Brooklyn's Poet Laureate: An Interview with Tina Chang

John Gibbs

Tina Chang Photo

Tina Chang is the author of the poetry collections Of Gods & Strangers (Four Way Books, 2011) and Half-Lit Houses (Four Way Books, 2004). She also co-edited, alongside Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar, Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond (W.W. Norton, 2008). She is the current Poet Laureate of Brooklyn, the first woman appointed to the position. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and is an international faculty member at the City University at Hong Kong. In April, the University of San Francisco invited her to give a reading on campus as part of the annual Emerging Writers Festival. She was gracious enough to sit down with Switchback and talk poetry, and for that, we couldn't be more thrilled to share with you what came from our conversation. You can learn more about Tina and read selections of her poetry by heading over to her Web site.

Switchback: You are now the fourth person to be selected as Brooklyn's Poet Laureate, as well as the first woman. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about how you see yourself, or any poet laureate for that matter, fulfilling this roll. You've spoken about bringing poetry to the people and, more specifically, bringing other Brooklyn poets into public middle schools, which I think is a fantastic idea. In what other ways are you trying to make poetry more accessible to the public? How are you accomplishing this within your own poems?

Tina Chang: I look to Robert Pinsky as a recent poet laureate whose work I’ve admired greatly. I see the role of poet laureate as a poet whose presence is made public. In many ways one then becomes role model, spokesperson, advocate, educator, and humble witness to the art of poetry. Much of my work over the past few years has been connecting to the wide array of organizations and schools who devote themselves to poetry: The Community-Word Project, Urban Word, She’s the First, just to name a few. I’ve been a traveling observer and speaker on the art form and have had the opportunity to work with poets ages 4 to 94. In each of these instances, I find the life of the mind is boundless and that imagination can accomplish great things and sometimes the greatest accomplishment is having the will and the courage to express oneself without censorship.

As for more public projects, I had committed myself to a haiku project for various community gardens around Brooklyn. This project aimed to create public awareness of poetry by placing haiku written by an eclectic mix of established Brooklyn poets throughout Brooklyn’s gardens and other public spaces. The collaboration hopes to create dialogue between living poets and their community. Poems are installed in a variety of mixed media: painted onto walkways, stenciled on walls, presented as mosaic murals. Visitors to the public spaces are invited to contemplate poetry in a serene and contemplative environment.

SWB: One of the roles of a poet laureate is to write poems for a specific occasion. In January, as a country, we heard Richard Blanco read a poem he had written for the second inauguration of President Obama. I was hoping you might share some of your thoughts on the tradition of a president choosing an inaugural poet. What audience is being targeted, poets or non-poets? What did you think of the poem?

TC: I have a tremendous amount of respect for a president who regards poetry as a form of expression that will reach multitudes. President Obama choosing Richard Blanco as the inaugural poet for the second term was daring and wise. The gesture of placing focus on someone who represented those who are working class, a son of immigrants, and someone who is openly gay was beautifully considered. It is the hope that Blanco’s poem reached the masses, mostly those who are not necessarily accustomed to listening to poetry on a regular basis but those who still hope to receive an important message at the beginning of a new term, new era. I loved Richard’s poem for its expression of oneness and solidarity while it shed light on the journey of the individual. The poem did a wonderful job of volleying between the one and the many. The strongest lines referred to the struggles of a mother and a father which could be the story of any American family: “sometimes praising a mother / who knew how to give, or forgiving a father / who couldn't give what you wanted.” These personal moments really drew me in and set against the larger geographic sketches reached, I think, a wider American audience. I was really very proud of the poem and the poet.

SWB: You were a co-editor, alongside Ravi Shankar and Nathalie Handal, of the anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond. How did the experience of editing this massive anthology, which compiles hundreds and hundreds of contemporary poets, affect your poetics, if at all? Did the project, in any way, change how you saw yourself and your position within contemporary poetry?

TC: September 11th initially felt like the end of my creativity. I found it difficult to focus on anything other than ground zero, news reports, and the recovery of the individuals who were lost there. I didn’t know those individuals but, like everyone else, I found comfort in knowing something about them. Small details of their lives would anchor me to the earth. Poetry was not on my mind at the time. I wasn’t asking how that kind of loss could be processed into poems. When I did think of poetry, it felt like something quite distant to me and I thought it might be the end of me.

Poets are resilient beings, though. It was through taking on and editing Language for a New Century that led me back to my own work. I was particularly interested in poets living and writing in the Middle East. Through reading their work, I embarked on an imagined conversation with them. Their poems and the poems of those living in places like Tibet, Burma (or Myanmar), Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan struck a chord with me. I began writing poems in response to their work. In this way, they guided me back to writing. Many of the poems that appear in my collection Of Gods & Strangers were inspired by my experiences with the work of those poets and what was happening in their homeland at the time.

While I was guided back to my own poetry, I also saw myself as a poet within a vast human web and that web was no longer housed in America. I envisioned myself connected to the poets in the anthology past border, past country, past language, past any kind of preconceived boundaries and this cracked me open. I had grown up having the American poets hammered into me, a particular kind of American poetics and none of those poets looked like me or sounded like me. I admired them greatly and they served as an important foundation in the beginning but after the completion of the anthology, I realized just how expansive poetry could be and I found that humbling and liberating all at once.

SWB: There's a video of you online giving a reading at Sarah Lawrence College, where you read a poem you had written that morning ("I Realize Now That You Died Without Knowing Their Names"). I like the idea that poetry can be something written on the fly. Is this something you do often at readings? As a more overarching question, how do you generally treat revision? When we read a Tina Chang poem, how many times has it been reworked and refigured?

TC: Perhaps I can approach the latter half of the questions first. By the time my work has reached, say, a publishable stage it has been reworked many times. Though an idea may come to me quickly, I return to it countless times, first thinking about content, then structure, then perhaps punctuation, rhythm. There are also aspects of metaphor. In my most recent poems history has also played a large part so I may return back to the poem after I have done a good deal of research on the subject matter. In this way, a poem can be very slow going and I’ve learned to be patient with myself.

The poem I read for the Sarah Lawrence Reading was a very new poem. I am often driven by a different kind of force right before a reading. I often don’t like reading the same poems again and again though I do realize the same poems can be new for each audience. In order to make things more interesting for myself, I usually challenge myself to write a new poem either the morning of the reading or the night before. In this way, I am taking a risk. They may not be publishable or even acceptable but I love the feeling of sharing something fresh off the page. It makes me feel as if I am part of a deeper artistic tradition. It by no means indicates that the poem is “done” but it does mean the poem has begun.

SWB: Family and storytelling are obviously very significant themes running throughout your work, especially in your first book. I'm curious about what poets you find yourself returning to when you're crafting your poems. What poets or poems serve as sources of inspiration for you? Any writers outside the genre of poetry or creative writing come to mind?

TC: This is oftentimes the hardest question to answer because a person is inspired by so many things and various forms of inspiration are imbedded in our being from the time we are born or maybe even before this. I can say I am inspired in some ways by hurt or damage because I am interested in what is on the other side of that. There must be a response. I cannot limit the range of my creativity only to poets, though I can list the poets whose life and poetry I love: Jack Gilbert, Carolyn Forché, Nazim Hikmet, Agha Shahid Ali, Federico García Lorca. I return to these poets time and time again not only for their poetry, but also for their path of experience that has made their lives so memorable to me. It is not just the poetry but the poet. It is not just the poet but the lessons that poet imparts on the world. Their lives have led me in my role as poet laureate.

Returning back to forms or sources of inspiration, everything inspires me. I cannot limit it to art or books or film or dance. That’s a large part of it, yes, but I am also inspired by daily conversations, glimpses of life in my neighborhood, my travels abroad, relationships with my family, the struggles of my life. I am inspired by monsoons, heavy and humid air, footsteps on tile, or various kinds of mud. We each have the ability to take in a lifetime of information, large and small. We note the most significant of life experiences, the milestones: college graduation, marriage, childbirth, divorce, death but we also have the capacity to remember the minutia: slant of light, white noise, a hiccup. All of this inspires me. From the moment I wake up to the moment I close my eyes to sleep, each and every day there is something to notice, something to note, something to remember, and hopefully something to write about.

SWB: In an interview with the Brooklyn Rail you spoke about how poets writing today have to compete not only against each other, but also with "the person who is sitting in the audience holding an iPhone." Do you think that contemporary poets need to conform to modern technologies and social media, like Facebook and Twitter, in order to make it as poets? I understand this question's hypothetical answer could probably fill a very large book, so maybe it'd be best if you could speak about your personal experience in using these devices. What can be gained or lost?

TC: Yes, there is something to be gained and lost with modern technology. I’ll begin with what can be gained. I grew up in an era before computers. I grew up with the heavy, old notebook and encyclopedias as large as trucks. When I wanted information, I had to get on a bus and go to the library. I have to be frank. This sucked. I remember so clearly being in high school when I was first introduced to “the computer.” I followed a certain program to make a computer-generated illustration of a lion. What this taught me I didn’t know but fast forward to the present day, I am grateful that I can do my research online, have questions answered immediately; I am grateful, too, to communicate with other artists around the world and so quickly.

There are also exciting and interesting ways writers can work with one another online by writing collaborative and instant poems. Poems can be published immediately. One can argue if this is a good or bad thing but I’d rather say it is something that just “is.” Work can be written, disseminated, and discussed immediately. There is something really thrilling about that idea, come what may.

On the other end of it, I have embraced Facebook though I am starting to have FB fatigue. I love the idea of connecting with a community that is not necessarily here in my living room. I love that I can read about someone’s thoughts that were so immediate to them at the moment yet I could be reading those admissions a few months later and still be moved. I do, however, have a limit to just how many social networking sites I can join. I had a Twitter account for a month while I tweeted for the Mayor’s office during National Poetry Month and I closed my account at the moment Poetry Month ended. I believe one must close the door sometimes. I mean, shut that door and bolt it. Otherwise, what is left of the self without others? How does one find stillness? How does one reach the sacred silence to reach true epiphany? Most writers I care about leave that all behind. One cannot exist in isolation but shutting down all systems often feels imperative to the survival of the mind.

SWB: I feel that the voice in Of Gods & Strangers can be read as a slight departure from the tone of your first book, Half-Lit Houses, which felt very personal, yet also investigative. In Gods, you seem to be playing around with the concept of the Other; perhaps that's where the Strangers enter in. I find this exciting and mysterious. There seems to be more wiggle room for the reader to interpret the "you" of this second collection. Do you see the book similarly, or did I just completely misread your poetry?

TC: I think you are reading correctly. When I composed Half-Lit Houses, I believe I was very focused on the here and now. Life of the father, life of the mother, the difficulties that exist within the intimate structure of family. The concrete reality of things felt very important to me. True, I wanted to investigate the past to understand how it effected the present. I wanted very much to understand how certain individuals saw culture, kin, love. In this way, I felt my way through the poems as if they were very tangible objects.

While envisioning Of Gods & Strangers, I was writing in a post-9/11 dream. I was writing through confusion, national hurt, collapse, notions of safety and danger, violation, and also a willingness to see what was beyond all of this. This felt extremely mysterious to me thus the idea of the stranger. Who is the stranger? In concrete terms, it is a man I loved and yearned to love. If I were to step back and examine the function of the stranger, I would say it was much more than that. It was the struggle to comprehend the darkness, the shadow that invaded both individual and state. The stranger was a force that loomed over our country. In this way, I worked my way through this second collection with less interest in knowing the concrete world. I sought to experience a kind of poem that would allow me to converse with unknowing, as if opening the door to a void and waiting to hear what answers back.

SWB: The last poem of Half-Lit Houses is titled "Letter to a Stranger," which begins, "Dear Father, // I drifted on the bouquet of your tongue / for two years." I see this as a kind of link between the two books, moving from the familiar to the Other. The last poem (if it can indeed be called a poem) in Of Gods & Strangers is titled "Author's Notes on Imaginary Poems" and is a series of prose fragments that appear to be poems in the making. Can you speak briefly about what you're working on now and are any of these imaginary poems going to be "imagined" in your next collection? You've alluded to reimagining children's stories and fairy tales in your next book. What can your readers expect?

TC: “Author’s Notes on Imaginary Poems” are my orphaned poems. They were poems I had started and poems I had intended on including in the second collection but, somehow, they never found their rightful place. As I was reading through one of the final drafts of the manuscript, I found these fragments in my folders. If they didn’t stand independently, perhaps their fusion would make for a larger poem. As I began to place them together they seemed at home with one another and they organically clung to each other. They also dictated their own order. In this case, I truly let the poems guide me.

Though they won’t be making a direct reimagining in my next collection, I do think every poem is the shadow of another poem.

Currently, I am working on a book of reimagined fairy tales and classic children's stories. I spend most of my days reading to my children and my imagination has taken hold of those stories and refashioned them. What I notice is there is always a form of danger at work in fairy tales. The figures of the wolf, fox, snake, witch, hunter are present in almost every children's story in every culture. It's as if these stories were made to warn as much as they entertain or educate. In my poems the fairy tales are even more disturbing as they call on the real dangers of contemporary life like war, disease, crime. Before I get too carried away in that direction, the poems also focus on the magic of the abiding love for one's children.

All of these poems are still in progress. I am interested, now, in longer poems. Poems that are long, lush, and seemingly endless. After all the darkness, I am also interested in writing the great love poem. I’m ready for the light.