Dave Snyder is a poet and gardener living in Chicago. Dave’s poems have appeared in Quarterly West, The Iowa Review, Denver Quarterly, Sentence, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. Dave has received fellowships and awards from the Illinois Arts Council, The Iowa Review, Writers @ Work, and the Jentel Artist Residency. As a grower, he is currently the director for America’s first certified organic rooftop farm at Uncommon Ground and is founder of the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project.
Rowyda Amin: Your poems suggest that you are very interested in ecology, biology and neuroscience – could you tell me what draws you to these fields?
Dave Snyder: Well, perhaps my interest in each is different.Ecology, I think simply comes from having grown up in the Pacific Northwest in an outdoorsy family. Many of my more vivid memories from childhood are from places where you’re overwhelmed by the natural environment: mountains, rivers, forests, glacial valleys. A dramatic natural environment creates the same sense of complexity and interconnectedness that ecologists spend their energies quantifying and examining. The effort of a neuroscientist — whether they’d explain it this way or not — is the same as a poet’s, I think.To try and provide a model for how our interior world responds to the exterior world. We use very different tactics, the poets and the neuroscientists, but one paradigm doesn’t end up being any stranger than the other. Biology, and I might extend it to zoology too, may be a bridge between these two. But thinking about the world, or thinking about ways of thinking about the world, from a scientific perspective comes easily to me. My father is a research scientist and professor. My paternal grandmother was a lab chemist, my mother an audiologist. My brother is a paleontologist. It’s in the blood, if not the synapses.
Rowyda Amin: It’s interesting that you come from a family of scientists. The tone in your poems, a sort of deeply interested detachment struck me as quite a ‘scientific’ approach to poetry.
Dave Snyder: Yeah I think the voice of the poems, at once distant but in-wonder, is something people have commented on. One time I was called “a little professor” which I wasn’t insulted by in the slightest.
Rowyda Amin: Your poems struck me as being like thought experiments – you set out a poetic idea and test it.
Dave Snyder: Ha! I like that. Before I was writing poetry, I was amazed by Donne’s ability to do that. Not to compare myself, of course. But the poet’s conceit and the philosopher’s tool of the thought experiment seem to have a lot in common.
Rowyda Amin: ‘Chemoreceptors’ is very Donne-ish, I think. It’s such a beautifully constructed little machine of a love poem.
Dave Snyder: Thanks, Rowyda
Rowyda Amin: I wanted to ask you about your poetic influences, so this seems like a good time. Who influenced you when you were just starting to write? Which poets do you most admire now? Are there any contemporary poets whose work you feel has an affinity with yours?
Dave Snyder: When I started writing, I was much more influenced by the modernists. Lowell and Bishop primarily. Later, my poetic influences got much broader: Dickinson and Niedecker; Veronica Forrest-Thompson; Kenji Miyazawa. Contemporary influences include Josh Beckman, Sarah Manguso, Ben Lerner and Srikanth Reddy. Two poets I studied with, Linda Bierds and Dan Beachy-Quick, have both had an outsized influence on my work.
Rowyda Amin: Where did you study with them, on an MFA program?
Dave Snyder: Linda I studied with as an undergrad in Washington. Dan, here in Chicago.Dan’s moved on to Colorado now, where the hiking is so much better. Linda is perhaps one of the most beautiful poets writing today and Dan has perhaps the most unique voice in contemporary poetry.
Rowyda Amin: Is there a good poetry scene in Chicago?
Dave Snyder: It’s wonderful. Chicago is an exceptionally vibrant city for writing. And diverse. There’s slam poetry, academic poetry, approachable pop-influenced poetry, all falling on top of one another.
Rowyda Amin: Do you give readings of your work?
Dave Snyder: Yes, from time to time. I enjoy reading but it seems like it is the marginalia of the poetry that’s on the page. There are a lot of reading in Chicago that sort of play with this though, making poetry more of an event or a performance without really being in the genre of ‘performance poetry’.
Rowyda Amin: I’m interested to know more about your writing process – how does a poem start for you, and what are your typical methods of composition, drafting and editing?
Dave Snyder: For me, the editing is where an idea becomes a poem. It starts with an idea – and ideas can be incredibly interesting and engaging by themselves – and this can be written down in lines and stanzas. But for me, it’s in the editing where I surprise myself. If I can do that, it’s likely that there’s something about the words that are transcending discursive language and becoming something else.
Rowyda Amin: Does it take a long time and many drafts to get the poem right, normally, or does this happen relatively quickly once it’s on the page?
Dave Snyder: A long time. There’s a f-ing poem about Johannes Kepler and snowflakes that I’ve been editing for 7 years. The poem I’m currently working on, I’m working on slowly. It’s been about 8 months, and it’s a long one, but it’s nowhere near being done.
Rowyda Amin: The long poem works well for you. The poems ‘Pica’ and ‘Bamboo Poem’ are wonderful extended meditations on their subjects. Interestingly, both dwell on desire, on needs emotional and physical. Could you tell me more about those poems?
Dave Snyder: I’m really interested in compulsion and consciousness: that we have a belief that we do things intentionally but much of our behavior is automatic. What if we can’t really tell the difference? Certain things are clearly thought through – you decide you want to, say, move to Brooklyn, and you do all the hundreds of necessary steps to make that happen. Clearly conscious intention. Other things, like rubbing your eye, are unconscious, we may not even know we do it. It turns out, when you press on it, they’re exceptionally difficult to tell apart. Neurologists can’t figure out what’s the difference. Both these poems press on this as well. In Pica the condition of pica is a semi-conscious behavior. In ‘Bamboo Poem’, the pandas seem to eat bamboo almost as automatically as they breathe. Both use animal behavior as a foil, too. Animal behavior has been for a long time thought of as more automatic than reasoning, but recent research seems to indicate it may not be entirely so. Perhaps there’s a gradient between what we DECIDE to do and what we just, simply do. And perhaps humans aren’t alone in this. This may have all kinds of implications: legal, ethical, medical.But I’m much more compelled by what they mean for our experience. I think if our very autonomy is called into question, it undoes much of what the Western canon understands to be the self. And poetry is deeply intimate and deeply concerned with selves, be they the self of the poet, the poet’s voice, or a character in the poem. These are fertile grounds.
Rowyda Amin Which art forms other than literature inspire and interest you?
Dave Snyder: I think it’s exceptionally important to look at other forms of art. (John Cage would agree. One of his rules was to go to the movies and look carefully). I go through phases. Movies, music, dance. But I keep coming back to painting and photography more than others. My friends in Chicago are disproportionately painters and I feel like sometimes they’re easier to talk to about making work than other poets.
Rowyda Amin: Gardening seems to be very close to your heart. Could you tell me about the relationship between your job and your writing?
Dave Snyder: I think there’s a long standing relationship between growing and poetry. Dickinson was better known in Amherst as a gardener. But I think both require a certain subjugation and humbleness, patience and attention.Also both toe a line between the wild-world and artifice. Agriculture grapples with control of nature, and poetry grapples with trying to express an inexpressible world.
Deciding was not the problem. Once named,
platypus would forever be a “platypus”; coati,
a “coati.” Instead, life’s abundance taxed his creativity.
Hunkered in a field, trap-jaw ants
running up his calves, he forgot acanthognathus
was reserved for an anglerfish. In the same way
did aotus come to mean both golden pea and owl monkey,
colocasia, tussock moth and taro.
But once entitled, the creature became its lable: a cecropia moth was
a “cecropia”, exactly. So if cecropia also meant mulberry,
he thought, watching one tremble in the breeze, a moth
must be a tree. That wild rosemary, a beetle. He stood,
anglerfish flopping off his legs, to see bluegrass
swarm the grazing bats.
A tuna lumbered by.
First appeared in Quarterly West