Victoria Chang is the author of four collections of poetry and another on the way (OBIT, Copper Canyon Press 2020). Additionally, in 2015, Chang released the children’s picture book Is Mommy?
A poet, mother, and faculty member for Antioch’s MFA program, Chang manages her busy schedule accordingly. With poetry collections birthed by obsession and compulsion, her writing often connects to form cohesive assemblies of repetition. Tongue-twisters that dance between the playful and the dark. You know, like writing an obituary about a caretakers, friendships, and a blue dress.
In the interview below, I spoke with the multi-faceted artist about her writing spurts, her cluttered desk, her two dogs (the basis for her featured writing prompt), and plenty more.
How has 2019 been treating you so far?
Do you really want to know? Terribly. I'll leave it at that. Utter chaos.
Your books are such cohesive 'project-books', with continual characters like Barbie Chang and The Boss. OBIT seems to have another (structurally, at least) seamless concept. Do you often begin with an idea then create from there?
Hmm, I don't know where my poems begin. I don't think I ever begin with an "idea" though, not for a poem. Maybe for an essay. I mostly begin with an amorphous feeling, an itch, an image, a shard of something. I never set out to write "project books" and I think that phrase has gotten a bad rap and has a denigrating tone (not from you, but from others). I haven't met anyone who sits down to write a project book or if they do, it's probably not a book I'd like to read. I think of it the other way, poems come out of obsessions and obsessions come from the void. We can't control what our obsessions are or how the poems choose to come out of us. In my case, I am completely and utterly obsessive. It's likely infuriating to be around; you'll have to ask my kids 20 years from now how it was to grow up with me in the house.
The other issue with project books is that for me, at least, it's a function of time. I have so little time. So little. That sometimes I write during periods where I do have blocks of time. So I wrote The Boss in a car while waiting for a kid to finish a class. Once that class ended, I was done with the manuscript (mostly) because I had no choice. That was two months. Barbie Chang I wrote while I had bits of time while we were staying in a hotel for a few months out of necessity. I pulled in other ‘Dear P.’ poems from old manuscripts to create different collisions. OBIT was written, the bulk of it, over two weeks--I can't just keep going--the kids need my time so that's all I had or work or my dad or something else. I never set out to write more than what I was writing with that very first word, but due to the function of being obsessive and lacking time, there you have it.
My first two books are all individual poems and not "project books," incidentally, but people rarely talk about those (understandably).
With Obit scheduled for 2020, are you still putting the finishing touches on it, are you already mentally on to the next project, or are you taking some time off?
It's done, thank goodness. I keep tinkering with the acknowledgments page, though. I find those to be the hardest. I want to acknowledge everyone but I don't want to seem like a sycophant. I've written 100 pages of some stuff to have something to work on at MacDowell. But I intended to write one word.
I read in an interview with author Jen George where she quoted Louise Bourgeois as saying that all artists have only one idea. Something that can be deeply complex and expressed in endless ways, but one idea nonetheless. Thematically, do you feel like this is evident in your work? Are you always trying to say the same thing with each new collection?
I am the opposite. I think my mind works more like a systems thinker. I have too many ideas. My brain is always firing away and I have trouble sleeping. It hops and hops and hops and hops. I can't ever get it to shut up. So NO, I don't believe that at all. I love George and the stories, but I think having one idea forces you to innovate in every other way and that's hard. It can make the path to writing well a lot harder.
Along with four poetry collections (and another on the way), you also wrote a children's book. Do you see yourself writing for younger audiences again in the future? Assuming the writing took much less time than one of your poetry collections, was the production process different for Is Mommy?
I have a slew of picture books and two verse novels with my agent now. She just "sold" a verse novel (Love Love) to a publisher and that will be coming out, I imagine sometime in the future.
Outside of your own work, who/what have you been reading recently?
Everything. My house is filled with hundreds of open books, all over the place, it's insane. They're all like Tranströmer's "dirty butterflies" (what he used to describe newspapers). They're all open, bent at the spines, everywhere.
If you can, provide a photo of your workspace. What are some essentials while you create?
I've attached one of one of my wiener dogs, Mustard (the other is Ketchup) working at my computer. My desk at Antioch is clean and empty. My creative work desk is, as one can imagine, a total disaster, like my brain. There are no essentials but a messy brain and a big heart.
For this ongoing author interview series, I'm asking for everyone to present a writing prompt. It can be one that you craft out of thin air, it can be one you created a while ago, or it can be one you adore from an outside source that was passed down to you.
This one is out of thin air. Write a poem that has two dogs in it and ends with a question. The poem must be at least 10 lines and must have one moment where it veers off into a strange place but eventually comes back.
Do you have any advice for writers working on their craft?
Not really. Just read a lot, write a lot, have humility (you're not entitled to anything, remember?), and don't be an asshole.