Columbia College Poetry Dispatch: Transplant Identity

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I live in one of the world’s great cities.

It’s strange for me to write that, to type it, and even stranger to think about it while I’m in the shower or waking up in the morning, but it’s true. When I tell people where I live, I’m telling people I live in a place they have heard of and perhaps even visited.

When I think of myself, a little speck of humanity living out his life among many other specks of humanity, I at least know that, in many respects, I live on a very highly energized dot.

All this is to lead to the point that it’s hard not to let the city creep into the way you identify yourself when you live here, even as a transplant. It’s too big. Poets are often asked to consider the conundrum of how a poet’s place affects their work. This is one of those conundrums.

To this point in my life I think the strongest part of my identity, outside of my family and to some extent the good old US of A, has been my undergraduate institution: Michigan. I think this is pretty common among young people who went to big schools with strong cultures such as Michigan, but even while I was there I would reflect on how much more I identified with the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor than I did with the metro area of Detroit, where I’m from. Those people are my people.

“Those people” also happen to be largely homogenous compared to Chicago. Ann Arbor is a relatively diverse place for its size (around 150,000) but it’s still not going to compare to Chicago, which is something like twenty times bigger. The overload of different people and different inputs all coming together leads a personality such as mine to want to retreat for a bit to think about things, write a few poems, figure it out. The presence of such a strong energy that wasn’t there before is disorienting.

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So I start at home. That’s the first step: make a home. Get everything situated at the apartment, make sure things are comfortable. Read some books like you would anywhere. Figure out where to go for groceries, where to go for books, where to go for a friendly drink, where to go for yoga (in my case). Start to get your bearings. Write more.

Eventually a comfort starts to settle in, so that as I’m sitting at the bar with some people from the program on a Friday night and reflecting on all the different places we could all be I think “this is pretty great” because it is. Being a resident of Chicago doesn’t make you a Chicagoan. Having drinks in a city doesn’t make it home. But gradually things start to slow down, a bit at a time, and sometimes things snap into place like a captioned picture for an instant and you reflect and say this is pretty great, regardless of whether it’s home, things are in flux, but then that’s what you signed up for, right?