Introduction for Kenward Elmslie’s 80th Birthday Reading

Thank you all for coming to the Poetry Project’s celebration for Kenward Elmslie. Yesterday was his 80th Birthday and I am thrilled that he and some of his friends are together tonight to share and revel in his work.

His many poetry books include Circus Nerves, Agenda Melt, Champ Dust, Sung Sex, and Motor Disturbance, which won a Frank O’Hara award. His titles alone begin to give the uninitiated the idea that he is a master of juxtapositional language or the word pile-up – word-pop. He has collaborated with visual artists, notably Joe Brainard, Donna Dennis and Trevor Winkfield, among others. He has written the librettos of six operas, including Lizzie Borden, and the book and lyrics for the Broadway musical The Grass Harp. He has written a novel, The Orchid Stories; a play, City Junket, produced off-Broadway with sets and costumes by Red Grooms; and Bimbo Dirt, a whodunit spoof with visuals by Ken Tisa. In 2005, LingoLand, a revue of his writings played at the York Theatre. That much of Elmslie’s work has been in the form of words for songs highlight the sense of a poem, as Alice Notley has written, “not so much a drama as a small theater, with a stage to be enlivened…”.

Another salient quality of Kenward’s work is something W.C. Bamberger notes in his introduction to Routine Disruptions: “In his poetry, as in his life, emotions rarely stand alone. He likes to pair them off, trio them off—quartet…” thereby giving the work its wide emotional range – always playful but not always funny. His work does what we crave art to do, to paraphrase an Elmslie line, to conjoin gorgeous blue plates to form sky, replacing the old peeling one. And he does this with utterly singular completely un-usual vision.

Thank you Kenward, for all of your work and all you have done for poetry.