For six decades, Clark Coolidge has been presenting language awash in information, with jarring and frequently hilarious syntax. Although frequently associated the Language School and the New York School, his work reflects his life-long dedication to jazz drumming and an improvisational poetics that takes in the entire world.
In the following interview, Coolidge talks about his life and inspirations, including encounters with Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Thurston Moore, and Lee Konitz. Coolidge also discusses his latest book, The Land of All Time. Thank you to Lithic Press for allowing us to publish six poems from the collection.
William Lessard: I know you were drumming before you started writing, but I don’t think I ever got how you started drumming, and where it figures into things today.
Clark Coolidge: Well, I must have started drumming in the third grade of grammar school. They let me play the bass drum. It wasn’t a big thrill, but it was dealing with drums. And, of course, I grew up in house full of music. My father was a classical violinist and professor of music. And so, I heard that kind of music all my life. And he insisted that I took piano lessons, which I did for four or five years, but it didn’t catch on. And I was getting more and more interested in the drums, and hearing jazz on the radio. Finally, my father said, “Okay, you can stop piano lessons, and you take drum lessons.”
I studied with the tympanist of the Rhode Island Philharmonic, and he taught me the basics of traditional drumming. Eventually I began to play with bands, and get local gigs, and whatever. And play all kinds of music, from classical percussion, to marching bands, and pit bands, and dance gigs. But my main love was always jazz, and it’s continued throughout. I still play, and we have a little free jazz group out here that gets together.
WL: Now, when you were starting out, and you were leaning into jazz mainly as a player. Who did you take your cues from? Were you more a modernist? Was Max Roach your guy, or were you more into the swing stuff, like Chick Webb?
CC: The first drummer I can remember thinking about, and looking at pictures of, and listening to was, Gene Krupa. Who I think was, especially for white kids, that was the hero drummer. And we didn’t know much about Black music at that point. I remember getting the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall Concert, which Krupa played on. And then it was Dixieland for a bit, and the Eddie Condon bands of the mid-fifties, they had a drummer that I liked, a guy named Cliff Leeman. He was a good drummer of that style. And then it wasn’t ‘til a few years later that I began to hear the great bop players. I remember hearing Charlie Parker with Strings on the radio from Birdland, and things like that. And then Max Roach, and then Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey, and later Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, and all those really heavy post-bop players.
And I was able to see some of them, too. I started going to the Newport Jazz Festival, which started in 1954, when I was 15. And my father took me down to the first couple of those. And then I went to most of them until the riots. There are so many people I wish I could go back and see again, because I was really too young to appreciate it. My mother saved the program, so I still have the program for the first concerts there: Lester Young and The Modern Jazz Quartet with Kenny Clarke. And all these things that I was not quite ready for. I had a nice conversation with Lee Konitz a few years ago, and told him that I was at that concert and saw him playing with Lennie Tristano. And I confessed that I really felt I was too young to really appreciate that at the time, and he gave me a grin and he said, “Me too.”
WL: That’s the thing, the great game is that everybody pretends that they’re a lot hipper than they actually are, when in reality, we’re just people going along. And the whole great beauty of jazz is that a lot of the players don’t even understand what they’re doing. Because they’re just going on their skills and the moment, and sometimes the moment takes them places that they don’t even comprehend.
CC: Well, that’s the point to get into the New Thing, using your process and just going forward. It’s very invigorating. And, of course, somewhere in the middle of all this or fairly early … Well, not that early, when I started writing, and from reading Jack Kerouac I saw that he was an improviser, and I could understand writing that way. Before that had been standard teaching, about finding exactly the right word before you were, almost, allowed to go forward. I thought “What a drag, I can’t possibly think of doing that.”
WL: Clark, it seems like we’re back in that conundrum or maybe that conundrum never went away. Because I open up your latest book, and I open up your older books, and I see a person who is deeply listening to the entire world around him. And what’s coming out, or what I’m receiving on the page, is a kind of entropy. A sense of what the fullness of the world is, as opposed to very academic, totally workshopped, gorgeously rendered, but often lifeless writing.
CC: I know what you mean. Of course, I don’t pay much attention to that these days, but I’m aware of it subliminally, and it’s sad. I thought we were revolutionary for a while, and that things were moving in a different direction, but, of course, nothing really dies, I guess. And a lot of things I did weren’t understood by people. They seemed to want to polish what they were doing, and really imitate the past, if you can even do that. I have my doubts.
WL: It reminds me of all those people in the 19th century, the academic painters who were still painting Renaissance babies. At the same time that the Impressionists were coming along and responding to the invention of the camera, and later, motion pictures. That’s basically what Cubism was. You paint things from all three dimensions at once, instead of trying to render this very clean, fake scene that’s three-dimensional in a two-dimensional canvas.
CC: It’s complicated, the history of all that. And those of us who have been, I think, equally influenced by both sonic art and visual art, as well as poetry and writing, really have a tough thing to explain. I don’t try to really, but I find there’s a lot of difference. A lot of poets don’t seem to me to be musically aware. I was always surprised by that.
WL: Because you would think, that poetry and music go hand in hand, but for a lot of folks, they don’t. Or they have the most unhip taste.
CC: Or they just listen to what happens to be around. Those of us who became record nuts wind up looking for some incredibly rare disc from 1934 or something. That’s another kind of life.
WL: It’s another type of insanity. My wife won’t let me buy vinyl because it’s the last stage. It’s like using junk or something. There’s no coming back.
CC: I just go on with what I started with. And sometimes it surprises me, and sometimes it just continues. Well, let’s put it this way, the poems that are in The Land of All Time come from a really, really long sequence of poems that I’ve been writing over the last 20 years. And in the last, I don’t know, 10 years you saw as lot of them are sonnets. But I realized finally that they’re all part of one strain. They’re one poem in a way, they’re segments of that. And well I’ve, of course, not been able to publish all of it, or even most of it. And when an opportunity comes, with the press wants to do book of a hundred pages or so, something that’s possible for them to do, I pick things out of that sequence. And the ones in this book are all from about 2014, but I consider it a long work, that just goes on and on and on.
WL: To get ready for this interview, I found a video of you performing with Thurston Moore in Paris, in a duo setting from 2013. And you’re playing, and it’s obviously that the two of you are just feeling each other out. And relating that to the writing, it just seems like, when you write things, you are just opening up your ears and dropping in stuff that seems to work in the moment, and each piece is a performance. Is that a fair statement, or am I leaning too heavily into this comparison with music?
CC: I think it’s a fair statement. And there’s more to it than that, of course, which you couldn’t say in one statement. It’s like I was trying to indicate, that I’m influenced by all sorts of things. Besides music, music heavily, but movies, and visual arts, and painting, and dance. I came out of a period where I was just young and hungry in the fifties, when all that stuff was just changing in this alarming and beautiful way. John Cage, and Ornette Coleman, and Merce Cunningham. I was so lucky to be at the age where I was just ready to eat that stuff up.
And also, I should point out, before it was really criticized or written about much or at all, the later poets have expressed to me that they were never able to have it fresh like that. They already had some kind of instruction, either in college or reading critical texts, of what it was about. With us, who came up in the fifties, it was like, “Wow,” nobody was telling us anything, we were just drawn to these things.
WL: They were just happening in the world. It wasn’t mediated. It wasn’t somebody was telling you, “Oh, go see Ornette because of this,” it was just like, “Hey, this is really hip, let’s go see it.”
CC: That’s true. But, of course, Ornette seemed to me an extension of what I was already hearing. And I couldn’t really understand the huge battle that went on at the Five Spot in November ’59, where people were actually getting into fist fights over what Charlie Haden was playing on the bass, how can you have that? And I was beginning to realize how much some musicians were so invested in an earlier form, in this case the chord changes, that they were angry or scared of Ornette. Like, “Oh boy, is this going to be what music is going to be for now? What am I going to do? My life learning chord changes.” It’s funny.
WL: It feels a lot of people, even people who claim not to be invested in capitalism, they want to just reinforce the known because that’s what they can make money off of. It’s like, “People love Bird. Okay. Here’s a thousand bird imitators,” or whatever. And then here comes Ornette, and Ornette is Bird with all the prepositions removed. And they don’t dig that, that upsets them.
CC: That’s about right.
WL: Let’s talk about the visual arts for a second, because I want to give equal time to your other interests and influences. I was reading about Robert Smithson the other night, and the whole idea that opening up the artwork and making the world itself the work of art, and allowing the entropy of the world to have its way with the art. Seems to be within the same ecosystem of what you’re doing, it’s not really neat or to maybe reel that comparison in a little bit. I think of Robert Rauschenberg collecting all of these disparate materials and placing them within the canvas. Again, it’s the idea that things of the world are valid. You’re not trying to create something that’s really clean, the fact that things are dirty and messy, that’s what of interest you.
CC: I remember the first time I saw Merce Cunningham at Brown University, actually in early sixties, he had Rauschenberg with him to design the sets, and he had John Cage and David Tudor to do the music, and it was just spectacular. Rauschenberg had found some things in the street outside, signs, like a stop sign, and that was the set. And the music was David Tutor, there was a big pipe organ in the hall, so he was holding down the lowest foot pedal on that continuously for the whole piece. And it was so low that you couldn’t really hear it, but you could feel it your body. And John Cage was dragging a window stick down the aisles that had a rubber mat on it. So, he could hear a kind of buzz going on. And this was the music. And that just knocked me out of my seat. I hadn’t imagined that could be the way to do it, or a way, a new way to do it. And it really was working. Just to bring those guys together.
WL: What is the flow of things? Do you think of drumming when you’re writing? Do you think of writing when you’re drumming? Or are they two separate activities for you?
CC: That’s a good question. I’ve thought about it over and over, when I’m writing or I’m typing, I often have music on playing, usually some kind of jazz. And my fingers, when I’m not using one hand for typing or I’m just reading it, I’m tapping out these patterns, which are usually drum patterns from Max Roach or somebody, basically Bop drum patterns. When I’m playing the drums, I don’t think I’m thinking about writing at all. It’s too involving, especially if I’m playing with a group, with other people, that you’re listening so much to them, and reacting that you’re not. I often thought of combining the two, but I could never figure out the logistics of it. I remember Allen Ginsburg once said, “Well, why don’t you just play the drum and improvise the words?”
And I said, “Well, I don’t want to end up like you, with this stupid end-rhymes.” And he laughed and said, “Yeah, I know what you mean,” but that’s what you end up falling back on, if you don’t watch out. The language is built in with that. But I don’t know, it would be fun to be able … I saw a guy do that once, but I actually didn’t think it worked that well. So, it’s too involving to play the drums. And then I have to look at the page too, I couldn’t.
WL: Even though you’re literally not doing that, I do feel like you take a hybrid approach to your work. In the sense that I read you, and I get a sense that I’m reading a person who considers themselves an artist and not a writer. And by “artist” I mean somebody who’s performing with words or working with words, and is casting their work within a larger context of visual arts, and performative arts. It isn’t just like, “Oh, this cat is doing Language Poetry, or “this cat is doing Confessionalism,” or whatever.
CC: I wouldn’t to think of myself as limited like that. It all comes in, man.
WL: You’ve been so damn prolific, and looking over the transcript of the conversation that you had with Neeli Cherkovski, from the film that Kyle Harvey shot. The thing that jumped out at me is that, you’re not an academic and you have never been one as far as I know. How did you manage that?
CC: I quit school. I went to Brown; I grew up in Providence and my father was chair of the music department at Brown. And I just took the easy route in a way, friends of mine were going graduating from my high school and going to Brown. And I went that way also that I could get … It was really an affirmative action thing, before they had that. Kids of faculty could get in at a lower tuition. I don’t know how generally known that is, but that was true. And at that time, I’d been convinced that I had to have some career, and that would be geology because I liked mineral collecting, and caves, and stuff. But by the time I got there in the mid-fifties, geology had changed into lots of high math, and lab work, and geophysics, and all that. And it wasn’t the way I envisioned it at all.
Plus, in ’57 On the Road came out. I wanted to get out there and see things, and I wanted to live in New York for a while, hear the music, go to the museums, try to write poems.
I remember friends of mine at the time saw I was leaving school, they would say things like, “Well, how can you hope to have the discipline you’ll need to write on your own? You need to be in a college to …” I said, “Well, what do you mean, I have to be in college for the rest of my life then, because I have to have very discipline?” If I couldn’t do it on my own, put it that way, I couldn’t do it.
WL: When you were coming up, it seems academia was a pretty good gig. Now, there are hardly any writers out who’s a working schmuck like me. Most of them are in academia, although there are so few jobs, and it’s not a good gig.
CC: I remember when for the English department, modern poetry was T.S. Eliot, that was about it. And I liked Williams, and they never talked about Williams and certainly not Pound. And so, I just knew, it’s almost embarrassing to remember, but I never read Eliot, but I knew I hated him because Williams hated him. If that makes any sense. He was going in a different direction, a European history direction instead of hearing American speech and whatever Williams was doing. But I remember a friend of mine taking a modern drama course in those years at Brown and Waiting for Godot had just come out, and he asked his teacher, “What about Beckett?” And the guy actually said to the class, “I can’t tell you anything about him because there hasn’t been enough written about him yet.” Can you imagine?
WL: I’ll say this and then we can end. What makes me turn to writers like you, Clark, is a lot of the writers that are contemporary with myself, they’re all careerists, and they’re all imitating stuff from the past. And they don’t think of themselves as artists, they think of themselves as low-level beleaguered professionals, like they’re the podiatrists of the creative world. And the whole idea that you’re independent, unaffiliated, just doing what you think is right, and embracing that entropy. It’s very inspiring to me and other folks like me, who look to folks like yourself for guidance and as a role model, frankly.
CC: Oh, thank you. That’s nice to hear. Well, I hope so. And what can I say, thank you.
Six Poems from The Land of All Time
Mars is a pickerel welding of the in-so-far-as
Mars is a pill stumbled upon when out
Mars is a cell under a mountain
Mars is what happened when the light went out
Mars when it’s hand-held
Mars then take away the sand a holster?
Mars where they won’t give you a seat
Mars place of encirclement
Mars as roll away the stone the sediment
Mars where there’s a coating
Mars when I wasn’t thinking of just the ship
Mars with words like mission and peppermint
Mars is no longer on anybody’s list
a Mars lost to childhood
The Roll (Call)
The president had never encouraged anyone
the president confused a snarl with a smile
the president preferred anonymous thought
the president was let down but not out
the president did twist and shout
the president’s favorite name was Woody
the president’s background was fuzzy
the president’s main trouble was fun
the president picked pieces off a pile
the president admitted to nothing missing
the president had never heard of fission
the president pressed a key marked Donald Donut
the president once dated Janet Planet
the president thought that anyone who worked would get it
I think Santa should eat meat balls
open a store
cock a snide
drop his past
stop shinnying down pipes
stand over there
learn to stay
drive a Crown Vic
have skipped Bubbler in school
never give anything away
be made to reaudition every ten years
emit a faint glow
be done by now
For the Civilians
There are damages in the kitchen take your pick
there’s sand out the window and beyond the ocean
Jack Palance leaning on the glass in Le Mepris
the staff gravitates to the boiler room
read the piece on waterboarding in Surf Magazine?
note there are paint flaps on the wall
kitty down the well pea’s porridge in a clay pot
disgrace levels are up in the sticks
not democracy de mockery! that bent
as ones speaking in the room sound over the still photos
Alex Katz should paint big aliens and yetis
edition of On the Beach dedicated “for mica”
the car that took me there felt like an attic
in the wooden bath all I heard was oom-papá
It’s become all about what you remember
Irving Berlin the Stanton Bridge brightly lit candies
a color timer left on too long substance whatever
a long time coming home from the bank real trip
fire on the screen a hole in the text
face with no name name with no story
the rock across the water it edges it glows it dims
some kind of selfless startle comes on a hurtle?
it’s over the same a similar? the jar
hello and it’s gone for you to bring back
you called? not easy not that
but arms and legs each and dots of meat on a crust
to go the practice of books the practice of sounds
came up with today but finally none of us will
Toulouse and I in L.A.
Pope Innocent of Palm Springs?
a friend in Hollywood Donald Duck
know him? let’s get naked like
no names please the maniac idles
a hundred fifty papers missed them
pay more when you’re dead ever
tried to work with supper gloves on?
Meow-Meow on loan extended batch
so long and thanks for the hitch
all that rock-hard jello and then
they all left the planet
William Lessard is Poetry & Hybrids editor at Heavy Feather Review. His work is appearing or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Best American Experimental Writing, Fence, Southwest Review, and Beloit Poetry Journal. His chapbook, instrument for distributed empathy monetization, will be published in April 2022 by KERNPUNKT Press.