Happy 100th Anniversary, Poetry Society of America. Do you feel all grown up now? Thank you for sending me your questionnaire. Instead of answering the questionnaire, I thought I'd step on the questions until I reach the little island in the middle of the pond; or at least I'll essay. For the purposes of this essay, the pond is time.
I became an American poet when at almost-20 I arrived at Newark Airport. Up until that point I was a Croatian poet-wannabe. Most recently I had written an epic poem about revenge starring Slaving deities. In the poem, the lovely traitor wore a white kerchief. Fish disappeared in schools of light and I had to decide: "whether I'd stay/or plain be dead to tears and words." I had chosen the latter, I left a girl back home and here I was, at Newark, and it smelled like fast food. My poem was right: I didn't have words for what I was smelling.
For all its surface accessibility, American English wasn't ready-to-wear. It took some vibing with, being haunted by, sleeping and having arguments in – it took a few years of wearing in to shift that archetypal tingle into my English words, to learn how to let them turn me on. But once I started truly speaking English, there was no word I wouldn't take on. I transcribed girly conversations on the Long Island Rail Road. I punctuated personal tragedies with emoticons. I wrote faux-simple ESL poems and "political" "queer" "love" poems and "The Day Lady Gaga Died." I wrote about my dead dog. I took Brodsky's comment that the "landscape of New York might be too visually alternative to ever be fully internalized by a newcomer" as a personal challenge.
The English language and culture I grew up with were a curious mixture of haute and low: clumsy Croatian-issue textbooks meet the rap scene from Teen Witch meet the Romantic poets. Croatian curricula favored a long-winded, all-inclusive approach, wherein Dostoevsky & Dante & ancient Sumerian literature took up more semester time than the entirety of 20th century American poetry. We read a bit of Whitman, maybe some Beats – that's all. I began to write in English innocent of the tradition I was joining—my readings were Russian (Tsvetaeva, Andreyev, Remizov, Mayakovski)— French (Yourcenar and the Surrealists) — Spanish (Salinas & Jimenez) — everything-but-American. I started in the MFA program at Hunter College & found two kinds of context: the present (friends) and the past (caulk for the hole in my knowledge of Am Lit). I met some living people and I also met Frank O'Hara & Wallace Stevens & William Carlos Williams & Hart Crane. I met Barnes & Stein & Myles & Lorde and finally came to terms with being and writing about being queer. For a long while I was too broke to travel, a prisoner of Brooklyn, and so I funneled its urbanity into an inner landscape that was still full of Croatia: blue of sea, white of island stone — dry grass on the hill in the back of my grandparents' stable — the shabby chic™ of the capital… Now I live in Huntington, Whitman's birthplace, and its landscape is a kind of synthesis of sea & city; a truce of sorts.
Despite the accent and the green card, I never doubted that what I wrote belonged to American Poetry. If there's one common denominator, formal or thematic, to what's American in this country's poesis, it is the it-can-be-everythingness, all-inclusiveness of it. I say this not with conviction, but with hope. When a poet moves to a new country, her impulse at first might be to play with all the building blocks of identity: it's reassuring and reaffirming to say queer, immigrant, spoken-word, academic, experimental, hybrid, nostalgic. These categories can serve as stepping-stones through the anxiety of variety and all that all-inclusiveness, which might at times feel like another word for nothing left to lose. It's easy and perhaps not too terrible to remain on one of those footholds forevah and evah, watching as the currents of definition slowly shift around you. But I'd like to think that the American Poet can keep moving beyond the domain of categories; what, finally, is their use to poetry, to poetry communities? I was born in Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists, and watched a whole Atlantis of lore insta-disappear under the surface of the pond. From this vision I have inherited an unwillingness to accept axioms that I choose to regard as a boon rather than transatlantic baggage. To go local and cosmopolitan, be grounded and doubtful, knowledgeable of heritage and willing to abandon it completely—these are some things I hope can be accomplished by the American Poet. Let's.