In this thoughtful, affectionate collection of interviews and letters spanning three decades, beloved poet Gary Snyder talks with South African writer and scholar Julia Martin. Over this period many things changed decisively—globally, locally, and in their personal lives—and these changing conditions provide the back story for a long conversation. It begins in the early 1980s as an intellectual exchange between an earnest graduate student and a generous distinguished writer, and becomes a long-distance friendship and an exploration of spiritual practice.
At the project’s heart is Snyder’s understanding of Buddhism. Again and again, the conversations return to an explication of the teachings. Snyder’s characteristic approach is to articulate a direct experience of Buddhist practice rather than any kind of abstract philosophy. In the version he describes here, this practice finds expression not primarily as an Asian import or a monastic ideal, but in the specificities of a householder’s life as lived creatively in a particular location at a particular moment in history. This means that whatever “topic” a dialogue explores, there is a sense that all of it is about practice—the spiritual-social practice of a contemporary poet.
Thirty years ago Martin, then a South African graduate student, wrote award-winning poet, essayist, and environmental activist Snyder (No Nature). His gracious reply to her fearlessly detailed questions about his writing sparked a long-distance friendship: "It started as an intellectual exchange and became an exploration of practice," Martin, South African writer and literary scholar, explains. Transcripts of three conversations, the earliest in 1988, are followed by selected letters and emails written between 1983 and 2011. The opening dialogues take no prisoners: discussions of specific works are embedded in a dizzying array of ideas revealing Snyder's wide-ranging curiosity. Buddhist principles infuse his thoughts on ecological concerns, gender, women and nature, politics, wilderness, writing, long-term habitation, and much more. The sometimes poignant letters show the two writers trying to bring their knowledge to bear on inevitable changes and losses. Throughout, Snyder, who is now 84, generously gives wise advice about writing and life. While these conversations provide little orientation for the reader not familiar with Snyder's work, they reveal how a deeply humane thinker crosses boundaries to pose challenging questions, both practical and ultimate. His joy in ideas is contagious.