Elmslie, Kenward (Gray)

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ELMSLIE, Kenward (Gray)

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 27 April 1929. Education: Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, B.A.1950. Career: Worked with the Karamu Inter-Racial Theatre, Cleveland. Art critic, Art News, New York, 1966–67. Since 1972 publisher and editor, Z Press, and editor, Z Magazine, 1973–77, Calais, Vermont. Awards: Ford grant, 1964; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966, 1978; 1980; Frank O'Hara award, 1971; Cynthia Weir Librettist award, 1998. Address: Poets Corner, Calais, Vermont 05648, U.S.A.



Pavilions. New York, Tibor de Nagy, 1961.

Power Plant Poems. New York, "C" Press, 1967.

The Champ. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1968; Pittsfield, Massachusetts, The Figures, 1994.

Album, New York, Kulchur, 1969.

Circus Nerves. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1971.

Motor Disturbance. New York, Columbia University Press, 1971.

Girl Machine. New York, Angel Hair, 1971.

Penguin Modern Poets 24, with Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler. London, Penguin, 1973.

Tropicalism. Calais, Vermont, Z Press, 1975.

Topiary Trek. N.p., Topia Press, 1977.

Communications Equipment. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck, 1979.

Moving Right Along. Calais, Vermont, Z Press, 1980.

Sung Sex. New York, Kulchur, 1989.

Champ Dust. Boulder, Colorado, The New Censorship, 1994.

The Champ, with Joe Brainard. Lenox, Massachusetts, The Figures, 1994.

Bare Bones. Flint, Michigan, Bamberger, 1995.

Routine Disruptions, Selected Poems & Lyrics. Minneapolis, Minnesota, Coffee House Press, 1999.

Cyberspace, with Trevor Winkfield. New York, Granary, 2000.

Nite Soil. New York, Granary, 2000.

Recordings: Lizzie Borden, Desto, 1967; The Sweet Bye and Bye, Desto, 1970; The Grass Harp, Painted Smiles, 1972; Rare Meat, Watershed, 1979; Highlights from "Miss Julie," Painted Smiles, 1980; Kenward Elmslie Visited, Painted Smiles, 1982; Palais Bimbo Lounge Show, Painted Smiles, 1985; Lola, Painted Smiles, 1985; Three Sisters, Painted Smiles, 1986; 26 Bars, Z Press, 1987; Miss Julie, Newport Classic, 1998; Postcards on Parade, Harbinger Records, 1999.


The Sweet Bye and Bye, music by Jack Beeson (produced New York, 1956). New York, Boosey and Hawkes, 1966.

Unpacking the Black Trunk with James Schuyler (produced New York, 1965).

Lizzie Borden, music by Jack Beeson (produced New York, 1965, revived 1999 and televised Live from Lincoln Center, PBS). New York, Boosey and Hawkes, 1966.

Miss Julie, music by Ned Rorem (produced New York, 1965, revised version, San Francisco, 1999). New York, Boosey and Hawkes, 1965.

The Grass Harp, music by Claibe Richardson, adaptation of the novel by Truman Capote (produced New York, 1971). New York, French, 1971.

City Junket (produced New York, 1974). New York, Boke, 1972.

The Seagull, music by Thomas Pasatieri, adaptation of the play by Chekhov (produced Houston, 1974). Melville, New York, Belwin Mills, 1974.

Washington Square, music by Thomas Pasatieri, adaptation of the novel by Henry James (produced Detroit, 1976). Melville, New York, Belwin Mills, 1976.

Lola, music by Claibe Richardson (produced New York, 1982).

Three Sisters, music by Thomas Pasatieri (produced Columbus, Ohio, 1986). Calais, Vermont, Z Press, 1986.

Postcards on Parade, music by Steven Taylor (produced New York, 2000). Flint, Michigan, Bamberger Books, 1993.


The Orchid Stories. New York, Doubleday, 1973.


The Baby Book. New York, Boke, 1965.

The 1967 Gamebook Calendar. New York, Boke, 1967.

Shiny Ride. New York, Boke, 1972.

The Alphabet Work. Washington, D.C., Titanic Press, 1978.

Bimbo Dirt. Calais, Vermont, Z Press, 1981.

Palais Bimbo Snapshots. Grindstone City, Michigan, Alternative Press, 1982.

Stage-Duo, with Anne Waldman. Cherry Valley, New York, Rocky Ledge, 1983.

26 Bars. Calais, Vermont, Z Press, 1987.

Pay Dirt, with Joe Brainard. Flint, Michigan, Bamberger Books, 1992.

Editor, Miltie Is a Hackie: A Libretto, by Edwin Denby. Calais, Vermont, Z Press, 1973.

Editor, Mobile Homes, by Rudy Burckhardt. Calais, Vermont, Z Press, 1979.

Editor. Tulsa Kid. Calais. Vermont, Z Press, 1980.


Bibliography: Kenward Elmslie, A Bibliographical Profile by William C. Bamberger, Flint, Michigan, Bamberger Books, 1993.

Critical Studies: "Poetry and Public Experience" by Stephen Donadio, in Commentary (New York), February 1973; "Figure in the Carport" by John Ashbery, in Parnassus (New York), Summer 1976; "A Tribute to Kenward Elmslie" by Michael Silverblatt, in Blarney (Los Angeles), Spring 1984; "Poets Corner" by Brad Gooch, in House and Garden (New York), November 1986; "Millennium Plainsongs" by Bill Berkson, in New York Native, 14 April 1986; by Robert Peters, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1994; "One Sings, the Other Doesn't" by Christopher Luna, in Colorado Daily, 106(185), 19 November 1998; by Gary Sullivan, in Rain Taxi, 3(4), Winter 1998–99; by Alice Notley, in Poetry Project Newsletter, 173, March 1999; "Poetry, Libretto & Song" by Scott Hreha, in Minnesota Daily, 11 April 1999.

Kenward Elmslie comments:

Since about 1961 I have considered myself primarily a poet; before that I thought of myself, and was, primarily a writer of lyrics for theater songs. I have continued to write for the theater, have ventured into fiction, but I feel most centered as a writer when working on a poem. I enjoy collaborating with composers and visual artists, and, increasingly, I have begun singing poem-songs, set to music I have made up. I am sometimes listed as a member of the New York school of poets, an outgrowth of friendship with the founders—Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, the late James Schuyler, and Frank O'Hara—but it makes me uneasy to think of my work thus conjoined, partly because of the range of influences that have been of use: Wallace Stevens, John Latouche, Bert Brecht, Ron Padgett, Jane Bowles, John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, Evelyn Waugh, Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, Alex Katz, Red Grooms, Joe Brainard, Ken Tisa, Donna Dennis, and the films of Jacques Tati.

*  *  *

Poet, librettist, and novelist, Kenward Elmslie has affinities with the New York school, with O'Hara and Ashbery or perhaps Ted Berrigan and Joe Brainard. His poems and prose poems (the opera libretti are rather different) are characterized by the juxtaposition of precise, and yet bizarre, sensory observations, as in "Tropicalism":

   Ate orange.
   Legs stained … stains turn into fur patches …
   fur patches turn into puma hide … palaver re
   escape route … boy's lips … chicken feather along
   outer perimeter of lower redder one, with
   up-and-down wrinkles fly is negotiating …
   too much pursing … spooky profiles peer
   sideways on high-rise balconies …

Elmslie is a poet of transformation and metamorphosis, and things flow into things with an almost delirious momentum. Experience has no order that might allow the observer to stand at a discreet distance from the observed, as shown in "Olden Scrapple Sonnet":

   Wept at the way they gave of theirselves,
   the flasher's midriff entangled in cobwebs,
   the way Thebes, roped off, mazurka-polka'd,
   sex nuances forgotten for glitz of vernal equinox.
   Then by bad roads out of the sad mountains,
   lit-up arrows arching into stage-shows,
   Bijou: self-acting clogs in orphanage orangerie,
   Palace: abandoned. Lugged myself to primal hut.

Elmslie writes of the "maelstrom of remembered sights and sounds" ("Long Haul"), and at times there emerges from the seeming modernity of his linguistic usage an atmosphere of whimsy and nostalgia that can verge on the sentimentally lyrical. Poetic structure is a problem; at times syntax is abandoned, while some poems retain a more or less orthodox syntactical organization. One interesting development has been the use in poems such as "Regret Space Not Include" and "One Hundred I Remembers" of a formal device whereby each "verse" begins with the same verbal formula, rather in the manner, say, of Christopher Smart's Jubilate Agno. It is here perhaps that many readers find Elmslie most accessible. His confrontation with life's particularities is described in "Black Froth":

   Disjointed a necessary mode of life ill-prepared for.
   Eager for the seamlessness underneath.

The search for the "seamlessness" produces challenging verbal constructions that occasionally exclude the reader. At his best, however, Elmslie's energy and invention combine to create records of a very individual sensibility.

—Glyn Pursglove