AN INTERVIEW WITH VICTORIA CHANG BY MICHAEL ODOM
Almost to the beach in San Francisco, on a quieter street in a nicer apartment than the semi-studio near Civic Center that I shared with my wife and two-year-old son, I settled around a coffee table for a four-poet workshop given by an editor I’d recently hosted at a reading. Beside me sat Victoria Chang.
She lived in North Beach, as I remember. This was almost two decades ago and, of course, memory might have confused the investment banking/management consulting/marketing & communications professional/San Francisco poet with a Beat cliché… North Beach. Memory can be dumb that way.
This was well before any of her books were published, before Circle (2005), won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Award, before Salvinia Molesta came out from the University of Georgia Press a couple of years later, before, in 2015, Simon & Schuster published her children’s book, Is Mommy? And before today, on the day I write this, it is announced Victoria Chang will sit on the National Book Critics Circle’s Board of Directors.
But to my mind, a line was crossed in 2013 when McSweeney’s brought out The Boss. I was guest teaching before a reading, sharing the highlights of contemporaries, trying to spark imaginations. I presented on the overhead and read aloud from the book. I swear I heard gasps. As I started to move on, an eruption and some (somewhat rude if you consider I was the guy at the front of the room, so the authority figure, right?) gestures to indicate my audience wanted to keep reading. I saw typing on laptops & phones and pens working on notebooks.
This year, Copper Canyon released Barbie Chang. If the tension in The Boss was between human and employee, Barbie Chang negotiates the broader conflict between human and humans. These poems feel like life more than literature. You meet Barbie & Mr. Darcy. You thought their lives would be different.
BARBIE CHANG WANTS TO BE SOMEONE
Barbie Chang wants to be someone
special to no longer
have wet hair to no longer be spectral
to be a spectacle Barbie
Chang wants to befriend the Academy
which is the Circle
wants to eat meat with the Academy
wants to share with the
cads who think there is a door to the
Academy wants the key to
the Academy door wants to give grants
and awards for words
but she never knew that life was about
unraveling not raveling
that a tear is only a tear after it has
fallen her parents never
called in favors never knew there was an
Academy never learned
Alchemy Barbie Chang wants to forgive
the Academy for its
cattiness wants to hate the Academy
and its Circle and their
certainty each year she buys climbing
shoes to go up the tree
she tries but can’t climb and sells them
on Craigslist she gets a
new pair each year on her wish list but
can’t get past the first five
feet she stays on the street rolls herself
flat so she can become
the street feel the bare feet of people
pressing her deeper into
the earth there are aspirations of worth
everywhere a stipple of
ants around the cement crack frozen
from bug spray as if
they had meant to take the shape
of an iris
---from Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang, reprinted with permission from Copper Canyon Press
Alexandria Quarterly gave me the opportunity, the excuse, to impose on Victoria Chang for an interview and she so kindly agreed. The discussion that follows was conducted via a series of emails with one response taken from a comment on another poet’s Facebook post.
Michael Odom: Thanks for doing this, Victoria. I think I'd like to do the interview in segments, a question at a time. It may take longer, but I think it might be overwhelming otherwise.
Here's my first question: It seems a little odd to give a facile author bio that lists all the categories one might fit you in (elite universities, corporate boardrooms, Asian, Woman, Mom...) when Barbie Chang complicates those abstractions. You seem to have managed to get most of those judgmental "circles" to embrace you; that is, your bio reads as someone who has succeeded to meet all expectations. Thus my first question is about that tension between the abstraction of your life offered in your bio and the strain of those expectations in your poems.
Victoria Chang: Good point. But I think it's important to remember that by being "accepted" literally into schools, programs, companies, etc., doesn't mean one is truly "Accepted," right? And the question is how much harder does one need to work as a person of color and woman to get accepted into these institutions to begin with? On the surface, my bio might seem like life's been a piece of cake, but that's the whole point, it hasn't--particularly for a person of color and a woman, despite everything. That's the horror of it all. The degrees mean nothing to the Circle in the book--they only care about finding people that look like themselves. No matter what Barbie Chang "achieves," she will never fully be accepted. To conflate superficial "success" with acceptance is just wrong.
Michael Odom: First, do you have a duty to fulfill those expectations of career, daughter/wife/mother, Asian, woman...? Are those duties natural or to what degree are they optional? What would your life have been had you shirked all of those duties?
Victoria Chang: First, I don't view any of these things as "duties." I chose to have a paying job (as most people do). As an immigrant's kid and daughter of a feminist--I was told to go make your own living and don't rely on a man. I don't think that's a duty, but a mantra to live by for any woman, period. It's the same mantra I give to my children. And I think the things you list are just life. I don't think they are any different for me than anyone else in the world--we each have things we want to do in life, varying degrees of ambitions, goals, etc. I'm naturally very driven, very ambitious. My sister isn't exactly like me in that way. I'm naturally motivated and driven to be better than the self I was yesterday. I'm genetically wired that way. Not because I'm Asian or a woman or...it's just who I am. Not all Asians are like this, not all others are not like this if that makes sense. So I don't think of my life as shirking anything. I live it the way I want to live it and always have.
Michael Odom: Second, you also have been fitted with the title "Poet" and have been, as usual, very successful. What are the expectations of that identity? Is there a duty there? Do you strain against those expectations?
Victoria Chang: I title myself Poet; I don't think anyone fits anyone with the title Poet. I like writing, that's it. I like reading, that's it. I like to get my work out there and have people read it. There aren't any expectations of that identity except those that I set for myself. I just want to write poems that are better than the poems I wrote last time. I also want to break out of old molds and innovate my own writing each time. That's pretty much it. There's no duty. No expectations. No strain. I love what I do and am doing what I love. It's a gift and the minute it doesn't feel like a gift, I will stop doing it and do something else.
Michael Odom: If I had to guess to what degree you plan entire books, theme & thesis & form, I would guess you pre-write quite a bit. How much of the concept of Barbie Chang was conceived before the first full draft? What advantage does a book of lyric poems with one subject have over a verse essay or epic or novel in verse? And do you have a stash of individual lyrics, not necessarily related to each other, packed away somewhere awaiting your selected or collected poems?
Victoria Chang: I don't plan them at all. I don't pre-write at all. I'm very organic and bottom-up by nature as a writer and person. I only plan when I have to plan, say buying a house. Otherwise, life is pretty loose. The book was written in first person and then the name of Barbie Chang came up in my mind and I changed everything to third person, reimagined the whole book, and edited it. I also went back and "stole" poems from a prior manuscript (a lot of the Dear P. poems in the middle and also some of the Mr. Darcy poems which weren't Mr. Darcy poems) and changed it all as I went along. So not at all planned. But none of it (for me) ever is.
I have no stash anywhere. I used up all my stash for Barbie Chang.
Michael Odom: As I read the poems in Barbie Chang, the mostly common language sentences, regularly enjambed and unpunctuated, want to run on and let the reader fly along freely, pausing where instinct allows, taking ambiguity, when present, in stride. That seemingly uncontrolled flow is set in seemingly tight forms like rivers in riverbeds. This seems very appropriate given the struggle of an individual life fitting into groups, but I wonder if you would talk a bit about those forms. That two-line stanza, that sonnet, that block with spaces within lines spreading to the breadth of the page.... They don't seem sorted necessarily by syllable or accent (?) but almost as a computer would make them appear as forms they don't in detail fit. Am I wildly off? Do you think of form as pre-existing any particular poem, reusable, or tied to the individual poem so as to be inappropriate to others?
Victoria Chang: I think form is very organic too. I let the poem(s) tell me how they want to look. So for each poem or group of poems, I try different forms, but at some point, it becomes very intuitive. I love couplets by nature because they help the reader (including me) read poems. I don't like big blocks or the dreaded "candy bar poem" personally. I like space and air between lines. And I do play around a bit but not much at this point--I think at this point, I feel comfortable knowing while writing what it wants to be or knowing while editing. But I do experiment sometimes. It depends!
Michael Odom: I think I know, but to be certain, what do you mean by "candy bar" poem? Do you remember Donald Hall's "McPoem", easy confessional free verse poem that he thought workshops taught students to mass produce? Similar concept?
Victoria Chang: Oh no, I was just thinking how a poem is shaped physically like a candy bar. No space between lines and shaped literally like that. I'm not talking about content at all.
Michael Odom: Thanks for clarifying. I thought I might be missing a reference. I can’t stop thinking about implied expectations in your book. Perhaps I’m assuming we both have the same connotations of the name Barbie and Mr. Darcy. What connotations do the names have for you? Why didn't P. get a full, equally evocative name?
Victoria Chang: Barbie is the ideal American female and Mr. Darcy represents desire for the unreachable male. P. got P. because that's the name of my oldest child and I didn't want to put her full name in there; also leaving it as P. felt more ghostly and more universal--this P. didn't need to be my child, or any child.
Michael Odom: And, on a related but slightly different subject (the expectations of Poet), how do you feel about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize? Is he the one poet on Earth you would have chosen? What does it say about the expectations of poetry in the 21st Century?
Victoria Chang: I don't have strong feelings either way about Bob Dylan. I was surprised, but well, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about such things, at least I try not to.
Michael Odom: You seem to have lived in many different places; born in Detroit, studied at Harvard, Stanford, Southern California, I met you in San Francisco (mostly California?). Could you tell us where you've been & why each place? Is any place more yours?
Victoria Chang: I've definitely moved around and I think it probably represents my personality--I tend to hop around a lot in my mind and get really bored so tradition and staying are always a problem for me. I'm most at home in Southern California though. That's where I feel most at peace.
Michael Odom: Could you elaborate on that journey and those places some? When your mind is hopping around, what kind of things does it land on? And what is it about Southern California as opposed to other places with claims on you that makes it more suited to you?
Victoria Chang: I started in Michigan, went to UofM, then during two summers in college taught English in Taiwan to explore my heritage and learn the language. I went to Cambridge for grad school at Harvard, then got a job in Silicon Valley (San Francisco), went to business school at Stanford in Palo Alto, worked for a decade in the Bay Area, moved down to San Diego b/c I was tired of the tech boom, and gradually moved my way up to LA where I live today. There's not much to these places really--I don't think my movement is much different than a lot of other people's and don't think it relates much to my poetry.
I have no idea what my mind lands on--that's the whole point, isn't it? We don't know how our minds leap and mine tends to leap and I have a vivid imagination, sometimes too vivid.
Weather--it's simple. I love the weather and it just feels physically right. I love beach living, beach wind, beach air, sunshine, diverse foods and people, etc. Nothing unusual or interesting about that I don't think.
Michael Odom: Which brings up the translation question, do you publish translations? Do you do them for yourself as a tool in your own poetry?
Victoria Chang: No. I don’t translate at all, but I like to read translations.
Michael Odom: I was watching a talk you gave on YouTube (I think... Chapman?) where you speak of different people you read. I was particularly interested to hear you talk about Tomas Tranströmer. I wonder if your touchstones are different half a decade later? Who inspires &/or informs your own process now?
Victoria Chang: I read so much that I always have new ideas or new thoughts based on what I read. I still love Tranströmer but there are a lot of other works I like too. I’m very interested in complexity now, philosophically driven works. So these days I’m reading Anne Carson or Jorie Graham. But it’s really a moving target. I read 10 books at one time and then a week later am reading 10 more. In all subjects.
Michael Odom: And whose work are you passionate about? Who (when they finish Barbie Chang, of course), would you want readers to discover?
Victoria Chang: I hate answering this question because I read so much. There are so many great younger poets writing today. I admire so much of what they’re doing but I haven’t read everything, so I hesitate to name names. I really could list 100 poets writing today that I love and then another 100 that I enjoy and so on and so on.
Michael Odom: You posted today a comment about mourning being your normal mode. I wonder whether you would elaborate on that.
Victoria Chang: I’m not sure what that means even exactly, meaning I don’t know if I can explain it. But I think my mind tends to think in terms of loss. I prefer beginnings to endings. I don’t want to begin because I don’t want to end. I fear endings. So oftentimes I don’t begin. I don’t know if that makes any sense.
Michael Odom: Can we end with an imaginative circle of all your readers at once gathering around you, attentively waiting to hear that one thing you would not want the world to miss about Victoria Chang. What topic would your sermon be on? Can you give us a taste of that sermon?
Victoria Chang: Haha, a sermon. Okay, I'm the last person in the world that would give a sermon. But I guess if I had to, I would tell everyone how much I love poetry, language, bending language and that this is a pure art. Don't try to monetize or commercialize it. And remember why we all started writing and reading poetry--it's so easy to forget why with all the external noise. I guess that's all I would probably say.
Victoria Chang's fourth book of poems, Barbie Chang was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2017. The Boss, was published by McSweeney’s and won a PEN Center USA Literary Award and a California Book Award. Her other books are Salvinia Molesta and Circle. She also edited an anthology, Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation. Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, POETRY, Believer, New England Review, VQR, The Nation, New Republic, The Washington Post, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Sustainable Arts Foundation Fellowship in 2017. She is a contributing editor of the literary journal, Copper Nickel and a poetry editor at Tupelo Quarterly.
She also enjoys writing children's picture books and Is Mommy? was published in the Fall of 2015 by Beach Lane Books (Simon & Schuster), illustrated by Caldecott winner, Marla Frazee. It was named a NYT Notable Book. She lives in Los Angeles with her family and her weiner dogs, Mustard and Ketchup, and works at Antioch University as Teaching Faculty. She also serves on the National Book Critics Circle Board.
Michael Odom is the author of Boredom, Vice and Poverty and the chapbook Strutting, Attracting, Snapping. His poetry has been published in the literary journals, Clean Well-Lighted Place, The Henniker Review, In Posse, Pucker up, Watershed, and others, as well as two anthologies, Between the Leaves and Ritual Sex. Between 1989 until recently, he was a bookseller, Manager, and Buyer for both independent and chain bookstores. If you shopped for poetry at the Tower Books in Chico, CA, or Manhattan, in the early 90’s, you browsed the titles Michael Odom selected to have on sale in that store. The same is true in the final 7 years of A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco (which went out of business before the unrelated journal of similar title began) and Windows on the World in the Sierra foothills. As a single father with bookstores closing all around, Michael Odom pursued and recently received his MFA in Poetry from New England College. His latest books, Selene: In Poems and Count Arnau & Other Poems of Joan Maragall are available on Amazon.com.