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