Category: Philosophy

University of Bologna Student, Paul Azemata Amune, Publishes Paper in Global Studies

 

University of Bologna Student, Paul Azemata Amune, Publishes Paper in Global Studies

 

Populism and the Rise of Xenophobia among Italians toward Immigrants

 

Abstract

Over the years, like other parts of the European Union, Italy has experienced a sharp increase in the number of immigrants entering its territory. Immigration becomes a keenly contested topic. This paper focuses on understanding people’s genuine real-world concerns by briefly identifying three specific areas that could logically explain how Italians perceive immigration. They include security, identity, and jobs. The far-right populist politicians and the media have exploited these concerns as they continue to fan the flames of fear. This has consequentially led to several incidents of intolerance meted out to immigrants and other minority groups such as Muslims and the Roma community creating an atmosphere where these minority groups are perceived and treated as intruders. Empirical data have shown that immigrants contribute to the economic growth of Italy. They also show that immigration does not increase the crime rate and likewise does not pose a threat to the social fabric. Multiculturalism beyond integration is proposed in this paper to enhance the peaceful co-existence between the minority groups and the Italians.

 

Excerpt

In the wake of an Italian government coalition in 2018 between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right League saw the rise in violent attacks of foreigners. An anti-racist organization, Lunaria quarterly report, captures the number of racially motivated attacks against foreigners. The report states that the violence against immigrants has risen sharply in Italy, tripling between 2017 and 2018. It counted 126 physical attacks, particularly on migrants in 2018. It previously recorded twenty-seven racially motivated attacks in 2016 and forty-six in 2017 (Tondo 2019). Tondo (2019) noted that in the first two months of Matteo Salvini, (former Interior Minister well known for his anti-immigration rhetoric) entry into government, Lunaria 2018 figures recorded twelve shootings, two murders and thirty-three physical assaults against migrants. There was an instance that occurred shortly after the government instalment in 2018, involving Soumayla Sacko, an agricultural worker and a trade unionist from Mali, he was shot and killed in the southern Italian municipality of San Calogero (Robertson 2018). His death triggered a mass protest in Milan, in which protesters recited anti-racist slogans and posters read “Lega e Salvini assassini” (The League and Salvini are murderers).

Multiply and Divide Using Scientific Notation, a poem by David Garyan

06/02/2022
Trento, Italy

 

Multiply and Divide Using Scientific Notation

Only scientists should seriously discuss science,
meaning Judith Butler should stop talking gender.

Only psychologists should seriously discuss psychology,
meaning Harold Bloom should’ve stopped talking behavior.

Only historians should seriously discuss history,
meaning Stephen Greenblatt should forget the history of ideas.

Be an expert only in yourself.

Specialize. Divide. Categorize.

If you’re white, feel only your pain.
If you’re black, do the same.

 

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.

Democratic Skullfuckery: Neil Young, Joe Rogan, and Art Spiegelman, an article by David Garyan

05/02/2022
Trento, Italy

 

Democratic Skullfuckery: Neil Young, Joe Rogan, and Art Spiegelman

Various thinkers throughout the ages, such as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, and Madison, have criticized democracy. Plato believed that excessive liberty in democracy is its very undoing: “is it not the excess and greed of this and the neglect of all other things that revolutionizes this constitution too and prepares the way for the necessity of a dictatorship?” Aristotle, writing nearly around the same time, cautioned against extreme democracies, in which the will of the people supersedes the law: “where the laws are not sovereign, then demagogues arise; for the common people become a single composite monarch, since the many are sovereign not as individuals but collectively.” In other words, democracy becomes mob rule.

Hobbes preferred the stability of monarchy over the instability of democracy: “The riches, power, and honour of a monarch arise only from the riches, strength, and reputation of his subjects … whereas in a democracy, or aristocracy, the public prosperity confers not so much to the private fortune of one that is corrupt, or ambitious, as doth many times a perfidious advice, a treacherous action, or a civil war.”  In other words, a strong, stable, prosperous society is less likely to create civil unrest.

James Madison took the Aristotelian view, that majority opinion is likely based on passion rather than reason, which can lead to chaos: “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates; every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” Indeed, it was a democratic vote that put Socrates to death, not tyranny or monarchy—or perhaps the excesses of democracy had led to tyranny, as Plato argued. Who knows?

Whatever you may believe, democracy today is suffering from a total meltdown. The political climate surrounding the pandemic, along with the banning of books has made this all too clear. Let’s begin with the latter and move towards the less interesting virulent arena—less interesting only because it’s been discussed to death.

The Tennessee School Board’s recent banning of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Maus, has created a new conundrum—an added layer to the already difficult-to-navigate waters surrounding freedom of speech and public safety. On one hand, we have a Pulitzer Prize winning author and illustrator, who created one of the most magnificent pieces of Shoah literature ever conceived. On the other hand, we have Joe Rogan, an American UFC color commentator and TV personality turned anti-vax podcaster, who, together with Canadian Neil Young, have essentially sunk the popular streaming platform Spotify. It looks like Spiegelman and Rogan are on totally opposite spectrums, and that seems to be the case—upon closer inspection, however, they do have one little thing in common: Their right to freedom of speech.

Below are protesters supporting Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s dissent in the landmark case Abrams v. United States (1919). Along with Justice Louis D. Brandeis, Holmes argued that “the principle of the right to free speech is always the same. It is only the present danger of immediate evil or an intent to bring it about that warrants Congress in setting a limit to the expression of opinion where private rights are not concerned.” The case in question dealt with sedition. Now imagine if Supreme Court judges were stripped of their ability to dissent in cases that dealt with national security, much less protesters being allowed to protest the decision.

Let’s forget Holmes and his dissent, however. In defending Spiegelman and denouncing Rogan, many will immediately point out that the former’s work is based on totally verifiable facts—on completely honest historicity, while the latter is simply a right-wing nutjob. Duly noted. It still doesn’t change the fact that in a democratic society we must try our best to protect all freedom of speech—even the speech we disagree with. It’s important to highlight the difference between “trying to protect all freedoms of speech” as opposed to “actually protecting all speech.” John A. Powell, a Berkeley scholar and one of the foremost authorities on the topic, distinguishes between speech which aims to create dialogue, and speech which merely aims to demonize. He emphasizes how people often take advantage of the First Amendment simply to demonize others. In this way, these individuals are exploiting the Constitution’s democratic principles to achieve their racist agendas. Their main aim is racism, not dialogue, and Powell argues that such speech shouldn’t be protected, since it’s not about communication at all, but rather the desire to harm—a psychological assault, if you will, no different from a physical one: “Assaultive racist speech functions as a preemptive strike. The racial invective is experienced as a blow, not a proffered idea, and once the blow is struck, it is unlikely that dialogue will follow. Racial insults are undeserving of first amendment protection because the perpetrator’s intention is not to discover truth or initiate dialogue but to injure the victim.” Nothing we can disagree with here.

Having now established the boundaries of free speech, it’s time to return to the topic. Spiegelman and Rogan—the former an artistic transmitter of the ultimate truth; the latter a semi-conspiracy theorist at best. The reality is that the democratic struggle for both is essentially the same. Today, The Guardian ran an article on Spiegelman with the following subtitle: “Since his early days in the underground comix scene, Spiegleman has reveled in ‘saying the unsayable’ and subverting convention.” The issue isn’t that they misspelled the great artist’s name, but that on the very same day they ran an article on Rogan with the following headline: “Can Joe Rogan change?” He may be a bit of a wacko, but why should he? If, for years, Spiegelman had the privilege of saying the unsayable, are we really allowed, in a democratic society, to take that very same privilege away from Rogan—even if we disagree with what he says, even if what he says isn’t entirely accurate? In a democracy we can’t have it both ways. We can’t have the United States when we want democracy, and the Soviet Union when we want safety and decorum. We must live in one system or another.

The right to exercise one’s freedom of speech has always brought with it certain perils, regardless of whether the speech offered undeniable truth, or whether it was dubious at best. Under the First Amendment, things like flag burning and even the burning of Bibles are allowed because such freedom is healthy for a democratic, free society. While these actions bring with them certain dangers, they’re nevertheless necessary ingredients for the vitality of our democracy.

When, after 9/11, there was an incredible backlash against the Muslim community—to the extent that Balbir Singh Sodhi (a Sikh, not a Muslim man, wearing the traditional beard and turban) was gunned down at a Chevron gas station in irrational retaliation for the attacks—no Muslim or even Sikh ever thought of shaving his beard to eliminate the “threats” facing him then. The dangers inherent to the freedom of expression were worth bearing in the name of one’s choices, beliefs, and lifestyle.

The same must be said for the other so called “dangers” we associate with the freedom of expression. A democratic society—as powerful and robust as the American one—must have the institutional capability to bear the rhetorical impact made by speech that passes the aforementioned Powell test. American democracy must come equipped with some sort of linguistic airbag that prevents the death of freedom no matter how gravely any given rhetorical impact affects it.

All this leads to the less interesting side of things: Neil Young—an aging self-righteous rocker who penned the hit “Keep on Rockin’ in The Free World,” a song he should’ve called “Keep on Rockin’ in the Fully Vaccinated Better-Agree-With-Everything-I-Say-Free World.” We should’ve seen it coming from a mile away. Neil Young is a selfish, entitled, Canadian rock star (not that we should hold it against him). We should’ve known this as early as 1970, when Mr. Young had the good sense—not—to write a song called “Southern Man,” essentially dissing that whole part of our country, but for this he was swiftly posterized by the great Ronnie Van Zant in “Sweet Home Alabama:” “Well I hope Neil Young will remember / A southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” Good for you, Ronnie.

Neil Young should shut his mouth and not concern himself with business that doesn’t concern him. If America ever suffers the misfortune of totally succumbing to fascism or communism, it will precisely be Neil Young who’ll be denouncing fellow artists and compatriots left and right—the perfect Beria or Goebbels for Stalin and Hitler, respectively. And one more thing, Neil: All the songs you’ve ever written are essentially one song. And that’s not my opinion—take it from Dana Carvey. Click below to hear “every Neil Young song you’ve ever heard.”

Here we have an aging hippy who in the ’60s was spreading messages of freedom and peace—a man singing proudly about transcending our differences. Well, it only took fifty or so years for him to become a capitalist tool, getting in bed with a billion-dollar corporation to try and silence someone whose views he disagrees with. Here’s a tip, Neil: You shouldn’t have said “They can have Rogan or Young. Not Both.” You should’ve just pulled your music and gone your own way. That would’ve been emblematic of the freedom you so espouse—a real protest. But the scheming attitude of trying to get a platform to cancel someone you don’t agree with so this very platform can continue to play your music is a bit pathetic coming from a guy who wrote many songs that all sound like one song. Again, I didn’t say it.

In the interest of countering “misinformation,” Neil Young should probably delete his Facebook page with 2.6 million followers, his Instagram page with almost 250,000 followers, and any other social media website where misinformation is spread, especially as it relates to COVID, only one of the many problems plaguing our planet today. If you didn’t already know, Facebook’s response to human rights abuses is so slow in many parts of the world, that Mexican drug cartels, for example, “were using Facebook to recruit, train and pay hit men … the company didn’t stop the cartel from posting on Facebook or Instagram, the company’s photo-sharing site.” So, why just Spotify, Neil? Scared you’ll fall into obscurity? Be a man and do the real difficult thing, won’t you? Get off the grid.

The doublethink in today’s society is off the charts. Orwell would’ve been proud. American democracy is being shit on, and Facebook is having a field day with it. All the users posting and reposting the news of every single debonair band pulling their music are complicit in what I can only call an orchestrated virtual stinkfest of hollow solidarity resembling the day after Coachella. The next person to pull their tracks from Spotify better be a suburbanite Neil Young garage cover band that once had a decent following in remote parts of Winnipeg, until they finally realized the futility of trying to score with those songs, and so they humbly called it quits. I’ll have it no other way.

 

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)

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