe Brainard (shown here outside of New York poets' oasis Gem Spa) was well-known as both an artist and writer, though far more prolific as the former than the latter.  While much of his literary focus was directed towards covers and illustrations for books by his New York School friends (including Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett,  Anne Waldman, Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery) he did leave behind one modest yet indelible masterpiece: I Remember.  First published in three small volumes from the independent press Angel Hair — I Remember (1970), I Remember More (1972) and More I Remember More (1973) — that were brought together in its present form in 1975.  I Remember has continued to captivate audiences in the intervening decades, with Paul Auster praising it as "one of the few totally original books I have ever read," and both Georges Perec and Gilbert Adair creating book-length interpretations of their own.

The power of I Remember lies in its simplicity and imitability.  Consisting of hundreds of short prose passages, each consisting of a single memory and beginning with the words "I remember," Brainard's book calls out for us to mimic his form, documenting our own lived experiences in a similar fashion. Here are some selections from the book, cut and pasted from web sources:

I remember when, in high school, if you wore green and yellow on Thursday it meant that you were queer.

I remember when, in high school, I used to stuff a sock in my underwear.

I remember that for my fifth birthday all I wanted was an off-one-shoulder black satin evening gown. I got it. And I wore it to my birthday party.

I remember my first sexual experience in a subway. Some guy (I was afraid to look at him) got a hard-on and was rubbing it back and forth against my art. I got very excited and when my stop came I hurried out and home where I tried to do an oil painting using my dick as a brush.

I remember my parents’ bridge teacher. She was very fat and very butch (cropped hair) and she was a chain smoker. She prided herself on the fact that she didn’t have to carry matches around. She lit each new cigarette from the old one. She lived in a little house behind a restaurant and lived to be very old.

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.

I remember when a kid told me that those sour clover-like leaves we used to eat (with little yellow flowers) tasted so sour because dogs peed on them. I remember that didn’t stop me from eating them.

I remember the first drawing I remember doing. It was of a bride with a very long train.

I remember my first cigarette. It was a Kent. Up on a hill. In Tulsa, Oklahoma. With Ron Padgett.

I remember my first erections. I thought I had some terrible disease or something.

I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.

I remember when my father would say "Keep your hands out from under the covers" as he said goodnight. But he said it in a nice way.

I remember when I thought that if you did anything bad, policemen would put you in jail.
I remember Dorothy Collins.
I remember Dorothy Collins’ teeth.
I remember planning to tear page 48 out of every book I read from the Boston Public Library, but soon losing interest.
I remember my grade school art teacher, Mrs Chick, who got so mad at a boy one day she dumped a bucket of water over his head.
I remember Moley, the local freak and notorious queer. He had a very little head that grew out of his body like a mole. No one knew him, but everyone knew who he was. He was always ‘around’.
I remember liver.
I remember when hoody boys wore their blue jeans so low that the principal had to put a limit on that too. I believe it was three inches below the navel.

I remember one football player who wore very light faded blue jeans, and the way he filled them.

I remember when my father would say ‘Keep your hands out from under the covers’ as he said good night. But he said it in a nice way.

I remember the chair I used to put my boogers behind.

I remember ‘queers can’t whistle’.

I remember how many other magazines I had to buy in order to buy one physique magazine.

I remember a girl in school one day who, just out of the blue, went into a long spiel all about how difficult it was to wash her brother’s pants because he didn’t wear underwear.

I remember a pinkish-red rubber douche that appeared in the bathroom every now and then, and not knowing what it was, but somehow knowing enough not to ask.

I remember a little boy who said it was more fun to pee together than alone, and so we did, and so it was.

I remember ‘dress up time’ (Running around pulling up girl’s dresses yelling ‘dress up time’).

I remember a fat man who sold insurance. One hot summer day we went to visit him and he was wearing shorts and when he sat down one of his balls hung out.

I remember that it was hard to look at it and hard not to look at it too.

I remember a very early memory of an older girl in a candy store. The man asked her what she wanted and she picked out several things and then he asked her for her money and she said. ‘Oh, I don’t have any money. You just asked me what I wanted, and I told you.’ This impressed me to no end.

While these excerpts aren't all contiguous (they're pasted from three different places) you can get a sense of how certain themes and ideas carry over from one remembrance to another, and also how one memory can spur another, whether directly or obliquely.  Also, while all of these memories relate to Brainard's childhood, there are great many in the book that are more contemporaneous, dating from a few weeks or a few years ago vs. a few decades ago.

So for this assignment, I'd like you to stoke the fires of your memory and see what comes out.  Don't feel any restrictions in regards to length — you can be as long or as short as you'd like.

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