Tina Chang was raised in New York City. She is the first woman to be named poet laureate of Brooklyn and is the author of three collections of poetry: Hybrida (2019), Of Gods & Strangers (2011), and Half-Lit Houses (2004). She is also the co-editor of the W. W. Norton anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (2008). She 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. Chang teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and is also a member of the international writing faculty at the City University of Hong Kong.
Chang’s most recent poetry collection, Hybrida, is a deep exploration of race, motherhood, and myth. Chang pursues these topics with a reverence for form, using both traditional and hybrid poetic structures to find shapes for utterances of grief and love that rest just beyond our language. This poetry collection is urgent, dynamic, and undeterred by our history and our failures in its pursuit of meaning.
TQ: It's hard for me to know where to begin. There are so many lovely aspects to this collection of poems— the interaction of history and the current sociopolitical moment, the rupture of language and myth, the complex registers of emotion. That being said, perhaps the best (and most obvious) place to start would be with the title, Hybrida. How did the title of this collection come to you?
Chang: I had written a majority of the book without a title. I had been building the book poem by poem, and I began to notice themes rise to the surface. I felt a tug toward the inherent subjects at work, which were the struggles of a mother raising mixed-race children. For me, many of the poems existed in a dreamscape where fairytale fused with memory, journalism, and visual art. I tried not to control too overtly the direction where the book was headed, but I noticed the hybrid forms that took hold (and by “hybrid,” I mean poetry that didn’t fit into traditional poetic forms). I searched for alternate vessels to hold the shape of my longing.
Hybrida speaks to the protection and mothering of two young children of mixed race. Though the ways in which they walk through the world could not be assumed or consumed by me, I existed alongside them as witness and speaker. This mixing and remixing of forms allowed for a rupturing of previous beliefs to lead me to a newfound order to understand my children. I was no longer the same self or the person I was before they arrived; hybridity of forms allowed an openness to embrace new ideas. The material spread out into other, less rigid vessels that could contain these ideas, such as zuihitsu, prose poems, essay, ekphrastic poems. These forms felt more organic to the content of mixed race. The fusion of subject matter and the visual representation of those concerns came together to gesture to the root/origin of hybrid, which is the Latin word hybrida.
TQ: Since myth and history are significant motifs in Hybrida, can you talk about the importance of engaging with myth and history for people living in the present moment? I’m especially thinking of the lines from “Milk”: “After the old stories / are finished, my son says, The story, again. I open / the book.” How would you say myth, history, and the current social moment are in discourse in this collection?
Chang: In the poem titled “Hybrida: A Zuihistu,” the speaker says, “The story we are living now is an ancient one. It has been lived before but feels new in this present existence. Open the books. This already happened.” Myth is our magnified story. History is the story told and retold. I believe our current social moment utters and claims these stories as our own, but if we look backward much of what we feel as a present pain in our known, lived bodies has already occurred. I think it’s vital for us as a species to believe our narratives are original, to even feel immortality while relaying these narratives. That originality or vitality keeps us alive, creates an urge for our survival because it seems essential that our story must go on.
I’ve always been invested in myth since I first viewed the body of Christ when I was a young girl sitting in Sunday mass. I was fascinated by Christ’s body, the hurt that scarred him, and I was invested in the story that played itself out on his physical and spiritual presence. I was interested in the portrayal of the immaculate conception and the improbability of Christ’s arrival. His story seemed to defy all logic and that is my first memory of myth, a tale that lived outside me but also spoke to me. I believe we are living out these recurring themes of love, devotion, betrayal, death in a continuous cycle. Through myth and history, we set the stage for a demonstration of our belief systems and morality through recognizable symbols. While I was writing Hybrida, I was writing through all of these veils, and myth helped me to write about difficult subject matter without falling into an interpretive or explanatory mode. Myth opens up dialogue, as any reader can enter into the conversation with their own way of seeing and even confronting symbols.
TQ: The poems at the beginning of the book ground readers in what I recognize as our own racist, violent social landscape. In “He, Pronoun,” you seem to implicate the ways that the broader media reproduces the people—the black bodies—victims of racially charged violence:
but present. He is a word grown up right
and some claim he is journalism, media
around me, so much light filtered through
so much video of him, I shut it out,
the body shot through
Chang: As my son Roman grew from infancy to boyhood, I could see him begin to process the racial structure in which he was a part. Media had a great deal to do with his ideas. I realized how much I kept from him. I was more invested in what I wanted to hide than what I wanted to reveal, and I realized it was due to the media portrayal of black bodies as victims. It felt often that the portraits were memorials rather than celebrations of black lives. It was true as well that the calling out of such violence was important, to acknowledge the brutal structures in which we are all a part. Each of us is participating in this system, and the first poem, “He, Pronoun,” called out to the young black male/boy experience specifically and to the impact that media has on the active imagination of the mother. It fortified a fear in her, and this fear was also born from her immense love. As she acknowledges and interprets the portrayal of history via television and now social media, she moves deeper and deeper into the instinctive space of protecting her son.
TQ: So much of Hybrida is about motherhood and mothering mixed race children in America. In the poem “Hybrida: A Zuihitsu,” you write the following lines:
By raising a black boy, do I understand what it means to live as a black boy?
How do I speak of his existence without appropriating his existence?
I return to the language of mothers.
And later in the poem:
I sometimes try not to register his pain. When I do I often find
To me, these lines (and other places in the poem) seem to admit the failure of language to bear such an existence; and the speaker implicates herself by admitting that sometimes “his pain” is too much. Could you talk about the failures of empathy (if you think empathy can fail) and the boundaries of language? The zuihitsu seems to be such a fitting form to discuss these nuances.
Chang: Empathy implies sharing and understanding feelings. I think this is where I encountered problems with empathy. I could do my best to understand what it is like living in my son’s or my daughter’s body, but could I share in it? I could will myself to share in the communal space of what they wish to tell me, but I couldn’t delve into the personal space that is sacredly their own. That is a realm they have the right to occupy without me commandeering it or trying to own it. In that way, I thought a great deal about appropriation and did my best to steer clear of claiming identity or trying to make assumptions about racially specific experiences. I think that is the difficulty, too, of being a mother. I naturally feel inclined to want to sit side by side with my children to take part in their emotions, ranging from elation to isolation to pure pain, but I cannot claim ownership of that pain. Writing the book made me say to myself, “Back up.” I delved into poetic forms that helped me to open up, to write from a place of fragmentation, disjunction, fracture, collage, and piecing together.
“Hybrida: A Zuihitsu” was an important poem for me, and it took me several years to write. I realized all I wanted to say didn’t fit into traditional, largely European forms I had learned throughout my young life. The zuihitsu is an ancient Japanese female form [[i]the zuihitsu finds its genesis in the early 11thcentury when The Pillow Book, written by Sei Shōnagon, a lady of the Japanese court, was completed. The Pillow Book initiated the zuihistu as a literary form and genre.]; its literal meaning is “following the brush.” This process of following the brush allows for many elements to fall into the form: dreams, myth, newspaper clippings, illustrations, lists, prose, texts, emails. The material that was previously left out of my poems was suddenly welcome, and that freed me. In this way empathy or even the failures of empathy could be played out with frequent and often needed interruption, as zuihitsu embraces interruption. I didn’t want Hybrida to have all the answers or to feel fully formed in any way. I hoped the book could feel like a dreamy interrogation. All the hurt, wonder, inner conflict of what I believe and don’t believe . . . I hoped it could all be held in this form.
TQ: “Patience” and “Prophecy,” which were published in issue number 155 of TriQuarterly, are located at opposite ends of the book. Between them, so much happens. I’m thinking of the line “I come from that, the flailing struggle” from “Patience” and the line “I was birthed here. I am alone, Mama” from “Prophecy.” Can you talk about how these poems are in conversation?
Chang: The timeline between “Patience” and “Prophecy” is pretty vast. “Patience” goes back to an origin, the speaker’s cognizance of herself. She tries to understand the source of her way of seeing. Within that poem the figure is quite isolated, even though the lines are packed with so much action and detail. Each of the details leads the reader, I hope, to understand her frame of mind rooted in struggle.
“Prophecy” appears toward the end of the book, and it is the only poem that takes the liberty of speaking from the son’s voice. This was difficult for me, as it moves toward some of the subjects of appropriation I touched upon previously, though this poem had a long process before I reached this decision. About a decade ago, I wrote a long poem called “Prophecy” after a poem by the same name written by Donald Hall. His poem was intentionally filled with rage, and it reached out to me because I was feeling the same way. Years later, as I reviewed my old notebooks, I found the poem and engaged with it again, rewriting it. It’s rare for me to pick up an old poem, to have the desire to rework it. I’m more prone to abandoning it after having absorbed what the process taught me. Reading the poem after Trump’s election, I added the word “Mama” to many of the lines, and the poem transformed. My viewing this singular poem from the son’s perspective and writing toward a future tense landed the poem in a slightly different place. As the poem progresses, its fury magnifies, until by poem’s end there is an allusion to a revolution. After living through and acknowledging the institutionalized violence that has been placed upon black bodies, the son takes part in a revolution of his own making and moves toward a future free from the power dynamic of the present state. The poem also poses questions for the reader: Is this freedom a fantasy? Should it be a dream?
TQ: I was also fascinated with your use of white space and the way visuals work alongside language to create emotional texture in the collection. I’m thinking specifically about the poems “4 Portraits” and “Bitch.” Could you talk about ekphrasis and white space, and how you were thinking about them during the writing process?
Chang: During the writing of Hybrida, I was consumed by Tom Phillips’s A Humament, which is an evolving book that utilizes every inch of white space on the page. The artist both treats and alters an original Victorian novel, while creating beautiful paintings that dialogue with the text. I was also taken by Jen Bervin’s use of opaque or ghost text in her collection Nets that treats the text of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Mary Ruefle’s work is a constant source of inspiration, as is Anne Carson’s. There were so many writers and artists who inspired me as I wrote Hybrida, and I opened myself up to responding to visual art that delved into the heart of what I was attempting to express.
For example, go run tell dat, a painting by Alexandria Smith, envisions and reenvisions the female body; often body parts are repositioned in ways that question gender and racial dynamics. In this view of girlhood, arms are situated where the legs would be or the head may be placed near a backside. It was deeply emotional to reimagine the body or the kind of brutality placed upon a body, and yet the backdrop in Smith’s work is sometimes very American and beautiful. The white picket fences in her paintings/collage are symbols of a bucolic life, as is the tangle of green vine. What is the American dream, and how is that dream questioned? That is often what her paintings say to me. I felt compelled, at least in my imagination, not to really answer back to her mixed-media work, but to listen and to write down what I heard.
White space is deeply interpretive. Ask any reader what they think of white space on a page, and every person will tell you something different. The white space in the poem “Bitch” means literally this: space. The poem focuses on a mixed-breed female dog named Laika who was launched into space on the Sputnik 2 spacecraft. While Hybrida devotes most of its attention to a son, I felt it was necessary to devote a significant section of the book to addressing a female perspective. This, for me, was also racially charged. I often wonder if Laika was chosen to be launched into space because she was a mixed breed and because she was a stray. These two factors seemed to play into the decision to place her in a situation in which there was only one outcome, and that was her eventual demise. There were authority figures who made this decision, and all of it seemed to mirror an insidious process of abuse disguised as progress. The white space here is space itself, yes. It also mirrors the divide between the known and unknown, understanding and complete chaos. No one knows truly what Laika experienced as she was launched into the unknown, and her life seemed disposable. When I delved deeply into the possibilities of white space, the empty air caught the questioning between the celestial and the earthly. The white space was all that could not be answered, and I’m now comfortable living with that complete awe.
[i]“The Pillow Book.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, 21 June 2019, https://www.ancient.eu/The_Pillow_Book/.