The PEN Ten with Tina Chang
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, guest editor Nicole Sealey speaks to Brooklyn Poet Laureate Tina Chang. The author of the poetry collections Half-Lit Houses and Of Gods & Strangers, she is also co-editor of the Norton anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond. Her poems have been published in journals such as American Poet, McSweeney’s, The New York Times, and Ploughshares. She has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and Poets & Writers, among others. She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and is also a member of the international writing faculty at the City University of Hong Kong, the first low-residency MFA program established in Asia.
Tina Chang had me at Half-Lit Houses.
It was fall 2004. I’d just started a job at a literary nonprofit, where novels and books of poems were given to staff as perks. Among my takeaways was Half-Lit Houses, Chang’s debut collection. Between you and me, I didn’t get a whole lot of re-granting done that day. Behind my little partition, I was too busy reading. I was in complete and utter awe of Tina, a poet who writes her whole self onto the page, and have remained there ever since.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I was raised by a single mother. After school, I’d walk to the local public library and wait for her to pick me up after her shift working as a nurse in a hospital. The library held for me so many possibilities and I recall vividly the feeling of pushing the library doors open, of walking alongside stacks of books (most of them unknown to me), and sitting down with the weight of someone’s world before me. As a child, I was transformed by books and the form of conjuring that was writing. In words, I could do anything. I could be my most powerful and courageous self. I could change. I could disappear. Most importantly it offered my young self a sense of choice. It was that democracy of writing that I was so deeply attracted to.
It wasn’t until college that I was able to study with the greats: Ruth Stone and Agha Shahid Ali. Shahid had a tremendous presence that was equal parts drama and comedy. One minute he would be performing a campy imitation of Faye Dunaway in the role of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest and the next minute he would be recounting difficult stories of his native Kashmir. Reading his collections, A Nostalgist’s Map of America and The Country Without a Post Office impacted me deeply. In each of his collections there was a resolve to offer a narrative of a single being viewing a world as it shifts and changes (for good and for bad). When I graduated from college, my interactions with Shahid set me on a path of searching for an identity that was far different than the one offered to me by my family.
In my twenties, as I became disheartened with jobs in the fashion editorial field (I worked at Cosmopolitan magazine for a period of time), I stumbled upon a newsletter that introduced me to a newly formed organization called the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Four Asian American writers founded the organization to support the creation and dissemination of Asian American writing. Once I joined the organization, something within me changed. Giving voice to confusion about my identity set me on a path to writing seriously. I found myself visiting the AAWW office more and more, participating in conversations, becoming outspoken about my opinions, and generally listening to the stories of others which sounded eerily similar to my own. It was in the AAWW’s basement space in the East Village where everything came together and where I found myself as both Asian American and writer. I had also found my family.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
The list is long. In terms of poetry, I probably began wanting to steal Lucie Brock-Broido’s work. She is the Poetry Director of Columbia’s MFA Writing Program, where I studied, and she was my first experience with a writer as most wondrous being. Magical and fierce, each of her books rings with an exactitude, a knife-blade mysticism. Her poems exist in this world and also an unknown world filled with brocade, velvet, lace, deep snow. While one would think the culture within those poems might be populated with polite grandeur, it’s anything but that. Her poems are filled with a feral hurt, a human untouchable longing. To watch the progression in each of her books is a master class in poetry.
I love Rilke for his ability to verbalize the unsayable. Lorca for his imagery and his vision in introducing duende into my life. Adrienne Rich, June Jordan, Lucille Clifton for their audacious power. Can one “steal” a purposeful life? For this, I think of Robert Pinsky’s critical and community work as the former U.S. Poet Laureate. I don’t underestimate his vision, to have garnered the attention of 18,000 Americans to volunteer for his Favorite Poem Project. I love his commitment to the art form, the careful attention to song, line turn, prosody. In another life, I would like to play Carolyn Forché in a movie. Since The Country Between Us, I’ve followed her work, her criticism, commentary, poetry, prose, and activism. I love everything she touches. I think anyone who knows me knows that I love Jack Gilbert’s work for the ability to express loss and longing in such efficient forms. “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart” among other poems in his collection, The Great Fires, has kept me company during more isolated moments.
Of my contemporaries, I have been most admiring recently of Ross Gay’s joyous lyrical work in Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. Thinking of the darkness that plagues our world, we need more Ross Gay, more of his message and his light. Patrick Rosal’s Bonesheperds, yes. I wish I could borrow that confidence, that embrace of the landscape, that muscularity of line, and the ability to fuse many worlds into one. He has such a way of layering one universe upon another. Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda brought to light so much of the raw love and fury of what it means to be a mother. The strength of that title poem…I would marry that poem any day. I understand the will, commitment, and passion it took to write that poem. Everything about her persona, vision, and artistry is rare.
If one could make a perfect prose animal, I would combine the work of Salman Rushdie, Ann Patchett, Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, and James Baldwin. My sense is that I couldn’t look in their direction for fear of all that immense light.
Where is your favorite place to write?
These days, I search for space like a scavenger. While I used to have the luxury of attending residencies for months at a time, now my favorite spot is anywhere I can find a desk, a closed door, deep quiet. I have a very understanding husband who encourages me to find my self-created residencies wherever they may be since I have limited time I can be apart from my young children. I am sometimes able to get away for five or six days to the North Fork, New Paltz, Fire Island. I look at a map to see where I can head within two hour’s travel time. I ponder places that are inspiring, wide open, and wild in growth. Looking back, one of my favorite places to write was the South of Spain in Mojacar. I felt so far away from what was recognizable in myself. That sense of distance from my known self freed me to write without limitations. The view was so curious to me: a flurry of desert, mountain, and the Mediterranean Sea. I passed shepherds as I walked to the local bar. Logically, it seemed none of it could co-exist, yet magically it did. When I can’t get to a place that exquisite, I make sure there’s a window in front of my desk so I have a place for my thoughts to travel.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
There is so much, still, that I wish to put into words. My poem “Fury” was frightening for me to write because I was writing while I was angry and disillusioned. I was furious with the Michael Brown and Eric Garner verdicts and it seemed to me there was never proof enough that black men, women, and young people are dying at the hands of excessive police violence. It seemed video proof was not enough. The recording of the moment of Eric Garner’s death was not enough to imprison police officers who took the life of an innocent man. There has been conversation about reform, retraining of police officers, new legislation, and none of it has been fast enough to stop the unjust loss of lives. At the same time, I couldn’t help but watch my son making his first self-portraits in class. As a child with Haitian roots, he carefully chose the color of his skin, the gorgeous waves atop his head. In his self-portrait he is smiling. In his self-portrait he is proud of himself and his self-love is evident. The two emotions of fury and this abiding love for my son pushed against one another to make the poem.
I was afraid to write the poem because I feared I would get it all wrong. I had lived my life trying to understand my Asian American heritage. At some point, I felt I had a handle on it or had found a place of comfort where my own identity could be fully accepted. In the middle of my life, I faced a new identity and a world of possibilities; I also faced a long history filled with so much damage, as well as love and pride. To fully immerse myself in the black American experience was to come face to face with my own limitations, my past narrow focus, my own family’s views, and the traditions of an older Asian American community who would possibly not accept me. All of this was startling to me and I found myself reeling, having very few people with whom to voice my feelings. In this way, poetry has always saved me. It has always allowed me a safe place to be able to relay, through language, my most difficult negotiations.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
My current obsession is my son. Why not my daughter? I don’t love her any less, though I’m very interested in my son’s trajectory. In one of my poems, my son sees words on the wall and cannot shake them. There was a time when he saw sentences on the wall in his room in the middle of the night. He was petrified of them and would run out of the room as if hiding under a couch would save him from ideas and thoughts. I thought about how similar I sometimes felt with the expectation, joy, and horror that ideas can hold. For him, it was physical—as if he were running away from a true predator. My son often verbalizes how I feel. Sometimes when I feel incapable of expression, he’s there to remind me there are possibilities.
I follow him, too, in his observations of his own identity. He’s keenly aware of his father’s background and mine, though I can see his brain trying to figure out how to perceive that fusion inside of himself. It’s a gift to be able to observe the evolution of that thought process. When I watch my children, everything is interesting: the button one pushes to cross a busy boulevard, the endless fascination with puddles, the pixie-like joy in smearing peanut butter on the walls. Everything is new and, as a writer, it’s a process to get back to that state of wonder.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
I’ve always loved and hated this question. While this question wouldn’t be asked of a doctor, lawyer, postal worker, or even a musician, it’s often asked of the writer. On the one hand, the writer is asked to justify his or her position as someone who plays an actual role on this earth. Can it be enough that writers write for the full extension of self-expression? Is it enough to want to tell a story? Share a poem? Take part in a linguistic experience? On the other hand, I welcome the opportunity to check in with myself about my own responsibilities…not so much as a writer, but as a public speaker. Not all writers feel a charge to serve a larger purpose other than the charge to write a great story, an effective poem, or a piece of writing that rings with truth and music. There are definitely those who feel a larger calling. I love the documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, which documents aspects of Nina Simone’s fascinating and sometimes tumultuous life. There are a few scenes in the documentary that I play over and over in my head. In one scene, Nina Simone sings, “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” to an audience of college students and she dedicates the song to black students. The air changed at that moment. Pride was evident in the black students’ faces and there was a sudden sense of urgency to their own purpose. I have seen this same expression on the faces of young people at spoken word events when they recognize themselves in something that’s been uttered on stage. Their responses, which are impassioned, loud, guttural, gets to the heart of what I think a “purpose” may feel like for some writers: to impact another human being, to usher them into a place of “Amen” or, “Yes.”
Day by day, through successes and also a lot of missteps (especially the missteps), I’m figuring out my own sense of responsibility. There are voices I am most fearful to give life to or talk about most honestly and it’s that feeling I want to embrace now. Where do we stand as a nation? Will there ever be a common or shared race? Must there be a revolution (intellectual or otherwise) to transform the ongoing paradigms that have been so firmly rooted? I am striving to transform these questions into a form that agitates the questions even further. When I was younger, I was fascinated with answers and as I get older I grow more attracted to the deep well of curiosity.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
I don’t. There are too many opinions, aesthetics, influences, belief systems to ever think there is a collective purpose. We are each placed here to carry out something quite distinctive, quite separate. That individuality of purpose makes for friction that is very much alive.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
I’ve never been arrested though I’ve had a few confrontations with police officers. One that I care to discuss happened during the Caribbean Day Parade in Brooklyn a few years ago. While the parade was once free of barricades, in recent years metal dividers have been set up to control crowds from crossing from one side of Atlantic Avenue to another. One year, as I waited to cross the street, the crowd understandably grew. After waiting about 20 minutes, we were finally allowed to cross Atlantic Avenue. A crowd of us were suddenly stopped and quite suddenly a circle of police officers with shields, helmets, and billy clubs surrounded us. The police seemed like they were readying themselves for a confrontation except the group of us in their midst were pedestrians with no weapons. My husband held my hand as he could sense my fear and he told me not to move, not to run, and to stay calm. Everything in my body wanted to edge away or to approach a police officer to speak, but my husband held my hand and wouldn’t let go. The police were edging closer and at the minute I thought something unimaginable was about to happen, a call came for them to head in another direction. They dispersed and walked away with no explanation.
I think it’s often the mystery behind any threatening act that can be most frustrating. The lingering why permeates the moment and there’s no grace to it, no explanation. Or perhaps this paradigm based on race and class structures has been stated time and time again so it becomes an invisible anti-anthem, something I’ve uttered to myself cyclically.
Why haven’t I been arrested? There have been moments when I’ve dared the police to arrest me. I’ve gotten stern reprimands or direct orders to move away from a scene where it was decided I was not a participant. Again, that nagging why? We are a part of a social order filled with assumptions, stereotypes, and hierarchy. Until everyone on all sides is willing to admit to this and confront it, any kind of “progress” will be slow going.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
The leader of a government who imprisons writers lacks imagination and he or she wouldn’t be interested in books or the limitlessness of creative expression. This person wouldn’t be invested in the beauty of a line, ways in which the unspeakable is spoken, or the courage one needs to express what a nation truly feels. We wouldn’t be moved by the same impulses. One hundred lashes, house arrest, torture, imprisonment—A person who can envision this kind of damage wouldn’t be someone who opens a book to search for breathing room, light, or transformation. However, if I could offer anything in an alternate world where these leaders could somehow shape-shift, I would offer up Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet’s Things I Didn’t Know I Loved: Selected Poems. Repeatedly imprisoned or exiled for his beliefs throughout much of his adult life, the title poem, “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved” details a speaker’s fascination with the simplest images and sensations after being released from prison: The clouds are “shaggy white beasts.” The stars are “huge jewels on black velvet/or apricots on orange.” His views are seen from the eyes of someone seasoned as it simultaneously holds a most childlike wonder. I would offer this to a leader who imprisons writers, not to change him but to demonstrate that the spirit cannot break.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
Observation sees without judgment. Surveillance sees for the purposes of regulation and the maintenance of hierarchy. Some would like to call surveillance safety, which is to say we can maneuver words to fit an objective.
On May 19, 2016, at 6:30pm at Cave Canem’s Brooklyn loft, one-time classmates and longtime friends, poets Tina Chang and Tracy K. Smith, will present their lecture, “The Spirit That Is Charged: A Conversation about Poetry and Friendship,” exploring how their intimate exchange has shaped their work, illuminated their individual creative processes, and added meaning to their understanding of the writer’s life. Visit Cave Canem’s full calendar here.
Nicole Sealey is the Programs Director at Cave Canem Foundation and the author of The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press. Her honors include an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from The American Poetry Review, a Daniel Varoujan Award, and the Poetry International Prize. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Copper Nickel, Ploughshares, Third Coast, and elsewhere. Nicole holds an MLA in Africana Studies from the University of South Florida and an MFA in creative writing from New York University. Nicole will be interviewing a distinguished and diverse group of Cave Canem fellows and friends for The PEN Ten. Visit her at nicolesealey.com.