Gary Snyder is shorter than i imagined, and he said he like “all my earrings.” I took extra validation from the inclusion of the word “all,” meaning not just the nondescript turquoise chunks i wore that particular day, but the full rotation of accessories i’d chosen over the previous three. He said also that i asked a good question. Also, he passed me the butter. That is, at the heart of it, all that really happened.
Seated next to him at dinner the first night, despite my half-assed resistance (“No, i can’t sit there, i’m not ready, do i seem like i’m ready, i will not be ‘fine,’ ok, which chair am i putting a sweater on? I swear i’m not ready, this is not a good idea…”), i was notably silent. Other people around us were having more compelling and, to Snyder, relevant conversations, and it didn’t seem the time to launch into an idolatry monologue. I ate my salmon. Some got stuck in my teeth. One of Snyder’s sons is an avid Facebooker. I don’t know about the other one; it wasn’t discussed. Someone, a woman writer, is working on a biography of Kenneth Rexroth, a difficult subject because of his reputation as a sexist. I had no literary gossip to contribute, and no plan for this. It was suggested that i hand him a copy of this blog entry, but despite what i put on the internet, that’s not really my style. I’d joked about directing him to my house with a map of all the watersheds between here and Anchorage, but i’m lazy and the truth is i have no idea what’s going on off the highway south of the Alaska Range. So that left me with silence, and internal panic.
Eventually, i did use words. In the morning, he signed two books (No Nature and The Practice of the Wild); i’d brought a bigger stack with me, but two seemed like the rational, respectful, not crazy and overly needy choice. I asked my good question. He gave a good answer. I tried to explain reading No Nature in the rain at the old Eielson Visitor Center, and he said something about Denali creating its own weather and my heart broke a little (i’m baring my soul, and all you’ve got is a tourist brochure soundbyte?!), but…what else was he supposed to say? It does create its own weather. I still read the book.
A couple years ago, when Snyder read in Tucson and i was definitely not in Tucson, i made peace with the idea that i’m not alive at the right time or in the right places to personally interact with the literary icons of Snyder’s era. He’s old, and i’m here, and between mortality and distance the odds of ever sitting down with him–or even seeing him read his work in person–seemed pretty slim. That is, until David Stevenson came into my life, and with the help of some malleable students in the UAA MFA program, he invited Snyder to Alaska for what was likely his last visit. I got it in my head that i had to “make the most” of meeting him, sitting near him, taking the butter from his hand.
There was some discussion at this year’s residency about the difference between “the writer” (or “being a writer,” the identity and the personhood–or in some cases, the personality, of it) and “the writing”–the actual work produced. What i realized in not having long, meaningful talks with Gary Snyder was that it’s all about the writing, not the person, not the cult. His work has done and always will have done what it has for me (i have yet to figure out exactly what that is, and as David wrote/said in his welcome address (linked above), i don’t really have to–the influence is subtle and basic), and i don’t need to be memorable to him. As c pointed out in days before the residency, that after all these decades of literary celebrity, i wouldn’t be the first cute young woman to gush at Snyder. He meant this as a comfort. But i started to see that i didn’t need to be another one either. There is a value to the pedestal, to the prophet. Everyone kept telling me that he’s “totally approachable, easy to talk to,” etc etc. I have no doubt he is. But that wasn’t what turned out to be important. I wanted my myth to stay a myth.
Another man, a poet from Fairbanks, told me he’s modeled his art and life after Snyder’s philosophy: do your work, live your life, take care of your house, and write poems in between. He had the chance to meet Snyder years ago, but couldn’t manage even to stand in line to get his books signed, handed them to a friend and waited outside. He said he was ultimately glad to have kept that distance. One-sided exchanges work best that way. This time, he stayed in Fairbanks till after Snyder flew home again.
And my good question? It was about choosing your readers, and what to make public. He said that art is a public act, by definition. That without an audience, you are a “self-entertainer.” When Snyder discovered that Allen Ginsburg had been opening and reading his private mail, Ginsburg’s defense was “look, nothing’s private.” All his poems are written for an audience.
The public reading was probably the most fulfilling moment for me. Uncomplicated by expectations or pressures to go be memorable or clever, i could just watch a genius on a stage. This is a ritual i have no need to disrupt. It was enough. “The final phase in my poetry is surprisingly weird,” he said, chuckling a bit at this acknowledgment of his own death. Which seemed appropriate, and necessary. Unsurprisingly, he has an excellent reading voice.