2017 Keynote: TINA CHANG

“Tina Chang’s poems perform the ancient tasks of remembrance, recovery, and praise. This work seeks to account for a life in the context of the myths, cultural and familial, that both nurture and threaten that very life and the voice that might sing it into legend. This is a poetry of amazing lushness, melancholy and affirmation.” —Li-Young Lee

Tina Chang is an American poet, teacher, and editor. In 2010, she was the first woman to be named Poet Laureate of Brooklyn. She is the author of two poetry collections published by Four Way Books: Of Gods & Strangers (2011), and Half-Lit Houses (2004), which was a finalist for the 2005 Asian American Literary Award. In a review of Half-Lit Houses, Rain Taxi wrote: “Chang’s poems rescue the inexpressible, preserve vibrant domestic histories, articulate the very slowness of loss, and answer the chilling aftermath of grief with forms of bliss.”

She is the co-editor of the seminal anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond (W.W. Norton, 2008), which was hailed as, “One of the 10 greatest international anthologies, a timeless resource” by the Academy of American Poets, and was praised by the Financial Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Poets & Writers and many other periodicals. Of the anthology, poet Carolyn Forché said, “Read Language for a New Century as you would a field guide to the human condition in our time, a poetic survival manual.” Chang’s own work has been published in The New York Times and Ploughshares among others, and has been featured in the anthologies Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation and Identity Lessons: Contemporary Writing About Learning to Be American (Penguin Books).

Chang is the recipient of awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Academy of American Poets, Poets & Writers, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and the Van Lier Foundation among others. In 2011, she was awarded The Women of Excellence Award for her outreach and literary impact on the Brooklyn community. In 2014, Brooklyn Magazine named Chang one of the 100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture. Her work often brings her to international audiences in China, Singapore, Hong Kong, among many other parts of the world. She has read for ambassadors, mayors, international politicians, and has traveled on behalf of the US Embassy for public diplomacy speaking engagements under the auspices of the US Department of State to illuminate her poetic process and to share her work.

In her role as Brooklyn Poet Laureate, Chang’s mission has been to create larger audiences for poetry through youth education and literary programming. Her poet laureate initiatives involve nurturing underserved areas of Brooklyn and improving literacy while bridging dialogue between those of different cultures. Her public outreach includes works with public and private schools, non-profit organizations, and philanthropic initiatives; her students have ranged from pre-school age through post-graduate and beyond. She has helped to train and nurture college-age students through collaboration with the Community-Word Project, a New York City based arts-in-education organization that inspires children in underserved communities to read, interpret, and respond to their world, and to become active citizens through collaborative arts residencies and teacher training programs.

A passionate teacher, she’s created many opportunities to bridge the distance between her students and the public. She spearheaded the first Race & Poetry Symposium at Sarah Lawrence College, which brought together writers of Iranian, Indian, Korean, and African descent to discuss issues of race, culture, and identity in poetry. Along with Tracy K. Smith, Chang also co-founded an annual collaborative reading series between the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Cave Canem, which showcased both established and emerging Asian American and African American writers. Most recently, Chang co-organized along with NY State Poet Laureate Marie Howe The New York City Poetry Rally in response to racial injustice where poets publicly shared poems, which spoke to oppression and brutality as much as they did to unity and compassion. These events have all been the first of their kind, born from the desire to listen actively to the community’s needs, finding venues for open conversation, where poetry can find voice and where vision grows.

Born in Oklahoma to Chinese immigrants, Chang was a year old when the family moved to New York City; not long after she and her brother were sent to live in Taiwan with relatives for two years. “I started questioning even at a very young age, well, what is language?” she said. “What is the role of words?” In an interview given after 9-11, Chang said, “When pondering my identity as an American poet, it is more difficult than ever to place geographic restrictions on my influences and aesthetics…. Perhaps to acknowledge an American Poetry is to acknowledge the most human and fragile self living in and among a global community. The idea of the porous nature of boundaries (geographic, cultural, metaphoric) evades and invades my imagination. In short, I am not alone in the word.”

Tina Chang received her MFA in poetry from Columbia University. She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and she is also a member of the international writing faculty at the City University of Hong Kong. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.