Interviewed by Ethan Gicker
Ecological philosopher, poet, and mountain climber Gary Snyder was born on
May 8th, 1930 in San Francisco, he was raised in Washington and Oregon on
small family farms. He worked as a logger, a merchant seaman, longshoreman,
and as a fire lookout, and a trail crew worker for the U.S. Forest Service.
He received degrees in literature and anthropology from Reed College, where
he attended with friends Philip Whalen and Lew Welch. He did graduate work
in Asian languages at U.C. Berkeley; where he also served as a member of the
English Department for a year in 1964. During the 1950s he became involved
with the Beat Movement and befriended several of it’s prime movers.
He took some of his friends on one mountain climbing expedition that inspired
Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums; where he was portrayed as the character
Japhy Ryder. He moved to Japan to study Zen Buddhism. He has also been honored
with a number of awards in his career; including the Pulitzer Prize for his
poetry anthology Turtle Island in 1974.
Our contributor Ethan Gicker read and enjoyed Dharma Bums before he realized
that the guy he did yard work for was the basis for one of the book’s
principal characters. I supplied Ethan with a few questions and he added a
few of his own before he sat down with his tape recorder to talk with Mr.
Snyder during the Spring of 2003.
E.G.: How did your time in Japan impact
the rest of your life?
G.S.: Well, living in a traditional Asian culture puts you
in a very different and generally unfamiliar place. I found that I enjoyed
the formality of East Asian society rather than resisting, as I might have
thought I would. After a little difficulty at first, I decided that I really
wanted to learn East Asian manners, and I wanted to conform as much as I could
to customs; the manner and the customs of the Japanese people, so I did as
much as I could, maybe not as much I’d have liked to ideally. But, I
came away with a lot of respect for Japanese culture and traditional cultures
in general, and for the ceremonies and rituals of family life in a traditional
culture. So much so, that I miss that aspect in a way in America. I learned
that we American’s exaggerate our freedom and our individualism. And
we Americans are also in error if we think that people who are in older societies
are somehow more restricted and less able to enjoy themselves. It’s
not true, they have a wonderful time; they have a very convivial friendly
time with each other. So, to answer even one part of your question; one of
the effects of living in Japan, has been to make me appreciate. I’ve
also travelled in India and Nepal, China, Taiwan, Africa and Europe, and the
Middle East a little bit too; but Japan was the first place I stayed for any
length of time, and that opened my eyes; so that I feel at home, pretty much
at home with people anywhere, and I feel no difficulty with accepting most
of their customs. So, I don’t feel that America is so uniquely special
and is necessarily the A-number-one super best place on Earth.
E.G.: Yeah (laughing).
G.S.: It’s a pretty good place; but you’d be
surprised how good other places are too! (laughter) A lot of places. Well,
that was a pretty good lesson for me then.
E.G.: Do you feel a kinship with the
beat poet’s; and are you a beat poet?
G.S.: I guess I was, people say I was. That all depends on
what you mean by “beat poet”. I belonged to that peer group, and
many of the leading beat poets were friends of mine. Strictly speaking; my
poetic style is quite different from Allen Ginsberg’s or Jack Kerouac’s
or Gregory Corso’s. But in the larger picture we can be called the same
literary generation. I’m also what they call a San Francisco poet.
E.G.: How much did winning the Pulitzer
Prize impact your work?
G.S.: Not much. At least in the beginning it didn’t
have much effect on me at all. I was living right here then and working on
the place. Later I came to realize it was kind of a big deal for other people,
which surprised me. But I’m sure that I got more invited by more universities
to come and do a little lecture or something because of it. It finally dawned
on me that I gained credibility because of that. (laughter)
E.G.: (laughter) How did first you
discover Nevada City and the North San Juan Ridge area?
G.S.: I was coming across from the Bay Area to the Sierra
Nevada when I was a student at Berkeley for summer work. I worked for the
Park Service in Yosemite, and also on trail crew. I also did backpacking and
climbing; mountain climbing. So I knew that process of crossing the valley
and going up to the pine forest foothills, and then up into the snow and ice
country. Nevada County, I had just passed through a couple of times; but then
in 1966 a friend of mine had some contact up here with some land that was
for sale, and he said “Let’s go look at it. It’s for sale
and it’s a good deal.” So, I came up with him and a few other
friends; and it was this land right here. I liked the plain oak forest, I
knew very little about anything else in the area; but I said “I’ll
go in on this with you guys.”
E.G.: Was that Allen Ginsberg?
G.S.: That was Allen Ginsberg and some other people. So I
did, and then I went back to Japan. I actually moved up here in the summer
of 1970, and gradually came to learn what, and who was in Nevada County. I
wasn’t coming for the human society of it, I was coming for the landscape.
It seemed like a good place to build a home.
E.G.: How do you feel about Dharma
Bums in retrospect?
G.S.: Well, as a literary critic I would say it’s not
one of Kerouac’s best novels. It’s sloppy and it was written hastily,
as you can see, and it’s not very well developed in some cases. So,
it could have been a better novel, it could have been a much better novel
if he hadn’t written it in such a hasty way. And though I’m charmed
by his enthusiasm for Buddhism; and he gets some really good lines off, every
once in awhile. There is a sort of superficiality about it that goes with
the enthusiasm. But Jack was that way with a lot of things. So that’s
in general how I feel about it. It didn’t have a great deal of an effect
on my life; I was living in Japan.
E.G.: Who was Jack Kerouac?
G.S.: To me he was a friend of Allen Ginsberg. That Allen
had introduced me to, and had told me many stories about. Who then, I saw
as a very funny rambunctious, curious guy who always was asking questions,
and who had a great interest in everybody’s life. Then I read some of
Jack’s writings, and I felt that energy in his writing. He was an energetic,
brilliant and kind of undisciplined guy; who had a drinking problem, even
when I first met him.
E.G.: Do you believe in ghosts? Do
you have any good ghost stories?
G.S.: (Much laughter) I sort of believe in ghosts. And I’ll
tell you my one good ghost story; it’s not a very good ghost story,
but it is a sort of ghost story. You know who Ishi was? The last Indian.
E.G.: Yahi Indians.
G.S.: Right. In the winter of 1964 I was teaching at UC Berkeley
temporarily, and living near. And, the Anthropology Museum on the U.C. campus
had the lockers of Ishi’s stuff in the basement; where it still is.
And I knew the head of the Anthropology Museum. So, this is just background;
One day I had a dream that Ishi came to me and showed me his arrows; one arrow
in particular. And said; “this is my arrow, see how I made it.”
So that was my dream; it was very vivid. You know, I had a very clear picture
of how that arrow looked. So a couple of days later when I was back in Berkeley,
I went to the Anthropology Museum and I said “Can I look at Ishi’s
locker?” (much laughter) No kidding! There was an exactly identical
Identical to the one he’d shown me in his dream. (laughter) It was really
stunning! (laughter) Oh, and Lew Welch came to me as a ghost; I saw him in
a sort of a dream too, while I was taking a sauna, and gave me a little poem
that I wrote up for somebody.
E.G.: How did living and working at
a lookout tower effect the way you work?
G.S.: Well the lookout tower life; it wasn’t a tower
actually it was just a cabin on top of a mountain. Didn’t have to have
a tower because it was such a pinnacle. Living on the lookout; two lookout
seasons was my first opportunity to experience being really alone for a long
stretch of time. And trying out meditation practices, and also other practices
like reading a little bit, practicing calligraphy with my pen and so forth.
It gave me a sense of possibilities which served me later in life. Setting
a schedule for yourself that you can do, and also no sense that you have to
have social life all the time. Maybe some people do but I didn’t. So
it was a very nice, and a very disciplined life. And the next experience I
had that was like that was living in a Japanese Zen Monastery; where you live
with other people, but you might just as well be living all alone. Because
you never talk to each other.
E.G.: Did you know Robert Creeley when
you lived on the West Coast?
G.S.: Yes I did.
E.G.: What do you think of him and
G.S.: Robert’s a really interesting poet. He’s
followed a very specific path of poetry for his whole life. Working very closely
with very tight, very fine language. And he’s been very consistent,
he’s a very good teacher to other poets. I have a great deal of respect
for Robert. I just saw him last October. We had a good visit.
E.G.: How important are dreams or
dreaming to your life or your work?
G.S.: It’s not so important. I don’t know where
I would fit into the scale or spectrum of people who think about dreams. I’ve
read Jung; a bit of Jung and Freud, and I’ve know people into what they
call “dream work”, and did a lot of it. I don’t think of
dreams as great sources of truths or anything. But I do think they’re
significant, and the dreams that are significant, tell you they’re significant.
And you pay attention to them. So, I’m somewhere in the middle, and
I respect dreams but I don’t go making a point of it. There’s
an interesting poem by Saigyo a Japanese poet from the 11th Century that puts
dreams into an interesting perspective. He says that “Even this world
with its mountains and its oceans is a dream. How much more so dreams?”
(laughter) In other words he’s saying; “In this world it’s
pretty hard to figure out what’s real about it, so dreams even moreso.
E.G.: Do you believe in magic?
G.S.: Yes, but I don’t think it’s terribly important.
It doesn’t work in huge ways, but there are some things in small ways
that you’ve got to watch out for. Magic is a metaphor for things that
are less understood.
E.G.: Do you still climb mountains?
G.S.: Oh I hike up steep hills, and sometimes scramble up
some rocks on the top. But I haven’t done any snow and ice climbing;
with an ice axe and a rope for a long time.
E.G.: How do you feel about the concept
G.S.: I think it’s a lovely idea; an interesting idea.
I don’t know how true it is. In my school of Buddhism a reincarnation
is pretty much like a metaphor, we don’t take it so much literally,
as pointing out that almost all of our thinking, and ideas, opinions and information
has been handed down to us from elsewhere; has been given to us by somebody
else. If not our parents, our education, our books, and so forth. And if we
get really excited by something then that is the reincarnation of Karl Marx,
that’s how Karl Marx reincarnates in us or somebody else reincarnates
in you. Many Christians would like to practice what Saint Augustine called
“The Imitation of Christ”. So in some sense people’s karma,
people’s energy continues, and we keep picking it up and carrying it
on. So that’s a kind of reincarnation. I have Tibetan Buddhist friends
who believe in it literally.
E.G.: Like the literal redistribution
G.S.: Well no; like literally previous births; this Earth.
I am going through many births and passing through many different bodies.
As though there were some continuous I or self in there, going from birth
to birth. The Tibetan’s talk about that. But basically Buddhism can’t
talk about that. Because there is no self in Buddhism. So what is there to
be reborn? Is an interesting question. There’s no self at all in this
life; so what would get reborn in another life? I love the idea of having
passed through all kinds of forms, and having been this, and that and the
the other thing. I did know people in India, when I travelled in India that
took that on very literally. And they had a very wonderful world weariness
about them. “Oh, I’ve been a beautiful woman. I was a king, I
was a beggar. There’s nothing for me to think about doing anymore, I’ve
done everything.” (much laughter) So this anxiety about “I need
more experience.” You know, if you believe in reincarnation, you don’t
need more experience. You’ve done everything. (laughter)
E.G.: Do you feel any affinity with
poets of the past?
G.S.: Oh I feel great affinity with some of the great Chinese
poets, and also some of the European poets. Among the Chinese poets in particular
Du Fu, and Wang Wei, and Su Shih, are just a few poets I feel an affinity
with. And in the European traditions I feel very close to Sappho. I doesn’t
matter if it’s a woman, or not a woman or a man or what, you know, you
feel these affinities. Sappho’s just an extraordinary poet. And Ovid,
with Petrarch. (laughter) And particularly one feels certain figures that
you’re close to. The Indian poet Saraha, who was a Tantric poet. You
know you really sort of see your own mind mirrored sometimes. That’s
one of the wonderful things about literature; it opens up. Somebody opens
their own mind enough so that you can see mind and see your mind in it. It’s
extraordinary to read Shakespeare and see just how much he covers. Shakespeare
is one of the world’s truly top writers. One lucky thing about being
born an English language speaker is that you get to read Shakespeare in English.
(laughter) I mean that is a great gift to one’s self.
E.G.: Why do you suppose you’ve
outlived so many of your contemporaries?
G.S.: Uh, luck. (laughter) Basically.
E.G.: How accurate are Kerouac’s
portrayals of you in Desolation Angels and Dharma Bums?
G.S.: Oh you know, maybe 40 or 50% accurate. (laughter) And
the rest is fiction. Yeah he is writing novels, it’s not journalism,
and so he’s creating things and situations, conversations, the flavors
of things that belong to the fiction part of it. He uses me as the basis for
some of the characters but it’s not that close at all.
E.G.: Are you ever tempted to fill
forms out as Japhy Ryder in supermarket cards or anything?
G.S.: (comic tone) No, I am not tempted to do that! (laughter)
Not at all.
E.G.: What kind of music do you listen
G.S.: (laughing lightly) Oh gosh, lately I’ve been
listening to West African music, and flamenco, and gamelan; Indonesian gamelan
music and a certain amount of country and folk. I’m not really sharp
about keeping up on music. Robin (Gary’s stepdaughter) helps me a little
bit to keep up what’s being played; with what kids are listening to.
E.G.: How important is a sense of humor?
G.S.: I think it’s really important. In fact people
ask me “What do you think about the horrible situation in the world?”
And I say “Well, it’s getting so bad that we’ve got to have
a sense of humor about it.” (laughter) When things are really bad, then
you need a sense of humor.
E.G.: What inspires you?
G.S.: (silence) The present moment. Every once in awhile
I take time to just be in the present moment. I look around and I go “Oh
yeah this is right now.” (laughter)
E.G.: Do you have any new projects
that you are working on?
G.S.: I’m always working on a number of projects. I’m
writing a series of poems, working on a series of essays, I’ve got several
different poetic projects going. And I’m curious about certain birds;
like the cranes, and thinking about world; political, and economic problems
all the time. Trying to figure out what went wrong. Right now I’m trying
to figure out where fundamentalism comes from. What makes people believe things
so literally, even in spite of their experience; when beliefs run counter
to experience. President Bush uses and a lot of people in this country use
the word faith. And they talk about “faith-based this” and “Faith-based
that”. Buddhists don’t use the word faith. Buddhism is not a faith
it’s a practice. When you meet Buddhists somewhere up in Tibet or out
on the road somewhere; you don’t ask “What’s your creed,
what do you believe?” You ask them “Who’s your teacher,
what do you do?” Yeah “Who’s your teacher, what’s
your practice.” That is so far from the thinking of the people who are
running this country right now, that I kind of despair of getting it through
to them that they don’t understand much of what the world is about.
Just like this administration’s problems with North Korea are 80% caused
by bad manners.
E.G.: Yeah. (laughter)
G.S.: The Koreans practice manners; they are Confusions,
so they have a sense of their dignity and how they should be treated. A major
government like the United States should understand that. But they didn’t,
they just disrespected them; they dissed them, just as soon as he came into
office. And now they don’t understand why they’re pissed. (laughter)
E.G.: Do you think life was any easier
in the ‘50s?
G.S.: No, they didn’t have as much tofu in the supermarkets.
(laughter) It was easier to hitchhike everywhere, and you didn’t have
to worry about sexually transmitted diseases. There were lots of things that
were easier then. (laughter) We were very affectionate in the ‘50s.