“The Arc Moves a Little Upward”: A Conversation with Victoria Chang — curated by Lisa Olstein

Victoria Chang’s new book of poetry, The Trees Witness Everything was published by Copper Canyon Press and Corsair Books in the U.K. in 2022. Her nonfiction book, Dear Memory (Milkweed Editions), was published in 2021. OBIT (Copper Canyon Press, 2020)her most recent poetry book, was named a New York Times Notable Book, Time Must-Read Book, and received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Poetry, and the PEN/Voelcker Award. It was also longlisted for a National Book Award and named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Griffin International Poetry Prize. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and lives in Los Angeles and is a Core Faculty member within Antioch’s low-residency MFA Program.

Lisa Olstein: What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?

Victoria Chang: I had written some tankas that made their way into my previous book of poems, OBIT, and my friend challenged me to write a “small book, 40 pages, of short poems” because he liked the tankas. I took him up on the challenge, but wrote a lot more than 40 pages! 

The obsession was to write about nothing, no governing subject matter, no theme. The syllabics and also the usage of W.S. Merwin’s poem titles were fun constraints that helped me write the poems. For example, I use many different types of syllabics such as tankas, katautas, chokas, etc. and every title of my poem is borrowed from Merwin.

LO: “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?

VC: I love this quote. I have heard similar things said in different ways. I myself sometimes say form is like putting the guard rails up while bowling–what freedom that gives to the process of bowling (one feels more free while releasing the ball) and then there’s a better chance of getting a strike. But of course, Anne Carson is more elegant than I am with her quote. 

For The Trees Witness Everything book, form was the main constraint (and freedom) of the poems. I had to rewrite lines, phrases, in some cases, entire poems because the syllables didn’t work. The constraints truly freed up my mind to go wherever the poem needed/wanted to go.

LO: What’s the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and you, yourself? How is the book’s “I” informed by your I and/or eye?

VC: I think even when the speaker’s “I” is the speaker, I still think the “I” might not be fully the speaker. I always feel like I am many people at once so my first person in any of my poems is pretty “unreliable.” 

LO: Did you have in mind any identifiable recipients for the utterance of this work? Did your sense of how or to whom the work was speaking evolve?

VC: Not really. I generally don’t think beyond a general kind of reader. I think my reader is someone who might appreciate language, imagery, philosophy, visual art, form, and a sense of not quite knowing what to expect.

LO: What felt riskiest to you about this work?

VC: Writing a poem in syllabics, something that someone might read more than just once, or a poem that isn’t cliched, is pretty hard. Then adding on top of that, the use of someone else’s titles, now in retrospect feels unconventional in idea, but also even harder. For me, these aren’t risks. I think these things are fun parameters. Anything not fun is boring to me. 

LO: How do the book’s aesthetics inform its ethics, or, how do its ethics inform its aesthetics?

VC: Are there poems without ethics? What is an ethical poem? Are political poems ethical? Environmental poems? I feel like a lot of contemporary poetry is within the ethical realm. It’s almost hard to find a poem today that isn’t making a statement or writing an essay on the destructive tendencies of human beings. In the case of The Trees Witness Everything, the poems are using Merwin’s titles and Merwin’s subject matter and themes were very much related to justice, perhaps not always in the most direct way, but oftentimes very directly. I think about Merwin himself and his lack of punctuation as a form of subversion. Perhaps my use of syllabics is also a form of subversion.

LO: What’s your sense of the aural life of this work? What role did sound or music play in the generative process, in revision?

VC: I’m not sure that sound or music ever doesn’t play a role in the generative and/or revision process for a poet. At least, I would hope it would always be a factor. I sometimes/often read my poems aloud during the revision process, not as much during the drafting process. During the drafting process, I am very much in my own body and mind. The utterance makes its way onto the page first.

LO: As a medium somewhere between time-based and static, poetry engages temporality in a fascinating range of ways. How does time operate inside this work and across the experience it creates?

VC: While I was writing these poems, I very much felt like I was outside of time or maybe inside time? Time was certainly not linear. The complications of the syllabics also forced the poems to leap even more than usual (during the writing process, at least). I think my poems might tend to leap a bit anyway, but the syllabics and the titles served as a kind of leash to the poems.

LO: How did the book’s structure unveil itself to you? What emerged to shape its architecture? 

VC: I cut the poems out into small rectangles and then picked them up one by one, combining them into pairs. Then I taped the pairs onto blank sheets of paper. Then I put the pages onto the floor and picked them up one by one as I read them. I inserted the “Marfa, Texas” poem later, then I added a few commissioned Blue Bottle Coffee poems at the end of the tiny poems, and finally the “Love Letter” poems at the end. If there is an arc, I suppose the arc moves a little upward. 

LO: What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book-specific creative realm? 

VC: I started writing these poems in February 2020, then the pandemic hit. The pandemic threads throughout this book but it isn’t overtly a theme in the book. But during the pandemic, my kids were home doing Zoom school so I had to wear noise canceling headphones and had to play instrumental music and other music throughout the writing process and revision process so I couldn’t hear a lot of other noise. I am always reading a lot of other poetry, contemporary philosophy, looking at visual art, so I think those things make their way into my poems sometimes overtly or not. I was also walking a lot just to get out of the house, so I think there could be an ambulatory tone to these poems.

LO: How has it been to shift out of the creative space of this book? What are you working on now?

VC: This book feels very far away from me. Since then, I have started and finished another book of poems which I am excited about. I have been saying that I am feeling very creative these days and it makes me happy to feel this and also to be able to find small intervals of time to work intensely on the thing I love, which is writing, any kind of writing.