I Remember Tom Clark
(with a tip of the laurel crown to Joe Brainard)
by Pat Nolan
I remember the first time I heard Tom Clark’s name mentioned was at the Bull’s Eye Tavern in Monterey, California in 1966 or 67. I was tending bar and had engaged in a conversation with a lovely young woman (Anita?) whom I tried to impress with the fact that I wrote poetry. She asked me if I knew a friend of hers, Tom Clark, who, she said, was a real cool guy and a great poet.
I remember meeting Tom Clark for the first time at a John Weiners reading at The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s church in New York City in January of 1968. Ted Berrigan introduced John Weiners, and Tom was at the door collecting admissions (donations). I introduced myself and mentioned the exchange I had with his friend in Monterey.
I remember when Tom was the Poetry Editor for The Paris Review that I sent him some poems in late 1969 or early 1970 with a note reminding him of our meeting at The Poetry Project.
I remember hearing back from Tom a few months later saying that he was accepting some poems for issue #50 or #51 of The Paris Review and not believing my good luck. As it turns out, luck had a lot to do with it because years later in an interview published in Little Caesar magazine Tom explained that toward the end of his tenure as poetry editor for The Paris Review he used the blindfold dartboard method of picking poems.
I remember getting a copy of the Anthology of New York Poets when it was first published in 1970 and thinking that I had finally found kindred pop Modern spirits especially in Tom, Ron Padgett, and Ted Berrigan.
I remember finding a copy of Stones in the Oakland library and thinking how cool it was that a mainstream publisher like Harper & Row would publish such a brash up and coming poet like Tom Clark. It gave me a kind of hope.
I remember returning Tom the favor by publishing a poem of his (“Icy Stars”) in an issue of my mimeo magazine, The End (& variations thereof) in the early 70’s. It was kind of a symbolic reciprocity.
I remember Tom suggesting that I ask Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley for submissions to my fledgling literary effort.
I remember driving around on the mesa in Bolinas looking for Tom’s address on Cherry St. Eventually I got the drift. Tom didn’t want to be found.
I remember attending a Tom Clark Alice Notley reading at Intersection when it was on Union Street. Ted Berrigan introduced them.
I remember acquiring a copy of Neil Young and thinking that it was the epitome of the minimalist poetry concept book.
I remember that in the mid seventies I went about acquiring all the Tom Clark poetry books I could get my hands on. I still have Blue, 35, How I Broke In & Six Modern Masters, At Malibu, and When Things Get Tough On Easy Street.
I remember when I got my copy of At Malibu I was blown away by the sheer pop modernity of the voice and thinking, finally, an American poetry to match the culture and the times.
I remember thinking that “To Kissinger” was best most effective curse poem ever penned, that the language was brutal, unforgiving, with a spare street smart kick-ass irreverence. The amoeba is mountainous Hank! /it dwarfs your think tanks you neoid!/so jack off my octopus! Still works for me.
I remember James Dickey saying that Tom was “the worst poet in America.”
I remember Alice Notley saying that Tom Clark was “the smartest poet in America.” Which I took to mean “savvy.”
I remember interviewing Tom for Doug Messerli’s Sun & Moon (issue #5, Fall 1978) conducting it through the mail because I didn’t drive and Tom had his license suspended (so he said). The interview was titled “Inertia and the Highway Patrol” after something Tom had written: Two things to watch out for in California/ inertia and the Highway Patrol.
I remember Tom saying that living in Bolinas had made him a “bitter pastoralist.”
I remember Tom claiming to belong to the Why Not School of Poetry.
I remember asking Tom what he had learned from his experience as poetry editor for The Paris Review, and his answer “I learned that there’s more bullshit poetry around than you could imagine. Even in your most extravagant moment” was right on the money.
I remember thinking that being the poetry editor for The Paris Review would most likely cure anyone of romantic notions about poetry, and certainly about poets.
I remember the late seventies as my Tom Clark fan boy period, when I wrote and published reviews in The Poetry Project Newsletter and Poetry Flash of Tom’s poetry books including John’s Heart, 35, How I Broke In & Six Modern Masters, and At Malibu.
I remember that Back In Boston Again with Ted, Ron, and Tom exemplified the sense of camaraderie of the early New York poets scene before drugs and social politics took their toll.
I remember getting a copy of Dennis Cooper’s Little Caesar #11 (December, 1980) with the Tom Clark interview conducted by Ed Dorn when they were both living in Boulder, Colorado.
I remember thinking that it was probably the best interview with Tom I’d read in that it was candid, honest (for the moment), and quite revealing. I still think so.
I remember learning two very important things from the interview that I’ve carried with me since. One was Tom’s idea of what he called “the starved dog principle” in which the competition for survival in the poetry scene immediately turns poets into back stabbing creeps just to get their names in print. That’s what it’s like in academic circles, that’s how it is on the literary grant circuit, and that’s the way it is with any of the hundreds of self-serving poetry crowds everywhere. And it has absolutely nothing to do with poetry.
I remember that the other important thing I learned was that Tom‘s editorship at The Paris Review came to an end because George Plimpton objected that he was accepting the work of “absolutely unknown, unheard-of jack-offs.”
I remember thinking I resemble those remarks.
I remember coming to the realization, somewhat facetiously, that Tom should at least shoulder some of the blame for my monstrous tenacity in the face of repeated failure. But, by then, it was too late. I had already invested too much in the exalted opinion of myself to look back.
I remember thinking that Tom’s experience in Bolinas had contributed to a siege mentality and his indignation, self righteous at times, at the conservative group think that communities of writers often devolve into further hardened his eccentric outspoken maverick inclination. And I could appreciate that.
I remember finding a used copy of Paul Blackburn’s The Cities at Black Oak Books in Berkeley that had once been owned by Tom, complete with scrawled marginalia (in pen no less).
I remember the only other time I met Tom Clark was at Larry Blake’s in Berkeley after a reading at Cody’s. His answer to something I said was “How’s that working out for you?”
I remember thinking that Tom was kind of a dick.
I remember not hearing from Tom for almost five years until I received a review of Dennis Cooper’s My Mark as a submission to Life Of Crime, the scurrilous gossipy newsletter of the Black Bart Poetry Society that Steven Lavoie and I were publishing in the early 80s. Life of Crime, by then on the cusp of its third issue, had quickly gained the reputation for publishing anything as long as it was cutting satire, with or without a purpose. Tom’s review fit not so much as satirical but as vindictive. Beggars can’t be choosers, and the newsletter was receiving many such axe grinding submissions. Again, beggars. . . .
I remember hearing awful stories about Tom and not wanting to believe them.
I remember that Tom Clark was considered a social pariah among a certain coterie of poets I occasionally ran into.
I remember thinking that Tom was manipulative even though I still respected his work and that relationships tend to go sour when you feel like you’re being used.
I remember looking in on his blog, Beyond The Pale (certainly aptly named), occasionally. He was nothing if not prolific. And looking back on the whole of his oeuvre I again realize that the guy had guts, what Frank O’Hara would call “nerve.” I found the more recent work a tad morose and sentimental but nonetheless powerful. His homeless poems had some of that same incisiveness and fire of the early work. Tom had the lingo, the patois, and a particular authentic no bullshit working class rage that I thought I understood. And he was better by leagues than anyone who has recently been awarded the Pulitzer–they’re not even in the same ballpark.
I remember soon after Donald Guravich apprised me of Tom’s accidental death, once I got over the shock, I started searching the shelves to find the books of his I had. I have a lot of the early work, up to the 80’s. After that I may have gotten over my Tom Clark thing. I still think At Malibu was his best selection of poems mainly for the rage, the invective, and for a couple of poems that impressed me mightily, “After Reverdy” and “Japan”. He really worked the metaphysical poets, Herrick, Campion, etc, caught their tight rhythms and gave them tough new words. Later I could see he was repeating himself, and of course he was writing a lot of prose, bios of the famous and near famous, and as everyone knows, prose is deadly.
I remember someone telling me afterward that this wasn’t the first time Tom was hit by a car, and in almost that same exact stretch of roadway. That time he was declared dead at the scene by the EMT. He didn’t survive the second time.
I remember going to my “archives” to see what correspondence I had from him. Not a whole lot. I still have the handwritten acceptance notes. And I have a note sending me poems for my poetry mag, The End, with the suggestion that I hit up Ted and Alice for some poems. I have the correspondence with him from the interview I did with him for Sun & Moon but it’s mostly his tiny unreadable handwriting in the margins of my typescript. Reading it over recently I see that it didn’t hit many targets or nerves so it’s kinda disorganized. I think it was then that I realized that Tom was a control freak. Only later in my dealings with him during the early issues of Life Of Crime did I conclude that he could be “paranoid” as well. I have postcards and notes in his teeny tiny handwriting at first saying what a great idea Life Of Crime was and maybe he has a guy who might want to fund the enterprise—we were so unambitious back then (not much has changed). The 180, threatening to sue and insisting that I damage with lacunae and typos Steve Abbott’s rebuttal to his Dennis Cooper review as I did to his, came soon after. Then he really frothed up when I blanked out all the names in his vendetta against Cooper and essentially muted the sting of the nasty axe grinding diatribe. I knew I was being used—but I didn’t have a dog in that fight.
I remember not hearing from Tom for many years after that. Until the internet and blogging. I found his blog and commented that I liked what he was doing. We exchanged a few back and forth’s but nothing significant. Then in late ‘09 I mentioned to him in an email that Alastair Johnston’s Poltroon Press would be publishing the collected mimeo facsimiles of Life Of Crime. He wrote right back to demand that he have editorial rights to expunge anything that reflected poorly on him!!! Too late for that, the milk had been spilt and the cows had escaped the barn. He threatened to sue (again) and gave an incredible sob story (I saved the emails of that exchange) about his poor health and finances and all the people who were out to get him. Nothing came of it. Eventually when Life Of Crime, Documents in The Guerrilla War Against Language Poetry was published, Tom asked for a comp copy.
I remember that maybe a year or so later, when he realized that the book was nothing but a fart in a feed lot, we were pen pals again. I would check in on his blog occasionally, read the sycophantic comments and think, so it’s come to this. He posted so many photos that the tiny bandwidth that services me out here in the boonies would take a quarter of an hour to download everything. The final impression I got of Tom was that he saw most American poets as treading water in a lake of shit poetry and pleading, “don’t make waves.” Of course Tom made waves. He couldn’t help himself. He was always a rebel, always pushing the limit.
I remember Tom Clark as an eloquently righteous voice raging in the wasteland of American poetry.
Pat Nolan’s latest book is Volume II of his selected poems, So Much, Notebook Keyboard, 1990-2010 from Nualláin House, Publishers. He is also the author of Ode To Sunset, A Year in the Life of American Genius, a serial fiction available for perusal at odetosunset.com