Fifty years ago, the radical example of a young Buddhist poet named Gary Snyder helped inspire an older man to try and change his life.
Jack Kerouac, the great American novelist who had become famous after publishing On the Road, was carrying a jug of wine for nearly every occasion and acting a little blue. Snyder pointed out the jug and noted Kerouac’s sluggishness. For a time, Kerouac took on the young poet’s implicit challenge and attempted to cut down on his drinking, go into the mountains and draw strength from the natural world. He wrote about his brief conversion to Snyder’s singular way of life in his dazzling novel Dharma Bums, in which he depicted Snyder as a poor but free graduate student named Japhy Ryder, who lived as he chose and believed strongly in Zen, scholarship, and the balm of wilderness.
On the weekend of May 18 and 19, Snyder will lead the third biennial Ojai Poetry Festival, in which he and a score of other poets will speak to visitors at the Libbey Bowl on the theme of “the voice of the earth.” Though Kerouac and most of his other fellow Beats, including his friends Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen, are long gone, Snyder continues to challenge convention with his ecological poetry and essays, and in his own unique way continues to lead people toward a deeper communion with the planet. In the decades since Kerouac made him famous to hipsters, Snyder’s vigor and freedom have become a kind of advertisement for his beliefs.
This year Snyder published a well-reviewed collection of essays and poetry called Back on the Fire, in which he writes movingly of “the war against nature” being practiced today, and talks of what is necessary to fight it, concluding that “what we ultimately need most are human beings who love the world.”
Snyder indeed loves the world, and he loves his home in the Sierra Nevada mountains, but he is hard-headed and realistic about its dangers. In his new book he admits he underestimated the risk of fire to his home in the forest. Living on a mostly wild property far from a fire station, he found out he would have to cut his own fire breaks, ready his own water and pumps and arm himself with his own Nomex suits and fire axes.
“In California everyone has some natural disaster to prepare for,” he writes. “These things are beyond left or right, good or evil.” He sees preparation for the next natural disaster as part of “following the Dao.”
“When we first cooked up this idea of a poetry festival in Ojai six years ago,” says organizer Jim Lenfestey, “the first theme that occurred to us was this idea of poetry as the voice of the earth, but we couldn’t go that route without Gary Snyder. He is the touchstone for that theme and our first choice, although he wasn’t available in the past. We have a responsibility to listen to and speak for those who are voiceless, and I don’t just mean humans in places like Darfur, but also the plants and the trees and all that supports us. Our poets have a special ability to listen and hear and turn what they hear into words that humans can understand.”
With one exception, all the featured poets this year have an environmental focus. The exception is the lead poet on the first night, Sherman Alexie, who is better known as a screenwriter (of Smoke Signals, an American Indian classic), a novelist and a wit.
“Alexie has the timing of a Jon Stewart or a David Letterman,” Lenfestey said. \”He can be drop-dead funny one minute and tear your heart out the next. He’s just a phenomenon on stage.”
Phil Taggart, Ventura County’s unofficial poetry impresario, agrees, pointing out that Alexie won the legendary Taos Poetry Circus competition more than once. Taggart calls him a “performance poet.”
Paired with Alexie on Friday night will be the poet laureate of Montana, Sandra Alcossar, who, in one of her better-known poems, “Skiing by Moonlight,” wrote, “Except by nature — as a woman, I will be ungovernable.”
Mary Kay Rummel, a Ventura County poet and teacher, describes Alcosser as a poet who “affirms the earth as she integrates scientific understandings with myth and personal experience in ever changing, interesting ways.”
Rummel is just one of a half-dozen regional poets who will read at the festival Saturday afternoon, one of whom, David Mason, is flying in from Colorado. Paul Willis, a professor at Westmont in Santa Barbara will read, along with Enid Osborn, also from Santa Barbara. Florence Weinberger will come from Los Angeles, and Kimberly Young, formerly of Ojai, will come from the San Fernando Valley. Young credits Taggart and the Ojai journal Rivertalk for helping her “to continue to place poetry in the center of my life.”
Ojai poet Robert Peake, who works as a technology officer in his day job, thinks \”we need poetry more than ever as an antidote to our fast-paced life style.\” He too will read on Saturday, along with the winner of the teenage poetry contest and other local poets who sign up for an open mic reading.
The festival will come to a head Saturday, beginning with a public discussion in the morning among all the featured poets. In the evening, Maria Melendez, a former student of Snyder’s at UC Davis, will open the final program. She writes fast-paced, on-rushing nature poetry that is extraordinarily rich — even erotic. Her poem “ars poetica” concludes with, “may language be an act of love,” and in her case, it certainly is.
Snyder will conclude the festival, with his trademark blend of daring, Zen and scholarship. If we’re fortunate, he may read from his classic “For All,” in which he pledges “allegiance to the soil of Turtle Island and to the beings who thereon dwell/One ecosystem in diversity under the sun/With joyful interpenetration for all.”