A Conversation with Victoria Chang
BY HEIDI SEABORN
Back in late 2017, and fairly new to poetry, I didn’t know what to expect when Victoria Chang came to Seattle’s Open Books to read Barbie Chang. I was quickly wowed, and then she dropped some of her “new stuff,” a few poems she called “obits.” Soon Chang’s obit poems were appearing everywhere, like death notices during the plague. In April, her fifth collection of poems, Obit (Copper Canyon Press) will be published and is certain to become a definitive poetic guide to grief.
Recently, I had the opportunity to read an early galley of Obit. The collection is comprised of approximately 70 “obit” poems and two longer sequences, one lyric, one in tanka form. The obits appear in the shape of obituaries or graves or tombstones or coffins. You get the idea. But the collection shapeshifts to assume the varied forms that grief takes for each of us. These poems can be at times brutal and blunt, at other times howling and hungry. But always, there is a frontal, emotional directness to them.
Chang’s mother died on August 3, 2015, and her father suffered a stroke on June 24, 2009, that left him a shell of his former self. The obits are for her parents, but also for everything that changes when someone dies. In Obit, nearly everything dies—The Head, Hindsight, Oxygen, Optimism, Approval, Appetite, and so on—body parts to big concepts. The autobiographical becomes the universal.
When writing an obituary, a life is packaged and presented. The reader learns about the decedent’s life, relationships, achievements. Chang’s obits are their antitheses. Her obit poems explore what’s gone missing, failure, and brokenness. They are brimming with questions. Despite the finality of appearing as an obit, these poems don’t sum things up, they split everything open. They are wounds, not buried bodies. And isn’t that just like grief, how we often work to bury our sorrow, but there it is aching away in some corner of our mind? In Obit, nearly everything dies—except hope, humor, love, and (of course) grief.
With this issue, we are publishing three of Chang’s Obit poems, “My Mother’s Favorite Potted Tree—died in 2016, a slow death,” “Similes—died on August 3, 2015,” and “Tomas Tranströmer—died on March 26, 2015, at the age of 83.” I know you will enjoy reading them alongside the following excerpt from my conversation with Chang, wherein we discuss poetry and how loss is life-changing, sometimes in a good way.
Heidi Seaborn, Interviewer: Victoria, I think it was at a Bay Area Book Festival where I saw you on a panel, and you described your process for writing Obit, which also had to do with, if I remember it right, driving around and pulling off to the side of the road.
Victoria Chang, Poet: For Obit, I remember there was a car involved, because I was driving around after my mom had died, and I was listening to NPR, and they were talking about this documentary called Obit, and it was all about obituary writers. And I thought that word was really beautiful. Just that really long “O.” And when you say the O, your mouth stays open and then the T is really hard, and there’s that finality of the T, which almost feels like a door shutting, like death.
When someone you care about dies, if they’re a big part of your life at least, which my mom obviously was, especially because she was so sick and my dad was sick too, everything dies. Then I went home and wrote these little obituaries where everything dies. Then I ended up spending the next two weeks in a fury, not doing much else but writing them. They just flooded out.
HS: Which is amazing. Was it really soon after your mother died?
VC: She died in August of 2015, and it was in maybe January or February of 2016 that I wrote those Obits over a two-week period.
I have a very obsessive personality, for better or for worse. So that, combined with my schedule, I feel like that’s how I write poems. I’d like to try something different. The poet Amy Gerstler asked me once, “Why don’t you try and write one poem at a time?” I said, “I’ll try.” I get obsessed with things. It’s how my brain is made.
I’m one of those people who write from this sort of spiritual, obsessive practice. I put people like Terrance Hayes in that category. Oliver de la Paz and I are very similar. I think we don’t set out to write a book about X, though. Writing for me comes from a mysterious place that’s obsessive, and I think that we can’t not write something that we’re working on. Because it takes over our entire being. It takes hold of us, it seizes us, it controls us entirely. We have absolutely no control over it.
HS: And grief is not something you can control. My father died in 2012, but I wasn’t writing poetry then and I didn’t really have a channel for that grief. Once I started writing, I noticed that suddenly my dad would just sort of pop up in random poems.
VC: Absolutely. The things we’re working on don’t ever end. They bleed together, and it’s your life project, if that makes sense. I mean you are your life’s project. So, the demarcations that we create are very artificial and human-made, and I say that about genres all the time too. I don’t write poetry. I write, and whatever I write, it all bleeds around in different things, manifests themselves in different ways. In a middle grade novel that I wrote a while ago, the mother dies. I’m working on another middle grade novel now where the grandfather is sick. It’s all the same material, because that’s the material of my life, and it manifests itself in different ways. I don’t even think I write autobiographically; I think I just draw from aspects of my life, and then make art out of it—if that makes sense.
HS: And you’ve made art from grief.
VC: I was really trying to find a book that gave me solace after my experiences. I couldn’t find any in poetry. There have been a ton of amazing elegies, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t find a grief book in poetry that really spoke to me. I could find plenty in prose, like Joan Didion or Meghan O’Rourke. The books of poems were just okay, but not for me. I wanted to try to write the grief book, to write a book that would have helped me. Could I even describe these feelings? That became the challenge, and that was really, really hard. That’s what I set out to do.
HS: The Obit poems encompass your mother, but not just your mother—also your father, who’s lost his ability to speak because of a stroke. They also speak more toward the general loss of language, and of life. They’re written in the form of prose poems in the shape of newspaper obits and read like obits. Each opens with subject–died and the date. Did they come to you in that form?
VC: I wrote obits right away from the very beginning, because I didn’t want to write elegies. I didn’t want to write about my mother at all, or the feelings that I felt. But that word triggered something in me. Once I started writing, I didn’t even have time to sit down and make a list of things I thought. I literally just went one after another, bam, bam, bam, because of how I felt. I was really much more driven by my feelings, versus my mind. But the poems are very thinky.
HS: They are. The subject matter’s broad—they cover everything from your father’s frontal lobe, to your mother’s blue dress, to time and reason and memory—big topics. Reading them one right after another gives a sense of life being disassembled and then packed into these neat little coffin-shaped boxes on the page. It feels very tidy, on one hand, and yet the language is so not-tidy. I was interested by how, within each of the obits, there’s sort of a further disassembling, and disintegration, and the language captures the disorienting effect that grief has.
VC: Exactly. Oddly, the box form, the rectangular constraint, was really freeing. We think of form as oftentimes constraining us, but in this case, it was so free. I didn’t write in a box, like I didn’t actually give myself a box to write within, but I think that thinking in these terms, and this form that it was going to be in, was really freeing. Then, my mind naturally moves a lot, so my brain is absolutely like a pinball machine, the way it works, and sometimes it’s too much, it’s too fast. I think that also contributes to how I write. I write very quickly because of the way that my brain functions.
HS: But one of the things that I noticed is that there are a lot of questions inserted into the obits.
VC: I actually think I have a lot of questions but also can have a very logical brain. Who doesn’t have questions when we’re talking about death, or existential things, and grief? There are no answers, and that’s the beauty of these larger questions. I think those were the kind of metaphysical things I was really interested in with this book. I’ve always been really interested in philosophy. I think I could be very overly intellectual, for sure, and logical. I have naturally that kind of brain.
But on the other hand, my brain is so messy, so I think that that appears in the form of questions. My poems, when they first started out were influenced by other people and their styles. That’s how you learn how to write. But it wasn’t until I stopped doing that, which was probably by the third book, that my real personality came out, which is filled with questions and no answers.
I think the biggest philosophical questions are, What happens when we’re dying? and What happens when we die? I think, because of my mom dying, my brain was still there, but it also awakened my soul. This book, I think, was a combination of the heart and the mind. Whereas, I think in the past, my books and my work were more intellectually based. That’s where my comfort level was.
I also think that I hadn’t experienced real hardship until my dad had a stroke, and that was in my late 30s. Then my mom died, and that was another level of hardship. It’s awful to say that things like those are good for you, but I do think that all of those awful experiences were really good for me as a human being. Because I was very much in my head all the time. I feel like I can actually go to my heart and not feel so vulnerable. Because for me it’s always about vulnerability. I was taught to be strong, and to be that pillar, all the time. So, to actually show and reveal what I really feel, and to be vulnerable, was just not in my vocabulary growing up. It took my mom’s passing to be just a smidge more comfortable with that. I’m still never going to tell people stuff, because I’m not that open of a person, and so I think that Obit was more revealing, for me, than my other books.
HS: It’s interesting, because in one of the obits, “Victoria Chang, Died August 3rd, 2015,” there’s the line, “The one who never used to weep when other parents died, now I ask questions.” I think that very much speaks to exactly what you’re talking about, that very subtle change that death has, in this case on the speaker, which is reflected in that poetic language of using questions. It really, to me, was fascinating.
VC: I think that I was forced to grow up, and I’m still growing up. I’m certainly not even remotely… I mean, we grow up and we are grown, and then we die. Why am I working so hard at life if I am just going to die? It’s a really strange question. But my mission in life, my mother gave to me, was always to be really successful at whatever I did. Work harder than everyone else, do the best you can, and just go-go-go, mostly because it’s a good thing to be ambitious, apparently, but also because we are marginalized in all sorts of obvious ways. That’s not to say I’m not a generous person, but it wasn’t like I was going to sit around and have a lot of empathy for everyone all the time and spend a lot of time wasting my time on feelings. I think that I took that mission to heart, and in fact, that mission replaced my heart. I’m hardly reformed. I’m still very much that way. But I think that was what I had to do, because I wanted to make my mom happy, and I wanted her to be proud of me. So, I just did what she wanted me to do.
HS: No, it makes total sense. In a couple of the poems, the speaker talks about what I would call that social marker of ‘before grief and after grief,’ ‘before loss and after loss.’ I remember feeling that once I’d experienced my father’s death, I was a whole different person. Almost like the widows who wear black the rest of their lives, you’re marked. I thought that was really interesting, and I think you’re talking about that, how loss…
VC: It changes you.
HS: It deepens you.
VC: Yeah, it deepens you. Then also, it’s so lonely. Grief is very asynchronous. It’s like you suddenly have a card, like a membership card, to this club of people who’ve had parents die. But unfortunately, not everyone’s in that same place that you are in. But you have the card, so you could enter the club, but maybe no one’s there right now. So, it’s still very lonely, but what you can do is, when someone else’s parent passes, you welcome them into the club. That moment of connecting with people is really magical.
I had a workmate, her mother had passed, and she said, “Gosh, I feel so sorry that I didn’t say anything to you when your mom passed.” I said, “Oh my God, don’t worry about it.” Because you can’t really know what it feels like until it happens. But then I could actually connect with her, because I knew what she sort of felt.
In that way, it’s a way of connecting people. Although again, albeit asynchronously. That’s what I wanted to write this book for. Someone could pick up my book—in the same way I picked up Meghan O’Rourke’s book, or Joan Didion’s books—and suddenly feel connected to me.
HS: I think you’ve achieved that so well, because with Obit, the poems are so intensely personal, and yet they’re immensely universal. Which is exactly how grief functions. Except that it takes this unique form in each of us, and it shifts around. I had this conversation with my husband, who lost his parents decades and decades ago, and for him, it’s very ephemeral. For me, my grief is much more pointed, and for you it’s probably even more so. Do you feel like it’s evolving?
VC: Every day it changes. I find myself always calling to my mom when something bad happens, or when I need her. I’m like, where is my mom? I just have this yearning desire to ask her something, to ask her questions, or to help me with something, and she’s not there. So sometimes, now, if I feel bad, I’ll go visit my dad, who can’t actually help me, because of his stroke and dementia. But just being around him, even when I’m feeling really down, gives me that comfort of parenting. I’m not that young, so I feel like I should be able to deal with my own problems, but clearly there are some moments when I still want my mom. She was a pain, and she was a hard-ass, but I really talked to her a lot in the last, maybe, 15 years. We finally lived in the same city, and she was really sick, and then my dad was sick, and so I was around them a lot. I kind of got used to having them around. I really miss that, just the random conversations that you have. “This happened,” or “That happened,” or “What do you think of that,” that kind of thing. I kind of miss that. It’s not even about going on vacation together, it’s just the little things that I miss. I’m sure everyone who’s had a parent die, a parent they were relatively close to, or even if they weren’t close to them—I feel like there are a lot of unanswered questions, and a lot of things that are still up in the air. I mean, I’m sure you yearn your dad, all the time.
HS: Yeah, but you do too; that’s another form of loss—having your father be unable to speak, and you being a writer. These poems are so poignant about that. “Language died on March 4th, 2017.” Oh, my gosh.
VC: You were saying something earlier that was really smart about grief being so personal and yet so universal. When I got too personal when I was writing this, I actually remember thinking, “Who’s going to care?” But then I think, everyone’s going to care if I’m able to make people understand that these are universal feelings. So how do I do that in a poem? I remember at some points feeling like I was getting too detailed, and in the minutiae about things that only I would care about, and then I would try and lift it up a little bit more, like a drone shooting up into the air. And getting back up to a level that I felt like I could reach people.
Because I find writers to be, I don’t know how you do, but I just find writers to be, literally, the most narcissistic bunch of people I’ve ever known. God bless us, and I love us all to death, but that’s something that really bothers me. I think we’re wired that way because we have to be, because we have to spend so many hours in our own heads. You need to be like that, I think, to be successful as a writer. Because if you cared too much about other people, you would’ve done other things, and you would never be able to chain yourself to a desk. I think we have to be that way, but that really bothers me about writers. So, I try really hard to not be that way in my writing as much, if that makes sense.
HS: Whatever you did, your drone-magic-stuff worked. Can I talk to you about the sequence “I’m a Miner. The Light Burns Blue” in the middle of Obit? Tell me how that evolved. I noticed it’s been published in pieces, so I was just curious about where that came from?
VC: Those poems are from a manuscript that never got published. It was called, “Dear P.” When I broke that manuscript apart, I had all these stragglers, and they were all individually entitled “Elegy for…” So, each one was an elegy, but they weren’t for anyone who died. I remember that after I had my first kid, I just felt, again, like a lot of things died. Because it’s like BC, Before Child, and then it’s AC, After Child. As a person who’s really just barreling forward in life, it’s just like, “Oh wait, I can’t do that anymore? I can’t do that either?” There are so many things that I couldn’t do anymore, because kids keep you occupied.
So I wrote all of these individual elegies, just like regular poems in regular forms. I think most of them had been published in various journals, and I just left them in a drawer. I decided to pull those poems out and put them all together, and retitle the whole thing, take away all the original titles, break it up with caesuras. Then I really went in there and I used that drone again to make these a little bit less specific, and more about existential sorts of things. Then I just kept on working on that, and making them sharper, and making the language better.
HS: If you read them out loud, that sort of brokenness, the caesura, and the breath stopping, it sort of mimics your mother’s illness. I found that really, really interesting. And because it falls in the middle of the collection, it is a way to sort of stop and slow everything down.
VC: Yes, because the obits can be so suffocating because of their form, and it’s a lot to read again and again, and they can be really tough. So, the middle section, I think, breaking them into caesuras—none of this was super conscious, but—it ends up giving the reader a break. I think I also had taken the other half of those poems and put them in Barbie Chang, and then I had done the same thing at the end of Barbie Chang, I had broken those up. I had written some new ones and then broken them up too, so I was in that mode.
HS: There are just some wonderful things, like “how the human mind is detached/from the heart at…” I loved that. Then there’s the line that really killed me, which is, “so we stand still and try to outlast death.” I think about this idea of standing still, because you mentioned living life, and we’re just living to die, but we’re not. It sort of runs counter to that axiom of live each day, and how we’re trying to plow through life, or as your mom said, go-go-go, full-tilt. We’ve got our bucket list.
VC: Right. The idea of time is always really interesting to me, too. How do you get outside of time? How can I not just stop time, but go outside of time? That’s what I feel when I read. If I’m in a mode of reading and thinking and quiet—and I have very little time to do that now, but I try and give myself that time, quiet, reading and thinking on my own—I genuinely feel like I’m outside of time. I think there’s that desire to not only stop time, but to get outside of it, and if it’s still moving and you’re outside of it, that feels really interesting to me. Because it feels like you’re asynchronous with the world and the earth and almost your own body. For me, reading is very spiritual. It’s a very out of body experience. That’s why I like to read, and that’s why I like to write, because it’s the only thing that feels like it’s not time-based, and it’s not moving forward. You’re in time, if that makes sense, or outside of time, but you’re not being dragged along with it.
HS: Yeah, time breaks for the living. You have the Obit, “The Clock–died on June 24, 2009” that talks to the same idea, of time just stopping. Do you have to kill time, and by that I don’t mean waste it, but kill it off in order for time to stop?
VC: What is time anyway? I don’t know. These are all bigger questions that are always so interesting to me.
HS: You take on those larger questions and ideas, and you address the minutiae of our lives. I think that’s part of what allows the readers to really embrace this book and find our own stories in it. We can understand and see what’s happened to the speaker in these, but we can also see ourselves in it.
VC: Right. I wanted you to feel what I felt. Or feel, or felt, or whatever. It was a personal challenge: could I genuinely make the reader feel what I feel? I don’t know. That was so hard. How do I explain to you how I feel? When language is just one big failure, a jumble of words, how do I do that? That’s why metaphor is so important to me. Because language fails, it’s so slippery. So how could I use language, and explain something so visceral and so violent, which is grief and death.
HS: And because your father has lost his language, how do you think about language with that as an experience? That to me seems really profound.
VC: Absolutely. And he died too. The person I see today is not my father. He’s gone. What’s left is just the shell. I feel like I have that double grief to deal with. Yet he’s not dead. It’s this weird in-between-ness with him.
HS: And you very much capture that in this… Because the obits go back and forth between your parents, and you capture that. Anyone who’s experienced that type of loss, which is pretty prevalent, sadly…
VC: It’s so prevalent. It’s awful. My uncle just had a stroke a couple days ago, and my aunt is my dad’s older sister, and I thought, “Oh, no.” It’s so prevalent, and I hate it, and it’s so awful I wouldn’t will it on anyone, these kinds of experiences. People have much worse experiences, though. All I have to do is look at another country and the things that people have to go through.
One thing we are is, we are resilient, and what doesn’t kill us definitely makes us stronger. Such a cliché. In no way did I ever want anyone to feel sorry for me, because that would be absolutely the antithesis of being that strong woman that my mom so badly wanted me to be and was herself. I don’t want anyone’s pity. I don’t want it, and I don’t need it. But I think that writing the book was a part of acknowledging that I also felt really bad, if that makes sense.
HS: Yeah, it does. The other thing that is present throughout, and it’s throughout all of your books, but I think it stands out here in Obit, is your sense of humor and the ability to inject humor into some kind of bleak situations. I mean it’s dark humor, but it’s there, and that gift of comic relief is really a rare talent, and it is a gift.
VC: It’s funny because in real life, people who know me always say I’m really funny, but I never ever thought I was funny in poems until people started telling me that I was funny in poems. I was thinking Oh, it must leak out somehow. I appreciate humor in real life a lot. I really appreciate people who are funny, because I think to be funny is to have a certain kind of brain, and I definitely have that kind of brain. I had no idea that anything in my poems was remotely funny.
HS: We’re having some good laughs throughout all of this, even though we’re talking about some pretty rough stuff. We haven’t talked about the tankas yet. Could you talk a little bit about how those came about, and what they mean within the overall collection for you?
VC: I think that I was messing around with form again. The form was really cool. Everyone makes fun of haikus but I find haikus to be really lovely. Then recently there’s been a resurgence, I guess, of interest, in haibuns, and I didn’t want to be that sort of Asian-phile person, interested in Eastern poetry. I’ve always really tried hard not to do that, but now these tankas, these are a little bit more substantive than the haikus, 5-7-5-7-7 in terms of syllables. It’s a little more robust. I thought, it’d be kind of fun to write some of these.
They all just became direct addresses to not only my children, but children in general, and younger people. I just started writing them, and I think I was looking for something to do that was different, and I was just kind of messing around, and I remember I just jammed them all in the back of the manuscript all together. It was one long poem.
Ilya Kaminsky and I were sharing manuscripts. We were at a literary reception in L.A. and he was in a suit and the event had just ended. We sat down on a bench outside to chat and, like always, he was asking what I was working on. I told him my manuscript was in my purse, like it always is, and he asked to see it; so we were sitting in this corporate L.A. building reading poems together. He read the tankas one by one and tapped on them, looked up, and told me which ones he thought were beautiful. He asked me why they were all in the back and said they should all be sprinkled throughout, so I sprinkled them.
HS: Yeah, they need to be sprinkled. They’re like children, they need to twirl around.
VC: So, they twirled around a little bit. I put them in little couples together. Then I just kept on working on them. They were hard, though. Because every time I thought of something, and it didn’t fit the syllable form, I was so mad. It forced me to work doubly hard. It’d be like you you’re digging a hole for a plant, and you dug it in the wrong place, and then you have to start over again.
The process really taught me the ability to let go of things. Even though I loved something, I’d realize that not only does that word or phrase have to go, but the whole thing has to be changed. It was really a painful process, but I think I learned a lot about myself, and not to be so wedded to things.
HS: Someone said to me a few years ago to write hard stuff in form. Because everything gets pared back, and you’re trying to work in this form, and you end up getting so much emotionally closer, because you don’t get caught up the idea of writing the hard thing. You’re playing with the puzzle, and you get sort of lost, and it’s a perfect thing. And these tankas are perfect for dealing with grief and children. Children are distracting, and writing this form was distracting, and the tanka is small, and children are small. You’re trying to do so much with so little.
VC: Right. And at some point, I do think I realized how strange it is to raise children, and they’re growing, and then you’re helping two people die. So, you’re helping four people do opposite things.
That’s why I think those tankas naturally started being little messages to children about death and grief. People have said this too—you’re born, and you get diapers, and then you die and you have to wear diapers. The same with foods like apple sauce. That was in the poem too. You grow up and you’re raising children, you mash up everything. I knew people who cut grapes into fours. Now I bite grapes in half to give to my dogs. Then when you’re dead, or when you’re dying, it’s like everything has to be mashed up, finger foods again. Half the people in this dementia facility that my dad’s in eat finger foods—That’s what my kids eat, finger foods! That dichotomy is so bizarre.
I think it’s because of my age—my parents became ill maybe a little earlier than average, and then I had children a little bit later, and so it kind of mixed together so that my children were exactly the same age as my parents, in terms of dying. Except they were leading the oddest parallel lives. It was so strange.
Which was funny. Actually, I had a lot of good laughs about that too. “No, that’s not for you, that’s for him.” It was funny. It had to be funny. And stuffed animals too. Everybody brings stuffed animals to the dying, but kids like stuffed animals, not the dying. My kids would take the stuffed animals.
HS: I think you’ve probably seen this already, but once this full collection is out, people are going to be teaching obits. This is going to be the generative writing exercise thing. Every writing class or seminar will suddenly be “Okay, we’re all going to write an obit.” I think it’s definitely going to be a thing.
VC: I do that with A. Van Jordan’s book a lot, Macnolia. He has these awesome dictionary poems in there, and sometimes I’ll give those as writing exercises, and they really do spark some pretty cool poems. I don’t at all need mine to do that, but I do hope they resonate with people, and that they can help people. Help people feel things, if that makes sense. And I am just so excited to get them out into the world.
HS: Obit is going to be a very impactful book, and I’m so happy that I got to read it and that we were able to spend this time in conversation. Thank you!