To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Nathaniel Tarn: From Anthropologist to Informant, a Field Record of Gary Snyder (Part One)

Project: Compatibility & Mutual Relevance, Anthropology/Literature.
Co-ordinated project: Amerindian Poetry.
Previous Ref.: 4/12-13/1970, Notre Dame Literary Festival: File UK101GS
Loc.: 30 Jefferson Road, Princeton, N.J. 4/12/1971, 19h.-24. 30 h.

(From discussion on “Young America” & its greening, or not,
(File UK101GS), into:)

GS: Don’t let’s call it an interview, make it a conversation.

(Intention to write an article; providential visit of Informant: “Well, it is an interview…in a sense it’s anthropology….” Pause, Kherdian on his concern with Amerindians in early teens. Did he ever meet any?)

GS: Yes, on this farm about 20 miles north of Seattle, when I was about 12. An old Indian came around in a truck selling smoked salmon. We also saw many Indians at the Farmers’ Market in Seattle. No, I don’t remember talking to them. But I do remember clearly realizing at the age of 5 or 6 that these were prior people. My parents said the old salmon-seller was here before them. I saw few other children and spent most of my time in the woods. When I asked questions about the landscape, plants, birds, etc. my parents couldn’t answer. I thought perhaps they hadn’t been there long enough. Then there were the Indian villages along Puget Sound. I became very conscious of the history of the American Continent, the shortness of occupation-time: the State of Washington was wild before 1860 or so. My sense of the Indian became very intense with this reading and the sense of what the White man had done to the land and to the Indians both came together very soon and aroused a sense of outrage.

(Realization that I sd. have had a tape-recorder. “You realize, I’ve got to reconstitute this conversation, er, interview, I’ve got to write Snyder.” Feverish note-taking: hand no longer used to it. “What did your parents contribute to this orientation?”)

GS: My father was a N.W. man, working on ships before he met my mother: as a coal-passer, then a purser. My mother had come up with her mother from Texas. She was working her way through College writing classes. She wrote a lot, got into journalism. She was the literary one, but they both provided a background of political radicalism and non-conformism, sharpened by the Depression. A sense of detachment and a critical eye for your own culture may help you towards Anthropology.

(“There’s going to be mile on mile of interpretation by and by. I think it’s best to add the facts. Who taught you Anthropology? What excited you most about the courses and why?”)

GS: I was onto this wilderness and Anthropology thing very early. As a teenager, I subscribed to the journal of the Wilderness Society: “the Living Wilderness”. I’d write Congressmen about danger from timber companies on public lands; danger from bounties on coyotes. I saw the treatment of Indians and this land exploitation as the same old rip-off. My parents made the identification with Capitalism. My parents broke up when I was about 12, 13 and somehow I was left alone in the City. Yes, Portland. I made a bunch of city-urchin adaptations to a wildlife. I kept my freedom by looking after myself, paying my own rent and so on. Worked as a copy boy on a newspaper from 4 to midnight: my mother had helped me. The newspaper men liked me and showed me the insides of the City: the courts, the jails, the city government: a nitty-gritty kind of education. Yes, a kind of sociology already. I’d gotten into High School and I knew I wanted to stay with it whatever else happened. Out of this tumultuous career, there were poems - a teacher showed them to a College friend; I got into Reed on my poetry alone. My first I was a bad student. After that it was o.k.

(Anthropology at Reed?)

GS: A one-man Department: David French. He’s still at Reed. He eventually became an ethnobotanist mainly and editor of the American Journal of Ethnobotany. His interest was in the Wasco and Wishram Indians on the Warm Springs reservation east of Mt. Hood. Took several courses over 4 years: Intro. to Ethnological Theory; Culture & Personality; Introduction to Linguistics; Physical Anthropology; Far Eastern Ethnology; Amerindian Ethnology. I enjoyed them.

(Remembering my own plethora of teachers and places, but had gone into it for religion, myth, weltanschauung: systems/what made them tick: from Griaule, Levy and Levi-Strauss in Paris to Redfield in Chicago. “What was your main interest?”)

GS: Mythology-folklore-linguistics. I did a tutorial reading course with French on this; he didn’t teach it formally. Went through the Scandinavian classical material thoroughly, the Stith Thompson stuff on folklore classification, some Jessup North Pacific Expedition material, Boas on Tsmishian Mythology, Swanton....No, not much Mesoamerican: I had a strong sense of the North West.

(Any conflict at this stage between Anthropological and Literary studies? cf.: easy to talk poetry and anthro. at Chicago in the same breath but back among the British Socio. Anths.: wow!)

GS: No: mythology and literature get along well. No conflict.

(Thesis? Is it available; has any one seen it?)

GS: Reed requires a B.A. thesis. Mine’s called “Dimensions of a Myth”. I like it: it’s indicative of much of what happens in my poetry later whatever it’s worth or not as anthropology. One Ph.D. candidate is looking at it. I have to give you a permit.

(Writes out permit on spot. “Did you ever do any field work?”)

GS: No, never formally. But I hung out a lot on the Warm Springs reservation collecting folktales pretty formally: noting, taping, typing. In the summers of 51 and 54. I also did some winter seasons as a student but didn’t use the material in the thesis. Then I worked as a logger (in 54) and got more information - it went in the “Berry Feast” piece. I hitched around and hung around and got onto very intimate terms with Indians.

(Powerful reminiscences of a great time. Smile. We agree to cool some of the talk. O.K. self-censorship. “Why did you put some of those Reviews into Earth House Hold? They strike me as Juvenilia, perhaps not worth reprinting?”)

GS: Well, Juvenilia yes, but they’re not as superficial as they might appear. They were done while I was studying Chinese: no credits involved. For “Midwest Folklore”. The Clark piece is a put-down of course. I’ve never seen any bad reviews of it and yet it’s a bad book. I really wanted to suggest that unexpurgated texts are needed rather than bowdlerized ones. But the Jaime do Angulo: well no one in Anthropology wrote a serious piece about A. But Jaime de Angulo you must realize was a great culture hero on the West Coast. He was a Spaniard with a Paris M.D., came to the South West, quit the army to live with Indians, moved to California. Self-taught linguist, a good one. He never had a regular appointment, he was just too wild. Burned a house down one night when drunk, rode about naked on a horse at Big Sur, member of the Native American Church, great friend of Jeffers - the only man Jeffers ever allowed to visit him day or night. No: I never met him or Jeffers. So: at the end of World War II, Jaime de Angulo was one of the few people alive to jazz up California. These reviews have more meaning than you think in terms of literary culture.

(Have to cool a wee bit more about J. de A’s exploits. Ah the secret within the secret within the secret! “Well, this is bringing us to Indiana...”)

GS: I wanted to go to Indiana to develop the study of oral literature, to study oral literature as style, as raconteur technique - yes, o.k., narrative technique. In summer 51 I’d been on the reservation. Then in the fall of 51 I had this fellowship. I only stayed one semester.

(Where was everybody at certain times? NT at Chicago working up to the Maya. When was Charles Olson at Yucatan? And Black Mountain...I think Black Mountain starting just about when NT leaving for the Maya. Why was I never told? “Who did you work with at Indiana?”)

GS: Well, Charles Vogelin, Thomas Sebeok, Fred Householder and a fine ethnomusicologist George Herzog.

And Dell Hymes...

Strong reaction. Ha! Saw DH at Sussex ASA about 2-3 years ago. Conference on Linguistics: I’d already quit. Asked DH about whom to contact to get material on the secret history of the anthropoets and he was full of suggestions. GS pleased about conference.)

GS: Dell was at Reed, one year ahead of me and, or course, at Indiana one year ahead. He helped to get me to Indiana. He was my roommate for that semester. This putting of people in touch with each other: About 4 or 5 years ago, I put Stanley Diamond in touch with Jerry Rothenberg (I’d been corresponding with Jerry for about 10 years) and it was Dell who had put Stanley in touch with me. And now we’re altogether on the editorial board of Alcheringa ...

(“This reminds me that in 51 there was this great Wenner Gren thing in N.Y. Levi-Strauss was so surprised to see me in the corridors - I’d worked with him three years but we’d hardly exchanged as many words - that he took me for a drink along with Roman Jakobson. Do you remember about this?)

GS: No, but come to think of it I remember Sebeok talking to us about the great Anthrolinguists conference at Indiana. That must have come before it?

(Up and down the East Coast after Yale and before Chicago: Kardiner in N.Y., Stirling at the Smithsonian, Stewart and Kroeber at Columbia (Kroeber: “Young man, if you’re going to Chicago, you’ll need a thick scarf ”) ... back in Yale: Murdock and Linton who could not help me get on out from under Jefferson and American Democracy: Orientation! “O.K., we’re getting to the crunch: why did you quit?” We already both know this part by heart, I guess. ..)

GS: I decided to quit because it became evident that the things I wanted to do would be better done in poetrythan in scholarship. The economic reasons for a scholarly career weren’t incentive enough. At the magicsuperstitious level, let’s say the Muse is jealous. She won’t tolerate you having several mistresses. A commitment is required. On the practical level - Dell and I talked about this a lot, Dell was going through the same kind of thing - well if you’re going to do a good job it’s got to be whole time. I believe in scholarship if that’s what you want but it has to be well done. A Ph.D. in Anthropology is demanding. I did think about getting the Ph.D. and then quitting, but it seemed to me that the kind of effort one put into getting a Ph.D. was essentially proving some sort of point, almost like showing off. It wasn’t an easy decision. And I’m not sure I’ve found anyone to do what it was I wanted to do ...

[The interview by Tarn was structured by him into something more than an interview, a dialogue in which either participant might be the one who made the transition “from anthropologist to informant.” The work in this form appeared originally in Alcheringa, the journal of ethnopoetics edited by myself and Dennis Tedlock, from which further excerpts can be found at the Duration Press web site. The second part of the conversation will appear in a later posting on Poems and Poetics. (J.R.)]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is terrific -- I had no idea how deeply enmeshed Snyder was in the anthropological linguistics scene in the early fifties. Interesting to hear about his crossing paths with Jakobson. Thank you.