“Kenward Elmslie’s The Orchid Stories is, to use Balzac’s term, a chef d’oeuvre inconnu, and one of the funniest, most gorgeous American prose fictions of the latter 20th century. It’s wonderful to have it in print again.”
– John Ashbery
“Like Franz Kafka and Raymond Roussel, Kenward Elmslie has created throughout his oeuvre – but nowhere more strikingly than in The Orchid Stories – a human universe that both reflects our own and stands at a bizarre angle to it. Unlike those other those two other greats, Elmslie has depended neither on genre nor hidden methods to achieve his creation. He apparently has a Great Hadron Collider lodged in some nook of his brain into which he feeds the totality of the English language, high and low, and propels its words at explosive speeds into one another until they pulverize and settle over the society he has conjured up in luminous lexical dust. The result is bewildering, often hilarious, and utterly original. Ultimately it is also tinged, I feel, with an implicit deep melancholy that haunts all great works of art.”
– Harry Mathews
“From lists to letters, to travel brochures, to public announcements, to regional vernacular, to terms of endearment you might use on your pet kangaroo, to concrete poems and shaped verse — every kind of writing makes an appearance in The Orchid Stories … It’s great that Song Cave has brought The Orchid Stories back into print. Elmslie is the perfect writer to begin reading in an age that worships profligacy and the collecting of luxury items and art trophies … The Orchid Stories is a book about language in words you won’t want to turn away from.”
– John Yau, from his review in Hyperallergic
Like the orchids that provide their leitmotif, these interwoven stories by Kenward Elmslie are exquisite, exotic, and oneiric, as if they had been written in another world. Although each of The Orchid Stories stands alone, their characters and moods recur frequently, in a swirl of visual echoes and the bewildering clarity of a dream. Even the characters themselves, with their shifting names and genders, have an illusive reality that enhances the pleasure of these tales.
The Song Cave is honored to present this new edition of Kenward Elmslie’s out-of-print masterpiece, first published by Paris Review Editions in 1973. With an introduction that provides a fresh sense of Elmslie’s oeuvre by Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW’s “Bookworm,” this spectacular and spectacularly overlooked book is at last available to a new generation of adventurous readers.
Poet, librettist, novelist, editor, and performance artist KENWARD ELMSLIE was born in New York City in 1929. Elmslie became a central figure in the New York School and, as the editor of Z magazine and Z Press books, promoted the work of fellow poets John Ashbery, Bill Berkson, Joe Brainard, Edwin Denby, Joanne Kyger, James Schuyler, Anne Waldman, and numerous others.
Among his many poetry collections are Pavilions, Girl Machine, Motor Disturbance (winner of the Frank O’Hara Award), Tropicalism, and Routine Disruptions: Selected Poems & Lyrics. Elmslie is also the author of six opera librettos, including Lizzie Borden, as well as the musical plays Lola, The Grass Harp (based on the work by Truman Capote), Palais Bimbo, and Postcards on Parade.
Elmslie’s honors include a grant from the Ford Foundation, the Gertrude Stein Award for Innovative Poetry, and an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in New York City and Calais, Vermont, in a home he shared with his longtime partner and artistic collaborator, Joe Brainard.
Make the World Safe for Kenward Elmslie
by Michael Silverblatt
“Upon that golden shore, kids
We’ll lie on beds of orchids.”
-John Latouche, “Goona Goona”
from the musical The Golden Apple
Kenward Elmslie’s perverse, scabrous, gorgeous poetry and prose have astonished his fans for over fifty years—decades during which he remained the pride of small presses, the happy secret of cognoscenti—but it is safe to say that the vast audience his work deserves doesn’t know what it’s missing. He’s the most extravagant, and extravagantly overlooked, poet in America.
Elmslie is the nearly invisible fifth member of the quintet that includes Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch. The generations of poets they inspired sing Elmslie’s praises, but he is most brilliantly described by Ashbery, his comrade-in-arms. Elmslie’s voice, writes Ashbery, is “that of some freaked-out Levi-Strauss, a mad scientist who has swallowed the wrong potion in his lab and is desperately trying to get his calculations on paper before everything closes in.”
When not invisible, Kenward Elmslie is misnamed. In his first big book of poems, Album, there is a two-page collage by Joe Brainard, made from a sheaf of documents, including a citation for “Vagrancy by Loitering” in New Orleans, issued to one Kennard Elmslie. The other scissored clippings include an announcement of a musical comedy, a “tuner”—this must be from a showbiz paper, perhaps Variety—to be titled The Yellow Drum with book and lyrics by Kenwood Emsley. Another clip reviews a piece written by Kenneth Elmslie: “The children in the audience approved mightily.” Kenward Elmie is praised for an opera libretto based on Strindberg. Kenward Elm is praised next, followed by announcements of operas and poetry readings by Kenward Emslie, Kenwood Elmslie, Kenward Elmsee, Mr. Elnsie, and Edward Elmslie. Is it any wonder that the same book, Album, contains a play, Furtive Edna, in which the heroine sings a song called “Change Your Name”?
Hidden identities, camouflage, and transposition are the essence of the work of Kenward G. Elmslie. The narrator of The Orchid Stories remains nameless throughout, although in a love letter he uses the affectionate nickname “Gloop-silv.” Is a nameless narrator unusual in a novel? No, not necessarily. But it’s certainly unusual in a coming-of-age novel entirely about the narrator. Everything about this novel is bonkers, especially that it is called The Orchid Stories. Stories?
Eager to see what the manuscripts and drafts look like, I visited the Elmslie papers in the Mandeville Special Collections Library at the University of California San Diego. While there, I found two extraordinary things: the pages, many of them glued together by a mysterious fungus—an accident in the lab?—are versions and revisions of materials that are almost identical, except for a few words. Then, a specific example of Elmslie’s process that I thought might help readers to understand his language, especially how language for him has always been a procedure involving some kind of breakdown, fissure, evolution, or reimagining.
In the poem “Sin in the Hinterlands,” from Tropicalism, we find this stanza:
Lip-sync, a life of lip-sync,
it’s like a life of lip-sync, lip-sync of tip of vat, hot vat.
A draft of this poem reveals that “tip of vat, hot vat” is a variant of “tip of hat, top hat.” These phonetic cousins might look identical when reading lips.
A similar process guides Elmslie’s The Champ, a homophonic mistranslation of a text by Raymond Roussel, another obscure genius. Look at this:
A woozy clarity adorns all liars
like a photo of a friendly yes.
When their boots get patted in strategic places
They leave the jewels in trees retouched
It’s the first quatrain of The Champ, a book-length poem with drawings by Joe Brainard facing each page of text. The poem-and-illustration format nicely echoes that of Raymond Roussel’s magnificent New Impressions of Africa. Elmslie begins his “translation” at line 11 of Roussel’s New Impressions:
D’un clair logis donnant sur le dernier palier
—Photographe quelconque habille à pallier
Pattes d’oie et boutons par fins stratagèmes—
((Pouvoir du retoucheur! lorsque arborant ses gemmes…
In Elmslie-ese, un clair logis—a tall building—becomes clear loggy, that is, woozy clarity. Mistranslation is at its height in the very first line. For contrast, here is Mark Ford’s literal translation:
In a tall building, which opens onto the top landing, knows
—Some photographer who is skillful at palliating
Crow’s feet and spots by clever stratagems—
Power of the retoucher! when, sporting her jewels…
The risky Ian Monk, who keeps the rhymed couplets, translates as follows:
Of a high block, in airy garret, knows—
a photographer skilled in hiding crow’s
feet and pimples with wily stratagems—
((Art of retouching! As, decked out in gems…
Elmslie does not translate; instead he transposes, misdefines, retranslates as The Champ transforms itself into a poet’s miracle—Language poetry before it was on the dimmest horizon.
Elmslie is the champ of this sort of thing. Even the title, The Champ, comes from Roussel: the title of the second part of New Impressions of Africa is “Le Champ de bataille des Pyramides”—The Battlefield of the Pyramids. Roussel is one of the great writers for Ashbery, Elmslie, Koch, and Harry Mathews. The strategies they learned from him fueled their own work and inspired the subsequent generations of the New York School.
Elmslie vigilantly mishears and misspells. In his world (not just postmodern, but postnuclear), language and the visionary imagination are fused, as are the deterioration of language and the inherent radioactivity of the landscape. This is the world of wonderful nouns—things called into being by the magical act of naming, or misnaming, them—and no sooner is a thing named than it begins to decay and mutate. Elmslie’s obsessional, regressive fantasies pile imagination on top of imagination until the structure self-implodes and you have, as Gauguin said of the people in Gustave Moreau’s paintings, “pieces of jewels covered with jewels.” Elmslie is a highly dedicated craftsman, and he appears to want decorated decoration in his work.
His ornate density of language is signaled here by the orchid, the most extraordinary and complex of blooms. The Orchid Stories coincided with the tenderfoot love between Elmslie and Brainard, who was painting orchids at the time. “My Buddenbrooks,” Elmslie has called this book, a coming-of age novel he read aloud to entertain Joe, just as Mann read his coming-of-age novel in sections to his family.
In The Orchid Stories, from what we can tell, the nameless narrator’s childhood is filled with the trauma of parents dying, divorcing, and remarrying, alongside their strained attempts at rebonding with the child. Names change frequently. (Don’t expect the usual cues for how to deal with gender or time, either.) Right away we meet Mattie, Edith (nicknamed “Lady Knickers”), and Bubbers, their profiles “sketched” by a painter on the front door of the Locust (“low-cost”) estate. But before we can figure out who Bubbers is, Edith and Mattie both die, and Bubbers becomes Mummers. The narrator is sent to school, then boarding school (the Blue Institute) and then, following a breakdown, to observation by Dr. Schmidlapp, who once also observed the narrator’s parents. They had “breeding” problems—the narrator’s mishearing of “breathing” problems; Schmidlapp is an upper respiratory specialist.
Triangles populate these tales and their structures—from Edith, Mattie, and Bubbers to Barry Wingate, Dianna Vienna, and the narrator to Dr. Schmidlapp, Gertrud, and Helga. (You’ll surely uncover more as you read.) The unnamed narrator seems to be in love with Barry, and so is Dianna Vienna (a nickname), who wears maps and is first described with “her face jewel-encrusted.” Jewels on a jewel.
These interrelationships become what the narrator calls “psycho-surrounds,” which seem to be kinds of “traffic cubes”—not to be confused with “thought cubes,” our nameless narrator’s personal project, blocks of thought in text—with multi-level highways travelling in different directions to various time and space locations. In order to travel, these psycho-surrounds become the equivalent of movies that can be watched out of a car window. The environment comptrollers can’t show the same film twice for fear that the driver will become bored and accident prone: you might be driving in Los Angeles while seeing Cairo outside. Successful travel results in “ROUNDING THE LEAF” safely. When these anecdotes and psycho-surrounds intersect, characters reappear in different stories, a miasma of correlated moments, making it possible to reread this book over and over, gradually understanding their freeway cloverleaf-like configurations.
The Orchid Stories bubbles with head-spinning mixtures. Its combination of energy and boredom astounds. There are at least a dozen procedures, most of them irretrievable to this reader, that make this book an ongoing fantasia of representation. Its wildness keeps me going, even as I forget what had delighted me a page before; I go on, gleaning bits of Elmslie’s masterful hyphenates, portmanteaus, fold-ins, cut-ups, feminine rhymes: even pun-cum-trick-feminine-internal-rhymes (he learned a lot from his first lover, lyricist John Latouche). You can read this book repeatedly, as I have, and it’ll be fresh each time, an eternal palate cleanser.
Very few books in literature are as singular as The Orchid Stories. Among them are Raymond Roussel’s novels, Laura (Riding) Jackson’s The Progress of Stories, Giorgio de Chirico’s Hebdomeros, and John Ashbery’s Flow Chart. Elmslie belongs to that great counter-tradition to classic poetry and prose. He lets imagination spiral into contradictory zones, but he is casual about this, feeling that “we belong here, stirring, where it’s beautiful to be.”
A longer version of this essay appears as the introduction to The Song Cave’s reissue of The Orchid Stories.
Michael Silverblatt is the host of KCRW’s Bookworm.
Gathering of artists and their families on Long Island in 1961: Back row left to right: Lisa de Kooning; Frank Perry; Eleanor Perry; John Meyers; Anne Porter; Fairfield Porter; Angelo Torricini, Arthur Gold; Jane Wilson; Kenward Elmslie; Paul Brach; Jerry Porter; Nancy Ward; Katharine Porter; friend of Jerry Porter | Second Row left to right: Joe Hazan; Clarice Rivers; Kenneth Koch; Larry Rivers | Seated on couch: Miriam Schapiro; Robert Fizdale; Jane Freilicher; Joan Ward; John Kacere; Sylvia Maizell | Kneeling on the right back to front: Alvin Novak; Bill de Kooning; Jim Tommaney | Front row: Stephen Rivers; William Berkson; Frank O’Hara; Herbert Machiz.
Kenward Elmslie (as Japanese Priest) the play ‘The Tinguely Machine Mystery’, by Kenneth Koch, 1965
Kenward Elmslie & Jane Wilson, 1966
Kenward Elmslie, Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh, 1968
Joe Brainard with Kenward Elmslie, 1982
Kenward Elmslie & Steven Taylor at the Poetry Project, 1982
Kenward Elmslie, late ’80s
Kenward Elmslie at his 80th birthday party, 2010
By Kenward Elmslie
In 2002, Sophie Constantinou, Bill Weir and Walker Weir interviewed Kenward Elmslie about his life and works, specifically his friendships and collaborations with the New York School of Poets. As the catalyst for this short film project, Elmslie hoped to illustrate the artistic spirit of and collaborations among American writers, poets and artists from the late 50s to today.
THE JOE STONE
Bookworm Interview, Part One
Bookworm Interview, Part Two
in conversation with Kristin Prevallet
In 1963, Joe Brainard and Kenward Elmslie, poet, novelist, librettist and performance artist, became life partners and collaborators until Brainard’s death in 1994. Of great importance to Brainard’s work were the summers he spent at ‘Poet’s Corner’, Elmslie’s house in Calais, Vermont, where Brainard had a studio. According to Constance Lewallan, (the curator of the Joe Brainard show which closed November 2001 at PS1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, New York), Brainard created most of his cut-outs, still lifes, and landscapes during this time. These times were also important to Elmslie, whose relationship with Brainard influenced his own work in many ways. Wanting to speaking to Elmslie about the collaborative spirit of their relationship, and the atmosphere that fostered it, I interviewed him by telephone at his house in Vermont.
In an interview Joe said, ‘I don’t ever have an idea. The material does it all.’ Do think that is possible?
Yes — that’s pretty much the way I work as well. Several of the collaborations I did with Joe obviously came from ideas, but I don’t remember the process. Our first collaboration was a take-off on baby books: Baby’s First Word, First Dream, feeding sked, and so forth. A relationship joke, too, ta-da! ‘Our’ Baby, ha-ha. At an art world dinner, we collected blurbs for a tiny ad in the Village Voice. Frank O’Hara: ‘The most peculiar book I’ve every read.’ Andy Warhol: ‘Fantastic! Fantastic!’ It was self-published by Boke Press, our very own press. So was there an initial idea to do a take off on baby books? I really don’t know.
So was it that the baby books happened to just appear in your life at some point?
Yes, Joe loved to shop at antique shops and probably picked up a couple antique baby books. He used a lot of the antique store finds for ideas. He would go through books and just tear the little tiny drawings out from dictionaries. I still find torn places in dictionaries, and know Joe tore them out. So you see, getting ideas wasn’t at all cerebral.
It’s such a strong statement to say ‘I never have an idea.’
It’s perhaps too strong. Ideas maybe slid in sideways, like a home run in a baseball game. They didn’t announce themselves, nor were they searched for. They just happened.
Is that what inspires writing?
Oh gosh — that’s hard to answer because so many different things inspire writing.
But if you could answer.
Sometimes it’s a word that I’ve become fond of, or sometimes it’s a memory of the daily round. Because my memory is so terrible, sometimes I want to write about a certain part of the daily round so I won’t forget about it. Like a survival technique, perhaps. But then that bounds to other things, like dreams, or poems by somebody else. It becomes a sort of network of influence. It’s a series of moves through mind, memory, time and space.
What inspired Joe?
That got strange. When he began to read books — he didn’t stop art, he stopped working with his gallery, but he still did art for friends, people he cared about. It was part of the friendship. In the summer when he supposedly stopped art, he did all of the drawings for my poems in Sung Sex, published by Kulchur Foundation in 1989. One drawing per poem page, 65 drawings! A different style, spare, Japanesy. Most elegant naked boy odalisques…
That’s a clarification, then, of what Ashbery writes, that in the last decade of his life he ‘abandoned art altogether…consecrating his time to his two favorite hobbies, smoking and reading Victorian novels.’
Hopefully, not a clarification — a debunking of a total myth, a most misleading oversimplification. Joe read and read, not just Victorian novels — Barbara Pym was his favorite — and he also sneaked art work in. He worked and worked and worked.
But did art mean something different to him during this time?
I think so — what he gave up on was the idea of a career, professionalism. His last show at the Fischbach was a total triumph, hundreds of works, some tiny, displayed en masse in vitrines, priced within reach of non-deep pocket fans, as well as collages, constructions, oil paintings: The Works. It was Brainard at his best. So he went out in an incredible blaze of glory, on his own terms, and shifted focus back to what he’s always loved doing: making personal art for close friends.
p.s. Hey. ** I’m especially happy to are able to sideline-introduce Jeff Jackson’s post today. For my ‘money’, Kenward Elmslie is quite possibly the most undervalued great living American writer. Completely singular, wildly daring, difficult initially and yet as entertaining and fun a writer as there could be. This new reissue of Kenward’s only, I think, long fiction work by the great Song Cave presents you with a golden opportunity to begin to know Kenward’s writing in general if you aren’t yet familiar. Your close and kind attention is strongly encouraged. Thank you, and giant thanks to you Jeff, for putting Kenward’s work in a strong light. ** Armando, Hi. Happy that the slaves’ clever turns of phrase delighted you. That makes at least two of us. I never really got into the recent Swans album. I just figured I’m not in the mood for it. I didn’t think as poorly about it as you do by any means. My current head isn’t its time and place, I thought. ** Jamie, You’re so good at these name twist things. I’m at a loss today, but don’t think that means your name is off the hook, buddy. That is weird that you can access Facebook but not this place. Maybe the whole Google thing put anything associated with my name on a cyber blacklist or something? Yeah, super hopeful about the 15 year-old. Like I think I said, it was like looking at the very character that we had invented in our heads in 3D reality. He’s great. The woman who runs the acting class is talking to his father today, and, if the father is open and the boy is too, Zac will meet with them on Sunday while he’s out in Bas Normandie doing more location scouting to explain the film and what it would involve. Yes, we’re told we will get the answer about the TV series on Tuesday. A bit wary since that decision has already been delayed twice, but they promised this would be it. Assuming they say yes, fingers crossed, the new concern is that we hear they might want the series to be reformatted, i.e. not in three 50-minute episodes as we’ve proposed, but possibly two episodes or even a single 90 minute program, which would be an extremely difficult change since the series is already jam-packed with stories and incidents at three episodes. Anyway, yes, I hope we’ll know as promised on the 20th. Speaking of pilot scripts, fellow pilot mastermind, ah, I hear and feel you on the wasted work. Especially when you probably know you made it better, and now they’re looking a something you know isn’t perfected. I’ve had that happen to me a bunch. Stressful. I hate Xmas shopping. The good thing about being over here is that my Paris friends and I don’t really exchange presents, so I don’t have to think about it. Well, other than Zac, but his present is a conceptual one so I just have to shop in my and others’ imaginations, and that’s easier. Chocolate Happyland does indeed please me greatly, no surprise, and instills longing. I’m going to try to do a post about it, but, so far, I haven’t found enough related stuff to constitute a good post. We’ll see. No, I haven’t read Jarret Kobek’s ‘HOE #999’. I like his work, but that book has escaped me so far. I’ll find it. Cool. Thank you re: my day. I’m going to try for much fruitfulness, and I will expect the same from you regarding your 24. Love, me. ** Dóra Grőber, Hi! Me too, about my friend. I’m waiting for him to choose a good time. Yeah, the young actor workshop was inspiring. And it reminded Zac and me of much we liked working with the actors and rehearsing for our last film. As I mentioned to Jamie, the woman who teaches the class is talking to the boy’s father today, and if he’s intially okay with the possibility, she’ll talk to the boy. If he’s into the idea, Zac will meet with them on Sunday and explain the film and the boy’s role and what the gig will involve, which is an audition, and then, if that’s good, rehearsals followed by maybe three weeks of shooting. It will be fun, but it will involve a lot of time and work and commitment from the boy. So, we’ll see. Fingers extremely crossed. Straight A’s! Wow, awesome, huge congratulations! And cool that your brother’s back. Will you guys get to hang out a lot? Any plans? Yesterday was okay, I think. Today I’m hoping to see that Tino Sehgal show because it closes on Sunday, but it’s very popular, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to get in, but I’ll try. And do some work and stuff. How did Friday work for you, pal? ** David Ehrenstein, My guess would be its specialness is due entirely to the power of suggestion? ** Steevee, Hi. Well, the big fear/expectation is the the boy’s father will naturally investigate Zac’s and my work, read about LCTG not to mention my books, and that will kill the possibility. That’s the first big hurdle. Our new film has no sex or even interest in sex at all and only one gay character and, apart from its bleak story, is not something that would be weird or a problem for a young teen to appear in, but the pre-existing baggage re: Zac’s and my works is always a worry. The doctor escort and his commenters were definitely a highlight for me too. Oh, Mud, ha ha. Yeah, I don’t remember what Simon wrote about them, but they were a pretty marginal if briefly target-hitting band, if memory serves. A lot of the glam bands were quick-change interlopers, which wasn’t necesarilty a problem in many cases, but Mud, hm, yeah. ** Bill, Hi, Bill. I know, right? We got lucky on the comments this month. I hope the winding down on your end is now in-process. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. Yes, the commenters were the scene stealers this month. I want to see ‘Tickled’ too, yeah. ** Misanthrope, Enjoy the living hell out of NYC today and after if you see this before you guys catch the train. If you’re going by train. Cold there. Here too. I’m going brr even inside my apartment. Mm, I’ll let you guest-curate the older escorts post. And without creating a situation where the escorts are sources of ridicule or pity. That’s important. And, based on the ads I see for the older escorts, that might make it a bit tough. Yeah,have a blast a million in NYC! I want to hear all about it! ** Right. Be as with Kenward Elmslie and Jeff Jackson as you can be until I see you tomorrow. Thank you.