Teachers & Writers Magazine, Winter Issue, excerpt two
A Kind of Magic: On Reading,Teaching, and Being Inspired by Joe Brainard
Joe Brainard’s book-length poem I Remember has something of a cult following here at T&W. Nearly every one of us has taught an I Remember lesson using Brainard’s work at one time or another. The poem’s spontaneity, playfulness, frankness, generous spirit, and unassuming tone have made fans of readers, writers, and teachers since its publication in the 70s. The publication this year of The Collected Works of Joe Brainard, edited by Ron Padgett (Library of America) prompted us to revisit I Remember in the winter issue of Teachers & Writers Magazine, where we take a new look at the qualities that have encouraged teaching artists across the country to turn to the work again and again.
Like a Key to the Writer’s Mind
by David Andrew Stoler
The first few times we saw each other the best we could do was cast wary glances at one another across the busy halls of the college, like people who met at a party long ago. We recognized each other—vaguely—but that was all.
“What high school did you go to?” I said. I thought I knew her, but having taught thousands of students over the last decade, I just couldn’t be sure.
“Lincoln,” she said. Somewhere I had never been. I shrugged, and we returned to the intimate, awkward silence of strangers on an elevator.
Then she spoke: “I remember the pretty German girl who stank. You’re the poetry guy. I still have the anthology we made.”
Her name was Jasmine. She had been in the fifth grade when I had taught her at PS 156 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. It had been nearly a decade since, she was now a sophomore in college, and she remembered the very first lesson we had done together: Joe Brainard.
This has happened over and over since I started teaching I Remember poems in 2001—former students calling out lines to me as I walked down the halls to other classrooms, or down the sidewalk on my block. They’ve never yelled out anything else: not Whitman or Williams, not the Slam poets they loved so much. And they shout out specific lines: from a poem I read them once—I don’t even hand out copies!—when they didn’t know who I was, on our first day, a long time ago.
There’s just something about Joe Brainard. I was introduced to I Remember poems by the poet Lisa Jarnot in my own first poetry class—a class I signed up for skeptically—and the poem I wrote using the form was the rocket that led me to change my college major from physics to creative writing. The simplicity of it masks its true gift: when faced with a blank page, one “I remember” spawns another, like a key to the writer’s mind that opens the floodgates of the subconscious, gets the pen moving, makes the paralyzing self-awareness of the act disappear.
As a writer, whenever stuck, I Remember is where I return. In fiction, it is an incredibly successful way to get into characters’ minds—what do they remember—or to attack a difficult scene. But for a teacher, Brainard is even more useful. As an opening lesson, it is rife with humor, with titillation ( Joe B. must be edited for younger classes), and with experiences that students connect to immediately. A simple phrase—I remember laundromats at night all lit up with nobody in them—leads to lessons on image, details, and—writing’s reason to be—empathy. Students who are shy with their pencils are instantly connected to their own memories—Well, I’ve also seen laundromats lit up at night…—and those two simple words make starting easy.
I’ve used Brainard a thousand times over, in a thousand different situations—to help young cancer survivors start approaching the trauma they’ve recently confronted; to help my sister write her speech for her daughter’s bat mitzvah; to help business students understand how they, too, are poets. And Joe Brainard has given a gift of the most rewarding kind for a veteran teacher who sometimes wonders if he’s ever really had any effect on any student at all: to know that he, too, long after leaving an elementary school in Brownsville’s halls, will also be remembered.