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Kenward Elmslie was born in New York City in 1929. He graduated from Harvard in 1950 with a B.A. in literature and began his writing career as a lyricist and librettist, working in collaboration with several composers. He wrote both the book and lyrics for a musical, The Grass Harp (1972) based on Truman Capote's novel. In 1954 Elmslie began to publish his stories, short plays, and verse in little magazines and gather them into collections. He also began to collaborate with graphic artists, especially with Joe Brainard.
In 1973 Elmslie became the editor of the Poetry Project's literary magazine, Z, and continued through issue ZZZZZZ in 1978. He was also editor and publisher of Z Press, publishing work by John Ashbery, Bill Berkson, Jean Boulte, Joe Brainard, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Steve Gianakos, Joanne Kyger, Harry Matthews, Ron Padgett, James Schulyer, Anne Waldman, and Marjorie Welish, among others.