As 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.
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.