Binghamton University is welcoming back an award-winning alumna this semester as the new director of creative writing in the English department. Tina Chang, ‘91, is a poet who was the first woman to be named Poet Laureate of Brooklyn in 2010 and has published three critically acclaimed collections of poetry.
Chang was born in Oklahoma to parents who immigrated from China. Growing up in Queens, she graduated from BU in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature with a focus in creative writing. She said that professors at BU, including Arthur Clements, Ruth Stone, Agha Shahid Ali and Milton Kessler drove her love for poetry, with Clements telling her that he could she her future as a poet and a teacher.
However, Chang’s time at BU was also marked with loneliness until she found her passion for writing.
“As a shy person, it was hard for me to make friends my first semester as an undergraduate but writing poetry kept me company,” Chang wrote in an email. “Eventually, I made one or two friends and they introduced me to a larger literary circle and my life began to open up as I volunteered, attended readings and delved into my writing workshops. Being among a group of writers at Binghamton was the first time I felt a sense of true belonging.”
Chang spent a semester in London that further drove her love for writing.
“With each creative writing or poetry workshop, my classmates told me I was a writer, my teachers told me the same, so I began to have the audacity to believe that I was a writer too,” Chang wrote. “To begin to reach for that possibility set me on a course toward graduate school, publishing and eventually becoming a teacher and public speaker in an art form I love so much.”
After BU, Chang went on to receive her master’s degree in fine arts from Columbia University. She taught poetry at Sarah Lawrence College, which offered her a strong background in working with students and conducting independent studies. “During this time she also published three collections of poetry, “Half-Lit Houses”, “Of Gods & Strangers” and “Hybrida” and an anthology, “Language for a Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East &Beyond”.
In 2010, Chang became the first woman to be named Poet Laureate of Brooklyn, an honorary position she still holds today. This honor was bestowed upon her at the same time she had her first child.
“Often, it is not acceptable to speak of family and professional life in the same breath but, for me, they influenced one another,” Chang wrote. “I felt compelled to invest in literary activism, social justice, mentorship and community-building because of my investment in family. Seeing my children grow and learn to read and write, fueled my passion to see all young people have the same opportunities.”
In 2019, Chang published “Hybrida” based on her experiences of raising her child, a mixed Black-Asian boy, in the midst of racial tensions prevalent in America today. Chang wrote that she had to learn about Black experiences in America to benefit her family.
“I had to dismantle everything I thought before his arrival,” Chang wrote. “While at Binghamton, I struggled to understand myself as an Asian American woman, an Asian American writer and through my youth until quite recently, I was at peace with myself and my views. Once my son was born, I reflected upon theories of order and protection as the person that was to ensure his livelihood and his existence.”
Now, Chang is back at BU as the new director of creative writing in the English department. She wants to provide the same mentorship to students now that she had as an undergraduate student.
“The creative writing program is full of dedicated and gifted teachers such as Jaimee Wriston Colbert, Thomas Glave, Leslie Heywood, Liz Rosenberg, Joe Weil and Alexi Zentner,” Chang wrote. “Each professor has their own expertise and individual approach. I hope to bring my own style of teaching to the classroom and to also offer innovative programming that considers our challenging times”
She plans on holding more virtual events with the department that will uphold and empower the voices of people of color, the LGBTQ community, students of all abilities and the extended BU community of all ages and backgrounds. These initiatives include moving The Harpur Palate, Binghamton’s biannual literary magazine, online and having the Binghamton Poetry Project offer free teaching-artist training over Zoom.
“During a time of physical distancing, I’m invested in building social networks and making sure the creative writing students have ways to nurture friendships so I’ve developed Social Drop-ins which are informal social meet-ups taking place a few times a month,” Chang wrote. “In addition, we are introducing a new reading series focused on undergraduate and graduate creative work called ‘Common Ground’ as well as a new international translation series called ‘Global Imaginary.’”