WHEREABOUTS is a series of blog posts by VIATOR contributors around the world describing the spaces and places that have inspired their work.
I don’t have a specific space in which I write or create. I mean, I have a desk where I edit, but the process pains me, so honestly, little time is spent there. It’s really about the moment and the ear. For me, writing has felt like collecting or hoarding, rolling in and out with seasons, but that might be the long term impression of academia. I grew up Black, in the DMV, around Baltimore but not in. With Baltimore you could see the division much faster than you could feel it. Either way, Baltimore is a touch southern, so it’s relatively friendly. In Baltimore I never got a major sense of being looked down upon and it’s where I started writing. Pittsburgh was the first time I felt and saw hard racial and economic divisions. Despite that, Pittsburgh was winding, lopsided, lush, cozy, rude and loving. Pittsburgh had an innate sense of possibility and self-satisfaction. I was a student, and so Pittsburgh gave me a license to fail, to get lost and pioneer.
After six years in Pittsburgh, I went to grad school in Chicago, mostly because I had developed somewhat of a crush on the city during two previous visits. And honestly, to this day, Chicago is still, like, this unknown variable. Each city comes with its pre-conceived notions, which always prove to be wrong, and what you learn therein is only sort-of right, or an approximation. I loved the density, the wide well-lit streets, and the modern sense of emptiness. There’s a vague nostalgia to the Chicago I can’t place, but it tells me, “Time is a slow thing, if you let it.” And that encourages a certain pace and temporality to my poetry. Going in, I knew Chicago was gloomier than Pittsburgh, but I didn’t care. As person/poet, I’m interested in high contrasts, and Chicago casually enforces that.
Racially and economically, Chicago has brick walls of division. My first year, when I lived on the Northside, I felt like an extradimensional being. It’s been profound, loud, disappointing, and mystifying. The tragedy is real, but it doesn’t stick. Chicago is triumphant and it can smother you out, but for me, that’s part of the joy; to be almost insignificant. Some days Chicago sees you and gives you soo much back. But in actuality, a great deal of Chicago is staying the fuck inside. As a writer, I’m here and I’m there. What happens in between doesn’t matter. My process involves patience. The battery could be low & then poom, cash concussion and you’re out mobbing and living at the heart of something. My poems are a product of the spaces I inhabit, fragments on fragments, a lived collage; found and made. The mind, the ear, the voice, arrives unannounced.
There’s a distance to Chicago, which is ideally reflected in the poetry, physically and interpersonally—it’s always at an arm’s length. Close enough to hit you, or shake your hand. As an environment, Chicago met my need for compression and sudden expansion. The subcultures are well-aged, obscure, and vast. The anger is quick and the ceilings are often decorative and tin. The people here place a strange faith in their lake-beach. It has its waves, the commute, the muted fall and winter, the near sensory overload in spring and summer. Fireworks start four days before the 4th and run four days after. On off-hours when everyone is actually at work or asleep, one might feel like a disembodied camera. On the subject, Robert Creely has a remarkably appropriate poem called Chicago that I’m still not over. It’s a good place to be hungry; it’s a good place to eat. Steady traffic.
Read Andre's poetry on pages 9-14 of VIATOR Issue 2
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