There are a few people who occupy a place in the history of Appalachian literature and activism that is foundational. From his childhood in West Virginia and absorbing everything around him in the surrounding hills, to his work as an Appalachian poet, scholar, and activist, the late Bob Snyder was one of the driving forces of the literature, culture, and activism that would give rise to the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative and other organizations that help shape our understanding of Appalachia. A new collection of his poetry. Milky Way Accents, & Selected Works, edited by Kirk Judd and Edwina Pendarvis, has been posthumously published by Dos Madres Press. UACC Core member Pauletta Hansel recently hosted a live Zoom reading from this collection, Milky Way Accent by Bob Snyder: A Reading by His Friends and Fans, available on YouTube. I can offer barely a thumbnail of all there is to tell about Bob Snyder, but here goes…
There were some crucial points in Bob Snyder’s career and development that solidified his place in Appalachian literature, politics, and cultural activism. Ernie Mynatt, the person so central to urban Appalachia and one of the leaders in Appalachian activism in Cincinnati, was a powerful influence on Bob Snyder. Bob’s sister, Yvonne Farley, told me that “in the late 1960s, Bob was living in Cincinnati. It was there that he met Ernie Mynatt. Bob always credited Ernie with making him acutely aware of his Appalachian identity.” It is important to note that a force for Appalachian identity and culture was in some measure nudged into place by someone so deeply tied to the history of UACC.
To pin down the specific thing at the heart of Bob Snyder’s life and work is impossible, but Appalachian identity is certainly one. Kirk Judd, an Appalachian poet who knew Bob well, explained that “we were all trying to counteract the stereotypes in our work; it was the writers and poets who were leading the charge in social activism on behalf of Appalachians.” Bob Snyder was one of the most potent of these writers and activists, defying the stereotype of the rural and ignorant hillbilly in both word and deed.
It was in Cincinnati that the germ of what would become a central feature of Bob Snyder’s work took hold. In an interview with Bob Henry Baber published first in Appalachian Journal and reprinted in Interviewing Appalachia, Bob Snyder explained: “When I was in Cincinnati, I was thinking about how I would write about being in West Virginia. It started expressing itself at the school (University of Cincinnati) with creative writing urges. I know it sounds insane to think you’re afraid of being a weirdo. But artistically and culturally, the world stands on its head, and things that are natural and sensible are very difficult to express.” The bind of being a displaced Appalachian brought the issue of being Appalachian to the fore. With these ideas stirring, he went on to take a central role in the formation of what would become a literary renaissance of Appalachian artists.
In his capacity of Director of Antioch College/ Appalachia, which he founded, and as a member of the faculty, Bob Snyder put his ideas to work. This satellite of the Antioch Network of the 1970s began in Huntington, West Virginia, and then moved to Beckley. People came from all over the region to participate in this academic experiment that put Appalachia at the center of a great swirl of people and ideas. Philosophy was at the core of so much of Bob Snyder’s thinking. But poetry was the fire that drove both the academic moment and the participants of Antioch/ Appalachia. It was here that they launched a literary journal called “What’s a Nice Hillbilly Like You…?”. It was here that the “Soupbean Poets” came into existence, named by Pauletta Hansel, one of the young poets who attended Antioch and helped form the group. Poetry was the fuel and the product of Antioch/ Appalachia and the surrounding areas, even as poetry served as the conduit for the politics and culture of Appalachia.
The Appalachian Renaissance grew out of the vast energy of the 1960s and 70s which pervaded all of America at the time. Historically silenced groups began to express themselves politically, but also through literature and art. Core member Pauletta Hansel says this was formative to her as an Appalachian poet, and this time and place were bound up with other movements throughout the country: “Appalachian Renaissance of which both the Soupbean Poets and the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative were part was connected both in time and spirit to the Black Arts Movement, the writers of Second-Wave Feminism, the Native American Renaissance, and other identity-based literary movements of the ’60s and ’70s.” Antioch/ Appalachia, with Bob Snyder at the helm, became a crucible for Appalachian arts, literature, and politics to flourish and take flight.
People were drawn to Bob Snyder for all kinds of reasons. Yvonne remembers her brother as being a natural teacher. “He had me reading Bertrand Russell when I was just a kid!” Kirk Judd recalls that “Bob was the guiding light in so much of what we did, even if at times he seemed like a light from another planet.” After Antioch/ Appalachia and most of the Antioch Network closed, Bob Snyder’s natural propensity for teaching led him to obtain a Doctorate in Education from Harvard University. His work was deeply intellectual, but Bob had little interest in getting mired in institutional confines. Yvonne Farley told me “Bob hated bosses.” Bob Snyder was much more likely to be found in the dive bars of Boston, Huntington, or Cincinnati than at the faculty lounge of any university. The poets, jazz musicians, and general weirdos were more Bob’s speed than faculty meetings.
Bob Snyder was deeply influenced by a combination of the socialism he gleaned from his grandparents and developed throughout his life of living and learning and a distinctly Zen way of looking at the world. Kirk Judd described Bob Snyder as a Buddhist, but Kirk is quick to qualify this by explaining that this is a limiting term when comes to Bob Snyder. In Kirk Judd’s estimation, Bob Snyder saw the affinities between “the agrarian culture of rural Appalachia and the eastern philosophy of the Buddhists.” This speaks to just how voracious Bob Snyder was in his life. He recognized no boundaries or borders, and while he is most assuredly a voice of and for Appalachia, his poetry and thought speaks from and to the world at large. Yvonne Farley puts it best when she says that “Bob liked to see the Universal in the particular.” By grasping the universal from within his own (and our own) particular, Bob Snyder taught, led, and inspired countless people to begin the process of claiming Appalachia for Appalachians while he offered the world a poetry that speaks to the world. As Kirk Judd said in remembering Bob Snyder, “All good writers write from their center, and that reflects where you are in the Milky Way when you write.” Bob Snyder’s collection, Milky Way Accents, & Selected Works, is available from Dos Madres Press. You can read a review of Bob Snyder’s book here: https://www.dosmadres.com/michael-templeton-reviews-milky-way-accent-by-bob-snyder/.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.