Global Voices Radio Spoken Word Lab American Sentences
American Sentences
Organic Poetry

I Remember (Joe Brainard)


Here’s an exercise that workshop participants can take on quite quickly and get something decent out of their efforts. It’s a good way to get the pen going and help those for whom editor’s mind has stifled their ability to get into a flow, or get going in a workshop setting.


The I Remember exercise has had great success since 1997, when it was first used in SPLAB! workshops and it is based on a series of books by the late Joe Brainard, a New York poet and artist (1942-1994). Yes, another list poem and a simple prompt, but with attention to the luminous details, busting up syntax and juxtaposing rhythms and tone (funny vs. poignant), most writers can come up with something decent. And, when they hear how other writers in the workshop handled the exercise, their own field expands. Of course, under Brainard’s hand, this book is, according to Paul Auster’s blurb, “one of the few totally original books I have ever read.” It’s true.




Start a list poem with the phrase I Remember. Participants can start out with that morning, last summer, their last vacation or all the way back to their earliest memory. They should write down the words I Remember for each line, or rather, each new memory. Some memories will go on for two or more lines, as illustrated below. Abstractions, as in any poetry, must be earned for best effect. In Brainard’s case, the abstract, or somewhat generic memory is used as a device for him to go much deeper with the next couple of verses. His mixing of the banal with the revelatory is a wonderful example of Allen Ginsberg’s notion of Surprise Mind. Give students six to ten minutes to do this exercise and a one minute warning near the end.


Participants should not use ditto marks to indicate the repetitive phrase, as writing the words down will force the mind to find its own rhythm with the writing process. You can open his book at random and find brilliant examples on any page


An excerpt from I Remember:


    I remember what I remember most about restaurants

when I was very young: french-fries, straws, and toothpicks.


    I remember looking out of the windows, riding buses up-

town, sudden fantasy flashes of everybody out there on the

streets being naked.


    I remember sudden fantasy flashes of how many people

all over the world are fucking “at this very moment.”


    I remember “rave review” fantasies. And sell-out shows.


    I remember poetry reading fantasies of having everyone

in tears. (Good tears.)


    I remember fantasies all of a sudden out of the blue an-

nouncing “An evening with Joe Brainard  at Carnegie Hall

and surprising everybody that I can sing and dance too, but

only for one performance. (Tho I’m a smash hit and people

want more) But I say “no”: I give up stardom for art. And this

one performance becomes a legend. And people who missed

it could shoot themselves. But I stick to my guns.


   I remember (ugh) hound drops.


   I remember with fried shrimps in restaurants, not enough

tartar sauce.


   I remember “French Post Cards.”


   I remember little round paper clips to attach the price of

greeting cards to the card with.


Here’s a version written by (then) seventeen year old SPLAB! regular, Kevin Flanagan:


I remember eating whole Dungeness crabs at the age of one

I remember my brother giving my root beer to drink then finding out it was just        

  soy sauce

I remember being off like a dirty shirt whenever I went somewhere with Dad

I remember questioning the worth of school as my brother and I would swing                           

  on the rope swing

I remember his answer – nothing but a paycheck




2:49P – 7.21.09

Auburn, WA


Work Cited:


Brainard, Joe. I Remember. New York: Penguin, 1995.