As part of the 2021 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Tina Chang in response to a video of her reading her poem “My Father. A Tree.” aloud. Tina Chang wrote letters back to four of these students; their letters and her replies are included below.
Tina Chang reads "My Father. A Tree." for Dear Poet 2021.
Dear Ms. Tina Chang,
My name is Sydney, and I am currently a junior in high school at Roland Park Country School (RPCS), located in Baltimore, Maryland.
As I scoured the Poets.org website in search of a poem to read and an author to write to, your poem, My Father. A Tree. stood out to me. To be quite frank, it was your name that initially drew me in. As I soon came to learn, after researching more about you, your life story, and your journey with writing, like me, you are of both Chinese and Taiwanese descent. I believe my culture and heritage to be a core part of who I am as a person, and as a result I often find myself trying to look to those similar to me when learning. Attending RPCS, a PWI, it is often hard to find work that I can really relate to on a cultural level, so I was overjoyed when I saw an Asian American writer. Although your name is what drew me to select your poem in the first place, after reading and watching you recite your poem countless times, I find myself relating and being touched with so much more.
“I did not know my father so how could I be lonely for that guardian?”: constantly in search of that which does not or no longer exists. How can you long for something you never had? This constant feeling of emptiness though the space was never filled. How will we ever find comfort? Can we find comfort through faith even in that which we are not sure exists?
“Father, I know you are here… Walking in these woods, I believe that tall shadows and shifts of light mean that something is at work beyond me”: the belief in the existence of something greater than oneself is so admirable. I find myself being jealous of your undeniable faith that something, whether it is your father, or something bigger, is out there watching over you, keeping you safe, keeping you in the light.
The beautiful imagery depicted through your words and the spirituality you often speak to throughout your poem provokes so much thought and intrigue in my mind. My family is traditionally Buddhist, a practice derived in the idea of spirits and spirituality. I have often found myself struggling with these beliefs and my faith in those beyond me, beyond what is tangible, what is “real”. I loved getting to see your point of view and insight onto your personal journey with spirituality through your father. Hearing about all of the stories and memories you had with him, solidifies in my mind that he never left you in the first place.
I’m so glad that this project has introduced me to your work, as it has opened my eyes to the multitude of other pieces you have written. In your article, Why I Write, you say “I write in order to capture what is no longer there...I constructed a permanent place where I could live, even if the moments were fleeting”. I would say that you have definitely succeeded in this. Your use of language makes me feel as though I am right there next to you in the woods. Although I have never been the best with words, or characterized myself as a writer, your statement makes me excited for writing. Not just for a school project, or a grade, but for fun. As a hobby, at my leisure. An outlet to forever remember the precious moments that make up our lives, ever fleeting.
Thank you, for all of your words and introducing me to a world I had never thought to explore. You have brought me an experience I will never forget.
All the best,
Thank you for your letter. I was so uplifted by your words and I, equally, found similarities between us. When I was in sixth grade, I found my path in poetry. My teacher asked our class to write a poem and, instead of writing a poem, I wrote a book of poems. I recall writing one poem after another, excited for the prospect of putting together a collection; I illustrated the cover for my book and bound the pages with the only thing I had which was pink yarn. I presented it to the teacher and recall a look of surprise on her face. It might have been the first time I had done much more work than what was expected of me and I loved every minute of writing something that felt beyond me. It was first time I felt fully free.
When I got to college, I suddenly realized in the words of the great poet Lucille Clifton, “I had no role model.” I was taught Shakespeare, Chaucer, and then Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, and more. I saw, more and more, that no one looked like me. My Asian name and my Asian face were nowhere to be found in any of the pages of my books and this fell on me like a large and resounding thud. I found it crushing and I let it stop me—though only momentarily—from moving forward. Outside of learning from the great poet Agha Shahid Ali during my undergraduate years, I did not learn about one Asian American writer. I wondered, What kind of education is this? I also wondered, Are there writers out there who look like me and sound like me?
It wasn’t until my late twenties when I stumbled upon what felt like a miracle. There was a newly formed organization called the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW). A group of Asian American writers gathered together to share work, find mutual support, and explored pathways to uphold each other’s writing. They then sent a newsletter out via any outlet they could to find members who wanted to help them spread the word. Somehow, that newsletter found its way to me. I noted multiple spelling errors and mistakes in the newsletter and I called the AAWW to tell them about it. Instead of reacting to my audacious message, then Executive Director and one of the founders of the Workshop, Curtis Chin called me in to ask for my help.
The rest is history as knowing Curtis and discovering the Workshop solidified in me a sense of belonging. It offered me shelter, a place to be myself, to work on my ideas, and share them freely. I was surrounded by like-minded Asian American writers who had vast and magnificent ideas. In many ways, the writers and volunteers in those early years helped to secure a foundation for many Asian American voices today and I’m proud that, in some way, I could be a part of that movement forward. The Workshop is now celebrating its 30 year anniversary this fall!
Thank you for observing so many nuances in my poem. Thank you for embracing words as a possible place of refuge and reward. Knowing that there are Asian American readers who are willing and ready to receive my words makes this complex journey as a poet all the more rich.
Have faith. Most importantly, continue to have faith in yourself through your own voice. What we believe is real is actually our imagined possibilities.
Take care, Sydney, and thank you again for your beautiful reading of my poem. I’ll hold your words close to me for strength and guidance as I continue on the path.
My very best,
Dear Ms. Chang,
Is it peaceful in the woods? Does it feel safe, or perhaps haunting in its stillness? How I wish I could have woods of my own, like yours, but I can only seek solace in the powdery cold that drifts quietly through your passages and among those long shadows cast by the branches of your words.
To me, a father has always been someone who is forever needed the most but often leaves the quickest. They walk away as if it were the simplest and most innocuous thing to do - yet their retreating footsteps leave gaping craters for one to stumble upon and fall into, over and over again, on their path of life.
I have stood by this definition of a father for as long as I can remember. Only recently did these views change, and something in your poem reminded me of why exactly I should treasure the moments that I can still share with my dad. Maybe it was in the way that you described the skimming owl in your first stanza, of how “it swept so low to the ground / it might have buried itself”. There was such depth and weight to that line, especially since it was portrayed as a mere observation of the world around you in conjunction with your father’s passing. Your usage of “skim” and “swept” in describing the owl’s movement was so fascinating, as both words are etched with a sense of lightness and speed, yet the idea of death which closely follows in the phrase “buried itself” is cold and heavy. These contradicting motifs wove a new meaning into the fabric of the poem atop their original ideas: a warning of how swift and sudden death can be. This made me suddenly think of what would happen if my father passed away. How many words would be left hanging between us, words that tried to reach each other but fell quickly to the ground in their powerlessness to express apology and forgiveness? How many years would I spend after his death, painting every single second gray with regret? Most importantly, how much time was really left, and how much was already wasted?
I also loved how you used the woods as your setting. They’re often used to represent the unknown through different forms of literature and are places where civilization has not yet spread to and corrupted, sacred grounds from which legend and fantasy spring. It fits perfectly with the mysterious theme braided into the third, fourth, and fifth stanzas, where you describe things such as imagining hearing your father’s footsteps on a path or feeling his presence among arching boughs and sun-flooded air. I’ve also seen paintings that depict the woods as sanctuaries, such as Prayer in a Green Cathedral by Tomás Sanchez, with the trees acting as the viridian arches of an otherworldly cathedral. I wonder if the woods gave you a similar feeling, and if that’s the reason why you chose such a place to honor the memories of your father?
Thank you so much for your time and for your beautiful poem. It’s amazing how poetry allows the heart to hang bare and vulnerable, yet invincible in its rawness. As a musician myself, I constantly strive to find beauty in words as I do notes, and often discover connections between both: the phrasing of a melody may echo the cadence of a line, or the dynamics of a piece may shadow the rise and fall of emotions in a poem.
Lastly, if someone were to ask you what three of the most important things a poet or an artist needs to grow and expand are, how would you respond? I’ve heard reading and consuming large amounts of various works helps.
I hope that one day I find woods like your own to seek solace in, to find peace in “tall shadows and shifts of light”, and I hope that yours may forever stand peaceful.
Thank you for your beautiful and lyrical letter. You are right to believe that time with our loved ones are both valuable and limited. My father still remains the most unfinished story. Because his story could never be fully told due to his untimely passing, I began to write toward my curiosity. I wanted to ask him: Where are you now? Were you a solemn, kind, or creative man? Did you kiss your wife before you left for work? What were you thinking about the day my brother and I were born? What did you miss when you left this known world? Though I’ll never know the answers to these questions, my imagination journeys after them and, in so doing, I believe I embraced my love of writing. Yes, cherish these moments with your father but, most importantly, ask him everything you’d like to know about his story: his birth story, his favorite and most painful memory, his parent’s love story. There is so much to know while there is still time.
Thank you, also, for your questions about the most important lessons a writer or artist must know. It’s been a long life filled with so much happiness and also some disappointment but isn’t any life filled with an equal measure of both? I don’t know if I’d want it any other way but if I had to offer three lessons, they would be: Find your tribe, hunger to learn, and fight for your freedom.
Find your tribe: Before I found poetry, I was very alone. I had three brothers, a great deal of noise in my family, and no place to go but to venture into my own mind. I found comfort in writing in my notebook though, over time, I realized I had no one to whom to show my poems. Upon entering college, I finally found a group of poets in a workshop and we shared a great love of poetry. This is the place where I discovered my true passion. Wherever you go, find your tribe and that tribe can be made of one or two people. So long as you support one another and make a vow to care for each other’s creative work and inner life, you will never be alone.
Hunger to learn: Read widely, read everything you can, and do your best to always have a book in your backpack, even if you wind up reading a line or a paragraph that day. Be curious about what you don’t know and never let it make you feel “less than.” Instead, let it drive you to be an eternal student, always willing and wanting to know about this world we inhabit.
Fight for your freedom: When I was younger, my fight for freedom felt quite personal. I wanted to be a writer while everyone in my family followed more practical professions: nurses, doctors, lawyers. I was the only person in my family who stood out (quite obviously) as the poet. I know my mother worried for her daughter. How would I support myself? How would I make poetry into a sustainable profession? Maybe her worries were legitimate but I wanted most fully to be myself. It was an uphill climb—as a woman, a person of color, with few role models at the time—but I eventually found my place. It wasn’t without difficulty and even moments that shook the foundation of my family. Now, I look back and I realize all of their worries were rooted in love. They loved me and they wanted me to be safe. In the end, I found both my personal freedom and a secure place to be.
I wish you a safe path on your journey to find the woods you dream of. When you journey out, bring a backpack and fill it with a writing journal, some very good snacks, a book, and a compass to guide you. The woods are a beautiful respite and shelter but it’s wonderful to find your way back home.
Dear Tina Chang,
My name is Sreenidhi, but I usually just go by Sree. I’m a current 10th grader at Coppell High school, a school based in Coppell, Texas, who is surprisingly learning in-person despite the COVID-19 situation. I would like to begin by truly wishing that you stay safe during these tough times. I believe that the work which you create has the ability to evoke more than just emotion in readers. It has the ability to inspire and ignite thoughts and ideas completely unseen to their growing minds. It is imperative that someone as talented as you remains vigilant and most importantly, safe, during this pandemic.
That being said, I have recently come across your poem: “My Father. A tree”. To be completely honest, I’m not the kind of guy to read poetry on my own. For example, I didn’t even read YOUR poem on my own, it was assigned to me. We were given a list of poems by our English teacher and we had to decide which one we “connected with” the most in a “dating simulator” type of fashion. That’s where your poem comes in. The moment I read your poem I was filled with such a flurry of emotions- I simply could not believe it. I know that sounds a little cheesy but it’s the only way I can describe what I felt that day. You set a vivid scene; the bright glowing sun, the clear blue sky, the crisp summer air, I was immersed within all of it. I won't deny the fact that in a sense, imagery is subjective. Meaning that the image which is visualized by a reader when reading a poem varies based on their emotional state at that time. However, it’s also obvious to me that the image you created within me that day was one which was beautifully crafted through years of experience. You have literally, and I cannot stress this enough, literally changed my life.
Talking a little more about me for a second, I feel like I never fail to get emotional at pieces such as yours. By this I don’t mean to come off as a “crybaby”, but more as a guy who connects with his heart rather than his mind. To put this into context, there was a time when I watched an anime called “Violet Evergarden”. It’s an anime based on a girl who has known nothing but war her whole life, practically being a human weapon, and being forced into learning what it’s like to be a “normal” girl in society. Obviously, I don’t really connect with her at all. I mean for starters, I’m a guy. I’ve never been to a war, never seen a war, the list goes on. Even though this is the case, I was still brought to tears every single episode. Every action and every emotion of Violet was depicted so immaculately- I couldn’t help but bathe in her sorrows.
Now the reason I went on a tangent there was not to advertise the show, even though I HIGHLY recommend it, but more so to give you an insight into what exactly happened to me when I read your poem. Tears. I think I have to owe a lot of it to the fact that I was able to connect so deeply with it. In the past few weeks, I’ve been having a lot of conflicting emotions regarding my relationship with my father. There have been countless arguments and days where I slept wishing I wouldn’t have to see him in the morning. A line which I specifically relate with is when you said “I cried in his presence until my mother came.” Your actions back then are very similar to mine for the past couple days, but instead of crying, I just avoid his presence altogether. Moving on from there you go on to say that your father was like a tree and you’re a “frozen salt flat, hemisphere of crushed snow.” You’re “lonely for that guardian.” Seeing these lines instantly brought me to tears, no, waterfalls. After ignoring him all your childhood and ultimately losing him, you have turned out to be something completely different than what he was. But to make it even worse, you miss him. I’m just so afraid that in the future I’ll feel the same way. I want to say I hate him, I really do, but there’s part of me that also feels safe when I’m around him. I don’t want to waste these precious years I have with him. I don’t want to regret not spending all the time I could’ve had with him. I don’t want to miss him.
My cheeks soaked and my nose running, I can proudly say that you have inspired me. I won’t allow myself to neglect this sacred moment any longer. I owe you.
I read your letter many times. Thank you for revealing aspects of your past and present and to allow for an open dialogue about the difficulty between parents and children. I had two fathers. One who died when I was very young. I imagined him as kind, patient, quiet. In my imagination, he says little but his slight actions—a gesture of a hand, a movement of his eyes, the act of sitting in a chair—was something I relived often as a child. I had another father, a stepfather. He was sadly unkind, argumentative, and moody. I spent a good part of my childhood disliking him and wishing for a different fate. Interestingly enough, our complex relationship forced me to seek a mode of expression and that was writing. I still have the notebooks from my adolescence where I begin by expressing my frustrations with him. We couldn’t meet eye to eye on any subject but my writing journal was a place of release and understanding. My journal didn’t argue back; it sought to understand me and to receive my sorrow and these random jottings eventually led to poems.
I’m grateful that you had such a connection to, “My Father. A Tree.” A lot of the poems that have been meaningful to me have come out of difficult situations: loss, death, argument but also the flipside of that which is abundance and love. I understand your feelings of loss but also the great desire to be close again. These are not conflicting feelings but one in the same. I suspect both you and your father are going through great changes. Part of growing up (and becoming a parent myself) is understanding my parents. I see now, that they were fully formed humans with their own world, their own set of problems, with feelings joy and happiness but also threat and insecurity.
When I was a young person, I could only sense my own universe, feel my own emotions so deeply. Now I see from various perspectives and the distance I felt in my past has now, over the course of many years, been bridged. Though I can’t promise you and your father will be close again, I can guarantee that the situation that exists now will not be this situation forever. Time changes everything. One day, your father will be older, you will be older, and maybe you will be the one to parent him, teach him, show him the way toward the kind of relationship you wish you had.
Perhaps one day, many years from now, with time as your teacher, you and your father can talk openly about what this time in your youth meant. You may learn a great deal about him and he will learn so much about you. I suspect this doesn’t take any pain away presently and if you need time to yourself in order to avoid conflict, take that time. Move toward relationships that make you feel most fully yourself. Many of my friends filled in the gaps where my father and my stepfather could not. I relied on an extended community to parent me and I tried to give back in return. Writing and poetry workshops were the places I found the most acceptance and belonging. The most important thing to remember: Don’t wall off your heart. Keep it open to the few people you trust and, in this way, you’re always growing, always attempting to understand family, either by blood or by choice.
Poetry also allowed me to be my most vulnerable self. It allowed me full expression, without judgement, and this was a freedom I needed very much. Poetry was a found space, a sanctuary I stumbled upon and it was the closest thing to perfection I could reach in this lifetime. Find your sanctuary so that you may continue to thrive and be happy and search for good, responsible, and compassionate guides. While we can hope that these guardians come in the form of mothers and fathers, they can also be found elsewhere.
One of my writing students who had a difficult time with his own father, recently told me he had many fathers. There were caring people he found along the way who served as mentors, leaders, and friends. By keeping your heart open, perhaps you can one day find a meeting place many years from now where you and your father will meet. He will see you clearly and you will see him clearly and you’ll each tell a story about your shared past. I’ll hold this hope for you.
With peace and gratitude,
Dear Tina Chang,
Hello, my name is An and I’m an eighth grader at a public school in California.
Your poem was beautiful, and listening to it made me reflect on my feelings surrounding the death of my guardian figure. My great grandpa died more than a year ago due to cancer, and much like in the poem, he was a father figure to me. Listening to you speak dredged up memories of him driving me to class, making me food, laughing, and failing to teach me Veitnamese. Losing him hurt so much, he fought for days on end. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget the stench and moans that surrounded him as he slowly slipped away. It's funny, I told my class that he was like a fortress, that he was immovable, that he would always be there. A week later he died. However, your poem also made me remember the time after his death. When I would take a quiet moment to think, and I could feel something there. I don’t know if it was grief fueled, but I could feel him near me. Your poem made me remember to continue to search for him, in the sky, the trees, the wind. Thank you. Thank you for reminding me to journey into the forest to find him.
I read your letter with great interest. You had expressed losing your great grandfather over a year ago and I’m sorry for your loss. It was clear that you were close to him and that you still search for him all around you. It is true, when we lose those closest to us, they still exist somewhere and the path to discovery is finding their impact in the every day. Over time, his lessons will come back to you very powerfully, especially as you encounter challenges and difficulty. His history, his words, his stories, and even the hardship he experienced toward the end of his life, will teach you about your own story and your own resilience. He is an ancestor now, guiding you in many unknown ways. The lessons will be most clear when you pause and listen.
When I experienced moments of intense grief, the most comforting routines included reading and writing. Reading offered me a pathway to move outside of myself, to fantasize, and to be someone else entirely, which sometimes was a great relief. Writing offered me an outlet to delve into the texture of emotion and language. By reaching toward words—their composition, song, arrangement, mystery—the difficulty and even the brokenness of me had someplace to go, a resting place of belonging.
Continue to honor your great grandfather by asking as many questions as you can about him. Try to learn something new about him regularly and, in that way, you open the gateway to knowing more about yourself and more about your beginning which stretches back centuries. Your story has fought battles, crossed oceans, built civilizations. Your story is the ultimate love story.
Thank you for your sensitive reading of my poem and for sharing yourself so openly with me.