Victoria Chang‘s fourth book of poems, Barbie Chang, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2017. The Boss (McSweeney’s) won the PEN Center USA Literary Award and a California Book Award. Other books are Salvinia Molesta and Circle. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Sustainable Arts Foundation Fellowship in 2017. She lives in Los Angeles and works as Teaching Faculty at Antioch University’s MFA Program. You can find her at www.victoriachangpoet.com.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar: Over the course of about five weeks I exchanged emails with Victoria Chang, leading with my practical and admiring question of how she manages to balance her poetry career with such concentration and focus while maintaining her demanding day job as a business consultant.
What are some ways you move between the corporate consulting work you do and thinking about/shaping poems? Were there periods of time when you wrote less often or conversely wrote more because of stressors or events from your day job?
Victoria Chang: Definitely. So I’ve worked in business-related things for nearly 20 years, maybe more. I just recently stopped/retired from that work just this past summer. There were periods (depending on the job I had) where I didn’t have time to write and when I was in business school, and the years before where I was working a lot, I never wrote and wasn’t in the right mindset. I wasn’t around the right kinds of people to generate creativity. I hadn’t yet found my “tribe.” But once I got a more flexible job in my early to mid-thirties, I was able to dedicate morning time maybe from 7-8am to working on poems. And that flexibility allowed me to go back and get a low-residency MFA and to occasionally attend AWP and go to writer conferences like Napa, Kenyon, Breadloaf, and Sewanee. After I had children, I changed my writing habits again and only write in small short bursts—very intense bursts and then I revise for years on end after that at my leisure.
CB: This notion of community brings to mind how, not long ago, you leapt to another poet’s defense on Twitter when someone implied he was doing something wrong by “posting so many poems”! I love that poet, too, so I applauded when you became unexpectedly fierce. That notion of community, your mention of “tribe” and its linkage to creativity is fascinating on multiple levels.
Do you think Asian-American poets are pressured to be part of a preordained “tribe,” and can you think of times when you’ve really NOT wanted to identify or be identified that way?
Your poems have been described as striking for their incredibly inventive, assured, and distinctive voice that, at the same time, calls to mind voices of other lauded poets (e.g. W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich—for the Barbie image, the barely-stifled but self-examining anger at times, the ability to produce incredible tension within a poem).
What does having or not having a “tribe” do for a poet’s developing voice? Is there a merit in being alone in the wilderness, or do you think there is some positive relationship between MFAs and “voice.” (In fiction, programs are seen as “the death knell” of distinctive voice.)
VC: Well, for the record, I usually don’t leap to the defense of anyone on social media, but this case was different. I won’t say anything more about it because given what I know now, I would not have engaged that person. So… Moving on.
I think I understand what you are saying—that others might clump Asian Americans into a certain tribe or group—that we are somehow all the same and/or we are all great friends and naturally connect. I grew up in the Midwest and was forced to assimilate, so, in many ways, I don’t identify with a lot of Asian Americans. Sometimes I connect with particular Asian Americans, other times we couldn’t be more different. I’m just me and I have a very unique background, so while I speak Chinese, grew up in a very Chinese household, eat a lot of Chinese food, know a lot about the history of my parents’ cultures, I don’t necessarily identify with someone simply because they are Asian. In fact, growing up in the Midwest (where there weren’t a lot of Asians) kind of had a double identity effect on me–I was clearly the kid of immigrants for one, and secondly, I wasn’t like the coastal Asian Americans who had the luxury of having more Asians around them. It’s easy to criticize myself for not being more X or more Y or for not being outspoken enough of political enough, etc., but I look back at my background and the amount of overt racism and discrimination my family, and I experienced growing up in the Midwest to be a clear reason why I am the way I am. And I don’t make apologies for the way I am either. It’s just the reality of my background.
And yes, definitely. There’s a huge merit to just being your own person. I am very very very independent. I have a strong will to be independent. I also am attracted to visual artists and writers and frankly anyone in any field who has a lot of vision—and I aspire to be like those people. I like to go my own way and do my own thing. I’ve never spent a lot of time caring what people think of me or my work. I just do what I do—like it or not. I love the MFA. I think it’s a great time to do a lot of reading you might not do otherwise, to get exposed to different kinds of writing (by your faculty), and to learn everything you think you know but really don’t. It’s the perfect place to get training and background. You might spend those two years mimicking other people, but like the artists who learned from the masters, that’s what writers are doing too. It’s only after you learn that you can go off on your own path and write the poems or prose only you were meant to write. If you don’t learn (and you can learn on your own, but good luck—it’s a lot easier to learn within an intense environment), then you will just write the poems or prose you were meant to write badly (most likely—unless you are like the 1% of gifted people in this world, which most of us, including myself are not).
CB: Which poetry or poems did you find yourself most in dialogue with when you started writing, and which do you find yourself turning to after having published multiple critically-lauded books (either mentally or literally, in terms of picking up their work or reciting it out loud)? Do you feel your own relationship with poets is different now that you have succeeded as a poet vs. when you were just starting to write poetry?
VC: I read a lot of books, especially contemporary poetry and during the year, I also try and read older poems and poets, so there are always a lot of things happening in my head. I’m always interested in the most out-there writers in any genre, whether appreciated or not because I think those people are really pushing the envelope and trying new things. I like to try new things too. I think of poetry writing as play and so I enjoy playing with language from one project to another, and I tend to write in projects because of my obsessive personality.
I don’t know how “lauded” any of my books have been, but thank you for saying that. I always think about all the great visual artists and how their work wasn’t lauded while they were alive because they were doing such different things, so my goal isn’t necessarily to be lauded by anyone. And I certainly don’t think I have “succeeded as a poet”—to me to be a real artist, a pure one, you never “succeed” because that’s not what you are necessarily going for. But I understand what you are saying in that I have published some books of poetry. I think the minute you start chasing success as a writer, you’re in for a rough road because so much is out of your control.
CB: “Lines like, “parks next to Soroptimist Park,” “paid her tuition by intuition,” and “One night the power in your house will/disappear” all represent the way you play with words. What relationship do you have to emotional excavation and the tone shift such excavation can cause? How does this word play dictate your writing practice?
VC: I enjoyed word play in The Boss and Barbie Chang because it was fun and it made writing poetry fun for me. It’s not always fun to be in the sometimes harsh and unfriendly poetry community—people can get kind of mean sometimes, so for me, it’s all about the writing and enjoying myself as much as possible. I like the challenge of writing and trying new things. Really pushing myself. So, I allowed the language to propel the poems forward instead me trying to control what they were doing.
CB: And just to spend a moment on The Boss and a book that resonated with so many readers. Not only does the boss dominate those who work for her/him, but the boss conveys to them a sense of their inferiority. It reminded me of Ed Park’s novel, Personal Days, and I wonder whether you’ve read it and if you have, what you thought of it.
VC: I haven’t read Ed Park’s book, but I just looked it up and it looks interesting. I try and read all the poetry I can and then only have time left to stay on top of a few books of prose a year. I like to read widely AND deeply. But yes, I have had a lot of great bosses in my life and have had a few truly truly horrid bosses who were universally hated, but they are oddly still in their same positions—that shows you how the entire system doesn’t always work! It was fun to write about hierarchy and the slippage of hierarchy. One minute we are the boss (of our children), the other moment, the boss is the boss of us, and the children could suddenly be the boss of you, and then your dad is the boss of you. That was interesting to explore. Of course, this only came to my consciousness after I wrote that book.
CB: Finally, I loved the “Dear P.” poems in the book. Can you speak to those poems specifically?
VC: In the fourth section of the book, I “wrote in” those poems after the manuscript was finished—meaning the middle Dear P. poems were from an old manuscript and I felt that there needed to be more Dear P. poems at the end. But they needed to be different with caesuras and should feel more alight and haunting. So I wrote all of those in section four when the book was mostly done.