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‘An entire lifetime’: Peter Coyote publishes 50 years of poems in ‘Tongue of a Crow’

Coyote in conversation

What: Peter Coyote in conversation with Anthony Lee Head on his book of poetry, “Tongue of a Crow.”

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 13

To reserve for online event: copperfieldsbooks.com and click on events

Author and actor Peter Coyote of Sebastopol has a lot to crow about this fall.

The native of Englewood, New Jersey, who first came west in 1964 to study creative writing in San Francisco, has published his first book of poetry, “Tongue of a Crow.” The collection, released in mid-September by the literary press Four Way Books of New York, brings to light 49 poems he scribbled down over five decades, then hid away a desk drawer.

Five years ago, Coyote started shaping, sharpening and condensing these poems with the help of poet Patrick Donnelly, an arduous task that paid off when it came time to find a publisher.

“It’s pretty exciting to hold 50 years of work in my hand,” Coyote said in early October. “This is an entire lifetime … in this very thin book.”

Coyote’s collection of poetry gives readers an intimate glimpse into his multifaceted life as an activist, actor and Zen Buddhist priest. Through poetry, he explores the mysteries of his childhood, spirituality, love, marriage and divorce. The poems are not organized chronologically, but together, they create a cohesive narrative of a man who lived not always wisely, but too well.

Over the past two decades, Coyote has written two nonfiction works: “Sleeping Where I Fall,” an autobiography published in 1998 that traces his 15-year ride through the anarchist, activist and street theater scene of the ’60s and ’70s; and “The Rainman’s Third Cure: An Irregular Education,” a memoir published in 2015 that describes the mentors who shaped his life, from his stockbroker father to Beat poet Gary Snyder.

“Peter Coyote’s poems are every bit as wonderful as his memoirs,” author Anne Lamott of Marin County wrote in a cover blurb. “Rich and lively, sweet and perplexed, full of sorrow and laughter, love and lovers, soul and bodies, Zen and wild Mother Nature, truth, hope, disappointment, resurrection. i.e. Life with a capital L.”

While privately developing his voice as a poet, Coyote rose to fame in the public’s ears for another kind of voice: the gravelly, grave speaking voice he uses to narrate films, especially the dozen-or-so documentaries produced by Ken Burns, including “The Roosevelts” (2014), “The Vietnam War” (2017), “Country Music” (2019) and “Hemingway” (2021).

“My voice killed my career as a bank robber,” Coyote joked. “I’d go in with a mask, and the teller would say, ‘Peter Coyote was in here for a robbery.’”

The multitalented artist has another reason to celebrate this month. After surviving the counterculture drugs and free sex era of the ’60s and ’70s, then finding a path to tranquility and peace through Zen Buddhism, he will turn 80 Oct. 10.

The Press Democrat talked with Coyote recently about everything from the role of poetry in his life to his role as a Zen Buddhist priest and his new book, due out in December, which Coyote described as a “loss leader” for Buddhism. This interview has been condensed.

Q: You first came to San Francisco in 1964 to study creative writing at San Francisco State University. Does it feel like your life has come full circle?

A: I came out here to be a poet. There was a very brilliant poet named Robert Duncan that I admired. His IQ was off the charts. He would give these lectures and jump from Greek oracles to Ezra Pound. … I just couldn’t understand anything he said, and all the other kids were nodding very sagely. And I just thought “I’m too dumb for poetry now,” so I left grad school.

I kept writing poems — I never stopped — and I kept shoving them in drawers. When I was about 75, I opened my drawer, and there’s this pile of poems. And I thought, my poor kids are going to find this and feel responsible.

So I called (poet) Bob Hass’ wife, and she turned me onto somebody else, and then I got to Patrick Donnelly, who works in Massachusetts. And we started working on five poems every few weeks, over the course of two years. He sent this book to Four Ways Press, which is run by Martha Rhodes, a brilliant poet. He said, “Don’t get your hopes up.” And she accepted my book in three days.

Q: Why does the world need another book of poetry?

A: That’s like asking why does the world need precision, clarity, surprise, beauty and intelligence. That’s what a poem is. It’s a condensation of those things, all applied to language and some events, and the consonance between those events.

I can’t say the world needs poetry more than oxygen, but they coexist. But I know I do need poetry. We swim in this soup of inchoate feelings, and sometimes when you try to commit it to a poem, it takes a lot to work to pull out all the tendrils. It’s an in-depth meeting with your own mind, which is what meditation is. I’m a Zen Buddhist priest, and I’ve been a meditator for a long time. So I see a lot of resonances between meditation and other things.

Coyote in conversation

What: Peter Coyote in conversation with Anthony Lee Head on his book of poetry, “Tongue of a Crow.”

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 13

To reserve for online event: copperfieldsbooks.com and click on events

Q: You’ve made more than 140 films. Why did you go into acting?

A: I thought I needed a steady income. At the end of the ’60s, which actually occurred around ’72 or ’73, I was the single father of a daughter. My dad had died more than broke, and I had no money. One of my friends, (poet) Gary Snyder, won the Pulitzer and Jerry Brown was governor. He asked Snyder to start a state arts council, and Gary called me and asked me to help him. The next year I was elected chairman, and I raised the budget from $1 to $18 million dollars, and I was pretty cranky after four years.

But it gave me such confidence that I learned how to talk to all kinds of people, and I decided to try acting. A brilliant guy named John Kreidler put in a grant to hire artists, and I was one of 100 people that got hired (through CETA, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act). I told myself I’d try the movies for five years … and I got lucky. I was the right age, the leading ladies were worried about their sell-by date, and they wanted to be seen with older guys. I was competent, but I knew I was never going to be Daniel Day-Lewis.

That has its own humiliations, to be in something that you know you are never going to rise above a certain float. But I am grateful for it. It took me all around the world and got my kids through graduate school debt-free. But I don’t mind leaving it behind.

Q: You found your voice as a poet, but you also discovered the physical quality of your voice. What made you ideal as a film narrator?

A: I have my mother’s voice box. She has a very deep and throaty voice, and she was the star of her own film noir. She called everyone darling and had a cigarette dangling and was very elegant.

My skill is that I can take the listener through complicated sentences and never lose them. I think that’s what Ken Burns most appreciates about me. He can write a sentence with many phrases in it, and when I speak it, I’ll never lose you. That’s what I consider my actual skill. I can’t take credit for the voice my mom gave me.

Q: When did you get interested in Zen Buddhism?

A: I started reading Buddhism books in my teens, when I was 14 or 15, because of the Beat (poets). I was so impressed by them, but I never met any Buddhists until I met Gary Snyder. I saw the way he lived, and in 1973, I started going out with a girl who was at the Zen Center in San Francisco. So it stuck.

Q: When did you first start writing poems?

A: I wrote a poem when I was 8 that convinced my father that I was Marcel Proust. But he was easy to fool. There are a number of poems in the book that look back on childhood. There’s one about fishing, and one about killing a groundhog, and a couple about my mom being half in the bag in the afternoon and teaching me to make her drinks.

Sun of Honey

Preparing my daily rounds

after days of rain.

New sun climbs

the high garden wall,

piano notes

drip off ivy

each tapped leaf

a pressed key.

- - -

The still bright day

glissades and chords

two voices —

girl and man —

caress an aria.

Sudden heat on my cheek

love of this honey-sunned world.

I can’t move.

Pierced by beauty

as if swarmed

by bees,

everything just

this moment

arrived.

— Peter Coyote

Q: How do these poems reflect how you evolved over the years?

A: I hope they are accurate snapshots. Trying to figure out who you are is like trying to take a snapshot of a river. It’s hard to know because it’s constantly moving. But I’ve tried to make each moment accurate to my perception of it.

Q: What did it feel like to go back over these poems with an editor?

A: Initially, it was humiliating. He would take a poem that was 12 stanzas long and would find the two stanzas that are the actual poem. But then as time went on, I really learned how to interrogate poems myself, the way he did. That was the real skill that he taught me. I got better and better at it. I’m still not completely confident to edit them without Patrick looking at them, but our work together is much different. We are thinking together much more quickly, instead of me whining and saying, “Why?”

Q: Why did you dedicate the poetry book to your sister, Elizabeth Ann West?

A: My baby sister died in 2017. It’s one of the few losses in my life I can’t quite get used to. We talked every Sunday. We laughed for an hour on the phone. We had the same sense of humor. She was a great person, extremely practical, brilliant and very funny. … Most losses lose their sting after a while, but this one hasn’t.

Q: What is the process like, for you, of writing a poem?

A: I think it just comes out of your life. You get an image, a line, a few words. It’s like a song. You just sit down, and you write that down. Then you see what comes next. You don’t know where it’s going. Something moved you.

And all art starts like this. It starts from a hunch. Then you make a line, write a sentence, put in a dash of color. You look at it and analyze it. Where does that want to go? It’s kind of mysterious. Nobody owns it. It comes over the spinal telephone.

Q: The title of the book, “Tongue of the Crow,” comes from your poem “Six Cold Comforts.” What does that title mean to you?

A:

People used to have a myth that if you split the tongue of a crow, they can talk English. But crows can talk without splitting their tongue. They’ve been taught to say words.

You don’t have to actually split the tongue of the crow, but people do these things. To get something you want, (they think) you have to hurt something. It is a series of brutal, unhappy images. They are like little snapshots of the world.

Q: You have another new book coming out in December, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Meet Buddha: Masks, Meditation and Improvised Play to Induce Liberated States.” What is that book about?

A: For 45 years or so, I have been doing classes where I do acting exercises and improv work. Eventually, I put masks on people, hold a mirror up to them, and they will discover a character in the mask that will take them over. For about 10 minutes, they will have no shyness, second-guessing or self-consciousness. By the time they’ve done that three times, they understand the Buddhist concept of no fixed self, because they have had three different experiences of being someone else.

After a lifetime, we feel cast in bronze and that we can’t change. But the whole thing about meditation is that no, you are not cast in bronze. All the stuff you are afraid of is just habits.

I’m almost finished with a third book, “Vernacular Zen.” The point of that book is to unwrap the Japanese gift-wrapping of Zen and to show the real gift underneath so that Americans can understand it.

I’ve been doing Dharma Talks during the pandemic, from March 2020 to March 2021. They are just talks from a Buddhist point of view on all aspects of life in America. (petercoyote.com or youtube.com/c/HoshoPeterCoyoteDharma/videos)

Q: You’ve lived in Sebastopol for six years now. What do you like about it?

A: I like everything about it. It reminds me of Marin (County) when I moved there for the first time in 1964. … In 1983, I moved back to Mill Valley and lived there until six years ago.

In Sebastopol, I live in an area with three dead-end roads, on a 1.5-acre farm with a 1,700-square-foot house. There are a lot of people my age who have been there, done that, and don’t want any bulls--- in their lives. My neighbors and I all hang out on Fridays in the neighborhood.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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