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Community Centers: Poetic Exposure

Sophia Kelly MFA '10

I am always trying to gather people together in the name of writing,” says poetry faculty member Tina Chang. And as the poet laureate of Brooklyn—appointed in January by borough president Marty Markowitz—she has a whole new way to reach out to both poetry lovers and people who have never taken an interest in the subject.

Poet laureate of Brooklyn is an unpaid, honorary title with no specific duties. But Chang says the lack of explicit responsibilities allows her to be creative in how she proceeds as poetry’s ambassador to the borough.

“Whenever there is an important occasion—a wedding, graduation, or funeral—people seek out poetry to summarize their deepest emotions. But poetry can be important in our daily lives as well. It can help us deal with all the mundane struggles,” she says.

As poet laureate, she is working with Groundswell, a community-based organization that paints murals in underserved neighborhoods, to incorporate poetry into public artwork. “I’ve been thinking about how to reach people who say, ‘I don’t read poetry,’ and I realized that often it’s about exposure. If poems or lines are presented in a way that people find digestible, they won’t be so intimidated.”

She plans to build a Web site featuring a dozen Brooklyn-based poets, as well as videos and audio pieces of local residents reciting poetry. And an educational outreach program will match local poets to middle schools, where they will teach writing workshops and help organize public readings of the resulting poems.

In the spring, Chang did a trial run at Ronald Edmund Middle School in Fort Greene, arranging a student reading at Greenlight Bookstore. “They began to communicate and empathize with each other. When the students understand that they share the same feelings, the community doesn’t feel so fractured.”

Of course, finding funding for these projects is one of the challenges of having no budget. But Chang is an optimist, and says she often finds that when there is no money, real ingenuity emerges.

One of the reasons Chang was selected for the honorary position is because of her commitment to building cultural understanding through poetry. She co-founded the African American – Asian American Reading Series with her friend and fellow poet Tracy K. Smith. The series, which is still going strong after six years, explores the commonalities between the two groups.

Chang also co-edited Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond—a project that required her to read more than a thousand poems from around the world. “The concepts of identity, culture, and race started many passionate discussions among the editors and have definitely permeated my own work,” Chang says. Her new book, Of Gods & Strangers, will be published next year by Four Way Books.

Poetry can be important in our daily lives as well. It can help us deal with all the mundane struggles.

Chang moved to Park Slope about 10 years ago, and has watched the neighborhood change from a primarily Latino community to a more gentrified, upper middle class haven for young marrieds with children. “This neighborhood welcomed me and saw my artistic coming of age. It’s the place where I developed as a poet.”

The community has witnessed not just the birth of her first book, but the birth of her first child as well. As a new mother, teacher, and poet laureate, Chang admits that finding time to write can be challenging. “Before I had months and months. Now I have pockets of time here and there. But because I know the time is limited, I’m probably even more disciplined than I was before.”

Despite the fact that she has no budget and earns no salary, Chang is enthusiastic about her tenure as Brooklyn’s poet laureate. “There are some poet laureates you hear about and some you don’t. Nothing is required, so it’s up to them,” Chang explains. Thanks to her energy and vision, it seems likely that people will hear a lot more from Chang before she leaves the post.

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Tina Chang, poetry’s ambassador to Brooklyn