On Becoming British

Two Passports“So which country is better?” The US Homeland Security Agent glances between me and my passport photo. I try to detect a smile. No luck.

I tell him what I now tell everyone — that no place is perfect, that living in the UK really suits us for now, and that each country could learn a lot from the other. He returns my blue American passport, and lets me back in to the country where I was born.

Today a second, burgundy-coloured passport arrived, embossed with the Royal Coat of Arms. It is the culmination of four years culture shock, driving lessons, memorisation tests, long nervous waits in the UK Home Office, and a small mound of both paperwork and money.

I have finally become British.

Not English, mind you. I was raised in the Sonoran desert. Culturally speaking, I am probably more Mexican than English. I am a citizen of the United Kingdom. I intend to remain a citizen of the United States as well. I have family in both countries, have now lived for a while in both lands, and so both places are, in their own way, home.

When I tell people in the UK that I have naturalised, they look at me almost as quizzically as when I first told them that I had moved from sunny California to rainy England. I suspect Adam might have had a similar reception fresh from the Garden of Eden. “You left where?”

The elements that many British people are convinced constitute paradise — warm weather, sporty culture, and affordable goods — are not driving factors for me. The elements of living in England that are less prominent in Southern California — including a widespread respect for the arts, and easy access to travel in Europe — are.

I like it here, and so would like to vote in national elections, and otherwise participate fully as a citizen, rather than just as a permitted outsider. So I have become British.

After the swearing-in ceremony, we did the only sensible thing. We celebrated with a drop of tea. Feel free to raise a cup in your own homeland, wherever that may be, to celebrate with me.


Suzanne Lummis and Lynn Emanuel at the Ruskin

I made my way back in to Los Angeles tonight to hear Suzanne Lummis and Lynn Emanuel read at The Ruskin Art Club. Suzanne is always endearingly self-effacing and charming. She also really knows how to engage with an audience. Strangely, many have labeled her a performance poet for this reason when, in fact, I think she simply embodies all the right elements of an outstanding straight-up reading. She connects with each line of the poem, brings life to it without seeming artificial — all through her voice, each word clearly expressed but not curt or strained. She simply reads poems very well.

And what poems — an abundance of new work in her signature noir yet self-aware style. She seduces an audience into thinking they are getting entertainment — often with moments of humor, irony, and wit — but in the end her work always delivers art. She also read some timeless mainstays from her book In Danger. I am glad Val, who came with me, got to finally hear them. And I’m glad, of course, she came with me and made the ninety minute drive each way a stimulating delight.

Lynn Emanuel also read some of her most well-known works, including “White Dress” and “Blonde Bombshell”, which apparently Garrison Keillor has read in honor of Marilyn Monroe’s birthday. Her other work, from her newest book, is a significant departure from these more accessible poems with broad appeal. She attempts to investigate the relationship between reader and writer, between aspects of the mind and emotions, in dark, spare, strange, metapoetic works.

I finally got to learn about and experience a bit of the venerable Ruskin Art Club, which is reviving itself as a champion of the arts in Los Angeles. After the reading, I met up with two of my former classmates from Suzanne’s master class. It’s been about four years. Kathleen Tyler has just published his first book of poems, The Secret Box, and Jawanza Dumisani is circulating his second book to a select few publishers. He introduced me to a young poet who won a scholarship from The World Stage to study with Suzanne. It was heartening to hear that Jawanza is still hosting the writers workshop there each week, in the heart of the city, working to support the community and to provide opportunities for promising young poets.

We made our way home through considerable fog. It seems autumn has arrived in Southern California.

Poetry Workshop with Sarah Maclay in Los Angeles

Since it has been several years since the excellent master class in poetry I took with Suzanne Lummis through the UCLA Extension, I decided it was time to get myself back into a workshop. Even though Sarah has recently accepted a position with Loyola Marymount University to teach creative writing, she still conducts small private workshops in her home. It was great to exercise my poetic thinking in this way again with Sarah and six of her monthly “regulars”. If you are serious about advancing your craft and are in the LA area, I highly recommend these workshops. And if you’re a student at LMU studying creative writing, you are in for a treat.

What I’ll Miss in LA

I was reminded on Wednesday night of one of the true gems of Los Angeles that I am going to miss: The World Stage. I took a friend of mine (and a talented poet) who is new to LA over to the Anansi Writer’s Workshop. It is a privilege and pleasure to workshop poems with such dedicated craftsmen. In the middle of a particularly stressful week between work and moving, a real discussion of The Craft was nothing short of totally therapeutic.

Of course, other gems I will miss in this city include Hide Sushi, Urth Caffé and Peace Labyrinth and Gardens, my home here for several years. Other than that, it’s really the the people that I will miss most. Yet I’m sure the waiting list for our guest room in Ojai will soon fill up with friendly visitors. And living in the country again will be priceless.