Gary Snyder: Interview with Junior Burke / Naropa Institute

interesting interview about politics, nature, culture and his contemporaries, by noted poet and personal hero, Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder: Interview with Junior Burke

Re: Self-sufficiency

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 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.


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.


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.