BIBLIOCRACY RADIO | KPFK LOS ANGELES
By ANDREW TONKOVICH | JUNE 24, 2015
Welcome to Bibliocracy. I’m your host, Andrew Tonkovich, editor of the Santa Monica Review. The poet and writer, Grant Hier of Anaheim, California, (Orange County, USA), toiled long on his new, award-winning, book-length poem. His work, this year acknowledged big-time, with the award of Prize Americana for Untended Garden—his quest narrative, set in the suburbs where he lives and writes today (and grew up), in Anaheim. Sponsored by the Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture, the prize means a lot to any poet, but perhaps even more to this one, whose long poem—ambitious, and in its way, conceivably, never-ending—offers a fluid and engaging psycho-geographical, autobiographical story of persons, place, and spirit, with the authority of emotions but, yes, also footnoted and researched natural and human history, hard sciences and memory united in landscapes and people-scapes. Think (why not?) “Song of Myself,” but next door to Disneyland and the Santa Ana River, with the legacy of Native California dancing and speaking throughout, along with the poet’s own homesteading parents and grandparents. Talk about a family tree, Hier’s central metaphor is both an obvious universal one, but also an often forgotten physical one: that iconic and totemic “Council Tree,” which served once as a meeting and holy place for the peoples who lived here once, and live here still. Untended Garden (Histories and Reinhabitation in Suburbia), is a big, generous (if careful) mini-epic, urgently relevant to poetry-making, but also history making, especially to those of us living in what is now Los Angeles or Orange County, “The Southland.” Grant Hier is a widely published poet, editor, and musician. He earned his MA and MFA from Cal-State Long Beach, and he’s Professor of English at Laguna College of Art and Design, and he lives, of course, in Anaheim with his wife Laura, in the home where he grew up. And I’m so grateful to be here in that house, with my guest this week on Bibliocracy. Thanks, Grant, for doing this interview.
Thank you, Andrew. It’s an honor and a pleasure.
And, we should tell listeners that I am on-site, at the home, in Anaheim, where you grew up. You’re a handsome and talented middle-aged dude. You’ve been here for a while, and the house means a lot, not only to you in the way that our growing-up-homes means something to all of us, but you’ve taken it and used it as the way in to explaining the history and the emotion and the memory of this region.
Yes. Very well said. That’s true. You know, “Write what you know,” and, if anything, I know this. This is the house I grew up in, and there probably will be dog barks in the background. It’s suburbia, and that’s what this place is. “This neighborhood is filled with birds…” as the poem opens, so we might get some of that in the background. Um, yeah, it’s been an adventure. I wrote this poem—I began it 21 years ago. It took me about a year to write, and that was the first draft. And over the course of the last 20 years I’ve been revising. Working on it, I’d come across a bit of new history that I hadn’t heard before, and I’d relate it to the poem. The poem, I saw as always being alive and a work in progress. It’s not unlike my other process—I have a painting in the hallway that I’ve been working on for some 20 years and it’s not yet complete, but it calls to me, and I’ll go back to it every now and then, if it calls loud enough. And so this poem was just kept alive with excerpts of history. The “Council Tree” was something that came after the original writing. And as I found out more about this region and the history of it, it just spoke to me—it had to go in the poem. That was one of the challenges of writing the poem with revisions. Galway Kinnell once—I spoke with Galway about this project up at our beloved Squaw, and…
That’s at Squaw Valley Community of Writers.
That’s right. And he counseled me on the long poem genre. In particular because The Book of Nightmares just knocked me out. It’s one of the great works of Literature. It’s right over your shoulder on the bookcase, by they way.
And speaking of working, there are indeed people working out in your garden today and the dogs barking in the background. Which is kind of perfect, actually, Grant Hier, for this project, which is sort of the work of a lifetime. I don’t imagine that you would dismiss comparisons to people like Gary Snyder and Walt Whitman, but I have to say you’re probably also, how should we say, modest about the fact of indeed the topic here being an all-American, Southern California tract home as opposed to maybe the vast perceived vistas of Whitman’s New York/New Jersey/Atlantic coastline. But in your own way you’ve done that. The voice, I think, is the more obvious comparison. In a moment you’re going to read to us from the very beginnings of the poem. So that this is a kind of necessarily solipsistic poem, told by one entity, by one person who sometimes assumes the perspectives of a lot of other peoples who came before him.
Yes, very true. I realized as I was writing it, there was a moment of—oh, the feeling when you catch a big wave and you’ve paddled out and you’ve said, “Okay, here I go…” and then there’s that moment when you see how big it is and you say, “What have I done? There’s no turning back!” In terms of voice. If I wanted this book to be what I envisioned, I had to be able to handle that voice. And it was pretty bold at the time. I remember questioning my worthiness as a poet, to be like Whitman, having that voice of democracy and assuming to speak for other people.
I was aware of the responsibility of respecting that which came before and not wanting to assume cultures that I had no claim to. And yet, one of the purposes of the book and of my writing overall is to pay homage to that which is marginalized, or those who— the things that are lost or forgotten, or just worked over in our culture without the proper respect.
Above all I wanted to respect the voices that came before. I didn’t want to assume their cultures, assume that I was, you know, with the dream catcher hanging from my rear view mirror—which I don’t have, but you know what I say. There’s a lot of romanticizing of the past. So I was aware of the responsibility of respecting that which came before and not wanting to assume cultures that I had no claim to. And yet, one of the purposes of the book and of my writing overall is to pay homage to that which is marginalized, or those who— the things that are lost or forgotten, or just worked over in our culture without the proper respect. It’s part of Gary Snyders’ “re-inhabitation” idea: of who one is is directly related to where one is. So the romanticizing I didn’t want to do. And as I was studying the language of the Tongva— and by the way I wanted to thank Pam Monroe who is a Distinguished Professor of Linguistics at UCLA, who was an enormous help with the language of the book. There are several books I consulted when putting Tongva words into the poem, and when the poem won the award and it came time to edit it, I realized there was an inconsistency with diacritical marks and accents. I had just gleaned the [Tongva] words throughout the years, over 20 years, and documenting my sources for the most part, but it was inconsistent, and I didn’t want to be inconsistent. And some of the definitions were overly romanticized: “Edge splashing water” for “surf.” Well, it really doesn’t translate, literally, “Edge splashing water.” It’s surf. So I didn’t want to overly romanticize the past.
And you wanted to assume with some critical authority, but also “assume” in the sense of Whitman: what I assume you should also assume—which is engage and invite people.
The writer with whom I’m speaking with this week on Bibliocracy is Grant Hier. Spelled H-I-E-R, and Grant’s going to read us the introductory stanzas from his long, book-length poem, Untended Garden. Here’s Grant Hier.
is filled with birds:
the plaintive call
of a mourning dove
and the distant response
from a wire unseen,
two crows on grass
that bob and caw as one –
and the single mockingbird
chants a single word.
The sky is stitched
with a tapestry of coos and chirps,
tweeps and caws,
threads of song
I step from under the shelter
of the central Modesto Ash tree,
out into the sprinkling mist.
A brown thrush perched on brick under the eaves watches, twisted root fragment corkscrewing from her beak, remnant of an orange tree
now forty years dead, but the song of the warbler's ancestor
still vibrates in the zigzag hum of grain.
I nod at her, pace the perimeter of the yard,
one footfall for each paving stone,
the light drizzle cooling my skin,
then return to the dryness of the center,
the bench warped by seasons,
and sit in the silence, remembering.
My mother's mother
digs a hole in the dirt yard
of the new tract home,
lowers the sapling
then drops to her knees
to uncomb its ball of roots.
She hums as she holds the trunk
upright, and gathers back all
that was displaced, securing
the base of the Chinese Lace Elm,
tamping the soil firm with open hands.
The Sweet Alyssum
she had carefully dug up,
roots and all, from her own
garden, and she plants it now
in a ring around the new tree,
imagining as she sings
how it all might take hold,
re-seeding every spring after
she is gone, never dreaming
her own last breath is less than
a handful of seasons away.
Three years later, another planting: my father's father digs a hole opposite, by the curbside post, and sinks a limb of younger wood –
a sawed-off branch from the giant Balm of Gilead Cottonwood in his own dirt yard
at nearly the exact longitude on a bead due north, just past the foothills on the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains,
crosscut and carried over the ridge,
planted like a flag trailing our colors.
. . .
The transplant sprouts
lime green tendrils,
thrusts new roots
into rich earth
yards beneath this blanket
of blue and white alyssum.
growing thick as my torso
and heart-shaped leaves:
fluttering cottonwood blooms,
now filling the sky
I imagine my blood line
thirteen generations back –
The woman whose eyes I share.
The man whose curve of hand
matches mine exact
as he reaches out
to cup her jaw line,
stretches his thumb across
to the other cheek
to stop the fear
before she can taste it.
soil known for generation
after generation as
How far back does it run?
How far before the humming
can no longer reach through?
“How far back does it run?” That’s the question my guest this week, Grant Hier, asks in his terrific, newly published, award winning title, Untended Garden. So this is the origin story of one Grant Hier, back many generations from European immigrants through to 2015. And you a poet and writer and teacher who’s looking backward and all around from his modest tract home in Anaheim, California, conveniently, with arboreal roots and plant roots. Can you talk a little about—and tell me if I’m wrong Grant, but—the tree and trees seem very much to be the overwhelming and quite gorgeous metaphor throughout the book.
That’s absolutely right, yeah. And it’s fitting, as we are here the roots are running right under our feet as we talk. And the sound of one of the trees being removed, actually, from the front yard might be in the background. Yes—
Yes, you couldn’t have picked a more ironic day to host me here.
[laughing] Yes, isn’t it though?
I think it’s perfect though. And it occurred to me as I was reading the part about my grandmother planting that Chinese Elm, that her image is right over your head on the shelf. So yeah, I think the sense of place is clear here. And the whole metaphor of the garden: Untended Garden. I tend to let the garden be a non-traditional garden. Lots of trees. My family loves a lot of trees. I inherited that as well. And there’s a picket fence around it that I built. But it is a garden that many might consider untended. It’s more wild, as you would find out in the canyons or wherever. And yet the garden is far more than this yard I’m talking about. It’s the stewardship of the earth in a larger sense.
So not to get too English teacher on you, but I’m going to ask one of those kind of questions for hopefully the aid and direction of our listeners: The “Untended Garden” in the positive way also speaks to the untended and unmanageable and often unanswered history of this region. So that one of the terrific elements of this book—which I think of as a project in many ways, Grant—is that it comes with, it arrives with, maps, archival photographic documents and records, explanations, and some of the mysteries of the people who lived here long before the Hiers arrived. In some ways your book is a guide book to this region.
How many people here know or can point to where the rivers once ran through our neighborhood? It’s an invisible part of this culture. And yet it’s here, and it’s there to be discovered and not forgotten, if we can bring it back.
Yeah, that would be wonderful if it is, and that was one of the things I wanted to do. One of the decisions I made in writing this was how the story should unfold. And I thought it best to show my process, and I think there would be a lot of shared pathos with the people here. How many people here know or can point to where the rivers once ran through our neighborhood? It’s an invisible part of this culture. And yet it’s here, and it’s there to be discovered and not forgotten, if we can bring it back.
And you have discovered it. Because there are photographs in the back of the book documenting one of the major, so called “floods” which is actually quite the natural movement of a constantly changing intertidal estuarial zone that we live in.
And where you and I are sitting right now is very close to where the Santa Ana River would, every couple hundred or couple dozen years, overflow and expand. The key to all this, of course, is the docent at this museum of memory, and that’s Grant Hier. Again his last name is spelled H-I-E-R, and he is the author of an award winning book, which should be important not just for poetry but especially for this region. And he’s going to read to us another short section from the book, which is indeed a kind of quest narrative. And the character resembles very much the fellow with whom I’m sitting with today, in his study. The young guy, the older guy, the scientist who’s looking around the fossil record, the poet who’s trying to craft words to accommodate the biological, the memory, the history, and so on. One of my favorite parts of this show, Grant, is when the writer gets to read. So here he is for another excerpt.
when I was thirteen
I chained my bedroom door from the inside
left a note on my pillow that I was “out for a walk”
slipped the screen from the casement window and climbed quietly out of my family’s new home into the still August night
I trotted down the hill walked through the tract streets named for places far away that I had never seen
and wandered down to the concrete ravine three miles away to seek the course of the river
approaching from the other side
where coyote howl
once curved the night
like the waters themselves
I followed its flat bed
between concrete banks
rising on either side like wings
to the place where the walls steepened and narrowed
and a feeder conduit five feet across
pierced through the sloping wall the source behind its black circle opening
I lowered my head as if in respect
and stepped inside the concrete pipe's
each breath and step echoed
with water trickles
the darkness dank and thick
no room to stand
I remained bent forward
as if falling into each new step
leaning into the future
with no expectation
other than to risk and step out
and see where it led me a rite of passage I can see now a test to prove myself
I spread the width of each stride
to land along the curve of wall
above the water line
ankles and groin aching as I trudged its snaking route beneath the streets
deep enough that the sound
from rumbling trucks overhead
could not reach through
under a vacant lot then
under a schoolyard’s
swing sets and playground
under a little league field
its wooden snack bar
padlocked and empty
under palm trees with shallow roots
under magnolias with their pre-bee tepals
and ancient ivory flowers
under a radio transmission tower
under telephone poles
under tract homes
with dark bedrooms
where other clans slept
suspended above me
sprawled like battlefield dead
unaware of how their daily gestures
and suburban jetsam
might one day meld
into the odd strata of journeys
accumulating beneath them
I plodded secretly onward
an awkward blind mole
shoulders slumped to match
the arc of the pipe's diameter
a staggering step at a time my bent spine on fire not knowing where it was leading
not knowing where I was losing track of true north from all the bends
a young woman’s footprints
once made in deep mud
following creek beds
carrying her child to the Council Tree
our footfalls lacing now
odd dance partners in perfect step but for centuries between
but for the Portland cement
binding sand aggregate and granite
into this fallopian drainpipe cocoon
imaginal buds transforming
That’s my guest this week on Bibliocracy, Grant Hier, reading (I have to say, Grant) one of my favorite sections from your long, 90+ page book poem called Untended Garden. By the way, so many sections of this poem are complete and wonderful stand-alones wherein the moment is captured and the larger design of the poem can be seen, but which also work as single poems. And I know you offered the caveat as regard to romanticism, but I’ll have to say I thrilled at the kind of teenage wonder and the foregrounding of self by way of imagining one along with the people who’ve been here before. I think that that excitement of still being able to discover is what really carries so much of the story. And it’s, of course, it’s quite a wicked story by way of what has happened to this region, you could argue.
And in the terms of the decimation of the culture and arguably the assault on the natural world. Yet, you manage to make all things equal, and you’re quite generous about how we live here today. Nonetheless, the image that you seem to come back to, which I’m hoping you’ll tell listeners a little about, is that famous, famous tree that was cut down and what is now downtown L.A. and which is in many ways the heart of all tree-dom in this poem.
Absolutely, yeah. It’s called the Council Tree. It was later called El Aliso (“The Sycamore”). I tell the story of its emerging from, um, actually a giant riparian forest emerging where downtown Los Angeles now stands. It was one of many such sycamores, and they all got washed away in the seasonal flooding, as is the nature of this place. This one remained though, and somehow thrived, and became the measure by which the Tongva, the native people here, figured out distances. They actually stepped off from the Council Tree, determining where property began and ended. People from all over knew the tree. On the day the tree was cut down (or the three days the tree was cut down), there was a story in The Los Angeles Herald that recounts it, and there was an Indian who had traveled from Mexico and when he heard the story (he was testifying in court downtown, for some reason, if I recall correctly) and when he heard of the tree he started jumping up and down because he knew this was the stories he had heard as a child. This was a well-known landmark. People would migrate from Arizona, they would meet at the Council Tree. This giant tree. And it was quite tall. It could be seen from [across the] landscape. And there again, it’s a central tree metaphor.
So the figure of this tree, now of course missing—except for in memory and thankfully captured in some way photographically and reproduced in your book—that tree (and in some ways, its absence) is the vision for this young fellow, this teenager, growing up in Anaheim, who’s able to connect with the tree in this subterranean voyage, in the voyage through time, in the voyage through place, and one of the things that so clearly works in the book, Grant Hier, is that the differences between L.A. County, Orange County, the way that we’ve cut up this area are largely dismissed in your work. You bring in the relationships of the rivers, the trees, the mountains—to crib from Gary Snyder a bit…
…and you show that we all are one—botanically and in the sense of this ecology.
You know, history is moment-by-moment, isn’t it? We’re making it just by our daily actions, and there’s a responsibility there.
Yeah. There is one part in the back where I kind of get on a soap box and talk about people enslaving and not respecting the cultures that came before, but I thought I had earned it at that point. I needed to say it. I took it out and then I put it back in. I said, that’s something that should be there. The Council Tree, by the way, is very close to where Brew 102 sat, if you remember the northbound 101 there. There’s now a strip club off to the side. It’s near the jail actually. And as I drive by there now, since I’ve discovered it, I’m back in that memory of—I’m imagining it. And that’s kind of a microcosm for what this is about. You know, history is moment-by-moment, isn’t it? We’re making it just by our daily actions, and there’s a responsibility there. And this is history written—I’m writing about my childhood, and yet I was creating what’s in this book, unawares. And that struck me. There’s a typographical point of that last section I read where the young woman’s footprints made in the mud—in the columns of the poem, indented, it goes back [more] in the past as you get farther to the right, and there’s a line—it’s the first time in the poem where we have lines coming together, where, “our footfalls lacing now”—the time being on the same plane. And typographically that represented what I’d hoped to accomplish through this whole book: the strata of the layers existing all at once somehow.
This book is bound to become a small classic of the experience of growing up in Southern California, and I would compare it favorably to people as D.J. Waldie and others who have taken such care in doing this right, so that, you’ve been consistent in terms of respect for the ethnographic record, the biology, the history. And if you don’t believe Grant Hier, he’s actually put photographs and footnotes in the back of this gorgeous volume. Once again, the title of the book is Untended Garden—Histories and Reinhabitation in Suburbia, a long poem by Grant Hier, and it’s the winner of the Prize Americana. It’s been my real pleasure to chat with you. Thanks for being my guest this week on Bibliocracy, Grant Hier.
Thank you so much, Andrew. It’s a pleasure.