Some poets move, inspire, or entertain their readers. Other poets move and inspire the poetic consciousness of generations of poets. Gary Snyder, a national treasure of both American letters and eco-spiritual inquiry, is of the latter feather. In Conversations with Gary Snyder, edited by Bukowski-specialist David Stephen Calonne, we are offered a rare glimpse into the inner life of Gary Snyder through twenty-one interviews from different phases of the poet’s esteemed career.
Like an archaeological dig that gently brushes away the dust of years to reveal the storied bones of life and culture, Calonne’s masterful curation of the insightful conversations from different chapters of Snyder’s life reveals a gleaming thread of topics and themes that aren’t just relevant to American literature; in some instances, Snyder’s ideas — even from five decades ago — are ever-present and pertinent to the times we’re living in and through, and to the question of who we may be in the future. In this way, this work is as much psychological, sociological, and futuristic as it is about the poetic function.
Readers familiar with the writing of Gary Snyder may have long sensed subtle “fragrances” hovering in the background of his poetry. Gathered at the periphery of a poem, or occasionally dancing through it, a reader may find Pacific Northwest Coast native lore, a trace of Buddhism, or feelings of deep ecological empathy. All of these subjects rush forward in full display as major influences in the interviews Calonne has compiled.
From his enshrined place within early American Beat poetry (the character Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums was modeled after Snyder) to his own clear articulation of a Zen-influenced body-mind integration in his writing process as a poet (what we may even call a “somatic poetics”), what may have been an understated personality silhouette for Snyder readers before emerges as a profound three-dimensional profile of an American national treasure. In the pages of Conversations with Gary Snyder, we come face to face with a rare breed: a veteran “psychonaut” (explorer of consciousness and the spirit of place). In this way, a refreshing portrait of a North American Earth Man, liberated from the Western, Judeo-Christian worldview, comes into clear view.
By the time readers of this work reach the final pages, I believe they will receive the benefit of Snyder’s journey in the form of an invitation; to be a bit more at home in their own skin, to hold more a more conscious allegiance to the deeper story flowing beneath their visible life, to be a bit more conscious that we all belong to a sacred reality Snyder has attempted to cultivate his whole life — a planetary citizenry that thinks of itself as one extended family.