We meet at last.
I heard your name for decades but never took you seriously. I thought of you as a minor artist who had a bunch of famous poets for friends.
Oh to be a minor artist with famous poets for friends!
I’ve spent lots of time reading poems by Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch, but I never met them for lunch. I get a buzz picturing it.
Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, and you each came from Tulsa to NYC. You were 18 when you arrived. Could you have landed there without them? Or they without you?
I recently discovered your book-length poem “I Remember” and that’s why I’m writing you now.
“I Remember” smacks of cult classic. It’s so honest and whimsical and endless. At first, I thought I heard Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch in your poem. But now I hear Joe Brainard in theirs.
“I Remember” also made me think I know you well. Art can do that to us. You and I share more than memories of hula hoops and “Necco Wafers the pastel colors of chalk.”
You say again and again you don’t think of yourself as all that smart, and I believe you. I know I’m not.
The year before you died of AIDS, so did my cousin Steve. You were 52, he was 38. In losing Steve, I know something of what those who held you dear felt losing you.
You talk about being unattractive, about the disappointment of coming home from parties or gay bars alone. In truth, in many photos you look long and gawky.
I think of Lori and me as Beauty and the Beast. A Beauty really can turn a Beast into a Prince.
One night, when Lori and I were watching L.A. Law, I made the mistake of asking her which attorney she found the most attractive. Her answer? Stuart — short, dumpy Stuart. She confirmed my fear of her bad taste in men.
Again and again in “I Remember” you pass along sexual information most of us would keep secret. The voyeur in me reads on.
You also mention your “cock” more than I can imagine doing. But it’s likely I’ve obsessed about mine as much as you about yours.
I laughed out loud at the panel in your comic book “People of the World: RELAX” where silhouettes of men and women are dancing in formal attire, and thinking, but not saying, “Do not feel guilty if showers turn you on.” “There is nothing wrong with masturbating in the shower.” “I masturbate in the shower.” “And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
I hear an echo of the famous masturbation line from “Hair,” though yours came first.
Between 1965 and 1979, you participated in forty-five group shows and exhibited solo in sixteen galleries scattered from Kansas City to Paris to Paddington, Australia. Your 1975 exhibit at the Fischbach Gallery on Madison Avenue included 1500 small paintings and collages—and close to everything sold.
Meanwhile you wrote continuously: The Cigarette Book, 29 Mini-Essays, Bolinas Journal, The Friendly Way. Collaborated nonstop with poet friends, too, and designed myriad little magazine and book covers.
Then in 1979, when you were 37, you stopped. For the last fifteen years of your life, no more painting, no more writing, no publications, no art shows.
Star athletes hang it up at 37. But an artist?
Around the time you stopped, you wrote, “But let me tell you what is really freaking me out these days: that the person I always thought I was simply isn’t anymore: does not exist.”
Paul Auster says you spent your last fifteen years reading books and nurturing your friendships with the many people you loved and the many people who adored you.
In his memoir, Joe, Ron Padgett talks about how art for you was simply “a way of life” that enabled you to give people “a present” and perhaps “be loved in return.” He believes your need to make art diminished as your life became your art.
My friend Michael reminds me Wallace Stevens didn’t publish his first book until he was 44, and W.B. Yeats wrote much of his finest poetry after 60. That was them, you are you.
Your friend Edmund White titled a tribute to you, “Saint Joe.” I imagine that title makes you blush, as I do now, over my reverie.
Writing to you is not the same as having known you. But now we know each other better. This letter is my present to you, whether you love me back or not.
About the Author
Long ago, Kenny Likis wrote his master’s thesis on Robert Creeley. He’s read contemporary poets obsessively since, but focused on reading, not writing. About a year ago, he suddenly got the urge to write poems and has been hard at it since.