By Carl Blumenthal
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
BROOKLYN — Since 1922, when T. S. Eliot published The Wasteland, people passionate about poetry have known that "April is the cruelest month." In 1996, the Academy of American Poets changed that sentiment by declaring April as Poetry Month. Or did they?
According to Tina Chang, Brooklyn poet laureate, most people are intimidated by poetry. Thus, "most poetry is read by other poets." To break the grip of fear, Chang recommends diving in, as if a poem were a pool of words, by writing first and learning to appreciate later.
She recently reported informally to this fan on a number of such efforts in which she's involved.
To make versification more palatable to the social media set, Chang accepted Mayor Michael Bloomberg's invitation to tweet about the life of a poet at #NYCpoetweet, which she has done 10 times a day during Poetry Month. The goal was to encourage cyberpoems by her followers of 140 characters or less.
Said Chang, "The idea was fun and inspiring. I dream that [Brooklyn Borough President] Marty [Markowitz] might be able to collaborate with me on a poetry project that calls on the influence and power of social media."
For those who find poetry in nature, Tina Chang is coming to a community garden near you. The board of the President Street Garden (at Fifth Avenue) in Park Slope will soon choose one of the haikus she submitted to them for the white building wall bordering their oasis.
Chang hopes other community gardens will do something similar so people can "sit down with a poem when not actively seeking it;" in other words, an above-ground version of the MTA's Poetry in Motion project, which is returning to the subways after a hiatus of some years.
Chang also helps Gary Glazner, founder of the Alzheimer's Project, trying to deal with memory loss by piquing curiosity and overcoming resistance to the making of poems. For instance, she described Glazner's efforts with one group of seniors to write a poem about Brooklyn — what it smells, sounds and looks like. Each member contributed a word or phrase. It's a "moving process" in both senses of the expression, noted Chang.
Chang is also one of the judges for the Brooklyn Public Library's Poetry Month contest for teens. The poems of the winners will be published in a booklet and posted on the library's website.
Chang involves her students at Sarah Lawrence College in the Community Word Project, which trains them to help teach poetry, and the power of community involvement, in under-served public schools, such as P.S. 676 in Red Hook. She described this project as "more sustaining than just dropping in and reciting a few poems" because the student teachers visit the school eight times during the spring.
Then there's "She's the First", an organization with many Brooklyn volunteers that raises money to send young girls in the developing world to school. Because Chang is Brooklyn's first female poet laureate, she was asked to lend her support. (One fund-raiser was an anthology of poems submitted by girls from around the world, titled "If the world were your classroom, what would you teach a girl?")
Finally, a website of Brooklyn wordsmiths is in the offing. Chang has assembled a stable of poetic ponies rearing to go but is seeking a"talented and dedicated web designer to follow through." (That means they should be willing to work for free because she doesn't get paid either for her services as poet laureate.) Any volunteers should contact her at [email protected].
Chang insisted that poetry can start with a personal mood or celebrate daily and once-in-a-lifetime rituals. She elaborated: "The best poets cultivate a sacred dialogue between themselves and their readers or audiences — a feeling of oneness."
No wonder her latest book of poems is called Of Gods and Strangers (Four Way Books, 2011), including the one she wrote for her induction as poet laureate. "Praise" pays homage to the resilience of the Haitian people in the wake of the earthquake. It ends: "And after all the great monuments/of your memory have collapsed, with the sky steady/above you, you shatter that too, with song."