In 1973, Doubleday published Kenward Elmslie's (1929-) experimental, poetic prose collection The Orchid Stories. It is almost impossible to imagine Doubleday, or any of the large international or New York publishers, issuing such a work today. Exuberant as the hothouse orchid from which its title derives, complex, unspooling according to a logic all its own, and decidedly anti-commercial, it's no wonder that the collection, which might also be read as novel or novel-in-stories, went out of print, depriving readers of the opportunity to experience this series of provocations by Elmslie, one of most talented but also lesser known of the New York School-affiliated writers.
In The Orchid Stories Elmslie weaves together many strands of his long career, as a poet, fiction writer, librettist and song-writer, editor, and performance artist, creating a tapestry of compelling strangeness. It is a coming-of-age story narrated by a figure whose exact name eludes the reader the entire way through. Certain characters possess more than one name, and The exuberance, unflagging playfulness, and musical currents swirling within the prose make the text one to read and re-read--or rather, it may require rereading--aloud. And that is what several writers, I included, did on Wednesday night at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church, to launch the reprint, by New York publisher The Song Cave, of The Orchid Stories. (BOMB features a selection here.)
This new edition features an introduction by radio interviewer and critic Michael Silverblatt, who served as the evening's master of ceremonies, and introducing him was another member of the New York School's second generation, poet, fiction writer, essayist and critic Ron Padgett. The lineup included a number of luminaries who'd long known and even performed with Elmslie, including Ann Lauterbach, who read with breathless brio a section of prose set in Arkansas; Anne Waldman, performing another section as chant and song with Devin Waldman on saxophone and Ambrose Bye on piano, before she shared a song she'd performed more than once with Elmslie himself; and songwriter and longtime Fugs member Steven Taylor, who sang one of Elmslie's songs.
Not only had I never met Elmslie or heard him present his work live, but before I received a copy of The Orchid Stories, I'd only read several dozen of his poems. The collection has intrigued me and led me to read more of Elmslie's work. Although I did know that he had been described as the fifth--or sixth, if Barbara Guest were placed before him--I also had not realized that he was in the same cohort with John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara at Harvard, graduating in 1950, or that he'd been the partner of John LaTouche for a period of time, a fact that Silverblatt recounted in his introductory remarks. (You can read a shorter version of his introduction to The Orchid Stories at the Paris Review's site.) Lastly, as Silverblatt also shared, the great Nat King Cole recorded one of Elmslie's songs, "Love-wise," which appeared on Cole's 1959 album To Whom It May Concern. (I did learn on Wikipedia that Elmslie is the grandson of Joseph Pulitzer.) In additional to copies of the book the publishers also brought a number of Elmslie's LPs. I read a brief selection from the short section or chapter entitled "Waking Up"; it required attention to various kinds of formal and stylistic shifts but thankfully, given my inability to hold a note, no singing. Unfortunately Elmslie was unable to attend the event, but I imagine someone told him how well-attended it was and how enthusiastically the audience responded.
Here a few photos from the event, all borrowed courtesy of the Poetry Project's Facebook page. Please check out Elmslie's work, consider supporting the Poetry Project and enjoy the photos.
|Devin Waldman, Anne Waldman, and Ambrose Bye|