“How could I really write grief, describe it?”


Interviewed By: Ilya Kaminsky

Editor's Note: As part of our ongoing dialogue about the form of the interview and our desire to shape new possibilities for Divedapper, we've made the decision to publish an interview conducted by the poet Ilya Kaminsky, as opposed to our usual method of solely editor-run interviews. This is something we've been interested in for some time: the opportunity to bring in voices other than our own to enlarge the chorus we believe contemporary poetry to be. We're grateful to Ilya & Victoria for giving us a chance to begin that work.

This past year, we haven't been able to update the site's content to the extent that we'd initially wanted. That said, we haven't stopped working: we have a small backlog of interviews to publish in the months ahead, world permitting, and hope to continue to think critically about what we can do for and with this platform. Thank you for taking the time to read this, and we hope something in here speaks to something in you. Take good care,

Nabila & Bradley

While your new book, OBIT, is very much its own book, as I re-read it in context of your earlier work, it also seems to be very much in conversation with your previous two volumes of poetry, The Boss and Barbie Chang. In fact, these three books feel very much like a trilogy. So, I wonder if we can begin by talking about your process of writing, from book to book. What is your composition process like?

I think this is a very good observation; I can’t help but “leak” when I write, in that books are just arbitrary human-made objects. In this country, it is all about po-biz and capitalism which I despise. I feel like art doesn’t work that way (in discrete books). I’m also never “done” writing about certain things or in certain ways just because a book is done. The greatest example of this is that my mother is still dead. I can’t undie her so her death, my grief, etc. might still appear in my poems beyond OBIT. The Boss was playing around with form and sound without punctuation that bled into Barbie Chang. The Boss also began to investigate my father’s stroke which occurred right around that book. Of course, his stroke didn’t just go away either, and he fell a bunch of other times, had more brain bleeds, and then my mother got sicker, which appears in Barbie Chang, which of course culminates into OBIT. So yes, subject matter is evolving because it is my life! It is also my fate, I think, because I would have written entirely different books if my parents hadn’t gotten so sick during this period, which as you can see from the books spans a while, and is still going (my dad is still alive). If they were healthy all this time, maybe I would have been a different kind of poet? From book to book, I think I just get very obsessed with things at a certain period of time. Each of these books was composed in a short period of time, weeks to months, and then I would edit them (in some cases, that meant re-write!) for years. I can’t pop in and out of a mindset or a state. I wish I could be more relaxed and less obsessed but while I’m working on something, there’s nothing else that matters. It’s very very unhealthy. I do not recommend it.

OBIT is a book of elegies. But it is also a book of letters to children. It is also a book of adulthood: of being aware of how one grows into the world, of loss. It is also the book of deep political awareness of what country one lives in, what country one’s parents die in, how the country changes, often in ways that are dispiriting. It is a book that is both emotional and intellectual: for instance, when you speak about your parent’s relationship after your father’s stroke, you also give us a theory of language: “You don’t know what it’s / like, she said, when I told her to stop / yelling at my father. She was right. / When language leaves all you have / left is tone, all you have left are smoke / signals. I didn’t know she was using / her own body as wood.” All of which is to say that this book combines many strands in one. In this, it is very much its own thing, unlike most books by your contemporaries. I wonder if you can comment on that, and also let us know what books were important for you as you composed OBIT?

I think that the older I get, the more I try hard to be myself. When I first started writing, I did what a lot of younger writers do, I mimicked other writers, whether dead or alive because I lacked confidence not only for my writing but for myself as a person. It wasn’t until maybe my third book that I started to realize that maybe I should just be myself, however that manifests itself. When I was composing OBIT, I was in the heart and mind space of my own grief. I wasn’t really thinking of other books of poetry, but obviously everything I’ve ever read was meaningful to my own writing of this book. The greatest influence of these poems was the obituary itself. The tone of the obituary is flat, matter-of-fact, and I actually read a lot of obituaries at that time to think about how to write my poems which are obviously different, but tonally, similar. It seemed obvious to me that I couldn’t adorn anything. No jewelry for the poems! The emotions were too sad and too all-encompassing so the big question was how to write poems about such deep harrowing emotions. I read every prose grief book I could find, of course, just to get me through those dark times, but ultimately, I wanted to write the book that I needed for myself. On the many strands, I think most people who know me well know I have likely too many “strands” in my personality and my life. I’m interested in everything and hop around all day from one thing to another like a dumb bunny. I think that always shows up in my work whether I like it or not. On general poets I love, I do think that I love the poets who are both intellectually oriented (I love smart philosophical poets) but who also are able to express deep feeling well. I like expansive poets, poets who are writing about bigger things rather than the navel-gazing self. So poets like yourself! Other poets might include Jorie Graham, Larry Levis, W.S. Merwin, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Robert Hass, Louise Glück, Anne Carson, all the poets that I grew up reading and loving. Of course I love Bishop, Plath, Stevens, Li-Young Lee, etc. There are so other contemporary poets I could mention here but I feel like I don’t have quite enough distance to say how they may have influenced me.

I wonder if we can speak about dualities. You speak to both parents and to children, you write both in formal verse such as Tankas and sonnets, and in prose. Tankas are your messages to your children, whereas prose pieces are presented in the form of obituaries where in the parent dies, and everything else dies, too: the country, frontal lobe, civility, and so on. There are many tonal dualities, as well: jokes, puns are there right next to moments of intense grief. This kind of tension between these sequences is something that happens all the time in your work. Could you speak about more about this, and what compels you to compose your books with these kinds of dualities in mind?

I get bored very easily. I am constantly on the hunt for the next exciting thing—whether it’s food or books or places or even people. I think that appears in my work too. Because I am so obsessive and lack large chunks of time, I tend toward writing sequences. But I won’t apologize for that uniformity because it’s all I can do right now in my life. How I confront those challenges of uniformity is through form, formal variations, also subject matter variations. I’ve also written about this before, but being an immigrant’s child, I can be anyone for anyone. I didn’t grow up in Los Angeles or New York. I grew up in Michigan. It was assimilate or die. I often failed at assimilation, but learned all of the skills along the way through trial and error. Sometimes the people I wanted to assimilate with, did not see me, but I still got the practice. I’m not saying this is a positive thing. It just is. Therefore I’m nobody, who are you? Yet, I’m also everybody. I think that shows up in my work as well.

You have touched on this, but I wonder if we could speak a bit more about form: I feel that while some reviewers and critics of your work touch upon this, there isn’t really that much discussion about formal strategies. You are, in fact, a strict formalist. In this book, there are prose poems, Tankas, sonnets, and so on. But they are always presented not as formal lyric poems (although they are) but also as a kind of engagement of lyric forms with emotional intelligence/disarray. I would like to hear more about this relationship between the language-work and emotional work in your writing process.

Yes, I just sort of started talking about this earlier. I use the word “vessel” a lot because for me, at least, the vessel is as important as the words that go in the vessel. I think of it like a boat (or a vase). There are a lot of different types of boats and flotation devices. I can’t really become passionate about writing until the form has been found. For me at least, the form often ignites the content. It’s absolutely essential to the work’s making and outcome. In the case of OBIT, the physical shape of the poem as a skinny long obituary, 1.5 spaces, an exact and precise width and margin on either side, was essential for those poems.  The font was precise too—sans serif font. The font needed to be stark, unadorned with no curls or curves at the ends of the letters. Both the font and the form served as a constraint to hold in exploding emotion, the weeping, the spillage. If you look closely behind the poems, there are thousands of dried tears.

Most reviewers speak about your work in terms of its emotional undercurrents, emotional nuances, you have been called a love poet, a poet of desire, an elegist, and so on. But you are also very much a civic poet, your writing takes on many political themes, you are a an acute critic of the country and social structure you live in. I wonder if you can speak more about this aspect of your work?

Yes, I am first and foremost in many ways, a civic poet and person. I have a great sense of social justice, societal justice, individual justice. I am always complaining about one thing or another! I am always deconstructing my own privilege, while also understanding how racist, misogynist, classist, our culture is and has been to people like myself and many others. I think this all shows up in my writing and in the ways that I navigate the world, the literary world and beyond as well, which is why I am a big advocate for marginalized writers/poets. This doesn’t only mean writers of color, of course. But I am always toiling away on the behalf of others to the point where sometimes I have to remind myself to hold back, give something to my own children, keep some of myself for me. I still remember when I first edited an anthology before I had published a book of poems and someone said, “who the heck is she,” implying that because I wasn’t prominent enough, I had no right to do something like that. Fast forward 18 years or so, anyone today can edit an anthology and no one will question that. If you have the will, there is a way. That kind of privilege and snobbery was something that intuitively didn’t feel right to me back then. In the writing world, humility is so important, I think. Here today, gone tomorrow (I’m full of clichés today). Humility is a part of equity, social justice, in that we all have a right to be a part of the writing community. Issues of access are always on my mind.

Discussing the book called OBIT, it might be good to speak a bit more about its subject, grief. So many people are grieving right now. To your mind, what are the successful formal strategies of vividly depicting grief in writing, to express the reader's own grief, rather than just telling the reader that the author is in pain. Having spent years writing about grief, writing through grief, what is your take on this?

I think making a book, any book is hard. But the time and thinking that goes into that part of the process is so important (and fun!). The thing I love about book-making (versus poem-making) is that it’s high up in the air. I get to be a bird for a little while, with my aerial view of all the graveyards below, sometimes graveyards of poems. For OBIT, once I had a huge chunk of pages, maybe 70 or more of obits, I thought about the arc of the manuscript, what kind of story it was telling and did some re-arranging, writing into. I was also writing formal poems for fun, in the same way one might play sudoku or do crossword puzzles. These ghazals, sestinas, villanelles eventually led to Tankas. Once I landed on those, there seemed to be some kind of luminous connective tissue between the Tankas and the obits, as well as a kind of push-pull between the two. The Tankas were letter of addresses to children, the obits about dying. They seemed to want to be married. I also found some old poems that never appeared in a book before, but were each titled elegy and put them all together in the manuscript, adjusted each to 14 lines, added caesuras, as well as connective tissue between them (there are repeating words from one sonnet to the next), and placed them in the middle of the manuscript. Writing this now sounds so clinical and organized, but I can assure you that none of this was easy and took years of organic work.
On grief, you are so very astute because probably the biggest challenge for me writing this book was to have the work transcend my own grief. That seemed like an impossible task at the time. Could I not only transcribe my grief (if that is even possible), but the bigger question was could I make the reader (who doesn’t know me or care about me or my grief), care, not just care for themselves but care in general, feel something larger? I think I ended up working around trying to define grief, describe it, which became bigger than my own thousands of griefs. And of course, I was always thinking about how to write. Every word, line, sentence, stanza, poem, how could I really write grief, describe it? I’ve described it as trying to get down to the bone of something. It became a challenge that I really embraced.

With the above in mind: it would be impossible to have this conversation and not to mention the moment we are in. April 2020, the middle of a global coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of people are getting ill and are dying. Thousands of people around the world are in isolation from each other. Governments are doing terrible things. That is our reality. What is poetry, in moments such as this, as opposed to any other moment. Is it different, or we are different? Your book is coming out in the world in this very moment, so it seems useful to ask a question on how do you see yourself, the poet, and the world into which your book is being released right now?

I’ve always been excited when a book comes out but not put so much value on it for some of the reasons I mentioned above related to making and creation not being defined solely by books. I also have to be honest in that I have had a lot of other things going on in my life over the last decade+ that have forced me to de-emphasize the capitalist/commercial process of publishing a book. It’s hard to be excited about books or prizes when your mom is dying or when your dad’s in the hospital because he fell again. I’m not complaining or trying to elicit sympathy at all, but I do think these things have made me realize that having a book come out at this time is just that—a book coming out during the coronavirus. Last year, I think in a week, six people died in my dad’s facility. Nearly everyone around my dad has tested positive in this new facility. Some died. So many other people have died around the world. So many people are working hard on the front lines to curb this thing. People are losing their jobs, their life savings. Some people never had savings but only crushing debt. Poetry is important at this time but it’s not the end all be all.   And neither is my book or anyone else’s book. I actually have two books, another middle grade novel out too. I feel this is all a gift and this is the fate of these books so I am at peace with whatever happens or doesn’t happen. If my book(s) help someone through something difficult, that’s enough. OBIT came to be because my mother died. I’d have her back in a second and return the book if I could.

An old question, but one that still burns, at least for lyric poets, is, what is it that walks on four legs at morning, two at midday, three at evening?

Haha. I could answer this in numerous creative ways. But it reminds me of this quote that someone put on Twitter recently: “At first we want life to be romantic; later, to be bearable; finally to be understandable,” by Louise Bogan. I feel like I’m entering that understandable phase of life, or the “three at evening” phase (if we are talking about an old person using a cane). Basically, I think I’m getting old. I’m starting to look behind me and think that there are a lot of people younger than me now! I am scared to enter this phase, but I’ve also been interested in reading a lot of different kinds of poems that I might not have understood earlier because I was simply too young or not concerned about the things these poems were exploring. I hope that I continue to get to grow in mind and heart as time goes on. What a gift to be in the world as a writer right now.

Interview Posted: August 31, 2020


Buy OBIT at Bookshop.org

Poets.org Profile

Victoria Chang Reads “OBIT, Caretakers”