I came to the University of California, Davis for a graduate degree in poetry with my identity as “poet” fully formed. I pictured the world of poetry—of publication, performance, acclaim, and accolades—as a giant wooden door shut in front of me. I felt it my job to kick that door in.
Power for that kick, I knew, could come from studying with masters. I selected the program at UC Davis for the chance to study with Gary, as he’s known to students, and with Sandra McPherson (“Sandy” in Davis). Professor David Robertson’s Bioregion Project, bringing together artists, scientists, and local residents to probe the complexities of life in the local watershed, was another big draw for me. Professor Jack Hicks’ vote of confidence in me and my work, through the provision of a two-year teaching assistantship, made my commitment to the program possible.
I arrived in 1998, a year after reading Gary’s epic poem cycle, Mountains and Rivers Without End. Over the course of the next five years—two as a student, the next three as Josephine Citizen—I would be a seminar and workshop student of Gary’s, member of a brush-clearing crew at his mountain farmstead, an attender at a number of Gary’s events, and a teaching and personal assistant to Gary, taping his lectures and aiding with hosting duties for the many distinguished guest speakers he brought to campus.
While serving on my thesis committee, Gary reviewed my work with a light hand, and I took his spare and vaguely encouraging comments to mean, “Keep it up, kiddo. You’ve got a long way to go.” True enough. By then, he had been publishing poetry for five decades. I was 24.
The most dazzling praise I received from him came in the form of an introduction he penned for a selection of my poetry anthologized in Mark My Words, the inaugural volume of fellow graduate student Francisco Aragón’s Momotombo Press, published in 2001. Gary called the selected poetry “bold,” and that of an “eco-eros explorer.” Good!, I thought. A perfect articulation of the effect I was going for.
That barreling enormity of ego was apparently not one of my subtler traits. I remember asking my thesis director, Sandy McPherson, for her advice on how to begin the chapbook of mine she would generously publish that same year. I had a poem in mind to begin the collection, but wasn’t sure about it.
“It’s so loud,” I said, to express my hesitation. “And ego-driven.”
“When aren’t you loud and ego-driven?” she responded.
Apt, I thought. My originally selected first poem stayed first, and on I went about my door-kicking. Not knowing the descent that awaited once I had that door flattened in front of me.
My giant ego shielded me from the blinding glare of hero worship in my encounters with Gary. I think that may be one of the reasons he’d asked me to assist with one of his classes during my second year in the program, and why he found our working relationship satisfactory enough to keep me on as an assistant for three more years after finishing my degree. Trying to work with someone constantly beaming a projection of Gary Snyder the Hero back at him would have been taxing, for Gary.
I hadn’t read Dharma Bums—still haven’t—which suited Gary fine. He once mentioned that in the years after the book’s publication, he’d had to explain and explain to the point of weariness that Kerouac’s Japhy Ryder was a fictional character made for a work of fiction.
I am not now, nor have I ever wished to be, a Beat poet.
But I was happy to work with and learn from Gary because I wanted what he had—a body of work that oscillated through numerous registers, ranging from shamanic intensity to colloquial gab—an oeuvre that took the inspirited nature of nature, and all the art and music and story flowing from it—as The Primary Source.
And of course, a mentoring relationship typically exists in a web of instructive relationships. Part of what allowed me, as an emerging Chicana writer, to enjoy the mentoring of this one heterosexual, white, male is the fact that I had guidance from several mentors to help light my way—including John Calderazzo and Mary Golden in my undergraduate years at Colorado State University. At UC Davis, Sandra McPherson, David Robertson, and the brilliant Chicano poet and children’s book author, Francisco X. Alarcón, were crucial to my development as a writer.
I never thought The Gary had The Key to making great work. He had tremendous experience and success making his work. I knew it was up to me to make mine.
Since he was already a legend when I came to study with him—he’d been The Gary Snyder, Pulitzer Prize winner, for 20+ years at that point—the moments when he revealed his vulnerable underbelly were some of the most memorable and important to me, on an interpersonal level and for my growth as an apprentice poet.
I have, during my time in Davis and in the years that followed, once in a very blue while, known Gary to be exhausted, cranky, out of patience, jealous, hurt, harried, hurried, aggrieved, and angry.
And although he is generally the picture of poise, a poster-man for the deeply-conscious, a leading spokesman for the well-considered remark, those moments of human raggedness are irreplaceable teachers, in themselves.
There’s the time he spoke of how he was the only member of his family willing to care for his mother in her last months. Frustration showed in the way his eyes cut away from me, in the tightness of his jaw. “She was so mean. Ornery,” he said. “I was the only one willing to put up with her!”
There’s the way his voice would get a little higher and tighter at readings when he’d read the funny line he wrote about Ginsberg: “Why do they all love you?”
And there was the anger at losing his beloved wife Carole to stomach cancer that came through when we read together at a poetry festival in southern California. Not in his reading, which was polished and affecting, and mentioned her glancingly. Not in his interactions with the festival organizers, which were cordial and mild-mannered. But in the way he entered into, and exited out of, conversation with me and the other featured readers at the lovely B&B where the organizers put us up. Clipped. Uptight. A sense I’d never felt coming off him before, of a man holding it together in polite society while being utterly outraged by profound loss.
These moments showed me that the condition of being not super-human but wholly-human was entirely compatible with being an artist.
That the artist need not be continuously functioning at a psychologically perfect pitch, that the contemplative need not be in continuous repose, was a comfort to me when the topography of my own psyche would make writing a rougher journey than I’d prepared for.
In the early weeks of one of Gary’s semester-long poetry workshops, a thin young man with a blond ponytail leaned forward at the seminar table and asked, “What’s it like to be The Gary Snyder?”
Gary was irritated and flustered. Struggled to find words. He answered with something like, “I don’t think like that. I don’t think about all that.” Class continued.
After class, he told me that fame is a mirror you can never look in. To look is to sicken, like Narcissus at the pond. He made it clear turning away from that mirror was a conscious effort of will.
A conscious effort, I think now, that requires a magic trick to pull off. I think that the student’s question threw Gary because it was like offering speed to a tweaker who’s been clean for years. An impious test. Almost impossible to get through without religious adherence to practices that de-center the small Self. It takes a magical shift of perception to remember how fame attaches and detaches easily as a drop of water sliding off stone.
We had been at lunch with a visiting guest poet and editor, and Gary remarked about the man as he and I walked back to campus together. “He really thinks poetry is a religion. I never made poetry a religion. I have a religion.”
“Which is?” I said, only half paying attention.
Oh, yeah. I’d forgotten.
Gary taught me that poetry is worth decades of care and attention, yet it should never be fetishized or held too tightly. These, I believe now, are Buddhist teachings.
About one of his most popular volumes, Turtle Island, he said, “Sometimes you write what they want you to write so they’ll leave you alone. Then you go back to doing the work you that really excites you.”
On several occasions he told me not to strain to overspecialize as a writer, saying that, in addition to poetry, “If you can write fiction and nonfiction, you should.”
And when another new student in another semester leaned forward and asked—with anguish that these days would be hash tagged “FirstWorldProblems”—“What about all the bad poetry being written today?”
Gary answered, “That’s way down on my list of concerns about the world right now.”
Eventually I moved from Davis to Indiana, from Indiana to Utah, from Utah to southern Colorado, where I live now.
It may not sound like the narrow road to a deep crisis, the list of resume-building blessings I found in the dozen years after receiving my graduate degree. My chapbook was published, then a full-length book, then another. I’d been invited to give readings at over thirty campuses and poetry festivals across the country, had taught poetry in college classrooms in four states, and found my work regularly solicited by literary publications. My poems were anthologized in numerous volumes, my books were favorably reviewed, taught, and bought, and I had edited several wonderful collections of poetry by my peers.
Zen Buddhism regards all phenomena, including the Self, to be continually arising and passing away.
In 2009, leaving a beloved community and a beautiful little mountain town in northern Utah for a recession-induced family move, the continuous arising of my original Poet-Self reversed direction and began to pass away.
I stepped across the now unbarred threshold of my accomplishment looking for more accomplishment and found, instead, a free-fall through a profound loss of self.
Called a “breakdown” in pop-psychology terms, “depression” in clinical language, “a descent to the Soul” in Jungian frameworks, and known to other schools of Buddhism as a discreet stage of insight called “The Arising and Passing Away,” the process I underwent over the next three years resulted in my being stripped of all interest in poetry.
Along the way, I got help from a very skilled depth psychologist who guided me to work constructively with the sacred wounds of childhood. I had support from friends and family who loved me whether or not I was being “productive.” And I had very little fear along the way, because I’d learned the practice of compassion in dark times. I’d learned that, in part, from reading Mountains and Rivers Without End in 1997.
Gary Snyder’s opus, a forty-years-in-the-making “extended narrative of the female Buddha Tārā,” is an embodiment and expression of compassion’s durability, adaptability, relevance and necessity.
In 1997, when I read Mountains and Rivers for the first time, I lived in a basin of the Snake River called Jackson Hole at the edge of Wyoming’s Teton mountains, in a one room cabin outside the town of Jackson. I had just given birth to my firstborn at twenty-two years old. My son arrived from a wanted but unplanned pregnancy, and I was unprepared for the physical difficulty of recovery from childbirth, the pain and complication of nursing, and the suffocation of post-partum depression that dulled the bright joys of new motherhood.
Reading remained one of my few unfettered joys. In Mountains and Rivers Without End, I found young people, old people, parents, gods, critters, landscapes, wit, and incantation to loosen the small enclosure of my mind and let the world back in.
The old, old world of all new and nothing new. The continuity of destruction and birth, the arising and passing away.
The trauma of adjusting to my new role of mother was a form of death and life, both. By reading Gary Snyder’s book-length poem, I experienced compassion for all beings, and for all beings’ mighty, continuous work of arising and passing. This became a basis of compassion for myself and for others, even when I felt barren of all personal inner resources.
At times, Gary Snyder’s work has been taken to task by writers of color for its appropriation of Native stories and symbols. Such critical reading of literature from the dominant culture is essential work for resisting the erasure of marginalized voices.
But no amount of post-colonial analysis of Gary’s work can change the fact that Mountains and Rivers Without End stirred up verve and vinegar in me when few other things did.
So that by the time I entered a multi-month depression for the second time, in 2011-12, I knew I would not be without help. At the end of 2011, when I found what I’d felt to be a gushing well of poetic inspiration to be a dry shaft, hollow and echoing, I knew that finding a way back to Beginner Mind with writing would be a wrung on my climb back up to vitality. Over the course of the next year, I completed the first draft of a mystery novel, something I’d never tried before. (“If you can write fiction, you should.”) I stayed connected with my spiritual community, the Religious Society of Friends, a.k.a. Quakers. (“I never made poetry a religion.”)
And without a solid professional persona (which had previously been so tied to poetry writing) to close up around and protect, with my inner landscape absent the fixed statue of ego to defend against the elements, I experienced moments in which the sensation of compassion for myself, compassion for the other, cascaded through me like a waterfall over a Sierra granite face.
In 2013 I returned to teaching a changed person—far from perfect, but more welcoming, and more accepting of others’ struggles and limitations. I worked on revisions of the novel, and found that poetry crept back in from the dark wood. From time to time I leave my campfire to “meet it at the edge of the light,” as Gary Snyder describes in “How Poetry Comes to Me.”
The struggle for survival is part of an endless, gritty dynamic between making and destroying, the interplay mountains and rivers have with each other.
Experiencing this interplay clears “the space in the heart” invoked in the last poem of Mountains and Rivers.
Although Gary and I have seen each other here and there at conferences and poetry festivals over the years, and he has even, on one occasion, gently chided me for not keeping in better touch, I have been a neglectful student with years of failure to drop a line or give a call. I did try to tell Gary, early in my time at Davis, how important his Mountains and Rivers Without End was to me, and to thank him for making that work.
Perhaps he will accept these brush strokes in the ink that appears never to fade, on the vast, virtual scroll that is the Internet, as an additional expression of thanks for being the personable guide he was to me. I do hope so.
Maria Melendez Kelson published Flexible Bones (2010) and How Long She’ll Last in This World (2006) with University of Arizona Press. Her books have been finalists for the Colorado Book Award and the PEN Center USA Poetry award. Her poetry and essays appear in Poetry magazine, Ms. magazine, Sojourns, and elsewhere. Her novel-in-progress, a mystery set in the redwood country of northern California, received the 2014 Eleanor Taylor Bland Crime Fiction Writers of Color Award from Sisters in Crime. She teaches literature and writing at Pueblo Community College. Find her on Twitter: @MKelsonAuthor.