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.