CRYSTAL SET #2: The Vermont Notebook by John Ashbery and Joe Brainard (Black Sparrow, 1975)

The Vermont Notebook by John Ashbery and Joe Brainard (Black Sparrow, 1975). This is like if Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lena Dunham made a movie, or if Bruce Springsteen and Prince made an album. The book is set up so that every left page is a black and white drawing by Joe and every right page is a poem by John. Reading The Vermont Notebook in Ashbery’s Collected was how I found out about Joe Brainard a few years ago. I think this is a good place to find out about Joe Brainard since the drawings are such a unified yet varied extension of his work in the 60s. Andy Fitch’s book Pop Poetics: Reframing Joe Brainard(Dalkey Archive) is where to go to know everything about Joe’s art and writing. Andy’s book is extraordinary because, as the title suggests, it asks how new readers can frame Brainard in the constellation of New York school poetries, Pop Art, early conceptualism, “New Realism” (see John’s poem of same title), and all other kitschy lushnesses. I love Joe Brainard. I have the second illustration from The Vermont Notebook tattooed on my right arm. The cover of Paul Killebrew’s terrific book Flowers (Canarium) is one of Joe’s flower pieces. It also has a poem in it called “John Fucking Ashbery.”

The Vermont Notebook is 101 pages, is dedicated to poet Doug Crase, and at the end there’s an amazing photo by David Kermani of Joe and John together at the bottom of a staircase, Joe leaning forward with his hand on his cheek giving the camera a dark, movie star gaze, and John in his mid-70s strong mustache phase, elbow on banister, finger hooked in belt, wryly grinning. There’s a lot of denim.


This copy is from Black Sparrow’s second printing in 1978. In 2001 Granary Books and Z Press co-published a reissue of the book with this blurb from John Yau: “This is John Ashbery at his wacky best, from long lists that seem to make some sense, to short lists that seem to make no sense, to made-up diary entries. Here we find Joe Brainard’s Americana… there’s a wonderful, nutty innocence to this book that is found in Brainard’s drawings and Ashbery’s writing: ‘his lips spell out the words: shale, cowturds, spread, udder, mumps.’” Descriptors I would add: campy, cinematic, sexy, homey. John is a goofball throughout, playing with queerness in a way that is more apparent here than a lot of his other work from this time, saying things like “Little nuts, big nuts,” and “This is where we are spending our vacation. A nice restful spot. Real camp life. Hope you are feeling fine.” One of Joe’s drawings is of a naked man, legs spread, hands behind his head. I forget who it is, but I read it somewhere. It’s gorgeous and very hot.

There’s an essay on The Vermont Notebook in this great book New York School Collaborations: The Color of Vowels but I don’t remember too much from it other than John wrote the poems while on a bus, partly in Vermont, and that the essay points out how The Vermont Notebook was overshadowed by the critical success of John’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, also published in 1975. The essay says the order they made the book, but I forget if the illustrations or poems came first; I think the poems. There are also some reviews of the book online. I ILLed this copy to see how different it was reading it outside John’s CollectedThe drawings are slightly bigger and bolder in this format and on different paper, so it’s worth finding a solo copy.