Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |



Tom Clark

in conversation with Beat Scene editor Kevin Ring

This interview first appeared in Beat Scene (U.K.), #42, Autumn 2002. It was conducted via e-mail, June 25 to July 1, 2002. You can link to Kevin Ring’s magazine The Beat Scene here.

It is 5,500 words or about eleven printed pages long.

Kevin Ring: A lot of people will know you, at least in England, as the author of a biography of Jack Kerouac for Harcourt Brace in 1984. How did that come about?

Tom Clark: The commission to write a Kerouac life for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich came as a hand-me-down. Matthew Bruccoli, a professional entrepreneur in the biography industry who was overseeing a series of what he termed ‘brief but comprehensive’ illustrated lives of American authors for Harcourt, first offered the assignment to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who declined, as did a second nominee, Robert Creeley; Creeley in turn recommended me, and I accepted. This was in 1981. I had earlier done several biographies, including one writer’s life, that of Damon Runyon, so I had some general sense of what I was getting myself into.

Creeley, who was quite sympathetic to Kerouac, told me he found the prospect of a large research project daunting, and I’ll admit that aspect of the job scared me a little bit too. But as I was at the time (and for that matter at all times) living by my wits, with no secure academic position to fall back on, I swallowed hard and decided to follow my freelance fates.

Strong factors in this decision were my affections, first, for Kerouac’s writing, which I’d originally encountered by devouring On the Road in its virgin paperback edition during my work breaks while painting a municipal office building on the West Side of Chicago some twenty-three years earlier, and second, for what I knew of the author’s character, which was strictly second-hand information gathered from the novels and from gossip of many writers I’d known over the years.

Allen Ginsberg, with whom I’d done a long interview in England in 1965, had been a particularly fascinating source; for Allen, of course, this was the central stuff of legend.

Actually I’d had one chance to meet up with Kerouac in person, in 1967, when, as poetry editor of The Paris Review, I’d helped Ted Berrigan set up an interview with him for that magazine. In fact we’d set out together on a junket to Jack’s home in Massachusetts, but along the way circumstances intervened, as in that period they had a way of doing, and while Ted went on to do the interview, I stayed behind in Cambridge, Mass., with Ron Padgett and Larry Bensky, two other members of our little travelling band, at the home of Aram Saroyan, where we’d stopped for a rest en route. It was our implicit sense, I guess, that given Ted’s energy for the project — significantly speed-fueled, as it happened — we’d just be in the way.

Ted later told the very funny story of how Stella first refused him entry, demanding money, but finally Jack had been induced to cooperate, mainly by Ted’s enthusiasm, but also by Ted’s gift of some amphetamine pills (obitrol, a particular brand Ted then favored), which spurred them both to the interesting exchange of gab that filled the interview — much of it as contained on the original tape quite deliciously politically incorrect, and not surprisingly censored out by the magazine’s upper-crust editorial responsibles.

(Perhaps the most hilarious moment in the bizarre history of that interview for me came on the occasion when, back in New York, Ted proudly played the tape for an audience of friends and acquaintances that included Andy Warhol and several of Andy’s ever-present posse, all of whom managed to remain almost as impassive throughout the audition as their so-what master himself, even though the uncut interview had to have been one of the funniest slices of anti-literary repartee ever recorded.)

Anyway, you’d have to have been a hard-hearted person indeed NOT to find Kerouac — even the bitter, melancholy, somewhat drink-besotted Kerouac of those later years — quite an endearing character.

So it was that endearing character who drew me to attempt to write his life. What I discovered in the course of the research, as it turned out, was that the ethos Kerouac had created in his books, so attractive to me and others in the first place, had been something not so much simply witnessed and documented as invented, through interested observation to some extent, but to a much larger extent by sheer stylistic artistry, a result of great labor and long study that had been consistently and often rather patronizingly critically underestimated due to the confusion between the ethos thus created and the artistry creating it. The ethos was largely a fiction, though Kerouac was blamed in some quarters for inducing or promoting all kinds of historical evils associated with it, and the artistry, seemingly, had gone pretty much unnoticed.

So as my work went along — and in all biographical projects the initial hard labors of research must gradually and inevitably yield to the more delicate tasks of judgment, given the evidence gathered — it became more and more clear that what was needed was a book about Kerouac as, specifically, a writer, as opposed to, let’s say, a noble savage, sociological commentator, etc. Accordingly the original manuscript I turned in to Harcourt (by the way, it was about twice the size of the text that was eventually published in the ‘brief but comprehensive’ bio series) not only foregrounded the actual writing, but was titled ‘JACK KEROUAC: Writer.’

Matthew Bruccoli and the heads of Harcourt didn’t care for the subtitle, so ‘Writer’ was dropped. Later editions of the book — Paragon House, Marlowe & Co., Thunder’s Mouth (in the U.S.) and Plexus (U.K.) — all followed the Harcourt title, which they’d bought along with the rights to the book. (Authors, I’ve found, have a lot less to say about what happens to their books in the long run than people commonly suppose.)

Kevin Ring: You mention Paris Review, when did you become Poetry editor for them, and how?

Tom Clark: I took on that post in 1963, at the relatively tender age of twenty-two. Perhaps it was my innocence and inexperience which recommended me; at any rate I don’t think I’d yet betrayed any of the subversive tendencies for which my editorial contributions later gained a certain notoriety.

Accident played a large role. At the University of Michigan I’d taken classes with Donald Hall, who, as an American studying at Oxford in 1953, had at that time joined up with his erstwhile Harvard classmate George Plimpton to found The Paris Review. While at Michigan I’d also known X. J. Kennedy, who had succeeded Hall as the magazine’s poetry editor in 1961-62.

When the position fell open again in the autumn of 1963 I was at Cambridge on a Fulbright fellowship, quietly writing poems and researching the Cantos of Ezra Pound under Donald Davie in Gonville & Caius College. Donald Hall nominated me to Plimpton, who flew over to England; we met up in Cambridge, where George himself had been a student at King’s in the early 1950s. Apparently he approved my appointment on the spot; I remember the job interview as a friendly pub session.

While in Cambridge George took me round to King’s to meet the novelist E. M. Forster, who had once been the subject of the first Paris Review ‘Art of Fiction’ interview. Forster kept ground-floor rooms looking out upon the manicured expanses of the Great Lawn and the awesome reaches of the College Chapel. He seemed genuinely fond of Plimpton, who, as I recall, was allowed to address him as ‘Morgan’, a bit of familiarity which impressed me not a little at the time. Forster gave us tea and showed off to us a cabinet in which he kept copies of translations of his books into various languages, also displaying royalty statements in various European currencies.

He seemed particularly amused by a statement he’d lately gotten from his publishers in Zagreb, though lamenting that he’d be unable to capitalize on it without venturing to Yugoslavia, where the funds were apparently sequestered. Forster was eighty-four at the time and obviously not about to embark on such a voyage, if any.

So George offered me the poetry job, which by the way paid me exactly what E. M. Forster was getting out of Yugoslavia.

My sole stipulated condition, in retrospect a curiously foolhardy demand to which, even more curiously, Plimpton quite casually acceded, was that I be allowed to send out rejection notices to all the poets who’d lately had verse accepted by my immediate predecessor, X. J. Kennedy. Thus I erased two full issues’ worth of backlogged poetry, clearing the decks for my own incoming agenda at the cost of earning me vague threats of reprisal from (as well as, it turned out, the undying enmity of) more than one disgruntled professor-poet back in America.

At the time I understood as little about the politics as about the economics of literature, and never paused to consider that this nonchalant piece of audacity might someday come back to haunt me.

From that time until 1967 I edited the poetry section of the magazine from England, relying largely on solicitations from poets I admired, at first those of the ‘excluded’ generation prior to mine, then latterly and increasingly from those of my own hopefully emergent generation — Americans mostly, though including a few younger English writers as well, like Tom Pickard, Lee Harwood, Harry Fainlight, and an expatriate Finn then living in London, Anselm Hollo.

When I went on from Cambridge to the U. of Essex in 1965 I began editing a mimeograph magazine of my own, the Once series, and through that project got into long-distance postal contact with many younger American poets, particularly those living on the Lower East Side of New York, who in turn were soon also popping up like strange weeds in the swank uptown gardens of George Plimpton’s journal.

The actual editing went on by mail, as I say; a few times a year I spent brief periods in Paris, working with the magazine’s European managing editors, first Larry Bensky and later Maxine Groffsky, at the Paris Review offices in the rue Tournon — really just a desk and a couple of chairs and a file cabinet in an anteroom of the Gallimard publishing firm.

The actual production went on in Holland, where a relatively inexpensive printing arrangement was maintained, so this was truly an international operation, though in fact quite a bit smaller in scale than the prestige of the magazine at the time might have suggested.


Photo of Tom Clark in Vence, 25 July 1966

Tom Clark and a stone fence in Vence, France, 25 July 1966

Later on, after I’d moved back to the U.S., and wandered from New York to California, I continued on in the position, working in much the same fashion minus the periodic Paris junkets, until 1973, at which time it dawned on me that the universe has a way of repeating itself over and over, and that even (or should I say especially?) interesting avant garde poetry movements are not exempt from this.

In case one should for any reason desire a bit more objective history of my Paris Review perpetrations, coincidentally, the early history of that journal (1953–1973) is currently being written by a Dutch scholar, Usha Wilbers. Ms. Wilbers very generously suggests in a recent letter to me that ‘your editorial work for the Paris Review has, in my opinion, been crucial to the development of the magazine. Indeed, many of those involved in poetry today claim that that magazine gained its importance when — after issue 31 — you took over the reins... You seemed to have ushered in a new era for the magazine’s poetry section by, as George Plimpton once said, ‘making up for modernist lost time.’’

Taking the tale back to the horse’s mouth, finally, one ought to defer to Plimpton’s own history of the magazine in ‘the Paris Review Sketchbook’ (included in #79, its twenty-fifth anniversary issue). In this colorful reminiscence George describes the 1963 poetry-editorial transition in some detail, recalling the relatively staid tenures of my predecessors as having drawn bitter complaints from an as-yet-disestablished Allen Ginsberg.

‘Allen Ginsberg wrote the Editor, that Donald Hall would not know a poem if it buggered him in broad daylight,’ Plimpton remembered. ‘Perhaps it was Hall’s early conservative ‘White Guard’ phase which explains Ginsberg’s assertion. Many of Hall’s poets wrote in iambic pentameter, many taught English, many were English... X. J. Kennedy... carried on printing mostly traditional poems... With Tom Clark, who took over from 1963 for almost a decade, the wheel as they said in those days came full circle; the magazine made up for modernist lost time, printing Zukofsky, Olson, Oppen, Bunting, Creeley, Dorn, Snyder, Duncan, Ginsberg, Ashbery... The East Village/Bolinas circuit contributed Berrigan, Padgett, Coolidge, Kyger, Sanders, Waldman, MacAdams, and Aram Saroyan. The dead helped out in the form of Frank O’Hara who posthumously contributed some of his best works.’

(To George’s representative list of my exotic introductions to the magazine I might add, among others and in order of appearance, Lorine Niedecker, John Wieners, Barbara Guest, Carl Rakosi, Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Diane di Prima, James Schuyler, Kenward Elmslie, Edwin Denby, Philip Whalen, Jim Carroll, Alice Notley, Michael McClure, David Henderson, Lou Reed and Lorenzo Thomas.)

Tom Clark, Pat Padgett, Wayne Padgett, and Ron Padgett, Calais, VT, summer, 1967. Photo by Joe Brainard. Courtesy of Ron Padgett


Tom Clark, Pat Padgett, Wayne Padgett, and Ron Padgett, Calais, VT, summer, 1967. Photo by Joe Brainard. Courtesy of Ron Padgett

Kevin Ring: You mention being in England whilst first working for the Paris Review, I understand you first met Ed Dorn then. Tell us a little about your friendship with him then and about your own poetry magazine.

Tom Clark: Well, as I said, working for the Paris Review was technically not a ‘real’ job at all, since, though it took up a lot of time and effort in addition to being interesting fun, I wasn’t getting paid for it. My actual work, the first two years in England, was studying at Cambridge. The Fulbright paid me 500 pounds per annum, plus 100 pounds book allowance. Difficult as it may be to believe now, I pretty much lived on that, augmented by a few quid I earned by writing poems and reviews for the Listener, New Statesman, Encounter, Observer, TLS, doing talks and readings on the BBC, etc.

Again, it may seem hard to believe, but I don’t now have copies of any of those writings. In that period, I was traveling light, by design, and regarded all possessions, including literary ones, as excess baggage. (I refer those interested in the seamier details of my ramblings around London those years to a roman-a-clef novel Who Is Sylvia?, published in the U.S. by Blue Wind in 1979.)

In ’65 I went over to Essex, where Donald Davie, my academic supervisor at Cambridge, was starting up a Department of Literature at the University — which at that point really hadn’t been built, it consisted of a few half-finished and several other temporary buildings on the grounds of an old estate at Wivenhoe Park, which once upon a time Constable had famously painted. I took digs in Brightlingsea, a small fishing village on the North Sea, where I rented a room or two in a bungalow owned by a Cambridge aquaintance who’d also joined the Essex Lit. department, John Barrell.

Another former Cambridge pal, Andrew Crozier, eventually moved over to Essex also, and with Andrew I edited a para-academic journal, The Wivenhoe Park Review. For its first issue Ed Dorn, who’d landed in Colchester having been recruited from Idaho State College by Davie, wrote a long essay called ‘The Outcasts of Foker Plat: News from the States’ on recent doings in his homeland; Ed had just participated in the Berkeley Poetry Conference, and for us he wrote about some of the poets who’d impressed him there — Ed Sanders, in particular, whom he compared with the fourteenth century ecclesiastical reformer John Wyclif.

Ed also wrote regularly for the series of one-shot mimeo magazines I’d begun producing, sub rosa and under cover of darkness, on a mimeograph machine I’d discovered in a broom closet at the University.

The magazines had deliberately uncataloguable titles: Once, Twice, Thrice, Thrice and 1/2, Frice, Vice, Spice, Slice, Ice, Nice, Dice, and Lice. I filled up the mimeo series with the spillover of poems I was receiving for the Paris Review — which could handle only a fraction of the good new work that was coming in to me — as well as with some ‘assignments’ from friends far and near, who by this point included Ed, quite near (we consorted daily). He contributed a poem inspired by his rummagings in the ancient history of Colchester, his new home, linking the rebellion of Queen Boadicea against the Roman Empire to the contemporary Vietnamese resistance against American occupation.

And during the summer of ’66 he ‘covered’ the World Cup for me over two issues (Thrice and Slice) in a long, windy political verse satire (some 800 extremely elongated lines) titled ‘Box Score.’ He later said that writing this broadly funny polyphonic mock-’sportscast’ had been his groundwork for the dialogic mock-epic mode of Gunslinger.

In fact the latter project, eventually his masterwork, had its specific inception in another poem he gave me later that year for Spice, ‘An Idle Visitation,’ which begins with a knock upon the poet’s chamber door by a mysterious visionary gunslinging stranger.

It’s curious but true that that very famous cowboy poem was actually born in England, perhaps inspired, as I note in my biography of Ed (Edward Dorn: A World of Difference, North Atlantic Books), by a night out at the movies in Colchester (chronicled in another poem in the same issue, ‘A notation on the evening of November 27, 1966’), when we took in The Magnificent Seven in company with several of my Essex students of the time (one of whom, by a further twist of fate, would become Ed’s second wife). I relate more details of my friendship with Ed at that time in the biography, for anyone who’s interested.

Doing the mimeo series was again strictly a labor of love and in that case indeed quite labor-intensive. In the present day of instant virtual-reality electronic communication it’s not easy to imagine the sheer gritty and dirty work of running a mimeograph machine, a process done by hand and leaving the processor arm-weary and ink-bespattered.

Then too there was the maddening task of blind-typing the mimeo stencils. Typing without a ribbon tends to create many typos, which aren’t noticed until the inked pages have been cranked out by hand. Being a mad perfectionist, whenever I found an error I went back and re-typed the whole stencil page and ran it off all over again, a form of correction that entailed several extra hours of effort for every error. I’d do 50 to 75 copies of each issue, hand-collate them and post them all off on the spot to the contributors and to other friends and co-conspirators.

It occurs to me to mention that all copies were distributed gratis, in the style of the time. I never sold a single copy, though I understand they now bring surprising prices in the collector market. In fact, in keeping with my cavalier policy of jettisoning possessions, I didn’t save copies of the whole set for myself. The ones I do have are charming to glance through, though.

Several of them have beautiful covers drawn (again, as ‘blind’ inscriptions carved into mimeo stencils with an inkless stylus) by Joe Brainard, one of the many New York poets and artists who were my main contributors. With Joe it was ‘ask and you shall receive.’ I’d tell him the title of my next issue and by return transatlantic mail I’d get a cover that interpreted the projected issue-title provocatively yet precisely.


Joe Brainard, Spice cover art

Joe was in a very sexy phase of drawing at the time: one cover I recall was a voluptuously involuted orchid, I believe that one was for Vice, of which I no longer own a copy. His cover for Spice, which I do have, was a drawing of a rumpled pair of jockey shorts — ‘Self Portrait, My Underwear, December 8th 1966, Joe Brainard.’ The cover of Slice was a beautiful set of disembodied girl’s legs which unraveled into a flowing abstract line from the hips on up; the letters ‘SLICE’ curled around her backside in a teasing erotic curve.

Joe’s series of covers, a throwaway tour de force of periodical art, lent class, consistency and uniformity to the Once series, bringing a surprising illusion of orderly design to an otherwise rather undisciplined and chaotic enterprise.


Joe Brainard Slice cover art

Most of the works I published in the Once series were somewhat or in some way more outlandish or strange than what I could cull for the Paris Review. Ted Berrigan in particular seemed to thrive on the opportunity to publish anything he wished. Ted (whom I’ve written about at some length in a memoir, Late Returns, from Tombouctou Books), challenged me with such pieces as ‘Poem for Ed Sanders’ — consisting of a single line of hand-printed block-cap letters, ‘I AIN’T GONNA DIE’ — and ‘Poop’:

If I fall in love with my friend’s wife, she’s* fucked

*Alternates: I’m fucked, he’s fucked


I responded by immediately printing those and asking for more. Ted finally sent about forty poems, several novel excerpts (from Clear the Range [you can read an excerpt from Clear the Range in Jacket 16] and ‘Looking for Chris’), and some amazing collaborative plays — like ‘In the Foundry,’ by Ted, Ron Padgett and Tom Veitch, ‘with extra dialogue by Dick Gallup,’ which begins ‘in a dreary Birmingham Foundry’ and wends its way toward ‘UTTER CHAOS... Flashing lights, vomiting machines, slimy things dropping from the wings, naked bodies falling in heaps about the stage, warriors entering, slashing each other to ribbons with giant swords, cannon-fire, mud storms, fireworks, thousands of screaming midgets run in, are attacked by untold hordes of giant ants, rain, snow, hail, pitch-stork, a tidal wave sweeps over all, and — voila! — the stage is washed clean.’ At the end, a ‘BEARDED FELLOW’ appears to announce to the audience that ‘Everything you have witnessed tonight has, in actuality, taken place. This was not a play, although you have been misled into thinking so.’ This BEARDED FELLOW then ‘draws a flamethrower from beneath robes, aims at audience, fires, burns audience to crisp bones and meat ash.’ Finally he exits and the ‘CURTAIN is carried on by naked ten year old girl and nailed all around and over the maw of the stage.’

For its defiant disregard of the classical unities, ‘In the Foundry’ must occupy a certain place in theatrical history. Down the hall, under the stairs, turn left and fall in... (‘In the Foundry’ was of course never produced, as was the rule with poetic plays of that era — which fact provided the basis for an amusing hoax perpetrated by my friend Tom Raworth when he published my own zany drama The Emperor of the Animals as a Goliard Press book and put in a note on the theatrical production with a cast list including Ed Dorn, Charles Olson and other poets and their wives and consorts: nearly four decades later I occasionally encounter would-be historians of the period who take that straight-faced but absurd note as strict truth.)


This play was first performed
privately in London
on January 14th, 1967,

with the following cast:

Edward — Edward Dorn
Benedict — Robert Creeley
Howard — Charles Olson
Helga — Panna Grady
Janet — Helene Dorn
Norma — Valarie Raworth

floret

Sets & costumes by Barry and Jackie Hall
Music by Tom Raworth
Directed by Tom Clark




Other frequent Once series contributors included Aram Saroyan, who sent his first ‘concrete’ poems, and Ron Padgett, whom I still regard, looking back on it all, as perhaps the superior poet of that (‘our’ or ‘my’?) generation. Though I didn’t actually meet most of my Once and Paris Review poets until I’d gone back to the States and taken up residence in New York in 1967, Aram and Ron were notable exceptions.

In 1966 Aram showed up in London to visit his father, who was staying in a hotel there. A few weeks before, back in the U.S., Aram had auditioned for the role later played by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, and, as he told the story, had actually been offered a screen-test by Mike Nichols — and turned it down.

He took me along to meet the old man, an illuminating encounter for me since as a teenager I’d read all the works of Saroyan senior, but an uncomfortable one for Aram, who at the time was incurring his father’s displeasure by becoming something of a wastrel; as I appeared even more so, my company probably increased the difficulty of the whole ordeal for him.

During the same brief stay in England Aram came out to Brightlingsea for an overnight visit and while there, in response to my request for a note to introduce my first volume of poems, Airplanes (which I was producing as a Once Press mimeo edition), sat down at the typewriter atop my battered steamer trunk and ‘spontaneously’ pecked out a minimalist-verse introduction: ‘In the middle of the night / in Brightlingsea / Tom Clark is / sitting here with me. / The time is / for me to write an Introduction / to Airplanes. / I do...’

Ron Padgett I met in 1966 in Paris, where he was spending a year with his wife Pat, working on translations of the French poets who were his heroes and masters — Apollinaire, Cendrars, and, at that time especially, Reverdy.

That was a very interesting meeting. I’d wired Ron from England that I’d be arriving on the Silver Arrow, a night train. At the Gare du Nord there was only one person left waiting when the platform cleared — a tall, severe-looking stranger. He and I eyed each other suspiciously without a word. I made my way to the Padgetts’ apartment, finally having to throw stones at the window to get admitted. Ron and I were both (not) surprised to learn we’d encountered each other an hour before on the station platform.

Ron’s enigmatic and brilliant sense of humor ignited his poems with a special fire of quiet genius, which seemed to deflect his life experience into all sorts of interesting permutations. While I was staying with them in Paris he and Pat went off to the horse races several times with the writer Harry Mathews. Ron’s long poem ‘Mister Horse,’ which I printed in the Paris Review, obliquely documents that. (‘But now I really must be going / The horse is getting restless and no wonder / I only gave him a piece of paper to eat today...’)

During one of their trips to the track I wrote a poem called ‘Easter Sunday’ — it was written on Easter Sunday, 1966 — which was published in my second book, The Sand Burg, from Andrew Crozier’s Ferry Press in London. I suppose it’s a sort of ‘answer’ poem to Ron’s ‘Mister Horse’: ‘Through the light in a glass of wine you see them / Under the hot sky of the glacier / Placing their bets then boarding the funeral train.’

I don’t know why I made it into a funeral train, though I suspect that particular bit of distortion represents my attempt to introduce a vaguely mysterious noir element into the picture. I was brought up Catholic, and the words ‘Easter Sunday’ probably have some sort of dark annotation for me of which I’m not fully conscious. (Was it for that reason I left the poem out of Stones, the compilation of my early work I published with Harper & Row upon my return to America? Luckily I don’t remember.)

Kevin Ring: When did you move back to America? And when did the biographies of Olson, Creeley and Berrigan happen? What were the circumstances of those books?

Tom Clark: I came back to the U.S. in the early Spring of 1967. This was somewhat dicey since, as you’ll recall, there was a war on, and by dropping out of academia — I’d elected to ignore generous offers to continue Ph.D. work at Harvard, Columbia, Buffalo and New Mexico, among other places, a curious form of career suicide as things turned out in the long run — I was exposing myself to the military draft. Evading the military proved somewhat complicated, but, though I’d been trained to use a rifle during a compulsory ROTC program in college, I couldn’t imagine any good reason for killing someone, let alone doing it for the ‘reasons’ that were being offered.

I remember my arrival day in New York, just off the ocean liner, in vivid colors. Ted Berrigan showed me around his neighborhood with a sort of informal mayoral pride. It was unseasonably warm and on the boiling streets of the Lower East Side we strolled past some black kids with a transistor radio blaring Martha & the Vandellas’ ‘Heatwave’; the general atmosphere was that of the margins of an inferno but one couldn’t be sure exactly what or who was cooking.

I stayed on living a solo poet’s life in that pressure cooker for a year before escaping with my salvation in the form of a bride, Angelica Heinegg, a young woman from New Zealand it was my good fortune to encounter as she passed through the city. This was the time of the Tet offensive, early 1968, when America seemed to be coming off its wheels. Martin Luther King was killed as we left the city and after surviving a catastrophic auto crash on the freeway in Ohio we made it to California, where we moved into a tiny pre-fab shack at Nymph & Cherry in Bolinas a month or two before Bobby Kennedy was killed.

Considering what a murderous time it was in the world at large, we were happy to be as far out toward the edge as we could get.

Our daughter Juliet happily came along to join us in 1969. There were many tender and strange experiences of a wild life in those years, amid nature and among many lasting poet friends, Bolinasian residents and neighbors including Joanne Kyger, Philip Whalen, Robert Creeley, Aram Saroyan, Lewis MacAdams, Bill Berkson, John Thorpe, David Meltzer, Duncan McNaughton, and regular and irregular visitors and sometime habitués too numerous to count.

The cover photo of Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh on their Angel Hair anthology (Granary Books, 2001) is a shot I snapped in our front yard during one of their stays with us on Nymph Road, and with another visitor, Ted Berrigan, who spent extended periods just up the road with his second wife Alice Notley, I wrote a collaborative book, Bolinas Eyewash, celebrating/satirizing this weird inbred country-poet community.


During these Bolinas years I published my lyric collection Air (Harper & Row, 1970), and then a number of other volumes of more or less experimental poems, including four from Black Sparrow, Green (1971), Smack (1972), Blue (1974) and When Things Get Tough on Easy Street (1978), as well as Neil Young (Coach House, 1971), John’s Heart (Goliard/Grossman, 1972) and At Malibu (Kulchur, 1975); also the aforementioned autobiographical novel, Who Is Sylvia?. As there was the nagging problem of making a living, I took up freelance writing, doing several books on eccentric sports figures as well as my first ‘literary’ biography, The World of Damon Runyon (Harper & Row, 1978).

The three books on poets you mention all came from later years. We left Bolinas in 1978, spent two years in Colorado, then moved back to California. In Santa Barbara, 1980–1984, I wrote the Kerouac biography and started work on a book about Louis-Ferdinand Céline, which eventually came out in the form of a novel, The Exile of Céline (Random House, 1987). One day in July 1983 I got a call from Ed Dorn relaying the sad news Ted Berrigan had passed away, too young at 48. My memoir of Ted, Late Returns, was meant less as a full-scale life than as a friendly tribute.

In 1984 we moved to Berkeley, our present home. I continued to work at poems. Paradise Resisted (Black Sparrow, 1984) commemorated our recent years of wanderings around the West, and a later book, Empire of Skin (Black Sparrow, 1997) pressed on and back into the history of the Pacific Northwest as grounded in the international fur trade.

Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place (New Directions, 1993), was a kind of interactive biography — a project suggested by Creeley himself — that situated the poet and his work in a complex of origins. Creeley’s invitation to deliver the Charles Olson Memorial Lectures at Buffalo in 1986 developed into the beginnings of my biography of Olson (Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life, Norton, 1991).

The passing of Ed Dorn in 1999 was felt as a significant loss both personally and to poetry, and inspired my final attempt at biography. The Spell: A Romance (Black Sparrow, 2000), a poetic novel, and a chapbook of largely elegiac poetry, White Thought (Hard Press/The Figures, 1997), represent my imaginative writing of recent years.

Since 1987 much of my attention to poetry has been in the service of the Poetics Program of New College of California, where as a part-time lecturer I try to pass along all I can of what my study and practice of the art have over the years given me to know.


You can read Tom Clark’s biography, a detailed bibliography, a statement on poetics and a list of live links to all his pieces in Jacket magazine here, at Jacket’s Author Notes page.


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