Where to begin even?
When first encountering the work of a prolific author with a fifty-year career, timing is everything. The end pages of Clark Coolidge's A Book Beginning What And Ending Away, his mammoth prose performance work from the 1970s never before published in its entirety until Fence Books brought it out last year, list 41 other published books of poetry dating back to 1966's Flag Flutter & U.S. Electric, along with a jaw-dropping 29 other unpublished collections.
Where to begin even? In many ways the answer is pre-determined: many readers will start with whatever collections happen to be in print and available at any given time. For Coolidge as with any prolific author, this poses a challenge: with the exception of his early collection Space (Harper & Row 1970), virtually all of Coolidge's books have been published by small presses in print runs of under 1000 copies (often fewer). Save the occasional reprint, once such books (often quickly) go out of print they risk being eclipsed by whatever newer publications emerge.
In the early 2000s, Craig Dworkin's online Eclipse Project began (and continues today) a great service, making full-text PDF scans of rare and out-of-print experimental poetry titles available for reading and downloading. Before this or the emergence of an online used book vendor like abebooks.com, one would have needed access to either a university library with an extensive small-press poetry collection or, barring that, interlibrary loan.
This was my own experience coming to and discovering Coolidge's poetry in the mid-to-late 1990s, which begs another question: how did I get into Clark Coolidge's poetry in the first place? I'll tell this story in my next post.