Interview: Poet Dave Snyder

I’d like to begin with some questions about farming and being a writer

You are an organic grower and community activist as well as an accomplished poet. Can you briefly describe the what you do in each area? Do you consider one or the other to be your main pursuit?

I call myself a grower, not a farmer. It’s silly to call yourself a farmer if you have a quarter of an acre, and the label doesn’t change what I’m going to do in a little piece of space. Today we think of “gardener” as a diminutive, decorative term. I like to say “grower.”

Dave Snyder

I got my start ten years ago when I moved to Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood from Seattle. I came to go to grad school; I had no real interest in growing. I associated it with work I did as a kid, with being sweaty and wanting to play Nintendo. But Uptown is so urban. I reacted to that by being drawn to the community garden across the street, Ginkgo Gardens. They grow vegetables on a triple lot and donate them to a food bank. Annually, it’s around 1/2 to 3/4 of a ton, donated to Vital Bridges’ GroceryLand, a food pantry that donates food to low-income people living with AIDS. I really fell in love with that mission and started helping out. By “helping” I mean weeding and watering. Strangely, in reaction to this urban experience, I developed this weird addiction to gardening. Now I’ve been working there for ten seasons. It’s my favorite place in the city. But my only training is working there and with other growers.

How about being a poet?

As with gardening, poetry was not really part of my education until halfway through college, when I took a summer poetry class. I got a C or C- and the teacher was a jerk, but I was weirdly compelled by it. It was probably a bad decision [laughs], but I decided to take another poetry class. That was wonderful and fascinating. The teacher approached it like, “We’re going to spend the semester playing with language!” That, too, became a habit. Eventually I went to the School of the Art Institute and graduated with an MFA in writing.

What connections do you see between being a grower and being a writer?

The work of growing and the work of writing–there are lots of similarities and differences. Both require constant attention and constant work. It takes this sort of–tending–this constantly working on it. If you forget to do that tending, whether of your plants or your poems, they wither. I go through times when the poetry is withering, and times when the horticulture is withering. You have to tend to both.

Yes, I wrote a blog post about that–the connection between tending and paying attention.

Yes. Also, both require this sort of carefulness of looking, a fusion of perception and doing. In gardening, you are constantly reacting to what your plants are doing. You constantly have to be seeing and then acting. It’s the same with poetry–you have to be perceiving and doing, perceiving and doing. I’m suspicious of poetry that gets too far from perception.

Dave's Hands

You know, many people have this kind of divided interest in poetry and gardening. Emily Dickinson was well known as a gardener–no one knew she was a poet. Cicero said, “All you need is a library and a garden to be happy.” The correspondence between tending and attending is a real correspondence that has clearly been explained and examined for millennia. Its’ in our linguistic memory. That’s humbling.

What linkages are there in your overall world view that have led you to choose two socially- undervalued kinds of work?

I’m not a financially-motivated person. I’ve always chosen interest over a paycheck, and I’ve had almost nothing but fascinating jobs. The few times I’ve taken a desk job to pay the bills, I was able to make them interesting. I had great co-workers. It never felt meaningless. I look at people I grew up with and see different life decisions. Those people are financially more stable than me, but they don’t seem that happy. The way that you spend your time changes who you are. I choose interesting things because I’m interested in them. If I didn’t, I would no longer be interested in them–that, too, would wither from lack of attention. The most interesting people I know are interesting because of the effort they’ve put into reading, thinking about things–not watching every episode of their favorite TV program and eating caramel corn each evening.

Both growing and writing are demanding pursuits–vocations, even. How do you balance the demands of each?

I balance them very poorly. My strategy is to not get to get too stressed out about it. Writer Jill Riddell told me that at no point is your life ever in balance, but if you step back, over the course of a decade, there is balance. I took that to heart. This year, I was working part time over the winter. I decided not to teach this semester, and I spent a whole lot more time writing regularly again and producing new work. I started submitting my work to literary journals again. Now it’s April and I was out of the house at 7 a.m. for a compost delivery; after this I’m going home to plant. I’m basically working on growing from sunup to sundown. I’m not writing poetry, but that’s what happens in April and May. Things will chill out again in June. If things don’t slow down in June, they will later on. It’s ok. The process is cyclical and I try not to second guess it too much.

Many artist-farmers find themselves torn between their need of a rural environment and their desire to live in a city. Do you experience this conflict? How do you handle it?

I understand that conflict, but I don’t feel torn. I value and love both environments. I think the reason is that I’ve figured out a way to scratch some of that itch [for living in a rural place]. I have enough space at my home in Garfield Park. I have a backyard and an empty lot next door. The owners let me grow stuff if I keep down the weeds and shovel the walk in winter–that’s my rent. It’s a ton of space, and my neighbors grow there with me. I don’t have the peace of mind [of the country], I don’t have a vista, but I have the city of Chicago, which is mind-blowing. It’s such a culturally-rich city. My girlfriend and I say, “Live in Chicago like you’re vacationing in New York.” It’s a good model.

What is the most important thing you know about growing things? About poetry and writing?

Pay attention to those who are better at it than you are. There’s always somebody. That doesn’t mean emulating that person per se. If you talk to ten gardeners, you get ten different ways of doing something. Pay attention to how other people do things, because there may be something to it. It’s the same thing with writing. If you want to be a poet, read every single poem that you can. Recently, I read Gordon Massman, do you know his work? He writes brutal, ugly poems that couldn’t be further from what I do. But I read his whole book in a single sitting–it was completely compelling! It’s a kind of genius. I won’t write like he does, but my work will only get better from reading that book. In essence, don’t think another way of doing things is a dumb way. You can learn from it, so don’t dismiss things out of hand.

Now for some questions about food and farming.

What do you see as most lacking or necessary today in our relationship to food?

In the most literal way, we need to feed everybody in the best way possible. In the best and most just way. Let’s not miss the forest for the trees. The way in which you raise your food, the kind of food you raise, the way you allow people to make their money off of food, the way food is distributed–they are all important.

One thing I think is really important is that worldwide, it should be easier to make your living as a small farmer. This is a complex problem. How can we expect a small farmer to make an equitable living and simultaneously expect another small farmer in central Ghana to make a living when they are competing in the same world market?

But are they really competing with each other? Aren’t they really competing with Monsanto?

Well, yes. Large companies–seed and pesticide producers, food distributors–make it hard for small farmers to operate with a fair standard of living. There should be an expectation that you’re growing food for yourself and your neighbors. For example, in the global South and elsewhere, traditional crops are disappearing in favor of corn and rice that’s being foisted upon the farmers by governments and corporations. People aren’t growing the food that feeds themselves and their neighbors. A food stable region may become food unstable as a result.

What do you see as the most pressing food issue that we are facing today–locally, nationally, or globally?

The monopolization by a few companies to try to make a lot of money off of farming. Monsanto isn’t a food company–they’re a chemical company. They produce seeds that are in a commercial package with their pesticides. It’s profiteering and doesn’t seem to be helping that many people in the long run, except investors. And there are a lot of other companies that do that, not just Monsanto.

What’s your ideal vision of the way a community would grow, consume, and relate to food?

I can’t really say. It should be as specific as the community it’s serving. I could tell you how me and my neighbors want to feed ourselves. We want to grow goofy, hilarious stuff–

Like what?

Like cardoons and blue tomatoes and papalo, a Central American herb. We grow weird stuff, a lot of it, we work a lot together, share, and barbecue afterwards. That works for my community. There also tradeoffs. There are literally whirlwinds of litter in my neighborhood [of Garfield Park]. There are gunshots. But that’s the exact reason we are able to have land there, so we accept that. It works for us but not for everybody. Some community in the South Islands of the Philippines will have a different way of doing things, but they know how to feed themselves. If you have the skills and the land and a small amount of economic capital, you can do this. But every community does it in their own way.

Do you support / shop at Whole Foods? Why or why not?

I do. I don’t spend a lot of money there, or anywhere I shop. But let me say this about Whole Foods. Their meat program is the most progressive that I’ve ever seen. It’s more progressive than grocery stores in Europe, more progressive than co-ops I’ve been to. It’s not the most just. The most just is to raise the animal yourself or work with a farmer who raises the animal humanely. But if we’re going to have cities, we’re going to have people who have to buy meat.

It’s hard to get people to think ethically about meat. There’s an information disjunct out there. You have two chicken quarters and you don’t have any information about where your chicken quarters are coming from. One costs 99 cents a pound and one costs $7.99 a pound. They seem the same, but you don’t see chicken #1 getting dipped in bleach or sitting in a cage on top of another chicken, or chicken #2 being raised by a family. Whole Foods has done the most remarkable process in trying to communicate all this information. They have a 5 step rating scale, from 1 to 5, rating how animal-friendly the process was. Five makes the meat most expensive and they tell you why. It’s there at length on their website. Often their criteria are as strict as other certification programs, but even if you’re a casual consumer, you can make way more informed decisions just at the meat counter. That’s just remarkable.

Everybody talks about misperceptions about organic food, because we allow all these values we have about food to stand in for it. “Organic” is almost the only info we have about the food we eat, other than the old system of USDA nutrition. We have little or no information about where the food was produced. Organic is the only other largely accepted way to get information about food. Whole Foods has done a wonderful job about creating information about meat. What if that were true at Jewell? What if they had to tell you it’s a 1, or below a 1? Normal people make more responsible decisions when they have this kind of information.

And finally, a few political questions…

“Radical” in its original sense means getting to the root of a problem. Do you see yourself as a radical? If so, in what way?

The idea of a radical in common usage is someone on the fringes. I find myself on the margins a lot of times, by virtue of being drawn to these interesting places. I live in a marginal neighborhood and do marginal work. Renata Adler writes about the radical middle, and I’ve always been drawn to that concept. Maybe being a radical means being the most central. I don’t know….I’m still thinking about that.

What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do in their lives to make them more sustainable/ to improve or alter their relationship with food?

Grow something from seed. Don’t be afraid of it dying–if you’re growing vegetables, you’re going to kill them anyway. Grow something silly, not just basil or lettuce from the DIY grow kit. Save that avocado pit and sprout that. Sprout some popcorn from the bulk bin. Grow some wild flowers in your window box. I was sprouting taro root the other day that was left over from my fridge. These things are all around us. The potatoes we buy are still imbued with life. Cheetos aren’t. They are dead food. But a potato you throw out back will continue to be alive. It’s no wonder it’s healthier for you–it has all the things that keep things alive in it. A potato does you better than a potato chip.

What else would you like to say about these issues?

I had this amazing moment where my own stereotypes were really challenged. Years ago, I was at Kilbourn Greenhouse out on the northwest side, out past Cicero. I was out there doing a seed saver workshop at a harvest festival, and this guy came up. He was a stereotypical west side dad–big, broad-shouldered, with a sports jersey. He was like, “So, tell me about these Monsanto folks–what’s the story with that?” So I talked a little bit about my own thoughts on intellectual property rights in terms of genetics. Then he said, “You know, that stuff really interests me. Me and my wife, we adopted this little girl from Vietnam, and when she came out here, she couldn’t eat any of these processed foods, you know? They made her sick. So we had to get her on this totally non-processed food stuff. Then she was, like, a little bit better. Now we’re moving to the all organic stuff. We were thinking, if it’s better for her, it’s going to be better for us too, you know?” Here was a true blood Black Hawks fan, raising this little girl and completely rethinking the way that he sees food as it relates to nutrition. That may be a different thing than food as it relates to the environment, but it made me so stoked. He probably wasn’t thinking about this stuff beforehand, but faced with the responsibility for the health of another human being, he started to rethink things. As we were talking about with meat, it reinforced my belief that ordinary people will make more responsible choices if they have information to do so.

Thanks so much for talking with me today! And by the way, as a poet and grower and someone who is chronically embarrassed by her nails, I love the photo of your hands on your website. It’s perfect.

Yeah–chipped and a little too long! Just be proud of it.

Interview: Sherry WIlliams and Mr. Lorenzo Young

A conversation with Sherry Williams of the Bronzeville Historical Society with input from Community Member Lorenzo Young.

Sherry Williams was born and raised on the south side of Chicago in the Englewood Community. She is Founder and President of the Bronzeville / Black Chicagoan Historical Society.

Sherry Williams as Mrs. Jane Hughes Liter

Could you please introduce yourself and the Bronzeville Historical Society? 

Sherry:  I am Sherry Williams, the Founder and Director of the Bronzeville Historical Society. The historical society was established in 1999 and we became a 501c3 in 2002. Part of our mission has been to preserve and protect African American history and culture in Chicago.  That includes those African American migrants, more than 2 million, who came to Chicago from the South between the 1860s all the way to the 1950s during the Great Migration.

We, at the Bronzeville Historical Society, have been committed to the protection and care of African American culture including many of the passed on historic backdrops that come with those who migrated to Chicago.  Say for instance, my family who came here from Mississippi in 1942. They brought with them the skill sets to do handicrafts like quilting, crocheting and knitting, and also taking care of the land. My dad, from Cleveland, Mississippi picked cotton and my mom, in Vernice, Mississippi, also picked cotton; they were sharecroppers. Each of them shared with me, by taking trips back and forth between Mississippi and taught me how they cultivated and cared for the Earth.

So, I’ve always understood that the African has been the caretaker of and the steward of the Earth since the beginning of time.  We were purposely brought here as slaves because we already had the knowledge and skills to take care of soil, to take care of planting, to take care of growing things.

Can you speak a little bit about the Bronzeville Historical Society’s connection to issues of food security in the community?

Sherry: The Bronzeville Historical Society has, since 1999, built its capacity to draw people into preserving African American history in Chicago through partnerships and the support of agencies and institutions that advocated for food security and do urban gardening.

One of the organizations that we were so proud to be invited to support was God’s Gang.  This organization was based in Robert Taylor Public Housing at 5256 S. State.  While they were at that location our board of directors and myself were able to support their food pantry.  They distributed food weekly to more than 800 families in the Bronzeville community as well as in the Robert Taylor Public Housing. That was my first experience as a part of a well managed and productive food distribution system to the neighborhood.

Not only did they provide fresh vegetables and food products to the community, they also had a garden.  They raised tilapia, and they also had worms that were grown and sold to whom ever desired to have earthworms for compost and that kind of thing.

It was in 1999 that the Bronzeville Historical Society started supporting organizations for food advocacy and healthy eating. Last year Bronzeville Historical Society branched out on its own to start the African Heritage Garden at the Stephen Douglas State Tomb Site.  In summer of 2012 we planted a garden where we provided access to the neighborhood, free of charge.  Neighbors and friends and other community members were able to have access to tomatoes, collard greens, jute leaf, and some other vegetables.

African Heritage Garden Opening 2013

What do you think the critical issues are now surrounding food in the community?

Sherry: I would say that access is very important.  Mostly because if we take a deep look at schools in or around Bronzeville we would see that largely the students attending public schools are in households that are at or far below the poverty level. Families do not have the financial means to even buy food, so access is definitely my primary concern.

Secondly, I think that policies that have been in place in the city of Chicago have set limitations to those who would like to grow their own food.  For instance, city policies make it very difficult for a homeowner or a community resident to purchase a vacant lot that they may want to turn into a community garden. And because of the limitations to purchase adjacent lots next to your home, many people that have the skill sets and desire to grow their own vegetables and edibles to not have that option.  Again, we have this dependency on stores to provide access to food, but if there aren’t stores near by, that becomes a challenge when you do not have transportation to get to the stores that may be some distance away from home.

Mr. Young: We had a corner store summit last year through the Centers for New Horizons and John Owens.  He had organized a summit of corner store owners because the issue was to provide healthier food choices in the neighborhood. Because a lot of the children just feel that what is on the shelf is what you get and a lot of that is unhealthy. You know, it’s the Flamin’ Hots and the cheap drinks that are high in sugar and other snack foods that are high in sodium content.

Sherry: So true, Mr. Young. We were raised, and when I say we I’m thinking of those born in the ‘40s, ‘50s. 60s, and ‘70s, candy and cakes were desserts and they came way after dinner. They were not on the front of starting the day. But anyone that has eyes has seen young people visit stores tand come out, again as Mr. Young was saying, with Flamin’ Hots and bubblegum and sweets and candy as opposed to going in and getting a sandwich or some other healthy option.  And I am appalled knowing that we are going into two generations of this depletion if not a third generation. I just think that there needs to be a radical and proactive move on the part of us as elders who know that it’s really simple to take over the choices that we offer to our children.

The third thing that is very important is networking. A number of people who have gardens, such as the one that we have here, we may not have the capacity of outreach to tell people.  We rely primarily on people, such as Mr. Lorenzo Young, an advocate for justice in neighborhoods, to spread the word about where people can get access to free greens, or tomatoes, or peppers, or whatever someone is growing in their garden that they are willing to offer to the public. So networking is a real need.

I think that if we create or strengthen a network that is already in place, whether it’s through word of mouth and add it to social media we could see some improved impacts on people having access to food.  I think that that could be something universities should explore having students do. A lot of projects come out of institutions like the Art Institute or the University of Chicago, and many other schools that have relationships with communities and relationships with organizations.  My sharing this story could very well set the tone or at least get someone thinking very deeply about how they can use social media to highlight where there is food to be accessed. So I appreciate the interview.

Even our location here at the Stephen Douglas tomb site, even though we are advocating for children, we are advocating for healthy neighborhoods, we are advocating for healthy food options, those who are in and around the site have to know that.

Mr. Young: The proactiveness of an organization like the Bronzeville Historical Society is to really effect today.  To put folks on track with their heritage and with the idea of them being able to make better choices and build on those choices.  For our young people, to deny their history is to deny their greatness. To know that they are not just some gang member or person living in substandard housing, but that they are the ancestry of kings and queens.

Sherry: I would say another real concern is vending opportunities. I grew up in Englewood and every Saturday, and our delight as children was anticipating the Watermelon Man coming. And so we had a great introduction into eating knowing that when the Watermelon man showed up we would have, you know, fresh bananas, and oranges, and grapes, and strawberries.

So again, I can’t help but think about policies. I remember during Harold Washington’s administration that you could pay something like $15 and get a vendor’s license.  People could pull themselves up by maybe selling socks or, you know, things that really, really kept people with some money in their pocket. So I imagine we really need to look at why there isn’t strong policy to encourage vending opportunities. People could have pop-up vending stands near and around schools, near and around churches, near and around even this state site [the Stephen Douglas Tomb] where people could just go ahead and sell fresh tomatoes, and fresh greens, and other things that are produced locally.

And I think it has been a very deliberate design to keep communities locked into not being able to feed themselves and not being able to raise their own gardens and not being able to barter or even vend.  And it’s the tragedy of the African American community because these are really simple things that I know have had a huge impact on what we now see as the daily diet of our kids.

Again, I grew up in a household where the cake and the candy was an option only after you ate a solid meal and we were monitored very closely about eating too many sweets. Now I am seeing more and more kids who have to feed themselves and they will chose a fast food as opposed to learning to cook.

So, I guess I would add that as the fifth thing, is a return to Home Economics and cooking classes in the schools.

Mr. Young: You’re so right, because, you know, actually you can get by much less expensively by cooking for yourself. When you start going into that freezer and buying that prepared food you’re paying for it.  You know, a couple of potatoes, some onions, green, you know, kidney beans, rice and other grains…

Sherry: Young people don’t know how to cook at all. It’s one of the very basic things I’ve found young people really thirsty to learn how to do.

I remember very well when my mom, an excellent cook, taught me how to prepare beans. When I reached 11 that was the first thing my mom taught me to prepare was beans. She would call from work and walk me through learning how to soak them, and sort through them to make sure there were no twigs or anything, and then rinsing them and putting them in water and on the stove an adding the onion and garlic, and salt and pepper. By the time my mom would come home at 5:30 the beans were near done so it didn’t take much after that to pan fry some steak or put some fish in the oven, or whatever was going to compliment the beans.

I cook everyday and a lot of young people think it’s hard work, but once you learn how to prepare and line up your kitchen with the ingredients for seasoning and you keep some beans and some rice and you are ready.  That’s all you need is some beans and some rice in the house [laughs].

A lot of young people really don’t know about shopping either and that is the other thing that goes along with home economics returning to schools. Young people need to learn how to budget so they know they can save money by cooking a meal rather than spending money out.

I can’t go without lastly saying the need for sharing and teaching how to grow plants. I was very fortunate that I had elders whom I could go to and get advice on how to plant and how to grow. I remember so well when Caroline Thomas, of God’s Gang, told me to go out and get the Farmer’s Almanac so we could use it as a tool to guide us for planting.  Still today I browse the Almanac to give me some idea of when to plant. Teaching young people how to plant and grow their own food is very, very important for the development of a healthy neighborhood.  That would be a huge remedy for the lack of access.

So many Black communities are called food deserts, so if we can return home economics and add gardening and teaching planting and cultivating food we could turn this around for our young people.

Mr. Young: As far as the city goes, and the state, they need to provide a motivation, a start up capitol, for retail opportunities. We’ve been talking about the grand scheme of community gardening, and harvesting, and selling back to the community. To have a fresh fruit market where people could go and stuff isn’t brought in from South America, but it is grown right here.

And see, that’s another piece, because I remember the seasons and I remember when it was peach season. I remember my grandmother was, you know, getting her peaches and preparing them for the winter. And when strawberries came we had strawberry shortcake and then they passed. That to me was just a part of the whole fabric of the culture. We’ve lost all these things and, you know, if we could do our own gardening we could at least start getting back to that because kids would know this is the season.  So that’s it, we need to attack these issues in the food deserts. Somebody told me they didn’t like that term food deserts.

Sherry: It might have been me. [laughs] Because, you know, to me the word “desert’ denotes an emptiness and I look at it rather as challenges of access.

I know that by design it has been that we haven’t been able to open our own stores, and when I say we I mean African Americans.  And I know that we haven’t been able to vend our own food to each other. And I know that we haven’t had access to the vacant lots to make them productive, and not only for food, but also for beautification and for play lots.

When I hear the word desert I think of abandoned and empty, but it’s not, we just know there is an access issue and there aren’t many options for many people to get fresh food. I used to cry just about everyday when I was working in the Robert Taylor public housing, to see 3-400 families a day, just in one building and there wasn’t a store on the first floor that could offer fresh produce. Many institutions were working with parents and working with families that wee in public housing but a lot of needs were not being met.

We have a lot of work to do.

Additional Links:

The Industria Heritage Archives

Nature on the Freedom Trail (video)

Harvest Garden Program, Chicago Park District

By Sarah K. Benning