I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Interviewing Tina Chang for BOMB was the perfect ruse to barrage her with questions. We have been dear friends for years, but I remain starstruck by her words on the page and grace in the world. I was especially curious to discuss the tremendous shift between her two collections of poetry. The intimate narratives of Half-Lit Houses burst into lush and inventive poems in her new collection Of Gods & Strangers; the heartbreaking acceptance in the first book becomes bold defiance in the second. In the time between the two books, she coedited Language for a New Century, a Norton anthology of contemporary poetry from the Middle East and Asia, and became a mother and the Poet Laureate of Brooklyn. I wondered how these changes shaped her work and what secrets she might reveal about her evolution as a writer. I wanted to see the blueprint behind her new collection, which grapples with both the disasters of world events and the bewilderment of love.
Robin Beth Schaer In the poem “Lessons in Sleeping” from your first book, Half-Lit Houses, you offer two choices: “You are a misfit or a starlet.” Yet, your work seems drawn from both places: strutting with the glamour of the starlet and then whispering with the insight of the misfit. Which do you see yourself as, misfit or starlet?
Tina ChangI think of myself as both misfit and starlet. Can they exist simultaneously? I’d like to think they can. We are, each of us, so complex in that way. When I sit down to write a poem, the starlet’s bravery, audacity, and fearlessness are necessary. But there is also the misfit who questions, doubts, and casts a shadow on the possible poem, the poem about to be born. So those sides of myself wrestle, and I’m very interested in the tangle that ensues.
RBSThere is also the inherent divide between speaker and writer in any poem. Emily Dickinson declared: “When I state myself, as the representative of the verse, it does not mean me, but a supposed person.” How do you manage this split?
TCMaintaining that hold on the “supposed person” is important in all acts of art. “I” am never “me” in my poems. Whether it be a familial, sensual, or political poem, my speakers are free to unleash themselves in their imagined worlds though in their worlds they believe themselves to be real.
RBS Can you claim some poems as autobiographical without loosening the wizard’s curtain on the others?
TC I definitely draw from the images, moments, dreams, conversations, conflicts, and hysteria in my everyday life, but when I’m writing a poem, everything falls away as if this world is collapsing—and I don’t mean that in a catastrophic way. Everything is swept away, broken down, dismantled and then built up and reconstructed again. I, too, rise up as a character in a town, city, room, in someone’s arms. I’m never sure what will happen and where these speakers might resurrect, but I feel like the “me”—the real me that teaches, commutes, brings my son to school—must be ready to receive what these speakers wish to say or do.
RBSThe real you is known to be adventurous and fierce. You are bewitching in a karaoke bar, and even the New York Times took note of your ability to rock a pair of leather jeans. Do you see a connection between the interior and exterior? In “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” Ashbery writes, “It is not / Superficial but a visible core.” Do you agree?
TCI couldn’t agree more. I’m not sure I always see myself as fierce, though I like to rock the leather jean, the high heel, and sequined gown when appropriate. I don’t think the physical interpretation of one’s own appearance is facade or ornament but a natural extension of the self. The interior and exterior self don’t have to be at odds with one another. If someone is feeling outrageous, dressing that way is true to that core. The exterior can express a person’s feelings of desire, joy, humor, gloom. Celebrating that expression feels like honoring the most essential parts of a person.
RBSEven karaoke requires the creation of a persona, the channeling of a rock star or a starlet, or another, bolder part of oneself. What is your ideal karaoke song?
TCClearly it’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. The beauty of that song is that you can’t be a loner. You have to be part of an ensemble. When those collective voices are rising, every off note and dubious harmony is a racket that is made perfect by sheer force and will. In your imagination, a classic song is given a screeching, brilliant life. That’s music.
RBSThat song is also a fantastic example of lawless wordplay. Do you have any forbidden words or topics?
TCOne word: nipple. It’s hard for me to take that word seriously in poems or in life.
RBSI have noticed there are no nipples in your poems. What about love? You warn your students that any poem titled “Love” is destined to fail. Why is it doomed?
TCLove is not doomed. It’s the title that is edging on the precipice of doom. How can you live up to that title? Perhaps Jack Gilbert can. He’s the master of the contemporary love poem. He can use that title anytime, and I’ll read it, put it under my pillow, pray to it.
RBSAnd yet you willfully ignored your own warning in your latest collection. How did you keep the poem from collapsing beneath that four letter word?
TCI’m not defending that poem. I wrote the poem with the light bulb of failure swinging over my head. It then became dark. I was alone. There were voices in the corner. I was afraid. I ignore my own advice all the time.
RBSWhat about forbidden or fetishistic images? Eggs and birds appear throughout your portrait of a family surviving loss and hardship in your first book. Was the repetition intended or did the eggs subconsciously find their way into those poems to hatch bits of hope?
TCWhen I’m teaching, one of the first things I ask my students is: What are your obsessions? We all have them: mother, father, lover, homeland, nature, grandparents, or even language itself; all writers and artists return to themes in the form of images or reoccurring moments. When I think back to that time of my bird obsession, I know I was thinking a great deal about confinement and freedom. The egg was also the poem. You know the saying, “A poem is an egg with horses in it.” Ever since Lucie Brock-Broido uttered these words, I was obsessed with the egg because I was convinced it was magic and that it contained horses. Thus it contained the world.
RBSI believe Lucie said that phrase came from a child’s description of poetry. The visions of children are wonderfully unhinged from rules and expectations. Does having young ones of your own bring new language or images to your work?
TCEvery day I’m startled by what they notice or the purity of their first experiences in the world. Who would think to eat sand or to place an electrical cord in the mouth? How do we differentiate these things from a mango or a good steak? We don’t know if it will be delicious until we try it once. So, yes, the way my children envision and interpret their surroundings asks me to see things anew.
RBSYour children arrived between your two collections, during a time when you become a mother, a partner, and a Poet Laureate. How have these new roles impacted your sense of responsibility?
TCWithin the past five years, it’s as if my life decided to speed up and charge at me with all the force, love, venom, and mercy I could take. Being a mother has probably changed me more than anything that has ever happened to me. Nothing has been more difficult, challenging, joyous, and ecstatic than this role. I look at all mothers now with sheer reverence. When I pass them on the street, I know them intimately in some way. The months and even years with little sleep, juggling between home life and work, holding children when they’re sick. Sometimes there is so much love, it spills over and I find that this body I’ve been given can’t contain the bounty.
RBSAnd what of the laurel leaves around your head?
TCIn any given day, I change diapers, feed my children, drop them off to school, nap them, take them to the park, nap them again, and then I change my clothes, comb my hair and dash out the door to make an appearance at a school or borough event. This past year, I trained my college students to teach in public schools in at-risk neighborhoods. This meant working on the weekends. So there is constant negotiating both with my partner and with my conscience. There are many emails sitting in my inbox now, many good organizations and schools with whom I will one day collaborate. But sometimes those emails have to wait while I watch Toy Story 3 with my son and sit through the scary parts with him.
RBSRilke claimed there was the ancient enmity between daily life and great art, so how are you able to find poems between cartoons, compromises, catastrophes, and laundry?
TCInsofar as the material in the book, all of these internal negotiations are there. The complexities of love, struggle with myself and my nation, a return to community as home … When I reread the book, I remember what I was pondering or even struggling with that day. I remember the front page of the newspaper or how I noticed something very peculiar on the street that afternoon. I remember the time of day, the quality of light, and what I might have done to manage to get to my desk to be present for the poem.
RBSStruggle and love are certainly bound together in your new work. You write: “We made that fire, / fed the flames with newspapers, kings, martyrs, and love” in “So Much Light We Could See To The Other Side.” I am reminded of the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali whose love poems are also war poems, and whose war poems are also love poems.
TCAgha Shahid Ali was my great teacher. When I first encountered him, I also read everything by him, and I was startled by his work. I tried to deconstruct his poems in an effort to figure out how the poems that detailed war could be filled with such tenderness. How did he place a beloved in that ravaged scene? How did the figures live in a place of constant battle? I think that’s what attracted me so much to Carolyn Forché’s poems. In one poem, human ears are spilled to the floor, and in another poem in the same collection, an anonymous other is rushing his mouth to hers on a locomotive.
RBSYou question that confluence of desires in “Unfinished Book of Mortals” where your speaker asks “Why am I thinking of my lovers now?” in the middle of a litany of destruction.
TCLove and war are really the same thing. They seem like opposites, but as anyone will tell you, to keep and attain abiding love is a struggle. I was involved in a very tumultuous relationship that called upon all the extremes of myself. I felt so tied to the person and, simultaneously, I questioned whether aspects of the relationship were right for me. This push and pull, coming and going, acceptance and rejection mirrored a deep unrest in my surroundings. While the nation was at war, I was called to still live my existence. Within that existence was the constant search for love. What would I do for love? What will love do to me? These kinds of questions remind me of James Dickey’s line, “I’m afraid of what the world will do.”
RBSWe have reason to fear when we’ve witnessed what the world can do. As a book written post-9/11, Of Gods & Strangers contemplates loss domestically and internationally, contemplating the space between the personal and political. How did being in New York City on 9/11 redirect your poetry?
TCAfter September 11th everything in me shifted. I couldn’t function in the same way I had previous to that day. For about a year after 9/11, I couldn’t write and asked the age-old question, “What is the role of poetry?” I was astounded that writers, artists, and particularly journalists could respond so deeply and profoundly to the experience when I felt as if I couldn’t get out of bed, have a normal conversation, let alone write a line of poetry. I valued the art of others who could encapsulate a small part of what we experienced as a nation, though nothing could approach the totality of what that loss felt like, though I don’t think anyone was attempting that. I was floating away from poetry, from this art form I loved so much. I couldn’t find its value for me anymore.
RBSYet you were eventually able to write stunning and heartbreaking poems out of the aftermath. Did editing the anthology of poetry from the Middle East and Asia wing you back?
TCYes. It wasn’t until I started editing the Norton anthology that my perspective was shaken. I began reading poems from writers living in Afghanistan, Iran, Morocco, Tibet, and Bangladesh. For seven years, I sat along with my coeditors, bleary-eyed, pouring over these poems. I thought I was editing a book but what I was really doing was living again through words. These writers, in a sense, were resuscitating me. I believed in their vision and their poetry to the degree that I began to believe in my own words again. How can this be connected? Why does it always have to be about “me”? But poem by poem, page by page, I got it. I understood what they were doing, and most importantly, what they were saying. If I could believe that much in their work, I could certainly manage to believe in my own voice again. As with many other times in my upbringing, poetry saved my life.
RBSLove and war find their patron in the Empress Dowager of your new book. She ruled as the last empress of China at the end of the nineteenth century, yet the voice you give her is ferociously modern. What drew you to entering her mind?
TCLet’s face it, the Empress was a total badass. That’s what attracted me to her. As I mentioned before, I was involved in some real questioning regarding my life. At the same time, I stumbled upon a book about the Empress Dowager. As I learned about her life, I also understood the hearsay about her: she was manipulative; she used men so she could rule the country as a woman; she had servants killed; and she even encouraged her son to drug himself with opium which allowed her more influence upon him. Though all of this is up for debate, I was fascinated with the energy and intrigue that swirled around this figure, how outlandish and how smart she was. She was empowered in a way I wished I could be, so I channeled her swagger.
RBSWhat led you to the face-to-face showdown with her at the end of the collection?
TCThe showdown between the “I” and the Empress was inevitable. I was wearing the mask of the Empress throughout the book and I thought, What happens to her now? What happens to me?
I was living my new millennium existence and she lived in the distant past so I wrote a poem where the figures met, conversed, bedded each other, and became one and the same person.
RBSEmpress Dowager: starlet or misfit?
TCShe was a grand example of both. What a mess. What a queen.
RBSThe new collection is also characterized by a beautifully questioning voice that speckles the book with question marks. So, a question about questions: What draws you toward the unanswerable?
TCOne of my beloved professors is/was my photography professor Thomas Roma. He taught me how to see. In one of his lessons, he noted that if a photographic image is cut off on one side of the photo, it’s posing a question and on the other side of the photo the question must be answered. I love the idea of questions because it mirrors our human process. Each day, there is an endless stream of questions entering into our consciousness. Too many to answer, I believe those questions are stored until we can address them at another time. It could be five months later, twelve years later, at the end of our lives that the essence of these questions reappear again. We may never have the answers to them, but in the act of living we’re in a quest to at least approach a response.
RBSWould you be willing to try answering one of your own questions? How about: “How many times can we fail before / we quit?”
RBSOne more: “If I trust history, does my memory remain there? / What if the future fails me?”
TCIf the future fails me, I’ll return to history and start at the beginning.
Robin Beth Schaer’s poems have appeared in Tin House, The Awl, Barrow Street, Denver Quarterly, Washington Square, and Prairie Schooner, among others. She has received fellowships from Djerassi Resident Artists Program, Saltonstall Foundation, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She teaches writing at Cooper Union and Marymount Manhattan College, and occasionally ships out to sea as a deckhand aboard the Tall Ship Bounty.
Brooklyn Poet Laureate Tina Chang was raised in New York City. She is the author of the poetry collections Half-Lit Houses and Of Gods & Strangers (Four Way Books) and coeditor of the anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (W.W. Norton, 2008) along with Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar. Her poems have appeared in American Poet, McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, the New York Times among others. Her work has also been anthologized in Identity Lessons, Poetry Nation, Asian American Literature, Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems and in Poetry 30: Poets in Their Thirties. 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 currently teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee