Joel Lester Oppenheimer was born in Yonkers, New York, a son of a leather goods retailer; he was the youngest of three boys. He went to Cornell University (1947-1948), wanting to become an architect, but—compromising with his mother—he enrolled in civil engineering. He left Cornell for the University of Chicago, where he stayed only briefly.
For the next three years (1950-1953), Oppenheimer attended Black Mountain College, enrolled as a painter/writer. Here he met and was influenced by such men as Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Jonathan Williams. Remembering his grandfather, who had founded a printing union, Oppenheimer tried to start his own press. He shortly abandoned it, however, after completing only one or two jobs.
Leaving Black Mountain, Oppenheimer worked in various print shops for the next fifteen years, mostly as a production person, mediating between advertisers’ demands and the printer’s experience. He worked first in Washington, D.C. (living in Olson’s apartment), and later in Rochester, New Hampshire; Provincetown, Massachusetts; and New York City.
For two years beginning in 1966, Oppenheimer directed the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s in the Bowery, followed by one year directing the New York City Teachers and Writers Collaborative. In 1969, he began writing for The Village Voice, and after teaching part-time at the City College of the City University of New York, in 1970, he was offered a part-time but untenured position as poet-in-residence. On leave from City College, he taught, again as poet-in-residence, at New England College in New Hampshire. He also taught poetry workshops and seminars at the State University of New York at Buffalo’s “Black Mountain II Summer Arts Program.” In 1982, Oppenheimer became associate professor of communications and poet-in-residence at New England College. He died in New Hampshire in 1988.