It's an American story. Two young men—one gay, the other straight—flee the provinces for the big city. They are Okies out of Tulsa, where they have been friends from an early age, and where as teenagers they published their own late-1950s little magazine with work by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. And now, as the '60s art and literary scene begins exploding, they have arrived in New York City, where they will become the artist Joe Brainard and the poet Ron Padgett and remain friends for four decades.

"We had no big plans for ourselves," says Padgett, who recalls the friendship in Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard (Coffee House). "We were young, energetic, and full of passion for art and for writing." Before long, joined by their other Tulsa buddies Ted Berrigan and Dick Gallup they became part of the remarkable community of artists and writers that included Joseph LeSueur, Frank O'Hara, Kenward Elmslie, Anne Waldman, Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers and so many others.

In an interview with PW from his country home in Calais, Vt., Padgett, a poet, translator and memoirist now in his early 60s, recalls the dread he had to overcome to write about Brainard, who died in 1994 of pneumonia related to AIDS. "I put off writing the book," he says. "I dreaded thinking about his death. I worried that I had not been a good enough friend. I feared not being able to do him justice. But I knew I would write something." Joe proves an affectionate memoir of his "blood brother" Brainard, an acclaimed visual artist whose drawings, collages and paintings can be found in the collections of major museums, and whose unusual warmth and compassion won him the unabashed devotion of many.

And so we see Brainard here: a shy and gifted man who arrives in Manhattan just shortly after Padgett (who had enrolled at Columbia), begins a quest in a turbulent time for his identity as a gay man and artist and, after a two-decade outburst of creativity, sets his artistic career aside completely in the mid-1980s. "He was very hard on himself—his standards were so high—and he felt he would never become a great oil painter," says Padgett. "So his life became his art—the art of living." In his last 15 years, Brainard simply lived—reading, attending movies and exhibitions, and, having made peace with reality and his fatal illness, becoming, as some friends insisted, a bodhisattva—one worthy of nirvana who postpones it to help others. Nonetheless, Brainard's legacy will always include the beautiful meditation I Remember, a kind of mnemonic chant that evokes the young artist's early life. (The cult classic, first published in 1970 by a small press, is now in print from Penguin.)

Joe Collage

With its long and short chapters, many documenting Brainard's reading and other activities in detail, Joe has the patchwork feel of collage: "I wanted it to be a bit like a collage of Joe himself," says Padgett. "I wanted it to embody him."

Drawing on letters, poems, journal entries and photographs, Padgett re-creates the many aspects of Brainard—relationships with friends and lovers, his design work for magazines and for the Joffrey Ballet, his amphetamine use, his reoccurring efforts to simplify and start over. While Brainard is always a figure in motion in these pages—moving from apartment to apartment, and from lover to lover—Padgett leads a relatively stable life in the period, first as a student of Kenneth Koch and others at Columbia, then as a poet who reinvented the New York School of Poetry as well as a translator of Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars. Padgett spent 20 years as publications director at Teachers & Writers Collaborative, the nonprofit group that teaches writing to children. He and his wife, Patricia Mitchell, whom he met in Tulsa, have lived in the same East Village apartment since 1967. They spent summers for many years with Kenward Elmslie and Brainard in the former's house in Vermont, and then built their own place on the same property. At his death, Brainard's ashes were scattered in a meadow there.

Padgett has been called a poet of surprises and discoveries. His poems are casual, sudden and immediate: "Kenneth Koch showed me that it was possible to lighten up and still have substance," he says. Since retiring from Teachers & Writers in 2000, he has published several books, including the poetry volumes You Never Know (Coffee House) and Poems I Guess I Wrote (Cuz Editions) as well as Oklahoma Tough: My Father, King of the Tulsa Bootleggers (Oklahoma). Godine brought out his New & Selected Poems in 1995.

Now, after a productive summer of poetry writing in Vermont, Padgett is working on the talk he will give in a multi-city tour for Joe, beginning at the St. Mark's Poetry Project in New York. "You know, it's not like a poetry reading. This is very challenging. How do you squeeze someone's life into a one-hour talk?" Once again, he will try to do justice to the man and artist whose friendship he cherished, beginning with their near-instant bonding as editors of the White Dove Review in high school, to their final moment, as described in Joe, when Padgett walks into the NYU hospital room where Brainard has died, touches his foot, and says, "Oh, Joe."

Perhaps Padgett will also share the news from his son, Wayne, a Web site designer who lives with his wife in Brooklyn. The couple expect to give Padgett his first grandchild in March. The baby's due date is March 10—one day before Joe Brainard's birthday.