In 2010, Tina Chang was the first woman to be named Poet Laureate of Brooklyn, a position she still holds. In addition to writing poetry (dictated into her phone or texted to herself at crosswalks), she teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and, as Poet Laureate, makes it her goal to bring poetry to people (she’s like the most popular writer’s group and book club member in all of Brooklyn). In 2017, says Tina, “approach to language, freedom of expression, the preservation of responsibly documented words are very much on my mind.” Her work this year also includes organizing literary leaders for political action.
What is your writing process like? What does a day look like? A week? Long ago, I had time and the days stretched out before me like a tremendous field. Because I’m a mother now and also an educator and public speaker, it’s work to claim time for my writing. I now grab the time when it’s there. I never believed in writing while riding the subway though now I do. I used to abstain from technical devices and I wrote primarily in longhand. Now I dictate poems into my cell phone as I walk or I may stop at a crosswalk to type a poem text to myself when I get an idea. Creativity is embedded within multi-tasking. I’m often balancing tea, with a notebook under my arm, a scheduler in the other hand while my mind is trying to catch up with the woman who wishes to do many things at once. Writing, though, resists speed. So I write with focused attention at least three times a week. I must have a cup of tea in front of me, the windows open, and at least 2 hours when I’m uninterrupted. This is when I get most of my work done.
How will your approach to writing change this year, if at all? 2017 will be the year of change. Approach to language, freedom of expression, the preservation of responsibly documented words are very much on my mind. The relationship between writing and truth has always been a challenging and sometimes slippery one; 2017 will find me contending with those challenges. This year will also find me dealing with subject matter I’ve been hesitant to approach in the past. I write so much material that never makes it past my own notebook or screen. Issues of race, struggle, culture, identity are not new subjects but each generation that approaches these subjects are informed by the experiences that shape the day. 2017 has already found the country in a state of heightened awareness and, in some cases, urgent unrest. There is as much unity as there is divisiveness. I believe, as with many writers and community members, we’ll be translating these experiences via our art form. Perhaps we’ll be writing on the way to a protest; perhaps we’ll be writing between community-organizing events, or writing while sitting in the midst of throngs of people listening to the words of our next great leader.
What aspect of your job do you find the most fulfilling? The most challenging? The most satisfying aspect of being the Poet Laureate of Brooklyn is meeting people. I’ve met children in largely Latino communities in Bushwick who struggle with gentrification, eviction, and relocation. The children write poetry to interpret that struggle. I’ve met communities of writers over the age of 65 who cope with Alzheimer’s disease and words were a pathway to remembering. One of my biggest passions is early literacy and collaborating with children at the beginning of their relationship with words drives me forward. These are a few examples of the people I meet nationally and abroad. The current job as laureate brings me into contact with lovers of poetry and so many of those communities are often beautifully surprising to me. I never truly know the type of situation I may be walking into (perhaps this is a challenge) but I know that most of the people I meet are open, receptive, and energized to meet me halfway. Each person I encounter has a different story and I’ve somehow been given a front row seat as, first and foremost, a witness.
In the future, what do you hope changes or improves (or continues!) in your field? It’s hard to find ways to improve an art form that struggles to maintain its very survival. I think of the women and men who get up each day to write, teach, edit, create, maintain jobs, families. If poetry is a calling, I know armies of writers who answer that calling each day. I’ve been humbled by the kind of work and loyalty I see rising from all corners of the globe. From prestigious writing programs to the smallest storefront housing books for children who wish to make art; from the dynamic stages of the Apollo Theater where young performers make their voices heard to hundreds of people, to the five-person writing workshops in local Brooklyn cafés, poetry is being envisioned, leaders are being shaped, and communities gather to ensure this art form lives on. I’m humbled by all of it so my hope is that the leaders of nonprofits, educators, community activists will continue to do the good work they do despite the apparent and real struggles to keep many organizations alive. I don’t know if it’s enough to say I admire them, that I’ve heard them, that I’ve witnessed the vital work they do and I’m talking about it: Brooklyn Poets, Poets Settlement, Urban Word NYC, Still Waters in a Storm, She’s the First, the Community Word Project, Cave Canem, Kundiman, Women Love the World, Coney Island Parachute Series, The Ascentos Foundation, the AAWW, Second Saturdays reading series, Brooklyn Ladies Text Salon…these are only a few of the NYC-based organizations who I praise for allowing me a glimpse of the work they do on behalf of poets.
Are you working on a new book or a larger project you’d like to share?
I’m working on my next collection of poetry as well as leadership initiatives. The first work feels, in some way, the hardest as it requires quiet, space, and time…three things that seem to be scarce these days but I’m forging ahead. The current manuscript is a long time in the making and in many ways feels like a hybrid project. The idea of hybridity speaks to me now as my experience feels fragmented, collaged, and random in the best of ways. I’m also deeply interested in both traditional and new poetic forms which have a large place in my new work. As for the subject matter, I’ve mentioned aspects of it above.
Leadership initiatives are also in the works as I’m organizing literary leaders who will make an impact and a difference. There is a good deal to be done now from signing petitions, to calling senators and representatives, to attending local meetings, to gathering in public spaces to protest. I think many of us are in the organizing stages as we process the most effective way to create change. As always, I return to voice in its deepest spiritual and also physical manifestations.
I’m also working on philanthropic initiatives, inspiring children to think about their own participation in improving their direct community through action. This upcoming year I’m collaborating with organizations to initiate book drives, building libraries for children in underserved communities, and allowing children to learn by doing and through commitment to a cause. Asking children to think outside of themselves and to place them in positions of compassionate leadership, gives them entrée into a future that is ethically and morally responsible. I believe this builds not only tolerance but an insistence on universal cooperation and a vision of a unified global home. Our children are the next great visionaries, the next 100 people who will influence our world culture. If I can help to introduce young people to literacy in tandem with leadership and if I can help even one child to understand the boundlessness of their own creative power, I believe I’ve done my job.