The problem with poets is that they live in an alternative universe. You go to their apartment, and it’s not like your home at all: the books are all different (“Poets in their Youth” or the Crab Orchard Review on the shelves) and the main room is uncluttered like the mind of someone who actually thinks for a living.
All the furniture is off-white — and intentionally off-white, not off-white because someone keeps putting his mud-covered feet up on the upholstery.
The whole thing is intimidating.
But poets are also disarming. Sensing your discomfort, they toss out strings of words that wrap around your shoulder and draw you in, like a priest consoling a mourner. A poet takes the voluminous noise of our frenzied, horrifying daily existence and pluck out the one strand of clarity that makes it all make sense.
New Brooklyn laureate Tina Chang, 40, is just such a poet, as we learned in this exclusive interview with Gersh Kuntzman, senior reporter on our poet laureate beat:
Gersh Kuntzman: Congratulations on being the new poet laureate. Now, why should we care?
Tina Chang: Adrienne Rich once said that poetry is locked in the schools and universities and isn’t getting out to the people. But we need to get poetry back to the way it was in Walt Whitman’s day. He was the most well-known poet and he wrote of the masses for the masses.
GK: Yeah, but that was before there was TV. Of course, the main goal of being the poet laureate, of course, is to penetrate communities and make poetry accessible, like your predecessor, Ken Siegelman. How will you do that?
TC: The first step is to convince students that poetry is fun.
GK: How? Will you show up in a cape?
TC: No. It’s all about group collaboration and doing exercises that get them writing and speaking to each other. Poetry isn’t secretive and quiet. Just as they are involved with each other on the soccer field or when they’re gossiping, you have to get them to engage with each other on poetry. And then you get them writing it.
GK: It’s a challenge. I went into my daughter’s first-grade class and tried to interest the kids in poetry by reading “Ozymandias.” You know that poem? It’s about how we’re all going to die and how nothing we create is going to last.
TC: It’s a great poem.
GK: Yeah, it’s a great poem — but not for first graders! I probably should have gone with something a bit easier. I hear that kids love “Yellow Submarine.”
TC: You got excited because poetry can address the biggest themes of life: life, death, love, loss.
GK: Yeah, but who wants to address big issues like those? We spend most of our time trying not to think about such things.
TC: Death is really frightening, yes. It makes us think about our mortality.
GK: There’s Ozymandias again.
TC: But poetry is not about death, but the feelings that death evokes. And that’s what comforts people who read poetry. They see how the poet related to the same experience they’re undergoing. That’s how poetry found me. I used to go the library every day after school and I stumbled into the stacks and read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I thought it was so strange: “Let us go there, you and I, when evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table.” I thought that I would like to do that. I was probably 10.
GK: T.S. Eliot, huh? When I went to the library at that age, I was always looking up dirty words in the dictionary. Still do.
TC: One of my first initiatives will be to set up a poetry Web site. It will have a map of Brooklyn so that you can see a historical connection between poems and the poet and where it was written. And then we’ll reach out to people with live poetry performances. The key will be getting people to interact with poetry even if they would never read a book of poetry. People need to experience poetry as they walk down the street. We can’t excite people about poetry the same old way. We have the iPad now.
GK: You need a Tina Chang app. So what is the ultimate Brooklyn poem?
TC: “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” by Whitman.
GK: Have you written a Brooklyn poem?
TC: I do have one called “Oranges” [it’s actually called “Commentary on Orange”]. It’s about how you can go all over the world to find yourself, but when the narrator looks out her window and sees the Williamsburgh Savings Bank clocktower and sees her backyard, she realizes that her home is right where she started.
GK: What’s the most poetic spot in Brooklyn?
TC: I like the blue bridge between Park Slope an Carroll Gardens on the Gowanus Canal. It’s a very romantic spot. My fiance and I used to go to that bridge and share a meal.
GK: The Gowanus Canal?
TC: We think so. I say, “Can you smell that?” And he said, “I love that smell.” It represents an old Brooklyn that we both love. I think it’s romantic.
GK: Now you know why poetry doesn’t always connect with people. What’s your least romantic spot?
TC: Waiting for the R at Atlantic Avenue.
GK: Do you consider yourself a poet first and a human being second?
TC: No. I consider myself a human first. You have to be a human being to first experience the emotion and then express it as a poet. Are you a journalist first, or a father, or a husband or a human being?
GK: I don’t know, but I’m definitely not a human being. Probably a newspaperman first.
TC: One of my favorite poets is Jack Gilbert, who said that he doesn’t farm his heart for material. I’m the same way. I don’t have an experience and think, “This would be a wonderful poem.” Sometimes, the poem doesn’t come until 10 years later. With journalism, it’s so fast paced because you’re trying to catch up to the moment and do things in a timely fashion or it’s past. But with poetry, you’re trying to record a moment to make it permanent. We have to process it fully.
GK: But don’t you want to beat other poets to the big story?
TC: There’s nothing to beat. We’re all thinking about such different things. My friend is coming out with a book called “Life on Mars” about feeling like an alien in one’s own life. And my new book, “Gods and Strangers,” is about intimacy in public and private. That’s the beautiful thing about poetry — it’s not a race to process emotions.
GK: But the poem that you read at the Armory last week was about Haiti. Isn’t that exactly when poetry can be the most effective, when events are so enormous that you need the poet’s eye to pull out one strand? A single picture can be more powerful than an entire book about Haiti.
TC: After the poem came out, I got an e-mail from a surgeon in Haiti who said my poem really captured the feelings of the people there. I thanked him for being in Haiti and doing the work he did. But it made me think: who is really doing the work — the poet who is able to express in a few words what is happening in our time or the surgeon who is actually helping people? He thought the poet was more important. But as a poet, I don’t know. We don’t have a sense of self-importance. We’re humble people. You have to be; there’s no promise of financial return or glory.
GK: If you write the national anthem, that’s some major glory.
TC: If you’re living for that, there’s not a lot of satisfaction possible.