Talkabout: A conversation between Gary Snyder and longtime friend and fellow writer Jim Harrison brought about the John J. Healey-made documentary The Practice of the Wild.

Dialogues: Jim Harrison on Poetry, Documentary

Robert Avila April 23, 2010

The Practice of the Wild, John J. Healey’s new documentary on the work of renowned poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder, borrows its title from Snyder’s landmark prose work, and for good reason. The film, making its world premiere as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival on May 3 and 5, touches on many of the themes broached in that influential book, which investigates our relationship to the natural world. Yet the title came as an afterthought. The instigating idea was a wide-ranging conversation over the course of several days and nights between Snyder and longtime friend and fellow writer Jim Harrison. The two men present a study in contrasts–at least initially. But very soon into this remarkably rich 60-minute film, we detect the deep commonalities arising from a rare friendship and two exceptional spirits. Harrison recently spoke with SF360 from his home in Arizona about his relationship to Gary Snyder and the process of making the film. [Editor’s note: Part Two of this interview, running soon, features a conversation with Gary Snyder himself.]

SF360: How did you first meet him or encounter Gary Snyder?

Jim Harrison: I knew about him very early. I lived in San Francisco briefly, I think it was in ’58, when I was quite literally on the bum. In fact, my wallet was stolen and I was worried about being picked up for vagrancy. I didn’t even have any identification. I did live in North Beach. I lived under a highway underpass down there and a rooming house for a while. But I started being interested in his poetry very early and then it was in the mid-’60s that we did a reading together in northern Michigan. We’ve maintained our contact ever since. I was especially intrigued because there seemed to be only two writers who also knew how to live–weren’t messes, as it were–and those were Gary Snyder and Peter Matthiessen. So I became friends with both of them.

SF360: So you crossed paths with him in San Francisco but didn’t meet him there.

Harrison: And then of course, as is commonly known and the film points out, he actually took off and lived in a Zen monastery for six years in Japan. So he wasn’t always present. That was intriguing also. In fact, Kerouac wrote The Dharma Bums [despite] his only experience with Gary–other than knowing him a bit–being that night or two of camping. But it must have been very evocative to get a whole novel out of it.

SF360: Speaking of Dharma, you’re a longtime Buddhist, was Snyder a spur to your own interest in Zen?

Harrison: It was already there. When I went to college we were reading D.T. Suzuki and so on. And I think of my own–I come from a rural area. There’s an old Zen saying you don’t have to talk Zen to farmers, woodchoppers and fishermen, they’ve already got it figured out a bit, you know, which I find quite true with people that live a real long way from the freeway have some rich commonality within a spirit of Zen. But also another Californian, Alan Watts, did a lot to make it known at that time.

Snyder once told me–I don’t think we used it in the film–that he had an idea of taking Kerouac to see, in Green Street, a couple of old Zen masters, roshis, that were visiting from Japan. He was hoping that they might help out Kerouac in his compulsive drinking. But they got there and the roshis had a couple bottles of booze and they did that old thing, where they take the top off the bottle of whiskey and throw it over their shoulder. Meaning you’re going to sit there until you finish it. That was quite comic, you know.

SF360: Kind of unexpected.

Harrison: Well yeah, San Francisco was, in those days, a pretty rough-and-ready place.

SF360: The two of you must have discussed so much that didn’t make it into the final cut of the film. Are there particular things you regret not getting in there?

Harrison: I think we had about 25 hours. But Jack Shoemaker, you know Gary’s old friend and [publisher], he’s editing the entire transcript for a book, for Counterpoint [Press]. Which would be nice, to see the whole thing, because of course we really covered the waterfront in the five or six days of nonstop chatter.

SF360: In the film you mention the inscription he wrote in your copy of The Practice of the Wild, which said something like if anyone will understand this stuff you probably will. Did you discover things you didn’t know about Gary Snyder in the course of making the film?

Harrison: No, not really. It just added to the resonance of his character, which is profound and expansive and deep. He’s such an utterly whole creature. Most of us are four or five people, as you probably know, but he’s just Gary. [Laughs.] Yes, that was odd, because I had found my old copy of Practice of the Wild and I had never noticed the inscription until we had started preparing for the film–which was ironical, neat.

SF360: What did that book mean to you?

Harrison: I remember it was Franz Kafka who said a good book is an axe for the frozen sea within us. Great poems do that, or really meaningful books. They grab us and shake us up so we can re-gather a bit. The Practice of the Wild helps one focus the relationship to the natural. It’s strange, it was written about 20 years ago, and when you read it, it does retain that utterly admirable freshness.

SF360: Its concern with place echoes things you yourself have said about the need to learn the ‘soul history’ of an environment. This concern with place seems to be another of the resonating points between you.

Harrison: It occurred to me some years ago that a poet or a writer, wherever he is, should know it biologically, botanically, historically, geographically. On my aimless aim of non-directional driving all over the United States, which I did for years to refresh myself, part of the fun was to research or really look into different places. I wrote a couple of novels based in Nebraska, for instance. It was really quite overwhelming to learn that area, where the last of the great conflicts between cultures, us and the Native American, took place, sort of ending with Wounded Knee. But understanding where you are, it’s a little more difficult now for many poets because so much of poetry I would have to say has become somewhat suburban. I’ve never cared for the suburbs. I like the country and I like the city. The in-between, it kicks your ass. But once you really look into a place, in my case it was northern Michigan, or wherever I travel. If you go to Toledo, for instance, in Spain it’s much more interesting if you know a lot about the history. If you’re in Seville walking the Guadalquivir River that’s exactly where Garcia Lorca walked a hundred years before. That adds resonance. Or if you’re in Paris, you think of Rilke walking in the Luxembourg Gardens. We absorb each other that way.

SF360: You said Lorca and that reminded me about the filmmaker, John Healy, who previously made a documentary about Lorca. How did you become involved in the film?

Harrison: [Producer] Will Hearst and I began to discuss this Snyder thing, I think that was three or four years ago. He was always fascinated with Snyder and how it developed with us was Healy was an old friend of Will’s from childhood. He knew that Healy had done that fascinating documentary on Lorca. I think he’d been married to Lorca’s niece at one point. Anyway, it was a natural mix.

SF360: Things really clicked.

Harrison: Totally. I’m not so sure what causes what’s called a symbiotic relationship, but I think it helped too that we had spent such a ling time in preparation, discussing what we should and shouldn’t do; reading; and how to go about it. My original so-called script was 35 very intense questions, and after that we would see what evolved from that discussion. So it was actually shot up at the Hearst ranch, a very private place. And Gary had always been interested in that property because it’s really the old California. There’s not really a big invasion of non-indigenous species. It’s been very well taken care of. It’s quite beautiful.

SF360: Those scenes around the dinner table exude a casualness, familiarity, and a kind of rootedness to the setting that becomes very productive of some interesting dialogue. Were there other dinners like that?

Harrison: Oh yeah, we were always shooting. You know, if you’re eating well that makes people happy. I’ve known that throughout my career as a trencherman, that if the wine is good, which it was, that makes people beam, you know? That’s why you’re lucky in San Francisco as opposed to be living here on the Mexican border–or the other half of the year in Montana–we don’t have your options.

SF360: You said you were here for a period in the 1950s. Have you spent much time here since then? Do you know the Bay Area well?

Harrison: I’ve been there probably dozens of times, because I became friends with Richard Brautigan in Montana in the ’70s and we spent a lot of time together. And then I’d visit him in San Francisco. He was certainly his own unique creature. And I was also friends with the poet Robert Duncan. And I stayed with him and Jess [Collins] a number of times.

SF360: It’s quite a San Francisco legacy you’ve shared in.

Harrison: Yes. Duncan was a very large-brained human being. Well, there are so many good poets, whether it’s [Philip] Lamantia or Philip Whalen or [Kenneth] Rexroth, so many good poets, came out of that cultural nexus. Even poets that didn’t live there, [through] a kind of association, you know, or what they used to call the shock of recognition, when other people are doing somewhat the same thing as they are. They’re related.

SF360: What do you consider the state of poetry in American life today?

Harrison: I just think every few decades there are hot spots. I think things have considerably cooled off. There are thousands of poets now but now it means more of a suburban function. I think of this idea of the flip. During my own lifetime, for instance when I was born in the late ’30s, this country was 70 percent rural and 25 percent urban and now, 70 years later, it’s the opposite. So it’s changed. And also I think, because I’m an old crank, that the whole MFA thing is meant to deliver a uniform product, where that certainly wasn’t true with that particular group. Looking at Ginsberg, when Larry Ferlinghetti published Howl, it was a real depth charge.

There’s another odd thing that happened in this film. I [was developing] questions about stuff. Then it occurred to me: When I was researching a novel I wrote, Dalva, I read all the history, everything. And something was missing. Something almost comical had to happen. I went into the Nebraska Historical Society where this man named John Carter had a collection of about a 150-year history by county of Nebraska in photographs. So you could look at the photographs of 1891. When you can see what everything actually looks like it adds immeasurably to your understanding. I suppose that’s what film attempts to do. Widen the ineffable, you know?

SF360: Yes, the film’s dialogue is only able to touch briefly on certain themes but there’s a way in which our understanding of those themes is deepened by what we see on the screen.

Harrison: I think that’s true. I was pondering that imagination is so frequently neutral. I know when I’m writing a poem or working on a novel I have to observe. My billions of neurons construct the visual based on experience. That’s the whole visual of what I’m writing. So I’m actually seeing as I write. There is a certain primacy to the visual, I suppose, for reasons of that’s how we’re made. That’s of course what you hope for when you film: to make a painting; a visual, moving painting that people have to enter. That’s what I’ve always felt anyway.

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