Tina Chang '91 is now Poet Laureate of Brooklyn. She is the co-editor of the anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond.
Alumna returns as Poet Laureate of BrooklynTweet
Tina Chang can vividly recall the day her poetry professor called her into his office.
“I thought I was in trouble,” Chang ‘91 said. “I thought maybe I wrote something offensive.”
Her professor, the late Arthur Clements, relieved Chang’s fears when he told her that she had a special talent, and that she should one day consider becoming a poet.
Genuinely shocked and flattered, Chang had never considered such a career path up to that point.
“I didn’t know then where the love of poetry would bring me,” she said.
This happened more than 20 years ago, when Chang was an undergraduate English major at Binghamton University. Now she is the Poet Laureate of Brooklyn, and will return to Binghamton at 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 5, to do a reading in the Engineering Building auditorium of her work as part of the Binghamton Center for Writers Spring Readers’ Series. (More information about the event can be found under the Creative Writing tab at http://binghamton.edu/english.) Her first book, a collection of poems titled Half-Lit Houses, was published in 2004.
As an undergraduate, little did Chang know that poetry would one day become a most beloved profession. She faced the same doubts and uncertainty that is common to a lot of English majors.
“I thought, ‘What could I do at this point forward with my degree?’ So when I graduated I hopped on a plane and traveled,” Chang said. “For me, graduating meant physical and emotional exploration.”
Chang landed in Taiwan, where she lived for two years as a child, and for a year taught English as a second language in the Overseas Core of the YMCA (OSCY).
Though Chang’s early writings did not result in fully developed poems, she was always aware that writing and poetic expression was a part of her.
“When I traveled to Asia, I was always writing. I took notes, I wrote in my journal and I jotted down bits of my day,” Chang said. “Those notes eventually shaped themselves into poems that wound up in my first book.” In addition to Taiwan, Chang has traveled to many other places, including Costa Rica, London, Tunisia, Spain, Singapore and Malaysia, among others.
After returning to the United States, Chang took on a string of jobs in public relations, advertising and publishing and served as administrative assistant in many companies in Manhattan.
Though the jobs supported her, it was teaching to which she wanted to return. The encouragement from Binghamton professors to pursue her poetic talents served as a significant influence, Chang said. These experiences coalesced into a vision Chang created to pursue teaching, writing poetry and helping others to develop their poetic talents.
“Throughout my life I’ve always been led by one question: ‘What makes you happy?’ If you follow the answer to that question, somehow your life will always lead up to where you want it to be,” she said.
Chang has developed a life of not only writing poetry, but of encouraging the reading and writing of poetry. This mission begins in Chang’s own neighborhood, Brooklyn, where she is poet laureate.
Chang’s husband, Claude de Castro, was the first to suggest that she apply for the position. At first Chang decided not to, but reconsidered when a member of the judging committee suggested that she apply. Encouraged yet again, Chang took the opportunity.
“Once I began writing the letter of application I realized how passionate I was about my community,” Chang said.
Many people, Chang said, believe that poetry is an esoteric subject, privy only to intellectuals who have abundant leisure time to daydream by an open window. It is this misconception Chang wishes to address, beginning with Brooklyn’s schools.
“I’m trying to enter into middle schools. I want to get emerging and established poets to visit them for a day,” Chang said. “It takes a level of passion to really get the word out there to the communities and to allow poetry to enter their lives.”
The passion Chang has to help others express their poetic talents also manifests on an international level. Chang is co-editor of the anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Chang wanted to shed light on the thoughts and sentiments of those who live in a tumultuous part of the world.
“The anthology is a marker of our time, of the people,” she said. “It is a book of peace. I wondered about the voices coming from that part of the world. I wanted to find a connection between myself and artists in these regions.”
Chang currently teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, located in Bronxville. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, son Roman and daughter Juliette. Her latest book, Of Gods and Strangers, is forthcoming this fall.
Chang’s latest project involves creating a community for writers via the Web. The website will be dedicated to bringing poetry to Brooklyn poets, both discovered and undiscovered, she said.
“People tend to think of poetry as a lofty art, but once it becomes a part of your life you have to approach it as you would an office job: with discipline and deep dedication,” she said. “You must go to it each day and sit and wait for inspiration to come.”