Conversation with Tina Chang

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  • March 12, 2019

Tina Chang is the Poet Laureate of Brooklyn, New York, where she lives with her family. She is the author of two previous collections of poetry—including Half-Lit Houses, a finalist for the Asian American Literary Award—and coeditor of the seminal anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond. The recipient of awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Academy of American Poets, and Poets & Writers, among other honors, Chang teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College.

Your upcoming book, Hybrida (W.W. Norton, May 2019) speaks directly to our time, our moment. And yet, it is also timeless–as you ask timeless questions of motherhood, childhood, of living with fear.  There is Michael Brown, Jr., there is Jesus Christ, there is your own child, and so on. Could you speak about your vision for the poetics of documenting our moment, poetics of witness–which are clearly important to you–and how they might relate to mythos, to the mythologies of larger literature that you are also in conversation with in your work.

I think my first instances of witnessing were as a little girl as I sat in church contemplating the body of Christ. His story was told to me by family members, by the clergy, and my religious mentor. Each time the story was told I was asked, “Do you believe?” How willing and how excited I was to delve into someone else’s story. Yes, I believed. I believed anything that was relayed to me. How can one not believe the words that could lead to an imaginative dwelling, “In the beginning…” or “Once upon the time…” or, “Once there was a young boy….” The introduction is so pure, so open. I couldn’t help but fall into the trance of larger stories that were both a part of me and also very much outside of me. In particular, I was taken by the story of Christ’s pain, the narrative of betrayal, and the human capacity to survive. I was invested, too, in the idea of sacrifice and if we carry that into the 21stcentury, I could not help but think of Christ’s story when I contemplated the life of Michael Brown and that connection is made apparent in the first long poem, “Creation Myth,” in Hybrida. The long poem moves like a fragmentation and combination of many myths I lived through in my life. The poem contemplates a child’s beginnings, the threat of loss, and moves into a possible dream future where everything is at risk.

So many of our current symbols surrounding sacrifice bring me back to these earlier stories I learned in catechism classes. These are some of the vital stories of witness: Christ’s end and beginning, the fairytales of our youth, the symbolic body of Michael Brown. These stories connect to the unmistakable question, “What do you believe in?” I am also very careful to make the distinction among these stories: one is Biblical, one is a creation of the imagination,and the latter is based in reality. It is important to note when fantasy moves into reality and back again. I was interested where there lines intersected while respecting the life of Michael Brown as a person and not a myth.

As I wrote the first few poems that would make their way into the book, I embraced fairy tales because they took up a great deal of my day. For the last decade, I’ve been surrounded by piles of children’s books and fairly tales scattered in the living room. Fairy tales bring to mind the overarching figures of the witch, the hunter as predators who are often strangely the figures who impart the greatest lessons. Through the writing of Hybrida, I often wondered who is the modern day hunter? Or returning back to the original story, who is the modern day Judas? When I embraced these stories as an adult, I realized all of our current stories are really ancient ones, based on ancient themes. In the poem, “Hybrida: A Zuihitsu” the speaker states, “The story we are living now…has been lived before.” So when we are talking about a poetics of witness, we are really speaking of the poetics of recounting a known story relived. In many veils and many guises, we are each of us struggling to express and recount similar narratives and themes: Good vs Evil, The Weak vs The Powerful, Love vs Hate. In every era, we newly confront the issues that have plagued us as a human race. It is easy, I think, to try to land on one side or another of the eternal arguments. Poetry allows not two sides but endless ways of examining and questioning our existence. We can land in an elsewherewhere our highest wonder and our deepest devastation do not live mutually exclusive of one another. In poetry and in myth each contradiction can breathe in the same vast and complex field.

You are writing about your child, directly, sharing private moments–and yet your work doesn’t sound confessional at all. Instead, you are creating your own conversations, across past and present, as well as across family lineages. You write: “once, the past was in dialogue with the future, a hybrid form.” Given the book’s title and given various in-depth explorations of form herein, and their deep connections to the stories and songs of this work, it becomes very clear to the reader that your work views form and content as something integrally connected. I wonder if you could speak about this here. Thus, this question arises: what is the relationship between form and content according to Tina Chang?

My earlier studies had me focusing very intently on traditional forms. I struggled to master the sonnet, the sestina, the pantoum, the triolet, elegy, ode, etc. All of it mattered so much to me, to get everything exactly right and that devotion to lyricism was deeply necessary to understand the foundations of the kind of future music I hoped to create. As the years went by, the poetic forms I struggled to master could no longer contain the content I envisioned. I looked to newer and experimental forms to examine the combustible content.

Hybridais comprised of ghazals, zhuihitsu, ekphrastic poems, prose poems, poems combined with journalism, long poems, short poems, even a poem/comic by my son at collection’s end. If I stand back to think about it, it all sounds rather outlandish to try so many forms under one cover though it all made sense. I was seeking forms to embrace chaos. I was also letting go. “Let go,” one of my great professors said. He repeated this again and again during my education. I don’t think I fully knew what he meant until writing the poems for Hybrida.

I recall a wonderful conversation with poet Eduardo Corral who visited my class at Sarah Lawrence College to discuss his first collection, Slow Lightning. When asked about form, he lifted his hands to demonstrate the action of pouring poems into different vessels and if the vessel could not hold the content, the form or the content had to change. For me, the content was paramount and I tried to hear what it had to say and how the story should be told. When I think of form, I envision the poem’s physical movement. Is it a wolf? It is a panther? How does it want to unleash itself?

A large part of writing the book was acknowledging the discarded vessels left on the wayside, what could have been. Those lost or even abandoned poems are often not valued but if we value the process of the poet, the creation and attempt of those previous forms, create the vision and pathway for new poems.

In going back to Eduardo Corral’s theory of vessels, I love the idea of trying to contain what cannot be contained. Let’s see if the vessel explodes. Let’s see if the water teeters at the very top without spilling. In the same way, form can function like that beautiful experiment.

More on form & content: you bring together essay fragments, songs, hymns, ghazals, lullabies, incantations, and so on. And, yet it all coheres. What were your models for this kind of pattern, for this interweaving of various voices and tonalities together into the same chorus? What other writers were you in conversation with as you wrote Hybrida?

I thought most intently about Agha Shahid Ali and his magnificent ghazals. I studied with Shahid during my undergraduate years and dared not try a ghazal back then. To me, he was the master of this form. It wasn’t until many years after his passing and missing him terribly as my teacher that I thought writing ghazals would be a homage to him. In one of the ghazals in Hybrida, he is mentioned in the takhallus, which is the name the poet calls him/her/themselves in the final stanza of this form. While it’s an opportunity to call out one’s own name, I call out my mentor’s name to honor him. During the writing of this book, I was also communing withpoets Nazim Hikmet, Zbigniew Herbert, Rainier Maria Rilke, FedericoGarciaLorca, Mahmoud Darwish, Noami Shihab Nye and American poets Anne Carson, Matthea Harvey, Jen Bervin, Patricia Smith, Cathy Park Hong, Evie Shockley, and younger poet Harmony Holiday for the flexibility of their forms and artistic vision.

I was influenced by Kimiko Hahn’s modern treatment of the zuihitsu. Discovering this ancientJapanese formwas paramount to the creation of the book. I studied the contemporary interpretation by Kimiko Hahn and moved backward toward Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book. The word “zuihitsu” translated from the Japanese means, “following the brush” or “running brush” it embraces the fragmentary nature of the mind. The contemporary version of the zuihitsu absorbs poetry, prose, lists, emails, journal entries, dreams, social media, news, and myth. By delving into this form it helped me to understand there existed a space that held all of my longing.

I was also interested in the form of the pecha kucha, a worldwide movement of presentation and information sharing that comprises 20 slides shown for 20 seconds. The form also encourages communal sharing. Terrance Hayes adopted the business format as a poetic form, as he wrote short consecutive stanzas lasting 20 seconds when read out loud to accompany 20 images. I studied the impact of Martin Puryear’s sculptural work on Hayes’s masterful pecha kucha, “Arbor for Butch.” Though I didn’t utilize the pecha kucha form, it had an effect on other poems in Hybridalike, “4 Portraits” where four paintings and accompanying poems appear.

The contemporary poets I mention are always moving and changing; they’re consistently in a state of pushing the limits of structure, language, and execution. As I wrote this book, I returned to what I loved traditionally and I visited poets who challenge that tradition while invigorating it with their individual vision. I visited museums, collaborated with film departments, and was stretching in many directions asking myself how I was growing and what I wanted to add to the conversation.

In the midst of writing Hybrida, I was having a tremendous amount of fun asking the poems what they wanted to be and the forms in which they wanted to appear. I was allowing myself a sense of freedom I had never experienced before. Though the forms carried a sense of whimsy to them, the subject matter felt weighted. That friction was a source of fascination for me, not to see how form could fit content exactly but how they sought to struggle with one another.

What is next for you? 

Touring and teaching. Much of the life after the birth of a book is having the wonderful chance to meet the audiences who read the work. I look forward to that as audiences always surprise me. I am particularly smitten with young audiences as they bring something new to the table teach time. I’m also intrigued by their wonder. As much as I tour, I also love to teach in unexpected places. It’s a particular experience to be able to walk into a classroom for a set amount of hours, to know you are given either an hour or an entire semester to impart a lesson. The prospect of this limited amount of time to connect with a small group of people is invigorating to me. In many ways, it has become the foundation of my life. It’s my real time community as I move from place to place. Talking about the art form I love and being offered the most tender, beautiful audience is beyond what I could have expected when I began writing.

Perhaps other projects I’m working on are children’s books and a YA novel in verse. These projects are dreams in small work fragments. I often sit for many afternoons in the library reading children’s books and YA novels. It’s an incredibly difficult prospect: to think like a child. While it may seem simple: create work that reaches children and the adults who are along for the ride. It seems nearly impossible to me. I love tackling it. At this point, I have many hundreds of stories I’ve created. Perhaps I’ll be amazingly lucky and one will rise to the surface.

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