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Teaching to learn: Snyder finds his own inspiration while mentoring the next generation of poets

By Susanne Rockwell on June 29, 2001 in University News

Gary Snyder remembers once having a poem accepted at the New Yorker - one of the more visible national publications for free-lance writers. He got paid $300.

That's not exactly a princely sum but, as he points out to his students, poets can expect to earn only about a buck an hour, even with "Pulitzer Prize winner" permanently affixed in front of their name.

"Sticking with poetry is not like becoming a famous novelist," he says. "You are a quiet artist working diligently in a modest and often invisible way."

You could say the same about Snyder's part-time job - teaching at UC Davis. Since 1986, he has been diligently creating a new generation of poets by teaching two classes a year.

He says lately he's been very impressed with his undergraduate and graduate students, because they are willing to be bolder in their art.

"I'm finding students with a broader range of interests. They are more experimental and reaching to a variety of models," Snyder says, adding this new sense of freedom wouldn't have happened four or five years ago.

Snyder's own philosophy about teaching stems from the fact that he himself is a perpetual student. His students learn more through the first-hand enthusiasm of someone engaged with the subject, he believes.

"Teaching is really great if one uses it for furthering one's education," Snyder says. "I'm constantly challenging myself, putting together a course, taking a topic I don't know well enough or, in the case of some courses, pursuing something I'll be writing about later."

At a recent graduate seminar, his students and a handful of class auditors were treated to Snyder's intellectual curiosity about subjects that spanned 2,500 years and three continents.

He set the mood in the cramped Voorhies Hall seminar room with Tibetan chants from a boombox. Over the course of two hours, to explain the context for this session's poetry, Snyder explained the differences among traditional sutras stemming from third-century Buddhist India to the various reasons for celebrating May Day, from its pre-Christian origins in the Celtic world to the International Workers Movement. He talked about how gambling pleases the spirits in some Native American religions. And then, with the help of Professor Michelle Yeh, a guest from Asian languages and cultures, he delved into one of his favorite topics, classical Chinese poetry.

He explained that Chinese is one of the oldest living languages, with poems from 500 B.C. still accessible to modern readers. Then he and Yeh launched into tandem readings of poetry created by bureaucrats with soul.

Yeh read the poems in literary Chinese, an archaic, compressed form with no verb tenses but a melodic cadence. Snyder, who spent three years at UC Berkeley studying East Asian languages in preparation for his sojourn to Kyoto, read the English translations.

"Poetry is an event - not the record of an event," he told his students.

  • 30-year history of readings

UC Davis has been treated to Snyder events since 1970, when he and Beat poet buddy Allen Ginsberg were invited by a friend, English professor David Robertson, to drop by. They gave readings in the dorms and visited a few English classes. Later, he remembers lunching with UC Davis' other poet with a Pulitzer, Karl Shapiro.

At the time Snyder, who was back in the country after a dozen years at the First Zen Institute of America in Kyoto, was making a go as a self-employed poet and traveling lecturer.

"But I was constantly an informal teacher to anybody who would sit still and teaching all sorts of poetry and writing workshops throughout the nation," he says.

It's due to an accident of geography and a network of friends with a shared intellectual interest that Snyder eventually took an offer to teach in the English department in 1986.

"The first reason UC Davis is attractive to me is because it's within driving distance," says Snyder, who lives in the Sierra foothills near Grass Valley. "I'm not a person to move my domicile where I've lived for 31 years."

Secondly, Snyder has a close circle of friends in the English department that includes Robertson, Art of the Wild founder Jack Hicks and Professor Emeritus Will Baker.

Likes connecting humans, nature

Snyder says he was attracted to Robertson and Baker's literature-of-the-wilderness courses. Hicks shares their interest and directed a summer writing institute at Squaw Valley in the '90s that emphasized the synergy between the natural world and art of writing about it. Snyder has been a dependable staff teacher for the institute since it started.

Snyder also was curious about the interaction between UC Davis humanities and science professors in regard to nature and the environment. Eventually, he collaborated with Robertson to create the Nature and Culture Program because it coincides with his own passion for combining art with ecology.

The program is an interdisciplinary set of studies allowing students to explore the complex relationships existing between human cultures and the natural world, through a heavy dose of basic science wed to literature courses.

"Everybody lives on this planet, enjoying its air, water and green plants," he says. "We need to understand and know about it."

Snyder says the undergraduate major "exactly fits needs of some students who have a wonderful energy and believe what they are studying."

His love is for the creative side of language and for the nature of the stylistic and linguistic qualities of poetry. It is this passion that he has been passing on.

Sole to thigh, Thai style, Snyder sat under the black walnut trees with a dozen or so students toward the end of the quarter. He sipped water from a Sierra cup and listened to his students' poetic audacity. The decades of Buddhist meditation were obvious in the way his joints were relaxed and his mind was focused. He complimented the students on their nine lines of honed words. Snyder's highest praise: economy of words; he appreciated their humor, too.

Emphasizes reality of poet's life

And, as he often does toward the end of a course, he gave the students a taste of what it is like to be a professional. He brought an old friend, James Lee Jobe, to demonstrate how the life of a poet is about that quiet, diligent work without glory. Jobe talked about constant rejections from editors and how he organizes stand-up poetry sessions in bookstores to get his poems heard. The Davis resident said his life is also composed of raising a family, going to PTA meetings and earning a living as a disc jockey.

"It's very good for students to have first-hand contact with somebody out there in the community," Snyder says. "Poetry exists in the real world. When you go to 20 years of school, you think poets live in the university, but they live in the world."