August 20, 2018KR Conversations

Victoria Chang

Victoria ChangVictoria Chang’s most recent book of poems is Barbie Chang, published by Copper Canyon Press in 2017. Other books are The Boss (McSweeney’s, 2013), Salvinia Molesta (University of Georgia Press, 2008), and Circle (Southern Illinois University Press, 2005). She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017 and lives in Southern California. Two of her “Obit” poems can be found here. They appear along with others in the July/Aug 2018 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing the “Obit” series?

My mom died in 2015 after a long illness (pulmonary fibrosis) and while I didn’t want to write about it or write elegies (form seemed clichéd to me), I ended up writing these OBITs because I heard on the NPR that someone had made a documentary on obituary writers and obituaries and the documentary was called OBIT. I loved that word and I went home and after two weeks had written seventy-five of these. I’ve been working on them for over two years and have a new manuscript now. That’s how they came about. Also when my mom died, I felt/feel that everything died. And so that’s how each singular OBIT came about.

Visually, this series of poems occupy the page in neat blocks with equal line-length afforded by careful internal spacing. How do you intend the visual existence and impact of these poems shapes or frames their meaning, message, and or the readers’ experience?

Grief is all-encompassing. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish my mom were here. When I’m going through a hard thing, I long to speak with her about it but can’t. This elongated perpetual grief overwhelms me with more grief. Grief is the only infinite thing that I’ve known. So these confined OBITs felt like a way to try and contain the grief, to try and wrangle it, knowing it’s an impossibility.

Your Obits each introduce the deaths of arguably conceptual things (Affection, Optimism, even the Clock in how it relates to time and memory) until the death of Clothes, a surprisingly physical and identifiable loss that offers a newly palpable abandonment of a “vacant shirt.” What does this shift do for and to this collection, and would you say that “clothes” are perhaps also occupying a conceptual space here, like Affection, Optimism, and the Clock?

That’s a great question—I actually mostly left the poems in the order in which they were written because I wanted to maintain the integrity of the exploration of grief. Not to get mathematical or anything, but the order of operations was important to me during this process. What is the process of grieving really like? In which order does grief come? What parts of grief arrive first, then what comes after? So I think your question relates a bit to that gradual specificity and “order of operations” for lack of another phrase. And grief echoes in a chamber so some things get repeated but refracted—I wanted to maintain that integrity.

Your last Obit poem discusses a rationale of death, detailing what sort of deaths make a catastrophe and which ones are recognized as a “natural” part of life. Where might you put the deaths of the things your Obits cover on this scale, or are they intentionally made to break and disrupt this easily categorizable and societal perception of death? 

Things are representational of people and so I think things are quite important in the context of grief. But I do think in that poem you are referring to that we categorize death as outsiders—there’s a hierarchy of death when we observe it. Maybe even when we experience it. Death and grief isn’t uniform or unilateral. It’s ultimately layered and complex.

How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?

I think I got “better” at figuring out what I was doing as time went on. Granted, my process is very concentrated in time, so we’re really talking about a few weeks of initial drafting here. But I did go back and edit and re-write for years, and even write new poems towards the manuscript. I added a series of Tankas, too, so I’d like to hope my writing process is always growing and changing.

Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing? 

Well, for me, writing is such a small aspect of my life that I would say all of it. I have my dad who has dementia, my two kids who require a lot of time and attention, my family, my wiener dogs, my job at Antioch where I teach and help to administrate the program, the NBCC, and all the billions of literary things I’m asked to participate in daily that I rarely say NO to . . . all these things take over my life. If I can write for one hour a week, I think I’m pretty lucky, but I’ve gone years without writing anything or editing. It’s really a problem and I haven’t quite figured that out yet and I’m not sure if I ever will. I’m honestly grateful to change a word in a poem—it brings me ultimate joy. My standards are so low.

What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given? 

I don’t listen to any writing advice :-). I’m deathly independent and go my own way. I try to do my own thing and follow my own mind because I hope that will reveal the singularity of my mind since we all have that singularity. I like to play, to experiment, to try new things—it brings me such joy. It doesn’t always yield success or accolades or anything else, but truly truly truly, I don’t care. I want to do things that bring me joy and what comes of it comes of it.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next? 

I was telling a friend of mine (who was working on a “bar scene” for a new novel he is working on) that I want to work on something new, but I don’t know what. I can’t just sit down and write a poem. I need to be struck by something akin to a tornado, lightning. I saw that Ilya Kaminsky wrote a beautiful essay and sometimes I’ve talked to him about this or writing more reviews (I try to write reviews), but I have so little time that I can’t emotionally commit to writing longer prose pieces right now (or maybe never). I don’t know. Being a parent, a caretaker, etc. is a full-time gig—I feel like I need to focus more energy taking care of my own kids. I’m constantly a guilty parent.