In 1989, I travelled from my hometown of Lafayette to Houston, Texas, to visit the Menil Collection and the Rothko Chapel. And of course, to hit the bookstores—one of which had the distinction of having purchased the inventory of New York’s legendary Phoenix Bookshop after it went out of business the previous year.
I spent upwards of $400 at that Houston bookstore on treasures that included issues of “C” Press and Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, Alan Bernheimer’s Café Isotope, Bill Knott’s The Naomi Poems (under the pseudonym “St. Geraud”), and perhaps most significantly for me at the time, Space, an early book by Clark Coolidge whose dust cover was designed by Jasper Johns. After returning to my hotel room, I spread the books out on the bed so I could see them all.
In a poetry workshop that I was taking at the time, I was most intrigued by the work of Clark Coolidge. Inscrutable and formidable, Coolidge’s poems hinted at an unmooring of words from any kind of poetry I had ever read—narrative, lyric—and even from conventional syntax. I felt irresistibly drawn to his work. I wanted to dive into it, to immerse myself in this unfamiliar realm of new possibilities for poetic language.
I raided the room’s complimentary tiny liquor bottles, selected Space from the bedspread, lay on the carpet, and read the entire book aloud. I think my brain got re-wired that night. It’s not as if I suddenly began writing poems like Coolidge. But I felt a tremendous sense of liberation in this exploration of words jangling against other words. I wasn’t sure what it all meant, but I knew that I wanted more.
I’ve since collected many of Coolidge’s books. Below, I’m reproducing “Siren” from Space (Harper & Row, 1970) and “The Bounds” from a later book, Own Face (Sun & Moon Press, 1993).