On the Language of Poetry: A Conversation with Tina Chang

TINA CHANG was raised in New York City. Brooklyn Poet Laureate, she is the author of the poetry collections Half-Lit Houses (2004) and Of Gods & Strangers (2011). She is co-editor of the anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond  (W.W. Norton, 2008).  Her poems have been published in American Poet, McSweeney’s, The New York Times, and Ploughshares, among others.  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, the Van Lier Foundation among others. She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and she is also a member of the international writing faculty at the City University of Hong Kong, the first low-residency MFA program to be established in Asia.


The young woman at the counter ordering her tea and chocolate croissant is Tina Chang. At first glance, she could be a fellow student at any university, easily. Mother of two, professor at Sarah Lawrence College, and Brooklyn’s Poet Laureate—she is all of these and so much more.

A self-described Queens-girl, she’s very familiar with diversity. Being the daughter of Chinese immigrants and married to the son of Haitian immigrants, she also represents multiculturalism. In a city like New York, is this a new normal, old normal or an old normal in a new era? Whatever the answer, the idea of a homogenous culture is the only thing she considers foreign.

Endings are a common theme found in her work. Yet, this theme is not to be confused with the tone of her work. There is vitality in her language, a soothing—albeit earnest—siren’s voice accompanying the reader more towards a rebirth than to demise.


12th Street: What’s your normal routine nowadays with the kids?


Tina Chang: I don’t really have a strict routine anymore. I feel like I used to be able to say what my writing schedule was in the past but now with two children things have changed quite a bit. I would say a good majority of my day is spent taking care of them, seeing to their needs, and making sure they’re engaged and happy. There are other parts of my day that are devoted to working and teaching. I feel like a scavenger of writing time, I find it when it’s available and by that time I’m hungry for it.

Because time is scarce, my writing process has changed quite a bit. While I used to have long, leisurely days to think about a line or a poem, I now may have about two to three hours to work on a poem or a series of poems and, in this way, I have become a bit better at retaining poems in my memory until I can write them down. I recall a story of poet Yusef Komunyakaa who composed poems in his head during the walk from his home to his university where he worked. I find myself working on poems in a similar way. Words or images may appear in my mind and, if I am occupied with something else, I’ll have to retain those thoughts until I can get to paper or a computer. By the time I reach a writing tablet, the thoughts feel ready to live outside of me.


12th St: Do you feel that when you have a deadline, you all of sudden have a flash of speedwriting?


TC: I’m afraid I work really well with deadlines these days. When I do have a hard deadline it pushes me to finish something. For example, the final stages of work on Of Gods & Strangers, my recent collection, found me working with my editor Sally Ball. There were weekly and sometimes daily deadlines. I loved the exchange and consistent feedback. It kept me from floating away into the abyss of my imagination, which isn’t always a bad place but exchanging ideas with a real person about my work, gave me the energy and stamina to complete the book. That can sometimes be the most challenging phase for an artist: the act of completion. I don’t think we ever feel something is finished. The life of the mind goes on and on so a deadline set by an editor gives a final period and end point to the process. After that there is peace.


12th St: How’ve you been so far, post-Sandy?


TC:  Initially, I felt quite guilty. In my neighborhood of Brooklyn, we were barely effected while just a few miles away in places like Red Hook the studios and homes of friends were completely submerged under water. I know a lot of artists who lost their work, their equipment, and the physical space where they found solace and safety. Losing your sense of safety is frightening. It does another kind of damage to the psyche and even after homes have been repaired and life has gotten back to normal, it takes a long time to accept one’s physical body at risk in the world.


12th St: I found activism in your work. You spoke about Sri Lanka. You spoke about Ethiopia. You spoke about Haiti. Were [you] trying to get people to participate?


TC: I had been editing the anthology Language for the New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond. At the same time, I was also working on my own collection, Of Gods and Strangers. Editing the anthology in the post 9/11 era, really had me thinking of the role of the United States and its impact on nations abroad. I scanned newspapers, listened to the radio, watched TV, and I felt maybe that would add to a deeper understanding of what is was to lose, but it didn’t. For me, it wasn’t adding to any kind of collective wisdom. My first response wasn’t to pick up a pen to respond. It was way too soon. There was a long period of quiet.

I stopped writing for a little while.

Then a fellow alum from Columbia University contacted me one day and said, “I think we’ve appeared in a literary journal together. Can we get together to talk?”

We met and began discussing 9/11 in an effort to process it, and we explored how we could respond as writers. “I have this idea for an anthology,” he said based on our conversation. “It’s an anthology of the artistic output of contemporary Middle Eastern and Asian artists. I envision it as a poetic conversation flowing among the United States, the Middle East, and Asia.”

I found the idea to be interesting but I didn’t know how we were going to go about it. I liked him [Ravi Shankar] so much that I thought, let’s embark on it and see what happens.

That initial leap led to an eight-year odyssey of communicating with writers from over sixty countries, speaking directly with translators, editors, and the poets themselves. It was this engagement and international exchange that started to break things open for me. I really felt—over those many years editing the anthology—that I changed a great deal. And I don’t know if I could categorize my stance as becoming more political, but I certainly felt that my perspective was widening.

While I never fully aligned myself solely with American poets, I felt more than ever that my tastes, affinities, and influences were global and that my engagement, yes, was with words but also with the social, economic, and historic situations at work (or at risk) as those poems were being written. I felt a greater awareness beginning. That had a large impact on Of Gods and Strangers.


12th St: In your poetry, in your language it’s almost like you have a personal commune with the language itself. Even with your first book, Half-Lit Houses, which I actually read on Halloween in my candle lit apartment. I found that those two voices in each book are so distinct and different, yet they can almost be the same person at different ages or parts of their lives. The first voice in Half-Lit Houses is very frank and honest—very child-like, and the other one in, Of Gods and Stranger, is always questioning the status quo. Did you know that maybe you were implying that a self-inventory should be done in this kind of way?


TC: I think that we’re always doing that, whether or not we’re conscious of it. We cannot deny the living, breathing selves we are as we are writing books. While I am writing my books, I am a daughter, I am a teacher, a New Yorker, a mother. That self changes, grows up, grows older and as a result there is an instinctive language that is locked in place (as in, Can one ever really change?) and then there is the aesthetic language (preferences, influences, tastes) that evolves, matures, and shapes itself over time.

As you were talking, I was thinking about the birth of those books and what they hold in common is the idea of endings: life ending, childhood ending, the end of safety (going back to the beginning of this conversation).


12th St: Yeah, you talk about not the easiest of topics.


TC: I felt very young when I was writing the first book. As I look back, I was just processing what it was like to be a writer. I was feeling my way through poems and poetry itself. I think in that way there was a lot of experimentation in form, structure, and sections. I had just completed my creative thesis and earned my MFA in poetry so much of the work—its themes, music, narrative arc—had just come to fruition. I got more than halfway through the book and realized there was, indeed,

a story pulsating below the surface that held the book together and this was a discovery.

For a long time I’d been trying to come to terms with the death of my father. And those poems were trying to reach for a dialogue with someone who wasn’t there anymore. I’d been imagining what it was like to talk to him, talk about him, talk around him, and to have him answer me. In many of the instances, I was conjuring him.

With the second collection, there was an ending of a completely different order. It was really an end of innocence for me. There were realizations about the world at large and, perhaps, the difficult lesson that destruction leads to repair. Those poems, too, reflect a life lived in New York. I only left New York long-term once…for three years to go to California. Unfortunately, I’m not a Californian, by any stretch of the imagination.


12th St: No?


TC: They’re nice, and bright, and cheery.  I’m not that. I found I was missing the darkness, the complications…


12th St: The Gotham?


TC: The Gotham. The cynicism. I love that about New York and I appreciate the complexity and artistry. Everyone you encounter is interesting, active, and has a project under way. They always have too much going on, too much on their plates. I feel a connection with people who have huge visions of life. I find that those are the people I get along with best. I enjoy intensity on every level.