Executive Editor Cutter Streeby

An Interview with the Poet: Victoria Chang

Victoria Chang’s books include OBITBarbie ChangThe BossSalvinia Molesta, and Circle. Her children’s picture book, Is Mommy?, was illustrated by Marla Frazee and published by Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster. It was named a New York Times Notable Book. Her middle grade novel, Love Love will be published by Sterling Publishing in 2020. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, a Pushcart Prize, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She lives in Los Angeles and is the program chair of Antioch’s Low-Residency MFA Program.

Victoria Chang

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  Hi, everyone.  I’m Cutter Streeby with OjalArt.com.  I’m with Victoria Chang.  I’m happy to have her here.  Today we are going to be talking about her latest book, Obit.  This new book of poetry was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2020 and was nominated for a National Book Award as well as named Time Magazine’s, Publisher’s Weekly and NPR Best Book of the Year and a New York Times Notable Book.  Her other poetry books are Barbie Chang,The Boss, Salvinia Molesta, and Circle.  She’s also edited an anthology, Asian-American Poetry:  The Next Generation.  Victoria received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Katherine Min MacDowell Fellowship, a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, a Pushcart Prize, and a Lannan Residency Fellowship, among other awards. 

After her mother died, poet Victoria Chang refused to write elegies.  Rather, she distilled her grief during a feverish two weeks by writing scores of poetic obituaries for all she had lost in the world.  In Obit, longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award in Poetry, Chang writes of “the way memory gets up after someone has died and starts walking.”  These poems reinvent the form of newspaper obituary to both name what has died (“civility”, “language”, “the future”, “Mother’s blue dress”) and the cultural impact of death on the living.  Whereas elegy attempts to immortalize the dead, on obituary expresses loss, and the love for the dead becomes a conduit for self-expression.  In this unflinching and lyrical book, Chang meets her grief and creates a powerful testament for the living. 

Thanks for being here again.  In Obit, I’ve read all of the interviews that you’ve done previously, but for our readership, can you tell us a little bit about why you didn’t want to go the traditional elegy route, and start there for us?  

Victoria Chang:  Sure.  Yea.  I think the elegy is a traditional poem that so many people have written throughout history that it just seemed like I couldn’t really write any better elegy than anyone else, so it’s not that I gave up trying this sort of thing, but I just feel like I couldn’t really do it justice.  Then, thinking back on it, I guess too, my experience with grief and death, it felt different than maybe other people’s, and I think everyone’s grief is always different, but my mom had been sick for so long and then my dad had also been sick for so long.  They were both sick at the same time.  It just felt like the elegy form wouldn’t work, and so I just didn’t want to try it.  I also didn’t want to sort of commercialize my mother’s passing.  I felt like I just didn’t want to write about it.  

But yea, it wasn’t until I heard the NPR episode that they were talking about that documentary they made called Obit on obituary writers that – I’m not sure what happened.  I just went home.  I didn’t think about the obituary more, but I did remember thinking:  Wow, yea, everything dies when someone dies.  Like, everything dies.  So many little things die on a daily basis.  

Then I just went home, and I just started writing little things that died.  I don’t think it took the obituary form until a long time after that, but something about that word got me thinking about my experiences with grief.  It was so micro, so like small, every day was something different that had died sort of thing.  That is, I think, when I started writing these poems.  Eventually they took a shape.  I think when they got transferred from the notebook to the computer is maybe when I started shaping that into the obituary form.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  Cool.  This collection is different than your last two collections.  The line breaks in Barbie Chang and in The Boss, I was watching one of your interviews and you said that you wrote The Boss in really long couplets and then McSweeney’s is the one that pushed it to quatrains.  For Obit, when you were drafting, were you drafting just in prose form so it was like open ended?  

Victoria Chang:  Yea.  I would just have a composition notebook and just write until the very end.  I don’t really think about line breaks.  I think that the Obit prose or prose poem, I never had to think about line breaks.  It was quite the cool thing actually.  For Barbie Chang, I definitely also wrote straight across.  It just looks like just a bunch of text that fills a page, and then I’ll start thinking about other things once it makes it onto a computer kind of thing.  For The Boss, they were actually long, same thing.  Yea, I don’t even think they’re were in couplets or anything.  I just kind of write.  It almost looks like a random re-write journal.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  Cool.  

Victoria Chang:  That’s how my poems start.  Yea.  Then, eventually . . . unless I’m writing . . . Lately, I have this other manuscript that I’ve been working on that are syllabic poems.  They’re all tiny, tiny poems because I love tiny poems, but it’s like, how can I write tiny poems?  They’re really hard to write.  I have a whole manuscript of tiny poems, and they’re in syllables, like different syllabics.  In that way, then I actually have to actually write with these little syllables.  They get lineated right away while you’re counting syllables on your fingers, kind of thing.  Otherwise, I just write, like re-write, pretty much straight.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  So, for Obit, did you know that you were going to write in the prose poem format, or did you just start writing and it felt like that was where it was supposed to go?  

Victoria Chang:  Yea.  I think I didn’t think about it.  I was just writing.  I have a whole notebook somewhere that literally is just filled with writing.  The whole notebook is just filled.  I really don’t think that until it made it onto the computer did I start really thinking about, okay, how do I want to make this?  I think I remember messing around with things.  Like, I love to play.  It’s part of me.  It’s just like try this, always spewing out new ideas in my job, in my daily life.  It’s just my personality.  I drive people crazy, but I do think like:  How about that?  How about this?  How about this?  So when I’m doing that myself, it’s very much, it’s not just so, let’s center it, let’s move it, one a half spaces between, two spaces . . . I just mess around a lot with stuff.  I think a lot of people think, okay, you decided you were going to write an obituary, you are going to make them this shape, and you wrote down and started to do it.  Oh yea, I am not like that at all, in fact, but it does become a conceptual book after and looking at it later I imagined it.  That’s what people ask me.  They’ll go, oh, when did you put . . . ?  Oh no.  For me, it’s very process oriented.  It’s very organic and I resist all notions of putting down a stake in the ground for anything.  It’s like, if you’re going to write a five-paragraph debrief book and this is my thesis, I resist all of that to the point where I force myself to develop as I go.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  Cool.  That’s different than I thought.  I thought it was all preplanned or something.  

Victoria Chang:  Yea.  It feels like it when you look back at it, like it was totally preplanned.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  For your process and for finding the form for your content, you get the content first and then you find the form, in Barbie Chang and The Boss, same way?  Wow, that’s cool.  

Victoria Chang:  Yea.  But I also kind of feel like that’s because I handwrite.  It’s hard to do anything with handwriting.  You could get scissors out and cut.  But I also think I’m really interested in the writing.  The writing is what matters the most, and I think the form is really important to the writing too, but I think that it doesn’t always come immediately.  The things dying, the little pieces of things dying was something I started right away working on.  That was almost like a prompt, you know you give yourself a writing prompt every day.  I kind of gave myself a writing prompt every day or multiple times a day.  I wrote every day.  Something died, whatever it was, that was the prompt.  It’s like, every one I wrote was something else died.  Then, the more I wrote them, the more it got kind of cool, like conceptual, abstract things died and then things would repeat.  I would just let that . . . whatever happened, happened.  If something died seven times, that’s fine.  If it only died once, that’s fine too.  If it came back to life, that’s fine too.  Whatever the process, whatever happened happens, they just let it go wherever it wants to go.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  That’s probably going to help some people that are struggling with stuck in a form and now what am I going to do?  Then we could just excerpt you and just say, “Try everything and let it come organically.”  

Victoria Chang:  That’s true.  It’s uncomfortable for people, I think.  For me, it’s hard for me to live within a lot of structure.  I think I’m not a very structured person.  I’m just very messy and just not organized.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  Yea.  The middle section, I read that you . . . .  When did you know that you were going to segment this out?  Did you write the whole collection by hand and then move it, or did it come over piecemeal?  

Victoria Chang:  I think I wrote all those obituary poems in a notebook, and I transferred them all into the computer.  You do that kind of reassessment.  Where am I at?  What am I doing?  What is this that I’m making?  I was like:  There are too many of these.  These are too uniform.  I’m so done writing these.  I don’t want to write anymore.  Then at some point, you start thinking:  Do I have a book here?  Is this a book?  Is this a manuscript?  Is this something larger?  Are these poems?  You ask yourself these questions.  I don’t sit down and say, I’m writing a poem.  I just write.  I’m very genre free.  I think at that point, after that I was like, yea, there are a lot of these, and they all look the same or they sound kind of similar.  How do I make a book?  How do I make something that makes whatever I have here larger than it currently is by itself?  That’s when you start thinking about how to add more stuff in there or take this out.  I literally started writing now poems after a while just for fun, and then I had some old poems from another manuscript that never was published, but I had taken some of those poems from that manuscript to put them into Barbie Chang.  I was like:  Oh, I have these other ones left.  They’re all elegies, but I wrote them in elegies, like my former life before I had children, kind of thing, so they’re elegies on those subjects.  I just took them all and took them out of their little couplets and made the 14 lines which meant a lot of editing and re-working those entirely – they had been written maybe 15 years ago – and then make all 14-line fake sonnets.  I set asterisks between them and made them one long poem which was sort of fun to do.  It was a challenge.  Can I make one long centerpiece for this book?  I worked on those for a while and then the book, close to the end came when I had written a whole bunch of formal poems, like sonnets and [00:13:15] tunes? and stuff.  My friend was like, “Hey, these tankas are really cool.  You should take them and spread them out in the manuscript, but all these other poems are bad.”  I took a tanka and I separated them.  Then put in these pairs for some reason.  I’m not sure why.  They seemed like they wanted to be together and then kind of sprinkled them, actually read [00:13:39] ___ out loud hundreds of times.  When I felt like things were boring or I started losing interest in my own writing, then I’d put a set of tankas in there just to give the reader like a breather, including myself, and then I’d read them more.  This is about time to put another set of tankas, kind of thing, and then I’d make sure they were ordered how I wanted them to be.  That’s how that whole book came together.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  It is really cool.  The other thing that I’ve heard you talk a lot about in your other interviews is during that editing process, when you were looking at these and thinking, what do I have here?  Why will anybody care about this stuff?  You talked about how you were trying to access your grief but make it accessible to the universal. 

Victoria Chang:  Right.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  What did that look like?  How did you go about getting that aerial view?  Talk about . . . 

Victoria Chang:  Sure.  I think while I write, I was writing, always wondering who was going to care about my own personal experiences.  So much about my own life is so private and everyone’s is really.  But my own grief was private.  I think a lot of people didn’t even know my mother was sick.  Nobody really knows what pulmonary fibrosis is and no one cares, but it was such a big part of my life and I felt like, when I started writing about it I realized that I wanted to keep going, but while I was writing, I just had that uncomfortable feeling like I was naval gazing.  Whenever I had that uncomfortable feeling I was naval gazing, I felt like myself almost has a gut reaction to it, and then start thinking larger, like thinking more about the human condition and what grief is as a definition.  Then so much of this process was started throughout by thinking, okay, is it possible for me, because nobody knows me really, and nobody knows what I live and what I go through and what I’ve gone through, is it possible for me to explain these things?  If I had you or somebody else in front of me, can I?  Let’s see, can I?  It’s an experiment, a science experiment.  Can I explain to you how it felt and how it feels to grieve?  I was like, wow, that’s a challenge because those are really hard feelings to explain.  That is sort of where it all came from.  I think these poems are never really meant for myself because I know how I feel.  But I was like, can I think hard on my grief?  Is it possible to use words to explain to people how it feels and how other people have felt?  Sure.  Of course, I’m not the only person who’s had a hard time.  I’m not the only person who’s had really sick people around them for a really long time.  It’s like I go to my dad’s facility now.  I look around at all the other.  They are usually older than me, I have to admit.  I was a little younger than the average person.  People in the facility, they’re like in their 50s and 60s and their parents are like way in their 80s and 90s.  When my parents got sick, I was still in my 30s.  I think that everyone – I don’t know a lot of [00:17:25] ___ – but everybody has had these experiences.  They’re everywhere is really, I think, what I was trying to say.  But how was I going to explain it or explain to people that maybe didn’t know, but also explain to people that did experience it and see if I could sort of have it . . . 

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  Connect.  

Victoria Chang:  Get to something.  Connect.  I wasn’t sure I’d get it right, but they’re still seen as right in the end, connect and have it resonate.  Would they think I did them justice, their feelings of grief?  Could I even make art out of something that was so difficult?  That was sort of the process.  Those are things I was thinking about.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  I think the answer is yes.  Did it.  Success.  Switching gears here.  For you, when you’re writing, maybe you could talk about your writing process because I just . . . like the people, our readership, maybe they haven’t read 45 Victoria Chang interviews.  What is the creation process look like to you?  

Victoria Chang:  In general?  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  In general, yea.  The feverish writing and then the transfer and stuff.  

Victoria Chang:  Sure.  Yea.  It’s like, I think writing is really hard, but for me, I have such an obsessive personality, like once I get latched onto something, it’s really hard for me to let it go.  It’s impossible to peel me away from something that I’m really into.  It’s a problem, I have to say, in regular daily life.  I actually think arguably it could be a problem in creative writing too.  I’ll just get into these modes where I can’t do anything else, I can’t focus on anything else.  I get mad.  It’s the only thing I want to be doing with my time is doing whatever I’m doing.  Yea, that’s sort of how I write.  How those things begin, I couldn’t really tell you.  I mean, in the new poems that I started writing actually my friend was like, “Hey, I really like your short poems in this book, the Obit.  I think you should write a book of short poems.”  I was like, okay.  It was like one of 17 things that . .  .  He’s a lot like me.  He’s like all over the place.  It’s Ilya Kaminsky.  We’re very similar.  He’s kind of got this weird, sort of, inventive entrepreneurial mind.  He’s always full of ideas, brimming, and I’m kind of the same way.  He doesn’t even remember telling me this.  It was probably sandwiched between 17 other things he was talking about.  But I remembered it.  That stuck with me somehow.  It was an assignment.  This other book I had just finished is an assignment – I’m still working on it actually.  I resurrected it to work on it again.  It was all an assignment.  He said write 40 pages of short poems.  I was like, okay.  So, I did.  But I created my own parameters around that.  I gave myself other restrictions, but for every sort of thing I’m working different, but it’s like I have to be really wanting to do it because I’m very much, if I don’t want to do it, I won’t do it.  There are plenty of other things I could be doing, but once I start, if it’s if I like it, I’m not going to be able to stop.  That pretty much is what happens.  I just get so obsessed I can’t stop.  Then two weeks later, three months later, one month later, whatever it is, I have 50 pages or 100 pages or something, and I don’t think it’s a very healthy way to be, and I don’t recommend it.  I kind of wish I could write a collection of poems over 10 years, like one poem at a time, but I just don’t know how to be that way.  I’m very excitable about new things and I’m always like shiny new things.  I’m also, I think, afraid that I’m going to die or I’m afraid that I’ll get a stroke and my brain is going to be like my dad’s.  I think that fear is oh, I have to get all of this down.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  A feverish drive.  

Victoria Chang:  Yea, yea.  It’s very feverish, for sure.  Yea.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  Cool.  This is something that Kristina Marie Darling and Jeffrey Levine brought to my attention, and you’re a proponent of it.  It’s literary citizenship.  It’s something that I think writers, if you went to grad school or if you have a circle of writers that you work with, you understand it in those kind of terms where it’s like I know this person.  They published a book.  Let’s do an interview, or let’s do an xxx, whatever it is, but it’s limited in scope.  When I talked to them at Tupelo it was a whole different ballgame.  It was like this is what you need to be doing, like it’s part of the writing process.  They explained it to me.  Literary citizenship, it’s basically championing all writers, everybody that’s creating, but also at the same time promoting the consumption of literature.  I wish I didn’t have to say consumption, but promoting new things, getting them out there, helping them spread the word, find readership.  For you, you do this all the time.  Just trying to look for interviews with you to prep for this, there are like 50 interviews that you’ve done, curating interviews, and all of this other background work of being in the writing realm.  Maybe you could talk a little bit about what literary citizenship means to you and maybe share some of your most rewarding moments from that practice.  

Victoria Chang:  Sure.  Yea.  I believe very heavily in the writer in the world.  I believe so much in community that I don’t even think I have to say it.  It’s just a part of who I am.  I’m also an extrovert.  I’m also very outward bound.  I need and crave that sort of connection with other people that are doing similar things or interested in things that I’m interested in in order to live.  It’s not all give, give, give.  I feel like I get a lot out of it too.  But I think it’s such an important part of what I think a writer should be in the world.  I will spend all of my spare time helping other people.  Being a writer, I know that most people aren’t like that, but there are people like that too.  We kind of know who these people are.  We’re all kind of cut from that kind of cloth too.  I don’t need to help anyone.  I don’t need to do anything.  But all I do all day long is help other people.  Emails come by.  People I don’t know.  I don’t know you.  I answer messages.  I do that with everyone.  I think it’s just, you know, within reason.  I think it’s important to me because I feel like, what are we doing otherwise?  We’re not writing in our diaries.  We’re writing words to send them into the world.  Well, the world is where literature lies.  I feel like that’s such an important part of who I am as a writer too.  It helps me.  If I’m doing an interview on someone, I have to think about them and their writing and it gets me to think critically about what’s important and then it comes back to me when I’m writing my own work.  When I write a book review, it’s like the same thing.  I’ve had to think very critically about someone else’s work and that comes back to my own work.  I flex certain kinds of muscles.  Things have fired in my own brain that would not have otherwise.  I think I’m a very curious person.  I think a lot of the things I do, like book reviews and interviews, are curiosities.  I want to know more.  I want to know why I like this so much.  I’m interested in this.  Can I get to know this person better?  Can I explain to the world or share this?  When I do interviews, I want to share what I like about this particular writer with other people.  Sometimes it’s actually, I like to do interviews with people I know really well too because I feel like it’s about access.  When I first started writing, I didn’t know anybody and being an Asian American writer, access was always a big issue.  I saw no one in journals that looked like me.  Until very recently, people even have allowed people like me into the field of writing kind of thing.  I’ve been writing for 25 years probably.  For me, it’s like the community aspect is about access.  Now, I have friends in the writing world that are super talented, interesting.  I know these people.  I love to interview them.  I also know things about them.  I can sort of tease things out and then I can share those relationships with the world and insights that I get to experience now.  Yea, I do a lot of things to give back to the community.  I give back way more than I was ever given.  Not that many people really helped me early on.  Everything I think I’ve done, a lot of it is because I just worked hard on my own and just never gave up and always really loved writing.  I didn’t have a lot of support.  I didn’t have a lot of help.  I didn’t know people.  I was working outside of the literary world.  Now that I am firmly, I’m fortunately firmly in it, I want to give back as much as I can in the time that I have remaining.  I don’t want to be that person that sits on a pedestal that no one else can touch or reach.  What’s the point of that?  But that’s all about ego.  For me, writing is never about ego.  It’s never about fame, fortune, ego.  It’s never about that.  If you have any of those things, I feel like you should give it all back times 10.  That’s just who I am.  I don’t need anything in return.  I don’t need anything.  I don’t need favors.  I’m not a politician.  If this is all secured is what matters.  I think that’s just who I am.  If I weren’t doing poetry, I would be doing something else.  It would be the same thing.  It would be community in a different community.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  Building a community basically.  The takeaway from that is literary citizenship and all of those things that you do for other writers, friends, or taking this interview, for instance, it’s all to build a more actionable active community.  

Victoria Chang:  Absolutely.  It’s political when you think about it.  Choosing to be active and to give things back is a political statement.  It’s activism in some ways.  Maybe some person will listen to you in my interview and it could change their life in some way.  I could care less if they buy my book or whatever.  It’s not for my fame or anything like that.  But it’s important to me to help people.  I think I have that impulse to help people with whatever they want to do.  If I can help you, I’ll try.  I don’t really see why I wouldn’t, if that makes sense.  It’s just a part of who I am.  I think it’s a connector personality.  If I have a contact that might help you or someone I know or something or a book even, I’ll just give it to you.  I don’t know.  I’m not a hoarder.  I don’t hoard things.  I’m not selfish.  I’m not as focused on myself.  Sometimes I wish I were more because I do spend a lot of time helping other people.  I should probably do more things for my own kids or my own self, but I don’t know how to do that.  I just spread myself too thin, but I think ultimately, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  Yea.  That leads us into the next question, teaching.  You’re on the faculty at Antioch.  Being active as a literary citizen and doing all of those extra things and connecting people on the interviews, granting access to the literary spaces that you’ve done, is teaching different from that or do you feel it’s in the same sphere as helping people develop?  

Victoria Chang:  It’s helping people develop, for sure.  I run the program too.  I touch a hundred of our students and a thousand of our alums, not every single person.  I am actually the program chair of the program, and I also teach on occasion at Antioch, but I also do a lot of other teaching in the community, like conferences, workshops, and stuff like that. 

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  Has that experience opened up anything in your own creative practice, teaching like that?  

Victoria Chang:  I think so.  I definitely think, teaching is . . . I love teaching young people.  It’s not that I don’t like teaching MFA students or adults, but I really like teaching young people.  I would say undergraduate students or younger, it’s kind of my sweet spot.  I think the reason why is because they’re just such new people.  You can have such an impact on their lives in ways that teachers had a big impact on my life.  The teachers I had in high school who introduced me to Emily Dickinson, made me memorize poems and made us read Hemmingway, it’s not like they were all great teachers.  They were pretty good actually, but it’s not like they paid so much attention to me.  It was just me sitting in the classroom with 40 other people and soaking this stuff in.  What an impact they had though.  And college teachers too.  They helped me become a better person and a broader person.  I think that when I’m teaching younger people, I feel like I have such an impact on them that I shape them in ways that I change their lives in some ways, even bringing in this poem or that poem or talking to them in a certain way about what they want to do after they graduate or something like that.  You can really, really change someone’s life.  It’s really cool actually.  I think that’s why I like teaching.  MFA students, I like teaching too, but they’re a little more angst.  They’re always a little worried about the next steps and the career aspects of things.  They’re dealing with more anxiety.  That’s a little harder.  I can’t guarantee anything for anyone in the MFA program.  I just try to keep people focused on their writing, but that can be hard.  You have an MFA.  You know how much anxiety you have in that stage.  People are like, am I good enough?  Is my writing good?  Whereas in high school or college, it’s like they’re just writing, and they’re just learning about themselves.  It’s different.  It’s a different kind of person.  Yea, I think it’s all related.  I do a lot of stuff in my job at Antioch that no one asks me to do.  I just do it because I know it’s better for the students, so I add a lot of things to my plate that no one asks me to and I don’t have to do because I want to make everyone’s experience as good as it can be.  I think I’m kind of a perfectionist, so I think if I can make something better, I’ll just make it better.  It’s all related.  My mother was a teacher, a high school teacher.  My grandmother was a teacher.  I didn’t know her.  I think there are a lot of teachers in my family too.  I never really thought about it before, but it makes sense to me now, looking back on it.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  Cool.  Thank you for that.  We’re almost out of time for this segment.  What I’ll do, this will be, I’ll cut this part out, and then I’ll have the outro on the first video, have your book cover title and make it all pretty and cohesive.  That will be the meat that I stick in there and use for marketing.  Then these next ones, I’ll try to make them light.  You know what I mean? 

Victoria Chang:  Sure.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  I don’t know.  I just was trying to do something a little different.  Cool.  So the parameters that we have here is two minutes and 20 seconds max.  Then one of the questions I snuck in there was something about time.  Oh yea.  That’s the goal.  Okay.  

Victoria Chang:  Okay.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  Here we go.  Lightning round.  Is there a poet that you always teach and what do you hope that poet brings to your students?  

Victoria Chang:  No.  I don’t always teach anyone because I have, I think about the writer.  Whatever they’re writing, I think of stuff to bring in and teach them.  There’s not anybody that I always teach.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  It’s a tailored approach, huh?  

Victoria Chang:  Yea.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  Cool.  Next one.  What are two important actions a practicing or emerging writer can do to be a good literary citizen?  

Victoria Chang:  I sometimes make my students write book reviews.  I think writing book reviews is a great way to be a great literary citizen.  I also think that doing interviews is also another way of being a literary citizen.  I also think following people on social media and if you read their book, telling them that you liked it is being a good literary citizen.  I think uplifting other writers on social media is also a good way.  That’s four.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  That’s four.  Why should writers explore different forms, sonnets say, or something like ekphrasis?  Do you think they should, if you think they should?  

Victoria Chang:  Yea.  Of course.  I’m an experimenter, so I absolutely think you should try everything at least once.  You only have to write a sonnet one time to say you’ve done.  Is it going to harm you?  Why not?  Absolutely.  It stretches your brain.  Things happen.  Things can fire in your brain when you’re forced to try something.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  Is there a challenge that you would issue?  Write an ekphrastic piece or write a sonnet?  Is there some form that you would challenge an emerging writer to try?  

Victoria Chang:  I love sestinas.  Yes, I think people should try writing a sestina.  The trick with a sestina is you have to pick good end words.  Pick your words first, and the bigger and more malleable and expansive and full of meaning those words can be, the more fun you’re going to have writing a sestina.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  Cool.  Thank you.  This is the hard one.  Does writing poetry take you outside of time? 

Victoria Chang:  Absolutely.  Yes.  I think that writing poetry to me is the purest art form because it’s so outside of time.  I don’t think it considers time.  I think it’s also in between time.  I think sometimes it can be time.  It could be underneath time.  It could be all sorts of things.  It’s really the most imaginative thing that I can imagine doing.  I think that’s what’s so bizarre about it is that it can’t be pinned down.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  How do you think a poem lasts?  I was reading – I don’t know what I was reading today, some – I think it was something you shared on your Twitter about how some writers stand the test of time quiz, or whatever it is, if you’re writing last, then you are a good writer.  Is there any poetry or anything that you’re reading that is asynchronous?  It was published in 1870 but it exactly on target today?  Is there anything in your mind that you are reading or have read that is like that for you?  

Victoria Chang:  Yea.  I think determining what things last or thinking about whether things will last is complicated, and it’s also very political.  I think so much of what lasts is what people push in the canon and what certain populations of people say we have to read.  I think those are human made.  I think there are a ton of writers that could have lasted.  It’s not like things just last on their own.  It’s not like something in nature, like a tree in the middle of nowhere will last, and how come that one will die?  It’s like there are no humans around.  It just happens.  In literature, in poetry, it doesn’t just happen.  It’s like these hands come into play.  Who’s getting to choose what to last and why?  It’s a very important question, I think.  One must really think about it.  I don’t really believe that things last or are necessarily best.  I don’t really believe in that stuff.  But to your other question, I think what’s interesting and what feels like contemporary, I do sometimes read books that are really old.  Wow, that seems so new already, people like Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, like those kinds of writers always seem really amazing to me.  I was like, wow, they wrote so long ago, and I love their work today.  I do think that I tend to like more forward thinking, innovative artists, period, whether it’s visual art.  I’m always looking at things a little ahead, and I admire people who are way ahead, true visionaries.  I’m just always a little bit jogging ahead, but there are people who are like, I mean, they’re in outer space and we’re just going to catch up to them in 100 years, kind of thing.  We don’t know who those people are.  We’ll find out.  Well, we won’t find out.  Somebody else will find out.  Yea.  I don’t really think about me lasting.  I don’t give a crap.  I’m like, I’m not going to care.  I’m going to be dead.  

C.P. Streeby for O:JA&L:  Cool.  I think we can call it there.  Oh, we can’t.  Last one.  If you could give an emerging poet one piece of advice, what would it be?  

Victoria Chang:  Always try to remember why you started writing, and then ask yourself what you like about writing, almost like a daily practice, because the writing world can be very brutal, and it can be very discouraging and can get very angry and bitter and upset, all of those kinds of emotions in the face of all sorts of things, like rejections and drama.  There is so much drama all the time.  I don’t know.  I always like to think, it’s like, I don’t care about all of that.  I just like to write.  Why did I start writing?  Why do I sit down and write?  I just remind myself.  It’s like, that’s why I do this, not for all of the other stuff.  The other stuff can give me a headache sometimes.  I think that’s the advice I would give is being true to that first feeling that you had when you find that perfect line or perfect word and don’t ever forget that feeling.  That’s why you come back. 


About the interviewer:
Cutter Streeby  earned a Bachelor of Arts in English with Honors at University of California, Riverside; a Master of Arts in English Literature from Kings’ College, London, United Kingdom; and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from University of East Anglia, in Norwich, Norfolk, United Kingdom. A chapbook collection is forthcoming from Tupelo Press. He is an independent Social Media Marketing Specialist. Streeby is Executive Editor of O:JA&L.

Image: Portrait photograph courtesy of Victoria Chang.