Today marks the release of the LA Fiction Anthology, a collection five years in the making. In its pages you will find stories from some of the Southland’s most prolific authors, including Ron Carlson, T.C. Boyle, Judith Freeman, Rob Roberge, Dana Johnson, Percival Everett, and more!
With discussion and essay questions closing each story, this book is designed to start a dialogue. So in that vein, the Red Hen Blog will be posting interviews with the anthology’s authors once each week. Contributor Kathy Hall kicks things off with an interview of fellow contributor Grant Hier.
By KATHY HALL | DECEMBER, 2015
Kathy Hall (KH) Thank you for agreeing to speak to me about writing and Los Angeles. I want to talk first about cities and nature. New York is a city that has weather. Chicago is a city that has weather. Los Angeles is reputed to be a city of no weather, yet it is often written about in terms of really elemental forces—like in that right column of your poem “Untended Garden” which I kept reading in the voice of Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Why is it impossible to write about Los Angeles, this ostensibly most synthetic of cities, without returning to fire and water (including its concrete rivers) and earth?
Grant Hier (GH) That’s funny you hear that voice as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but now that you say it, I can hear it that way. I consider that a huge compliment. (And now that gives me an opening to send him a copy of the book!) I think your observation about the fierce elemental forces of nature being a common feature in the writing about Los Angeles is an astute one. Anyone who lives here for any length of time certainly gets used to the local news blaring “Special Reports!” about these elemental forces. The earthquakes. The riptides and floods. The wild fires (which are a vital part of the natural cycle of life restoring itself). The sonic landscape, too: the constant sound of sirens. All of this becomes part of the consciousness of Angelinos and Southlanders. Even the air here. The smells and the smog. The Santa Ana winds. So, we have unique weather extremes here, but the norm is mild. And these contrasting extremes are then used by writers as metaphors for life here. Raymond Chandler writes about how “Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks,” when the Santa Anas blow. Joan Didion notes how the “violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.” They manifest into our literature, I think, precisely because they so dramatically contrast the myth of paradise we also affix to life here, and the contrasts shape our interior landscapes too.
This applies, as well, to those features that have been radically altered by us—those concrete ravines that cut obtrusively across the land, replacing the natural rivers and creeks. I think that those human-made alterations reveal even more about who we are. Those majestic eucalyptus trees imported and planted in rows to shield the agriculture crops from winds, yet they poison the soil all around them so that nothing else can live nearby. Or those iconic palm trees, which are similarly non-native—and which the government has just voted not to re-plant when they die off, by the way, which should be in the next decade or so since their life span is similar to humans, so that will leave us with all but a few “permitted” non-native palms and the L.A. skyline will look dramatically different once again. All of the shaped and re-shaped landscapes literally reveal our story, which is largely the story of the transplanted, flooding in and changing the natural order. Remember that every human who has ever settled here was a transplant, from those who boated in or walked a land bridge, and most everyone (except the slaves) came to chase the dream of a better life. And what we do to achieve those dreams will determine whether ours are stories of exploitation and dominion or respect and stewardship. How is it we should act in this place? The flooding L.A. River caused the Tongva to build homes of willow wikiups so they could move them out of the way in “This frozen zone so prone to overflowing…” as I write in Untended Garden (the frozen zone being the botanical term for this region). The Paleolithic peoples of the Americas, then the Millingstone Horizon Cultures, and later the Tongva, they each lived as one with the nature as it existed and co-habitated with the flora and fauna, which is the essence of the “Reinhabitation” theme. Then centuries later came the new settlers, exploitation, and the modern re-carving and re-routing of the rivers and industry to better serve the population, or at least to better serve those who could buy in. But imposing a re-design of nature has repercussions, creates imbalances, so there are also the stories of the alienated and overlooked which need to be told. In my novel, which is about the homeless who live on the streets of this ever-changing city, the climax is lit by images of palm trees on fire during the riots, their tops igniting like match heads while the city burns below as the dream is deferred. For the epigraph of that novel, I use these great lines by Sandberg:
“I will die as many times
as you make me over again,
says the city to the people,
I am the woman, the home, the family,
I get breakfast and pay the rent;
I telephone the doctor, the milkman, the undertaker;
I fix the streets
for your first and your last ride—
Come clean with me, come clean or dirty,
I am stone and steel of your sleeping numbers;
I remember all you forget.
I will die as many times
as you make me over again.”
from “The Windy City” (1922)
KH Yes, your novel is bookended by the two riots in 1965 and 1992, and Sandburg’s words about Chicago could certainly be about those manmade fires which, like California’s wildfires, offer hope for renewal in the future but remain painful in the present. Like Sandburg’s, your poetry and prose relate the knowing of one’s literal place to the knowing of one’s place in the world. What has knowing Southern California taught you about yourself? This is the closest I have come to understanding the idea of reinhabitation. If you have anything else to say on that topic, I would be glad to hear it.
GH Sure. The term was coined by Gary Snyder, in an essay by that name: “Reinhabitation” (which he originally wrote with a hyphen, as Re-Inhabitation). Untended Garden starts with an excerpt from that essay: “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.”
“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.”
Snyder goes on the conclude, then, that we must therefore re-learn the old ways and re-inhabit the earth with a better knowledge of our place in it. His thesis is that we must go back to a more natural way of co-inhabitation, with respect to all life forms. The idea of reinhabiting the land after being away and estranged by it in order to learn to live there sustainably. Untended Garden likewise asserts that knowing who and where are intimately linked, but without calling for any particular way of living, as Snyder does—although I absolutely agree we should live sustainably. I celebrate the progress and the change as natural, inevitable, but my thesis is that we can’t be myopic or exclusionary in our growth or our actions or else that disconnectedness will have dire consequences. My poem at its core is an argument for inclusion and egalitarianism, as Whitman’s is in his long poem, and it urges the individual to keep encouraged, to consider oneself and every other person as vital and important. To consider everyone’s story as part of the web and of our collective larger story.
So, this journey to know one’s self by knowing one’s place in the continuum really began as a way to research those questions I had as a child, digging in the dirt of the new tract home in suburbia, wondering what I would find beneath me. What came before? What stories are there hidden in the past, on this very spot? And who the heck am I here, and what is it I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? (to quote one of my favorite lines by Mary Oliver). Learning what came before necessarily connects one to the larger, longer history, and that necessarily informs how one should live. We are all connected. That is what is to be learned—rather, remembered. The poem is against forgetting, really. So, even though Untended Garden is a story steeped in a specific place, it truly is a universal story. A song of myself, yes, but also a song of the interconnectedness of all life forms, of all that came before, and all that is here now—and of which we are all a part. With no exceptions. And these connections extend out in all directions, and include what was before, is now, and will be after we are gone. All one, really. Which makes separateness an illusion.
KH Untended Garden is often compared to Whitman, as you suggest when you call it a song of yourself, but it feels to me more like Robinson Jeffers. How did California influence his poetry, and how are writers experiencing the same influences now?
GH Great question. Jeffers was as rugged as the places he wrote about, and he saw a fierce beauty in the violent universe. In “Self-Criticism in February,” Jeffers confesses, “It is certain you have loved the beauty of storm disproportionately,” referring to the violence and brutality in his poems, of course, but it was also true of his literal love of the weather. One of my favorite lines of Jeffers is from a private letter to Lawrence Clark Powell: “We are having a beautiful rain and wind storm here.” I love that. Having a beautiful storm. Wish you were here! I certainly share that deep love of storms and churning surf, the thrill of standing outside, exposed to the rough, wild elements — though I’m not sure that’s something others necessarily share! (Back to our ridiculous local news: “Special Report: Storm in the Southland!” “BULLETIN: It’s raining! Beware!”)
I absolutely love Jeffers, and would encourage everyone to read him.
A little too abstract, a little too wise, It is time for us to kiss the earth again, It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies, Let the rich life run to the roots again. I will go to the lovely Sur Rivers And dip my arms in them up to the shoulders. I will find my accounting where the alder leaf quivers In the ocean wind over the river boulders. I will touch things and things and no more thoughts… That's from his poem, "Return." Mercy. How beautiful is that? Jeffers is considered the first environmental poet by many, and few realize that he was one of the very first to use the term “ecology.” Late in his life, Jeffers reflected on how his dad, determined to give him the best education possible, tutored him indoors all day, every day, and he says that only occasionally would his father allow him to hike the countryside. Jeffers thinks that resulted in his lifelong desire to live in open country. Few realize, too, that he was the physical specimen he was. At age 8 he taught himself to swim, and as an adult he would swim the rugged open waters of Northern California coast, off Point Lobos, in ridiculously rough seas. He was thin and sinewy. While attending Occidental and USC he was a tireless hiker, and would often hike a small trail up Mount Wilson to the Observatory, which is at some 5,700 feet elevation. His professor (of Bacteriology) at USC taught him to wrestle, and within the year, no kidding, he had won the heavyweight wrestling championship. Pretty impressive. It was the similarly rough and rugged California landscape that most influenced his writing, his philosophy. He writes, “My love, my loved subject: mountain and ocean, rock, water and beasts and trees / Are the protagonists; the human people are only symbolic interpreters.” Jeffers literally rolls enormous boulders from the Carmel River, some more than 400 pounds, up a bluff and then rigs wooden planks and a block & tackle system with ropes and pulleys to lift the stones and mason them into a 40-foot tower overlooking the rugged coast—for his wife Una (they both loved Yeats and his Thoor Ballylee Tower in Galway, Ireland). “Hawk Tower” (with a secret passage stairwell between the walls for his twin boys) is designed and raised solely by Jeffers working alone, laboring hard with his body while his mind composes and memorizes the poetry he would transcribe and refine on paper later. “I hung / stones in the sky” he writes. “…my fingers had the art / To make stone love stone.” Which parallels his craft of assembling words. Jeffers is a marvel and a master. One of a kind.
“Write what you know” is the starting point, yes, but my best writing is an exploration of what I don’t know.
As to how writers are experiencing the same California influences now, well, I think we each do it in our own way, based on where we come from and how we live. For me, I wrote my personal epic of place, Untended Garden, about this home in suburbia and the surrounding area. “Write what you know” is the starting point, yes, but my best writing is an exploration of what I don’t know. I described the project to Snyder while I was writing it, by the way, and we discussed the challenges of structure and craft in writing a sustained long poem (Snyder was just completing his epic long poem, Mountains and Rivers Without End, at the time). He said he was delighted that I was applying Reinhabitation to suburbia instead of the more remote nature that he wrote of. But, that begs the question, what is meant by “nature” anyway? One might argue that nature exists everywhere.
KH Yes, there is nature even in suburbia. But regardless of the kind of regions we write about, regionalist poetry—regionalist art in general—has come under a kind of attack recently. Does it require a defense?
GH I don’t think it does. Any more than any other creative form does. Art either stands and lasts, or it doesn’t. No amount of arguing or persuasion about its relevance will affect that, in the long run. The survival of any art will depend on the connections it makes with the audience, how it affects us and informs us—and that is greatly dependent on its relevance to the time and place it emerges from. All art, I’m talking about here. Art is, necessarily, a product of its time and place, and since it a human act, since it emerges from humans, it is thus a reflection of a people in that time, that place, that particular culture (or segment of culture). And this is really the essence of my response to your question about why the literature about Los Angeles appears as it does. Now then, there is a separate issue that is critical to this discussion, and that is the issue of how the art reaches its audience—or doesn’t. You can’t appreciate a poem of Jeffers, say, if you’ve never ever seen it. So, it is absolutely critical for a society’s survival to support and nourish the arts. And that is in real danger now. That sad fact reveals a real weakness of our time and our culture: the zeitgeist of an America that underfunds the arts, that eliminates art education and practice from required curricula, that downplays its importance by treating it as not relevant to our culture or survival, or even mocks it or dismisses it outright. That is why it is so important that the little mags, the online literary sites, the local writing communities, find a way to survive, so that people get exposed to the literary arts. You asked, does regionalist poetry and prose require a defense? No. But it does require a concerted force behind it so that it gets into the ears and mouths and brains and psyches of the people. It requires continued support so that it gets released out into the world, for art is vital to our survival—and that is not mere hyperbole. “There is something / something urgent / I have to say to you,” William Carlos Williams wrote. “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”
KH If only the arts received a fraction of the local support that sports teams do. I am amused by the fact that you live behind the Orange curtain and appear to be a Dodgers fan while I live in Los Angeles county and drive to Anaheim for baseball. Your stories in the Anthology of Los Angeles Short Fiction are about baseball as a metaphor for life and sex and suchlike. Why focus on baseball when writing about Los Angeles?
GH The baseball theme of those pieces was a specific project that emerged from an idea of what bubble gum trading card packs made for Little League Baseball might look like. But I must say that I do love baseball more than any other sport (the reason my right shoulder is now a mess), and I’ve attended a lot of Dodger and Angel games throughout my life. Speaking of local history, I own one of the first issued “Junior Angel” membership cards, from back when the team joined the majors. My dad (who pitched several no hitters in high school and was scouted by the pros) used to take us to the L.A. Coliseum to see Wally Moon, Albie Pearson, Dean Chance, etc. And my dad also drove us in our family DeSoto across the bumpy dirt construction site as the Big A and Angel Stadium was being erected. And later, as a teen, I’d drive the 5 Freeway north to Chavez Ravine to sit in the left field pavilion for most Dodger home games during the early ‘70s, and watched those great teams play. So, I’ve rooted for both the Angels and Dodgers equally in my life. I love the game more than I do any one team. And I love this beautiful place we live in and run across the grass of, regardless of the color of the clothes we might wear while playing in any one field. Yes, I see baseball as a metaphor for life, too. The significance of neighborhood baseball games in “the middle of streets / where children still imagine fields” as I write in Untended Garden.
omphalos manhole cover…
Second base, a stain of oil leaked in the middle of the street from the old family DeSoto, or perhaps
the pale yellow Helms Truck last summer.
No pitcher’s rubber or mound, just a small round surveyor’s benchmark bolted to the center of the cul-de-sac.
Play ball –
Sunday afternoon, 1963.
Vin Scully’s tin voice
wafts down the block
from black plastic radios
on vacant work benches,
the garage doors kept open
as children play
until the ball
is lost against
a darkening sky.
About the Interviewee:
Grant Hier was named winner of Prize Americana for his book Untended Garden—Histories and Reinhabitation in Suburbia (The Poetry Press, 2015), which has also been nominated for both the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and an American Book Award. He was recipient of the Nancy Drew Taylor Prize for Literary Excellence in Poetry (2014) the Kick Prize (2013), and several of his pieces have been nominated for a PUSHCART PRIZE. His poetry has been anthologized in Monster Verse—Human and Inhuman Poems (Knopf/Everyman, 2015) and The Barricades of Heaven: A Literary Field Guide to Orange County, California (Heyday, 2017). In addition to writing, Grant is a musical artist, visual artist, and former graphic designer and art director. He is Professor of English and Chair of Liberal Arts and Art History at Laguna College of Art and Design where he teaches creative writing and various other courses.
About the Interviewer:
Kathy Silvey Hall teaches composition at Mt. San Antonio College, Cerritos College, and El Camino College. Her story is part of an unpublished novella Alta Vista High, an effort to apply the principles of ecriture feminine to semiautobiographical vignettes; her work is concerned with the miscommunications, disruptions, and imbalances of power and privilege between the varied cultures which make up Southern California.
Yes, there is a lot to tell, and a lot going on here – poetry, human history, natural history, memory, autobiography – all of it ending up in a kind of mini-epic journey (or quest) narrative. Untended Garden: Histories and Reinhabitation in Suburbia, took Grant Hier a couple of decades to revise and complete, writing on and off, but it just won the prestigious Prize Americana from the Poetry Press, a project of the Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture.