Interview with wordsmith Gary Snyder
GRASS VALLEY Pulitzer prize-winner Gary Snyder participates in an evening of prose and poetry tonight titled Peaks, Fires andamp; Spirits of Love andamp; Loss, a benefit for the Yuba Watershed Institute. I had a chance to ask him a few questions prior to the event, as follows.Prospector: Of all the kinds of writing you do prose, poetry and translations which gives you the most pleasure and why?Gary Snyder: These are all apples and oranges, and I would hesitate to put them into some special hierarchy. Poetry is not something you can order up the beginnings of poems come unbidden and then one goes to work on them, always keeping a huge space of mind open around it. The trick is to listen with the inner ear. This is maybe the most rewarding sort of artistic work, but it would be greedy to expect to be able to do it all the time.Prose, and the challenge of writing “a good sentence,” is enormously demanding in its own way, and it forces one to be clear. Poetry (and art), as Keats said, will be somewhat in darkness – never mathematically perfect – and yet be full of suggestion and significance. Prose can be made clear. Translation is a challenging exercise that calls on the intuitive and receptive side of the mind, even as one strives for clarity. I do not pretend to translate from languages that I have no knowledge of (as some writers do). Even with languages I know a little (literary Chinese, modern Japanese, French), I ask a bilingual native speaker of that language to go over my translation for me and help me catch what I might have lost. This makes it slow work, so I haven’t translated a lot. I am in awe of the great translator from both Chinese and Japanese, Burton Watson (an old friend) who is still doing great work in both languages, both poetry and prose. Many writers of poetry know that translation of poetry can help one jump-start one’s own writing of poems when stalled.P: As professor emeritus of English at UC, Davis, what has teaching taught you over the years? GS: Teaching over the years (mostly in creative writing) has taught me to be subtle and various enough to respond to a wide range of styles and materials and to teach each student according to their need and potential. One thing with poetry that everybody needs to learn is to study your own language – our American English – on every level and cultivate a great sensitivity to its nuances. I enjoyed teaching right up ’til when I quit, and I still do. I had other work, writing and research that I needed to finish up in the time left to me, though, and I figured I’d better leave Davis while I was still ahead.P: One bio says you were elected a chancellor of The Academy of American Poets in 2003. If this is so, what are your duties, and how does this advance the art of poetry?GS: The Academy of American Poets is a large and well endowed nonprofit with a professional staff. The chancellors are a set of accomplished American poets (elected from within the group) whose main task is to give away various scholarships and prizes to younger poets in an accountable manner. It also maintains a very educational Web site and hosts a lot of programs. Except for the annual meeting in New York, I can manage all my duties by phone and e-mail.P: What are you doing of a creative nature now that stirs your passion?GS: A few years ago, the artist Tom Killion and I collaborated on a book called “The High Sierra of California.” It combined his rich and realistic color prints made from sketches taken on dozens of high Sierra backpacking trips and my backpacking journals from over the years. That was such a pleasure to do that we have initiated another collaboration closer to home. This book will be Tom’s prints of Mt. Tamalpais, the lovely mountain that presides over San Francisco Bay, with some poems and an essay on “walking the mountain” by me. Tamalpais has been a noted hiking destination for thousands of Bay Area people for the past 150 or so years, myself among them. As I now study and reflect on walking through history, I am more and more struck by its deep value to both mind and body and how much one learns and sees on foot. As the ancient Chinese said (in a time when there was no way to travel but by walking) “For a person of vitality and spirit, all of China is your back yard.”P: Do you have a writing discipline or write when the muse hits?GS: When I am working on prose (and I have published several books of prose essays, including my latest, “Back on the Fire”), it is necessary to work tirelessly and stay on schedule. Work means reading, research, interviewing people, etc., as well as just “writing,” and then it also means editing and rewriting. The discipline of poetry requires that you keep yourself available. The muse “hits” unpredictably, almost like an accident. An artist keeps herself/ himself “accident-prone.” And then there is the whole practice of order – files and notes – manuscripts at different levels of finish – and having a few good dictionaries always at hand. P: Any advice to offer poets?GS: Poetry rises from deep feeling and a full engagement with life. But for feeling and engagement to become art takes knowledge, study and focus. For poets, the material we work with is language and its syntax, its music, its many ambiguous levels of meaning. I always told my students at Davis that they should read all the major poets in the English language from the Anglo-Saxon and Middle English on – it’s not that huge a body of work. Just do it. And then become acquainted with continental poetry in translation and in one or more languages that you have learned to read. Look at the great poetic traditions of India and East Asia. And look at the songs and poems that pre-date the invention of writing. That’s for starters. And never forget you are just one small body with a mysteriously large mind, in a place on earth with streams and rivers flowing through.P: What would you like your epitaph to read?GS: I am not planning for any stone, plaque or epitaph. Given a few years, it’s all gone anyway.
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