Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Author of The Fact of a Body

I was busy preparing for my June MFA residency when Kori, Lunch Ticket’s Editor-in-Chief, reached out and asked me if I wanted to interview Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich for the upcoming Lunch Ticket Issue 14. Groggy from a marathon reading session that lasted until 3 a.m. that morning, I rubbed my eyes with my fists and squinted at Kori’s email. The book I’d stayed up all night and early morning reading was, in fact, Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir. “Yes!” I scream-typed back. “I would love to interview Alexandria! The book is SOOOOO good!” It was truly kismet, since I planned on attending Marzano-Lesnevich’s Antioch seminar anyway at residency.

Marzano-Lesnevich’s writing grapples with questions of ethical ambiguity and moral judgment. Their cross-genre nonfiction book, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, intertwines childhood memories of sexual abuse at the hands of their grandfather and the death of a sibling they never met with their exploration of a Louisiana murder committed by a known pedophile. The Fact of a Body, winner of both the 2018 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and the 2018 Chautauqua Prize, is a page-turner, and Marzano-Lesnevich’s elegant but simple diction makes for compelling reading. Each chapter ends with an impetus to read more, but never in a hokey way. This naturally phrased whodunit momentum is no small feat, considering they confirm the identities of both the murderer and their sexual abuser early in the book. What keeps us reading is their commitment to nosing out why they feel so conflicted about the murderer and how his case and background parallel events in their own life.

As they stated in a seminar at Antioch University Los Angeles in June 2018, the book teaches the reader how to read it. It allows the reader into the risk at the heart of the story. Citing Joanne Beard, Jesmyn Ward’s writing, and Vivian Gormick’s The Situation and The Story as influences on their writing and editing processes, Marzano-Lesnevich committed to an information-packed, whirlwind two-hour seminar on structure, risk, and meaning, emphasizing the need for writers to recognize twin obligations of structure. First, they noted, the writer must acknowledge the interior logic of a book—the chapter and scene organization. Second, the writer must consider the layer of meaning that must run throughout the story, an interior emotional logic that might make the entire story collapse if the author said it outright. Mostly, they emphasized, the structure a writer starts with is probably not the same structure the finished work will inhabit. I came away from this seminar feeling armed with lifelong advice on how to structure any writing work I complete, fiction included.

The recipient of fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and Yaddo, as well as a Rona Jaffe Award, Marzano-Lesnevich lives in Portland, Maine, where they are an assistant professor at Bowdoin College. They most recently taught at Harvard.

After their astoundingly organized, insightful seminar, and learning about all their other accolades, I grew nervous that my interview questions would be lacking. Marzano-Lesnevich had a busy schedule during their time at Antioch, and I didn’t want to pressure them into an in-person interview without adequate time to unwind and prepare. Foreseeing a more relaxed interview at another time, I delayed calling them until July, when the chaos of the summer calmed. Their warm, generous, precise, and intensely intelligent responses to my questions, which I necessarily agonized over, are what follow below. I interviewed Marzano-Lesnevich on July 10, 2018, via telephone, after they gave the aforementioned seminar at Antioch University Los Angeles’s June 2018 MFA residency.

E.P. Floyd: First, a big thank you for speaking with me and for supporting Lunch Ticket. In The Fact of a Body, you cover intensely emotional issues and trauma, as well as social justice topics—sexual abuse of children, your own sexual orientation, poverty, substance abuse, and lots more. As a widely published creative nonfiction writer, how much distance did you feel you needed from your own life events before you wrote about them?

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich: Moving a bit beyond just that book, I find that that notion of “distance needed” from certain topics is constantly fluctuating for me. I have written and published some essays I was writing very much in the thick of things, particularly in an essay I had published in Hotel Amerika—“The Taste of Sardines.” I wrote it right after my dog died. That was because that was all I could bear to write about. What I had to do in that case, was build what the essayist Brenda Miller calls a hermit crab shell around it—I used certain narrative structures to provide almost a hard shell for the material, to protect the emotional core within it. Structure in that way was something that could give me distance. So, in The Fact of A Body, even though there was a lot of temporal distance, I discovered when I was writing it that I didn’t have a lot of emotional distance. Some of the first draft pages were really raw, and they really needed to be. I had to figure out when the narrator would include some of those snippets of raw emotion, and when the narrator would need more distance. As writers, as we work, we become more aware that we are telling a story, that we’re not just recounting what happened to us.

 

I used certain narrative structures to provide almost a hard shell for the material, to protect the emotional core within it. Structure in that way was something that could give me distance.

 

EPF: It’s so interesting that you refer to the “narrator” as being distinctly separate from the “author”—you. How and why do you distinguish between the two as a writing
construct?

AML: I think, like a lot of people, I was influenced by Vivian Gormick’s The Situation and the Story. I like to think of the narrator as being a construct of raw material—it’s both me and not wholly representative. We can see that approach (a narrator as a distinct speaker separate from the author) by looking at multiple books by the same writer. They all have different narrators. As a person who lived through these events, there were so many things that I wanted to put on the page. We, as people, serve our lives and our loved ones, but the narrator of the book only serves the story, so they have to leave some things out and put things in. Of course, when it comes to publishing, we then have to think of how our friends and families and loved ones will feel about the things we’ve written. But I use that linguistic construct to enforce that the person and the narrator have different roles. I also say it a lot because I teach a lot, so I’m used to reinforcing the concepts.

EPF: You mentioned publishing and how we as writers need to consider how our friends and families will feel about the published autobiographical details. You went through a lot at a young age. How did you decide which details to include, both pertaining to yourself and your family members?

AML: I tried to include only what served the story. For example, you never see my sister being abused, even though the narrative acknowledges that she was. The fact of how widespread the abuse was in our family felt crucial, but actually depicting it would have felt like a violation. And my narrator thinks about that decision on the page. I decided that my narrator would tell a story and at the same time sort of wrestle with the story. It was important to me to not pretend that my story was not the only story, not the only way it could be seen or told—but also for human reasons. If I was capturing a multiplicity of perspectives in Ricky Langley’s story, I couldn’t pretend that there wasn’t a multiplicity in my own story.

EPF: Speaking of multiple perspectives, The Fact of a Body is a cross-genre hybrid that seamlessly weaves your own life with the homicide case of a six-year-old boy who was killed by an adult man—Ricky Langley, a known pedophile and sex offender. Why did you choose that parallel structure?

AML: I would start writing about one side of the story and the other side would creep in; my subconscious appeared to be linking the stories. I think a lot of writing is getting out of your own way. For me, there was no way to write this where the two stories weren’t linked. Once I accepted that, the parallel structure was obvious. I will say that the realization that the strands had to collide in the third (and final) section of the book took longer. Life influences us in ways that we don’t realize until much later. When I was in law school, I read a novel called The Archivist by Martha Cooley. She wrote, “With a little effort, anything can be shown to connect with anything else: existence is infinitely cross-referenced.” I felt a jolt of recognition when I read that in law school: this spark that resonated with how I saw the world. I hadn’t thought about that novel for years, and then when I was writing a talk [on why they chose the parallel structure for The Fact of a Body], I sort of meditated on where inspiration came from for me, and that line came back to me. Only then did I realize how much it influenced me, as a person and as a writer constantly seeking out connections between disparate things.

We, as people, serve our lives and our loved ones, but the narrator of the book only serves the story, so she has to leave some things out and put things in.

EPF: There is a lot of moral ambiguity in The Fact of a Body. You grapple on the page with your staunchly anti-death penalty stance in a number of ways. At the end, the ethical uncertainty is just that—decisively uncertain. Was this a conscious choice you made when you set out to write the book, or did you come to this ambiguous ending in the writing process?

AML: It was a conscious choice. It was really important to me to write something that was honest about complexity. The ending wasn’t uncertainty so much as the ending was duality—duality is not uncertainty, it is an acceptance of complexity. Ricky Langley will always be both a man and a murderer. My grandfather will always be both a man and a pedophile. The journey was in accepting that that was the ending, and that that was okay. There was a reason my subconscious wasn’t leading me to a neater, clearer place. What I had to think about as a writer, was, “How do you induce satisfaction in the reader when you decide to acknowledge both the murderer’s guilt and the abuse fairly early in the book—and when the end will be complicated?”

EPF: Ah, yes. Let’s talk about chapter endings and suspense. Even though I already knew who the murderer was and who your abuser was, I kept on reading. How did you keep the emotional stakes high at the end of each chapter?

AML: Yay! Thank you. I thought a lot about that, because I knew I was going to ask the reader to process some difficult weaving of the two stories, and I felt like I really needed to earn some buy-in and create their hunger. I thought about it with this idea of negative suspense versus positive suspense. Negative suspense is when you know what’s going to happen, and you’re reading with that dread. Positive suspense is when you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you’re reading to discover what will happen next. I didn’t have any positive suspense in the big things, because the reader knew about them from the start. For example, I didn’t want to use Jeremy’s death as a source of positive suspense. I didn’t want to pretend that we didn’t already know that was going to happen, so I used negative suspense instead. But I built in mini questions of positive suspense on other events in the book. The other very concrete thing I thought about was, “How does a chapter ending induce a question?” Michael Blanding’s book The Map Thief gave me this same experience of suspense, and the map trade is not something I have a preexisting interest in. What happened is that I read it pretty much in one sitting, and there was no reason for this except that I could not stop reading. I looked at the end of each chapter and realized that he was very good at completing a mini-arc at the end of each chapter, and at the same time, flinging us forward with a question. I also looked at other works, like the short story, “The Ceiling,” by Kevin Brockmeier. It was a braided narrative, like my story was, and in his short story, the avoidance of discussing the “big bad thing” creates emotional tension. As a writer, I’m constantly trying to figure out what it is I need to do, and how can I look at what other people have done, to address the story before me. For me, it’s all about reading widely.

 

I thought about it with this idea of negative suspense versus positive suspense. Negative suspense is when you know what’s going to happen, and you’re reading with that dread. Positive suspense is when you already know what’s happened, and you’re reading with the expectation of things working out well for the protagonist—for the emotional arc.

 

EPF: Speaking of reading widely, the research that went into The Fact of a Body was extensive, as you note both in the book and on your website—roughly 30,000 pages of records. Can you talk a little about the research process? How did you sit and process that amount of documentation?

AML: I didn’t organize it into some sort of neat, didactic thing. I did sort of belly flop myself into it like somebody into a pool. I got the first few thousand pages, spent a couple years avoiding them, and then spent about six months, where I wasn’t really writing, but went from coffee shop to coffee shop—and then to bars when the records got too intense—and I would just spend the day describing in these notebooks what was on every single page and my emotional response. I wasn’t at that point ready to index them, because I had such a strong emotional response to them. I thought I was putting down my strong emotional response to the records because of my own life, and that it was separate from the writing. I tried indexing for a little bit. What I realized pretty quickly is that it felt horrible—the indexing. It felt like it was collapsing the story in exactly the wrong way, creating what Sven Birkerts calls, ‘the coma-inducing effect of “and then.”’ At first, I was really ashamed that I didn’t have a very specific index—having each character on each page for each record used. I thought, “This must just be laziness.” Now, looking back, I wish that I had had the self-kindness to say, “Hey, Self, this isn’t laziness, you’ve just put in an untold number of hours reading these documents. Pay attention to this resistance.” As they say in software development, what I thought had been a bug turned out to be a feature. The resistance was telling me something. I couldn’t put it in an index, because that organized, methodical approach wasn’t the kind of story it was. What I needed instead was to be surprised by the emotional resonances that I never saw coming. It was vital to find the detail I was looking for, and then be punched in the stomach by the stuff around it that I hadn’t been thinking about.

That was not an efficient process. And it was only possible because I didn’t have an index and couldn’t just look up what I needed. It was very much not an efficient process, but it produced a kind of all-over-the-place draft that slowly, slowly, slowly let me get to know the material. Some things became big in my mind and some became small. During that note-taking time, the events of the case felt as vivid to me as my own memories. And that response, I feel, was crucial. It just took time—hours and hours and hours and days and months and years. Just kind of living with those records inside me. What’s funny is, I now cannot remember anything in the records. My subconscious is like, “Cool, we’re done, let’s make space for something else now.” I think that’s the difference between how research usually is conducted for academic nonfiction, and how it needs to be conducted for creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction research requires a lot of trust, a lot of believing, “This is all going somewhere.”

EPF: Based on your experience writing and publishing The Fact of a Body, what do you think emerging writers working in multiple genres should know or try in their drafting process?

AML: Just revise, revise, revise, revise, revise. Also, it’s important to know that doubt is not fatal. This is advice for those of us who have a tendency to really doubt or critique the work before it’s even found its fledgling voice on the page. You can do the work even through doubt. Even while feeling the doubt. It’s important to acknowledge that the doubt might be a reflection of your own fear and not a reflection of the quality of the work. Some days are awesome, and you feel all the strength and power, and think, “I can totally write this story!” And other days are not like that at all. But that’s what I would recommend: Don’t allow the doubt to prevent you from writing.

 

E.P. Floyd is lead editor of flash prose, an interviewer, a blogger, and an assistant blog editor for Lunch Ticket and an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her writing is published or forthcoming in Lunch TicketLitbreak MagazineReservoir, and BusinessWeek. She is at work on a novel and short story collection, and lives in rural Wisconsin. Find her online at epfloyd.com.

Victoria Chang, Author of Barbie Chang

Victoria ChangAs my mother grew older she became more confused and unhappy and mean. When she was most difficult, I would soften my response by beginning to write her eulogy; two lines in I would start to forgive her a little and, toward the end, completely. Once, during her very last days, in a rare lucid moment she turned to me and said: “The heart is the first thing to go.” Before now, I would have only shared this story with my sisters. And then I came across this line in Victoria Chang’s new book of poetry, Barbie Chang, about a father who also suffers from dementia: “…is it possible to write an / elegy for someone who / isn’t dead …”.  Reading Victoria Chang’s poetry is to listen to the music of language as it circles through exquisite personal and more universal laments about human anguish in its many forms.

Barbie Chang, recently published by Copper Canyon Press, is Victoria Chang’s fourth book of poems. Her previous book, The Boss (McSweeney’s), won the PEN Center USA Literary Award and a California Book Award. Her other books include Salvinia Molesta and Circle. Her poems have been published in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, The Nation, New England Review, New Republic, and many other places; and she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017. She has also published a picture book, Is Mommy?, illustrated by Marla Frazee and published by Simon & Schuster, that was named a New York Times Notable Book.

Victoria lives in Southern California with her family and teaches at Chapman University and Orange County School of the Arts, and has recently joined the MFA faculty at Antioch University Los Angeles. On the morning of August 14, 2017, I had the opportunity to interview Victoria for an hour by Skype about her work and her life.

In preparation for the interview, Victoria generously shared a copy of her then forthcoming collection, Barbie Chang. Many of the poems in this collection are written in a persona that allowed her to be, as she puts it in the interview below, “kind of funny and sarcastic and ironic and paradoxical and… political,” though many of the poems are deeply personal and immediate as well. Throughout the collection are brief stories of a mother’s illness and a father’s dementia as well as portrayals of the numerous micro-aggressions of a divided cultural landscape. These small stories weave and flow into each other across sections, and all of these encounters are deeply empathetic to human flaws of all sorts. Sentiment skirmishes with humor and poignancy and, at times, darkness. The result is a narrative journey that is both intimate and ironic. The opening poem of the collection follows Barbie Chang as she leaves the corporate world (which we remember from Chang’s earlier collection, The Boss), to begin a different life. We hear the similar incantatory internal rhyming and rhythmic wordplay of that earlier work, as in: “once she sprinkled her yard with / timed water once // she wore lanyards in large rooms…”.

In Part One we enter world of children and a school, and the “Circle” of mothers, “the beautiful thin mothers at school / form a perfect circle // the Circle will school her if she lets / them…”. The poems yield to an increasing alienation from this circle, interspersed with a chronicling of Barbie’s relationships with men (called “Mr. Darcy”), with her mother who is sick, and with her father who is losing his grip on the world: “Barbie Chang’s father paid her tuition / by intuition his brain // now shuns all logic…”.

These small stories weave and flow into each other across sections, and all of these encounters are deeply empathetic to human flaws of all sorts. Sentiment skirmishes with humor and poignancy and, at times, darkness. The result is a narrative journey that is both intimate and ironic.

In our conversation, Victoria spoke about her books as “projects”—each one a kind of obsession for her, and she writes them in the bursts of time that she salvages from the crannies of her busy life. She talks about writing in the unbroken lines that were later turned into quatrains (in The Boss) or staggered couplets (Barbie Chang), and that explore the endless repetitions and spirals of lives and events.

Part Two of Barbie Chang is an interlude of epistolary poems addressed to “P,” which have the feel of unbroken writing formed into fourteen-line stanzas about birth, a tormented love for a child, and the struggle with the language to express it. The second stanza begins, “I want to change the ending before this / begins…” and later continues with these sibilant lines, “something wept seeps / down my arm through my fingers and comes / out as speech a soft speech sponge speech…”.

Part Three follows the stories that began in Part One, and Barbie Chang speaks about her mother’s death and its aftermath. “Barbie Chang Pokes Through” invokes a startling last image of grief: “…now she is left with / small images of her // mother that come and hover and leave / whenever they please // little hummingbirds of death.”

Throughout the collection are scattered musings on language and form, and on the purpose of poetry in the world: “…if a heart doesn’t beckon // forever why does it matter if we ever / reach language why does // it matter which form is better or whether / anyone ever wins an // award for anything”; and later,“…does anyone know the author’s original / intent does it matter // that no one knows exactly what it means,” and “…what if there are no verbs just nouns / what if saying something // makes it true…”.

The last section returns to addressing “P” in a new form: the lines are airy and double spaced with breaks—forming a kind of poetic counsel, and closing the book with this last line: “every woman // begins and ends with another woman.” Throughout this stunning and varied collection, Chang’s poems are circular and open and, as she put it in our interview, leave you “hanging like fog, or like dangling earrings” in their resistance to closure.

Interviewing Victoria Chang was like talking to a friend who is sensitive and candid; she is fierce about the important things, with hints of an old soul lingering underneath. She is a poet who has unique and searing perspectives on the world we currently inhabit. In this interview, Victoria shared her struggle to find time to write, talked about trauma and obsession, about process, and offered clues as to how an accomplished poet navigates the publishing world. What follows are excerpts from our conversation.

Theresa Rogers: You have a professional career and a family and still find time and space for your writing. How have you managed that? 

Victoria Chang: Yeah, it’s been really hard. I actually quit my regular full-time day job last March, but I still do a lot of consulting because they keep asking me to do stuff. I just look for those moments where I feel really driven—and passionate—about something. And if I don’t have time to work on something at that moment because my mind’s on something entirely different, like a paying day job, I just wait until I have no choice, and then I find really weird times to write. That’s always been the case, and that’s why I think a lot of my post-children writing has been like an outburst. I just finished a draft of what, hopefully, will become my next book of poems. I wrote the whole draft—and I think it’s about sixty pages—in two weeks.

TR: Wow.

VC: Feverishly. And then I spent the next four months editing, religiously, and it’s every second, every moment. The kids are off in the summer, they’re in and out of camps and they’re older now, so right now they’re left to their own devices. Do you have children?

TR: I do. I have grown children and a grandchild.

VC: So, you know exactly what that’s like. When they were younger—I used to sit in cars a lot and even now, all last year I would wait in the pick-up line and pretty much either read or work on something that was really bothering me, and I would purposely go early since I don’t have to go into an office every day. So, I chose to spend one hundred percent of my time writing. I didn’t write a ton of reviews or do a ton of reading or engaging in the community. I was selfishly using every spare moment on my own stuff. I think that kind of held me through. I think of it as “well, I’m just like, a person with a different background and therefore I hope I have different things to say,” and that’s kind of how I’ve viewed it.

TR: I read an interview where you talked about how that gave you more material to work with.

VC: I think that’s true. It’s the material, but it’s also how your brain thinks about the material because, and this is not to criticize people who go straight into academia and all that—but for me at that point in my life, it would have been a little bit too narrow. I tend to like very broad thinking. Working in different areas has shaped the way I think about my poems. Even if they’re just about the elegies that don’t have anything to do with anything in the workplace, I like to think that my experiences have shaped my writing in some ways.

TR: In terms of your process, in a recent interview with Lunch Ticket, Dana Gioia talked about being at the mercy of the muse. Are you at the mercy of the muse? What inspires you?

VC: Without the muse I don’t see the point because there are so many other easier things to do, so inspiration for me is that passion that you must write this down. And I think writers intend—other people do other things, but we make sense of ourselves, the world around us, and our feelings through words, and we do that with the hope of sharing our words.

…we make sense of ourselves, the world around us, and our feelings through words, and we do that with the hope of sharing our words.

So, the muse is what we do—that’s all we can do! Other people work out or go start companies or make music. I think writers just have this desire, this natural desire or trained desire—I don’t know where it comes from—to write things down, and I think that it’s almost like we can’t not do it. People have said that before but I feel the same way, unfortunately or fortunately. It’s sort of who I am and what I do and that’s all I can do, and if I don’t write, I feel very unhappy.

TR:  That reminds me, I wondered if the “P” that you write to in your most recent collection (Barbie Chang)—I could be dead wrong on this—but I read it as speaking to poetry?

VC: Oh yeah, I think it could be. It’s sort of like speaking to anyone but it started out literally as speaking to my eldest daughter whose name is Penny. I think it evolved beyond that but I just kept the “P” as this open thing—a body or spirit that I’m speaking to. It’s kind of like an everyone, and a no one. But it did start off as an epistolary poem to that eldest daughter. I wrote the last ones at the end of the book that are more broken up and staggered just recently, maybe early last year, as an afterword to try to make the book stronger. I had in my mind as the future I guess. I think they end up being really to anyone.

TR:  I like that—“to an everyone or no one.” I want to go back to your first book, Circle, which I loved. In that collection you vividly and unreservedly describe the perspectives of abused, desperate, and haunted women. You include voices of a concubine in the 600s, a wife in the Shang Dynasty whose husband is cheating, and Lady Jane Grey watching her husband’s skull rolling down the flagstones. And I noticed that your second collection, Salvinia Molesta, has poems about Mao’s fourth wife, and Iris Chang [the author of Rape of Nanking] who I didn’t know had taken her life. So many of these poems read like incantations. What is the genesis of these poems—or what inspired you to write them?

VC:  I was an East Asian studies and history major in college, and I also have a Master’s in East Asian studies. I’ve always been really interested in history and how we repeat history. It kind of refracts and changes a bit, but our essential human experiences feel or felt very similar to me when I was writing those poems. And I think I was probably in my twenties and thirties when writing those poems, and at that time I was grappling and struggling with my own personal relationships with men, relationships I had before I was married, and I didn’t really know how to do that in an interesting way. Just naturally I must have, without consciously thinking about it, gravitated towards these other women in history who probably had similar yet different experiences. I felt like I could relate to all these women in so many ways. And having grown up in a strong female, feminist kind of family, I wanted to look to all these women for help and embody their voices in some ways to make sense of my own experiences. And I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I imagine that’s probably what I was doing subconsciously. I do a lot of things; I just write them and don’t really think about it. I never really map out, “This is what I’m going to do.” I just start doing it and it’s only later I can reflect on what I was doing. And then other people always do a much better job reflecting on what I was doing. Even though the work that comes out seems organized, I tend to be very organic in the process of writing.

TR: We often make sense of our experiences and, I guess, our writing much later. At Antioch [University Los Angeles] in June, you led a workshop about endings to poems. You talked about moving past the temptation for closure and instead to let poems suggest a future beyond the story of the poem, referencing Baruch. And you gave us some great examples, including Glück’s “Purple Bathing Suit” and Haas’s “A Story about the Body.” Could you say a little bit more about how you resist closure in your own work?

VC: I think it’s so easy to say what you’re thinking or what you’re feeling and you could make successful poems by doing that all day long if you’re a good writer; but for me, there’s something else when I’m reading a poem that’s really stunning that takes me beyond, and that beyond is sort of like that mysterious unspoken, kind of lasting feeling. It’s like this lingering taste in your mouth. When I’m working on my own writing, I’m always trying to not state the obvious—whether it’s through an image or even ending a poem or, even beginning a poem. Everybody’s already said this this way before, so how do I say something in a way that leaves you kind of hanging, you know, like fog or like dangling earrings or… When I am writing, I try very hard subconsciously to not close things. Something kind of mysterious—if I’m not exactly clear what I even wrote and what it means, that’s when I like things more and I keep it that way because sometimes that ghostly feeling of multiple directions is a good thing. It could be interpreted many different ways and there’s a difference between that and purposeful mystery that is just confusing, you know? So, I do think you have to be careful when you’re writing that way not to be so opaque that it makes no sense and just agitates the reader. There’s a good agitation and there’s a bad agitation. And that comes through the editing process. You have to figure that out for yourself, what you can get away with and what you can’t get away with.

TR: That’s one of the things I love about reading your work—it’s not too opaque. It’s open in terms of meaning, but as a reader I can pick up resonances in places where you don’t say exactly what you’re talking about.  This was the case in reading The Boss, which is so beautifully rhythmic. And you address—maybe not, as you say, overtly or directly—but you do address difficult truths about contemporary culture, our contemporary culture, and the power structures and so forth.  Can you tell us how that book came about as a kind of extended meditation on these issues?

VC: Usually when something happens or there’s some kind of trauma in my life, [I need] time to process it. I had a really mean boss, just like awful passive-aggressive human who I’ve learned has since terrorized other people, really good, nice people, like myself, and you spend a lot of time thinking: “Well, what did I do wrong, is it me? What should I have done better?” And then my dad had a stroke, maybe nine years ago, and then he had another brain bleed, so he suffers from aphasia and frontal lobe dementia, and then my mom had a really bad—she passed—lung disease. I wrote about that too, pulmonary fibrosis. I had young kids, too, which was a different form of trauma and joy, but lots of trauma for me because I don’t do as well with younger kids. It was very challenging for me to raise babies and toddlers so the time was so difficult and not enjoyable on so many levels, so that it was just all trauma.

I do think you have to be careful when you’re writing that way not to be so opaque that it makes no sense and just agitates the reader. There’s a good agitation and there’s a bad agitation.

One day I had a little bit of time waiting for one of my kids to finish a language class and I just sat in my car instead of driving home—it was too far to drive and repeat. I had three hours, and she had six more classes, so out of boredom I picked up some scrap paper and started writing all these feelings—we were talking about this before—I finally had time to sit and stare at this tree and all these people coming in and out of the parking lot and I started writing these long-lined no-punctuation things. Eventually the McSweeney’s editors made them into quatrains of staggered lines because they felt like it was hard to read. So, I just kept on writing more of them. I had a whole notebook and I realized maybe these are poems! And I worked on editing them for a year. Then what I do is start sending them out to journals to test them and see if these are poems: “Is anyone interested in reading these?” Because you never know.

Sometimes you wonder, are you writing for yourself or are you writing for other people? I think it varies for different people but I never know if anyone’s going to like anything that I write until I start sending them to journals, and the editors either take them or they don’t, and that’s a good measure for me as a writer. So that’s how those poems formed. But I do remember, so as not to glorify it, my manuscripts going through quite a few editors who said “no” before someone said “yes.” The Boss was very difficult. A lot of people didn’t like it as a book, and I think that one was more difficult than Barbie Chang to get published.

TR: That will be interesting also to new writers to know that some books take their time to find their way to an audience.

VC: Oh definitely! I don’t know how other people’s minds work, but I tend to think that I have crazy ideas and this is not just with writing. And some of the ideas are really weird and way too far ahead or beyond what’s happening today, so I never know if something I’m writing is just way out of touch or out of whack or just not relevant. Sometimes I reflect on The Boss and think: “Well gosh, what a weird thing to write.” Especially for people in the poetry community at that time. With all the gatekeepers and editors who’ve never worked at a company before, for the most part, and don’t know what it’s like to work in the corporate environment, there’s a deadening and a spirit killing about that whole process, especially if you don’t like your job. I was worried that nobody would think it was relevant, and to some extent I was right. But then it came out and I think some people really liked it and found it relevant, so that was nice to see.

TR: Yeah, it feels almost historically cyclical because there was a time when Williams and Stephens and some of our older American poets were very much in that workaday world.

VC: Yeah! And I think that it’s a reflection of the macro literary world. Over the last twenty years most of my writer friends, almost all of them actually, have tenure-track jobs in poetry or in fiction. I’m forty-six, so I’m a GenX and almost everybody I know that’s had some success publishing is getting tenure now. There’s very few of us [who] are actually actively publishing books and in really good journals who don’t work in academia. I think this next generation will be different and I think prior generations were also not quite as much that way, and it started with the boomer generation before us. I hadn’t thought about this—it just reflects our greater job market really. And how literature has really worked itself into academia over the last maybe two generations.

TR: Much of what we’ve been talking about seems to resurface in Barbie Chang, which was just a pleasure to read. I want to go back again to June when you talked about deciding to write from a kind of persona in much of that book, and in a recent interview in Poetry Magazine you talk about how the volume came together as a hybrid space between the personal and the universal. Did that offer you a kind of freedom in what you wrote and how you wrote it?

VC: We’re all writing in a vacuum and sometimes I wonder, why would my own experiences mean anything to anyone? I have that natural fear that my personal experiences are too personal and how do we transcend that? Especially in an age where there’s so much noise and so many people are writing in this solipsistic way in this narcissistic time that we live in and I grew up in. I just find that to be so tedious. I didn’t want to be that kind of writer. I just intuitively thought it would be fun, and it is fun [to write in persona]. At the end of the day I think of writing as play, I really do, and so I thought, let me just play and change this first-person I to a third-person character and the name Barbie Chang popped into my head. I thought it would be kind of funny and sarcastic and ironic and paradoxical, and also it’s political, you know? And I think it makes a statement. This character became a way for me to write more than about my own experiences as a person of color living in a community that is not always welcoming to people of color, even today in California.

I was telling my husband that I’d just witnessed a kid make fun of Asian people—eleven years old and he pulled his eyes wide and made them all squinty—and I thought, I’m in California, I grew up in Michigan, the last time that someone did that to me was probably when I was nine years old. And it’s still happening today and he did it in front of my kids, which really, really, infuriated me. I don’t live in Los Angeles proper, but I’m really close to Long Beach and it’s a diverse community. Everywhere I go I see people of color, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, but I just feel like the people in the community [who] are not people of color, to be frank, are really racist—not all of them, but some of them; and I just wanted to write about that, and didn’t know how, so I started with the “I” and changed it to a third person, and once I changed it, it felt like, okay, now I’m really able to open it up and make it more than about myself, because I know other people experience this all the time, every day. Not only Asian American people but all people who are different, and I think that I just got tired of it and I just couldn’t believe that it still exists and that adult women were behaving the way they were behaving and I wanted to write about it. So that’s how that third person character came about.

TR: The book is so rich—some poems are surreal, some are elegiac and some are philosophical. And having gone through a similar loss of my mother, I found the poems about your mother particularly affecting. There’s one where you talk about likening your mother’s diseased lungs to honeycombs and: “there’s nothing scarier than something that won’t stop fooling you with its beauty.” I just thought that poem was stunning. But what I also want to talk about—it is the day after Charlottesville [two days after Heather Heyer was murdered during the white supremacist rally], and we were just talking about race. Your political poems in this book have a kind of openness that you were talking earlier about, but are so resonant. In one poem, a small moment about your daughter and this group that you were just referring to that you name “the Circle,” are the lines: “[The party] was a hit little girls going in figure / eights their breath / coming out in clouds shaped like / little white hearts.” And it stopped my own breath in a way just reading it. Can you talk about writing these poems at this moment in our culture?

VC:  I’m glad you found things in the collection that resonated with you, and that particular poem, the ice-skating one, was actually a story that someone else had told me. Being a parent is… It’s like a war zone out there sometimes. And at this particular school (we no longer go there, thank goodness) there’s this group of women who all kind of look alike, dress alike, and they’re all very attractive, and none of them are people of color obviously—

TR: I was going to ask, are they all white? They read as white but I didn’t know.

VC: Some are half Latino or something, but you know it’s like the white majority mentality that they’re going after. There’s a sort of personal erasure, I think, with the ones who weren’t fully white, but perhaps looked white. I call them aspirational. Towards what, I have no idea, but they mistreated a lot of people in the community. And that one story about the ice skating was horrific to me. Someone had sent out an e-vite to another parent for a birthday party. But they had accidentally sent it to the wrong person, because the mother had the same name as someone else. So instead of just saying “come, just come,” this person took the time and effort to email this mother to tell her: “Sorry, I didn’t mean to invite you.” Most people would think that’s totally fine—it’s that person’s prerogative to disinvite. To me, though, it’s not. It wasn’t as simple as that. It’s a social statement, a political statement. It’s like this person wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t just “my child’s not friends with this person.” No, this other woman was very exclusive, only hung out with certain people, and for me the pain is when parents behave that way and your children get hurt in the end. Your children learn how to mistreat people; your children learn how to—on our side—only hang out with people who may be like them. And it was just a proxy for all the bad behavior at that school by these particular people, and I wrote it as if it happened to Barbie Chang. You have that freedom to do things like that.

I started with the “I” and changed it to a third person, and once I changed it, it felt like, okay, now I’m really able to open it up and make it more than about myself, because I know other people experience this all the time, every day. Not only Asian American people but all people who are different…

It’s just the ignorance, the stupidity, the entitlement, the arrogance, the idea that they’re better than [other] people, the fact that that still exists in this day and age is absurd and watching all these events happen, not just in Charlottesville but daily in this environment, I can’t even believe that people think that’s okay, that somehow because they’re of a certain ethnicity or gender they’re somehow better than everyone else. It just makes my blood boil, honestly just even thinking about all this. It starts with the parents. I’m not saying any of these parents are raising neo-Nazis or anything like that, but I’m telling you, their children will not ever have friends of color, who might be different than them, unless those friends of color are just like them; and I see this perpetuation of stereotypes of racism, of a lack of flexibility in the parents, and exclusivity, and I think, Uh, so I could pretty much tell you what those neo-Nazis parents are like,” because these kids didn’t just grow up that way; and there are aberrations where kids just become something because they’re inherently evil, but I think for the most part I blame it on the parents and I blame it on our culture—it’s all connected. It’s like your responsibility as a parent is so much bigger than just making sure a kid eats and does well in school and all these other things. You’ve got to make sure that they’re open, and again, to see that eleven-year-old pull his eyes and make them really small, it just made me think: “Who’s teaching these other kids? Whom did he pick that up from? And what parent allowed their kid to think that’s okay?” The fact that it could get generationally passed down since I was a kid is just astounding to me, and it just shows you the long-lasting effects of racism.

TR: True. And finally, before we go, can you talk at all about your next project that you mentioned in the beginning? Or is it something you’d rather not talk about?

VC: I read some of the poems from the next project at the reading. They are called “Obit.” They’re actually these prose pieces and prose poems and they’re shaped like an obituary so they’re thin and narrow, as if they would appear in a newspaper… It’s like a fragmentation of grief and the dying. I noticed that when someone dies [whom] you’re close to, it’s not just that person who dies, it’s everything else [that] dies around it, like optimism… Let me pull it out, I haven’t looked at it in a while. So, doctors died, money died, control died, form died, appetite died, secrets died. So like all of these other things are dying too. It was a way to distill grief. And there are some narrative stories in there, and I want it to be more philosophical. I just finished a draft of them a while ago and started the same process of sending them out, so a couple of them are actually out in the world. Agni took a bunch and 32 Poems took a bunch. And there’s more coming out in New England Review in September. I can absolutely talk about them because I feel like most of the work is complete. There will probably be tinkering and things like that going forward, and who knows if I’ll add any more. When poems get rejected I revisit and work on them, so I’ll definitely keep working on it over time.

 

We closed our conversation by sharing our experiences about being women in academia and in the corporate world. Victoria talked about her fascination with the Ellen Pao trial on gender discrimination in Silicon Valley (which she writes about in Barbie Chang), and in the corporate finance world more generally. As she said in our conversation: “I had written some of those poems while that was happening, so it was interesting to think about those issues and how women are always subservient in our culture.” Victoria seems to have her finger on the cultural pulse of our society in her work, which is so deftly intertwined with her everyday lived experiences. In reading her poetry, we are privy to the mind of a philosopher of contemporary corporate life, everyday racism inherited by children, gender discrimination, fraught relationships, aging and death, and of language. ~TR

 

Theresa Rogers currently divides her time between Vancouver, Canada, and Wellfleet, Massachusetts, and is completing her MFA in poetry at Antioch LA.  She has published poems in the Cape Cod Poetry Review and The San Diego Reader as well as various local publications. She also teaches at the University of British Columbia. Learn more at tessrogerspoetry.com.