In Conversation with Tina Chang

by Anna Binkovitz

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Tina Chang was raised in New York City. She is the first female to be named Poet Laureate of Brooklyn and is the author of the poetry collections Hybrida (2019), Of Gods & Strangers (2011), and Half-Lit Houses (2004). She is also the co-editor of the W.W. Norton anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond (2008). She is the recipient of awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Academy of American Poets, Poets & Writers, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and 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.

Anna Binkovitz sat down with Tina to discuss her newly-released poetry collection, Hybrida.

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Anna Binkovitz: In previous interviews you've discussed what hybridity means to you and in your book you imagine hybridity in both content and form. That kind of melding and collaging in poems must take a great deal of experimentation. What roles do experimenting and play take in your writing process?

Tina Chang: There was a great deal of play when it came to the creation of this collection. Hybrida contemplates raising a son of mixed race in our present-day environment, and how that setting is often one filled with both real and imagined danger. Due to the weight of the subject matter, an element of play and experiment felt very necessary in order to infuse a sense of whimsy and fantasy. The push and pull of content and form was the most satisfying struggle.  

There are many formal experiments in this new collection. While I embrace traditional forms such as the ghazal, there are also prose poems, ekphrastic poems, zuihitsu, poems as footnotes, poems infused with journalisms, lists and dreams. Even listing the forms, the process feels exciting. While I contemplated and was often saddened by the difficult topics in my poems, I was also enlivened by the landscape and texture of a line. How much I loved creating, reshaping, reordering, and finding structure, sound, and breath for a poem. Thinking and rethinking the vessels of composure for each piece was a thrill and even that feeling, I believe, is embedded in the poems.

AB: On the note of hybridity and the many selves of mothers, this book contains multiple voices. How many speakers would you say exist in this book, and how do they relate to each other?

TC: This is a fantastic question. The main speaker of the collection is the mother. I was careful to write from her perspective throughout a good majority of the book, as I didn’t want to take liberties writing from the point of view of someone else. These poems are narrated from the perspective of a mother who attempts to raise her children, specifically her son with a sense of safety. Though, often, in her imagination that safety is threatened. I recognize a few points in Hybrida where the perspective shifts. The ekphrastic poems in “4 Portraits,” are also from the point of view of the mother, though the response to visual images allows for variation in perspective. In these poems, the mother perceives the images/paintings, but there are points when the mother imagines herself within a scene.

I had the hardest time grappling with “Prophecy,” which is the only poem that is clearly written from the perspective of the son. “Prophecy” was a poem that was 5-6 years in the making that was then abandoned. It wasn’t until I discovered it in a folder a few years ago that its message seemed quite different when I read it in a Trump-infused era. I found that when “Prophecy” was spoken from the perspective of the son in the year 2018, it held a different kind of weight and urgency than if uttered in 2014. Late one night, I added the word “Mama” to many of the lines and the poem transformed. With one small change the impact was significant.

Lastly, there is the poem/comic that appears at the end of the book. This is more straightforwardly written in my son’s hand. He wrote a sci-fi comic and what appears in my book is an excerpt of his longer story. I realized many of the issues he was contemplating as a sci-fi story had significance and substance in a collection of poetry. I suppose this is another form of experimentation. To shift genres from kid/comic to adult/poetry changes everything, and I find that endlessly interesting when examining forms.

AB: This book deals with the very specific way in which you relate to blackness as the mother of a black son. To write into a different racial experience responsibly is a tricky task. How did you guide yourself through this collection, which conveys the intimacy of this experience without assuming it, so skillfully?

TC: I thought about this a great deal over the past eight years of writing the book. There were many times I stopped myself from writing as I didn't wish to put forth the slightest possible idea that I was speaking about blackness with authority. I am not an authority. I am, though, a mother, observer, witness and ultimate protector of my children who are of Haitian descent. I wrote from this space of unconditional love and hoped this feeling would guide me. It is a hard task as I didn’t wish to focus on the death of young black men and boys. That wasn’t the space I wished to reside, though I also honor their lives and their passing at the hands of appointed authority figures. As a responsible society, I do feel as a collective we are required to urgently recognize the brutal history we are a part of and the ongoing abuse of black bodies. I walked the tender line between celebrating the beautiful lives of the young people I reflect upon, while holding their specific situations up to the light.  I think of them often, their very bright lives, and wrote from that place of longing for them. Though young people such as Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and young black men like Freddie Gray were not my sons, they are in my mind the sons we need to remember dearly as symbols of the grossly imbalanced power dynamic that continues to rule this nation. As poets, it’s not our job to be the moral barometer of the present moment, though poets do possess a morality. I write from the space in which I live, what I see, and by way of recounting these stories, I’m grappling with the toughest questions of our existence as an individual being. I’m holding myself responsible to witness and to speak.

The main focus of Hybrida is my own son, Roman. As I watched him grow, I lived the outward existence of taking him to school, helping him with his studies, and I also resided in a very inward life where I feared what he may encounter in a future without me. This made me think of all the great myths of morality and sacrifice. In this way, I also drew upon myth to explore the power dynamics of race. Mythology has always been of great interest to me and it’s something that runs consistently through all of my books. The larger stories that represent our human downfalls—vanity, greed, betrayal—as well as the great heights of what we can achieve—eternal love, loyalty, devotion—are all in myths, embodied in symbolic characters. I focus on a specific boy, my son, but symbolically he represents all the boys of mothers and fathers who have a difficult time letting go, as there is so much waiting for them in the world, both good and bad.

AB: Hybrida is your third book and you've worked as an anthology editor, so it's safe to say that you're a publishing veteran. Are there any things that have felt consistent in the publishing process for you across these collections?

TC: I have felt, from the start, deeply loved and supported as a published poet. Martha Rhodes at Four Way Books discovered my work in a slush pile and gave me life creatively. Without her, my work would have remained unpublished for some time. Back then, writers sent out work to publishers/journals/anthologies in hard copy and waited for a response via snail mail. Now, the response is much faster as almost everything is done online, so I can say acceptances and even rejections seem faster. Is this a good thing?

Perhaps what has seemed consistent to me throughout each book is the level of trust between myself and my editors. While Martha at FWB gave me substantial feedback for my first book, by the time I wrote my second collection, Of Gods & Strangers, she left it very close to the version I turned in. There were very few changes. I found the same process to be true with Hybrida and my experience with Jill Bialosky at Norton. Though she had minor edits, she trusted me and she trusted the vision, so a lot of our attention turned to the fun responsibilities of editing galleys and envisioning how the artwork and the final book would appear.

What has changed, however, is the dissemination of an individual’s work. It used to be that a poet relied on a publisher to create a space and opportunity to publish poems, but now an emerging poet could quickly create a viable space for him/her/themselves by utilizing Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media to draw attention to their creative work. I’ve known writers who have created a distinct following for themselves and their poems well before the publication of a first book. In some ways, it’s a virtual and sometimes viral way of self-publishing. That level of autonomy to publish poems for a large community is something significantly different than the environment where I grew up. I believe there is more power in the hands of new writers to share their work if they are inventive and embracing of these social platforms.

AB: Did Hybrida come to you as a clear idea for a project, or did it emerge from individual poems you were writing at the time?

TC: After I finished my previous book, there was a large vacuum of feeling utterly emptied out, so I lived my life, taught, and waited for ideas to come like waiting in the rain. Eventually, a few half-formed ideas came to mind. I started following those ideas, unsure of where they would lead me. I wrote poems that responded to classic fairy tales. They were precious and dare I say boring. As time went on I started unwillingly to write other poems that responded to current events. In short prose fragments, I unleashed my private fury over several verdicts of the killing of black boys and black men in America. The verdicts consistently sided with the authorities, with little to no ramifications for taking someone’s life. With proof, evidence, viral videos, nothing was enough to combat the serial injustice. I wrote furiously in my journal, thinking that I was releasing pent up emotions. As time went on these fragments combined with my reflections on fairy tales and they started to do something interesting. The figure of the witch and the hunter began appearing in response to current danger. Urban myths found their way into the tangle and bramble of forests in known fairy tales. It was a strange and surprising process to return to the poems each day to watch them grow. I allowed the poems to have their own voice; finding the right forms for them played a large part in shaping the content.

Along the way, I embraced the zuihitsu, an ancient Japanese poetic form made popular in its contemporary incarnation by the poet Kimiko Hahn. Zuihitsu is Japanese for “following the brush.” The form embraces fragment, randomness, and even chaos. It’s a form that also absorbs lists, emails, texts, visual art, journalism, and dreams. When I began to write zuihitsu, my imagination started drawing upon collage-like information I would have previously left out of poems. Finding these exciting form(s) propelled the book forward. Each poem was built in this way. It was a constant surprise, an ongoing daily discovery.

AB: What lessons have you learned in publishing your three books that you would pass on to new writers?

TC: Gather people around you who believe in your work. Believe in theirs too. Vow to walk with each other down this path of artist, writer. It’s a long one and one that takes perseverance. Lean on someone for the long haul. You will need their strength and they will need yours. Often, we think of the writer’s life as a solitary one. It is not. Writers need other people, other artists, confidants, colleagues, friends, and community. It is not done alone, so create your tribe and be loyal to that tribe as they will sustain you and they will help you to thrive over the course of many years.

It also takes a long time to write a book. My mentor and teacher, the great Lucie Brock-Broido often talked about the magic power of 8—writing a book every eight years—and that is strangely how long it has taken me. While some writers are certainly faster, the writers I admire the most seem to be on their own track not minding the speed of the universe. They live, they serve others, they nurture their community, all the while writing their poems. I think all the important things we need to say cannot be rushed. Wisdom needs time.

AB: In addition to being a writer and mother, you are a teacher at Sarah Lawrence College. How does teaching influence you as a writer and vice versa?

TC: There are moments when I feel they don’t influence each other, but that would be a lie. Yes, they do. When I arrive home from a really great class or when I am able to read fantastic work from a talented group of students, I’m definitely inspired. I also give my students impossible tasks to accomplish. In a classic workshop and in the course of one week, they are asked to read whole books, write 2 complete poems, write long letters to their peers, and to offer an oral presentation. If I ask them to accomplish that level of work, I must be able to rise to the occasion myself.

I am often influenced by the books I assign for class. They are usually my favorite books or texts where I find a great lesson. Reading, studying, and speaking about such work makes me want to write more furiously and urgently.  

AB: What do you think makes a great editor for poetry collections?

TC: A great editor is someone who has great instincts and someone who sees each writer as an individual with their own set of aesthetics, voice, and vision. I’ve had wonderful editors in my life. I had mentioned Martha Rhodes previously. To tell that story more specifically, I had entered a manuscript poetry contest sponsored by Four Way Books, but I didn’t win the contest. She asked me to read as part of a Four Way Books reading series at The Bowery Poetry Club. Though I was sad that my manuscript wasn’t chosen as the winning one, I thought how wonderful it would be to meet Martha and to have the chance to read in front of her. After she saw my performance, she contacted me to tell me she wanted to publish my first collection. It was one of the most thrilling and surprising moments of my writing life. Her recognition of me as a writer gave me a great deal of strength. Her continued support as I evolved and changed was also invaluable. In many ways, I grew up with Martha. She was my guide, mentor, and the first person who saw some glimmer in my work. She took that work and made them into books. The mark of any great editor is the ability to take great risks based on their own instincts of recognizing a voice that interests them.

Currently, Jill Bialosky is my editor at W.W. Norton. Jill also has amazing instincts and she is very quick to decide when she likes something. Once she does, I have found her to be endlessly supportive and most kind. She has believed in Hybrida with such heart, and she’s worked diligently alongside me to create a physically beautiful book. The experience of working with Jill from start to finish was so professional and filled with mutual respect. A good editor is also able to see things about your work that you can’t see. They ask wonderful questions, they interrogate areas that need improvement, and they gesture toward everything that is bright and good about the work. That level of belief has made all the difference.

AB: And finally, what are your top five most exciting books for 2019? (Other than yours, of course!)

TC: Brenda Shaughnessay, The Octopus Museum

Sally Wen Mao, Oculus

Jericho Brown, The Tradition

Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic

Morgan Parker, Magical Negro

I’ve read all of these books and I’m amazed by them.

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Anna Binkovitz is a Minnesotan poet currently living in New York. A graduate of Macalester College with departmental honors and a current MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College, Anna's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Fat MagazineAtticus ReviewMuzzle MagazineBeech Street Review, and elsewhere. Recently, Anna was selected for a Vermont Studio Center residency.