The Poetry Project

Donna Dennis

Donna Dennis and Kenward Elmslie sit no a park bench outside on a grassy hill. They lean over the back of the bench to smile together, very happily, at the camera.
Donna Dennis and Kenward Elmslie. © Joe Brainard

I believe I first met Kenward at a party I crashed at his house. Not the house on Greenwich Avenue but another in the Village he lived in before moving to Greenwich Avenue. I was new to New York and new to the St. Mark’s poetry scene. Ted Berrigan told Martha Diamond and me that there was a party at someone named Kenward’s house and that Kenward wanted more girls there. So we went. Later, on Greenwich Avenue I was an invited guest with Ted for dinner with Kenward and Joe Brainard. It was spring and Kenward served salmon steaks, new potatoes and asparagus. It was from Kenward that I learned that the best way to eat asparagus was with one’s fingers. It was apparently acceptable table manners, too. I was astonished, but why not? If this warm, gracious, elegant man could do it, I could too.

In the early 1980s Kenward invited me to collaborate. A wonderful open-ended invitation. What form would our collaboration take? Not long after at a New Year’s Eve party at Michael Lally’s, I was telling Kenward about a recent Friday night when my boyfriend and I had walked from Midtown down 8th Avenue and, with the idea of celebrating the diversity of the city, had gone into every bar representing a different culture we came across. By the time we got to the Village we were quite inebriated. Kenward loved the story, and, thinking of our incipient collaboration declared, with glee, that’s it! We’ll do a pub crawl—a pub crawl from A to Z!

And so we began. Kenward had a lovely summer retreat in Vermont and I was invited there to work. I spent part of the next three summers in Calais with Kenward and Joe. Kenward and I together made a list of possible names of bars for each letter of the alphabet. These were to be imaginary bars in towns and cities across the country.

Kenward and I were both free to choose any letter of the alphabet to begin. Whoever among us got to a letter first would determine the response of the other. I made a drawing for El Zebra Club (for “E”) from a photo I’d taken of a nondescript bar I’d seen in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Kenward, in response, placed El Zebra at 242 Bushmiller Blvd. in Montclair, N.J. His bar for the letter E had a “Live Act in Mirror Maze Surroundings” and MADAME X and her “educated doggy act.” When Kenward wrote first for “N” it became Nouvelle Kiwis-‘N-Art Bar. He described a bar in a building shaped like a giant Cuisinart, and I was challenged to draw a Cuisinart-shaped building that looked like a believable, hip, L.A. destination.

What great fun we had. We came together every evening for dinner which was always at six PM when the light was most golden. If Kenward had completed a poem that day, he would read it to Joe and me as we enjoyed drinks in the Adirondack chairs. If I had completed a drawing, I placed it on the mantle by the dining table inside for Kenward and Joe to see when we came in to eat. Kenward described our process as “break[ing] down the barrier between image and narrative, so that each drawing and tale coheres with back-and-forth intensity.” Kenward had it right. 26 Bars was a true collaboration.

I cherish strong memories of Kenward and I will miss this beautiful and magnanimous man forever. Kenward had a beautiful voice and his lovely song, “Who’ll Prop Me Up in the Rain” has been running through my days since I heard the sad news. It made me cry the first time I heard it and it does now. I count it as one of the most beautiful songs I know. I can still hear and see Kenward sing it, jukebox propped on his knees and I can hear his explosive laughter of delight, the expression of pleasure he took in his friends. How can I find the words to express how fortunate I was that Kenward numbered me among his friends?

Kenward Elmslie Remembrances