Ms. Chang, long black hair flowing around her face as she leaned over the podium, told us that right before her graduation, the noted poet and critic Richard Howard advised her: “Well, I can tell you, just don’t ever stop writing. There will be about 80% of you who will stop writing. Be the 20%.” Howard also advised against doing “anything having to do with poetry for a while, especially not teaching poetry.” Mr. Lehman nodded in agreement, saying his time as a newspaperman early in his career was important for his writing. Ms. Chang remarked how working different jobs had given her new ways into poetry.
Ms. Chang told Bomb Magazine in 2012 that “nothing has changed me as much as being a mother,” and at last week's forum, she remarked that she was “inspired by my children.” A poem sparked by reading bedtime stories to her two children takes off from Maurice Sendak’s Night Kitchen, and “Dark King” takes on the issues of race and culture she encountered while pregnant with her son --- she did not tell her mother about her first pregnancy until the very end---with lines like “dark child ignited from within…many voices within me but a shadow of one.”
Sometimes the seeds of her poems lie in unexpected places. A misreading of the phrase “birch tree” in a book on flora and fauna along with a consideration of John Berryman’s The Dream Songs led to the poem “Bitch Tree.” After the tragedy of 9-11, Ms. Chang went through a “period of silence. After that occurred, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I went through a period of feeling powerless.” She started reading Asian and Middle-Eastern poets, eventually coming across the figure of the Dowager Empress, which became the kernel of a group of persona poems around this controversial and powerful figure in Chinese history, the core series in Of Gods & Strangers.
Being an advocate for poetry also has been a jumping off point for her work. Borough president Marty Markowitz asked her to write a commemoratory poem to be read to over a thousand guests at his state of the borough address as one of her first acts as poet laureate. Part of the job of being a poet laureate is to “make meaning” for occasions, Ms. Chang explained to us, and the poem that came to her was a piece on the earthquake in Haiti, titled “Praise,” which we also had the pleasure of hearing her read.
As an advocate for poetry, she aspires to build avenues of access for “people who feel they don’t have much access to poetry.” In addition to appearances across Brooklyn, she has been working with community gardens and now Poets House to put poetry into public spaces around major landmarks. As Mr. Lehman commented, she has “been busy.” Indeed, in Richard Howard's phrase, she is one of the twenty percent who add on not only to the tradition but also to the culture of poetry.