Published: February 3rd, 2015
Tina Chang is the first female Poet Laureate of Brooklyn, New York. In addition to earning multiple grants and awards for her poetry, she has been published in McSweeney's and Ploughshares.
Howl: What is your writing process like?
Chang: 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.
Howl: What is your editing process like?
Chang: I'll answer by speaking to the process of editing Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East Asia & Beyond which I co-edited with Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar:
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.
Howl: What is it like being the first female poet laureate of Brooklyn?
Chang: When I first interviewed for the role, I had firm knowledge that the role was given traditionally to men. I was heartened by the fact that in a new age, new millennium Brooklyn was changing quickly and its leaders were opening up to understand that perhaps this genre of literature needed new energy and a different direction.
Probably the best part of being a female poet laureate is the opportunity it gives me to speak to young girls and young women. It's important to me to speak about self-confidence, self-worth, and strength building from an important place of inspiration and skill as opposed to, say, valuing beauty or appearance. I travel throughout the United States and abroad and it means a great deal to me to speak to young women who feel touched by poetry or to understand that the vehicle of words has saved them.
I am also very honest that the role of poet, teacher, editor, mother, spouse, daughter may 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.
Being in this role as a woman for the past few years while simultaneously watching my children grow allows me a chance to focus on nurturing young lives through literature. Literacy and reading have become a great focus for me. Reading early on empowers young people and fires up the imagination. I remember very clearly really understanding words for the first time. I felt like anything was possible on the page.
Howl: Do you have any advice for budding writers?
Chang: "Never stop writing," said my graduate writing professor when I stepped out the doors of Columbia University and into a life of my very own. I was petrified. I had no idea what I was going to do as a poet. 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. It is very often that I think of my favorite teachers whenever I need a push forward. The greatest lessons of my life were enforced long after I graduated from high school, from college, from graduate school. The wisdom of my teachers resonate with me even now so my advice is listen to your teachers, the ones that really matter, the ones who inspire you, the ones who see you clearly, and the ones you trust. Ask them questions while you can because they have a lifetime of advice to give. Then, when you feel ready, take that advice and develop your own ideas, ideas that are completely independent of anyone else's. Believe in what you love to do. Keep returning to your loves, your passions. Keep listening to your inner voice. It will never mislead you.
Howl: What is it about poetry that speaks to you as your creative medium of choice?
Chang: It took me a long time to come to poetry. In the ways that most people are educated in this art form, 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.
Poetry, to me, has also been about form. When I was younger I thought poems looked like words packed into small houses. I loved that words had a shape, a trajectory, a considered pattern. I loved how vast stories could be told in a very short amount of space. Rhythm, too, led me to this medium. It is beat, syncopation, and song. It's the only thing I've ever practiced where I felt completely at home.