A Conversation with Tina Chang
Brooklyn Poet Laureate, Tina Chang, was raised in New York City. She is the author of the poetry collections Half-Lit Houses and Of Gods & Strangers (Four Way Books) and co-editor of the anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (W.W. Norton, 2008) along with Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar. Her poems have appeared in American Poet, McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, and The New York Times among others.
Her work has also been anthologized in Identity Lessons, Poetry Nation, Asian American Literature, Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems and in Poetry 30: Poets in Their Thirties. She has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, Poets & Writers, and the Van Lier Foundation among others.
She currently teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College.
LR: You have spoken of how your role as Brooklyn Poet Laureate has led to a greater sense of moral responsibility, and at Sarah Lawrence College, you even teach a class called “Poet as World Citizen.” How does this sense of responsibility play out for you in your writing?
TC: In my role as poet laureate, there is a public connection and recognition of matters that are important to me: education, literacy, the Asian American experience, the female experience, motherhood. These are only a few of the topics to which I pledge loyalty, and those communities have helped me feel a firmer footing in a sometimes uncertain world.
When I conceived of the class “Poet As World Citizen,” I envisioned a student who never loses their sense of themselves as an active participant in a world in flux. I can no longer live in a vacuum, and I think our literature and the study of it must reflect that. I can no longer write a domestic kind of poetry which doesn’t call attention to the complexities outside of the United States. Because I teach and I engage in my community, I feel invested in ongoing dialogue, a dialogue of exposure, questioning, and investigation. I bring all of this to the page when I write.
LR: In a video you made for Poets.org entitled “The Poetics of Multi-tasking,” you speak of the pleasures and the difficulties of embodying the multiple roles of writer, poet laureate, educator, mother, and public servant all at once. How have these different roles emerged and evolved in your work?
TC: All of these roles are a part of me, but they do not always meld together in the most graceful of ways. There are days when I am a good mother but I have not written as much as I would have liked. There are other days when I’ve been an effective laureate but I was not able to put my children to bed. The list goes on. I consider myself lucky, though, to have entrée into these many different lives and sides of myself. How fortunate in this life that I am able to speak about language and ideas and then experience the bliss of returning home to find my apartment in complete disarray, my son and daughter running to hug me with their arms wrapped around my legs.
Ultimately, I have grown as result of all of this. I’m at a place in my life where I practice what I love and I work with students who I consider my peers in intellect and maturity in many ways. We are blessed to talk about books and the weight of poetry. I think about many of our discussions as I write. Similarly, I am affected by my work as poet laureate. I work with communities of people who are vastly different from me. I work with servants to the art of literature and I am humbled by their dedication and service. Each word I write and each project I take on, I am trying to honor them in some way.
LR: You have spoken very openly about experiencing writer’s block in the wake of 9/11. How did that period of silence change the way you write, and how do you manage writer’s block now?
TC: When I finally came out of that silence and writer’s block, the words poured from me. I was angry, shocked, in grief. I think when someone is working from that place of emotional immediacy, that sincerity of expression is palpable. There are still moments when I wonder when the next poem will come to me, but there is a deeper faith now. After you’ve been in a dark place for a long time, when you come into the light, it’s the light that becomes your new shelter. In that way, I’m living in that light now. I don’t doubt myself or my language anymore. What came out of that time was an unshakable belief that poetry is as alive as a civilization or a world.
LR: Can you walk us through the typical evolution of one of your poems? How is it born? How do you revise? How do you know when it’s finished?
TC: My process has changed tremendously since I’ve had my children. I once had long, languid days that unfurled in one fluid gesture of creation. At night, I shared my ideas with other writers or friends and that would give life to other poems. These days, after I have fed, napped, entertained, bathed, changed, and put my children to bed, I have my dinner, put on my shoes, and head to the rented office around the corner.
Nowadays, my creativity is summoned within a two-hour time span. In this way, my writing has become more efficient. I will keep mental notes during the day as I run around playgrounds and do the laundry. Those notes will then find their way into poems by evening. I then type furiously. The objective is to keep my hands moving and if my hands are moving my mind is working.
I sometimes have many pages of text. In subsequent visits or drafts, the poems will come into fuller form. Over the course of the next couple of months I’ll see a relationship among my poems and I’ll ask them what they are saying to one another. Once I sense some answers, the poems will develop their own identity and the theme/obsessions of my work will rise to the surface in more realized poems.
I don’t think poems are ever finished. I have been known to cross out words and add lines to my books of poetry. If I am not happy with a line before a reading, I’ll gladly edit the text in my book so that I’ll feel comfortable reading it to an audience. Text and language is alive so it’s always changing. To me, there is no end point and that is a joy.
LR: With two books now under your belt, what is your process for putting together a manuscript?
TC: With my first manuscript, I had no concept that I was writing a book at all. I was writing individual poems which focused on family, loss, and redemption. Only when the pile of my poems became quite large did I think I should organize them and send them out to be considered for publication. I was lucky when Four Way Books accepted the book. With my second collection, there was a greater consciousness that I was making a book. I was aware of subject, theme, obsession and the systems by which ideas were tied together. Orchestration of poems is a different kind of negotiation, and the second collection taught me about vision. Now, I am experiencing the excitement of working on my third collection, and I’m in that elated place of making work for the sheer pleasure of making it. A year from now, I will have to go through the process of finding a home for them in a larger collection. For now, I’m happy to sit with the poems as independent entities.
LR: In Of Gods & Strangers, you seem to be exploring the tension between individual vs. collective identity by juxtaposing several modes of the first person. In some places, you rely on the intimate first person singular to convey your narrative, while in others, you use the first person plural, or employ a more distant, “projected” first person through the use of persona. Can you speak more about this tension between the personal and the universal, and how it plays into your vision for the book?
TC: The negotiations you speak of were exactly the struggles I was encountering as I was living and also writing this book. It was very hard to come to terms with the validity of my existence as a writer during this time. What was my individual experience worth in a time when the collective was in such distress and danger? Our continuing war, our economy, our lack of compassionate and wise leadership, the fall of our faith. The great “We” was really suffering as a nation and a tribe. I felt these struggles each day and I also pushed forward to give expression to this.
As I result, I found a figure like the Empress Dowager while writing the book. I could place that mask on, that persona, and find my power. In her stature and unapologetic gestures, I found a place to be certain and steady. By reaching back to this historical figure and distant first person, I found my footing, and with that power I felt an ability to unleash what I was feeling about our current American and transnational dramas.
I took a great risk with the first poem of the book, “Unfinished Book of Mortals.” It’s a long poem that seeks to tell the story of the last ten years in America. That’s pretty audacious to begin with. Each line is preceded by a roman numeral which I imagine to be the headings of individual chapters of the book of our time. The president, Chinese myth, and present/past lovers are involved. Anything seems for the taking as public and private domains blur. I am seeking to tell the universal story of our collective hurt, damage, and resilience while employing the personal first person. This type of internal negotiation feels at the heart of my process of writing Of Gods & Strangers.
LR: There is a distinctive dreamlike quality to Of Gods & Strangers. How much do you rely on dreams for inspiration, and how do you tap into your unconscious mind when working?
TC: In the final pages of the book, there is a section called “Author’s Notes on Imaginary Poems.” Many of these final poems were inspired by dreams. Though they appear at the end of the book, they were the earliest poems that were written and provided me with the vision for the book.
In the days after 9/11, I had a difficult time sleeping, and when I fell asleep I would have nightmares. Many months later, I had a dream that I was riding on a train and as the train headed outdoors, I could see the Twin Towers. The towers were no longer made of brick and steel but of sheets of paper, and they floated away leaf by leaf. I pressed my face to the train’s window as if I could somehow keep the buildings together by sheer will and imagination. I wanted everything to stay intact and yet the wind kept blowing, the pages lifted and were carried away by the wind like spirits until the buildings disappeared. And in my poem, I wrote, “In a dream city constructed from paper, flames were lit. My God . . .” So many of my poems are written in this way, so dream plays a large part in my writing. Sometimes there are visions that I wake to or just the flavor of something I cannot name. I struggle to name it. There are other times when I can see a scene vividly in a daydream. I know I was not there, but I can summon the environment or characters as if I lived that life.
As a writer progresses, it becomes more intuitive and organic to tap into the subconscious state. It’s as if I am taking dictation. I am listening carefully and the words write themselves.
LR: What is the best piece of advice you have received about the writing life?
TC: “Never stop writing,” said my graduate writing professor when I stepped out the doors of Columbia University. I was petrified. I had no idea what I was going to do as a poet. I felt crazy. Through the years, those words of advice kept coming back to me in my darkest times as a writer. This piece of advice which seemed so simple and so small saved me time and time again.
LR: What has motivated you through times of uncertainty as a poet?
TC: I’m a part of a small community of writers who I trust with everything: my writing, my confidence, my life. They have sustained me. There were times when I wondered, “Who is reading the work? Who is reading poetry?” They were present to say, “I am. I am reading poetry. I hear your voice.” I felt their presence in each stage of my writer’s life. There were times when they took extreme measures: throwing a blank notebook in my direction, or even yelling at me in an effort to express the importance of art, creation, process, or self-worth in relation to all of that. They reminded me that if I followed this path, I could fulfill my destiny.
LR: In the 2010 Publishers Weekly article entitled “Why I Write,” you wrote that, ever since having been sent from the US as a toddler to live in Taiwan after your father passed away, the “recollection of language is at the core of who I am, why I work, why I write. I write in order to capture what is no longer there: sweet ghost of minutes, mist covering the thatched roofs, vendors calling out their wares to the windows, typhoon rattling the red door of my childhood home in summer.” At the same time, many of your poems (such as “Duality”) seem deeply grounded in a sense of being an American, a New Yorker, and Brooklynite. As you straddle and thus fluidly negotiate the components of your transnational identity, how do you engage with these different sensibilities when you sit down to write a poem or work out the structure of a new manuscript?
TC: Anyone who has grown up in a household of dual language, dual identity, or a multi-cultural upbringing has probably always had the feeling of belonging to many different places, and as a result, the self is both multiplied and fractured. There were times in my youth when I felt this multinationalism was a burden or even an embarrassment. When I was a teenager, I wondered why I had to negotiate this intricate emotional terrain. I remember distinctly wanting to feel simpler, less complex, and less messy.
After college, I didn’t know what to do, so I boarded a plane to my mother’s homeland, Taiwan, to teach English as a Second Language. I thought I would do something useful with my time and help others. It turned out that my students helped me. As we conversed in English and Chinese and as we bounced from one language to the other, sometimes with great dexterity and at other times with tremendous awkwardness, I realized that this encapsulated how I felt my whole life. Sitting with my students, I saw a mirror image of myself. I saw their wish to learn English, to change themselves, in an effort to live out a dream.
I wondered why I had rejected this complex, awkward negotiation when they seemed so ready to embrace the relationship of self to self. In Of Gods & Strangers, I was excited for that discussion to play itself out. The traditional Empress Dowager is present throughout, but in one of the first poems of the book, “The Empress Dowager Boogies,” there is a gesture to combine tradition and contemporary life. Poems that focus on a traditional Chinese figure are placed side by side with poems such as, “Self-Portrait as an Imaginary DJ” or “Bitch Tree.” And, in this way, I am translating my contemporary Asian American experience. It is as audacious as it is filled with humility. Part disco, part Walled City, and I’m finally ready to own the totality of that experience.
LR: You have said that one of your goals as Brooklyn Poet Laureate is to make people feel included in the world of poetry. How do you think those of us in the poetry community can work to make poetry feel more accessible to American audiences?
TC: It took me a long time to come to poetry. In the ways that most people are educated in this artform, it can feel quite intimidating. I remember being asked by teachers, “What does this poem mean?” as opposed to the more important question, “How does this poem make you feel?” It was how poetry made me feel that led me to want to live inside it. As I educate my students now, we talk about poetry in terms that our mothers, fathers, brothers could understand. We talk about how an image or moment stirred us to remember something or asked us to ponder our own reactions to material.
As a poet laureate, I seek to be real about my approach to poetry. I am the first to admit when a poem feels hard to access or difficult to interpret. I am also very real about not having it all as a woman, mother, poet, educator. By grounding our work and ourselves, we make ourselves more approachable. We can speak about a poem in terms of what we can understand or access instead of what we cannot.
I have spontaneously recited or read poems to children as young as 4 or 5, who can immediately tell me what the poem meant to them. They are not afraid to interpret an image, a memory, or even an abstract string of words. There is a wild purity to them and poetry to me is a demonstration of that purity. How free, how happy poetry can be when seen through the eyes of those who have yet been untouched by judgment. How fun and ecstatic the moment is when art is embraced in the spirit in which it was made. Children remind me that poetry is not “hard.” It is just the opposite. Words are a celebration of the mind.
LR: Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
TC: 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 [were made to] 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. That is the greatest myth of all.