Editor’s note: On April 18, 2023, poet Victoria Chang was awarded the second annual Chowdhury Prize in Literature in a ceremony on the campus of the University of Southern California. The prize is intended for mid-career writers, as much for what they might do in the future as for what they have produced in the past. In that sense, Chang is an ideal recipient. Edgy, creative, always looking for a new approach, a new treatment of both form and content, she published her first collection of poetry, Circle, in 2005, but came into her own with The Boss, which McSweeney’s published in 2013. There, she developed the metaphor of the boss—be it employer or child or parent—to examine questions of power and commitment. Such an approach seems a necessary precursor to her 2020 book OBIT, inspired in part by the death of her mother, in which Chang explodes poetic form entirely to excavate both private and public grief. In these pages, mourning is a state of being, one that often emerges long before it is recognized as such. “My Mother’s Teeth,” she writes, “—died twice, once in 1965, all pulled out from gum disease. Once again on August 3, 2015.”
What Chang is tracing here is connection—both the necessity of it and its ultimate inability to console. She is not looking for easy answers … or, for that matter, any answers at all. Instead, she means to occupy emotion, in all its inchoate messiness. A similar motivation informs her 2021 collection of “letters,” Dear Memory, which blends epistolary prose with precise visual collages to occupy a space in which, as the poet tells us, “memory isn’t something that blooms, but something that bleeds internally, something to be stopped.”
Most recently, Chang has published The Trees Witness Everything, a collection built around the Japanese form of the waka; it is a spare and moving work. Air/Light asked Matthew Zapruder to be in conversation with her for this issue; what follows is their back and forth.
Matthew Zapruder: I think you and I met after your book The Boss came out with McSweeney’s. If I am remembering correctly, we did a few readings together in San Francisco, including a lunch time reading at Twitter headquarters downtown. I adored that book. Its form, incantatory, and fugue-like, yet also somehow nimble and funny, felt completely original to me, and also timely. Its subject, which was treated with humor and compassion, seemed to be the sorrows of business, commerce, late capitalism, filtered through abstract and mythic representations that populate American corporate spaces, like “the boss” and “workers” and “Bens and Tims.” I want to start by asking about that book, whether it felt like a change or move forward for you. And do you remember that reading at Twitter, or am I hallucinating?
Victoria Chang: That was a long time ago. I remember being nervous to read at Twitter and wondering why I had agreed to do that, but I was relieved that it was in a small conference room with a handful of employees and not a whole auditorium of people. The Boss was a big change for me in terms of writing style, but it was even more of a change for me to stop mimicking other poets and just write me, myself. Before that, I thought I was supposed to write like everyone else so I mimicked other poets as a way to learn how. It was completely the wrong approach to art-making and poem-making. My mimicking was really just a lack of self-confidence. Once I grew more comfortable, I found that train and never got off.
I think being an original artist is just a matter of attuning yourself to yourself, if that makes sense. I’ve learned over the years that so much of art-making is deep listening to myself, my own voice. I am my own best company. I cannot wait to be in conversation with my own mind. That sounds strange, but especially today, I yearn for that quiet self-contemplation.
What did you think of that Twitter reading?
MZ: I remember being perplexed. I had never been inside one of those social media company buildings. Twitter headquarters is in the Tenderloin, so it is surrounded by a lot of human suffering, and also wonderful human life. You go inside and are immediately in a protected sterile environment where you can breathe completely sanitized air and only run into approved people. I remember they took us to the cafeteria after the reading and there was so much different stuff there, including a kombucha machine, before which I stood in bafflement. I found it quite distressing and horrifying because it just felt like such an obvious manifestation of privilege and curated isolation. People were literally starving only a few hundred feet away. And being aware of that did no good; it was just a terrible feeling that went nowhere. It also seemed like the final verdict on all the values I had as a card-carrying member of Generation X. Welcome to the future, where it is totally cool to sell out.
Many pixels of writing have already been expended lamenting the death of the private self as a result of social media. I love your idea that art-making, presumably as opposed to activity on social media, is deep listening to oneself. I agree that your poems feel like a space where a person is talking and listening to herself, about things that matter in the deepest ways. In Barbie Chang, it had a lot to do with identity, and of course, Obit emerges from the losses of parents, which we all can relate to. So even though the books feel like they have a private voice, they are the farthest thing from solipsism I can imagine. Your poetic voice feels generous and honest and capacious, like it is reaching out to all humans. Paradoxically, social media turns everyone into a monster of solipsism, and the privacy of poetry has (or at least can have) the opposite effect, of opening us up to the world as we plunge through the portal of the private self in its encounter with language, and come out the other side.
It sounds like you experience that privacy, that listening only to oneself, as a relief. It also strikes me as being both utterly correct as a poetic approach, and completely unfashionable in our current cultural moment. Can we talk about how that works, practically for you? How do you do it? Do you have thoughts about that paradox, and the relationship of the private and public voice to the reader, and how that might have changed for you over time? Also, do you remember what you ate for lunch at Twitter?
VC: I love your detailed memories of Twitter. I remember that “cafeteria” too, which seemed more like a buffet on a luxury cruise ship of decadence. I remember the table we sat at but don’t remember what I ate. I think I was too uncomfortable to eat for all sorts of reasons. It was a strange time in the Bay Area and I had already left for Southern California.
I think perhaps the public and the private are complicated for me. For my own poems and writing, I think the private is the public, meaning our own private individual experiences can reach people in ways we can’t imagine. When I’m writing, I’m only working from my own experience, but in the back of my head, I am trying to avoid solipsism. This is much harder (for all of us) to do than we think. I guess, for me, it’s no different than having a conversation. We’ve all been in those conversations where the person just talks about themselves. I’m not that kind of person. I’m very interested in the person I’m talking to. I think for better or worse, our poems have elements of our own personalities, if that makes sense. Hopefully, as we become better people, our poems will become better too, although this sounds like a ridiculous thing to say.
I suppose when people ask, Do you think about your reader, that in the past I might have said, No. But today, I think it’s much more nuanced. I consider my reader, meaning I am not just writing in a diary. How about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the public and the private in poem-making (note, I didn’t use versus—these are not polar opposites).
MZ: I think all language—every word really—has both a public and private aspect. Language is our shared wisdom, so poets can tap into it, like some deep underground river of history and knowledge, and draw things out (images, ideas, sensory impressions, connections, observations, single words) that in the new context of the poem explode with significance. So you don’t ever need to try to make poems relate to everyone’s experience. That’s inherent in the material. But there is a personal aspect to the use of any language as well, so a poem vibrates with that intimacy, if that is not too vague a way to put it.
Does that sound right to you?
I think a place like Twitter flattens all language and turns every use of language, including questions, into a reductive statement. Does it feel that way to you? And how do you find a different use for language in your poetry? Like, how have you done that in the poems of Obit or The Trees Witness Everything, or how are you doing that right now in your newest poems, which are incredible, the ones about Agnes Martin?
VC: I like what you say about language being our shared wisdom, yet also how there’s a personal aspect to the use of any language. I think both are true for me as a poet. I want to read poems that are alive, that ricochet, that vibrate. But I don’t want to be in a vacuum, meaning I like to read poems (and try to write poems) that don’t already know what they want to say before they’ve started.
Twitter is a tough place to be for me. I see its merits but I also find it to be toxic. The language can be reductive, which paradoxically leads to misunderstanding. I am not conflict-oriented so I just post things I read or post about events. I don’t spend much time in that room because it doesn’t necessarily bring me joy.
For me, language is malleable. It’s flexible. Just as the mind is. So I like to ask my poems to tell me how the language should flex or where the poem should go. This is why I love associative poems because I love surprise in my life so I love surprise in poems. I’m interested in how to say something differently. I like to surprise myself while writing.
I like to have fun while I’m writing too. I give myself little things to do while writing or revising. Simple random things like: use lots of periods. Or vary your sentence lengths. Or use only monosyllabic words. Or end with a question mark. Or like in The Trees Witness Everything, count syllables. In my Agnes Martin poems, I was lucky and had a chance to use a new vocabulary of art in interesting ways. Even words like rectangle or line or grid or perception might not normally appear in my poems.
What about you? What kinds of things do you think about related to language while you are writing your poems?
MZ: Not to keep coming back to that reading at Twitter, but I just remembered something: as we walked into the main part of the building, there was a wall on which people could scrawl various phrases in chalk. It felt like looking at tiny flickers of individual thought before entering a space where that is no longer welcome. I remember looking at the writing on the wall, so to speak, and having the sad thought that despite the fact that these were expressions of individuality, none of the language was interesting or original. It felt like the sort of thing you would read on the side of the mug you get to use when you are a temp. Which just depressed me further.
To be fair, most of my daily thoughts are pretty boring, too. Sometimes I think people have it backwards. They think: I have all these interesting thoughts, let me write something so I can say them. But actually, maybe the best reason to write is because if you didn’t, you wouldn’t have many interesting thoughts at all. A poem is a place for me to be interesting, at least to myself. A form which begins to emerge and then be filled with thoughts that would not otherwise have arisen, or where the thoughts can stay stranger for longer than they would in more defined situations, like work or social media.
You call what you do listening to the poem, or looking for surprise, or variation, or the new. I would call it all those things too, and also I would use the archaic word beauty. Which is not the same as pretty or pleasing. Something closer to the sublime. I am looking for something that wrecks my complacency or despair. It can be the electric thrill of a single word, rare or common, that slots exactly into the moment of the poem. Or a weird metaphor, or a phrase that seems funny or exact. Or so many other things. Just some texture, some life.
Taylor Swift is currently on tour. By some estimates, every living organism on earth will have seen her in concert at least three times before it expires. There are people who play video games on the internet who are watched by millions of people as they slay adorably monstrous avatars. The number of people who will read our poems during our lifetimes is fractional in relation. All true, and I don’t care. What is wrong with me? I don’t think poets should be famous, do you? What do you hope for, going forward, for your poetry?
VC: I feel like that visit to Twitter traumatized you. There’s so much you talk about here. I tend to be both microscopic and way up in space so I sometimes think about what you’re talking about in the bigger picture. I feel like I’m a combination of all the poetry movements before me in some way, a mishmash of the Romantics, Modernists, Postmodernists.
Maybe we all are to some extent. We live for such a short period of time and I don’t think we truly understand that until we get older. But I feel that shortness now more than ever. On the whole idea of the “famous poet,” honestly I don’t think about these things much. People surely will disagree with me, but I’m most interested in the piece of art. If I’ve written a wonderful poem or book or collection of works throughout my life, my hope is that the work itself erases me, the poet. I think of myself as an electric wire, a conductor. The poem is electricity/electrons that flow or move through the conductor (me). I’m useful, necessary, but ultimately not the thing itself, the thing that is the most important, which is the electricity to turn on that light. To extend this metaphor likely too far, when the wire tries to be something else, such as the electricity, nothing works, the light doesn’t go on.
I think there’s a big difference between connection and fame. I also think no poet is entitled to either of these things. If my work connects with a reader, that’s lovely and lucky. If it connects with a lot of readers, that’s even luckier and also fateful. And there are also downsides to fame, lots of them (of which one is more people desiring your time, and sometimes getting angry if you can’t give it to them). But in general, these aren’t things I’m interested in as a poet. Other poets might be interested in these things and I support them in the pursuit of their dreams. But for me, I am most interested in wrestling with language. I’m interested in understanding myself in the short time I have on this planet. I don’t know if I’ve always been like this, but I can’t remember when I haven’t felt these things this way.
When I was younger, I felt like I didn’t understand a lot of things about language, about poems, about writing, about the writing life and world, and maybe I had different beliefs, but that’s to be expected. Most of us are more foolish when we’re younger, wanting things that probably shouldn’t matter. I’m still learning how to be generous with myself and my own foolishness. There’s also a kind of unfettered beauty to foolishness.
I have trouble making larger proclamations about anything because I really do think people should be free to do and believe what they want (within reason, of course). Some people’s fates are to be famous. Some people want to be famous. Some people use that desire to drive them to write. I respect them because that is who they are. We can’t ask them to be anything other than that. But that is simply not me. And I do hope people respect me for who I am too, give me grace for my mistakes, as I continue to change and grow.
As for hopes for my own poems? I don’t know. I get bogged down in the thing(s) I’m working on/obsessing about so I’m the kind of writer that is always looking at my feet (not socially—I’m quite social—but writing-wise). I’m happiest when I’m looking at my own feet. I don’t have large dreams for my poems. I just hope that I can live alongside them, hold their hands, more like a companion to my life.
I have more hopes for myself as a person—I hope to live my life with integrity, honesty, authenticity, care, generosity, kindness. I get just as annoyed as the next person, but in my short time on this planet, I have tried and will continue to try my best to live my life with goodness. Poets, writers, and artists definitely test my boundaries (and patience), but I always try to be true to myself with my own values and beliefs. If that means I leave some friends behind or don’t play with certain people, so be it. I won’t compromise my values because I only have those.
One last thing is that I think people (all of us) think we know things when we don’t. We can “see” a lot today online and then we form our beliefs about people or their situations that feel “right” to us. I would challenge all of us to question our perceptions and beliefs. Sometimes people say things to me, based on what they see online, and I am aghast at what they’ve gleaned and how wrong they are. We must continue to challenge ourselves instead of jumping to conclusions. We must continue to see things differently, from all possible angles, and then refract and refract again. If we, as poets, aren’t doing that, then who will?
MZ: It’s funny, I had almost completely forgotten that visit to Twitter until this conversation. Maybe all the trauma is deeply buried and repressed. I probably have some of the details wrong; my memory isn’t that great. Though I will swear on Emily Dickinson’s herbarium that there was a kombucha machine.
Maybe we could talk about your most recent poems and Agnes Martin. What drew you to her and what are you working on now?
VC: That’s the beauty of memory–it’s always wrong.
In 2021, the Museum of Modern Art in New York asked me to pick any piece from their collection and write a poem about it. With a catalog of 200,000 pieces, I had trouble selecting so I ended up choosing something by an artist with whom I was relatively familiar, Agnes Martin, having read her philosophical Writings many years ago. I picked “Untitled” from the “On a Clear Day, 1973” series.
The Atlanta spa shootings had just occurred and something about Martin’s grids made me want to cut out the grids and write the poem on the grids. Here’s the poem and my rendering of it. It’s since changed in form, but this is what I started with.
I read this poem at a reading and when I sat down, I felt very emotional about Martin. I then read every book, saw every film, read every piece of criticism I could find about Martin. I looked at her work obsessively online and whenever I could, in person. I stumbled upon a few Martin pieces randomly at museums too. I started writing poems whenever I felt moved to, kind of like a correspondence with Martin and her work, and ended up with a lot of poems that grapple with mental health, depression, menopause. It sounds dramatic, but Martin, her work, her views on the world, really helped me during a confusing time in my life.
I am working on poems right now about trees for the manuscript tentatively titled The Tree of Knowledge, and also ekphrastic poems related to Hilma af Klint and lots of other artists. I’m also working on a prose book that I’m not quite comfortable talking about yet because I’m not sure what I’m doing.
How about you? What are you working on, or what have you finished lately? Obviously you have your wonderful new book, Story of a Poem: A Memoir, and I know you are working on a poetry manuscript. I’d love to hear how you’re feeling about having a new book coming out, if you feel like talking about it. I’m sure you’ve talked about it ad nauseam, but can you tell me something you haven’t told anyone else about how that’s been?
MZ: First of all, let me just say that this poem is extraordinary. It is so moving that you let the emptiness of Martin’s spaces fill and guide you. I can imagine an uninterested and shallow reaction to that work being: There is no emotion here. But of course, the other way of looking is to say that the grid is what makes it possible to experience what would otherwise be overwhelming. It is (or let us say, can be) an extremely emotional piece, as your poem makes clear. Here is a form into which emotion can be poured. Like language. Like a poem.
Your poem does not remind me of Dickinson (actually, it reminds me a tiny bit of Stevens and his blackbirds), but it seems to be in implicit conversation with her statement that after great pain, a formal feeling comes. Before great pain can manifest, there must be a form. For someone who is relatively reserved in public, your poetry is deeply emotional, but never in a sensationalistic or maudlin way. So I feel the reality of those emotions, whether in relation to those close to you, or those you’ve never met.
I adore the fabular and dream-like quality of your poem, the disappearing horses, the apples that become rectangles, the mysterious fact that the people are far away, but their chewing (what an odd and eerie word) is here. And then the shift into the epigrammatic: “On any clear day, all my thinking fits / into boxes that can’t be opened.” I love the questions and the statements that feel exploratory and generous. The final lines are so mysterious and clear. Each time I read them, I think of something new.
This poem and the others make me so eager to read your next book and whatever follows. I’m so glad you are so busy writing so many different things. That’s exciting about the prose, though you are wise not to talk about it.
Thank you for your question, although this is not an interview of me. But I will tell you one thing about publishing this book of prose, by way of asking you one final question. This book was very difficult to write, or rather to publish. It is extremely personal, and putting it out into the world felt at times unwise or risky, especially when people seem in the public sphere so willing to be so cruel. However, since its publication, I have heard from so many readers who feel a sense of connection in reading the book. People have written me deeply personal and heartfelt messages, each one of which makes me feel as if writing this book was not just something I needed to do for myself, but worthwhile for others. And those reactions matter more to me than anything else.
This is something I have learned: No matter how annoyed I might get about the shallowness or cruelty of conversations on social media, there are readers who want to have imaginative experiences in language. Their voices might not be the loudest, but whenever I hear from them, I am so moved and grateful and reaffirmed in my work, and in people. I want to send each person who has reached out to me mortal flowers in return.
In conclusion, can you say something you have learned about poetry in the world, and its relationship to readers, that you might not have had the opportunity to talk about before?
VC: I first want to thank you for this conversation—it’s been so fun, and a lovely extension of our other conversations. Thank you for the close reading of my poem (I didn’t put it there for you to read but now in retrospect, I sort of made you read it).
Your stories about how readers have connected with your work is really wonderful. The loudest voices sometimes wound us the most. Also, if we put our work out in the world, in some ways, we are inviting people to have opinions about the work (and by extension about us).
Sometimes I have to focus on all the other kind people I know or who have contacted me or who I meet because I have a tendency to focus on that one critic, that one less generous person. I just read somewhere something the artist Barnett Newman said: “Critics are to artists what ornithologists are to birds.”
I am easily wounded. I’ve learned to embrace those bruises, punctures, holes, and then move on and focus on what matters to me the most—my writing, reading, thinking, seeing—all the things that bring me joy.