“An Oboe at Night Among Trees,” a Conversation about Poetry with David Baker – curated by Victoria Chang

David Baker is author of twelve books of poetry, most recently Swift: New and Selected Poems, (Norton, 2019), Scavenger Loop (Norton, 2015), and Never-Ending Birds (Norton, 2009), which won the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize in 2011.  His six books of prose include Seek After: Essays on Modern Lyric Poets (SFA University Press, 2018), Show Me Your Environment: Essays on Poetry, Poets, and Poems (Michigan, 2014) and, with Ann Townsend, Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry (Graywolf, 2007).  Among his awards are prizes and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Mellon Foundation, and Society of Midland Authors.  He holds the Thomas B. Fordham Chair at Denison University, in Granville, Ohio, and is Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review.


Victoria Chang: Your new poems in your book, Swift: New and Selected Poems, feel simultaneously free (in form, in diction) and precise in language at the same time.  How do you achieve that?

David Baker: Swift took me years to put together—in two different go-rounds—and decades to write, poem by poem, book by book. So I’m not sure I can answer this question in a singular way. But to start: absolutely, paradox is at the heart of art. The push-pull of freedom and precision you describe is fundamental to it and, I guess, to me.

The freedom you sense in my diction may be an old Missouri casualness or perhaps, over the course of my writing poems, it may derive from trying to borrow from all kinds of idiom, very formal to slangy, academic and scientific to vernacular, loud to soft, major to minor to diminished to vanished. I hope the language represents a real range of thinking and doing; I hope I play at times on lots of instruments in the band. Freedom in form, likewise, may be the result of many years of writing and deep curiosity about poetic form. I write sometimes in open forms, even in prose, and sometimes in tight syllabics. Sometimes in regular stanzas, sometimes in quantitative stanzas, sometimes in ragged, uneven ones. Long full sentences; fragments.

I hope throughout to maintain a precision. Sometimes my students say they want to be “vague” in a poem; that way, they argue, a poem can be whatever we want it to be. Alas. It’s either a banana or a Buick, I say back, and it would behoove us not to confuse such things. There’s a big difference between vagueness and ambiguity or complexity. I love the complex precision of mathematics and of scientific method and language; I love the argot that any particular activity or discipline makes for itself—the language a guitarist uses to describe a certain lick, the language a mapmaker uses in measuring and calculating a geological contour. I want to lean into the language of specialties, the weird stuff, and not edit it out; I like the strangeness and the precision of that.

Precision also means to be attentive to detail. In poetry, it means being attentive to image and behavior as well as form and syntax; and attentive, in our moment by moment living, to what is right in front of us. Attention is a form of love, and precision is attention’s evidence.

VC: As you respond to my questions, I’m remembering how wonderful it was to be your student [I was your student at Warren Wilson twice about 15 years ago and at the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop]. In many of your new poems, there’s a narrative thread that travels across the poems.  Is that how a poem begins for you?  Via story?  Or some other way?

DB: I’ve written the poems in Swift over so long a time that it’s hard to make a single summary. The oldest poems here date from 1982 or ‘83, when I was still in school. Even so I haven’t included any poems from my first book, Laws of the Land. That decision took a deep breath to make.

Poems begin for me mysteriously. Yes, sometimes there’s a kind of story I want to tell, or parts of stories. Sometimes it’s just a simple tone—like an oboe at night, among trees. I remember thinking about one poem that I wanted it to sound like that. Sometimes there’s a conundrum I want to address, a dramatic irony to enact. Sometimes I just put my speaker or thinker into motion, into circumstance, and see where he goes and what he does. I do not start a poem with the ending already in mind—or rarely. And the ending is rarely an issue of narrative, but more an issue of music, rhythm, an opening as much as a closing.

Still, I do lean toward narrative. Well, as I say that, I also hope I have some lyric skills. Those aren’t exclusive features, are they? It’s like this. I want to make a type of music out of words—lots of types of music. To play a song you have to have a story, a drama; a tone is a tone and two tones is a drama. It’s inevitable. Whenever we make a sentence, or string a couple of words together, we are already working in the realm of narrative. Language is narrative.

Now, perhaps you’re right that a narrative thread or threads do wind across my new poems. That’s inevitable, since I wrote them. I believe the most interesting threads, for any poem, are the ones we do not will to be there, the ones we don’t purposely intend, but rather the ones that show up unbidden, underneath. I’m thinking about the deeper parts of personality and psyche and imagination, where the fear and the adoration and the revulsion and the hope all hover and conspire. There’s a type of landscape that travels from poem to poem in Swift, to be sure, and a manner of being-in-the-world, and something like a voice eventually emerges.

VC: I just love what you say about the most interesting threads in poems are the ones that we do not will to be there. That gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. There are a lot of natural elements in your poems where nature serves as figure.  Can you talk more about this impulse?  What’s your relationship to landscape?

DB:  Oh boy, Victoria, that’s a whopper of a question. I could take a book and not say all I would like to say about landscape and nature. But it’s like this. I don’t think I have a relationship to landscape. I think I am, we are, landscape. I think it’s important—ecologically, psychically, also epistemologically—not to think of ourselves as something separate from nature or landscape. We are no more separate from nature than a single hair on our arm is separate from our arm or our body or the earth. The individual distinction is very minor compared to the connection, the dependence.

I grew up outside, in central Missouri, messing around in the woods, camping along the creeks, hunting mushrooms in the lowlands and arrowheads in the plowed fields, fishing, playing, breathing deeply. It’s still deep in my blood, and my little patch of central Ohio feels the same now. I’m just not a city boy. I’d rather spend an afternoon in the company of pecan trees and limestone hills than a bunch of people.

So to your question. Nature doesn’t so much serve as a figure in my poems as an inevitable circumstance, an enablement, a living possibility of sensations and ideas. It’s less art than home. It’s less figure than part of my spirit, or I its. In my poems I think nature is how I filter, how I find context for behavior. When I breathe, there it is. When it type, there it is.

VC: I just love that, being a complete city slicker myself (with occasional bouts of seeking out my own Michigan childhood amongst Petoskey stones and living on a lake). Can you speak to how you ordered this book? Why the new poems first versus last?  How did you decide which poems to include and which not to?

DB: It took me ages to assemble Swift. I did a first iteration of a new-and-selected in 2011 and 2012. I finally abandoned it, and my editor Jill Bialosky suggested I turn instead to finishing a book of new poems. That book became, in 2015, Scavenger Loop.

After Loop I started again on a new-and-selected. I started big. I gathered all the poems I liked and wanted to represent in such a book, and it was too big. I needed to take the word “selected” to heart, and as I worked poem by poem, month by month over a couple of years, I found myself being more and more selective. I have left out poems I like a lot, poems I do at readings, poems that have been anthologized. I’ve tried to represent some things that are important to me and to my sense of my own work, and I have tried to make a new book out of this, not just a bucket to hold all the stuff. I was looking hard at new-and-selected volumes that were lean and tightly selected. Donald Justice’s, Ellen Voigt’s, David St. John’s, Stanley Kunitz’s.

My friend Stan Plumly wanted me to assemble Swift without sections, without dividing the poems into their books. I tried that, as he had done. I also tried shuffling them all around, like Mary Ruefle and Lynn Emanuel so wonderfully did. But those things didn’t work for me.

I tried the standard structure—going from old to new—and that didn’t feel right either. So Swift is in reverse chronology, moving from a group of new poems back through my newest to earlier books. At some point I decided not to use any poems from Laws of the Land, and with that decision I knew how to end this collection. I knew which two poems should be the final ones, and which scene was the last one, looking out over a life—as the ending of “Haunts” has it—as an opening rather than a foreclosing. I like the way this order of things hands-off what I am to what I was, step by step, gesture by gesture. That’s how it feels to me, peeling away.

I had a lot of poems at first and started by cutting one or two. Then more. It dawned on me to represent my work, not include all the good stuff. Then—this is the musician in me, the orderly one, the metrist—I tried to make the sections regular. I had eleven poems from each book. But no, that was wrong, too much, then ten, nine . . . Swift offers only seven poems from each of my books and combines books two and three (Haunts and Sweet Home, Saturday Night) into one section of seven. I like the balance of such numbers—I do this in stanza structure often, and in linear structure. Paul Muldoon’s superb Selected Poems 1968-2014 has only five poems from each of twelve books. He left out a lot of very fine poems, but he made an even finer new book. I would like someone to think that about Swift.

VC: This process you describe is incredible. It just shows how much work can go into putting a book together. Of course, this doesn’t happen all at once, but I’m sure looking back, it’s a pretty remarkable process. Looking at your own body of work, how do you think your work has changed?  How do you think your work has stayed the same? I have my thoughts on this but I want to hear what you have to say.

DB: I’m the last person to ask about this. Really, once we do our work, once we write and rewrite and finish and publish, the poem is really not ours anymore, but other readers’. It’s the reader who should determine the value and meaning of a poem for herself and in negotiation with other readers. I guess I have some sense of how I’ve changed but I don’t talk about that too much. I’d rather think about the next one. I still haven’t written the next one.

You asked this in good faith, though, so I’ll give you some quick ideas in good faith. I hope I have gotten better! I may be more attentive to phrasing and syntax—the art of the craft of the sentence. I’ve tried to be more intrepid, less self-censoring about strangeness, taking a step or a swan-dive into unexpected places or forms. I’m more demanding of my work, each poem, each word, each placement. It takes me a long time to write a poem, to let it go. There is no hurry.

As to how I stay the same: I try to resist the coy, the cute, the precious, the canned, the prompted, the trite, the obedient. I look to the dirt and the wind and the water. I trust the heart, I distrust the heart. I’ve learned more about form and shape, how to use these things and how to relinquish and resist them. I’ve learned more quiet.

I’m curious, though, about what you think.

VC: Funny, I knew you would wonder what I think. I think you are right in that the poems feel more rigorous (I hate that word but I used it all the time), yet simultaneously freer, more open, more open to possibilities and strangeness (whether of subject matter, syntax, diction, rhythms, etc.). There’s a real progression and growth, definitely, an opening of the mind.

You were one of my teachers at Warren Wilson’s MFA Program and you must know you are such a good teacher.  I loved your letters.  I recently went back to read them and I appreciate them even more than when I was your student.  I cannot begin to tell you what an impact you had on me as a student, a reader, a poet, but also as a human being.  My parents weren’t born in America so I really looked to people like you to help teach me about literature, poetry, all sorts of things.  So, thank you.  What’s the role of teaching in your life?  Your writing life?  How do you feel about the tremendous impact you have on human beings like myself?

DB: This heartens me to no end. Thank you. I am a poet by vocation, but by profession I am a teacher. I was a teacher years before I was a poet; I started teaching guitar in 8th grade, and in college I got a teaching certificate to teach 7-12 grade English. Only during those college years did I start doodling with poems. I got serious about it quickly but I had no idea what I was doing.

Teaching is one of the most honorable ways to be among people. We have constructed a lot of hurtful, even horrible ways to be among people—armies, castes, churches, economies, so many ways to hoard and wield power—but I continue to find teaching each other hopeful. I feel this way about a few other collective institutions, like free libraries, fire departments, medical clinics.

The exchange of student and teacher is potentially life-changing, and always full of hope. I do feel as though I have three or four occupations, though, and they interfere as much as coordinate with each other. If I’m editing, I stew that I’m not writing. If I’m teaching, I grumble that I’m not keeping up with letters, or reading, or what I’ll call my “real life.” Everybody knows this crunch. I can say that some of my best critical writing has bubbled up out of exchanges with students in class or, as with you, in letters. I have had a few great teachers. By great, I mean a few teachers have shaped the direction of my whole life. I can’t be that teacher for every student, but I want to be that for whoever is receptive. It’s enough to help all the others learn how to read and write and think with more depth. And how to be decent people.

VC: Well, I can say for certainty, you have shaped the direction of my whole life in ways you can’t really imagine. And yes, the stewing—I sense that stewing even in the writing. And whenever I’m not writing or reading, I am stewing. But I tell myself I am writing even when I am not writing!

Similarly, you’ve edited the Kenyon Review’s poetry for a long time.  What impact has editing had on your writing life?  Your own writing?

DB: There’s the idealistic answer and the practical one. I’ve been with the Kenyon Review, in some editorial form or other, since 1983. I’ve been the Poetry Editor since 1995. I have a very good friend who’s scandalized by that tenure and thinks I should quit. But I’m not done.

Practically, and more and more lately, editing swallows my days. We receive now so many submissions it’s nearly impossible to keep up. We have a staff of volunteers—I’m essentially a volunteer, too—but we scramble with the sheer numbers. That impact is real and practical.

My other answer is that editing with Kenyon Review has been one of the two or three most lucky things in my professional life, a thing I cherish. I feel the serious trust that goes with this position, and I try to respond with serious attention. There’s that attention thing again.

Reading so much brand-new poetry, I see so many missteps, and I’m sure that has helped me head them off in my own work. The worst thing I see is just bad writing—inattentive, sloppy, graceless, tone-deaf. But equally common is the trite. What we may think is a doozie of an idea, or an image, is so often part of the common vernacular. How we enter poems, how we exit them, how we shape their material forms, how we move through the problem a poem poses—how often we are simply going through the motions we’ve lifted from elsewhere. Cliché is the culprit.

So that’s the thing I look for most in the piles I read: originality, authenticity of experience and of articulation. I don’t see it coming, I don’t have a single expectation for what it sounds like . . . but I know it when I read it, often immediately. The poem that hushes me and requires that I listen and learn—that’s the poem I want in the Kenyon Review, and that’s the poem I want to write. Editing has led me to be more demanding, severe, in my own work.

I guess the other thing editing has done is show me a wider aesthetic range. I try to be open to lots of poetries, far more than the range of my own work. I try to seek out such work and represent the best I find. I hope that’s one thing people think about poetry in our magazine.

VC: Editing can be such a thankless job but there’s so much community work we all do as we become more involved in the literary landscape so I appreciate the work you do. Speaking of the landscape, at least a different landscape, the landscape of poetry and poems has changed a lot even since I started (I’m probably around the age you were when you were my teacher, now that I think about it).  Any thoughts on that?

DB: It’s always changing. I see poets who experience some success, and the danger is to settle into that success. An inventive, restless poet can fall victim to the voices that urge her to repeat and repeat whatever was successful. Self-plagiarism. I look at the long career, and the thirst for change, in someone like W.S. Merwin and I am awed and tutored, though he’s had those phases of repeating himself too handily, too.

Of course social media has blasted into contemporary poetry like a tidal wave. Sometimes—in my snarky moments—I feel that Facebook and Twitter and the other social media are little more than ways to solicit admiration and adoration. But I am very excited by the relative growth of poetry’s audience—audiences, since the readership of a magazine and the audience for a twitter-poet aren’t often the same—and by the way social media is connecting people and the ways it is shaping how we write. Just this morning I was printing out Brian Teare’s very good short essay on identity and language, written for the Poetry Foundation blog. There’s so much more sheer content available, so many more voices and audiences. I hope this means the conversations are more shared and equalized than they used to be. Still, I do hold a skepticism for the velocity with which it moves. I tend to trust the slow, the deliberate in poetry and in its reception.

Something I’ve said before, and think even more fully than I used to, is precisely this point. I see poets trying to find a wide audience. Twitter and Instagram can satisfy that zest sometimes, though not often. I don’t try to write for a wide audience—though I’d like to represent a wide experience. Rather I try to write for a long audience. There it is again. There is no hurry.

What else? Poetry feels too comfortably nestled in the academy now, and young poets seem to feel entitled to a long life inside this comfortable grotto—moving from high school creative writing workshops to college majors and summer programs to the over-subscribed MFA, and onward to the expectation of fellowships, residencies, tenure-track jobs, prizes, esteem. It’s been daunting to see the rise of creative writing in concert with the drastic fall of literary scholarship.

I’m amused at times, and disappointed at times, by new poets who seem to think that poetry is a career. Poets go on tour, they have agents for bookings and appearances and publicity, and they puff up this manner of thinking by valorizing themselves and each other. Poets call each other heroes (for the valor), bad-asses (for the illusion of danger), rock stars (for the hint of glitz); they say they slay. Do you hear the delusion, even the warfare in these words?

VC: Wow, this is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about under the surface. Since we are poets and attune to language, the new vocabulary has scared me a bit, to be honest. Now there are not just literary agents but speaking agents and everyone wants to be “booked.” The world is changing fast and so fast that sometimes it’s hard to keep up. I try not to but focus on my own writing, word by word, and reading, and talking about poems. But yes, change is good and well, you know, change.

One thing that really struck me while I was reading your work was how incredibly rhythmic it is.  I know syllabics are a big part of your process.  How do you view rhythm in your writing?  What else would you say is important/essential to your work?

DB: I started to think about syllabics with some of the poems years ago in my book After the Reunion. I like the push-pull of syllabics compared to regular audible meter—you know, iambics and such. I love to write in lines that are regular in syllabic number but various in audible meter. I mean, to follow one decasyllabic line that might have six or seven heavy downbeats with a decasyllabic line that might have three beats. I love that pulse and push. It feels alive.

The larger issue really has to do with the musical sense of a line or sentence. What its length is, where its stresses and line-breaks fall, and more so, how its sonic qualities like repetition and alliteration operate. Poe got it right, that poetry is verbal music. I’d add that narrative is the workhorse (or the feather) that hauls each note and rest.

Everything is rhythmic—the body, the oceans, the pulse of an atom or a galaxy. We hear it and see it and feel it all, and the power of a poem comes when a physical, rhythmic music carries cognitive or linguistic meaning to us as well.

VC: Oh yes. I always say that some poems seem completely devoid of rhythm and those poems are hard for me to read.

Tonally, I always feel a restlessness in your work as manifested through combination of short and longer lines.  At the same time, there’s an incredible calmness to your work too.  What’s the relationship, if there is one, between restlessness and calmness?

DB: I hope that restlessness is there, yes. We’re back to paradox again. Long lines, short lines; regular syllables, irregular downbeats; phrase, line-break; storyline and musicality—these are all aspects of rhythmic movement, the inherent push-pull of things. Likewise, restlessness and calm. I want a poem that creates a dynamic, a poem that lives inside its own vibrant, wavering, breathing sense of things. “This shaking keeps me steady,” says Roethke. Precisely.

VC: In one of our old letters, I had asked you that hard question, do poets need to suffer to write great poetry?  Your response pretty much changed my life and kept me writing.  I’m only mentioning this here to see if your views have changed at all and to share your eloquent views with others?

DB: I wonder what I said. I won’t try to guess, since that was 2004 or so, right? But I can tell you what I think now. If I contradict myself, well, we know how that goes.

Of course poets don’t need to suffer to write great poetry. That stems from a sentimentality verging on suicide or at least masochism. Flaubert had a better way to say this: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

There’s another way to put it. Every single person suffers. Suffering does not make us special, or chosen, or artful; it makes us ordinary, and sometimes it makes us entirely wordless or hopeless. Sometimes we see the suffering of others, and sometimes our suffering is internal, ephemeral, as Dickinson wrote of a certain slant of light: “Heavenly Hurt, it gives us— / We can find no scar— / But internal difference— / Where the Meanings, are—.” The quiet man next door, the plumber and doctor and immigrant parent, the hungry child all suffer one way or another or many ways. Poets try to find names and narratives for this, as painters find shapes and colors. But a poet is not special for her suffering or his misery. Pain, like song, is a thing that joins us.

VC: Well, you essentially said the same thing with the caveat that your views might change. But I think you said it even more rigorously and eloquent this time!

What’s next for you?  I know you’ve written so many other wonderful books of criticism (I’ve read them all).  Are any new critical works on the horizon?  

DB: I’ve got all kinds of things in the hopper. More things than time, alas.

I’ve written criticism all along. My Ph.D. was largely in American literature. I know poetry better by writing about it, and I understand literary scholarship better by working on my poems. My teaching, my editing, my reading all have fed my essays about poetry and poems.

I’d really like to write a short book now about teaching—in particular, about teaching a poetry workshop and shaping it by a semester-long series of assignments I’ve developed over many years. I’ve assembled a set of theories about poetic form that can serve as a template for a class. We get so quickly muddled when we talk about poetry and form, but I’ve got notes and piles of handouts and I’d like to write this book now.

I’m also writing new poems, following Swift. I have a new long poem coming out soon in Poetry magazine, called “Whale Fall.” It looks at the stages of death and decay of one gray whale as it falls through the deep water of the ocean, as the scavengers come to feed on its carcass; it looks at the ecology of the ocean, at plastics and pollutants and consumption. At the same time the poem is autobiographical, tracing my own ill health years ago, with a disease called Chronic Fatigue/Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

I’m writing one poem at a time, and as always I’ll see where that leads. I’d also like to write some more reviews of new poetry, but the time is sparse right now for reviews.

And last, I’m putting together an anthology of nature and eco-poems, based on my “Nature’s Nature” annual feature in the Kenyon Review. I’ve got a wonderful gathering of poets and poems. I just don’t know who might be interested in publishing such a book. That’s where I get disheartened—the business of it all. Again, we’ll see.

VC: I’m so sorry about your illness and I hope you are feeling better now. “Whale Fall” sounds amazing—I have goosebumps just from your description. And oh yes! Please write a short book (or a long book) about teaching! The “business of it all” always gets me depressed, really. The fun is the writing, grappling with the writing, the reading, the talking about the poems.

Who are some of the most interesting poets to you right now?  These could be dead poets or brand new ones?

DB: I don’t much like lists. Maybe that’s because I’m seldom on one. No, it’s because I don’t like the commodification, the marketing and advertising of our art. But you asked in good faith, I know, and I’ll try to reply—with a caveat that my list is just mine and it’ll change by evening.

I have been reading and reading Gwendolyn Brooks, especially her poems and books like Riot from the 60s and 70s. I wrote a short paper about Riot three or four years ago and keep coming back to her. Here’s a poet with a powerful voice that evolved along with her form—her form in every sense. Here’s a poet with a sense of her neighborhood and her nation.

I have been reading, sometimes night after night, Donald Justice. I’m still learning how to hear him better, the sheer subtly of his music and wit, and (to me) the surprising depth of feeling of his best poems. I’m thinking of poems like “At the Young Composers’ Concert,” “There is a gold light in certain old paintings,” “Sadness,” or little ones like “Sea Wind.” I’ve especially been studying his poems in sequences. He’s masterful. He taps only a few keys on the piano at a time, but he plays the right ones with such harmonic care.

I read Merwin all the time. He is my favorite, period, his old work, his new, all of it. To tell you why would take all week. Ages ago I wrote my master’s thesis on three of his books. Last week I read poems from Garden Time to a dear friend in the hospital.

I am currently doing a two-person study of Emily Dickinson with my partner, Page Starzinger. I cannot exhaust Dickinson nor her me—such fearlessness, such delicacy. We’re reading the big Sewall biography, again, and looking at gardens, talking about gender, letters, solitude. We give each other reading assignments. We saw the Dickinson exhibit at the Morgan Library a couple of years ago—where they had a glass-cased locket of her very red hair!—and I’ve recently written a poem based on one of her manuscripts there. It’s my poem “Checkpoint” from Swift. “These are the days when birds come back,” both our poems begin.

I’m judging a couple of contests right now. It feels like I’ve read just about every book of poetry published in America in 2018. By the time this interview appears, the results will be public, so I can say here how much I have learned from new books by Jos Charles, Carl Phillips, Diane Seuss, Diane Khoi Nguyen, Terrance Hayes, John Koethe, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Rae Armantrout, Ben Purkert, Natasha Tretheway, on and on and on.

I’ve been rereading one of my wild favorites, the 17th century minister Edward Taylor. He may be the strangest poet I know. For Taylor language is so vibrant and alive—charged, as another minister, Hopkins, called it. On my desk right now I have Bill Knott and A. E. Stallings and Shane McCrae and Arthur Sze. I dearly love Arthur’s work, especially (again) his sequences.

VC: I knew my question would bring a wealth of riches. I’ve been reading Bishop a lot and Moore and H.D. for a talk I am doing. But Brooks is a poet I’d love to read more of myself.

You gave me so much advice when I was younger and I have tried to embody that advice.  One big thing you told me, which you’ve alluded to here in our talk, is that the trick is patience, and focus, and dedication.  You said that there is no hurry.  There is no contest.  There is no finish line.  Do you have any advice for newer poets, older poets, any poets, today?

DB: It’s probably harder for young poets right now than for us even twenty years ago, Victoria, to ignore the noise and speed of things, or at least not be wholly compelled by noise and speed, the flashy tweet, the insta-poem. Here in an instant, gone in an instant. Maybe that captures the fleeting life we have, but I’d like to think something from our fleeting life might linger, might last, like a poem.

Other advice? I don’t want to sound like a fortune cookie. Trust your heart, don’t trust your heart. Write your poem as if Emily Dickinson and Robert Hayden were your next readers. The other stuff I said to you, yes to it all.

There is no hurry. There is no hurry.

That’s a decasyllabic line. We have to stop there, don’t you think?



Victoria Chang’s new book of poems, OBIT, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2020.  Barbie Chang, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2017. The Boss (McSweeney’s, 2013) won a PEN Center USA Literary Award and a California Book Award.  Other books are Salvinia 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.  She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Sustainable Arts Foundation Fellowship, the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, a Pushcart Prize, and a MacDowell Fellowship.  She lives in Los Angeles and teaches within Antioch’s Low-Residency MFA Program.