Davis: I am intrigued by the concept of The Snake Quartet. Could you tell me a little about how this project got started?
Lemons: It was a strange combination of unexpected waking dreams triggered in part by the following influences: my yoga practice, an intentional authorial movement away from decades of writing in a suddenly too familiar narrative voice, and the accidental by-product of insomniacle nights spent tending my dying bull terrier. Out of this strange, almost psychedelic state of altered consciousness, came snake—not just for a single poem—the one that appears in Bristol Bay & Other Poems titled “End Game,” but as it turns out for four books—The Snake Quartet—combining for about six hundred pages of poetry.
So the voice came first—the serpentine slitherings of imagery bubbling up from my personal abyss as if a demented version of Old Faithful suddenly shot metaphors into the air instead of boiling water. I’d wake up or drift back from half sleep—grab the notebook beside my bed—and write down what I heard or saw still partially in another world where Snake was the only surviving witness. The notebooks grew, the story evolved, the poems began to take form, and as I transposed them into the computer there was subliminal guidance clarifying and slightly altering the work to make it more cohesive and sensible to me. I resisted using my old tools to re-imagine the poems and waited in silent listening for the story to change as it moved through me.
For me, this was a form of linguistic alchemy—one I was unfamiliar with. I believe that all my writing might turn into art through a sort of magical trade-off between listening passively and exerting personal dominion over the material, but in this case it was almost exclusively listening. I received.
Davis: How have you sustained the metaphor of the snake for this long?
Lemons: The answer to this lies in the first answer—once this highway opened I worked to keep it from closing—the path uncluttered—and used my meditation practice to initiate passive inquiries into other realities—the reality of forests—of animals as a whole and individually—of children—all of which are different than the reality most of us agree to be the only one—overlooking the many invisible but “braided” if you will to use faintly kinesthetic string theory nomenclature worlds that wrap around our own. I guess I’m saying I follow the feeling tone of the snake vision and when it disappeared I wander around with a sort of anchorless discipline until the feeling returns, and then I go back to work.
The truth is it’s now difficult to separate myself from this voice, especially as the headlines shout new horrors and warn of the impending consequences of our destructive occupation of the planet.
Davis: When you say it’s hard to separate yourself from this voice do you, in a sense, channel snake? Or is snake solely a literary device?
Lemons: Absolutely a channeling or perhaps also an off-air voice reporting the news from a future location.
The truth is more and more apparent that we are in some sort of end stage—a tipping point if you will, and the future of life on this planet depends upon the choices we make together about how to proceed. It’s no longer, according to snake, enough to whittle a small individual, sustainable, low impact lifestyle. We have to work in concordance to, in any way, slow down—forget about stopping, the oblivious slide into organic dispersion.
I don’t think this is “Calling Wolf” or “Chicken Little” Syndrome. Every available scientific metric supports the idea that only imminent action will save us. The canaries in the coalmine stopped singing. Climate change refugees are leaving submerged islands and coastal towns along with inland farmers driven from their fields by endless draught. Bio-diversity is shrinking at a tragic rate. Creatures and plants our grand-parents took for granted are gone into the mythical. We are as a species cutting the limb we’re standing on.
So the poems in the Quartet are not literary devices but cries for help. They are the voices who have no voice, whose tongues have been taken by poverty or war or general helplessness in the face of a malevolent short-sighted greed no one ultimately survives.
Look, I know this is unpleasant stuff. It is very difficult to write these poems and keep writing them. But it’s the only thing I can do. I can’t stop global warming. I can’t turn off the nuclear reactors or stop the backhoes from dredging up the coral or feed the hungry or hold the little children as their villages burn. I wish I could. I really wish I could. But writing these poems feels like some small contribution, a witnessing, a mirror held up to the damage happening while the collective looks away.
Davis: Were there any writers or other artists that helped influence The Snake Quartet?
Lemons: Not directly, but there are parallels drawn in different reviews I resonate with and am grateful for. Eliot’s The Waste Land, John Berryman’s Dream Songs, Ted Hughes’s Crow—all volumes in which a serial character moves through either a damaged geographical or moral ecology witnessing through poems. Personally, my major influences are Norman Dubie, Wallace Stevens, and Ann Sexton. All three of these poets do things with language that I admire. They pull the possible out of the impossible and put it back again so quickly it’s as if an enormous light wave flickered on and off in the darkest places of inattention. They prod into conscious attention the sleeping witness in everyone.
Davis: What can we expect in the last snake book?
Lemons: Original Grace was initially going to be an attempt to bring the first three books in the Quartet into some sort of coherent symmetry, as if things can be fixed or solutions can be found if we simply work harder and pull together, and allow one another the same freedom we expect to receive.
But by the time I wrote the first three books I realized this is a Hollywood ending where rough passages end with the hero winning the day. The proverbial happy ending.
By the fourth book I realized that’s not helpful. The Hunger Sutras, the third book, identifies hunger as the root cause of all physical, moral and emotional violence in that we only survive by killing something that is also alive and wants to live as much as we do, and that like us can only survive by killing. Everything must eat to live. This is a murderous design with little room for grace or compassion at its most elemental level. The movement in the fourth book, Original Grace, is no longer how to fix or stop this imperative because snake understands that in this reality this is the foundational principle. So the poems turn slightly away from witnessing and concern themselves with how to do the least harm.
Now the fourth book looks for the places in the joinery that are strong enough to bear the weight of this blood need. It looks not for a miraculous new understanding free from hunger, but rather it wants to inhabit the larger space around this brief, very real though poignant struggle to exist. Original Grace looks for the nearly erased original goodness that gets diluted each time you add more weight to the scale. More bodies on the planet. Where are we joined and how can we use this connection to establish personal reverence that may turn into collective harmony despite the sacrifices in our name.
Davis: Has it been difficult to write poems outside of the subject matter of The Snake Quartet?
Lemons: Sort of difficult, but I’m also writing four hours a day, and that amount of time compresses new voices and different stories out of the places they reside. Writing every day is akin to those folks who run around in the wilderness banging pans and blowing whistle trying to scare some poor hidden creature into view. So during the time between Second Wind, book two in the Quartet, and the Hunger Sutras, book three, I also wrote Dia de los Muertos, which is an illustrated coloring book of a single poem in three sections about living in and about Oaxaca in the late Sixties and early Seventies—I also wrote the Weight of Light—both published by Red Hen Press.
Davis: What does a typical writing day look like?
Lemons: I get up and check emails and Facebook and read the New York Times online while having a giant mug of good coffee. Then I go to my little studio outside the house and write. Usually about two hours. The I ghost around the house and work in the yard and play with my partner and dog and do yoga, and maybe run and maybe take a nap and eat something and think about what I did in the morning and about late afternoon I go back inside and write another two hours.
I always have numerous manuscripts going at the same time, so if I’m stuck in one place that resistance might push me toward another book where an opening or break-through might occur. It’s a dance between manuscripts, and often I have them all up on the screen at once. I love writing this way, letting memory and experience surface unassociated with a single poem and then seeing where it wants to land.
Davis: By the way, congratulations on twenty-two years of marriage! Do you find poetry adds to your relationship?
Lemons: Both my wife/life partner and I are artists. We’re also both yogis and teach out of our yoga studio in Port Townsend—Tenderpaws. Nöle was my first yoga teacher and is still the person I look to for wisdom and guidance. She is an amazing teacher, embodying without guile or acquisitiveness the deepest most elevated human consciousness I know. She is also my best friend. So sharing yogi and art without competition or ownership is a remarkably tender and intellectually profound basis for true intimacy. It’s a huge wow moment unfolding toward the horizon every time I look at her. I’ve said that we are building an infinite house with finite material. And really the equation is simple. All it is is love = respect + honesty + courage. Find two people who share these qualities as best they can with one another, and you’ll find long term relationships still sparkling through the years.
Davis: Can you speak to a writer’s relationship to their publisher?
Lemons: I’ve only had two publishers and they’ve both been and are awesome. Jenny Van West published my first book, Fresh Horses, which is now with Eastern Washington Press, and she worked at Copper Canyon for a number of years prior to starting her own press. She was and is one of the kindest professional people I know. She never hesitated to say the tough thing but said it in such a way that I felt respected and valued.
Then there’s Red Hen. I get tearful just thinking of the amazing support I’ve received from them. They’ve published six of my books with two more in the works. Kate Gale is one of the most amazing people on the planet. She runs, with her equally gifted husband Mark Cull, Red Hen Press while being an adjunct professor, writing exquisite books of poetry, traveling the world on behalf of poetry, seemingly in a new country about every two weeks, while supporting and organizing and funding all sorts of literary programs in Los Angeles and the greater area for young poets and poetry in the schools. She’s an angel.
If you look at any book cover from Red Hen you’ll likely be amazed at how beautiful and engaging and mysterious they are, and this is where Mar Cull’s particular genius shines. His covers on the snake books are superb, but when I go to AWP and see three booths worth of Red Hen books and every single cover jumps out as a work of art, I’m hip to being in the presence of an artist willing to walk away from the conventional directly into the mystery.
Also Red Hen has a tremendous support staff. They hire interns who work for a while and then move on, deeper into the publishing world, and these are replaced by new staff and there is never a misstep or drop off in professional attention. I’ve commented on this to them personally. The rock that stays as the current moves down stream is Tobi Harper. Tobi anchors the real to the unimaginable from which new books come forth.
But finding a press without the help of an MFA program is mostly luck. There are so many truly gifted poets of all ages saying critically important things in verse whose work for one reason or another never gets into print. It’s astounding the poems coming out of slams and high school literature programs or by hip hop and rap artists and especially from the Queer and minority poets, all of whom represent a secret vault of wisdom and revelation unavailable to those outside their communities. So yes, I’ve been disciplined and worked hard and studied my craft over the last fifty years, but more than any of that I’ve been lucky that a publisher first saw then valued and supported my work.
Davis: Looking back over your writing career, what are you most proud of? Is there anything you would do differently?
Lemons: I guess I’m proud that I’m still writing. It’s been almost fifty-five years. And whereas many of the poets I went to school with or hung out with are successful, many now retired, professional people with a big stock portfolio and children and grandchildren and pensions and all the good things that flow from sticking with a job for forty years and then reaping the benefits of that diligence, I’m still scrambling from book to book.
I chose jobs that allowed me to write. That was my first vocational criteria. Lot of jobs outside where work was intense but seasonal and in the off season—usually winter—I wrote and lived on savings or unemployment or both. I’ve welded high steel, fished Bristol Bay, built grain elevators and feed mills and numerous other rough work that paid well and allowed for winters off to write. My favorite of all of these was reforesting clear-cuts in the Pacific Northwest with a gang of artists, mostly poets, men and women. I put somewhere close to half a million nursery trees back into scarified ground. That means a lot to me, maybe more than anything else I’ve done, including all the books and all the poems.
And if I could change anything I wouldn’t. All the difficult miles, the injuries, the poor choices and the hard times brought me right to this moment with good health, enough food and seasonal warmth. A sweet dog and good friends and the truest love of my life. Would not do any of it differently because likely it would mean I’d not be here with the amazing gifts I hardly deserve but unquestionably accept.
Gary Lemons is a Washington state poet and has published seven books of poetry: Fresh Horses (Van West & Company) Bristol Bay & Other Poems (Red Hen Press), Día de los Muertos (Red Hen Press), Snake (Red Hen Press), Snake: Second Wind (Red Hen Press), Snake III: The Hunger Sutras (Red Hen Press), and The Weight of Light (Red Hen Press). For decades he fished Alaska, built grain elevators, worked high steel and re-forested the clear cuts of the Pacific Northwest. He has also been a carpenter, logger, crane operator, fruit picker, documentary videographer, and arts educator. He studied Mahayana Buddhism for six years, and taught meditation and past life regressions at the Edgar Cayce Association for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Snake III: The Hunger Sutras was released November 2018.
Lauren Davis the author of Each Wild Thing’s Consent (Poetry Wolf Press). I hold an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and my work can be found in publications such as Prairie Schooner, Spillway, and Lunch Ticket. I am also an editor at The Tishman Review, and I teach at The Writers’ Workshoppe in Port Townsend, WA.