Category: Criticism

American Pandemic, a poem by David Garyan, published in Interlitq

“American Pandemic” was first published in Volume 12 of The American Journal of Poetry (January 1st, 2022). Volume 12 was the final issue of The AJP before it ceased publication. The archive remained available for some months, until early 2023, after which the website disappeared completely.

Please click here read the story behind the initiative to republish all my work.


 

American Pandemic (The President’s Prayer)

For although you may have absolutely no choice in some matters, this does not mean the things you must do in these moments are absolutely right.
—Wilde 3:16

Dear Lord, today we give
thanks for no longer
having to fear the rapists
living next door to us—
at least those who,
out of their own volition,
did trust in the miracles
of science and go down
to the nearest vaccination center,
where shots
of AstraZeneca are done—
approved, of course, by the CDC and EU,
for its benefits
lie precisely in the fact
that it has killed
a trivial amount
of people,
and was made
by a British-Swedish company,
unlike Sputnik,
which, regrettably,
also, did ice
a similarly trivial amount,
but was, of course,
made by the Russians—
a dilemma, indeed,
for if the rapist
had simply chosen
Slavic vaccination,
it would’ve prevented
him from entering indoor
venues like movie theaters and schools,
much less having access to Europe,
where this vaccine,
along with the Chinese Sinovac,
are still under rolling review,
all for your own safety, of course.
Dear Lord, though we must keep walking
through the valley of the shadow of death,
we will fear no evil;
for Thy Protestant and Catholic
vaccines will protect us,
while the heathens of the East—
Orthodox Slavs and Chinese communists, that is,
will be barred from entering
the Schengen Area
for having disobeyed Thy command,
and taken jabs
from the forbidden list of vaccines.
For we know that your only
begotten Son, Jesus,
cares not whatsoever about all Christians,
nor even those recognized
by the United Nations,
but only those G-7 (formerly G-8) Christians,
who by their burden of upholding
democracy, human rights,
and women’s rights,
(two different things altogether,
as women aren’t humans),
did follow the true path of Thy Son
when they expelled Russia
from this hallowed community
after its illegal annexation of Crimea.
Lord, we ask that you give us
patience and strength
in this time of uncertainty—
for our other neighbor, Bill,
living with his lovely family
just four houses down,
are followers of Jehovah’s Witnesses;
despite having frequently made generous
donations to charities fighting poverty
in Sub-Saharan Africa,
they remain unvaccinated due to their beliefs—
thus posing bigger threats
than the very rapist living next door,
who, in fact, holds a bachelor’s degree
in pharmacology,
and this he received from Tufts,
meaning he has rightly
been ordained as a monk of science,
with fervent faith in all the hottest biology.
Indeed, our dear Lord,
it helps neither Bill,
who once rescued two children
from a burning building,
nor his pleasant family
that often volunteers
to pick up trash in their neighborhood,
to be good, yet unvaccinated Christians.
For the Lord so commanded:
Thou must let all vaccinated
fornicators into heaven,
for if they present
the Green Pass,
and it is valid,
every sin and transgression henceforth
shall be forgiven by the glory of God.
Let us rejoice, sweet Jesus,
and let the miscreants inside!
For it is at once righteous to do so,
but, alas, also legally necessary,
for Lord Fauci,
in all his infinite
scientific glory
and wisdom,
hath ordained that full
vaccination bestows
full immunity
against any sexual misdemeanor,
and perhaps even felony,
but only so long as blood
tests can show
the presence of antibodies;
heathen Bill, however,
can neither be allowed
to keep his job,
nor attend any community functions,
and his satanic family
shall have to wear medieval
masks of shame wherever they go.
Let us pray, dear Lord,
that blasphemous Bill
and his infernal ménage
continue being good Christians,
for their donations
and community service are important,
but let us, nevertheless,
wholly distance ourselves socially,
for they cannot be spoken
to until they receive the sacrament of vaccine.
But let us all the while, dear Lord,
invite the rapist—
provided he agrees to wear a mask
and continues, like before, observing
social distancing rules,
because, indeed, the sacrament of vaccine
works not miracles every time,
something the pharmacologist offender,
or more aptly, offender pharmacologist,
knows very well;
and so, in the name of Jesus, our Savior,
let us pray for that gentle predator,
for he has become
the epitome
of responsibility,
and a shining example
of good fellowship
towards Woman (and also Man,
but only in rare homosexual cases—
for let us not, dear God, tolerate
those who discriminate
against a misfit
that prefers chasing men),
for he knows not only
all the hip sciences,
but also totally trusts
every hip doctor and science,
even when they say
opposite things.
Let us hence rejoice
and place our faith
in that rapist,
for he truly cares
about the safety of others,
even when he’s raping them,
for he will not lay hands
on any unvaccinated souls—
no matter how strong
his urge to do so may be,
and in this way, our heavenly Father,
we didst finally see
a prominent drop
in not only COVID infections,
but also cases of sexual assault;
these latter numbers, howbeit,
are neither relevant nor crucial,
for we’re not so concerned
with them these days,
mostly because developing
vaccines against battery,
even the sexual type,
is scientifically impossible.
And so Lord, we ask that you bless
and watch over
the sexual deviants,
(but only the inoculated)
for before Johnson and Johnson
they were blind,
but now they can see,
and protect also those who took
Moderna, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca,
and especially young women
who took AstraZeneca,
since they are most at risk
of dying from it,
but let us, oh Lord, have faith
and renounce our fright—
for these fair maidens
are now vaccinated
and no longer need Thou;
truly, they hath nothing
left to fear,
for we know
that all the world’s problems
disappear after full vaccination,
two weeks after the second dose, that is.
Have no mercy, howbeit, on those who took Sputnik,
for pride, tyranny, and wickedness cannot last,
but the righteous shall live by Western-approved
jabs and that holy democracy worthy of us all—
the one which accidentally bombs
civilian targets in Afghanistan,
but only under a Democratic administration;
a Republican democracy where civilian
targets are accidentally hit,
can, absolutely, not be tolerated.
Our Father who art in heaven,
we need good, honest democratic
leaders who blow up churches and schools
in the name of Saint Schumer,
of whom the public does approve
no matter what he commands,
and if there be doubt,
it shall excuse his failures
as honest blunders;
the same mistakes
just across the aisle, however,
must properly and justly incur the wrath
of all left-leaning news networks out there,
because that is what it means to be fair,
balanced, and objective, in the name of Christ Almighty.
We ask, also, in this time of uncertainty, dear Lord,
that you promptly hear the grievances aired
by the LGBTQIA+E=mc2@admissions.caltech.edu community—
for on numerous occasions
they’ve demanded that bombs
dropped on civilian targets
proudly display Pride flags on them,
otherwise protests will erupt
across the whole country.
We pray, as well, that all who deny
the scientific thrust behind
these rockets be labeled
provocateurs and Republicans—
meaning anyone from Afghanistan
must display proof of bombing,
preferably with QR codes,
before we can consider them refugees,
much less admit them to this country,
which, supposedly, isn’t a Christian one,
but whose presidents have all been Christian.
And so, in the name of all that’s holy, dear Lord,
please forgive us for putting
sanitizer dispensers
inside your churches,
and wearing masks,
for it’s nothing personal
against you or the miracles
you’ve worked on this earth;
it’s just that washing your hands
frequently absolves us of all sins—
for if Pontius Pilate only had some Purrell
that day he was to condemn
your only begotten Son,
there would be nothing
he would need to answer for today.
Dear Jesus, please know
that if and when you decide
to have your Second Coming,
all the vaccinated rapists,
murderers, and pillagers
will be free to attend the event,
which is scheduled to be held
at the LA Convention Center,
or perhaps Madison Square Garden,
depending on parking—
strictly observing, of course,
all the social distancing
protocols recommended by the CDC.
And if the people
ever decide to crucify
you once more,
something they are bound
to do sooner or later,
proof of vaccination
will no longer suffice;
given the more exciting nature
of this particular spectacle,
negative PCR tests (valid for 48 hours)
and cavity searches will be required
to access the crucifixion site,
for when it comes to safety,
no right or freedom
is sacred enough to uphold.
Oh, hallelujah, dear Lord,
we pray that the planet
and every hallowed
thing you created,
in the name of the Father,
the Son, and Holy Spirit,
simply go to shit
while our chosen leaders
sit there and figure out
how to save us from COVID;
for there are maps, statistics,
and analysis, sweet Jesus—
so much scientific scripture
capable of showing us all,
and very precisely at that,
how fucked up things have become.
Do you not see, my brethren,
that the US registered
148,202 new cases today,
which, on a fourteen day spectrum,
represents a twenty-nine percent increase?
Have the numbers and colorful graphs
not made an impression, my dear brothers?
For if we can’t quantify something,
the problem isn’t worth solving.
And is it not such a tragedy
that we have more vaccines
than anyone knows what to do with?
For in Pelosi 2:3-4 it is so written:
When Moderna ran out,
Fauci’s mother turned and said to him—
“They have no more Western vaccines.”
But that Son of Science so replied:
“Woman, why do you involve me?
My hour has not come yet.”
And after having ordered the syringes
to be filled with Sputnik,
the patients were given those injections
and all were then amazed
they had turned into Pfizer.
The Son of Science did this—
the first of his many signs,
in Cana of America,
and it revealed his glory,
and his disciples believed in him.
So now we must jab them all,
starting with dead people
and unborn fetuses
that can no longer be aborted,
for if daily quotas are not met,
the UN will come raining down
on our asses like a goddamn fucking
firestorm with their resolutions
that have never been legally binding
anyways, hence why be afraid?
And so, feel free to keep committing
your war crimes, my fellow African dictators,
for though they might say
and even shout a lot at the UN,
fear not, I command, fear not—
for everyone sitting
in those plush chairs
will be much content
to have heard the pretty sounds
of their own voices,
only to have done nothing at all
about the problems
they so enjoyed discussing;
at most, they shall show
“deep concern about the rising
tensions in the Middle East and Africa,”
but this too shall pass,
and with some persistence,
you’ll be free to plunder again,
without those pesky
colonizers (Europeans, that is)
scolding you for being colonizers.
And so, my brothers,
forget the rising levels of racism,
greed, and unhappiness,
for there’s no science
behind them anyways—
no graphs, maps, or tables
to show us the daily increase
in anti-Semitism, apartheid,
or even xenophobia,
for all the lab rats
working in democratic countries
have yet to develop vaccines
against these pandemics,
but if there’s no jab
to solve the problem,
then there’s no problem
to begin with—
nothing worth inspecting
any longer.
Just to be safe, howbeit,
keep distancing yourself
from Blacks, Asians,
Latinos, and anyone who isn’t White,
including Arabs and Persians
with American passports,
some of whom may look
and act “Caucasian,”
but don’t be deceived, my brothers,
and remember the famous Bible passage,
Shakespeare 3:16, Act I, Scene III:
Libyans and Iranians
can cite US passports
for their own purpose.
Also never forget
the Civil Rights Movement,
and which color of skin
was then barred
from entering buildings
and using facilities,
even before the Green Pass;
but let us, dear Lord,
remain vigilant as ever,
for unvaccinated Whites,
especially the poor ones,
now pose the same threat
as vaccinated Iraqis
and Afghans with US passports;
alas, should the unjabbed
Whitey, however,
happen to be quite wealthy,
then we must consider
this proof of vaccination,
because gaining COVID
from Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
then dying from it
bestows both status
and upward mobility
upon the dead one,
while catching COVID
from a homeless drunk
then dying from that
is simply a tragedy—
upward mobility
without any fame.
Oh, dear Lord, we pray to heaven
that you get with the program at last
and allow just fully vaccinated
souls into your kingdom;
it would also be nice, sweet Jesus,
if you could demand
that the certificates be shown
in digital form,
with QR codes and cavity checks
and the whole nine yards, really,
for so many have already
been tempted by Satan,
and bought fake certificates
on Telegram and WhatsApp—
a clever business model
with great revenue streams,
something deeply upsetting
for the bureaucrats of Big Pharma.
On the other hand, dear Lord,
Big Tobacco may have cause
for celebration, as some studies
have shown that smoking
may help prevent COVID—
indeed, it doth appear as if nicotine
interferes with ACE2 receptors,
thereby preventing the virus
from entering cells.
Hallelujah, our Father in heaven!
We pray in the name
of your only begotten Son
that all the smokers in Kentucky
will now rise up and initiate
protests demanding mandatory puffing
measures at work, schools,
and hospitals,
but especially hospitals,
for no freedom,
and this we swear,
is sacred enough
to give up in the name of safety,
even the freedom to breathe.
Starting next week,
mandatory proof
of smoking shall
be presented
at the entrance
of every gym, restaurant,
and nursing home.
Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, fellow brethren!
And as with vaccines,
connoisseurs of Russian cigarettes
will absolutely
be prohibited from entering
any indoor venues,
until the proper clinical trials
can be carried out;
the CDC has already
scheduled rolling reviews
to see if cancer sticks
made by former communist heathens
pose the same health risks
as those made in the free world,
because only the cancerous kinds—
the ones with arsenic,
liberty, and lead inside them
have been known to interfere
with the aforementioned ACE2 receptors.
So far, the CDC has only approved
the democratic cigarettes of Marlboro,
Newport, and Camel against the coronavirus—
in clinical trials, they’ve shown
a smashing 99 percent effectiveness
in killing people before they contract COVID,
much lower than the despotic
brands of Russia,
which have far less additives
and kill only 89 percent of subjects,
but these are just the results
of one medical study funded by Republicans;
the very same study funded by Democrats
showed that Russian cigarettes
kill people on contact,
with vaccinated Americans
from ages 0 to 100 being most at risk;
the State Department hence recommends
that anyone holding a US passport
avoid traveling to places
where this tobacco is sold—
if you absolutely must travel,
buy forty packs of Marlboro
and smoke two a day while wearing
a mask fully covering nose and mouth.
Our dear Lord, we ask in the name of Jesus
that you please forgive
all the fornicators,
thieves, and lawyers,
but especially lawyers,
for any wrongs
they may have committed,
be they sleeping with monkeys,
stealing relics from your churches,
and, naturally, defending
those who slept with monkeys
and stole relics from churches,
but solely if said miscreants
who’ve lived total lives of sin
agree to accept Science
as their only true Savior,
and receive the holy
communion of antibiotics,
and when, with glory, those sins
have been thoroughly cleansed,
shall they proceed, at last,
with the deathbed vaccination,
for the Church of Democratic Science
teaches that only sincere deathbed inoculations
can prevent the spread of COVID at funerals,
while the Church of Republican Science
asserts that COVID was manufactured in a Chinese lab
and hence can threaten only Chinese funerals—
ever since the Great Schism of Science in 2020,
questions surrounding the afterlife
remain a disputed issue in both disciplines,
all because the Church of Democratic Science
and the Church of Republican Science
couldn’t agree on the issue
of whether it was acceptable
to use unleavened jabs
for the sacrament of full vaccination;
other disputes revolved around the fact
of whether scientists could marry
or had to remain celibate,
devoting their whole lives
to the study of reproduction,
rather than reproducing themselves.
And so, it looks as though the teachings
of Democratic Science
and Republican Science
will remain at odds forever.
Dear Lord, we ask that you punish
those scholars who sell indulgences—
fake vaccination certificates, that is,
for it will take a Reformation of Science,
initiated by the one and only
Martin Luther, MD, PhD, PsyD,
with no relation to the former
Augustinian monk,
to create yet another split,
and this time in the Church of Republican Science—
it shall come to pass that doctors
will have no right
to exercise power over people
in jab purgatory,
that is those who may qualify
for vaccination exemptions,
but must show extra proof
of valid medical contraindications
to receive that holy Green Pass.
The Church of Democratic Science
sees all this as heresy,
arguing that patients
must prostrate themselves
before doctors and ask
for vaccination penance—
only this way can they be
admitted to the Stanley Cup Finals,
and also Super Bowl LVI.
The World Series, however,
is a totally different ballgame—
being America’s Pastime,
it does, unfortunately,
require not only prescribed
vaccination penance,
but also a full baptism
with either Olay or L’Oréal—
also known as a “shower”
in scientific literature;
any rituals conducted
with Russian water
and their heathen
communist products
will not be recognized as democratic,
and may result in excommunication,
but also being burnt at the stake.
For we know, dear Lord,
that Psalm 51:7
tells us to purify our sins
strictly with Purell, but perhaps also Lysol—
only, however, if there’s a shortage of Purrell,
for that is surely the superior product,
and then we will be clean;
wash us, our heavenly Father,
but just with brands
approved by American
board-certified dermatologists,
and we shall be whiter
than Russian snow.
Let us pray, dear brothers,
that neither the ACLU,
nor the Woke Apparatus
of Twitter bring
charges of racism
against the Old Testament,
and perhaps even the whole Bible,
for, certainly, African-Americans,
along with darker skinned Latinos
and Asians, have no way of cleansing
themselves to the level
of Scripture-approved
shades of White—
at most, they shall be known
as “Two or More Races,”
or “Some Other Race,”
with the US Census Bureau
very much highlighting “Other,”
for that is how powerful
and prestigious
American body washes
remain on the world stage,
so help us God.
And let us remember,
today and for all times,
Fauci 3:5, where it is so written:
Trust in the Science
with all thy heart,
and do not depend
on your own understanding—
something, dear Lord,
which is good and true,
but certainly contradicted
by Biden and Harris 14:15,
which doth proclaim:
“The simple believe anything,
but the prudent give thought
to their steps.”
For it is the spiritually unvaccinated
who remain separated from Science,
and thus tempted by Satan himself—
for, today, that devil
is not really the Devil,
but rather the embodiment
of the Christian religion,
for in Buttigieg 16:23
it is so written:
Fauci turned and said to Jesus,
“Get behind me, Satan!”
You are a stumbling block
to my Science;
you do not have in mind
the concerns of vaccination,
but merely human concerns.
And so, from this day on,
Christianity became the Devil,
for it was not concerned
with just biology and the body,
but merely human concerns.
For yes, we all know, dear brothers,
that only the communion of vaccination
can absolve us from our sins.
And as the disciples
gathered for the Last Supper
at the White House,
Fauci said: “Take these masks
and wear them, for they are my body—
made in China, of course,
and though America
is on the brink of total collapse,
we can be sure these masks
will protect us from every economic,
social, and natural danger.
He then gave thanks to China
and offered his disciples
the syringes, saying:
“Each of you inject,
for this is my blood,
which seals the covenant
between the President
and his people,”
thus it was written
in Biden and Harris 26:27-8.
And so Washington
did truly rise again
from death,
and took its vaccinated
body—with PCR tests and everything—
that which appertained
to the perfection
of Man’s American nature,
wherewith it ascended into Heaven,
and there will sitteth, until the government
returns to judge all unvaccinated Men
(and also Women, of course,
for we must certainly discriminate
against unvaccinated Women as well)
on the last day.
In the name of the Father,
Uncle Sam, and American Spirit.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He received a master’s degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage from the University of Bologna. He lives in Trento.

Reflections On the Italian Educational System: An American Perspective, an article by David Garyan

16/01/2023
Trento, Italy

 

Reflections On the Italian Educational System: An American Perspective

Having not only lived in Italy as an American since September 2019, but having also studied and worked here continuously since my arrival, I feel it quite appropriate to comment on recent developments having to do with Elin and Benny Mattsson’s letter about the state of Italian education. Before I do this, however, I would like to briefly outline my background in order to show why I may be qualified (perhaps in a limited sense—I admit) to offer some thoughts on the situation.

My professional background is in English literature and creative writing, both of which I studied extensively at US universities. Apart from my B.A. in the subject, I also received an MA in English (with an emphasis in Rhetoric and Composition), along with an MFA in Creative Writing (with a concentration in poetry). After my postgraduate studies, I taught at San Bernardino Valley College in California for a year and a half as an adjunct professor, until May 2019. In the fall of that same year, I arrived in Italy to begin my laurea magistrale in International Cooperation in Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna (campus Ravenna), from which I graduated in 2021 with a score of 110/110.

During this time, I worked extensively at different Ravenna public schools as a madre lingua on short-term contracts. Needing something more permanent, I relocated shortly thereafter to Trento and secured a job teaching English at a private school called MyES.

Due to my lengthy sojourn and my varied experiences in Italian educational institutions (high school, middle school, elementary, and university), I can confidently state that much of what Elin and Benny have described in their letter is unfortunately (and I very much stress that word) true. Unfortunately, teaching methodologies and materials are often not up to par. Apart from the didactic component, the disciplinary problem they mention is highly relevant, and may stem, paradoxically, from the fact that it is not the students themselves who are poorly behaved, but that they are reacting to a largely obsolete system (at least in relation to highly developed countries) based on clearly delineated hierarchies—the teacher, never to be questioned, challenged, or engaged on equal terms, and the student, docile, meek, subservient and clearly inferior to the teacher. I have seen this scenario play out too many times in different educational settings here in Italy—both witnessing the phenomenon as a madre lingua in the Italian public schools and experiencing hierarchical limitations first-hand during my university studies.

Indeed, there is and should be a difference between educators and students, and the claim here is not that students know more than teachers (although they sometimes do), but that in comparison to the US, for example, the act of challenging professors (in a healthy intellectual way) is not only seen as academically productive, but such behavior is also encouraged. Professor routinely show up in casual clothing to emphasize the lack of formality, and some even encourage students to address them on a first-name basis—such things are not only rare here, they are, in many cases, absolutely unheard of. According to The Office for Global Professionals and Scholars, which provides immigration services for Mass General Brigham Institutions, “Americans treat each other in an informal manner, even if there are big differences in age or social position. It is also common for employees or students to act casually with their professors and advisors; however, this is not a sign of disrespect …. Informality also extends in the way people dress and communicate with each other. Look at other people where you work as an indication of how you should dress.” The exact opposite approach is taken in Italy, where there are two different “styles” of communication, the so-called “everyday” style of general situations and the “high” style one must adopt with academics and other professionals. Having heard it first-hand from many Italian friends, the “high” style is elaborate, ceremonious, and intentionally diffident with respect to the “inferior” party, and knowingly overindulgent—in the most hedonistic sense—with respect to the “superior” party. In other words, ritual over substance, showmanship over skill, presentation over depth.

Many have criticized Elin’s and Benny’s letter, and in the spirit of critical thinking, they have gone the right way about it. For example, Giangiacomo Farina, director of Siracusa News, stated the following: “Simply, the Italian school system is very focused on teaching content and less on teaching structures and open-air playing spaces.” And this is precisely where the problem lies. From what I have personally witnessed, neither the Italian schools nor universities are largely interested in teaching students to think for themselves—to think critically. It is perhaps for these reasons that the most prestigious Italian university (and also the oldest in the world—Bologna—founded in 1088 by Irnerius) does not even crack the top 150 in the world. Thus, the system does not, in fact, fail because it does not work, or has never worked—no, the system fails precisely because it is outdated (and oftentimes even medieval).


The entry of students in the Natio Germanica Bononiae, the nation of German students at Bologna; miniature of 1497

In 2019, The Local ran an article called “‘Educational crisis’: Italy’s schools compare badly with the rest of Europe, study finds,” which cited data some of the following data: “only one in twenty Italian 15 year-olds is able to distinguish fact from opinion when reading a text on an unfamiliar topic.” Furthermore, “one in four has difficulty with basic reading comprehension, failing to identify the main idea within a medium-length text.” The article goes on to mention that “things have worsened in the last decade, as the country has dropped ten points when it comes to reading skills since 2009.” In light of the data, Michela Montevecchi, Vice-President of the Education Commission, has stated that Italy is “a country that isn’t thinking about the future. And further: “We are losing critical capacity, but our society isn’t dealing with it. Our children are less and less able to analyse the complex situations that they will find themselves facing,” she stated. The head of Italy’s teaching union (CGIL), Giuseppe Massafra, has echoed Montevecchi’s statement, saying that “the report confirms educational poverty is a national emergency.” These are just some of the criticism which have been leveled in recent years.

Countless studies have already shown that students need material relevant to their lives, things they are interested in talking about. Indeed, not only do they have the capacity to think for themselves, but, in fact, they want to think for themselves—they are eager to express their opinion about important issues related to what is happening in the world they live; many teachers inside the system, however, are more concerned about protecting their own authority, power, and image. They are more concerned with discipline than with education. Egos run high, and in a country where bella figura reigns supreme and decorum is king, it is more important to make sure that students follow all the proper codes of etiquette, rather than, perhaps, learn something new. Having witnessed those approaches time and time again, I eventually began trying different things in my own classes (always under the supervision of the head teachers); while the methods were not always successful, they did often reveal that the rebellion Elin and Benny have described almost always comes as a reaction to this off-putting hierarchical authority teachers impose (perhaps with good intentions of forming good, disciplined children). However, discipline is largely the job of the parent, not the teacher, and if the parents have already done a poor job at that, there is very little a teacher can do to change bad behavior, so it is better to focus on something else and perhaps try to win over problematic students not with yelling (God, how much of that I have seen), but perhaps some activity relevant to the lives of those students.

Despite the fact that Farina’s well-intentioned criticism falls short, it is, at the very least, polite. What surprised me most were the hostile reactions to the Elin and Benny’s letter. For example this comment by Rossano Sasso, a representative of the nationalist League party former education secretary, who said that he would not “take lessons from a Finnish painter.” This comment, astoundingly, represents the very hierarchy I have talked about: “I am Rossano Sasso, a qualified figure, and you, Elin Mattsson, are just some run-of-the mill painter, so sit down, be quiet, and take notes.”

In reality, I understand. Italians are proud people with a history that stretches back thousands of years, and when Marcus Aurelius was living up to the tenets of Plato’s ideal philosopher king (in this case emperor), Finland at that time was agrarian—to put it most politely.

So, yes, egos do run high, but perhaps a little too much so, because what Sasso has done is committed the classic ad hominem (that’s Latin, by the way) fallacy. You never attack the person—you always attack the argument. It does not matter if Mrs. Mattsson is a painter, a housepainter, or perhaps even an unemployed painter. She has made an argument that has obviously hit a nerve, which is why the response is so strong, I am assuming. I have encountered this kind of arrogance observing my lead teachers, both in the classroom and also as a student at the University of Bologna, where students, during exam sessions, where routinely belittled and even brought to tears—behavior that is unimaginable in any kind of US academic institution. Such actions would have been grounds enough to dismiss any educator, or at least reprimand them.

In addition to my own experiences, I have friends currently studying in Italy (I will not say where because their studies may be negatively affected by these statements). One friend has personally witnessed professors behaving in ways that are absolutely representative of the superior/inferior hierarchy I have mentioned. For example, during one exam session in 2021 (which I also happened to be watching on Zoom) a student (clearly nervous) had gotten flustered during an oral exam—he/she simply could not answer the question; it was clear, however, he/she knew the answer, but simply needed time. After answering some other inquiries not very successfully, he/she told the professor it was possible to answer the other one. The response was: “I don’t care what you know. The exam is over.” My friend and I were absolutely astounded because this was a student who had demonstrated excellence repeatedly throughout the course, and was now being punished for not answering questions with the proper decorum deemed worthy of “esteemed” professors.

The question is simple: Why have so many people attacked Elin and Benny? If ordinary individuals had done this, I might have understood the rude behavior, chalking it up to poor education and manners, but it seems that the ones at the very top are interested in silencing the debate with ad hominem attacks, because, clearly, there is truth in what she has written. And another more interesting question is the following: If the Italian education system is really as good as Mr. Sasso claims, then why does he not have the good sense to know that attacking and denigrating a person is not the way to win an argument? Again, you must defeat the argument, not the person, but clearly some teacher somewhere did not do his/her job, or perhaps the student may have forgotten.

There is, in fact, a term to describe Italy’s outdated education system, and it is called the “banking model of education,” famously postulated by the renowned Brazilian educator and social activist Paolo Freire in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Freire used the metaphor of the bank to describe a type of education system where the establishment of hierarchy is more important than actual education, meaning that teachers are simply interested in “depositing” large amounts of information into students—with no interest in critical thinking or self-reflection—and then “withdrawing” that information from students in exactly the same so-called amount they have “deposited” it. In other words, the formula is as follows: “I, the teacher, tell you exactly what I want you to know, and you, the student, repeat it to me exactly the way I told it to you.” Astoundingly, Mr. Farina’s criticism of Elin and Benny revealed precisely that this is how the Italian education system functions (“focused on teaching content and less on teaching structures”), and I am really not surprised that he admitted this, because some of my professors (along with my friends’ as well) have even stated that a student’s responsibility is to completely internalize what they have heard, and regurgitate exactly what they have internalized during the exam session. The problem, therefore, with the Italian education system, is as I have already mentioned—it is not that its methodology does not work, or has never worked; the problem is that it is outdated. While such a didactic approach may have been excellent in a class of four students, under the tutelage of Irnerius 1000 years ago, it does not work today.

For one, oral examinations, for example, are highly biased, and apart from being biased, they are unnecessarily tedious, in the sense that in some big classes, students are often forced to wait over five hours to sit their examination, because nobody knows how long each one will take (if you answer well, the exam is short; if you struggle, they will make you struggle—often with the good intention of finding questions that might allow you to pass). The more sadistic professors, however—and I have witnessed this personally—will deliberately ask obscure questions, intimidate, and obfuscate for reasons only God knows. The process is both unpredictable and unfair in many ways, because, by law, anybody is allowed to watch the examination, and grades are often given in public—no privacy whatsoever. Questions are arbitrary—some more difficult than others, and if you’re very lucky, professors might run out of ideas and repeat some questions (in the best case), or flat out ask something that may not have been covered (in the worst case)—and so, if you happened to be watching an exam at the right time, you might be in luck. It is survival of the fittest in the most barbaric, yet, paradoxically, intellectual sense. On the contrary, in the US, students are encouraged to use their own critical thinking skills—yes, they listen to lecture, yes, they pay attention, yes, they know who the professor is, yes, they know his level of intelligence, yes, they know the professor is the most “powerful” person in the room, but, at the end of the course, everyone is given the same objective standard to pass the class: Write an essay (with the freedom to challenge the professor’s point of view, if that’s what you want to do) using the class materials and create an original argument.

Fortunately, many within the Italian education system are beginning to come around to this view, and in the spirit of fairness and objectivity, I would like to say that I have witnessed plenty of those positive aspects as well. And so, I would like to take this time to praise those educators and professors with whom I had the pleasure of working for two years, and who are trying to buck the trends of tradition. Having now transitioned to a private school setting, it is indeed sad for me to admit that Italian public schools are, in fact, behind, although they are nevertheless much better than many inner city public schools in the US. The Achilles heel of Italian public school is certainly its teaching of English, which is why many private English schools such as ours continue to flourish—the public school system simply cannot provide the necessary, modern methodology. In this sense, the private sector has always been good at filling the void, which is why schools like MyES have become so successful here (almost every city in Italy—with a population of over 100,000—has one and there are four schools in Milan alone). Those who can pay come to us; those who cannot must, unfortunately, fall behind. One can only hope that this debate started by Elin and Benny will lead to real change, instead of continuous attacks on their character, background, and personality. One can only hope.

 

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He received a master’s degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage from the University of Bologna. He lives in Trento.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Grant Hier, Anaheim Poet Laureate Emeritus, interviewed by David Garyan


Grant Hier (photo by Xun Chi)

January 26th, 2022

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Grant Hier, Anaheim Poet Laureate Emeritus

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Grant Hier’s contribution to Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Your long poem, Untended Garden, won the Prize Americana; one of its major themes is the human connection to nature—the very aspect of our lives many individuals seem to be losing. In addition, it doesn’t help for countless academics to argue that language is the ultimate signifier of belonging, when simply knowing how to speak can still make you an outsider—the immigrant, indigenous, and minority experiences are proof of this. Can you talk a little more about what inspired the poem and why you ultimately believe, like Jeffers, that place—especially the nature which has surrounded us for thousands of years—might be more relevant to the human experience than the languages we’ve invented and continue to invent.

GH: Thanks, David. That’s a connection I’ve not been asked about before, and one that bridges the main theme of Untended Garden with an implied one, often overlooked. Yes, connection to nature is at the very heart of it, absolutely. And as a part of that, connection to other humans. My worldview is that humans evolved with the Earth, as a part of nature, so with that comes an obligation to co-exist responsibly—with respect to all of it, literally, since we are all one organism in essence. But if you see all things being created separately from humans, as in the Orthodox World View, with humans then placed into this garden and told by their God that they are granted dominion over nature, to “subdue” it and do with it as they pleased, well then … you might not be as concerned with how we treat things. By the way, Jeffers’ world view of “inhumanism” is often misunderstood, but he thought that all of nature was divine despite humankind’s presence in it, and treatment of it.

The other point you mention about academia and language directly parallels this, and it is also about recognition and authority. Let me start with that part, and then offer a few examples to clarify, because I think that will help to answer why “place” is so relevant. It’s a complex question! And an important one.

Okay, so first, yes, there are definitely those in academia who argue that language is the ultimate signifier of belonging, a code they have reinforced with their hiring and publication histories, it’s clear. But it’s also true that those who know how to speak “properly”—meaning, according to academic standards—will sometimes still be treated as an “outsider” by those very same people, and kept out of the power structures. We know from studies like those at Yale’s Linguistics Department that instructors who hail from minority ethnic groups get accused of being “difficult to understand,” even though they are extremely articulate and speak a standard dialect of English. We know without a doubt this prejudice exists. It’s at work against students, too, sadly. Teachers will sometimes judge students as being less intelligent if they hail from households that speak “non-standard” dialects, and these students will receive lower grades based on that alone. Worse, they’ll be discouraged throughout their academic careers because of it. It’s horrible. A student with a “non-standard” dialect too often gets judged as lazy or stupid, when in reality they might speak more languages than the ones judging! “Linguistic prejudice” is what it’s called: The negative stereotyping of those who speak differently than oneself. You see it rampant outside of the educational system too, of course, like in the housing market. Or when jurors discount testimonies, as was the case in the George Zimmerman murder trial. It’s very hard to root out because people just don’t see it, or want to see it, much less admit to it.

It starts with each individual. I mean, we all walk around babbling our opinions of the world, with “me” and “I” the most common words chosen by this brain that, you know, because of the way our senses feed it, thinks of itself as the center of the universe, around which everything else revolves! We’re tethered to our first language as our primary way of making meaning and expressing ourselves, so it’s understandable that one’s “native tongue” is an integral part of self-identity—as is the place one was born, or grew up in. That makes total sense. But here’s the thing: Rather than belonging to a place, some claim the place as belonging to them—“their” hometown, “their” nation—as “their” God-given birthright, which is the Orthodox World View. And when these attitudes get carried to the extreme and treated as absolutes, well, that’s where you’ll find nationalism and jingoism … and Grammar Police.

Language is used as a signifier of belonging, as you said, but there’s a real blind spot to history when people try to preserve the language as “pure”—by which they mean the way they speak it. This also parallels other ways that the power elite manages to keep the under-represented under-represented. When I got to college, I saw this linguistic prejudice inherent in some of the highest educated people I know. And then, too, when I got to graduate school and started teaching. There is a real attitude of elitism held by those in high positions of power in universities and in businesses, and I think it often stems from a feeling of superiority based on the number of degrees hanging on the wall or money in the bank, but which often downplays the reality of the streets. I’m not accusing everyone in academia of this, of course. But you can find it there, for sure.

Here’s the truth that often goes overlooked: that even though some groups claim to be the authority on things and the keeper of the rules, there is no universally objective correct way to speak English. There’s no “right” or “wrong” meaning for any word, or way to pronounce something, or permanent rule of grammar. At one time I believed there was, because that was what I was taught, and those rules were enforced within the fixed systems of my orbits. But once I began studying semiotics and linguistics, and how all languages naturally evolve on their own, it was clear that those artificial frames that strict grammarians put in place can often lead to intolerance and prejudices, and those attitudes can manifest into discrimination and injustices in our society. This is why it needs talking about.

Grammar policing is based on intolerance, but English thrives because it is a tolerant language. English has remained widely spoken through history precisely because it’s remained the most open to changes, always hybridizing, assimilating new words and new word meanings and usages as new speakers adopt and adapt it across the globe. It needs to be malleable to serve the needs of its ever-changing users. I know there are prescriptivist grammarians who balk at this, but those who study linguistics and semiotics understand that words themselves are merely symbols, possessing no inherent meanings, much less “correct” meanings. What any word “means” at any given time is determined solely by usage, and usage is constantly evolving along with the culture, especially with English. I like Alan Watt’s example in The Way of Zen, how a child is taught to accept “tree” and not “boojum” as the agreed upon term for that tall thing over there with branches and leaves. One role of education is to assimilate people into a society, whether it uses “tree” or “boojum” to denote that beautiful branching thing over there. And I myself uphold these broad societal conventions as a teacher of writing and rhetoric, of course. Yet … I also recognize that language conventions are always shifting, and differ according to region, even. The U.S. and U.K. divided by a common language, as one example. So yes, we teach the conventions of our time and place in order to communicate, which in necessary, but it’s when the rules are thought of as inflexible that the problems arise.

For instance, both as a teacher and an editor I was taught to correct the very common “misuse” of the word “hopefully” when being used as a disjunct to describe an emotion: “Hopefully, I will win …” Because old school grammarians had long ago declared “the rule” that its only function is as an adverb: “’I will win,’ I said hopefully.” Very few teachers and editors enforce this now though, because, well … it’s an archaic rule out of touch with current everyday speech. It’s rarely even used as an adverb anymore. But believe it or not there are still some out there who get all bent out of shape over that! Such prescriptivism is … ridiculous. You can really see the futility of Grammar Police where their own inconsistencies bump up against other strict conventions, like those in science. I mean, what we call the magnolia flower’s petals aren’t really petals, you know. And a strawberry isn’t a berry. And a koala bear isn’t even close to being a bear! Jellyfish. Starfish. Horned toads … The same Grammar Police insisting on correctness use these “incorrect” scientific terms unwittingly, every day. Just imagine if scientists acted like those inflexible grammarians: “It’s a ‘Lady Beetle’ not ‘ladybug,’ you fools! And don’t ever call that other beetle a firefly because it’s not a fly, and saying it wrong weakens all of science and causes communication to suffer!”

Hopefully … (hah!) my analogies make sense … That languages grow organically, as shaped by their environment, right? Sure, one can practice Grammar Bonsai and force stems and trunks into specific shapes with shears and clamps and wires, but trees grow perfectly fine on their own. And since it’s about control and the assertion of power, it can sometimes be used to signal other ways of controlling. The blatant flaunting of who has the wealth and status as seen in the man-made gardens with rows of roses or manicured mazes behind imposingly high gates. The physical manifestations of superiority and class status. By the way, Tom Stoppard uses this same analogy in Arcadia to discuss the class conflicts in Britain, using the conflict between the Classical and Romantic sensibilities—yet another implication I wanted to evoke with my title Untended Garden. The meticulously landscaped gardens from the 1700s were meant to convey power and the ability to impose order. But then the zeitgeist changed as people rebelled against those straight-line restraints of 18th-century Neoclassicism, preferring to honor the wild heart over controlled intellect, and so Wordsworth ushered in a new attitude with poetry as “the spontaneous flow of powerful feelings reflected on in tranquility,” as he said, which then evokes a new emotion, one that can then be molded into art. And so the naturally wild gardens of the Romantic movement overtook the forced symmetry of the Neoclassical era. “The astonishing beauty of things — earth, stone and water,” as Jeffers put it. The wild groves of coastal redwoods preferred over the overly manicured Gardens of Versailles. I’ve never pointed this out before, but I partially allude to this in a brief ars poetica passage in Untended Garden:

It was the purple grace of Sweet Alyssum
that defined the placement of the path.
My brain insisted one way, arguing
in eloquence of Euclidean logic
for a straight course between
the porch and the gate. But the heart
(never good at logic or direction)
demanded something else:

respect for things encountered
along the way, regardless of
distance or convenience.
And so I succumbed,
laying pink paving stones
in a snaking trail to avoid.
Perhaps more than required,
but no more than necessary.

Anyway, regardless of whether you think language is some innate faculty or a cultural system we learn, the bottom line is this: If a language becomes inflexible, a language dies out, as Latin did—now termed a “dead” language because no one speaks it anymore, because changes weren’t allowed by the pedagogues. And the changes that the Language Police claim are now ruining English are actually the very things keeping it healthy and relevant, what has kept it alive through the ages. In a living, thriving language, changes in word usage and word meanings occur naturally. Inevitably. And constantly. New definitions evolve from the previous definitions once found in dictionaries. (And if you read the editors’ notes and prefaces in dictionaries, by the way, you’ll see that they are there to de-scribe how words have been used and are currently being used, not to pre-scribe how they “should” be used.) So I think it’s really important to educate people about this, because broadening our frame of reference can remove some of these biases and injustices that are rooted in the false perception that “bad” changes come from “outsiders” who speak differently than we do, the fears from Linguistic Prescriptivists fighting against change, arguing that everyone needs to learn to speak the “proper” way, meaning the way they do. “English Only” initiatives, and all that.

Okay, here’s one last example for perspective. Rewind English back to the Middle Ages. It’s the same language that you and I are conversing in, but because it changed day-by-day since then, only 15% of that vocabulary has remained. We probably wouldn’t even recognize it as English because it sounded more like a blend of Dutch and German spoken by those living near the North Sea. Anyway, after settlers brought it south with them, its adaptability as a hybrid is precisely what kept English alive and the preferred choice of the people, eventually displacing all of the tongues and dialects in place in Great Britain that had previously been brought in from the Romans. And so then the Norman Conquest brought a major evolutionary shift in word usage, and grammar, and spelling, and pronunciation … More toward the heavy French and Latin infusions, and so the era of Old English morphed into this transitionary stage for several hundred years that scholars refer to as Middle English, with Chaucer riding that new wave with his corresponding new style of English literature—earning him the title of “The Father of English Poetry.” Then came the “Great Vowel Shift” and sonic changes that drastically changed the English language yet again, and so on, in a continuum, right up to this afternoon … Now, here’s the truth that often goes uncelebrated: It was the rural, non-educated laborers that played the biggest part in keeping English alive and the preferred tongue of the people, by readily adopting and assimilating words from the various influencers that passed through, often mispronouncing those foreign words and employing them in new contexts and with different meanings to suit their own situation and needs —which subsequently, through popular usage, became the agreed upon new meanings and usages of those words. If there were Grammar Police who somehow managed to stop language’s evolution and froze the meaning of “nice” in the Middle Ages when it was spelled necy, or nesy, or nyci, say, then when you called your mother “nice” this morning, you were really calling her ignorant. Or foolish and silly. Or, if the Grammar Police somehow froze its meaning at the Elizabethan Age, you were calling your mother lascivious, as Shakespeare called the “wenches” in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Yikes! Can you imagine! But nice later came to mean virtuous. Depending on the era, calling your mother “nice” would have been understood to mean anything from vulgar to respectable, cultured to slothful, agreeable to fussy and difficult to please. The Oxford English Dictionary lists all of these, and dozens and dozens more as being the accepted definitions for “nice” since the 1300s. I picked “nice” because it’s had more time to evolve, but the point is that word meanings change all of the time. Many words today mean the opposite of what they used to mean, like awful, egregious, and terrific. And now “literally,” literally means “figuratively” as well. “Unique” currently has the listed definition of “the only one of its kind,” but soon “rare” and “unusual” will be listed too, simply because more and more people are using it to mean these things. And that’s okay! It’s certainly nothing to get bent out of shape about. Funny, too, that the current pet peeve of Grammar Police is when people use “ironic” to mean “sarcastic” or “coincidental” because until recently—meaning, in their lifetimes—it hadn’t meant those things. So they outright insist that these are not what it “ironic” really means, and then try to “correct” the recent “misuse,” or worse, make fun of and ridicule the speaker. Well, guess what? “Ironic” really does mean coincidental now, because that is how the word is commonly being used and largely understood to mean. By the way, “ironic” actually derived from the Greek for sarcasm and simulated ignorance, which many current Grammar Police now insist it doesn’t really mean. (People might call this both “ironic” and “nice”—both sarcastically and not …) People need to accept that language is very much like art and culture, people driven from the bottom up rather than policed from the top down.

And that’s exactly the crux of it as it relates to your question: It is exactly because language is a collage of its users’ imprints that it is also a portrait—of all users who came before. We fail to understand our full identity if we fail to recognize the influence and importance of our own evolution, the unseen threads that connect us. To which I would add, not just in the distant past. Look at how some today discount the contributions of immigrants, or the “lower class,” and others labeled as “outsiders,” who might speak differently and so are judged as “lower,” who aren’t part of the privileged power structures and so aren’t regarded as essential or belonging. Bigots will gladly benefit from the fruit of their labor and make fun of their speech, appropriate their symbols and rituals without a second thought, and then appropriate their words and mispronounce them.

I see these things as being directly related. They are symptoms of indigenous tunnel vision and historical myopia. Much racism is hidden, or “unintentional,” as people say as a way of forgiveness, but that doesn’t make it any less damaging, of course. It’s true, though, that many are never taught the more complete histories, or shown the less obvious connections that bridge us. Which is why we need deeper education, and from multiple points of view. Otherwise, the “haves” born into power, “owning” both wealth and the dominant language, will continue to feel superior over others and resist any changes to that, trying to keep things “pure” (meaning, freezing the world the way it was with them in control). And Grammar Police will continue to tell you their efforts are noble, upholding the “correct” way of things in resisting change. It’s a form of binary thinking: Us/Them, Right/Wrong, Good/Bad. They consider themselves the defenders of language, protecting it and preserving it. But again, language is a naturally changing thing, reflective of the very culture and beyond any individual’s control. They might as well stand at the shore, hold up their palms to the surf and demand the tides and waves to stop moving in, to use a Jeffers’ analogy.

And like Jeffers’ poetry, here’s where that extends into your observation on “place” and belonging. The key lies in understanding the links to our past, which brings awareness, and a switching from the narrow framing of “self” in the “now” as being the one true reality. I strongly believe that education is the key. More specifically, educating ourselves as a society to the larger reality of our interconnectedness, to how things have evolved and to gotten us to this place, including all of the peoples and voices that came before. This is crucial to our understanding of ourselves, to understanding how nature works—and by extension, crucial to our survival. Allowing the opportunities for everyone to share their own stories is what can most build empathy and unite us toward a common good, and yes, peace and justice—and this is precisely what the arts provide. By widening and deepening our knowledge base, listening to many points of view, seeing from perspectives different than our own, discerning the connections while honoring the individual cultures and voices within that—as opposed to isolating and building walls or trying to reject and exclude what might appear as different or foreign. I don’t want to go on too long about this, but it’s all related, and central to your question. And to the major themes of my work, I would say. The unseen connections. The stories untold that exist just outside of the lens of those histories that are dominating the discourse. This last point is exactly the focus of my latest book, California Continuum, Volume 1: Migrations and Amalgamations, which I co-wrote with John Brantingham, the inaugural Poet Laureate of Sequoia and Kings Canyon Parks. John is one of the best writers working today, and it is always an honor to work with him. We’re currently working on a Volume 2, and will be inviting a diversity of voices from a wide variety of authors, the common threads being those invisible ties we don’t recognize, but which bind us and our common humanity, regardless.

That’s exactly what inspired Untended Garden. As a very small boy I would dig in the dirt of the front yard of the new tract home that my parents had purchased when I was less than one year old, and where I returned to live in my 20s, and currently live with my wife. When I was a child I would also dig holes as I played in the sand at the base of the foothills where the San Gabriel Mountains flattened out to the western Mojave, which is where my grandparents had homesteaded when they were in their 20s. Martin Aguirre, the last Sheriff of Los Angeles County to patrol on horseback, used to ride through that area, and he was the best man at their wedding … Anyway, we found arrowheads out there. And my grandfather, years earlier, had found old sunbaked, hand-made bricks. When I asked about what these were, I was told they were left by the people who once lived here before we did, long ago, and my brain just lit up. It was like the sky cracked open. Whenever I would dig into the Earth, my brain would soar into the sky, tingling in anticipation of what I might discover, imagining those who also held this very soil in their hands—wondering what they looked like, sounded like, acted like, believed in.

I think that might have been what started my storytelling and writing. At least, it was the catalyst that kickstarted my imagination to soar across those open landscapes of California’s wilderness, the desert night sky strewn with the ridiculous brilliance of blue-white stars and the Milky Way glowing like … a spilled sack of flour, strewn to bridge the horizons … Sorry. I got a little too poetic there! But such vast distances urge the mind to wonder. And the power of it, the questions … They just well up inside a child. And my grandparents and parents all invented stories and poems and songs that they shared with my sister and me on a daily basis. I was reading by the time I was three, my parents tell me. CUT TO: Me having moved back into that childhood home in Anaheim where I once played in the dirt, with the saplings that my mother’s mother and father’s father planted in the front yard now towering some 30 and 40 feet into the suburban sky, my sister’s and my tiny handprints still visible in the cement that my dad had poured in the backyard, even a few of those Mojave bricks long since built into the fireplace wall by my dad’s hand. So, there I was, surrounded again by these rich visual metaphors and having been just accepted into graduate school to earn my Master’s Degree in Literature and Creative Writing at CSULB, sweating out in the yard, building a picket fence around the property line—that irony not lost in the verse I was about to compose! As I was digging holes narrow and deep in which to sink the long fence posts, as I lowered each pole far down into the darkness, I was that child again, pondering those unknown stories that I knew were linked to this place but that I had yet to discover, asking myself exactly who and what had lived during each inch of sediment’s brief time as topsoil. What had hunted, fled, bloomed, and thrived during each successive season on this open plain? Which prior to that was marshland. Which prior to that was ocean floor. What did this garden look like back when wilderness reigned, then after that when rancheros were defined by compass needle and land grants, then after that aligned into orchards, then streets, then the sweeping edge of cul-de-sac curbs? I saw the fence post—wielded by the privileged as claim of possession and individual ownership of “place”—now doubling as a metaphor for the vertical axis of time that connected things—not by blood, but by the continuum of all the forms that have occupied this same space through the ages: the floating signifier of “family.” All living things that occupied this patch of earth, and that have also called this place “home.” The flora and fauna. The hummingbird and rattlesnake. The juniper bush and jimsonweed. The mushroom and cocoon. Those Millingstone Horizon peoples and the Tongva. The missionaries and ranchers. Orchard owners and laborers. And, more recently, my grandparents homesteading, then planting new trees in their childrens’ garden (the barks of which grace the covers of my books). Then there’s me, temporarily migrating away as a young man, but ultimately returning. And now my wife and I add to the story with our history of stewardship of this patch of land, with our dogs and our weirdo cat.

Untended Garden has the subtitle “Histories and Reinhabitation in Suburbia,” and the term “Reinhabitation” I borrowed from Gary Snyder, which he coined in his essay of the same name, and which I quote from as one of the epigraphs to the book:

“How does knowledge of place help us know the Self? The answer, simply put, is that we are all composite beings, not only physically but intellectually, whose sole individual identifying feature is a particular form or structure changing constantly in time. There is no “self” to be found in that, and yet oddly enough, there is… no self-realization without the Whole Self, and the whole self is the whole thing. Thus, knowing who and where are intimately linked.”

That’s it. Now, the knowledge of the Whole Self, Snyder argues, requires our re-discovery of the natural cycles of nature that we’ve lost touch with—the mineral, nutrient, air, and water cycles, for instance—and if we keep in contact with these energies, we can then let that knowledge ethically guide our actions toward the planet and ourselves, in sustainability and gratitude, thereby “reinhabiting” nature after being estranged from it. This really speaks to me, and was exactly what I was implying in my attempts at discovering, or re-discovering, the histories that came before I arrived, and my place in that continuum.

That said, there’s a huge gulf between becoming aware of something and truly understanding it, much less understanding it from the inside. I knew I could never possibly know the minds of those peoples from other cultures that came before, be they Tongva, or Millingstone era, or earlier immigrants. In my poem the narrator states outright:

Some plants reject grafts too alien
to the native rootstock, and I will not
attempt to appropriate cultures and
customs beyond my reach
and understanding.

I will not romanticize the past.
The muddy dark holds shell after shell
of unworthy myths, and perhaps I’ve sunk
yet another with this, but there will
always be some leaking boat
left behind as new revelations arrive.

I cannot deny the mistakes I’ve made.
I will not raise my hand to the breaking waves
and ask them to stop…

To be clear, artists need to be free to assume characters far different from their own, of course, lest literature be reduced to exclusively first-person accounts. But in this case I didn’t want to attempt to speak from another’s point of view, or in any way appropriate cultures or pretend to have knowledge or experience not my own (something Snyder himself was accused of profiting from in his own Master’s Thesis, Turtle Island). Instead, I wanted to allude to those people who migrated here, including my own relatives, but without ever assuming to be them. In some places, words and phrases from the Tongva language appear, indented and in italics, arising in the poem as … oh … the sound of a river might, gradually emerging into one’s consciousness. That was what I was aiming for, at least. Those Tongva words are not attached to any specific character, but do parallel to some degree what the narrator is thinking, or seeing with his own eyes, in that same place, centuries later.

I was thinking it would be cool to have the reader discover these histories as I discovered them, so the main quest is told via a persona who is occupying the same physical place that I once did, discovering those fragments of the buried past as I myself had discovered them, and I presented them into the narrative that way. But even as the narrator’s arc of discovery is sequential, from not knowing toward knowing, it is not a continuously chronological story. There are unspecified gaps. And I wanted to create a greater tension by having the much older histories staggered non-chronologically in a 3-way braided narrative. Craft wise, typographically, I made the distinction by having three different indents on the page: The “now” persona is flush left in that limited first-person point of view, unsettled within his own ignorance and seeking understanding. In the central column I placed voices and events of the more recent past, deeper down that vertical axis of family, which include parents and grandparents, with allusions to developers, ranchers, missionaries, and Tongva. A third column farther right penetrates the even older histories, the Millingstone Horizon culture, other migrations of peoples and species, plate tectonics, the formation of the planets and the solar system, and yes, all the way back to “the singularity / of one explosion.” It’s a big canvas!

And it took an enormous amount of researching, pondering, processing, writing. The crafting of it was very similar to composing a musical piece, I found, where there are movements, motifs, and various tempos at play, creating a dynamic flow. And because of the weight of the subject and grand scope of it all, it resulted in a longer, more immersive experience, roughly the shape and length of a classical symphony actually, in three movements of 13 parts each. The first draft was the creative element of my master’s thesis, and took a year to compose. My research was pretty intense, beginning with me poring over plats in the City of Anaheim’s records office, then maps in libraries, photocopying U.S. Department of the Interior Geological surveys, State of California Department of Water Resources water tables, aerial photographs, and even pages from Thomas Brothers map books. I stacked the photocopied sheets in chronological order and began to understand the layers of the history of the land, running my finger along ancient creek beds, city wells, contour intervals. I likewise educated myself on the indigenous plants and animals of the area, and did a considerable amount of studying of the earliest known lifestyles, as best we have records of. The different social structures, belief systems, and rituals once native to this place. Nomenclature became a major concern. Those peoples who were inhabiting Southern California when European colonizers arrived have been referred to by various names, like Gabrieleño and Fernandeño, but these were imposed by outsiders, so there is wide debate over what their “proper” name might be. Regarding this, and the vocabulary that I cite in the poem, I didn’t want to be another outsider messing with someone else’s language, or profiting from it, so I immediately knew I wanted to donate all of my author earnings from the book to non-profits like the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, which is one of the groups I sought out and consulted, along with leading linguistic scholars, and members of various tribes connected by bloodlines—some claiming to be the only true authority on the matter. It is not without its politics, let me tell you. I decided to use the word these peoples called themselves, according to the extant records: Tongva. My wife, incidentally, is part Tongva, with documented DNA lineage, and she is registered as a member of the tribe. She has some Mexican blood too—and of course this place was also once part of Mexico. She is more native to this place than most …

Anyway, after graduating, I came across other lesser known histories that seemed essential to the poem, like that of the Council Tree in downtown Los Angeles, so I kept working on it sporadically over the next few decades. Then, some 20 years after the poem’s inception, I happened to see a call for submissions for Prize Americana, and when I read their mission statement, it resonated exactly with what I had been attempting: “… creative writing to enact positive social change …that examines such issues as social justice, human rights, environmental awareness, the human condition, diversity, love, compassion, ethical and moral obligations. Projects that empower and uplift humanity.” So I submitted it, and it won, and the following year it was published as a book as part of the prize.

Now, some creative projects of mine unfold over long periods of time, but 20 years was definitely my longest gestation period for a single poem! In retrospect I can see that it really did require all that writing and reflection and revision to get the tone and pacing and content in the right balance. And once I discovered the mysterious cogged stones at Bowers Museum shortly after I had completed the first draft, well … the poem really opened up for me. Because I knew I had to widen and deepen the depth of focus, to long before the arrival of the Tongva to Southern California some 3,500 years ago.

I then began adding the histories of other migrations here, from the Great Basin, and even earlier events before recorded history. The poem at that point became more like a Mugen Noh play in places, with time being not linear so much as a sphere, or even taking place outside of time, or atime, with characters from vastly different eras appearing on the same page, alternating lines—and at one magical point the narrator briefly shares the same typographical line, opposite a woman carrying her child across that very same soil, centuries before—the narrator:

When I wrote that, it gave me chills. Because symbolically, that was spot on in terms of connecting with the past and aligning with it, to reinhabit on many levels. The setting can also be seen in a mythic sense, with the central garden doubling as the world omphalos source of life. Plus, of course, all that a “garden” might symbolize. So, all these ancient histories, both mythic and scientific, required a separate omnipresent POV in places as it moved away from the flush-left limited first-person POV, the authorial voice expanding to attempt to contain multitudes, as Whitman claimed to do. It was truly exhilarating, and a bit scary to attempt something of this scope. I want to clarify that I was also “assuming” as Whitman did—not the cultures or voices of others, but rather, “assuming” in the sense of engaging and inviting the reader in, as an astute reviewer once also pointed out, which gave me some reassurance I had achieved my goal in that regard. So, yes, without specifically naming the cultures, or assuming to represent them, I point to them as I myself discover them. The suburbanites, developers, slave laborers, invaders. The Tongva, and other previous occupants of North America who migrated here, going back more than 12,000 years ago, according to Mitochondrial DNA evidence. And I go farther back still to “Mitochondrial Eve,” whom I allude to only once in the poem, but she’s a key symbol. Not the first Homo sapiens woman, but around 150 thousand years ago, as all other mother’s bloodlines dead-ended on the hereditary tree, it was only her offspring who continued. Ready to have your mind blown? Okay, that woman’s genes have been carried by every human thereafter, including all 7.8 billion walking around today. So … randomly pick any two people from anywhere on the planet. Okay, now sample their DNA. Bingo! There’s her mitochondria strand in both of them. It’s been handed down through each person born ever since, across the millennia, a gift from that one woman who walked this planet, oh, some 51 million sunsets ago. Meaning … if we trace our tree backward, all human lineage converges at this same point, a shared great mother. Meaning we are all, literally, distant relatives. That fact still takes my breath away. If more people remembered this more often, we might be treating each other better.

Which brings me back to my first response to this question: yes, connection to other humans, and to all of nature, is really at the heart of it. I think it’s important to write about because everyone frames their “realities” tightly around only fragments of stories and experiences that have happened only in the most recent blip of time. And because of this we fail to see the unseen threads that exist, connecting every one of us. So we feel cut off, even though we are not. Live lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau said, receding into the lonely country, feeling separate and alone. And so we invent separate fragmented realities, ironically, in search of a sense of identity and belonging, a sense of place and home.

DG: Speaking of place, you’re the current Poet Laureate of Anaheim, a city, like so many in California, that possesses a rich, indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, and more surprisingly, German history—the translation of heim from German is “home.” It must be particularly challenging balancing these often-conflicting histories in your work. As Poet Laureate, how do you reconcile these forces with each other to make a harmonious whole?

GH: Well, the thing is, even though I would call myself an optimist, I don’t see the city as ever being a harmonious whole, any more than I see California, or the United States as a harmonious whole. Or the world, for that matter. Though I can see us being far more peaceful and more accepting of each other, that’s for sure. Anaheim certainly has its share of ugly histories and conflicts. To this day. There is so much political division and growing intolerance here—and all over the world, really. The trend is not encouraging. Still, I refuse to lose hope. As I say when I teach conflict resolution in my Critical Reasoning classes, conflict resolution takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it.

I think it’s like music. What you have to do is listen carefully to the voicings, and seek out complementary notes to build into chords. Then seek out complementary chords groupings toward a larger theme, if that makes sense. Reduce the dissonance that way. Try to find a common air that respects all individual notes within the chords, to extend the metaphor. It takes work and careful listening. Large changes will need to take place systemically, but even the smallest gestures of respect are crucial, because they create a good atmosphere, and in that way we can model the world as we wish to see it. One act at a time. Like when we give a slight nod to the stranger as we step into a line with them at the market. Or out on the streets. I’m thinking of the Anaheim Stadium parking lot exiting onto State College after a concert or ball game. Or the Disneyland Drive offramp that narrows away from the Santa Ana Freeway. Think of all the people cooperating but who don’t think anything alike … Red bumper sticker, blue bumper sticker, green bumper sticker, no bumper sticker, each taking turns merging. And it doesn’t matter one’s personal point of view or what we do in the privacy of our cars or homes or bedrooms. We aren’t bothered by that. We simply share the space as second nature, and treat each other as equals without arguing or cutting in front … Well, usually! Okay, so maybe the 5 Freeway wasn’t such a good analogy. But seriously, just think of that. Danusha Laméris, in her poem “Small Kindnesses,” nails it:

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other…

Oh, I know that there are those who don’t follow this model. Or even believe in it. Make no mistake, I have very strong opinions, and I am ashamed at and appalled by much of what some have done, and are doing now in my community, my city, my country. I speak my personal politics and resistance to injustice through my actions, and my world view is quite evident in my writings. The blatantly political poem I let fly when appropriate and necessary. But I also recognized that were I to use the mic as Poet Laureate to do nothing but shout my personal beliefs and shake my clenched fist in the air about the ugly politics and prejudices within Anaheim, of which there are many, it would do little to sway anyone—and it would be rather selfish of me, I think, because it would be more about me, and I was there to promote poetry. I knew if, instead of shaking my fist, I offered an open palm, and literally extended it to others with a microphone in it … and I made sure it happened when the public spotlight was there anyway because it was following me as Poet Laureate… If I invited and encouraged those who normally never get to be heard to come step up onto the stage and into the spotlight, and at a time when people were specifically there to listen… If I then stepped aside to let the voices of Anaheim speak for themselves, the people experiencing firsthand how their voices mattered … and the community saw that too and started listening more … that’s what mattered. So, that’s what I wanted to do.

And so when they contacted me to say that the Mayor wanted to announce the first Poet Laureate post at a City Council meeting, and would be inviting me up to hand me a fancy gold embossed proclamation, I requested to have a few minutes at the mic too, to make a statement about the post—knowing it would be livestreamed into Anaheim homes, recorded as part of the official minutes of the meeting, and locked into the official records. And they granted me that! It was great. So with the mayor standing at my side and the City Council posed for a picture behind me, along with declaring my gratitude and my deep love for this city that I’ve lived in all of my life, I first noted that the naming of a Poet Laureate and Literary Ambassador for Anaheim was a historic and bold statement about the importance of the arts in our community—and that poetry is about community. I then quoted one of my mentors, Robert J. Brophy: “…literature is largely to make us more compassionate, larger-souled, immeasurably more perceptive … it is to wake us from somnambulance, to clarity, and thereby to make us better citizens.” Then with that as preface, I let my intentions as Poet Laureate be known, by way of a passage about family and tree planting from Untended Garden: “This book is about roots, about Anaheim history, but moreover about the longer histories of the geologic formations, and the lineage of migrations to this region. In studying our past, we are reminded that every one of our families moved here from somewhere else. And like our nation, our city is strengthened by such diversity. Anaheim is no singular thing. As Poet Laureate then, rather than attempt to be Anaheim’s voice, I will facilitate ways for the city to speak for herself, inviting the community to read and write their own poems along with me as I visit our schools, our libraries, our businesses. Celebrating ourselves. Singing ourselves. The old growth and new buds.”

It was important to stress this, and I made it a point whenever I could, including in my interview before the Poet Laureate selection committee, and in my subsequent meetings with city employees. I emphasized that I shouldn’t be seen as the voice of City Hall, or as an elected official, or have anyone view me as their employee or in any way controlled by the City—because I wasn’t. That my politics and poetry would always remain my own. Because I was still going to write blatantly political poems when they came to me—about racism, pay inequities, the environment, corrupt politicians, the makers of war, the refugee crises, and so on—just as I always have as a writer and artist. I was still going to have these political poems published in anthologies like PEN America’s Only Light Can Do That, and in literary journals, and in my own books. And so that’s what I did. I read these poems as part of the Poet Laureate public programs. I took a knee for some eight minutes in Chaparral Park as part of the George Floyd protests. I didn’t shy away from making my politics known. But I didn’t just linger on that and make it all about the blatantly political all of the time.

Speaking of not lingering, and of finding a way to let other voices have a say … I made a decision early in my term as Poet Laureate to not re-apply. So I am no longer Poet Laureate, having served the two-year appointment from 2018-2020. Now, I had heard many people mention how great it would be if I were to stay in place as the longstanding Anaheim Poet Laureate, and it was made clear to me that there were no limits as to the number of re-appointments I could have. It was certainly flattering to hear that, and my ego probably initially perked up the sound of it—but only for a split second. Because even though it would have allowed me to build those more ambitious long-term programs I had envisioned, I knew that such a tenure would not be what would be best for the post, or the City. Because I believe there needs to be more places for those who are currently underrepresented to be seen and heard, and appointed to positions of influence.

So in fact midway through my two-year appointment I contacted the Culture and Heritage Commission—which, by the way, is made up of passionate and dedicated citizens who volunteer to serve the community by advising the City Council on matters concerning the arts, culture, historic preservation, and heritage, and they have accomplished positive change on so many fronts … They’re the ones who first stepped up and agreed to oversee the post of Poet Laureate as a subcommittee in the first place. I have nothing but great things to say about them. Anyway, I asked the commission to be given an agenda item at their next meeting so that I could, for the record, give an update of my activities to date—the State of the PL Post, so to speak—with the intention of using that opportunity to announce that I would not be re-applying for a second appointment. I told them I was letting them know a year ahead of time so that they might start their campaign right away to call for new applicants, and that would give them a chance to more broadly publicize it so that more people could find out about it, especially since it was a relatively new position. I told them that I was specifically stepping aside because I hoped they would receive a diverse range of applications that paralleled the demographics of the city. At one point I said, “Look, I’m going to be candid and address the elephant in the room here … I’m an old white male, and I look more like the mascot of Anaheim High than the majority of the city!”

Okay, so many argue “The Colonists” mascot specifically refers to the original German settlers who founded a winemaking colony here, but their longstanding cartoon mascot was a pilgrim with a musket for crying out loud. And their heraldry had a pilgrim behind two crossed muskets. Eesh. Even the revised mascot of a white-haired, pony-tailed pilgrim with an angry scowl charging in with a flag doesn’t sit right with me. Those flag-planting colonists rushed into lands not their own to claim ownership, and the whole history of colonization is one of eradicating cultures. And worse. Anyway, my point to the Culture and Heritage Commission was that there are still optics involved that send a message, intentional or not. And I know it was not intentional at all, but still … a part of it has to do with the German connections to this place that you mention, of course. I mean, even though my surname derived from an Ellis Island bastardization of the Swedish Höyer, it does so happen to be, coincidentally, the German word for “here.” And in French, “hier” means “yesterday,” which is yet another Euro-centric reference. So to have an older white man of European descent repeatedly appointed to a position of power, by a city whose own name derives from German and which was “settled” by Germans, well, that would be maintaining the status quo of an older Anaheim. And that was problematic to me. Even though my personal politics differ greatly from the conservative stronghold of an older Anaheim, and even though Anaheim is rapidly changing demographically, there’s still a lot of old Anaheim’s past I’m not very comfortable with. This is a city whose City Council seats were taken over by the KKK at one point in the ‘20s, by Klansmen who put up signs at the city borders “You are Now Entering KKK Country,” and they advertised nationally as Anaheim being a model Klan city, and Anaheim became the site for huge, record-breaking Klan gatherings. It’s also a city whose police force was long dominated by the White Nationalist John Birch Society, whose thinking couldn’t be further from my own. And, I might add, it’s also a city that catered to Walt Disney, a man who openly aligned with the House on Unamerican Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy in the ‘50s, and who in the ‘60s tried to keep gays and Hippies and Yippies and people with longer hair out of his “Happiest Place on Earth.” Anyway, I can’t express how much I find these histories abhorrent. So to have me, as an old white male of Germanic European decent being appointed over and over, well no … Just being appointed as the first Poet Laureate, I knew, might be seen as troublesome to many, for these very reasons.

That’s exactly why I led off my application statement when I applied by emphasizing that a “Poet Laureate is often considered a monolithic entity, but no single person or voice can fully represent such a multi-faceted city as Anaheim. Like our nation, our city is strengthened by its diversity, by the unique talents and cultures of immigrants—which all our families were, at some point. Currently 37% of Anaheim are foreign born, and 61% speak a language other than English at home. As Poet Laureate, rather than attempt to be Anaheim’s voice, I would facilitate ways for the city to speak for herself.” Anaheim is a wonderful city in so many ways. I do love it, deeply. It is actually much more diverse than other U.S. cities, according to the government census numbers. Anaheim residents are more than 50% female, more than 50% Hispanic or Latino/Latinx, nearly 40% foreign born … and more than 60% of us are speaking languages other than English at home. So when I applied I said that as Poet Laureate, these things would not just be recognized, but celebrated.

I also told the commission at that meeting that I thought there were a lot of great candidates out there who didn’t qualify to apply because of a few prerequisites that were unnecessary, and I handed each commissioner a two-page list of recommendations for moving forward, which included several changes to those requirements. One thing I thought needing changing was the five year residency requirement. What if the world’s greatest poet lived just 10 feet across the city border, say? Or lived even farther away, but who worked in Anaheim and knew the city as intimately as its residents? Or how about those who have long lived within the city limits but who simply didn’t have a mailing address to qualify? They are still Anaheim residents, still our neighbors, still with valuable voices worthy of being heard. There are far too many in our community who are underrepresented, across a variety of fronts, including, yes, as you said, those who possessed the rich, indigenous histories and who would also be more reflective of the diversity of the city—which I also pointed out to the commission. I’m very happy to say that I just learned that they took my suggestions to heart and changed the residency requirements as a result. Let me tell you, there are a lot of great people behind the scenes who are making important changes, and making a difference for the better. People like Holly Unruh, Community Services Superintendent, and William Camargo, who chaired the commission, but who is best known as a visual artist and community organizer (a.k.a. “Billy the Camera”).

Oh, another of the recommended changes on that list was to loosen the minimum required number of publications. I know that’s a common requirement for a Poet Laureate, but it is a bit exclusionary because minority voices are simply not represented as much as they should be in the publishing world. It has always been a difficult task to get recognized as an author and get books published by respected presses, but especially for minorities. So when there are inequities in publishing, and you require validation via publications in order to even apply for this post, well … I mean, poets often submit for years to literary journals before their first poem will get an acceptance, and some of the best poets I know still don’t have their own book out. So the publishing world is finally awakening to how even the requirements of submission fees and a mailing address hinder equal representation, and some publications are starting to also change their criteria, which is great. Similar to what I said at the start of this interview regarding language, how those who are in power, intentionally or not, tend to make decisions that maintain the status quo. To get any significant changes happening at a deeper level, I think those who find themselves with such privilege and in positions power must first acknowledge that publicly, and then also relinquish some of that power—maybe even work to clear spaces for the underrepresented to step in and have more of a say in things. So, it was very clear to me on a personal level that I needed to do just that. To only serve one term and pass the mic, both figuratively and literally.

Oh, one other thing … I wanted to qualify what I said at the start of this response. It’s true that I don’t see the city or the world as a harmonious whole, but that’s only because of people’s behavior. I deeply believe we are all one whole, one organism (to go back even farther to my other analogy), and once you eliminate all of these artificial borders that the brain insists upon when operating out of the “me” and “I” at the center of the universe point of view, well, it’s then you can slip into the omnipresent to broaden your perspectives—which is what happens when we feel empathy and love, when we read literature and experience the arts, especially out in the community.

DG: Being the inaugural candidate to the position of poet laureate, you had to invent most of the activities, programs, and initiatives from scratch. It would be interesting to hear a little about these challenges—what worked and what didn’t, and how did your efforts bring poetry to a larger audience in the city?

GH: Yes, actually all of the activities, programs, initiatives I had to invent. Nothing was in place. I knew I could get my writer friends to appear with me, to read and co-teach workshops and whatnot, because we were already doing those things together, often through programs that I had previously created. So I started with those connections. But anything new that I wanted to do I had to invent from scratch and then make happen. For the larger projects it was me making cold calls, finding out the names of contacts, venue rental fees, insurance liabilities and waivers, if chairs and PA systems were there, and then inquiring if the places and people involved ever did pro bono events for non-profits (even though the City of Anaheim isn’t a non-profit), and if they would consider doing one for a new Poet Laureate program.

I would say the singular main hinderance that affected everything else was definitely having no budget whatsoever—even though the Poet Laureate post for Anaheim was initially drafted up with a stipend attached. So, this position was first envisioned by a wonderful assembly of leaders from various arts organizations and library groups across Orange County who had joined forces to research and articulate a plan for the post, and took it upon themselves to formally present it to Anaheim’s City Council. Then they continued to diligently push for it as it made its way through the slow, bureaucratic gears until it was ultimately approved by City Hall, which then allowed the Culture and Heritage Commission to start the application process, conduct their series of interviews, go through the final selection deliberations and vote of approval, and then it at last became an official appointment, via that mayoral proclamation. But it all began as a grass roots effort originating from outside of the government. I heard later through the grapevine that the approval process was hung up for more than a year at the city attorney’s office, the point of contention being whether there was a stipend that would come with the title, as originally proposed by that coalition of arts and literary organizations. The logic the city offered was that any person appointed Poet Laureate could not be given any moneys since none of the Culture and Heritage Commissioners, over whose watch it was, received any moneys for their appointments. The flaw in that argument, of course, was the premise that the person appointed would be receiving a personal paycheck for their labors, when really all that was being asked for was a stipend to pay for expenses to stage the Poet Laureate events, for things like chair rentals, snacks, posters, and speaker fees. A dedicated fund to reimburse or even partially reimburse receipts would have sufficed. But eventually, as it dragged on, I think those pushing for the post ultimately decided that it would serve the greater good to just eliminate that stipend in order to get the program approved and out into the community, and then once in place do whatever they could to appeal for whatever was lacking. So that’s what happened.

I mean, even if there were a stipend involved I wouldn’t have been taking the post for that! I was actually happy to do it for free, and saw it as an honor, really. Merely an extension of what I had already been doing, creating classes and workshops and readings and so on out in the community, starting back in, oh … I guess it was the ‘90s, at the Braille Institute in Anaheim, when I proposed and volunteered to teach their first ever class in poetry writing. I mean, even when I got paid for a reading or to participate in a literary event, I would donate any moneys I received right back to the cause. So, it was never about a stipend for me. I applied for the post because I thought it would be an opportunity to give back on a larger scale, with the title of official Literary Ambassador and Poet Laureate adding some cred to help publicize events and reach more people—and it absolutely did, I’m happy to say.

I was pretty active, fulfilling the minimum number of events that the position required for the two-year appointment in my first few months, and paid for everything out of my own pocket that first year. Then the Anaheim Arts Council, which was a long-standing non-profit made up of local artist and arts organizations and art supporters, which I was briefly a member of, had to make the hard decision to dissolve due to a lack of support from the city—and when they liquidated their assets, they specifically directed $1000 of it to annually fund the Poet Laureate events, a decision I had nothing to do with but for which I was very grateful. It was a wonderful surprise actually, and that money immediately went to the guest authors who were helping me with workshops and readings. Once that money was given out, I returned to asking for favors and pro bono work from colleagues and various organizations, and almost all of them came through and helped however they could. There were a lot of good people who donated their time to help.

But from day one, being an educator and a lifelong lover of public libraries, that’s where it made most sense for me to start, and where I knew I could leverage the biggest positive effect with limited resources. So, I began visiting classrooms and organizing free library events my very first week. I deliberately started by visiting those places that I knew weren’t getting their fair share of the resources and programs, often in the poorer districts of Anaheim on the far west side, which is also where I live. I visited a continuation school right off the bat, worked with unwed mothers, did some appearances and readings at volunteer organizations already in place and working toward similar goals, and then started extending things out from there. A lot of generous and good people working in our schools and volunteering for non-profits out there, let me tell you.

People like Carol Latham, who definitely deserves a shout out. She is the Community Outreach Coordinator at the Muzeo in Downtown Anaheim, and longtime Altrusa volunteer—and recent recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award, I might add—and she has done more for the arts and various non-profits than just about anyone I can name. I had met her right after my first book came out when she invited me to read as part of the Author’s Series she had created at the Carnegie Building Downtown, and after that we collaborated on some free writing workshops, and she asked if I would be interested in organizing other free literary events. Carol also really helped me to locate some of the venues for the programming that I was inventing as the Poet Laureate. Big time props to her. And to the Anaheim Public Libraries, which I used as a home base for many of my programs, too. So many wonderful people working there. So many … I can’t begin to tell you.

A public library as a symbol, actually, was what I envisioned as the model for my Poet Laureate mission—because both are all about serving the entire community, free of charge, with programs that grow from within the community. Existing there at its heart, supplying lifeblood in the form of great literature, which is the wisdom of the most brilliant minds that have come before us. I was asked once to make a speech at an event honoring community volunteers, and I emphasized that a library is far more than the brick and mortar and books it contains. It also really stands as a symbol for an ideal. That of egalitarianism. Because a public library is a very powerful vehicle toward equality. I remember my father, who was a very smart man, saying: “Not everyone can afford to buy books. That’s why we need public libraries.” That’s it right there. I mean, I was extremely fortunate because our house was filled with books and encyclopedias and magazines and newspapers, but even so we would often travel to the library together on family outings and check out books together. I distinctly remember the day that the Anaheim Haskett Branch opened across the park from our family home. I had just turned six, and the librarian at the checkout desk reached across the counter and handed me my first (powder blue) library card, which I got to sign on the back! It was a profound stepping stone in forging my identity, let me tell you, and I used to carry it around with me in my pocket everywhere I went! I still check out books from the Haskett today. (I just did earlier this week, in fact.) Not to sound overly romantic, but this is the absolute truth: I always swell with pride and a profound love for my community when I enter the doors there. Not just because of what it’s meant to my development, but because I am entering a universe that knows no borders, that is filled with wonderful books containing imaginations that I know will expand the way I think, that invite me to new places. And I absolutely love it that I see people from around the world there, dressed in their native clothes, speaking different languages. It’s like that that analogy I made earlier about cars merging. Here we all are, vastly different individuals weaving together, sharing the community resources and the spaces freely, each of us there to improve ourselves and our children, which ultimately improves the lot of us. It is us at our best, really.

I mean, if it is true that knowledge is power, then a library also is a major force in equalizing the power structures in a society. With public libraries, then, it is not as it once was where only those of privilege and wealth controlled the information. With public libraries the true power—the knowledge—is free and equally available to all. And for a society to be strong, isn’t the ideal to have an educated public across the board? So this is why the public library became the working model for my mission as Poet Laureate. And not surprisingly, Anaheim’s libraries were the perfect place from which to launch and maintain much of the programming that I created. And I want to acknowledge, con tu permiso, the extent to which they opened their spaces up for me for events, which was crucial to the success of my term. APL had previously invited me to serve as emcee for their Big Read programs on Fahrenheit 451 and Censorship, so I already had a great relationship with the librarians and staff there. Brilliant and dedicated people like Audrey Lujan, Joe Purtell, Sarah Emmerson, to name just a few. I really can’t thank them enough.

One of the most beautiful events during my two years as Poet Laureate, in fact, was at Anaheim Central Library, downtown—the very first “Poet Laureate Open Mic Night.” With very little publicity and very short notice (since it was at the very beginning of my appointment), more than 60 people showed up! That’s a good size crowd for any reading. Creative writing is alive and well in Anaheim, I’m happy to say. We wound up opening the room dividers and taking up the entire basement! Truly a diverse and eclectic gathering, with a couple dozen signing up to share the mic, the oldest being a double cancer survivor who was about to turn 80 years old reading her original poetry, and the youngest a 5-year-old kindergartener who read a story she had just written, who walked up with her sister at her side who then sang a favorite song she had just learned. Those who read included young students, retirees, rappers, and veterans. I remember a woman with a baby carriage and several small children in tow. A few people I think might have been homeless. A man in a suit who had just left work, still holding his briefcase in one hand and a poem he had written in longhand in the other. Everyone there applauding enthusiastically after each performance, encouraging and enjoying. It was … emotional. And truly inspiring. Beautiful. Still is, in fact. That program continues as a regular feature at Anaheim Central, downtown.

Certainly the most ambitions programming I pulled off was a multi-event campaign that took place during World Refugee Month, culminating in a closing celebration to honor the many contributions of refugees to our community, which absolutely packed that same basement of Anaheim Central Library to SRO. We were clearly well beyond the room capacity! Waves and waves of people kept coming throughout the evening.

Since June is Refugee Awareness Month, I had decided to create several Refugee-related programs and community-sponsored live events across Anaheim and on social media across all 30 days of June. I wanted them to accomplish several things: raise awareness of writings from other cultures, document the experiences of refugees in Orange County, raise awareness about the importance of humanitarian relief efforts, and educate about opportunities to help, including locally, immediately, in our own community.

I thought a broad-stroke public awareness campaign should run through the entirety of Refugee Awareness Month, so that people who otherwise have negative associations with the word “refugee” might better understand who today’s refugees really are. Also the level of the crises both locally and worldwide. I discovered that the Refugee Forum of Orange County had created a poster of famous refugees—the Dalai Lama from Tibet, Albert Einstein from Germany, Bob Marley from Jamaica, Salvador Dali from Spain, Gloria Estefan from Cuba, Mia from Sri Lanka, Aden from Somalia, Mika from Lebanon, Bao Nguyen from Vietnam, Ilhan Omar from Somalia—tagging it with #WeAreAllRefugees. They granted me permission to use those images for my posts from my official Poet Laureate Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. (This was before TikTok.) I also asked photographer Jim Lommasson for permission to incorporate images from his series What We Carried—Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization, which documents, in gorgeous fine art prints, items that Syrian and Iraqi refugees carried with them as they fled their homes to come to America. Each refugee then took a permanent marker and wrote directly on the photo, offering a bit of the story and meaning behind that item. What We Carried is one of the most powerful and educational photo series I’ve ever seen. No hyperbole. I urge people to look it up.

Another arm of that multi-event campaign I created for World Refugee Month had the goal of honoring some of the literature and other first-person stories about the refugee experiences, so I invited Lauren Ming Holden, author of the book Refuge, to come to Anaheim, and she drove all the way down from the bay area I’m happy to say. Refuge was awarded the inaugural Kore Press Memoir Award, by the way, and is a brilliantly original book that, quite cinematically, spans some 12 years of her work as an international development and aid worker—from refugee camps in Syria, to exiled writers in Sweden and China, to a slum of Nairobi where she co-founded a self-sustaining theater project with Congolese refugee women as a vehicle through which they could safely tell their own stories and finally be heard. Brilliant work. So I created a special event centered around Refuge, which was a combined author reading, interview, and audience Q&A, followed by a book signing and mingle at the historic Carnegie Building (originally built as the home for Anaheim Central Library, by the way). At the entrance to the gallery I projected even more of Lommasson’s refugee photographs, which provided powerful visuals to augment and enhance the day’s events.

There are also a lot of refugees currently living in Anaheim, and throughout Orange County, and I wanted to properly honor and support them, so I piggybacked on the mission statement of the California Department of Social Services, whose own refugee awareness campaign “honors the courage, strength, and determination of men, women, and children who are forced to flee their homeland under threat of persecution, conflict, and violence…and recognizes the hard-working network of refugee agencies…and highlights the remarkable achievements of refugees.” Anaheim is the home of one of the best organizations I know of, Access California Services, founded by its Executive Director, Nahla Kayali. I partnered with both AccessCal and the Refugee Forum of Orange County to stage a series of programs throughout June, which included free writing workshops specifically for refugees, where each refugee could articulate their unique stories in their own words. Borrowing from the What They Carried project, I asked the refugees to focus on a single item that they carried with them when they fled their homeland. I enlisted the help of the brilliant poet Dania Ayah Alkhouli (aka Lady Narrator) to both co-teach those writing sessions with me and act as a translator for those who spoke little or no English. I couldn’t have done it without her, really. She is amazing. Many of the refugees wrote in their first languages, which was wonderful, and that produced an even wider variety of good literature in the end.

I then invited those same refugees to read their first-person accounts written in the workshops as a special “Refugee Storytellers” segment of an even larger World Refugee Day event that I initiated at the Anaheim Central Library, which grew and grew in size as I planned it and ended up being co-sponsored by the Poet Laureate of Anaheim, Anaheim Central Library, Refugee Forum of Orange County, and PEN America West. It was hugely successful. For the culminating evening of celebration on World Refugee Day I enlisted the help of the Joe Purtell of Anaheim Libraries, who was always generous in his support, and he both secured and managed the space for us. I also handed it over to the fabulous community organizer Rida Hamida to curate, and she then arranged for Sara Alshehabi and Bao Nguyen, two highly successful refugees, to emcee. The event packed the entire basement of the Central Library to SRO. Our “Refugee Storytellers” from Dania and my creative writing workshops were each given a featured spotlight to read what they had written. Many tears and thunderous applause ensued. One of the refugee readers, in fact, was contacted the following day by an international reporter who was in the room, and he interviewed her the following day for BBC Radio, specifically asking her to tell her story from the workshop which described how she had to leave her grandmother to come to America as she fled the violence in her homeland of El Salvador. All throughout the main World Refugee Event in the library there were refugee chefs showcasing culinary arts and dishes from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. There was also a screening of the Elias Matar film From The Front Line. Also, remarks and proclamations from numerous local leaders, plus a very inspirational honoring of refugees with awards and certificates, which ended with the presentation of special “World Refugee Day Courage Awards” on behalf of the Refugee Forum of Orange County (one of which I was both surprised and deeply honored to receive—along with related Certificates of Recognition from the County of Orange, California State Assembly, California State Senate, United States House of Representatives, and the United States Congress—which made my parents very, very proud, I might add).

In the time since my tenure as Anaheim Poet Laureate ended, the refugee crises across the globe have only worsened. I wanted to ask anyone reading this to please consider donating to AccessCal and other humanitarian relief organizations. We’ve never had so many refugees on the planet worldwide, and so many of these are now children who are in desperate need. People can donate talents instead of money, too. For instance, my wife and I created a special summer school workshop with writing and science lab experiments for all the children taking classes there. Whatever anyone can do, at any level, would help.

I know form my own experience how a simple gesture of kindness when you are a child can change a person profoundly for the better, and set them on a positive path. So, working in kindergarten and in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade classrooms might have been the most rewarding activities for me, personally, and probably was where I did the most long-term good, I’m guessing. In the kindergarten classrooms I visited I asked them to all sit cross-legged on the floor, and I plopped down right there in the middle of them much to their surprise (which always led to wide eyes and laughter!) … and we talked about things in their lives and what words could be used to describe them and the sounds of the words and the breath and music of language and soon we were inventing lines of poetry together. There were always lots of smiles, and cheering even, and every time I said goodbye the classes enthusiastically promised to continue writing poems even after I was gone. That would be a pretty good legacy to leave behind …

The things that didn’t work? Hmm, pretty much the ones that required more resources and time than I had. I did all of this in addition to my full-time job, along with everything else in my life, so it was a very full two years…

Oh, one big disappointment were the Angels. As in “The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim” as they say … which sounds both oxymoronic and redundant. I had a few cool ideas that would have cost them nothing in terms of resources or time, and would have done a heckuva lot of good, but they never replied to my initial inquiries. Then a City Council member offered the number of a high-level contact and said to drop his name, but instead a staff member emailed back to say the Angels were doing plenty of things to help promote literacy already, so they weren’t interested. So, yeah … The Angels proved a big disappointment. But, to be fair, having been an Angels fan since I was a little kid, I was certainly used to being disappointed by that organization … (rim shot) … Sorry, I couldn’t resist that joke. The players I’m cool with, don’t get me wrong. And I love the game itself. But man, that team has a long history of bad decision making.

Seriously though, there were certainly bigger challenges to the post that that dead end. In the scrambled schedules and re-configuring of everything around the pandemic, which arrived in the final months of my term in early 2020, several of my planned events had to be quickly reimagined or cancelled outright. And there were plenty of other events I had drafted up but which didn’t materialize due to lack of budget, time, and resources. So what I did was add those plans and contact information for the next Poet Laureate to consider.

Actually, I’m hoping the next Poet Laureate will be able to announce a Student Youth Poet Laureate program that I had created with the amazing Regina Powers, District Librarian for the Anaheim Union High School District, which took all two years of my term for us to draft up and get in place, but which has yet to be officially announced and launched. I can see that program as seeding the official Anaheim Poet Laureate post once those students turn 18 and can apply. There were several brilliant student poets I met and worked with, and who were showing up at the Open Mic nights I had set up.

I just gotta say, David, that I really appreciate you asking about these things. The end of my Poet Laureateship happened in lockdown, and in the non-stop craziness that’s gone on since, I hadn’t really had a chance to look back much on those two years of work. This was really my first time doing that in any depth. So, I know this was a long response, but it was a really good process for me, and provided some perspective and closure to that score, which had ended sort of mid-note. So thank you.

Anyway, yeah, these days I continue to move ahead, organizing community events and readings but without the Poet Laureate title attached, just as I did before that.

DG: Very soon you will organize a group reading of 88 poets who contributed to the special Pratik issue, Poets from Los Angeles. For our readers who have yet to visit LA, and or those who may not be familiar with any of the contributors to this particular issue of Pratik, what makes this city so unique—again we return to place—and not just from the perspective of its literary offerings, but culture in general?

GH: Well, exactly that. It’s an amalgam of cultures existing side-by-side, and it’s that ever-shifting mixture that keeps it unique. That keeps its literature unique. Diverse influences migrating here from around the world to interact and create something new—which is a microcosm of our country, really. A lot of original voices have risen up from that. I mean, this city is always evolving into something new. I think of Carl Sandburg’s brilliant Slabs of the Sunburnt West:

…every day the people shake loose, awake and
build the city again…

The city is made, forgotten, and made again,
trucks hauling it away haul it back
steered by drivers whistling ragtime
against the sunsets…

“I will die as many times
as you make me over again”
says the city to the people…

Such a great book. In fact, I quote another section of it as the epigraph to my novel Flight of the Angels (Hungerdust). Anyway, yeah, that’s it right there, right? What makes L.A. unique is that it is constantly being rebuilt and has never remained any one thing. For a more poetic elaboration on that, I’ll refer you to the liner notes that I wrote for the band Los Lobos, for their album Native Sons. Do you know that band? They came up with the Blasters and the punk scene in L.A., along with X, Black Flag, and all those bands in Penelope Spheeris’ great doc, The Decline of Western Civilization. Los Lobos’ first album was titled Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles, subtitled Just another band from East L.A.—and that kinda says it all right there. There’s a ton of bands and artists always springing up from this place, but I think Los Lobos is most like the City of Angeles herself—always finding a way to survive, always finding beauty in the most surprising ways, always growing into new spaces but relying on its deep roots in this old soil rich with heritage. So I started those liner notes on the inner sleeve with, “Los Lobos, like the city it calls home, in not any one thing.”

DG: Many scholars criticize place-based poetry as “regional” in the best sense and perhaps even “territorial,” in the worst. In the first sense, we find the noble interpretation of affection and commitment for one’s surroundings, and a need to describe them; in the second sense, however, there’s the more cynical understanding of exclusion, exclusivity, and superiority. As a poet whose work is intimately tied to place, how do you respond to these challenges? In other words, do you find that a specific place can also have universal relevance in poetry and society in general?

GH: Yes, it absolutely can. Just as one’s personal story—if delivered authentically and if containing emotional truth—can resonate with any human being, regardless of place, or time, or any of the differences in classifications and labels we put on each other. The real challenge, then, comes first as a human, to be able to get in touch with the emotions and locate the truths, and then find a way to authentically communicate these to others. We can do this one-on-one, in our friendships, and through relationships and love—but also through our art, which allows us to reach a much larger audience.

I do have a great affection for and commitment to my surroundings, as you say, but part of that commitment involves admitting its flaws and doing my best to make this a better place in whatever ways I can. And by doing these things I am demonstrating my love for it. Otherwise it’s just blind love and blind obedience, which is not healthy for any type of love. “America: Love it or leave it,” the rallying cry for a blind love of country, is terribly territorial I think, and some regional poetry can sound similar to that, be similarly reductive, peeping through the narrow keyhole of history. Regional poetry in the worst sense. Robert Frost’s line “The land was ours before we were the land’s” is one glaring example. So the challenge is to check your privilege and positioning, be brave enough to not reduce or oversimplify. To look unblinkingly, as the poet Sharon Olds said to me once. Don’t shy away from the uncomfortable. Dare to admit impediments to the marriage of place and the ideal (he said, with apologies to Shakespeare).

Untended Garden, for instance, is definitely place-based poetry, and I kept it regional and not territorial by doing just that, I think. When working on the galleys of it, I realized that including a few striking historical photographs and a Tongva glossary would be really useful toward that goal of reinhabiting the past, discovering more of “The Whole Self” and thus a larger understanding of “place.” So rather than discard the extensive research I had done, I obtained permission to include some of it as appendices, and even created study questions so that it might also be used as a teaching text. (That’s the educator in me, trying to avoid a missed learning opportunity!) And to clarify my earlier point about language naturally changing and being replaced, even though that’s true, it is not to deny the need for the preservation of cultures and languages like the Tongva, which would otherwise become extinct and eventually invisible. Visibility is crucial to history, and human rights, and survival.

This was the driving force behind the book California Continuum too, by the way. John Brantingham and I were honored to get the historian D.J. Waldie to pen the Introduction to provide some context for what it was we were doing with our somewhat experimental narrative structure and the non-traditional form of “Historical Flash Fiction”—which admittedly sounds like an oxymoron. It’s pretty obvious that a recurring theme of my writing is the search for those unseen connections that we often overlook. Not that I think, “I’m going to write about connection now.” It’s just one of the returning threads I see running through all my work—including my writing in other genres. And in my paintings. And my music. I also felt compelled to write a lengthy foreword for that book, about the idea of “history” and the small frames that we put around fragments of things but then come to regard as complete pictures, and the importance of those other “histories” we are never even exposed to, if they are recorded at all.

When I visit classrooms, I’ll sometimes start by asking: “What’s under our feet right here?” The floor or tile will be the first response. Yes, and directly beneath that? Puzzled looks usually, then… Glue! Concrete! Yes … and beneath that? The Earth! Dirt! And what will we find if we dig? Roots. Rocks. Bones. Ah! Arrowheads. Pieces of pots. Tools. Yes. Each thing attached to multiple stories that we are living right on top of, walking our own paces through, adding our own story to, on top of. We forget that history is made with every breath, through every gesture, yet we don’t even think about that as we move through each day, acting without thought of the long term beyond the mundane moments. Literature helps to remind of the connectedness. In an essay I wrote in the current issue of So It Goes—The journal of the Vonnegut Museum, I quote John Muir, whose autobiography is subtitled One touch of nature makes the whole world kin. He wrote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.”

I created an American Literature class at my college called “California Literary Landscapes,” and as part of it we all travel up the coast on a field trip to camp in Big Sur country, visiting Tor House and the places that Robinson Jeffers wrote about. I used to be an editor on the Robinson Jeffers Newsletter, and I had the honor of studying his poetry with the leading Jeffers scholar alive at the time, Bob Brophy, who I quoted earlier. Anyway, when I was a student in his class on “Whitman and Jeffers,” he took us on that camping trip, and years later I re-created it for my classes, even taking Bob along as a special guest in what turned out to be in his last trip up there. So, we caravan up the California coast in separate cars, and when we get to Big Sur and Carmel, we pull off at select places, get out and stand in those very spots Jeffers wrote about, and then we pull out his poetry right there and take turns reading his lines about that very place, releasing his words back into that sky, literally vibrating with the literature at its exact point of origin. Talk about connection to place! And “regional” poetry in the best sense!

It always brings to mind Jeffers’ poem “Hands,” which is regional in the best sense, and which likewise reminds one that they are a blip in the larger continuum of history. Jeffers describes the handprints still hanging in the twilight on the wall of a cave in a “narrow canyon” near Tassajara, and how these

Signs-manual are now like a sealed message
Saying: “Look: we also were human; we had hands, not paws. All hail
You people with the cleverer hands, our supplanters
In the beautiful country; enjoy her a season, her beauty, and come down
And be supplanted; for you also are human.

DG: America is a land of great diversity, both in terms of its population, but also geographically—a fact less often emphasized. Which poet and or poem, in your opinion, has best captured the essence of this land?

GH: Oh, wow. That’s a difficult question. Okay … So I’m gonna fudge my response and give you more than just one, hoping that what I’ve said earlier will allow it, since I don’t believe America is any one thing. No poet or poem could singularly capture America’s essence. But … If could offer a smattering, admittedly incomplete, with each one capturing some essential aspect of the whole …

Okay, so first off, “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman if I had to name just one poem. But I want to qualify that with admitting that both Whitman and the poem are not without their flaws. Even so, it’s a great, great poem that captures, on a large scale, America’s wonderful diversity and geography—and also the dream of democracy and equality, within those sprawling landscapes. Whitman would probably be my choice as the singular poet who best captured us. Um … not just with that one poem, but his writings on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, his stories of working in war hospitals and talking with the dying wounded as he transcribed their last words to their families and then personally saw to it their families received those letters. His Preface to Leaves of Grass alone as a manifesto for living…

“Shine, Perishing Republic” by Robinson Jeffers I actually see as a companion poem to “Song of Myself,” in that it extends the view forward to capture America’s slide away from a democratic republic, and more towards an empire. Jeffers often alludes to the natural cycle of things, how the decay will be swept away by nature’s forces to make way for new beginnings—or burned away, as in his poem “Shiva”—but I think Jeffers would not be surprised that the cycle has yet to come fully around in the decades since he wrote that poem. Citizen’s United has turned America into a Plutocracy, it seems to me. And we’re inching more and more toward a flat out oligarchy, if we’re not already there. The optimist in me winces when I say this but, well … I think historians just might look back and box these days that we find ourselves in as the early days of America’s second Civil War.

On that note, “The People, Yes” by Carl Sandburg. Definitely. Actually, Sandburg might be the better choice as the singular poet who best captures the essence of this land, come to think of it, if you include his entire body of work. His long-term reporting as a journalist on those key issues at the heart of what later erupted as race riots, which nobody else was writing about at the time. In fact, the NAACP asked Sandburg if they could publish his collected newspaper columns as a book, which they did, under the title, The Chicago Race Riots, July 1919.

Oh! “38” by Layli Long Soldier, too. Yeah. The 38 refers to the “Dakota 38” who were accused of crimes related to the U.S-Dakota War of 1862, which some refer to as the “Sioux Uprising.” It took place 160 years ago, but that history remains all-too-familiar—the rampant injustices and broken promises, the demands for the execution of the falsely accused with mobs raising public gallows and chanting—and the false narratives that are poisoning so much of the discourse but being accepted as true history to many. By the way, Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief presided over that war commission’s investigation, so he was the one who decided the sentence of those 38 convicted (some falsely): Death by hanging. The executions were ordered to take place in public, and 4,000 converged, cheering on what still stands as the largest sanctioned mass execution our nation’s history. On the day after Christmas. Six days later, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. So, yeah, this poem too captures a bit of us …

Let’s see … “Facing it” by Yusef Komunyakaa would be on my list for capturing the toll of America’s continuous state of war on the nation’s psyche…

And “Not one more refugee death” by Emmy Pérez. That’s a poem that captures what’s happening right now, which is greatly defining our character. By the way, Emmy is originally from Santa Ana, a city just south of Anaheim, and she was the Texas Poet Laureate from 2020-2021.

“Not one more refugee death” starts with an epigraph by another brilliant poet, María Meléndez—an excerpt from her poem “Why Can’t we all Just Get Along?”

A river killed a man I loved,
And I love that river still

Mercy, yes. I love my country deeply still. I love my home town and the place that I work, but … Because of that love I have to call them out when they misbehave, and work even harder to correct things. That’s the role of any responsible citizen. Not “America, love it or leave it,” but “My country, I love it, but am ashamed by it sometimes, so I’m staying here and trying to fix it.”

DG: What are you currently reading or working on?

GH: Oh, next to my desk I always have a stack of books in queue to read, then more lined up on the shelves in my den. I hope that I live long enough to get to all of them! Next up on my stack to read are Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli, How to Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie by Gaston Bachelard, and Lawns Into Meadows by Owen Wormser … whose dad, by the way, is the former Poet Laureate of Maine, Baron Wormser. Baron has written some excellent texts on teaching poetry as well. Shout out to him.

So yeah, poetry books are always at hand, and in hand, especially during the semesters when I’m teaching creative writing poetry workshops, like now. I’m always cycling in different batches of favorites to teach from and brand new books just arriving on the scene. This semester one of the new books that I’m teaching is Her Read by Jennifer Sperry Steinorth, which I’ve really been impressed by. A book like no other, quite literally. So, Jen found an old art history textbook for $1 at a thrift store, The Meaning of Art by British cultural critic Herbert Read. When she took it home she discovered it contained zero female artists, yet plenty of male gaze image of women, as painted by male artists. So Jennifer reappropriated the text to transform it into a work of erasure poetry and new art. Using scalpel and X-acto, colored marker and correction fluid, needle and thread and embroidery floss and yarn, she completely transformed it to a book of feminist verse and art criticism. It’s wonderful. And the title is an erasure of the original author: Herbert Read. I acquired some money from our Liberal Arts department to bring her into my workshop via Zoom this semester. A bunch of my former poetry students, including alumni, sat in for the day, as did the president of the college. It was great. And as prep for her visit, after the class read Her Read, I assigned an erasure poem, and one of my students, Vicky Vargas, submitted their’s and got it accepted for the upcoming issue of Oyster River Pages. It’s an erasure of a few pages from Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. Very cool, and worth checking out.

Some old favorites I’m re-reading for that same class are Donny Jackson’s Boy, Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song, Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, Wendell Berry’s Window Poems, and Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares. All original and brilliant.

Simultaneously, just for my own enjoyment, each night before I fall asleep I’ll listen to some audiobooks, and right now I’m really enjoying Figuring by Maria Popova, who also has that great blog The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings). By the way, I know I sound like a spokesperson, but I just gotta say that anyone can get audiobooks for free from the Public Library. Just sayin’…

As for personal creative projects, well … I’m really stoked about a podcast I’ve been creating with Louie Pérez, which we just started recording episodes for. It’s yet to launch, but the first episode will be a two-part conversation with Jackson Browne. The podcast itself will be called “Grant & Louie Call a Friend.” That’s been a blast. Lots of laughter and fascinating conversations about art and the creative process. Plus new daily writing I’m always working on. Poems are what comes to me, mostly. But I’m constantly editing and revising work, too. I’m nearly done editing and revising my next book, in fact, which is yet other huge project of mine that has taken many years to complete: Practice—394 Poems in 365 Days, which will be part poetry book, part teaching text. I’m polishing the final galleys now, and have just finalized the cover art.

And I’ve just agreed to be on the Advisory Board of a brand new publication, Citric Acid, the brainchild of a dear longtime friend and office mate at UCI, Andrew Tonkovich. Issue #1 just went live. We’re billing it as An Online Orange County Literary Arts Quarterly of Imagination and Reimagination, and the goal is to feature both established and emerging talent, including that of historically underrepresented writers and artists, as well as promoting books and arts projects and such consistent with a social justice agenda. So it’s got some prose, some poetry, memoir, history, art, comics, and long-form journalism—as well as photography, reviews, interviews… I urge people to check it out, and to submit! www.citricacid.ink.

“So I think I’ll stop…” to quote the oxymoronic opening of James Harms’ “Fear of Angels”—another poem that I could have listed as one that captures America’s essence (and which contains one of my favorite lines: “how everyone needs help now and then”). Anyway, yes … Wow, we covered a lot of ground! I really want to thank you, David, for this conversation and the excellent questions though. They were complex, and I very much appreciate your generosity in allowing me to take my time to elaborate on things. This is by far the longest interview I’ve ever done! I haven’t had many interviews where the questions are so thoughtful and spot on regarding the work, so for that I’m very grateful, too. Also, major props for the other interviews published in this series. And for this forum. Really, for all you do and are doing to promote poetry. Very much appreciated, by me and the other writers out there. I’m honored to be a part.

 

About Grant Hier

Grant Hier served as the inaugural Poet Laureate of the City of Anaheim from 2018-2020. Other literary honors include Prize Americana (2014), the Nancy Dew Taylor Prize for Literary Excellence in Poetry (2014), and the Kick Prize (2013). For his community service, on behalf of the Refugee Forum of Orange County, he was named recipient of The World Refugee Day Courage Award (2019). Other poetry books include The Difference Between and Similitude. Practice: 394 Poems in 365 Days (a new book of poetry and instruction), and a volume of new and selected poems, are both forthcoming. His poetry has been widely anthologized in such books as Monster Verse—Human and Inhuman Poems (Knopf/Everyman), Only Light Can Do That (Rattling Wall/PEN Center USA), Orange County: A Literary Field Guide (Heyday), Without a Doubt—Poems Illuminating Faith (New York Quarterly), and many others. A flash fiction book, California Continuum Vol. One, he co-authored with John Brantingham, and individual fiction pieces appear in LA Fiction Anthology: Southland Stories by Southland Writers (Red Hen Press) and Flash Fiction Journal — Two. His essays and reviews have been widely published as well, including in So It Goes—The Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Jeffers Studies, Explorations in English Studies, Teaching Composition with Literature, and the book John Fante: A Critical Gathering. He has been entered for three Grammy Awards: as a writer for “Best Album Notes” (for the last two Los Lobos albums, Llegó Navidad and Native Sons) and as a producer for “Best Folk Album” (for Joyride: Friends Take the Wheel). He recently wrote the liner notes to a forthcoming, special edition 5-LP box set (WAR—The Vinyl: 1971-1975). As a voice actor he contributed to the audio book of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the 2018 Audie Award for Audiobook of the year. Grant Hier is a Full Professor at LCAD, poetry editor for Chiron Review, and on the advisory board of Citric Acid. More at www.granthier.com

Faz escuro mas eu canto, um artigo por Washington Dell’Acqua

13/07/2020

Faz escuro mas eu canto

A arte teria o dom da profecia? Ou simplesmente ela se adianta ao seu tempo? Ainda que presa ao tempo e as circunstâncias é libertária, propositiva, incrivelmente indomável. A Bienal de São Paulo, prorrogada para 2021 por conta do isolamento provocado pela Covid 19, acertou na mosca ao escolher o tema geral. Acertar na mosca é ter pontaria. Ser certeiro. A temática escolhida de índole poética e pró-democracia diz “Faz Escuro mas Eu Canto”, verso do poema “Madrugada Camponesa” do amazonense Thiago de Mello, 96 anos.

O projeto curatorial, coordenado pelo ítalo-brasileiro Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, foi escolhido em 2019, antes dos estragos da pandemia e do caos político brasileiro. O hoje/agora sem dúvida  está escuro, nebuloso, indefinível, silencioso, igualitário (mesmo que mais mortal aos pobres). Sem respostas cartesianas, mágicas ou… terraplanistas. Mas o poeta  se opõe ao “escuro” e complementa imediatamente ao seu verso : “eu canto”. Cantar é resistência. O canto rejeita o imobilismo. Talvez ele seja mais audível e afinado aos ouvidos do que o grito. Cantar é reescritura da história.

Passo a escrever neste espaço com o intuito de apresentar o ambiente cultural da  paulistanidade. O que é a paulistanidade?. É ser paulista ou estar paulista nessa cidade multifacetada, cosmopolita, intensa, rica, pobre, feia, contemporânea, estranha e com um pulsante circuito de galerias de arte, centros culturais e museus, como o Museu de Arte de São Paulo (Masp)  dono de fascinante coleção de arte italiana, francesa, de Rembrandt, Tiziano, Van Gogh, arte africana, etc, e artistas brasileiros de projeção como Tarsila do Amaral. A Bienal de São Paulo, que na edição de 2021 tratará do “escuro” e o seu antagonista “eu canto”, já tem parte da lista de artistas definida.

Antes de entrar no assunto, proponho ao leitor descobrir ligeiramente o que é essa bienal que ocupa um grande pavilhão no popular Parque do Ibirapuera, em São Paulo. A instituição nasceu no projeto de um país que almejava sair da década de 1950 da condição de país agrícola e se firmar industrialmente. Ser o sonhado Brasil pujante. A bienal é reflexo da aristocracia paulista dessa época, principalmente do casal de mecenas italiano-brasileiros Ciccillo Matarazzo e Yolanda Penteado, donos de fabuloso grupo fabril. Um dos objetivos era resgatar o Brasil da “obscuridade” global. Introduzir a modernidade, no rastro da construção de Brasilia, a capital federal no centro geográfico do pais traçada pelo urbanista Lucio Costa e o arquiteto Oscar Niemeyer.

A Bienal cumpriu esse papel. Ela colaborou para jogar luz e glamour artístico sobre o emergente país sul-americano. É a segunda bienal do mundo, atrás apenas da Bienal de Veneza. O ineditismo aqui foi tão grande que ela exibiu a tour de force “Guernica”, de Pablo Picasso. Operação inconcebível hoje: tirar a grande tela do Museu Reina Sofia, em Madri. As 34 edições do evento projetaram o país – mesmo sob o período  da ditadura militar nos anos 1960-70. Dessa forma o público paulista se conecta há sete décadas simultaneamente com o que é exposto  nos  circuitos de Nova York, Londres, Moscou, Toquio, Paris, Buenos Aires, Mexico, Berlim, Cairo, Pretoria, Estocolmo, Pequim, Istambul…

Faz Escuro. O Brasil está no escuro. São Paulo igualmente. O país da bossa nova, dos três fusos horários, de 274 línguas indígenas e litoral de 7,3 mil quilômetros vive na obscuridade. Eclipsado. Sob o incógnito vírus e temores democráticos. O que não se vê se deduz. A arte a ser exposta na Bienal sugere solfejos. Uma das notas musicais de potencia sideral extrema poderia ser representada por um heroico e perene meteorito. Exato. É isso mesmo.

O meteorito Bendengó. O objeto espacial vindo do desconhecido e sob brutais ataques de forças cósmicas foi encontrado no sertão da Bahia em 1784. No Nordeste do país. Transportado por pesquisadores em 1888 passou a integrar o Museu Nacional do Rio de Janeiro. Estava no hall do prédio neoclássico, antiga residência do Império português. Em 2018 a instituição sofreu devastador incêndio. Dezoito milhões de itens históricos e científicos desapareceram. Bendengó suportou o fogo e encontrado entre os escombros. Ele é o símbolo, um obelisco de formas abstratas de ressurgimento do museu.

Bendengó, o 16º maior meteorito do mundo, deverá estar temporariamente na Bienal e resignificar a arte produzida por um conjunto de artistas de várias nacionalidades. Em torno de sua “luminosidade”, obras cantantes (afinadas ou não, audíveis ou não).

Outro ponto de convergência artística da próxima Bienal paulista é o abolicionista negro norte-americano Frederick Douglass (1818-1895). Ele é o primeiro cidadão afro norte-americano a ocupar cargo de alto escalão. Seu discurso de 1841, em convenção anti escravagista descreve sua experiência de escravo.

A fala contundente e perfeitamente construída virou hino pela igualdade, canto contra a obscuridade racista. Douglass fundou jornal, foi conselheiro de Abraham Lincoln. Emergiu como a pessoa mais retratada no século 19. Seus autorretratos, realizados desde os 23 anos, rompem o estabelecido. Fotografia é autoconfiança, dizia o escritor. As imagens evocam o olho no olho. Está escuro. Mas o corajoso Douglass vê o aqui e o além das fronteiras da ignorância. Sua performance fotográfica não é datada e estabelece diálogos atuais. Black lives matter.

Faz escuro. Mas um desgastado sino de 1750 terá outra jornada de glória na Bienal. Trata-se de um sino instalado numa capela na cidade barroca de Ouro Preto, no interior de Minas Gerais. O instrumento musical-religioso foi tocado às escondidas após o enforcamento de Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, chamado Tiradentes (1746-1792), ícone da luta da independência do Brasil de Portugal. O sino “subversivo” voltou a tocar em 1960 na inauguração de Brasília, quatro ano depois centro de poder ditatorial. Talvez não seja tocado na Bienal. Porque faz escuro. Mas a arte badala e dá seus sinais e pode estar mais viva do que nunca. Aqui e por qualquer outro quadrante.

34ª Bienal de São Paulo – de 4 de setembro a 5 de dezembro de 2021

 

Biografia

Washington Dell’Acqua é jornalista e produz desenhos. Atuou em jornais, revistas, sites e em museus de São Paulo. Especializado em artes visuais, cobriu edições das Bienais de São Paulo, Veneza e Documenta de Kassel. Escreveu colunas de artes. Expôs produção artística em coletivas nos anos 1990 e 2000.

Interlitq publishes the essay in English “Louis Calaferte’s Le Sang violet de l’améthyste” by John Taylor, a c...

Louis Calaferte’s Le Sang violet de l’améthyste

 

 

When a friend who has never read Louis Calaferte (1928-1994) stands before a bookcase housing over a hundred volumes by this French writer, poet, playwright, and diarist, he or she inevitably asks: where to begin? It is easy to suggest Calaferte’s moving first book, Requiem des innocents (1952), his erotic novel Septentrion (1963), or his short narratives depicting female sexuality, La Mécanique des femmes (1992); and, as complements, perhaps his memoir of the Second World War in Lyon, C’est la Guerre (1993), or the exposition of his Christian anarchist philosophy, L’Homme vivant (1994). Depending on the friend, some of Calaferte’s plays, collected in six volumes at the Éditions Hesse, might be more suitable. Or his poetry, but Calaferte’s prolificacy can be intimidating in this genre as well: the Éditions Tarabuste alone has issued over thirty titles.

As for myself, whenever I have taken on this informal advisory role, I have recommended Le Sang violet de l’améthyste ever since it appeared posthumously at Gallimard in 1998. First of all, The Violet Blood of the Amethyst enables one to break the critical habit of returning to the same handful of books; and notably the first one, Requiem des innocents, little matter how engaging and timely this memoir of growing up in an impoverished quarter of Lyon remains. Too often, critics (and well-meaning enthusiasts) mechanically cite this title, retell the story of the encouragement that Calaferte received from the writer Joseph Kessel, and then almost forget what has been written ever since then and awaits them on their desks. The same applies to Septentrion, the graphic eroticism and bold anarchistic underpinnings of which caused it to be legally restricted—in one of the rare cases of censorship in postwar France—to a “not for commercial sale” status for twenty-one years (1963-1984). The long-banned book thus has its own diversionary story to tell, and it should be told, but it can also divert attention away from what is essential: the contents of the book and its exceptional style. Of course, the two novels fully deserve their critical reputations, and especially Septentrion, which deepened Calaferte’s approach and marked a new departure for him. But this is not my topic here.

The near-exclusive emphasis that is placed on them overlooks the glaring bibliographical fact that Calaferte, as far as prose is concerned, soon became essentially an author of short prose. Early books like Satori (1968) and Rosa Mystica (1968) already reveal the propensity to brevity and narrative fragmentation that informs nearly all his subsequent writing. Instead of expanding or amplifying, as a novelist or even a short story writer must do, Calaferte increasingly strives for formal compression, aphoristic acuteness, vivacity, tightness in a syntax that sometimes becomes less linked to that of colloquial speech, as well as—in apparent contrast—multifarious characters, narrative viewpoints, emotions, ideas, scenes, settings, and styles. Similarly, his poems are not only often short but also diversified in form, tonality, and contents. After the first decade of his literary career (during which he also publishes the novel Partage des vivants in 1953), his prose enters into broad generic categories like “poetic prose” or simply “short prose.” (By the way, this latter novel, long out of print, has recently been reissued by the Éditions Tarabuste; and its narrative structure, sometimes built out of scenes not always connected to each other by smooth transitions, reveals that the author’s sensibility was already oriented towards short prose.) He abandons the novel and ignores more traditional forms of the short story, two rare counterexamples of which constitute his book Campagnes (1979), which in turn is called a récit (narrative), in the singular. Indeed, he often produces books to which no conventional labels—novel, short-story collection, and even the rather vague and thus useful term récit—can be applied. If one wishes to grasp the whole writer, one must incorporate much more into the picture; and this much more is multifaceted, ever-moving, and often consists of what one might call “brevities” linked to other “brevities.” These brevities are organized in such ways that the book, or the sequence of texts, delves, and from several angles, into its subject matter.

Hence the special significance of The Violet Blood of the Amethyst. The book displays the gamut of Calaferte’s styles and themes, as well as several facets of his literary sensibility. There are poems (in various forms), short prose narratives (also in various forms), “notes” rather like some of those that fill his sixteen published Carnets (Notebooks), aphorisms, single sharp images removed from any explanatory context, and quotations ranging from verse by Emily Dickinson (whom he translates for the occasion) to a description found in Jean-Baptiste La Curne de Sainte-Palaye’s Mémoire de l’ancienne Chevalerie considérée comme un établissement politique et militaire. The latter represents one of several similar discoveries made among the old editions that this very modern author also loved.

Calaferte juxtaposes erotic depictions with alchemical concepts, philosophical speculations, seemingly personal memories, a few observed or imagined childhood scenes and—most unexpectedly—laconic monologues spoken by Polyphemus, the Homeric Cyclops. The settings otherwise shift, though not uniquely, between two metaphorically antipodal cities, London and Venice, which respectively represent northern Europe—think of Septentrion once again—and southern Europe. The reader believes that the author is or has been in “ornate” Venice and “cottony” London, but this autobiographical effect may well be deceptive. Such is the case elsewhere, notably in the short prose texts that employ a narrative “I” in L’Incarnation (1987), Promenade dans un parc (1987), or Memento mori (1988).

And Time, too, is a central mystery in The Violet Blood of the Amethyst. Several historical periods are called up, and they thus extend—though in no linear order—from archaic Greece (with its resonant archetypal myths), through the Middle Ages, to the narrator’s present, which is our present. Yet taken as a whole, the texts also seem to form the “present” of dreaming or, even more convincingly, of insomnia: those moments, minutes, or hours that parade by with their chaotic (and chronologically non-linear) images, memories, stories, aspirations, and thoughts, before the final two sentences can be spoken or heard: “Fear nothing. Fall asleep.”

Other stylistic techniques or thematic ingredients that enter into The Violet Blood of the Amethyst have been used before by Calaferte, yet differently: for example, in the poetry collection Londonniennes (1985), the cruel narratives of Portrait de l’enfant (1969), the dialogues in Calaferte’s plays (and in some of his prose works, even going as far back as Requiem des innocents and Partage des vivants), not to mention the erotic vignettes of The Way It Works with Women (the English title of La Mécanique des femmes). In this sense, The Violet Blood of the Amethyst is a sort of distillate; or a collection of distillates, depending on one’s appraisal of the unity, or disunity, of the book. Implicitly asserting its coherence, Calaferte himself specifies in his fifteenth notebook, Dimensions (2009), which covers the year 1993, that The Violet Blood of the Amethyst also constitutes a “landmark,” “marker,” or “indicator.” The writer refers (on December 23rd) to this book (and Les Fontaines silencieuses) as “book-bearings [livres repères] that are also poetic books [and] stand in a sort of zone parallel to the public.” He also emphasizes their “high sincerity,” which is a manner of stating their personal importance to him and the authenticity of his intent, though not, strictly speaking, any precise autobiographical inspiration. With respect to this latter critical question, time and again the reader must meditate on the first sentence of the book: “I call ‘world’ that which does not resemble me.”

Calaferte’s initial efforts to write The Violet Blood of the Amethyst go back to 1989, five years before his death. In the thirteenth notebook, Situation (2007), which covers the year 1991, he mentions (on September 23rd) that the first pages had been written two years beforehand and then laid aside; and he observes that they have a “dreamlike vein,” a remark hinting at the possibility that the sequence mirrors dreaming or insomnia. On the same day, he records his wife Guillemette’s insightful reaction to these pages: “a fantastical and kaleidoscopic vision of our wounded and furiously eroticized world”—a statement putting the accent on what is outside, exterior: the world. This constitutes one of the essential dichotomies of the book. However, Calaferte adds that, for the time being, only the “entrancing” or “spellbinding” nature of the project entices him. Four days later, he abandons the manuscript once again in order to concentrate on The Way It Works with Women. Ultimately, The Violet Blood of the Amethyst will be mostly written after that book and before C’est la guerre and at about the same time as the posthumously published volumes Maître Faust (2001) and Les Fontaines silencieuses (2005).

Calaferte would work swiftly and intensely once inspiration had grasped him. His Notebooks recount sometimes rather long fallow periods, followed by prolonged bursts of exceptional creative energy. Several times in his Notebooks he writes of the importance, for a writer, of patience, of knowing how to “wait.” The composition of The Violet Blood of the Amethyst is no exception. As his fourteenth notebook, Direction (2008), reveals, he was pondering the project again by February 26th (1992). A little less than three weeks later, on March 15th, he recommences work on its “fine mosaic.” Typically, by March 19th, he has already produced fifty pages; and by March 29th he sees the end: “Begun on March 15th, The Violet Blood of the Amethyst is finished today. I need to put it in order, which is a fastidious task. I would like this odd book to have the perfection of jewelry work.”

“Finished” thus means that the creative inspiration has run its course. There is still much work to be done which, presumably, engages the analytical intellect more than it does the other mental, emotional, and artistic qualities that have fuelled the composition of the individual pieces. This goal of ordering the texts seems to have been attained by June 26th, as a remark about the “mise au net” of the book and Maître Faust suggests. Two months later finds him continuing to translate poems by Emily Dickinson, the main tutelary figure of The Violet Blood of the Amethyst, which also reproduces lines by Martial, Propertius, William Blake, and others. In his labors to bring Dickinson into French, Calaferte chooses fifty-five poems from her work because of their “at once mystical and esoteric resonance.” He hopes to “penetrate the magic, religious, and esoteric meaning of [Dickinson’s] fascinatingly complex oeuvre.” This same challenge faces the reader of The Violet Blood of the Amethyst.

Calaferte’s own phrases—“fine mosaic,” “jewelry work”— define this challenge on the structural level. To what extent is the book intricately arranged? Is it a mosaic, an artistic form that demands more attentive ordering and precise craftsmanship than a collage, let alone a simple collection of texts? A mosaic forms a pattern. Is there a “pattern” visible in The Violet Blood of the Amethyst? Back in 1991, when the author rereads the pages drafted in 1989, he notes (in Situation) that the initial construction of the book is “completely arbitrary” and that this “alarms” him.

At the minimum, The Violet Blood of the Amethyst is a commonplace book. Historically, the genre goes back at least as far as the thirteenth-century Italian zibaldone. Such hodgepodges collect sayings, maxims, topics, arguments, opinions, truisms, sundry quotations, and even drawings. They gather a writer’s findings, what has influenced him (or what he wishes will influence him), what has amused him, what seems instructive, and thus reflect as much the whims and intentions of his mind as his practical writing routines (and, possibly, his search for inspiration). The English word “commonplace” translates the Latin locus communis (“widely applicable argument or thesis”), which in turn renders the Greek koinos topos. The playwright Ben Jonson’s Timber: Or Discoveries (1640), for instance, is a commonplace book that includes experimental drafts, mini-essays, maxims, reflections, and examples of other genres. And so is, more or less, Leopardi’s Zibaldone, compiled by the Italian poet and thinker (1798-1837) between 1817 and 1832. (Calaferte never saw the first full French translation of this book, which appeared in 2003.) Quoted on two occasions in The Violet Blood of the Amethyst, Leopardi put together an enormous journal particularly focused on philosophical ideas. But the Italian poet’s Zibaldone is no truly representative example of the genre in that a commonplace book might comprise introspective jottings, but it is essentially open to the world in that it gathers what the writer comes across, not what he himself produces in terms of personal writings. This is not the case for Leopardi’s masterwork. And there is a sense of usefulness to a commonplace book: it can be consulted by the author or by others. The Violet Blood of the Amethyst fits this definition, but there is much more to it.

An examination of the original manuscript confirms this. Calaferte wrote the first drafts of the short texts in a big notebook that also includes the daily jottings of his journal (which would become the volume Direction) and parts of a second book, Maître Faust. The texts in this original manuscript were typed up, then cut up and rearranged. The order in which they appear in the notebook differs greatly from that of the original French edition of The Violet Blood of the Amethyst. In addition, the manuscript reveals that the author originally intended to call the texts “La Fontaine silencieuse.” In other words, Calaferte inverted the titles of the two books.

The second epigraph gives the crucial hint as to why Calaferte rearranged the texts. “Unum in uno circulo sive vase” means “one thing in one circle or vessel.” Already, a quest for unity is announced. Calaferte found the quotation in a footnote (about the hermetic Tractatus aureus) in Carl Gustav Jung’s Psychologie et alchimie (French translation, 1970). The same Latin phrase is repeated in Jung’s Dreams, to which Jung adds another footnote that provides the original context of the phrase: “The circumambulation has its parallel in the [. . .] ‘circulation of spirits of circular distillation, that is, the outside to the inside, the inside to the outside, likewise the lower and the upper; and when they meet together in one circle, you could no longer recognize what was outside or inside, or lower or upper; but all would be one thing in one circle or vessel [my italics]. For this vessel is the true philosophical Pelican, and there is no other to be sought for in all the world.’”

This circularity, or unity, is difficult, if not impossible, to find because the world is full of disparities, conflicts, contradictions, oppositions. Calaferte hints that he has structured the texts of The Violet Blood of the Amethyst around this dilemma, not only by means of his second epigraph, but also when he refers almost offhandedly (and in parentheses) to “Apuleius’s contradictory cross. Alterutrae.” The key term “alterutrae” means “alternates,” but it is used by Apuleius (in his logical treatise, Peri Hermeneias) in the sense of “contraries,” “opposites,” “contradictions.” Apuleius was also fascinated by oppositions and potential unity. Similarly, although Heraclitus is not mentioned in The Violet Blood of the Amethyst, Calaferte elsewhere cites the pre-Socratic philosopher’s related ideas; for example, the fragment: “Opposition brings concord. Out of discord comes the fairest harmony.” This is one of the deepest movements, or leitmotivs, in Calaferte’s entire oeuvre.

When reading The Violet Blood of the Amethyst, it is stimulating to keep in mind such “contraries” and, even more so, alchemists’ searches to efface or dissolve the dichotomies of “inside” / “outside” and “lower” / “upper.” On the one hand, the book displays or reveals what is “outside,” in the “world,” as is suggested by the aforementioned first line: “I call ‘world’ that which does not resemble me.” But equally forcible is the impression that the book brings out what is “inside” a mind, be this mind the creative author’s or—less autobiographically—a particular narrative “mind” that expresses not only some of its idiosyncrasies but also and especially representative elements of what Jung called “the collective unconscious”; that is, a mind employing a narrative “I” that would encompass more, as it were, than its strictly autobiographical circumscription; more than its “contents” based on personal experiences (of sundry mental and physical varieties); a mind that would be as much a receptacle as a fountainhead.

This narrative “I” in The Violet Blood of the Amethyst is compounded by the presence of other “I’s.” Sometimes even Polyphemus sounds like the poet: “I am the visionary of what remains unaccomplished.” For this declaration expresses the thematic thrust of the book and resembles, in fact, the aforementioned characteristic movement or leitmotif in Calaferte’s oeuvre: the elaboration of what is heading for some kind of “accomplishment” or ending; and this movement in fact seems to end with the previously mentioned solemn, soothing injunction: “Fear nothing. Fall asleep.” An accomplishment that marks an ending or, rather — if one takes the author’s hints — signifies that the alchemical circle has been formed once again, that the cycle has been renewed, that “accomplishment” implies continuity. Furthermore, Polyphemus tries to perceive who or what is stalking him, who or what will kill him. Does the Cyclops thus represent the author, who was writing this book as the signs of his fatal illness were becoming ever more pressing? This matters little. Polyphemus represents the fundamental condition of any human being: that of facing finitude, death.

The Violet Blood of the Amethyst is likewise permeated by the notion of a “return,” a desire associated with Ulysses, who is Polyphemus’s protagonist. The oft-evoked “sea” (mer)—with its tantalizing French homophone mère (mother) that is especially audible because of the conspicuous lack of definite and indefinite articles—is linked to this wish for a “return” and therefore to Ulysses the wanderer. Return implies circularity, once again, and recalls the archaic and mythological image of a snake biting its tail—the ouroboros, which is mentioned early on in The Violet Blood of the Amethyst and which is also the title of the bold “chant” written by Calaferte in an invented language in 1964, excerpted by Maurice Nadeau for Les Lettres Nouvelles in 1965, and reissued by the Éditions Tarabuste in 1995. This archaic image seems to materialize when the final sentence—about the narrator’s falling off to sleep—rejoins the first sentence that announces the separation of the world and the narrative “I” (or the ego tout court) and thus acknowledges almost an awakening or a birth. The Violet Blood of the Amethyst likewise records halts and detours made during a journey—the journey of writing, of life (in its physical and spiritual aspects), an itinerary such as experienced Ulysses with all his multifaceted symbolism—aimed at gaining insight into an eternal cycle which promises to turn disparities and contraries back into sameness, oneness. Ulysses will be obliged to blind — essentially, to kill — Polyphemus. In The Violet Blood of the Amethyst, Polyphemus and Ulysses are essentially one and the same figure.

Similarly, The Violet Blood of the Amethyst—like other books by Calaferte—sets off what is “lower” against what is “upper,” and points to or relates attempts to reconcile the two levels. Roughly stated, this vertical dichotomy involves a physical, natural, and/or sexual level and a mental and/or spiritual level. This spiritual or metaphysical level is nearly always present in Calaferte’s writing, in one way or another. Here it is announced from the onset, in the first epigraph: “All then, in a word, who have spoken of divine things, both Barbarians and Greeks, have veiled the first principles of things, and delivered the truth in enigmas, and symbols, and allegories, and metaphors, and such like tropes.” His use of The Song of Songs is also emblematic in this respect. Some passages state the dichotomy directly:

 

Weight of the earth. Incommensurable mass. Heavily laden with desire.

Bodies are offered in their vulnerable opacity.

Come—so that I may relieve you—so that together we may relieve ourselves.

So that, through contradiction, we learn how to elevate ourselves.

So that before returning to our mud, we rise through the levels of ether.

 

Analyses such as the preceding take Calaferte at his word in regard to epigraphs and key phrases found in the texts themselves. But are these exegeses going too far? Calaferte doubted that it was possible to analyze poetry. In Choses dites (1997), in regard to Verlaine’s famous line “les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne” (literally, “the prolonged sobbing of autumn violins”), he maintains: “That is what poetry is. It is nothing else. . . You receive it. Without explanation.” The title Le Sang violet de l’améthyste is “poetic” in this direct, immediate sense, not least in its surreal, oxymoronic, and mystical qualities; perhaps it essentially represented for Calaferte little more than a poetic trouvaille. The author’s thoughts about the title are delineated nowhere in the Notebooks. This being said, the title itself expresses an extraordinarily rich dichotomy, even several dichotomies. The “violet blood” is contained in, flows through, the solid rock of the “amethyst,” a gem which is fashioned from a fixed internal geometry and which, in Greek mythology and history, is symbolically associated with meditation, mental clarity, and peace of mind. The etymology of the word (Greek a-methystos “not drunk, not intoxicating”) could not be clearer; the gem was thought to ward off both literal and metaphorical inebriation. “Blood” has its own spectrum of contrasting symbols, ranging from bodily passion and the blood of Christ to life. And one must never neglect the importance of this key-word—Life—for the author of L’Homme vivant. In brief, the title forthwith suggests a struggle between Apollonian and Dionysian elements (to borrow Goethe’s and Nietzsche’s vocabulary), between an ideal serenity and life in its surging, inebriating, chaotic physicality. In Choses dites, this concrete poem expresses one side of the equation:

 

VIVRE

IVRE

à mourir

 

The amethyst represents the other side. And this is why the title, The Violet Blood of the Amethyst, sums up Calaferte’s entire oeuvre. Taken as a whole, Calaferte’s oeuvre reveals a multifaceted literary sensibility, one aspect of which is pursuing truth not merely through poetry (and playful poetry), but also through logic, the precise alignment of words: syntax. This intellectual and stylistic intention is especially present in his aphoristic writings, in countless analytical passages of his Notebooks, as well as in some passages of The Violet Blood of the Amethyst.

The symbolic balance of the French title is thus crucial and argues for the decision to render it literally. The translation problem revolves around the color “violet.” Generally speaking, when a French speaker perceives the color “violet,” an English speaker perceives the same color as “purple.” The adjective “pourpre” exists in French, even as “violet” exists in English, but when we say “purple,” the French speaker will see and say “pourpre” if and only if there is a pronounced reddish hue to the purple; otherwise, it will be “violet” in French. Moreover, descriptions of the gem “amethyst” in geology manuals give the color of the quartz as “violet” if the manual is French and most often as “purple” if the manual is English, even if (in English) a specific “amethyst violet” hue of purple exists and is described as being, once again, a reddish purple. Specifically, to cite Websters, amethyst violet is “a variable color averaging a moderate purple that is redder and duller than heliotrope or manganese violet, bluer and duller than cobalt violet, and darker and slightly stronger than average lilac.” A variable color, indeed!

Yet the arguments for rendering “violet” as “violet,” and not as the somewhat more natural “purple,” ultimately win out. The English “purple” as well as the thereby different French “pourpre” both connote imperial or regal rank, power, and wealth. Such considerations do not enter into Calaferte’s symbolic matrix whatsoever, even negatively when he pays tribute to the impoverished poets Luíz Vas de Camoens, Thomas Chatteron, and James Thomson. Calaferte describes the blood of the amethyst as being neither “pourpre,” nor “rouge,” nor “bleu” (which has still other connotations), but rather as “violet,” which, as a “French” color, strikes a balance between blue and red. Less heavily laden with symbolism, violet is associated with Christian mystical unions of various kinds, with amorous fusion, as well as with submission—a theme present in some scenes—and melancholy. Qualifying blood with this adjective fashions a thought-provoking subtlety, a symbolic intricacy. Moreover, the word “violet” and its derivative “violine” appear only once each in the actual texts, yet “violent” recurs several times. A coincidence? It is hard to believe so when one reads Calaferte’s remarks in his Notebooks about creating a “fine mosaic” and crafting “jewelry.” Furthermore, Calaferte perhaps had a particular affinity with the letter “v,” or attributed a special symbolic significance to it, as the countless fricative “v-sounds” in the invented language of his poem Ouroboros suggest. “Blood” appears often and variously. “Amethyst” shows up not even once, as if the gem were the form, the internal crystalline geometry, through which the texts—the violet and sometimes violent blood—were flowing, giving life to the form, to the book, constructing it. Unum in uno circulo sive vase. . . Ultimately, the alchemical phrase says all. The Violet Blood of the Amethyst seeks wholeness and gives it a form.

Translating Calaferte is no easy matter. Besides the difficulties of rendering a few quotations originally penned in older French and of finding equivalents for the French translations that the author uses for some Latin verse and that also sometimes possess archaic diction, his style itself exhibits idiosyncrasies. Most striking of all is the near-systematic suppression of articles at the beginning of many sentences and invocations, most conspicuously for the key word mer. This absence of definite and indefinite articles can suggest jotting down notes (as in a commonplace book), but beyond this stylistic habit, and because of it, physical matter surges forth in all its immediacy, substantiality and timelessness. I have nearly always mirrored Calaferte’s French in such cases and have attempted to remain as close as possible to the word order, all the more so in that logic—the conflict of contraries and their potential resolution—and thus syntactic logic are at stake in the book. Although he is an author inclined to realistic, even clinical precision, Calaferte also introduces various philosophical abstractions that call for careful scrutiny before finding English equivalents. Writing about Dickinson and implicitly about his project to translate her, Calaferte underscores in Direction, on September 23, 1992, the necessity of “bringing out her intelligence, her knowledge, the depth and gravity of her thinking, her singular temperament, her mysticism, her anguish before death.” Communicating that necessity, while translating this emblematic book, has been my goal.

 

John Taylor

 

This essay is a slightly abridged version of the text introducing Taylor’s translation, The Violet Blood of the Amethyst (forthcoming from Chelsea Editions in New York).

 

See also:

 

“From Darkness to Light (Louis Calaferte),” Paths to Contemporary French Literature, volume 1, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2004, pp. 152-160.

 

“Belief, Magic, Miracle”: Louis Calaferte as Poet,” Paths to Contemporary French Literature, volume 2, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2007, pp. 185-198.

 

 

 

 

 

About Louis Calaferte: Louis Calaferte (1928-1994) was one of most prolific and controversial French writers of the twentieth century. Consisting of over ninety titles, his published oeuvre includes some forty poetry collections, six volumes of collected plays, an extraordinary rich series of notebooks, several books of short prose, and much-debated novels such as Requiem des innocents (1952), Septentrion (1963), or La Mécanique des femmes (1992)—the latter published in an English translation at Northwestern University Press as The Way It Works with Women. Drafted at the very end of his life and issued posthumously, Le Sang violet de l’améthyste (1998) offers an essential key to the unity of this multifarious body of work. An interconnected sequence of poems, short prose narratives, quotations, and aphorisms, the book brings out all his characteristic themes and displays his various writing styles. John Taylor has received a grant from the Sonia Raiziss Charitable Foundation to translate this book as The Violet Blood of the Amethyst (forthcoming from Chelsea Editions).

About John Taylor: John Taylor received a 2011 NEA grant for his project to translate Georges Perros’s Papiers collés and a second grant, from the Sonia Raiziss Charitable Foundation, to translate Louis Calaferte’s Le Sang violet de l’améthyste. He has recently translated books by Philippe Jaccottet (And, Nonetheless, Chelsea), Pierre-Albert Jourdan (The Straw Sandals, Chelsea), and Jacques Dupin (Of Flies and Monkeys, Bitter Oleander Press). Taylor’s most recent collection of personal writings is The Apocalypse Tapestries (Xenos), and he has a new book, If Night is Falling, forthcoming with the Bitter Oleander Press in April, 2012. He is also the author of the three-volume essay collection, Paths to Contemporary French Literature (Transaction), as well as Into the Heart of European Poetry (Transaction).