A Poet & a Scholar: Interviews & Letters from a 30-Year Friendship

Jon Quitslund

Gary Snyder and Julia Martin, Nobody Home: Writing, Buddhism, and Living in Places (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2014).

April being Poetry Month, I thought I should salute it with something that honors the profession of poet and the work that poetry does in the world.  Among living poets, Gary Snyder is the one with whom I’ve felt the longest and deepest connection.  He’s also one who has had a good deal to say about the work of poetry (and the poetry of work).

As those already familiar with him will recognize, Snyder refers often, in poems and recorded conversations, to the real work.  (That’s the title of a collection of interviews and talks from the formative phase of his career, 1964-1979.)  In an interview with Bill Moyers he explained his aim in life:

The real work is becoming native in your heart, coming to understand we really live here, that this is really the continent we’re on and that our loyalties are here, to these mountains and rivers, to these plant zones, to these creatures. The real work involves developing a loyalty that goes back before the formation of any nation state, back billions of years and thousands of years into the future.

The vision expressed there sounds grandiose, but Snyder’s loyalty to that vision is expressed, Zen-fashion, in small-scale, down to earth activities: writing that seems spontaneous and conversational although it took years to produce, building a house and caring for the land around it, taking part in a community, caring for his family, maintaining connections with a broad network of friends.

The book I’m reviewing here reveals in fine detail the integrity and authenticity of Gary Snyder’s exemplary life and work.

Nobody Home is composed of a series of interviews (pp. 13-95) and correspondence (pp. 99-267) between Julia Martin and Gary Snyder.  At the outset, in 1983, Martin was a young graduate student in Cape Town, South Africa.  Snyder, thirty years older, was settled in his hand-built house on San Juan Ridge in Nevada County, California; he was well into the long middle portion of his career, and had recently published Axe Handles, his first book since the landmark Turtle Island (1974).

Both Martin and Snyder (from here on I’ll refer to them as Julia and Gary) are engaging letter-writers, and it’s satisfying to follow the phases of their friendship.  Julia begins as a well-informed but uncertain acolyte, and Gary is a patient and generous mentor.  Over the years many things change in their personal lives, and both changes and continuities are taken in stride.

They meet several times, and Julia records three interviews.  The first, in 1988, is the longest, made during a visit to Kitkitdizze, Gary’s home.  Letters fill the gap between that and a brief interview from 2005, recorded in an Oregon motel room when they were both participating in a conference.  For the third, in 2010, they are both at Kitkitdizze, and it’s the most poignant, since (as noted in their correspondence) both of them have recently suffered the loss of loved ones.

Gary gradually reveals various aspects of his personality, his interests as a writer, his Buddhist practice, his rootedness in the place and the community where he has chosen to live out his life.  And the book’s human interest depends just as much, if not more, on the arc of Julia’s maturation in an academic career with her own credentials as a writer.

Several themes run through all the interviews and letters.  I’ll focus on one, to which others are related, and you can form your own connections to our current local concerns.

In the first interview, Julia observes that the Buddhist group in which Gary plays a leading role, the Ring of Bone Zendo, “emphasizes this place, this experience. You don’t want it to be an Asian import.”  Gary adds that in maintaining a local practice, not “establishing a center that caters to rootless and alienated people that come and go,” they are in a sense “more orthodox, more Asian,” than much of North American Buddhism.

This turn in the conversation leads to description of “a natural society.”  This means “a society in which people live in one place for a good number of years; it means that they know each other personally on a first-name basis; . . . it means that they do not expect everybody to do what they do—a community in its own nature cannot be homogeneous.”

Julia asks, “Would you call yourself a revolutionary?”  Gary’s response must have been accompanied by laughter: “I’d call myself a postrevolutionary!”  This statement, made in 1988, can be connected with “Four Changes,” the visionary manifesto he composed in the summer of 1969, widely distributed at the time and included at the end of Turtle Island (1974)—a slim volume that won the Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1975.  Still in print, and more resonant today than it was back then!

We aren’t yet living in post-revolutionary times, but Gary’s insight was and remains profound.  He is skeptical about large-scale revolutionary programs: “I’m not sure that deliberately applied drastic changes will necessarily get you where you want to go.”  But envisioning a post-revolutionary culture, at the local level (as, for instance, in Burlington, Vermont, or on Bainbridge Island), is crucial to success in any form of broad revolutionary change.

It’s very refreshing, in the present moment, fraught with crisis-consciousness, to read this: “Don’t imagine that we’re doing ecological politics to save the world.  We’re doing ecological politics to save ourselves, to save our souls.  It’s a personal exercise in character . . . It’s a matter of etiquette.”

The word “etiquette” sounded surprising until I recalled that the first essay in The Practice of the Wild (1990) is “The Etiquette of Freedom.”  Modesty, tact, and humility are important traits in Gary’s character.  And his focus on a local culture includes something for us on Bainbridge to bear in mind: we aren’t so “special” as we sometimes think.  “The point is not to let yourself be the main character of what you’re thinking.  If the sense of self is too narrowly located, then people sound like they’re talking about themselves all the time.”

The third interview bears the title “Enjoy It While You Can.”  Some passages are very broad in scope: “we are capable of beginning now to think of the whole Planet Earth as our place—which nobody was quite up to before.  They didn’t have quite that much information.”  But his focus remains specific.  He reminisces about building Kitkitdizze with a group of friends, working full time through the summer of 1970, “using as much local material as possible, no power tools, doing things all in the old way.”  Many who were involved still say it was the best summer of their lives.

Julia asks him for his thoughts on old age, sickness, and death, to which he replies, “Enjoy it while you can! Because soon you won’t even have that.”  At that, they must both have laughed a lot.

This entry was posted in Books, Buddhism, Community, Cooperation, Individuality, Place, Reviews, Stewardship and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.