Victoria Chang is the author of The Trees Witness Everything (Copper Canyon Press, 2022), Dear Memory (Milkweed, 2021), and OBIT (Copper Canyon Press, 2020), which was named a New York Times Notable Book, a Time Must-Read Book, and received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Poetry, and the PEN/Voelcker Award. Her forthcoming book of poems, With My Back to the World, will be published in 2024 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In the lead-up to her new collection, Jennifer Wong sat down with her to discuss how innovations of form and lyricism can bridge the layers of identity and grief.

Jennifer Wong: A lot of your work explores the complexity of the inner self, language, silence, and mortality. There is a desire to examine closely the meaning of life, its layers of truth, and to find a language that can embody these intersections and contradictions of identity. I’m interested to know: what is your creative process like, and how do you arrive at this kind of language that is so personal yet universal? Has your writing process itself changed a lot over time?

Victoria Chang: Definitely. I didn’t have as much time to write in the past, and also perhaps I wrote more erratically. In the last few years, I’ve had a little more time for all sorts of reasons, so I try and write as often as I can in the mornings. I still can’t sit down each day, but I think of writing now as more of a way of living, a way of being, a practice.

JW: I’m a huge fan of Dear Memory. It is such a compelling and moving book, dwelling on family memories, history, and migration. The photos, with the text overlay, have become poems in parallel too. As lyrical vignettes, the book asks more questions about family history and lineage than it answers – such as: ‘I’d like to know if you took a train. If you walked. / If you had pockets in your dress. / If you wore pants.’ Looking back, has Dear Memory helped you find a new direction in voice? Will you write more non-fiction?

VC: Dear Memory came out of boxes, literally: finding documents, becoming excited with all the newfound knowledge about my ancestors and my parents. But then, the quick disappointment of realising that I could no longer ask anyone all the questions I had.
I am working on something prose-ish now. I have a lot of pages – 160+ and counting. I’m excited to be working on it and we’ll see where it takes me. I notice that while books are discrete objects, the work continues from one book into the next. There’s always overlap because certain images and obsessions don’t really go away that easily. A book is just an artificial object that boxes in a tiny period of time within someone’s mind.

JW: The Trees Witness Everything is a lyrical narrative of a continuous recovery of a fragmentary self, or selves. The use of form (waka), lineation, and the way you structure or sequence the poems, with an epic interlude prose poem ‘Marfa, Texas’, is absolutely fascinating. Waka is a very imagistic and ‘neat’ form, especially when compared to prose poetry which you focused on in OBIT. In what ways has this traditional form been useful to you?

VC: In The Trees Witness Everything, I was trying to get the self out of the way, meaning I wanted to allow the mind to free itself from itself, and just go with something else beyond subject matter. The syllabics and using Merwin titles were two very restricting ways of freeing the language. It was absolutely essential for me in terms of flowing more naturally. It was a fun thing to do.

JW: In these poems you pay homage to the poetry by W S Merwin, through titles, imagery, and language. You introduce the motif of the owl. I love the lines: ‘is it possible // to stop loving everything? The owl. The hawk. Every person I meet.’ Also, I’m struck by how you merge your exploration of grief, nationality, and borders, with the departure of the mother and the imagery of rain from Merwin’s famous poem ‘Rain Light’. In your own poem of the same name, you write: ‘I have rented light, / but all that’s left is a search- / light shining in the / wrong country.’ How has Merwin’s idea of poetry changed the way you write?

VC: I think Merwin was a spiritual human. He seemed interested in the unsayable. He’s said before that poetry is the thing that can get closest to the unsayable. I love that because I feel that way too. What is the unsayable though? I’m not interested in what’s known. I’m usually interested in what’s completely a mystery, the big philosophical questions. Merwin’s titles are so capacious that I can feel that largeness in those titles and his poems. I love that about his work.

JW: The collection demonstrates a lot of intensity and distillation in the use of poetic language, setting up a closeness as well as distance between the writer and the reader. For example: ‘The fact that leaves can’t / be put back to trees makes me / think that you do not exist.’ These lines are so simple yet powerful in capturing the real and the unreal, what’s visible and what is hidden but present nonetheless, and how our lives are strewn with memories that we cling to. Would you say that this pared-down language offers you more freedom to capture emotions?

VC: I was interested in the miniature poem as a form that seemed a bit impossible. I’ve read a lot of short poems and wondered why so many of them left me unsatisfied. I set out to see how hard it would be to write the miniature poem, and then I made it even harder for myself by putting some barriers around my work.

JW: You explore the complex and elusive layers of one’s identity, the necessity to grapple with the imperfection of it all. For example, the self is far from fixed, but a constant shifting between the past and the present moment: ‘I once lived in a town where there are no poets or children. The trees were made of salt.’ There is also a constant tug of war between self-love and love for others: ‘I will never love / anyone the way I love / my memories and their cliffs.’ As a mother/woman myself, this portrayal of the shifting, metaphorical self, especially the divide between the more public or social nature of the mother figure and the poet’s private or more reclusive self, resonates in me. How do you envisage the reader unravelling these metaphors of love?

VC: I’m probably more of a private person than a public person, and any public persona within the poem or elsewhere is perhaps a mask anyway. My goal in life isn’t to disclose things about myself, but rather to retain as much of my inner life as possible for myself. That said, I’m quite interested in motion and movement of the mind. I like to think about writing as more of a process than an outcome. I don’t know if that answers your question, but I think I just travel along with any metaphors that appear and disappear.

JW: ‘Marfa, Texas’ is so compelling and full of urgency; the long poem serves to anchor the whole book. I think it is very moving in talking about womanhood, about loss and losing oneself to the world, about the inability to hold on to the centre:

I didn’t know the woman I followed out the front door onto the streets. [...] Once I wouldn’t go into the center. Once I was 19 and flickered. Now I am 49 and still only flicker, shine behind things. The flickering now clusters, clots.

And then there is the meeting of time in the form of a horse (gelding), the reference to Larkin, which I feel is so imbued with love and hope: ‘This horse is all my days, with its bruises, tears, thin overworked body.’ What is the centre? How do we reconcile these malleable versions of self, sometimes sad, sometimes hopeful, sometimes unrecognisable?

VC: I’m not sure anything really needs to be reconciled in my mind, at least. I can’t remember the last time I felt the need to reconcile something. Maybe a chequebook? Even then, I don’t reconcile my chequebook! I am the most disorganised organised person, or maybe organised disorganised person. I’m philosophically more interested in the interesting connections, the connectivity between seemingly disparate things, that kind of tension that emerges from things that seem disconnected, but are secretly connected, constellated.

JW: In your recent work, it seems that you are continuously forging a new, hybrid poetics that deals with emotional truth while encompassing race and cultural identity in an oblique way, transcending a more direct narrative by looking inward. As poet, editor, and reader, you recently worked as poetry editor of The New York Times Magazine. How has your editorial work changed the way you appreciate and write poetry? What kind of poems do you enjoy reading or become influenced by?

VC: I enjoy doing editing work and writing criticism. Both make use of the more intellectual and critical side of my brain, and I get to practice being a better reader of other people’s poems. I also get to celebrate other people’s poems as an editor and a critic. It’s a joyful process from start to finish. Editing the NYT poetry column was a treat and was a hard job because I was trying to include poets who hadn’t been in there before, trying to include poets in translation, etc. Plus, the job was a little too public for my tastes. I prefer to stay in the background but am often thrust to the foreground. I view all such experiences as learning opportunities, however uncomfortable they can be.
I am also constantly interested in pushing boundaries, whatever those boundaries might be. People are surprisingly easy to herd and tend to be followers versus trailblazers, even in poetry. I’m hardly ever interested in what everyone else is interested in. It’s a big challenge to feel so out of sync with the rest of the world, but I’ve learned to embrace my differences. To use those differences to say different things in different ways.

JW: While giving your time to editing and teaching, how do you carve out time for your own poetry? What is your writing routine like? How does a writer maintain stamina and mental health while staying dedicated to their craft?

VC: I don’t really ‘carve’ to use your word. Carve feels a little too active to me. I just sit down and write. Or stare at trees. Or read. Or think. Let the mind wander. I like to sit down in the mornings when my brain is working extremely well. But my mornings are quite busy so if I get to sit down, it’s quite a gift. Sometimes things go well, most of the time, they don’t. When they don’t, I’ll hang it up and go do something else. But still call the morning a ‘success’ because my brain got to work a little and it had fun no matter what.
Writing is a practice for me, as I said. It’s no different than eating or drinking water or breathing in air. I need it more than it needs me. It actually is my mental health. So, I don’t think of it as a job or a chore or a career. It’s a way of living.

JW: I love the fact that politics is so subtly mentioned in The Trees, that we are never too far from reality even if the mind is what we find much more anchoring. You write: ‘We are made of war’ and ‘violence has been painted over’, while a poem has a title ‘Avoiding news by the river’. How do you see the poet’s role in engaging with present-day conflicts? Does poetry need to solve anything? Or can we flee from that reality in our poetry?

VC: I think writing about political events or current events is always challenging because the poem can become cemented to the event itself, the realism of the event, the stance of the event, the morality of the event. So much is already known. But I’m always up for a challenge so I think my poems can engage with current events in my own way.
Poetry doesn’t really need to do anything in my opinion. But it does so much. It can change the way people think. It can bring the mind and soul to a different plane. I think it can also expand one’s imagination. Isn’t that what we need now more than ever?

JW: You are working on your next collection. Can you tell us more about it? In what ways have the variety of your previous collections influenced you?

VC: I’ve finished a book of ekphrastic poems on Agnes Martin and that’s coming out with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2024 and also with Corsair in the UK. I actually also finished another book of poems called Tree of Knowledge, which was surprising, but it came so I allowed it to come. I’m now working on a book of prose and enjoying that process too. And reading. I love reading, so I am reading about thirty books all at once.

Jennifer Wong is the author of several books including Letters Home (Nine Arches Press) and Identity, Home and Writing Elsewhere in Contemporary Chinese Diaspora Poetry (Bloomsbury Academic, 2023). She teaches creative writing and is working on her next collection. 

Donate to Poetry London

Be a part of the next 100 issues

To donate, please click on the button below, or send a cheque payable to ‘Poetry London’ to Poetry London, Goldsmiths, University of London, New Cross, London, SE14 6NW, UK.

Donate to Poetry London today

Discover more from this issue…

Summer 2023

Issue 105

The Summer 2023 issue features three new poems from Jay Bernard, as well as new work by Ian Duhig, Meena Kandasamy, D. Nurkse, Yang Lian, Katharina Schultens, Victoria Chang, Pascale Petit, Declan Ryan, Sunnah Khan, Jamal Mehmood and lisa luxx, among many others. Translations include poems originally written in Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Nepali & Spanish by Mahmoud Darwish, José Luis Díaz-Granados, Amir Or, Katharina Schultens and Avinash Shrestha. Elsewhere, Isabelle Baafi interviews Don Paterson, while our reviews section carries criticism by Dzifa Benson, Oluwaseun Olayiwola, Patrick Romero McCafferty and alice hiller.
Buy the Summer 2023 issue

Subscribe to Poetry London

Subscribe today!