David St.-Lascaux, poet and contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail, sat down to talk with Tina Chang, the Poet Laureate of Brooklyn, whose new collection, Of Gods and Strangers, is slated for release in the Fall of 2011 by Four Way Books.
David St.-Lascaux (Rail): In the initial "Slumber" stave of "Episodes," you wrote:
I always find myself back
in the Dust Room where
my face is broken in the reflection
of fine porcelain. I have so many
white dresses I will soil for no good
occasion. Common things
call to me: crickets, at night black ducks
drowning in the weeds.
There is nothing complicated about this
except sleep walks to lie down
in the shape of my body.
Lewis Carroll wrote at the end of "Life is But a Dream":
Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?
My first impression of Of Gods and Strangers was that it is essentially oneiric: that its author is recording ornate dreams, sleepwalking, or hallucinating a Ouija board doppelgänger (the Empress). What's happening here? How was Gods invented?
Tina Chang: It's such a beautiful introduction to use that for the book. I have to admit that this the first time that I'm talking about the book. It seems rather dreamlike to be talking to you, another person outside of myself, about it. So much happens in the imagination of the writer as they're making a book. This the first time I am giving order to the whole process of what I was going through as I was writing.
I use the word doppelgänger and it's exactly what I was thinking about. I was thinking about the Empress Dowager (all of this was written after 9/11) and I couldn't help but feel like I was in a dreamlike state after that happened. Right after 9/11 at first I think there was a sense of powerlessness, in fact I actually just wrote about it for a Brooklyn paper as I was reflecting on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. My immediate reaction was that I stopped writing for a while. I became very silent. I felt a huge sense of powerlessness. I always thought that phrase "habit strong" affects all people, that I could change your world with my words. It was why I became a poet to begin with, and then after 9/11 I thought: What are the reasons for all of my words? What can I really say about my world, my situation, g*d? If I wanted to say anything about g*d, is that the core of all conflict in the world or is it people's interpretation of g*d that offers the conflict, or the wrong interpretation of g*d? And are there wrong interpretations of g*d?
I wasn't able to answer those questions, so I felt deeply powerless in my endeavors and I became silent for a long time. It wasn't until I had co-edited an anthology called Language for a New Century [ed.: with Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar] that I began to discover these incredibly strong voices from around the world, and at the same time I was doing research on the Empress Dowager of China. Now here is a person suddenly I could connect to, and why was this? She wasn't only a doppelgänger: she was a ghost to me, an alter ego; she was all of these things to me. Here was this woman in a time when women were supposed to be powerless and lifeless. She was a very powerful figure during that time period. She was an unknown peasant who came into power because of her wiles—some people say because of her manipulation, and because of her power she rose to a point where she was ruling China. And it was through this doppelgänger that I thought I had a hook; I could attach myself to her, and through her I felt that I could gain this power, this power to write again.
In fact many of the poems in regard to the Empress are persona poems: they're not written as me. I was living my life through her. I began to slowly gain my power back again. And talking about it feels emotional especially with the passing of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. It was about the fall of myself as a writer and a poet, and then regaining that power through this figure in time. You reference this idea of dreams, and I use this image of the dress to stand in for a figure or shape. I say that we inhabit these bodies, and inasmuch as can inhabit them we can let them grow. Who are we here in this lifetime? Our lives can pass so very quickly! What are we doing here at this moment of time? What is our purpose? All of these things are called into question in this book. I wouldn't use the word therapeutic, but it did assist me in gaining my voice back, once again.
Rail: In "The Full Faces of Dogs are Barking," You write:
… The last thing
to do was fall asleep, the body so spent, it lay
in exhaustion like a flat tire. That felt like truth
but it was more threatening. I once saw a dying horse
The cognitive scientist Steven Pinker identified five markers for morality in "The Moral Instinct" in the New York Times. Remarkably, no one [surveyed] identified truth as a moral value. Why do you think that is, and what is the importance of truth in your poetry?
Chang: Something that was really affecting me at the time on a personal level was the sense of truth and what the truth is. The word truth pops up in many of my poems. At the time, I was being untruthful about my entire life. I felt like I was living many different lives, and not telling the truth to totally different people, and I think it was to keep up an end of myself. Writing this book allowed me to shed the notion of the façade, so masks come up a lot in relation to the truth.
I was trying to explore what truth was. Even now when I talk to my students in class I always say truths are separate from one another. And in this lifetime, we need to find ways to have our truths compromised. Everyone's own sense of truth was conflicted with each other's around the time of 9/11. Everyone's interpretations of either the Bible or the Quran; at the moment when they're sitting there with the text, they think, this text in front of me is the truth, and I will follow that truth to the end. And I thought "If that is truth, then I don't think I can follow it." I had to go out on this journey to discover what that is, and by the end of it I found it was something personal. The closest I could get to truth was what I was writing in my poems. Writing this book is the most truthful I've been in the last ten years. The entire book is not about sex or intimacy: it's about the interplay between truth and g*d, or truth and g*d in relationship to what intimacy is—our relationships to one another. In regard to truth, it becomes eventually a personal interpretation, almost on the same level as prayer. Everyone's relationship to it is singular, internal and different from another's.
Rail: William Butler Yeats wrote in "The Second Coming":
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Elissa Gootman wrote in the New York Times:
As a teenager, [Chang] was drawn to literature because, unlike in math class, there was no right or wrong answer. That sensibility, she says, too often falls away.
Yet you asked and asserted in "Love,"
Does truth matter
When it's floating face up or face down?
The answer to this makes all the difference.
The whine du jour among the punditcracy is the lament that young people today have no moral compasses, that they practice "moral relativism." The implication, one suspects, is that this phenomenon is wider spread, and therefore more of us should feel guilty. What is it about our times that make people fearful of judgment and commitment?
Chang: When I was speaking to Elissa Gootman, she was talking to me about the object of poetry: how do we get people to read poetry when they're not necessarily interested in it? Maybe we learned poetry as young children, but as we get older and older we seem to feel like we have to be extraordinarily educated to take in a poem, or we have to be an intellectual, or an academic to approach the page. A lot of my project as Poet Laureate is to try to reach children at a very young age, to teach them that there's no sense of right and wrong when it comes to the word, that whatever interpretation and even our baggage that we bring to the page, is alright; whatever baggage we have with our silence and with words, it's okay to read the poem as you know it. In going back to the sense of truth, it's our own personal truths that we apply to the truth of what the poet is expressing on the page. It's the story of the poem and the reader. There are these lovely confluences of experiences where I, the poet, get to imagine something and create it on the page. Then there's answer on the other side from the reader, and I love that sense as a young child that I didn't have to give the answer "2046" as the answer to the math question. It could create anything I wanted, and it was ultimately alright, and I wouldn't be pointed out in class, if it was wrong, for giving that answer.
In terms of a moral compass, at Sarah Lawrence it's the complete opposite of that. I've created a class called the Poet as World Citizen, and in that class we take responsibility as poets. Again this has really been my experience as a poet, as Poet Laureate, as a writer. I wanted to bring to class [the perspective that] we are morally responsible for ourselves and others outside of ourselves. I never thought that my students or young people were laughing them off, I never thought that ever in all my years of teaching. They are troubled by what their parents have taught them; they are constantly questioning whether these sets of rules are things they have to abide by; they are questioning that, and that's when the inner turmoil starts happening. There's a tremendous amount of sensitivity, working through their sense of morality and ultimately how that works out in their larger social situations and closeness to being on their own. They are [dealing with issues of] sobriety, equality, intimacy, family, depression. There are so many things that they are experiencing; I think morality is probably on top of the list where they are trying to work out who they are and what they believe in, and I see it coming through on the page—what they care to write about. Right now, we are doing community work, applying our knowledge with the tools that we've gained as poets, going to public schools, teaching young people in underserved communities.
In answer to your question about morality, I disagree with the pundits. Maybe externally—on the outside—it might seem they are lacking, but internally they are fighting as hard as they can to establish who they are as far as morals.
Rail: In "Foraging and Dodging," you wrote:
as she drove away, the bend
in the road coming into her
field of vision, as if life
loved her back, as if
she had a chance.
H.L. Mencken wrote:
I usually lie to women. They expect it, and it is pleasant to watch them try to detect it. They seldom succeed. Women have a hard time in this world. Telling the truth would be too cruel.
Of Gods and Strangers seems to be written in a feminine voice, and from a female point of view. First, what do you suppose, expect or intend that your female readers will "get" from Gods that male readers will miss, or simply not understand? And second, what guidance would you give to male readers?
Chang: Yes, the book is written in a predominantly female voice. Much of that has to do with having the connection with this powerful figure, the Empress Dowager and finding strength in her to pull myself up again.
I need to tell the story about "Foraging and Dodging." I met a young woman at a writer's residency whom I didn't know very well; she herself was a celebrated poet. One day she couldn't write, so she knocked on my door and asked if we could take a walk, and I was up for a break. And again going to the sense of Of Gods and Strangers—and I guess this is what male readers can take away from it—many people start off as strangers and get to know each other in time. Through conversation she revealed that her mother was killed by the hands of her stepfather, and that was incredibly tragic. That goes back to the entire time that she was with her mother; her mother was always searching for love, so much so that she ran toward the wrong men, and toward the end of her life she was driving—she was driving toward her own death, as if death was love. Death is not love and love is not death. And it was as if these two things were confused with each other.
And again going back to the truth, any poet is always trying to reach for the ultimate truth. What ultimate truth I am trying to reach for as I write that images? It seems to go back to the light at the end of the tunnel. She's trying to reach the light because she thinks: Here is my love, but actually there is death. If there is a very human story meant for men and women about the dangers of intimacy, again going back to the title Of Gods and Strangers, because as you meet a stranger, anything can happen. I approach you, you're a stranger to me, we can have a wonderful connection, something great can happen from that or we can continue down the path where anything can happen, because people are so vulnerable. They can be overpowered by [the need] to be loved.
Rail: In "To Empress: By Day," the Soldier says:
I have seen you in nightmares, with men on leashes.
Each time I asked you to get on your knees
you wore a half smile punching a lipstick mark
on my collar. Today I conquered a nation for you…
Of course, Gods is interwoven with allusive, subliminal and carnal eroticism. Are you able to discuss this? If so please do. If not, can you speculate as to why so many serious poets are unable—or wish not—to discuss this subject? Is one of poetry's main functions to preserve mystery through inference and ambiguity? In this regard, is poetry like religion?
Chang: Poetry is like religion in that we have to have a very quiet space to concentrate, to pray. I think that this idea of carnal pleasure or sex is not approached because when I talk to other poets there's a difficulty in expressing it in a way that will not seem common. It's difficult for people to write poetry about love. People stay away from it because they want to express it in a way that's different from all other poems of love written throughout history. Also because poetry did go through a phase when there was a tremendous amount of erotic poetry where people were discovering their bodies, if we can go back to someone like Anne Sexton, who wrote about the body all the time, to an excessive degree. She wrote about childbirth and menstruation to the point where people said: Hey, that's a little bit too stark for me.
And when we are differentiating between male and female—we were talking about this before when I was walking into the space where I was talking about either carnal pleasure or carnal connection. I felt that this is something that is so prevalent in my life, the exploration of truth through body, through understanding somebody else, that I couldn't necessarily keep it out of the book. How it was ultimately going to be connected to the Empress Dowager or to poems about Haiti or Ethiopia, I had no idea, but the job of the poet is not to question too much. I couldn't ask myself as I was making the poem: How will I fit this into the larger project of my book?
That's a little too logical and scientific, fitting into the categories of right and wrong that we were talking about before. I couldn't do that, so I let the word and the moment and the page take over what it was that I was seeking and going through at the moment. Then came poems like the excerpt you just read or the poem "Still Life" and other poems that run throughout the book that explore not only the body, but the exploration of the Other. To maintain mystery, you try to explore the mystery of who the Other is. Do they have a name, a face, a shape? I think there is mystery in these particular poems because in the Other or the Beloved we never fully understand who s/he is. In the excerpt you read it's a he, but it doesn't really matter. It seems like the seeker is really trying to go as far as possible to try to understand the Other, and then the impulses of the self. In the passage you just read, there's a power struggle happening and it has made me do things—and who hasn't gone through this in a love relationship, where they feel that the Other has such a strong hold on them in terms of power that even the person in power submits? The sense of power and submission is also a large theme that runs through the book. It's not only about pleasure or carnal knowledge; it's all about all these other things that surround it.
Rail: In "Bridge Through My Window," Audre Lorde wrote:
Joined our bodies have passage into one
Without a merging
As this slim necklace anchored into night.
And while the we conspires to make secret its two eyes
We search each other's shore for some crossing home.
In "Tiny Souls," you write
I believe this hope
is a table I dance on.
Under what circumstances may one dance on a table? What was your objective in using this metaphor? What is hope, if not "erotic," as Lorde defined eroticism – that is, as living?
Chang: When I was describing hope at the moment and dancing on a table, I was thinking about [poet] Ilya Kaminsky's Dancing in Odessa—it came out in 2004. It was a big sensation at the time, and there were many atrocities happening throughout the book, and there was a lot of dance happening, with dance equating to hope. In the third section of Gods, which is called "Territory," I was focusing on many of the events that were happening in the world. At the same time, I was trying to understand the world I was living in: I was both running to and away from it, and when I was thinking about hope I had to think of it as something solid that I could attach myself to. There were all these billboards and slogans, and all of the things that we were going through during these past ten years, and a new president. During the time that Obama was giving all those speeches, you'll remember two of his big words were "hope" and "change," and we were attaching ourselves to those words so much so that I couldn't help but have those words appear in my poems over and over again. I needed to have a symbol of him as a human being to attach myself to, otherwise I would feel completely hopeless about that period of time because there was nothing else in my world to be hopeful about during that period of time.
Rail: In "Succession," you wrote:
I am channeling a beginning but something has to end first.
Was there wind beyond? What floated on that current?
There's a cave inside me. An entry with a clear opening
but no hinges. You must walk into it without fear of losing.
The bats hang in their winged houses, icicles in their clear shapes
dripping downward. If you go inside it requires patience.
You are quoted as saying, "The ultimate goal is to break down the wall between people and poetry. Somewhere along the way, we have felt intimidated by it, or we have felt we have to be well-educated in order to be able to access it or walk into that world." Yet, to be honest, Gods has many passages that seem subtle and inscrutable. How should one approach and navigate complex, visionary poetry?
Chang: There is so much actually happening in the poet's mind that might be completely theirs. You have to be able to translate it in the sense that the other person, who is the reader, who is the audience, can get something from it. You want everything to have a clear opening. When a poet sits down to write, in their mind's eye, they're saying: This is completely clear. I think that this poem is clear to everyone else outside of me. When I say "something has to end first in order for something else to begin"—if we focused on that one line—that really required patience to do; it's just like life, just like death—something has to end first. Having gone through the anniversary of 9/11, thinking about Ground Zero and that site, and what we went through as a nation, as a people: that entire life—that collective life—perished. We didn't know what to do with ourselves after that… emotionally. It took these past ten years to process so much as a people, individually and collectively, but something perished. Because of that there's this opportunity to start anew, to start fresh.
When I write poems like "Succession," it might seem like I'm talking about something that is very personal to me. But I am talking about something you can see in two different ways, like a coin. One seems like a personal experience—I'm talking about the stranger, and [the other is] that of the collective. In "Succession," I am looking at the collective experience, but it takes patience. Adults have said to me: This is really difficult. Then I ask: Can you tell me what you think these lines are about?—and there is no wrong. As soon as they hear that there is no wrong, all their arms just shoot up, and they tell me what the poem is about. I think poems are actually pretty open and we have to—as adults—say: Whatever it is that I am thinking about the poem is right. And there is no other greater mystery beyond the one that I want to associate with this poem. That I have full access to this poem... I'm at the clear opening. [As a poet,] I actually want to be found, I actually want that person to look for me with a light and find me there, "with my coal face."
Rail: In "Swimming," Mao Zedong wrote:
Today I have a lot of time
Here on the river the Master said:
Dying – going into the past – is like a river flowing.
In "Toward Divinity," you wrote:
When I grow up
I'll put my hands in the air and breathe
heavenward and just like that I'll be free.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang was famous as a book burner (indeed, his Chancellor Li Si ordered that anyone tianxi—"under heaven," must deliver books for burning) and murderer of scholars (460), although Mao, a voracious reader and poet, would later brag that he had surpassed Qin "one hundredfold," having killed an estimated 46,000 intellectuals. Yet Yuefu (the folk music bureau) emerged during the Qin dynasty. Why do critical and creative thinking—and the pursuit of knowledge—so frequently seem to be at risk at the hands of those in power?
Chang: In terms of talking about China, we think about the Cultural Revolution. I also think about Turkey and the poet Nazim Hikmet. Governments are really threatened by individual thought, so when we think about creativity, it's outside the status quo, and outside a structure of thought. Governments have always wanted the common man to connect himself back to this superstructure so we can function together harmoniously. An independent or creative thinker threatens that. I don't want to oversimplify: the burning of books is to destroy permanently individual thought. Having worked closely with an organization such as PEN and being involved with poets, especially in the anthology I've edited, there were a number of poets who have gone missing. I would like to think that doesn't really happen in this country, that there's not as much of a threat. In this country, unfortunately, we are suffering from the opposite. [Here, poets would] be really grateful if people would pick up a book and read a poem, let alone [think] that poetry is a threat. There are very few poems that have threatened our current government or have threatened a group of people so that "we" want to delete or destroy this text because it's threatening to us, and that exactly is what my first poem is talking about, "The Unfinished Book of Mortals." In the book there's a text and it's the book's history, and it's being written in real time, and it's really threatening, as though it was in my dreams, meaning that I wish this would happen in the U.S.—that a text or a book would be so important that it would be documented in this way, that it would be destroyed, that it would be burned, that people would be searching for it, that people would be typing it into the night and would participate in the book.
I wanted to write a book of our times, really a "Book of Time." That's why the book is unfinished. I'm not really quite sure what the next chapter will be. It was inspired by W.S. Merwin's "Unfinished Book of Kings." I had to be away from New York to write it.
Rail: In "Author's Notes on Imaginary Poems," you write:
6. If this is my last letter, perhaps it is not important to write it beautifully, but strangely.
You read publicly. As an audience member at poetry readings, I am often frustrated by not being able to follow the thread in the same way I am able to do with text, which enables rereading and contemplation. Is the most we can expect when listening to performed poetry to experience an emotional effect only? Is truth beauty?
Chang: After attending many poetry readings of friends, peers, colleagues and my students, with every poem I hear, I always take something away from it, even the most obscure of poems. If one has a love for words, even the inflection in someone's voice, I am always able to take something away from it: it's never a complete loss. Even with incredibly long readings, there's always something. With live readings, it's misleading because every one thinks they are supposed to get everything out of that set of experiences. Hopefully, the poet intrigues the audience member to want to investigate further and not dismiss a poem or poet entirely, because that would be heartbreaking. Also, it's very very fast, with Twitter and Facebook. If you don't get it in one line, forget it. You are not only competing with other poets; you are also competing with the person who is sitting in the audience holding an iPhone in their hand. So in this time—in 2011, there are so many things to compete with. [With] live readings one hopes the audience member will want to learn more.
I need to read a poem over and over to experience the joy of reading a poem. Even for a poet, it's not in just one setting: I have to use my ears in the oral tradition. There are so many ways to enter into a poem. I almost always buy a person's book, because I think, hmm, I love what they're saying, but I didn't get the entire thing, but I want to, I really want to.
Truth can be beautiful, but much of the time it can be dangerous, ugly and a source of conflict. We are living out this battle of truth: that's what this is all about here. We are all interpreting truth. So we are in the battle of truth where no one is letting go. I hope in the future for the ultimate truth, which will be beautiful if someone lets go and says: It's okay for you to have your truth and it's okay for me to have my truth. We don't even have to meet in the middle. But we can just we can just allow each to have that truth and that's fine.
Rail: Andrew Hudgins wrote in "Villanelle with a Refrain from the Wall Street Journal" in The Atlantic:
Your twenties, thirties, forties, you're a bull—
if you think of life as something like the Dow.
Though death of course is unavoidable…
You wrote, in "Infinite and Plausible":
I wander the rooms,
Tearing curtains apart from their windows
Separating material from light.
I sometimes think we can't remember yesterday and can't imagine tomorrow. What's ahead for Tina Chang?
Chang: What's running through my mind lately is that I've met so many wonderful poets whose life's work is to be a brilliant poet and I would benefit to the end of my life from reading their books. And then there are other people like myself who cannot be content just being a poet. That's why I took on the job of Poet Laureate, which I love so much. I hope that for my future I am still doing the kind of work I am doing right now, facilitating literacy for children. Whatever I am doing, I hope I am slightly uncomfortable, which means I am always changing. My hope is to be constantly changing and be also to be aware of the changes I am going through.