The Art of Naturalization (Poetry Citizenship)

In my teen years I was an alien but never thought of myself as one. Except for some character qualities in common with Marvin the Martian (“You’re making me very, very angry”), there wasn’t much of the extra-terrestrial about me.

On the contrary, I was quite worldly and did a lot of the normal high-school-girl stuff: applied for college scholarships, went to the mall for fun, wanted to be one of the Laker Girls, and drove my dad’s sleek 1983 Toyota Celica complete with rear-windshield louver, black leather front bumper cover, and spoiler. “Spoiler” is not just a car accessory; my dad paid for the gas and oil changes, even though I had money from my front-desk job at the West End Racquet Club. Nothing alien or unnatural about that.

But I was, indeed, an alien.

I had lived in California since I was two and a half. I thought I was as American as you could get, but I wasn’t American. Not officially, anyway. When I turned eighteen I applied for U.S. citizenship. I paid for the application fee myself (thanks to that West End job). To call myself a citizen of the country I called home, I had to be naturalized.

My sisters had done it before me and said the test was easy if I knew some basic things about United States history and government. “Who was the first President?” they asked. “And the sixteenth?” I knew both those answers, but what if I had to know the seventh, or the twenty-seventh? I, the most politically ignorant person I knew, was also supposed to know the names of my Congressman and Senators. I made a mental note to look those up.

On my naturalization interview and test day, I had to go to the Los Angeles Convention Center, right there on South Figueroa near the intersection of the 110 and 10 freeways. I had never driven to the heart of downtown L.A. before, much less alone. I was nervous about getting lost, negotiating through the traffic, finding a place to park. But this was an important day to me. I even wore a dress.

I don’t remember the questions, only that I passed the test (and that “Abraham Lincoln” was not one of the answers). In a closing ceremony with my new fellow Americans, all strangers but now connected by our common citizenship, we said the Pledge of Allegiance, right hand over our heart. We sat in rows of folding chairs in front of a theater-size projector screen. And then the song “Proud to Be an American” came through the speakers while scenes of America’s best places played across the screen. If the INS intended an emotionally moving effect, it worked. Fields of wheat (golden and swaying in a gentle wind, of course), the Statue of Liberty, an old lighthouse on a New England coast. I didn’t notice at the time that the music video never showed a place like Carson, California (the suburb of L.A. where I lived—my real America).

All that to get what I really wanted: proof of citizenship, the accompanying benefits, and a passport.

My entrance to poetry was not like that. I “immigrated” from the land of engineering to the land of words, but when I landed fresh off the boat on poetry’s foreign shores, the new country took me in without any requirements. No application fee, no test, no interview. I didn’t need to know the definition of “sestina” or who Sara Teasdale was; the poets just let me dip my nib into the ink, though I spoke the language haltingly and with an accent.

I accepted the welcome and explored the land. Though always a novice, I was never an “alien” and felt at home. My becoming a poet was so…natural. And when I reached into my pocket, I found that the passport had been there all along.


(Inspired by The Art of Immigration at Tweetspeak Poetry.)