At 80, poet Gary Snyder still lives in his hand-built home on 100 acres in the backcountry of California's Sierra Nevada, practicing Zen meditation, writing poetry and frequently engaging the broader world with his thoughtful presence.
His recent pursuits include starring in a documentary, writing wry poems about electrical generators and putting together a trans-Pacific memoir of Buddhist practice and thought.
He'll be in Minneapolis to read poems -- including some new ones -- April 18 at Plymouth Congregational Church as part of the "Literary Witnesses" series. This is a condensed and edited version of a conversation with Snyder in March.
Q Much of your last book, "Danger on Peaks," was on the theme of ecological disturbance and rebirth on a grand scale; it came to mind when watching the news from Japan in the past weeks. What do you make of what's happening there?
A I've been reflecting on that, thinking to myself about the poem with the lines "If you ask for help, it comes/ But not in any way you'd ever know." ["Pearly Everlasting," from "Danger on Peaks."] It's hard to imagine that this disaster is an answer to a call for help, at least not in any sense that we'll ever be able to fathom, but it does raise a lot of questions.
What I keep coming back to is why didn't the backup diesel generators that run the cooling system kick in? There's no excuse for that. Building a nuclear power plant on what's basically a sandbar by the ocean. ... In the ninth century this whole area of the northeast coast of Japan was wiped out by a tsunami, and it happened several times since then. But then again, we're in no position to talk; we also have nuclear plants on the coasts.
Q Poet Charles Simic recently wrote about what he called the "New American Pessimism," a sense that our big problems can't be solved and that we're unable to act together to address them. What's your take on the current political situation?
A It's a strange time we're in, in a way. A segment of the American population that didn't have a voice -- because it wasn't smart enough -- now does have a voice; it's a self-destructive and ignorant way of thinking that doesn't grasp how much the American mode of infrastructure that supports business, transportation and education is an indispensable part of government and that makes the country as great as it has been. It's the Grover Norquist school of thought, that somehow we'll be better off not paying taxes for those things.
Now they're running up against resistance with cuts to entitlements. ... I'm sure the budget is overblown -- especially on defense -- but no one's talking about that. There's not much we can do but watch it play out.
Q What are you working on now?
A I'm working on a book about the house that I'm talking to you from now, where I've lived since 1970. It's a collaboration with the architect who helped build it. We built it with a crew of boys and girls who were almost all in their first year out of college, without any construction experience of any kind, all with hand tools and no electricity. Everyone was working, cleaning, cooking and learning equally. The subtext is that the '60s sometimes worked.
I'm also working on a memoir of West North America and East Asia trans-Pacific Buddhist thought. There are essays about Zen Buddhism in China, about kamikaze pilots who didn't really want to kill themselves for the emperor, who were tricked into it, and also it's a memoir of my Buddhist practice, my personal experience, political insights and thoughts and sometimes the revision of those thoughts over the years.
I did a one-hour documentary film ["The Etiquette of Freedom: Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison and 'The Practice of the Wild'"] that's a conversation with Jim Harrison that's being translated with subtitles to Spanish, and we're going to Spain in May to answer questions after it's screened. It's also being translated into French.
Q Are you still writing poetry?
A Oh, I'm always writing poems, I'm never not writing poems. I'm superstitious to talk about that until I'm really done; I've got to take my time, not rush it. I'll have a new book of poems out in a couple years. But I can talk about some I finished a few years ago. I did a series about electricity and generators and backup generators, which I know something about because I'm on my own system back here. I wrote a poem about that that turned into a critique of the Abrahamic religions. I plan on reading that in Minneapolis, so you'll get to hear it then.
Chris Welsch, a former travel writer for the Star Tribune, is on the Web at www.chriswelsch.com.