January 31–February 6, 2022
Cole Chang (he/him) is a biracial second-generation Chinese-American poet and artist. He received his BA in studio art and creative writing from Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His poetry has been published in places like the Margins and Poets Reading the News, and his visual work has been shown in both Minnesota and California. He primarily works through a combination of painting, alternative photography, textiles and sculpture. A native of New York City, Chang currently lives and works in Berkeley, California. Last summer, he was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Starr Davis’s Writing Convictions workshop.
When my brother ships out
I fear the next time I see him, he’ll be trapped beneath
the American flag. The red and white stripes binding
his wrists and ankles to the ground. Forcing him to
accept the markings on his body as symbols of
belonging. Fabric rising and falling each time he takes
a breath. The Navy trained him for this. Let the stars
fall, swallow them one by one. And watch the air
bubble to the surface of the blue fabric.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem attempts to speak on my strained relationship with my brother. There are certain details I can’t disclose about it, but, in short, I was confused by my brother’s decision to enlist in the Navy. I don’t believe in violence as a way to resolve conflict, and I couldn’t understand how or why he would choose to buy into the US imperialist project.
I’ve thought a lot about assimilation, and the ways I have internalized racist ideas in how I present and see myself. At times I imagine that my brother has been waterboarded with racism in the form of American patriotism. I think he has accepted this as the cost of belonging. I’ve never asked him about his decision to enlist, partially in fear of what his answer would be. This is a meditation on what he risked by joining the Navy—whether or not it could have been avoided or if he is simply completing his assimilation into Whiteness.
What are you working on right now?
Lately, I’ve been working on a lot of different things—I tend to take on a lot of different things at once. I’m working on a few large paintings and prints as well as working on some new poems. I’m working from a collection of family photos from my grandmother, who passed away last year. Many of the photos, taken in China, show my family wearing Western suits and qipaos. I’m interested in exploring the early signs of assimilation in my family.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day for me is being able to wake up and have breakfast on my patio, do some writing and painting and then go for a walk.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I spent the first three years of my life in Brooklyn, and then my family moved out of the city. I currently live in Berkeley, CA, but have always felt a connection to Brooklyn.
Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I lived in Brooklyn Heights for the first three years of my life—on Orange St. I don’t remember too much about it, although all my memories are very warm. I remember playing on our stoop, going to Pierrepont Playground and walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. From what I’m told, it isn’t that different from where I’ve lived in the Twin Cities or where I live now in Berkeley.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I’ve been told I got lost in the Prospect Park Zoo—which seems like a defining moment in some capacity.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?
People who believe in what you have to say, and people who aren’t afraid to challenge you. I had a great experience in Starr’s workshop. Everyone was very supportive and understanding—it felt like everyone was eager to hear each other’s voices. I’ve found a good community where I live now, in Berkeley. I’m working on expanding my community and connectedness here, and the people I’ve met here are always very kind, willing to listen and share their feedback.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Starr Davis’s voice and teachings have helped shape the way I write and view my writing. She taught me to embrace subtlety, but not to hide behind it.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’ve had a few poetry mentors, but two have been particularly influential. I learned from Lynn Chandhok, a poet and teacher, in high school. She taught me to challenge my own systems of understanding and the importance of placing my own experiences in the context of others. I also continue to learn from Wang Ping, who has urged me to write and create without hesitation. I wrote and worked on poems in Chinese with her, which I had never felt comfortable doing before. She has guided me as I establish my own writing and artistic practice, and shared many amazing lessons and stories with me.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I read Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings, which helped me process a lot of my own feelings and experience. The way Hong writes about language was one of the things I enjoyed the most. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is another book I read in the fall—it was one of those books that I couldn’t stop reading. I also recently revisited a poem by Li-Young Lee, “The Gift.” I find myself constantly revisiting his work over and over again. The City in Which I Love You is one of my favorite books of poetry.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I have a habit of giving books I’d like to read or want to read as gifts to family members and friends. So I should probably get around to reading them myself. There are also plenty of books that I pick up from Little Free Library locations that are still sitting on my bookshelf waiting for me to read them.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I usually read one book at a time, and tend to read it quite quickly. Often I plan to read something in advance, based on a friend’s or family member’s recommendation. And rarely do I read digital texts, other than articles or the news.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’ve always wanted to try to write a long poem. Most of my work rarely exceeds a single page, and I often wonder what my work would look like if I pushed myself to write lengthier poems.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
The park, the beach—outdoor spaces seem to be the most conducive to my reading and writing.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The Brooklyn Heights Promenade and Pierrepont Playground are the places that I have the most vivid and warm memories of as a kid growing up in Brooklyn. I just remember all the leaves changing color and falling on the sidewalk.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate cacti,
And what I see you grow,
For every spine that keeps me as good as you.
It’s a place I’ll always be.