Victoria Chang’s poetry finds vitality in the past while re-imagining what’s ahead of us. Her current manuscript-in-progress, recently honored with the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, features a series of obituary-style poems.
I was curious to know: how does she revise these? Isn’t an obit defined by its finality? Our conversation touched on mortality, generational difference, and how the loss of a parent can transform a writer’s whole worldview. She also admitted that her own kids don’t care about poetry—and that she thinks that’s a great thing.
—Ben Purkert for Guernica
Guernica: What made you write these obituary poems in the first place?
Victoria Chang: My mom had been sick for so long that I didn’t even realize that I had been grieving while she was sick. I wasn’t that young when it started: my dad had a stroke when I was in my thirties, and then my mom got really sick because it was stressful, and she had already been sick with pulmonary fibrosis. I just felt that grieving has been a part of my state of mind for probably more than a decade.
Given that I had young children during that time period, I was also grieving for my old life: my time, my space, my mental space, all that kind of stuff. I feel like now that I’m looking back, I spent the last ten years grieving. I think I had this desire to write about it, but I didn’t know how. Then I was listening to NPR, and they were talking about this documentary called Obit. There’s something about that word “obit”: how it sounds, how short it is, the long “O”, the “T” at the end. I love that word. Then I was just waiting, I think at a stop light, and I thought, “Gosh, when your mom dies or when someone you care about dies, it’s like everything dies.” I think I raced back home, and maybe the next day I wrote a ton of these poems. I die, my clothes die, the bees die, doctors die—all of that opened the floodgates for all these prose poems. That helped me start to distill that grief that I had been experiencing.
Guernica: In this particular poem, the future has died, which seems like the most all-encompassing sort of death there is.
Victoria Chang: Right. Honestly, I think when my mom died I stopped caring about anything. And I was always such a high-achieving ambitious person. I’m just wired that way. I’ve always wanted so many things. But when my mom died, I didn’t want anything anymore.
Guernica: Why an obituary over, say, an elegy?
Victoria Chang: I think an elegy felt cliché. The form itself felt cliché. Initially I told myself, “I don’t want to write about my mom dying. I’m not interested at all.” I guess, looking back at it, maybe I wanted to reinvent the elegy in some way. I think my mind tends to work like that.
Guernica: Comparing the drafts, I feel like the early one speaks in more general terms (“motherhood”) while the revised is more personal (“my mother”). Did you do that consciously?
Victoria Chang: Well, gosh, I don’t know if I do anything consciously. But yes, I think that’s true! When I was writing, I was always trying to trigger-warning myself. I didn’t try to on purpose, but I discovered this when I started writing. I began feeling all this sadness and all these emotions that I had felt throughout the last ten years, especially after my mom died. I always try to give off that I’m a tough person. But for this manuscript, the personal stories were a part of being vulnerable.
Guernica: These poems are part of a series. How does that change your revision process? Are you revising toward consistency or away from it?
Victoria Chang: When I’m revising, I tend to focus on every single word. I’m very granular, and then I gradually become aware of how each relates to the relatives around it. My biggest problem, as you can imagine, is that I write these very long series, and I have to be mindful of boredom.
Guernica: You mentioned your children before. Do you ever think about them reading these morbid poems?
Victoria Chang: Yes, I do. But the great thing is that none of them are interested in poetry! They like reading, and maybe when they’re older they might. Maybe when I die they might suddenly want to read all this. But I don’t really care about what they think. They’re just a part of the greater audience. I don’t really spend a lot of time caring about the audience, especially when I’m writing. I think that’s a creativity killer.
Guernica: Dean Young has this line that I love…I’m paraphrasing now, but it’s “Whenever you’re facing the audience, you’re looking backwards.”
Victoria Chang: I love that. Do you ever think about the audience? Well, you’re 33, so you’ve grown up with a phone in your hand. You’re part of the selfie generation.
Guernica: Am I? I hope not.
Victoria Chang: You may not feel young, I get that. But 33 is so young. Some authors on social media pose with their books a lot, and I get it—we’re in a different time. But I always have the opposite desire to always keep the two separate, the person and the poems. I would never want the two to go together. Maybe it’s a generational thing? Even with those cool pictures that came out on BuzzFeed recently, I was just like, these photos are beautiful, but why are we putting poets in weird poses? Why are people taking photos of the poets and not reading the poems?
Guernica: On this topic of generational difference, I was thinking about how your poem looks just like an obit you might find in a newspaper. That same sort of a narrow column. I wonder if that’s something that will register with the next generation who might never hold a newspaper in their hands.
Victoria Chang: Totally. And I… I really like reading obituaries.
Victoria Chang: When I get my alumni magazine, I go straight to the back. I’m not reading for anything—I’m looking to see who has died. It’s just this weird obsession I have with my own mortality. At what decade or what year of people graduating do people start dying? Sometimes when I read them, I’m like, “Okay, so look here. This is when people start dying.” As if, by gathering more knowledge about death, I’ll be more prepared for it.
Guernica: In an interview with The Rumpus you said, “I love disarray, I love mess.” Does that apply only to writing first drafts, or are you also messy in revision?
Victoria Chang: I’m always messy. You should see my desk. I might look nice and neat sometimes, but that’s just a mask for the messiness in my brain. I think that when I’m drafting in particular, the messier the better. But with revision too… I’ve got my scalpel out, my little hammer, my tools, and I’m ready to go dig in there and chisel, and I will lop off whole halves of poems, and write whole new endings.
Victoria Chang: And I love endings. My old teacher David Baker used to say, “Wow, you’re good at endings but not so much the beginnings.”
Guernica: Which takes us back to the obituaries.
Victoria Chang: Yes! Though an obit may or may not be an ending. Who knows?
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