A Conversation with Tina Chang

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.

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On The Small Press and Asian American Poetry: A Focus on Four Way Books

Some Offerings from Four Way Books' List
Some Offerings from Four Way Books' List

A Guest Post by Stephen Hong Sohn, Assistant Professor of English at Stanford University

Stephen H. Sohn
Stephen H. Sohn

In thinking about the so-called state of contemporary Asian American poetry, I am most struck by the issue of the proliferation of small presses that have remained afloat through print-on-demand publication policies and through the strategic limited print-run system.  American poets of Asian descent have certainly been a beneficiary of this shift as evidenced by hundreds of poetry books that have been published within the last decade.  In 2008 alone, there were approximately 20 books of poetry written by Asian Americans, the majority of which were published by independent and university presses.  Of course, on the academic end, the vast majority of Asian American cultural critiques, especially book-length studies, have focused on narrative forms, but the last five years has seen a concerted emergence in monographs devoted (in part) to Asian American poetry, including but not limited to Xiaojing Zhou’s The Ethics and Poetics of Alterity in Asian American Poetry (2006), Interventions into Modernist Cultures (2007) by Amie Elizabeth Parry, Race and the Avant-Garde by Timothy Yu (2008), and Apparations of of Asia by Josephine Nock-Hee Park (2008).  As a way to gesture toward and perhaps push more to consider the vast array of Asian American poetic offerings in light of this critical shift, I will be highlighting some relevant independent presses in some guest blog posts.  I have typically worked to include small press and university press offerings in my courses, having taught, for example, a range of works that include Sun Yun Shin’s Skirt Full of Black (Coffee House Press), Eric Gamalinda’s Amigo Warfare (WordTech Communications), Myung Mi Kim’s Commons (University of California Press), Timothy Liu’s For Dust Thou Art (Southern Illinois University Press).

In this post, though, I will briefly list and consider the poetry collections by American writers of Asian descent that have been put out by Four Way Books (New York City), headed by founding editor and director, Martha Rhodes—and will spend a little bit more time discussing Tina Chang’s Half-Lit Houses (2004) and Sandy Tseng’s Sediment (2009).   Currently, Four Way Books’ list is comprised of:

Tina Chang’s Half-Lit Houses (2004)

Pimone Triplett’s The Price of Light (2005)

C. Dale Young’s Second Person: Poems (2007)

Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan’s Shadow Mountain (2008)

Sandy Tseng’s Sediment (2009).

Were I to constellate the commonalities between these five collections, it would be clear that the editors at Four Way Books are very committed to the lyric approach to poetry, in which the connection between the “writer” and the lyric speaker seems more unified.  I have taught Pimone Triplett’s The Price of Light in the past, specifically for my introduction to Asian American literature course.  What I find most productive about this collection is its very focused attention on “lyrical issues” of the mixed-race subject.  In The Price of Light, one necessarily observes how distance from an ethnic identity obscures any simple claim to authenticity and nativity.  In The Price of Light, a lyric speaker returns to one vexing question: what does it mean to be Thai?  To answer this question, the reader is led through a unique odyssey, where issues of poetic form, tourism, and travel all coalesce into a rich lyric tapestry.

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