Poet and translator Andrew Schelling has been fascinated by Jaime de Angulo for forty years. Though largely forgotten, de Angulo is a seminal figure in California's rich history: a homesteader, unparalleled student of Native languages, radio pioneer (his "Indian Tales," broadcast on KPFA in the late 1940s, are available online), and more.
Stephen talked with Schelling about Tracks Along the Left Coast: Jaime de Angulo and Pacific Coast Culture, a work long in the making and the the role of this important, overlooked figure.
Point Reyes Books: Who, in a nutshell, was Jaime de Angulo, and what essential information should we know about him and his role in West coast poetics and history?
Andrew Schelling: It would be tough to wrestle de Angulo into a nutshell—he was awfully wild. But I’ll give a try. During the 1920s and early ‘30s he was a self-trained linguist, the finest recorder of Native California languages and old time stories on the Pacific Coast. He worked on almost thirty Indian languages. He was a bohemian counterculture anarchist who carved a homestead out in Big Sur, when that jagged, gorgeous coast was days from the nearest stage post. He wrote short poems full of power and medicine, not like anyone else’s. His greatest work was oral though—100 broadcasts called “Indian Tales” he did for Berkeley’s KPFA radio in 1950. These hold what I call the real history of California, and form one of the great ungraspable works of American literature. His bohemian life, serious fieldwork, and wild reputation turned into a cycle of trickster tales. Stories have circulated up and down the Pacific Coast for a hundred years.
PRB: Jaime de Angulo's influence on Pacific Coast culture seems incredibly broad, yet he seems to have fallen by the wayside. Do you think there's a reason for this?
AS: He never had any books. Lots of linguistic writing, some published, some not. His books did not come out until he was dead. By then he was a figure of the imagination—friend of great Native storytellers and doctors like Blind Hall, William Benson, Old Kate—a companion to Robinson Jeffers, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Carl Jung, Henry Miller. I don’t think critics and academics feel easy with someone hard to pin down, who slips free of category. But accounts of him are vivid outside official or academic channels. The Roman Catholics have stories, the linguists have stories, the Indians have stories, the poets have stories, the back woods homesteaders have stories. Many of these people don’t talk to each other. In a very real way, you have to sit around a campfire and listen to different people for a long, long time, if you want to know about Jaime de Angulo.
PRB: Your interest in de Angulo goes back 40 years or so. Have you been working on this book actively during all that time or has it been an off-and-on affair?
AS: I thought about this book for forty years. It took a long while to see what kind of book I could make. I didn’t want to write a biography or critical study. I needed something that would further de Angulo’s work—add to the deep mythic culture he was part of, not try to explain it. He was a figure in an ecosystem, a Pacific Coast ecosystem of poems, medicine power, personalities, and creation myths. I had to account for the ecosystem, not just the person. I also think I had to live in a completely different culture—away from Northern California—for a while. Once I moved to Colorado I got a different way of looking at the Left Coast.
PRB: You are a poet, translator, naturalist, ecologist, and more. Can you speak of how these various roles relate to (or are inseparable from) each other? In other words, how does your poetry and translation inform your ecological and natural studies?
AS: I think in recent decades writers began to see that a poem—or any piece of writing—is an ecosystem. A book is a field of energy. It has metabolic pathways, food chains, and snaking syntax. Strange creatures walk into it. It is not just a bunch of ideas. The closer I peer into language, the more I see how each one resembles an eco-zone. I think North American poetry is nothing without a full ecology of languages. This means the range of world poetry, much of it oral, most of it non-Western. It helps you get free from official culture, which is a very narrow region, like a strip mall. Myth and speech and land are all much wilder. Knowing the land, thinking about the language you speak, these seem inseparable to me. I hope in a few hundred years people will look back at our poets and say, wow, they really had something, those Western Americans, they really knew something about their world.
Poet and translator, ANDREW SCHELLING has written or edited twenty books. For more than twenty years he has been on the faculty of Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School, and he also teaches at Deer Park Institute, in Himachal Pradesh, India.