Gary Snyder: Interview with Junior Burke

Fall '12 TOC

 

In November of 2011, international poet, Gary Snyder, came to Naropa's Kerouac School. Throughout his brief stay, he was exceedingly generous, working in a lecture, a reading, an informal class visit, and this interview. It took place in the green room of the Nalanda campus, with not enough night Executive Editor, Junior Burke.

 

Also included here are Snyder's responses to Burke's students (two days later) during Kerouac's Road, a semester long investigation into the life and work of our school's namesake. An added bonus was Snyder's perspectives on the historic Six Gallery reading in Berkeley in 1955, at which he was among the featured readers.    

 

NOT ENOUGH NIGHT
A couple of interviews you have done - one for East West in '77 and the one in the Paris Review - I thought we could use those as touchstones and maybe see where you are at today. It would be a nice, almost symmetrical, sort of time frame.

 

GARY SNYDER
I have done a lot of interviews lately but they haven't been that much in poetics.

 

NEN
You seem to long be aware of the need for an artist to strike a balance between inner-work and outer-work. Would you care to comment on that?

 

GS
Well, I thought that was perfectly normal. I mean, this is not an ideological point with me, nor is it something I think I have to give lectures about. It seems obvious. And I would say what I always have to my classes when I was teaching poetry in the Creative Writing Program at UC Davis. I had a list of things that a poet should have, and it included good binoculars, a compass; uh, very nice underwear. (Laughs) Things that take care of your body.

 

NEN
In your East West interview you expressed the lack of self-sufficiency among Americans. How do you see that aspect as it relates to Americans say who are between nineteen and twenty years-old now?

 

GS
Can you change the oil in your car yourself? Do you know how to change the oil filter? Do you have a tool kit available? Do you have a tool kit that has several types of pliers, Phillips screwdrivers and slotted screwdrivers? And there is a lot else. To be a self-sufficient human being at this point in history means you need to know a few things, and you can't always -- especially if you are not rich -- rely on calling up somebody to come and fix it for you and charge you a lot of money. I am not talking about knowing how to grow your own food or how to cast lead to make your own bullets or something like that, although that would be relevant at times; but just what everybody has to know. My older son, Kai, who lives up in Portland, is forty-three now... He grew up on the farm in the country, or whatever we call it, and he said to me just a couple years ago: "You know, almost none of my friends my age understand what I am talking about when I say I have got to do this with my engine, or I am going to tune up my weed-whacker, or I have got to do some more plumbing, or I have got to get a proper snake for the drain. They never learned anything about fixing thing, or about tools." Everybody lives in a house, okay? So everybody should be able to do something with their house.

 

NEN
You also pointed out in that interview the differences between begging in China and begging in India. In China it wasn't tolerated, and in India it could be considered something of a virtue. How do you see those attitudes in relationship to the current American homeless population?

 

GS
I don't think it's relevant, either way. We certainly do not have religious commitment to giving money away, as both Islam and Hinduism do. They didn't solve it, but they handle it with more grace in India, like in Calcutta and in Bombay, by providing plenty of public toilets and places for people to camp. They have not just thousands, but maybe tens of thousands of homeless people in Calcutta, and they have a lot of buckets and a hose-bib (so) you can take a bath and do laundry. And that is what people do. But that is still not an answer. Building big homeless shelters or providing houses for homeless people will work if, in the long run, the economy gets better. If the economy gets worse, then you are just going to have more of the same.

 

NEN
Also from that interview: "It's actually quite impossible to make any generalizations about the past and the future, human nature, or anything else on the basis of our present experience."

 

GS
Well, I said that because I considered our experience to be in many ways outside the bounds of what our historic experience had been. I think that is still true. I think it's still unpredictable.

 

NEN
You also spoke of people's lack of commitment to any given place, being totally unnatural and outside of history. Regarding America, how do you view that at present?  

 

GS
I think we have made some headway. The bio-regional movement, as small as it is, has gotten a little traction. There are people who don't even know the term bio-regional (who are) involved with more and more watershed groups, and they are understanding that dealing with the environment or environmental issues is often a matter of dealing with small local issues. So I think we have made some headway there.

 

NEN
What do you see as the current relationship between song and poetry?

 

GS
I don't think they have changed. Sooner or later, poetry is song. If there is any change going on, it's because of all these various recording devices.... Every once in a while a few people turn up whose work (in song) is really good. And they always get respect. Joni Mitchell is doing some retrospective recordings and CDs now. She is a great singer and has some great songs that will not be forgotten.

 

NEN
You expressed that Zen and Chinese poetry demonstrate that a truly creative person is more truly sane than the romantic view of a crazy genius, which is just another reflection of our times. How do you see the artist's place in today's society regarding that?

 

GS
I still think that not all artists, but basically very good and sustainable artists, are pretty sane. When they are not sane, they are way over some other boundary that most people wouldn't know about. Things haven't changed that much in the last century.

 

NEN
You also said: "I always looked on the poems I wrote as gifts that were not essential to my life." How do you view your writing right now? Is it a structured discipline, or are you grabbing what comes by?

 

GS
What I practice is availability. That is a practice. It doesn't mean that I am not doing other things, but I am aware that I should stop doing whatever I am doing when something like a poem begins to sneak up on me. That was true then, and it's true now.

 

NEN
And obviously, you have long been able to recognize when that is happening.

 

GS
Generally, I can. I guess that is the fruit of a lot of meditation. (Laughs)

 

NEN
You once served on the California State Arts Council. What are your current feelings about government involvement in the arts?

 

GS
Well, that was many years ago. I was with the Arts Council of California from '74 to '78. Peter Coyote took over as the chair after me, and he was chair for probably four years. He did a lot of good. But then, subsequent governors, being Republicans, started cutting down on the budget, and then the subsequent economy cut down on the budget, and actually, with Jerry Brown back in the governor seat, he hasn't really given much more money to it, but has given support in such a way that it is still limping along, and all of that is okay. It's also interesting to see that the cultural centers right in my neighborhood... are getting along without any state money coming in. They are managing somehow, and are just like business people everywhere. They are actually looking to try to get a bigger audience than they ever did. And they are booking more things that will have more public interest. So the plus is, people will learn to do that. The minuses - there are probably some freaky little funny things that they would have funded in the past that are being overlooked now. Those people have to figure out themselves how to get out there. Which is like poets.

 

NEN
What was Reed College like in the late 40s or late 50s - was there much awareness of it as an alternative institution at that time?

 

GS
Absolutely. It's always known that it was an alternative institution and has always been left-wing. And it's always been libertarian in style and substance, and it's always been academically demanding.

 

NEN
Do you have any relationship with it currently?

 

GS
I gave the centennial speech last June, at the gathering for the 100th anniversary.

 

NEN
You were part of a circle in San Francisco that included Kenneth Roxroth. How did you meet him?

 

GS
Somebody told me about him. Well no, first I read him in Selden Rodman's anthology, Mid-Century American Poets, which was a Modern Library giant. That was enough to get me interested in Kenneth because the biographical paragraph said he was a mountain climber and an anarchist, and I thought, 'Well, those are two good things.' And they didn't say that about anybody else. I found some of his books in the library and read them. When I got to San Francisco, I went to an Alan Watts talk and met a lady there and we got into a conversation about poetry and I said, 'I am interested in meeting Kenneth.' She said, 'Oh, I go there every Friday night - why don't you come with me?' So that was my introduction.

 

NEN
This is from the Paris Review interview, a quote: "The first step in poetry is to make us love the world, rather than make us fear the end of the world." How does that resonate for you today?

 

GS
I am pleased that I said that way back when because I still think so and it's not a small point, because you can't know that the world is going to end. But that you can still love the world. If you don't love the world, well fuck it, you might as well drill it all, or do whatever you are going to do. Dump oil on it all, because you've got other things in mind. Suppose you are the kind of apocalyptic Christian who says this world is just what we are going to get away from when the rapture comes... you are not going to treat the world very well.

 

NEN
Your advice in 1992 that Americans should stay put, seems to relate to sentiments expressed by Emerson. How do you feel about that in 2011 – Americans staying put?

 

GS
Well, I am still arguing those points. I have also added onto that particular phrase -- staying put doesn't mean you can't go on trips. You do allow that people have to change places sometimes, but wherever you are, take it seriously. It's like going from marriage to marriage. You don't go through one marriage without getting to know the person you are with, because you are going to go to another one. That would be like people moving around without ever learning where they were.

 

NEN
As someone who has lived much of your life relating to the outdoors, what kinds of memorable encounters have you had with animals?

 

GS
Well, you know, I could go on for a long time.

 

NEN
Precarious ones, or dangerous ones?

 

GS
Most of the charismatic ones, I don't talk about. I mean, that is too easy. It's more interesting to think about the small things that you finally learn in the presence of animals. One of the things I have learned is they are really graceful with their bodies and they never make a move that isn't graceful, and they can curl up or sit down anywhere and look comfortable. I notice that with squirrels and with my dog. I started looking at cows and horses, and all of those animals really know their own bodies. Really know it well. They never make a wasted move or a clumsy move. I think primates are actually kind of clumsy, compared to a lot of other animals.

 

NEN
Those are the questions I brought with me....

 

GS
Interesting questions. I guess things haven't changed that much.

 

NEN
You were definitely on to something.

 

GS
Oh well, I am just not smart enough to change.

 

 

POETRY CHAT

GARY SNYDER
I was talking with Junior Burke a few moments ago about what you folks have been through so far. He said most of you are in the Kerouac's Road class, is that right? As one who hung out with Jack a bit (and) shared a cabin with him; drank a lot with him, did some hiking and climbing with him, I thought I might give you the chance to ask personal, intimate questions about Jack Kerouac. You don't get too many people who actually hung out with him - seeing as how he died pretty young... Anything you want to explore in that, let's do it right now.

 

QUESTION
What did you like best about him?

 

GS
What I liked best about him was his charming naivety. And openness to things. His lack of judgment about a lot. And his ability to listen. He carried that with him everywhere. He was a non-judgmental person, which I think is a pointer for people that might want to write novels. One pointer, anyway.

 

Q
Did he attempt to take a bead on people, and probe them through questioning?

 

GS
No, he didn't in that direct way that I am reading (what) you are saying. He didn't seek people out and ask, 'What do you do?' Try to find out about their family and their children and where did (they) go to school. Jack was more subtle than that. He kind of circled around people and figured them out, and then by degrees got a better sense of who they were and what they were. He was an extremely intuitive person who did not operate in a hugely analytical way. Didn't need to.

 

Q
You say he was non-judgmental, but why then (did he become) such apparently a reactionary, deeply conservative and angry man at the end?

 

GS
Well, that was his choice. (Laughs) I mean, lots of people do that. I am not sure he was so angry. He was bitchy sometimes. In part that was his response to Allen Ginsberg, who was so pushy all the time. Allen really loved Jack and I think they were even lovers a little bit, just for fun. But as the years went on, Jack resented Allen assuming so much about him. What Jack ultimately was, was a French Canadian Catholic from a working class background. Who spent a lot of time with his mother, who was an orthodox French Canadian Catholic. Jack had a mythical imagination that allowed him to enjoy the big mythologies of the Catholic Church right along with the big mythologies of Buddhism. I don't know too many people that could do that. And he was shy. He never could figure out how to deal with being a celebrity and getting famous. That caused him a lot more grief than being rejected. He was used to that; he could handle it. You may have seen him in that video that has been around and available for a long time where he was there by the piano with what's his name... Steve Allen. It was very sweet, the way he was with Steve Allen at that time. The two of them were interesting together. That was at the point in his career when he still was not feeling jumped on or criticized and was relaxed. But he got jumped on a lot by reviewers and had a difficult time with the big really heavy negative reviews that came out because he couldn't figure out why they were being so negative. That was part of his naivety. :I am not a bad guy," he says. Whereas some of them are saying, "Here is this Barbarian-vandal-crude-beatnik-whatever, tearing down a classical culture." It turns out he was a great spokesperson for the vernacular culture of America. Especially in my favorite novel of his which is, of course, On the Road. My second favorite novel, which is a better novel, is The Subterraneans. It's the perfect little French novel with a beginning a middle and an end. A nicely structured Flaubertian piece of prose which shows his craftsmanship, but it didn't have the panache that On the Road did.

 

One of his worst novels was The Dharma Bums. (Laughs) He wrote that as a potboiler because of the success of On the Road, his publisher saying, "Jack write something else, quick." That is the way publishers are. They will try to get you to write a second book right away if they have a very successful one. And The Dharma Bums is hasty. It segues too swiftly. It's not a relaxed story. While I am saying that, I will also say Japhy Ryder is not me. The novel is fiction. It's not journalism. I have to say that all the time. People say to me, "You are Japhy Ryder, aren't you?" I say, "No, I am not." But I might have been partly a model for him. (Laughs)

 

So, some of the criticism that was aimed at Jack was actually aimed at Allen Ginsberg. That is another story, you know. You don't be a Jewish-communist-homosexual boy without getting some heat. His parents were Communist Party members. When he was a little boy he walked the streets of communist parades to demonstrate what they believed in. What you call a red diaper baby.

 

Q
In the time you spent with Jack did you ever see any part of his process, or did he talk about his work in that way?

 

GS
Actually, I saw him work. He washed dishes a lot. (Laughs) He was very helpful around the place.... Jack's style, as far as I could make out at that time, was to be out in the world for a few weeks or months experiencing things; meeting, hanging out with people. Apparently, jotting a few notes down, but not much. Then he would jump on the various trains and cars, and head back to his home place, where his mother was. Get his typewriter out and take a lot of speed and write for three or four days. Like, that is how On the Road was written. It was written apparently in one big burst after he had accumulated all the narrative material he could possibly hold. I know from experience that Jack had a remarkable, almost tape-recorder memory. I was at a party in San Francisco once before I left the whole scene and went to Japan that spring... spring of 1956. Jack looked much of the time, especially in the evening and especially at parties, like he was really out of it and he'd had quite a bit to drink. So he was sitting on the floor leaning against the wall, eyes half-closed and some conversations were going on around him. The next day, later in the day after coffee and lunch and everything, he started telling me what the people around had been saying. And he repeated like, verbatim. So and so said, dah, dah....and then he would repeat what (some) other person said. He had it all in his mind. Well, the fact was I had heard it too and he remembered a lot better than I did. Although he had looked like he was asleep. (Laughs)   That gave me a really good sense of how Jack could be in a situation, apparently not particularly knowing what was going on, and come out of it with a very clear picture of what had transpired. So there is another pointer for how to be a novelist. Because if you are going to write a novel, you don't want to sit around writing notes that people can see, unless you are an anthropologist and you are paying them. Somebody, one of his critics, said (of Kerouac) "That is not writing, that is typing." Capote said that.... Jack ended up being a real alcoholic. He was just a half-way alcoholic when I knew him.

 

Q
Did you and Jack ever talk about women's roles in the arts or in writing?

 

GS
I think we talked about some women we knew that were writers; Joanne Kyger, in particular, because I was seeing Joanne at that time. Outrageously good poet, who comes to Naropa once in awhile. But I don't know any men that talked about women as writers or artists in a big way back in those days.

 

Q
Is there anything that you remember teaching Jack, or Jack teaching you?

 

GS
I taught him a lot of things. (Laughs) I actually did teach him how to pack, how to roll a sleeping bag. How to pack a backpack, how to lay down on the ground and sleep under a tree. How to climb. One thing in The Dharma Bums that is pretty close to what actually transpired was the account of the climb on the peak called the Matterhorn which is on the northern border of Yosemite Park. That is pretty close to what we actually went through on that trip. It was very cold. It was late in the autumn season. It was mid or late-October when we went up there. That was my choice. I said, "Let's go, before it gets any colder." So, yes, I wanted to introduce Jack to nature and I did do that. He would have introduced me to the whole of New York City if we had been in New York, I am sure. As it was, he introduced me to the areas south of Market in San Francisco, which has now become more and more gentrified, yuppified. And Silicon Valley. A lot of places were really booming during the height of the Silicon Valley period and it declined a little bit, but in those days it was kind of a skid-row with a lot of stop-and-rob liquor shops. Cheap hotels. Jack taught me how to go in and get a couple of bottles of Muscatel, put them in a brown paper bag, go around the corner, sit in the alley with your back against the wall, and drink. And keep it in the bag. That is classic. I shouldn't have had anybody teach me that. But I did. He taught me a few other things like that. How to get along in certain situations. How to look at the railroad track, and look at where you would go, and so forth.

 

Q
What are some things that you felt Kerouac (was) really passionate about that he would want students at the Jack Kerouac School to learn or be passionate about as well?

 

 

GS
Craftsmanship. He was a seriously educated person in the craft of writing, who had initially modeled himself on Thomas Wolfe. And Thomas Wolfe was a person who read a lot, thought a lot, and practiced a very genteel kind of writing. Jack's first (novel) before On the Road, was a much more traditional twentieth century - early twentieth century style of prose writing. Jack paid a lot of attention to writers of his era and before. And the idea of good writing. You don't find careless or sloppy language in his novels. You find vernacular. You find great vivid vernacular and colloquia maybe, but you don't find anything sloppy. He was a writer who turned his attention to the world of the people he knew and the kind of language they spoke and he took certain figures like Neal Cassady and followed them a long way because he was fascinated by Neal's fluidity with language, which you might guess. But Neal was over-the-top. He was always like he was on speed. Even when he wasn't. And he was Irish - I don't know if you can blame being Irish on this but he could talk non-stop for three or four hours. I mean, you would become exhausted. I couldn't stand it. I had to leave after Neal had been around for a while; but Jack loved that, and he lived with Neal and Neal's wife Carolyn for a while. So he took certain models to learn from and watch. For a while, Allen was a model for him. But like a model for an anthropologist. He was a kind of human being that Jack had never met until he had come down to New York City. Allen introduced him into another world, which is the early New York world and its junkies and all. Like meeting with Bill Burroughs, and so forth.

 

Jack was a student of the era he was living in - of the language that was spoken in depth at that time. I would hazard to guess that On the Road will be a signature novel for centuries to come for mid-twentieth century life and speech.

 

Q
What was Jack's perspective on publishing -- was it important to him?

 

GS
He was ambitious to be published and to be received well. He hoped for that. That is one of the reasons he got disappointed later because, although he was a financial success, he was not a critical success. He wanted to be a critical success. So again, he was a writer. He wanted to be accepted as a mid-twentieth century writer. And so he talked a lot about publishing. He talked a lot about the editors at Viking Press and at other presses. He would talk about editors that had rejected his work. Editors that were supporting him. Editors that said they were supporting him, but weren't supporting him enough. Publishers he was hoping he could count on. He went through a lot of frustration before On the Road was actually published. It was accepted and rejected several times over and he had that problem with several other novels.

 

Finally, when he had a financial success with On the Road, he didn't know what to do with it. He didn't know what to do with the money that began to come in. Kind of threw him off, but otherwise I would say he was more than normal. He was hyper-normal, as a writer would have been at that time. It's very different now. Writers today know that there aren't any publishers that you can count on. That all the good publishers have been bought by Australians and Europeans and they are tied in with media companies. That the whole small press and medium press and big press world is on the rocks. Except for the big press world, maybe. That independent book sellers are having a terribly hard time, and even the big guys like Borders are going bankrupt. So what else is new? The new thing in publishing is self-publishing, in some cases. And another new thing is the experiment with online publishing. I say experiment because I don't know if it really does much good.

 

Q
So what did he do with the money?

 

GS
I don't know. I never saw any of it. (Laughs) I was living in Japan by that time. You know, that is a good question. He probably gave some to his family. Whatever did happen to it? If Allen was here, I would ask him.

 

Q
Would you mind talking about some of your memories of the Six Gallery Reading?

 

GS
The Six Gallery Reading in October of 1955...came about... because Kenneth Rexroth had a soiree. Really, that was the word for it. A couple of Friday nights a month, at his apartment in San Francisco. You didn't drop in there without sort of finding out it was okay. It was never more than a dozen or sixteen or seventeen people at the most; sometimes it was only four or five. It was the local writers and left-wing people's political scene. So I started going to Kenneth's Friday night get-togethers. I was a graduate student in Berkeley at the time and I very much enjoyed listening to Kenneth outrageously talk about everything in a very knowledgeable way. I learned eventually that sometimes he didn't know what he was saying, but that didn't matter. He said it with a great deal of confidence. He had a lot of very interesting and sometimes sort of toxic opinions; that was kind of a known factor.

 

And Allen Ginsberg came into the Bay Area, initially to go to graduate school at Berkeley; he was going to change his life and become a professor. He had decided (this) after being in New York in market research. And having a suit, as well as (being) actively gay. So Allen was at one of the soirees and he said his friend Jack Kerouac was coming up from L.A., working on the railroad. Writing (while) doing his brakeman's job on the train called the Zipper. And could he bring Jack over the next time we all met? So Jack and Allen were there at the next Friday's soiree - a fascinating conversation between everybody, because Jack spoke well. Somebody asked Jack, "What are you working on now?" And he actually pulled out the manuscript of... what was that piece called? It was about the railroad.

 

Q
October in the Railroad Earth?

 

GS
That's it. October in the Railroad Earth. He pulled out that manuscript, which was from his time on the railroad. He read a portion of it to us all, and it was very exciting to hear. Even Kenneth was impressed. And so Jack and Allen got together in the following week and kept on talking and I got to know Jack, and I got to know Allen better; and Allen had rented a little place in Berkeley, and Jack was staying with friends in San Francisco, and anyway, that is where we all started getting together.... We all agreed we were having a hard time getting published. We all had rejected poems, etc. So Allen, or somebody, said, "Why don't we just hold a reading?"  People did not hold readings in those days, although we knew that such a thing was a possibility. So we called the Six Gallery, which was a little art gallery in the Marina and they were agreeable to us putting together a little reading and somebody - maybe it was me – said, "Michael McClure has some unpublished poems.... Philip Whalen is going to be in town.... Who else? Philip Lamantia." And we typed up a postcard that I wrote most of. We had it mimeographed because we didn't have Xerox in those days and sent it out to several hundred people, just off our heads you know. My three-by-five card file. Allen's little book of addresses. To our amazement the Six Gallery was full of people.

 

In the meantime, Allen had started writing a new poem which he called Strophes. I went over to see it when he was still working on it. You know Strophe, in poetry? S-t-r-o-p-h-e. So Allen said, "This is Strophes," and we looked it and said, that is the wrong title for it. He said, "Well maybe I'll call it Howl." (Laughs) So the Six Gallery is famous for Allen reading that for the first time. And Jack didn't read anything. He just sat and encouraged everybody, but that kicked off the practice of having poetry readings virtually every night somewhere in the Bay Area ever since. It never stopped. And Ginsberg – Ferlinghetti wrote him the next day, or called him the next day, and said, "I want to publish that."   And so it got into the City Lights Pocket Poets Series as book #2 or book #3. Eventually (it) got taken to court and that made the book famous, etc. And City Lights Bookstore is still going.

 

Lawrence Ferlinghetti and I did a poetry reading a week ago in San Francisco, in North Beach. Which is where Lawrence first read poetry in public, about 1952 or '53. So that was fun and a lot of old friends came to that. Lawrence is ninety-two years old now. He has had heart by-pass surgery. Doesn't ride his bicycle the last couple of years, because he said, "My eyesight is not so good." I asked him, "Lawrence, are you still swimming?" He said, "Well, I don't swim in the Bay anymore. It's too cold." But up to a few years ago he was, and he says, "I only swim in the heated pool, but I still work out at a gym." At ninety-two he stands perfectly straight, speaks very coherently, is a lot of fun and has a very cute girlfriend. I always think, gee, maybe I should live longer.

 

That whole event started a lot of things, although Lawrence and I told the press, "Please don't call us Beat." It's very hard to stop anybody from saying that. Lawrence says - it was in the San Francisco chronicle a couple days ago – "I get called Beat because I published most of them, but that doesn't mean that is who I am."

 

I get called Beat because they were my buddies and friends at that time, but I would say none of my writing - almost none of my writing -- accords with anything that people would call Beat literature. It goes off in its own direction entirely.

 

::TOC::

Not Enough Night
Not Enough Night
© 2012 Naropa University