July 29–August 4, 2013
Tina Chang, Brooklyn Poet Laureate, is the author of the poetry collections Half-Lit Houses (2004) and Of Gods & Strangers (2011). 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 venues 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 to be established in Asia.
Naming the Light
My beautiful brother opens the garage door
on a Saturday morning, taking out the tools
to rake the leaves around the gated house.
He hates this job but does it anyway,
the way he makes his breakfast before daylight.
He gets up as my father would, without question.
The idea of infinity haunts me. The dark days boundless.
My brother raking the leaves on an autumn day
equals the loneliness I feel, waking up
on my mattress, the light not light yet.
My brother that comes in from the cold now
is the same brother that came in from the snow
20 years ago, pounding his boots to wet the carpet,
pieces of frost clinging to his winter hat. Taking off
his gloves, he lets the house warm him. The idea
of the present is that we will last, or that the minutes
might outlive us, that the universe within each
veined leaf will surpass the present tense.
When evening comes, lights dim from each window.
A figure stands by a lamp just about to shut it.
In this moment, it seems as if this job is important,
that if the light fades it will be one less marker of the night.
I realign the pens on my desk as if realigning the stars.
My brother once put his name on a slip of paper.
In his boyhood hand, he wrote his name, Vincent
in script, the slanted letters uncertain and fragile.
Today, I found his name in my pocket.
–From Half-Lit Houses, Four Way Books, 2004.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem was written many years ago when I returned to New York after having lived in San Francisco for three years. I was crashing at my brother’s home (which was actually our childhood home) in Queens in the attempt to save money to rent a place in Brooklyn. He was trying to start a family so my presence wasn’t necessarily appreciated. I began missing the days when we were children and were very close to one another. The poem came from that experience.
What are you working on right now?
Currently, I am working on a book of reimagined fairy tales and classic children’s stories. I spend most of my days reading to my children and my imagination has taken hold of those stories and refashioned them. There is always a form of danger at work in fairy tales. The figures of the wolf, fox, snake, witch and hunter are present in almost every children’s story in every culture. It’s as if these stories were made to warn as much as they entertain or educate. In my poems the fairy tales are even more disturbing as they call on the real dangers of contemporary life like war, disease, crime. Before I get too carried away in that direction, the poems also focus on the magic of the abiding love for one’s children.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day for me is a day I can appear at the desk, in front of a notebook. These days a lot of things call on my attention. My personal life with my family demands a good deal of time. Various poetry-related duties and teaching are really satisfying and also require dedication. I try to do it all and I’m pretty realistic that the idea of doing it all is an impossibility. If I can pen a poem or two, revise a poem, or even write anything poem-like, that’s a very good day.
How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
I’ve lived in Park Slope since 2002. There have been so many great experiences here, it’s hard to choose just one. I’ll try.
Good: When I first moved to Park Slope, it was a different neighborhood than it is now. I moved here because the rent was right. Having been priced out of Manhattan, I found myself here paying $450/month for half of a railroad apartment. I had a bedroom and an office to myself. On an office temp’s salary, I was living large. Back in 2002, I was working on my first poetry collection. I fastened the entire manuscript, page by page, to my office wall. Each time my roommate opened the door the pages would flutter and that movement reminded me that my manuscript was, indeed, alive. My days were filled with writing, writing, writing. The view from my kitchen window was the Brooklyn clock tower. Artists and writers were beginning to find their way to the neighborhood and I felt I was living my dream. I had no idea what would happen to my manuscript or what would happen to me but my life was built on the faith that Brooklyn was where I needed to be. Now, I look upon those years as the defining ones of my life. What would be the life I have now, the Brooklyn laureateship, my love, my children, my home … it all happened here. Had I not accepted my friend’s invitation to move to Brooklyn over ten years ago when I was alone, a bit lost, and really broke, everything would not have unfolded as it has.
Bad: All of the seemingly bad experiences I’ve had involve my young son getting himself into trouble. He once got his arm wedged inside the corner pocket of a pool table for 20 minutes at the bar/restaurant Pork Slope on 5th Avenue. He also crashed into a lamppost and split his forehead at J. J. Byrne Playground while being a chased by a girl. He got five stitches on his forehead at the age of three. A poem came out of that bad experience.
In Between: I realize I don’t register in-between experiences. I tend to think of situations as very horrible, uninspiring, bland or exhilarating, magical, fierce. I have the tendency to let go of the experiences that fall somewhere in between.
Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?
Marianne Moore, Vijay Seshadri, Cathy Park Hong, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Brenda Shaughnessy, Kimiko Hahn, Tracy K. Smith, Patrick Rosal, Aracelis Girmay. Dare I say Walt Whitman for fear of sounding completely unoriginal. His work influenced me very early on in my development as a writer. These are only a handful and I feel like I’m already getting myself into trouble by naming so few. There are many incredible poets living in Brooklyn. My favorite living Brooklyn poets also include currently unpublished poets, the children and young adults I’ve met these past few years as I’ve visited schools across Brooklyn. I’ve been won over by teens at various poetry slams whose voice and passion have shocked me for all their maturity, heart and depth. I met a young woman named Maya Osborne who performed a poem called “Quadroon” that spoke to the difficulty and also pride of being raised as a multiracial child. With that performance, I witnessed the impact a young woman could have on hundreds of people and her power gave me great faith in our next generation of writers.
Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?
My absolute favorite is The Community Bookstore on 7th Avenue. They allow their customers to sit there for hours on end. They give lovely and thoughtful advice on books and they have a varied and well-organized selection of children’s books. There is a backyard, small piano, cats, and there used to be a pet iguana in the back. Other favorites: BookCourt, Greenlight, powerHouse books.
Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I like reading outside if I manage to get the time. Prospect Park is a favorite, but mostly I read at home. As for writing, my secret place which now will not be so secret is Postmark Café. They are lovely, friendly, low-key and all of the tips from sales go to various charities.
Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?
Jane’s Carousel and Brooklyn Bridge Park in Dumbo, Coney Island, Brighton Beach, The Boat House and boat ride at Prospect Park, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn Children’s Museum, eating on Franklin Ave in Crown Heights, Dough doughnuts in Bed Stuy (I could die inside their hibiscus doughnut). I also live at the Brooklyn Public Library (wait, that involves reading and writing). Although I don’t want to admit it, the Food Coop is my second home and without their food I would be eating garbage. More love should be given to the Park Slope YMCA which provides everything my family needs. I spend a lot of time in all of these places.
Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you’ve read?
I had the opportunity to read with Shane McCrae who wrote a searing, dark, confrontational book called Blood. He called the poems necro-pastorals. That book took a lot of courage for me to read. It’s not easy material to take in because it deals with an American history that still has not healed itself and probably never will. I’ve also loved Vijay Seshadri’s forthcoming book 3 Sections; I’ve been waiting for that book for a long time. The Government of Nature by Afaa Michael Weaver is just beautiful and I’ve always thought his work warrants even more national attention. Brenda Shaughnessy’s book Our Andromeda hit me very hard and deserves all the praise it’s received. The title poem made me weep and I don’t think I’ve wept over a poem in over a decade. Everything is called into question: relationship to self, to child, and the complex relationship to the world in which we must live.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate what I am: a back slash
and also a comma.
I am also a goblin seed.
I am all the world’s garnet
laid out on a sheet of velvet.
A silver masks a silver,
but there is no gleam.
the gleam is in the idea
of what will come,
the future luster,
its rusted splinter.
And what I wonder
you should extinguish
like a shadow in reverse,
a blister, a galaxy looming
in the periphery.
For every void in me
is as good as this current,
tumbling bodiless in the wind.
And you, radiating outward
with no border, no limit,
no human shape.
During my 20s and 30s I did a good deal of globetrotting. I traveled through most of Asia, Europe, parts of Africa and back again. All that time, I think I was searching for a place of belonging, my true home. When I found myself in Brooklyn, I realized my home was just a few steps away. I grew up in Queens but I always longed to leave (sorry, Queens). Manhattan educated me in more ways than one and it gave me the spirit and sense of identity to make my way in the world. I didn’t know that taking the F train and crossing a body of water into a borough called Brooklyn would alter and impact me so deeply. I am tied to this place and I feel it in my blood. Being the laureate here, I’ve talked to people young and old, people who love poetry, people who come from all backgrounds, who struggle to give life to words, people who try to give a name for what they feel for this place. Brooklyn. There’s no other home for me. It gave me shelter when I most needed it, when I was down and out and needed a place to be. The borough allowed me to give shape to something I dreamed of but dare not speak of in the past. I wanted to be a poet and stay alive and fulfilled pursuing it. I reached that destiny here.