Kenward Elmslie (1929-2022)

Kenward Elmslie,  Boulder, Colorado, 1988 – photo: Allen Ginsberg, courtesy Stanford University Libraries / Allen Ginsberg Estate

Kenward Elmslie, maverick poet, performer, publisher, librettist, one-of-a-kind, passed away peacefully in his sleep, this past month, on June 29th. He was 93.

Here Allen introduces him (back in 1994, at Naropa), alongside fellow collaborator, Steven Taylor, in a presentation of their wonderful operetta/song cycle, Postcards on Parade (on the unlikely topic of postcard-collecting! – the piece has, of course, a more serious and darker resonance, being Kenward’s response to the then-prevalent AIDS epidemic):

“..And now we have Mr. Showbiz, Kenward Elmslie, who served his apprenticeship many years back with John LaTouche, a very important songwriter cabaret theorist and composer, and has done an enormous amount of work in theatre, (including Broadway, the libretto and songs for The Grass Harp, an adaptation of Truman Capote‘s work). He has a long history as a.. what? ..first, and first-and-a-half companion of the heroes of the New York School –  Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler..  an intimate of the whole Long Island New York Museum of Modern Art painters poets community. You might have seen his photo in the mass family photo that was shown on the screen in this room (sic) during a lecture on the New York School by Bill Berkson

photo by John Gruen

Here’s another of John Gruen’s group shots (Kenward on the far right):

There’s basic information in our booklet so I won’t repeat that, but I would like to read a litany of titles, which are interesting, of his collaborative works and individual works which are published by an enormous variety of little and big presses from Kulchur Foundation to present Bamberger Books (whose proprietor is here), Z Press, Burning Deck, Titanic Books, Topia Press, Bellwin-Mills, Boosey & Hawkes (for libretto – which is like the great professional music and libretto company), Black Sparrow Press, Angel Hair, and Tibor de Nagy Editions (which you heard originally as publishers of the first books of Schuyler, O’Hara and many of the writers of the New York School – (Editor’s note – for the second time, Allen inadvertently forgets to mention the name of John Ashbery) –

But there’s quite an interesting list of titles, which themselves make a funny poem, beginning with – Pavilions, The Baby Book, Lizzie Borden, Miss Julie, The 1967 Game Book Calendar, Power Plant Poems, The Champ, Album, Girl Machine, Circus Nerves, Shiny Ride, Motor Disturbance, The Grass Harp, The Orchid Stories, The Sweet Bye and Bye, The Seagull (a libretto), Tropicalism, Washington Square (a libretto), Topiary Trek, The Alphabet Work, Communications Equipment, Moving Right Along, Bimbo Dirt, Three Sisters (a libretto), 26 Bars, City Junket, Sung Sex, and Pay Dirt. Many of these were collaborations (with Donna Dennis, Ken Tisa, and Joe Brainard), but the major collaboration has been with the.. his musician Steven Taylor, (who you’ve seen on and off stage during the summer, accompanying many of the poets, and doing work of his own)…”

Later books of note include. Routine Disruptions: Selected Poems and Lyrics 1960 – 1998, Coffee House Press (1998), Nite Soil (2000), Spilled Beans (a conversation with Mary Kite, with illustrations by Joe Brainard) (2001), and three books with Trevor WinkfieldCyberspace, Granary Books (2000), Snippets, Tibor de Nagy Editions (2002), and Agenda Melt, Adventures In Poetry (2004)

Kenward Elmslie and Steven Taylor in 1990 – reading and interview at St Marks

Bill Berkson, Bill Corbett, Ann Lauterbach, Maxine Chernoff and Ron Padgett reading at Kenward’s 80th Birthday Celebration at St Marks in 2009

Maxine Chernoff on Kenward Elmslie – here and here
Ron Padgett on Kenward Elmslie – here and here

Alice Notley reviews Kenward
Kristin Prevallet interviews Kenward

Remembering Kenward – don’t miss the extraordinary trove of materials on PennSound

Neil Genzlinger‘s obituary for the New York Times (published yesterday) may be read here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *