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Interview with Gary Snyder

Following my post of an interview I conducted with the writer Jim Harrison, here is an interview I did with the poet and essayist Gary Snyder in November of 1996. Again, my thanks to Jeff Garrity who edited and published the Lansing Capital Times where these interviews first appeared.

Marc J. Sheehan: Most readers probably think of you first as the author of “Turtle Island,” which won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Is that kind of recognition important for a writer?

Gary Snyder: That depends on the writer, of course. Any artist is sharing with other people. All art is in a sense a public activity. It’s an exchange. It’s part of the vast gift exchange of the spirit. So acknowledgement or return is appreciated; however, many artists are so deeply involved with their own work and their own strengths that they know who they are and know the quality of their own work, and so will have the confidence to continue their work whether they receive instant recognition and feedback or not. In a way you’re doing it for its own sake, and as a gift: you’re not expecting to be acknowledged for it. That’s the plight of the artist in the materialist, industrial world, which has very little use for the products of art as a rule.

MJS: And people may think of you as the person Jack Kerouac used as inspiration for his character Japhy in “The Dharma Bums.”

GS: This is an interesting distinction – and I had to bring it down on the New York Times the other day – a person like myself can be called accurately enough a Beat Generation writer. It’s not accurate to call a person like myself a beatnik. Beat Generation writers caused beatniks to happen. So I’m a cause, not an effect. A beatnik is an effect of the culture that was caused by Beat Generation writers and artists.

MJS: I wanted to ask you about your most recent work, “Mountains and Rivers Without End.” That’s a long poem you’ve work on for years. What made the poem finally come together?

GS: It’s an organic process. I had work it through to the point where the issues and concerns of the poem were being resolved. Just as you would, say, finish a symphony you’d been composing. You know that there’s a way to pull that together, and eventually it becomes clear. It was a long meditation, a being aware of all the things I was trying to accomplish.

MJS: Outside of your poetry you’ve written about ecological concerns. How did “Mountains and Rivers Without End” affect your thinking about ecological issues since it was such a meditation?

GS: It’s like putting it in the larger frame. My essays in my books “The Practice of the Wild” and “A Place in Space” are working with a lot of concrete interactions between humans and the natural world – some of them more immediate and political, some less. But “Mountains and Rivers” allows itself to explore the spiritual meanings of human interaction with the larger realm of nature, with the whole planetary, geological, and biological cycles without considering crises and brush fires that have to be put out. Just enjoying the larger scale of our being. So it’s a work of art, not a political or philosophical work, exactly, though it’s very Buddhist work.

MJS: Buddhism has been a very central part of your life and work. I interviewed Jim Harrison a few years ago and he called himself an “unreconstructed Buddhist.” Why is it that a number of important American writers have embraced Buddhism?

GS: One reason is that Buddhism has an ethical perspective that gives value to the whole natural world and does not draw a line between human beings and nature saying that humans beings can go to heaven, but the rest of nature is just bound for the trash bin. That a huge difference. Why Americans? Because America is a land that’s still partially wild. America is still a land where we have a memory of vast natural richness. And we have a sense of grief that it was so hastily and crudely devastated, though not totally destroyed. It’s still beautiful. And so, distinct from Europeans, we have a heart for nature in America. This heart for nature is not satisfied by European philosophies – either European materialist science or the Judeo-Christian tradition. Buddhism is a marvelous religion and a very refined philosophy with a very responsible ethical system. These guys on the right in American politics scream about values and then don’t understand why environmentalists might want to hug trees! It’s values! This is an ethical response, to hug a tree.

MJS: In an early essay on your work, the poet James Wright quotes you writing about your first book, “Riprap,” as saying… “the rhythms of my poems follows the rhythms of the physical work I’m doing and the life I’m living…” How have those rhythms changed over the years?

GS: When I first said that I was thinking about how trail crew labor had affected the rhythm of the “Riprap” poems. It’s a little subtle to know how to connect those things in any literal way as you move through time. The rhythm of my work now is one that involves a lot of walking and a lot of observing. I am constantly walking through the forests here at this elevation of the Sierra Nevada on the lookout for ecosystem changes and development, and practicing the question of how to manage the public and private forests in our watershed for long-range health. We’re just beginning to understand what a forest ecosystem does. That’s called “monitoring” in terms of resource management language. Monitoring is something you do on foot, going through the woods, uphill and downhill off the trail, breaking off and going cross-country, walking swiftly and looking all around (laughs). That’s a rhythm that I have, and I think some of that is in “Mountains and Rivers Without end.”
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