It’s rude to ask writers how they make make a living. That doesn’t stop me from wondering, though, how other writers, especially poets, find the balance between art and money. In my most perverse fantasies, everyone who isn’t me writes for hours a day, blissfully accompanied by one or more of the following: strong coffee, straight whiskey, or a sleeping dog. Also, they do all this while I’m at my office.
Of course, these images aren’t even remotely grounded in reality. There are narratives, though, that I hear repeated over and over about what kind of life constitutes “a writer’s life”—and working in an office full-time usually isn’t included in these stories, despite the possibility of access to office supplies, free coffee, and a Virginia Woolf-esque “room of one’s own” in lucky situations. (The delightful book The Artist in the Office: How to Creatively Survive and Thrive Seven Days a Week, by Summer Pierre, points out more of these advantages.)
I recently attended a panel at the Slice Magazine Literary Writers’ Conference that ambitiously billed itself as “Life After An MFA.” Most of the audience, myself included, was enrolled in MFA programs in creative writing. The panel was moderated by the founder of the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and consisted of five writers whose stories shared many similarities. According to the represented stories at the panel, the normal “life after an MFA” seems to be this: write fiction or memoir, live in New York, and teach writing part-time.
It makes sense, of course, that a panel at a conference in New York would skew toward writers who live there (let me be more honest and say “here,” as I write this from my own Brooklyn apartment). But what about writers who work in professions besides teaching? I think of the poet Pat Mangan, who works in an antique store. Or to borrow from history, William Carlos Williams, poet and doctor. Wallace Stevens, poet and insurance executive. And so on.
Poet Victoria Chang works full-time in an office, and this is one of the reasons that I wanted to talk to her about her new book, The Boss, which came out from McSweeney’s Poetry Series last month. As a fellow poet who works in an office, I wondered how her full-time office work influences her writing—and I also hoped to figure out the secret to managing to write three books of poetry while working nine-to-five. Luckily, she agreed to meet me over Skype so we could talk about writing, working, and the intimidatingly good-looking crowds at small-press poetry readings.
The Rumpus: So I just got the final copy of the book in the mail a few days ago, and I want to start off by saying that I love that the McSweeney’s Poetry Series wants to publish books and have them also be beautiful art objects.
Victoria Chang: Right. And I think that’s different—most people are doing the exact opposite. They’re trying to go digital, and trying to do different things with poetry. McSweeney’s is going in the opposite direction—going more classic, and retro, which is all coming back. I see weird things coming back from the ’70s that I thought were normal, like Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Rumpus: But I think also, with the idea of a book as an art object versus going digital, it’s two sides of the same coin, not a competition. Because if not everyone is reading physical books, then the people who do pick the physical books are the people who are more inclined to see a book as an art object and take pleasure in that.
Chang: I think that’s true.
Rumpus: One of the first things that struck me was the format of your poems. You have this hypnotic rhythm—the way you repeat the words “the boss,” and how you use spacing and punctuation. I found the words coming out like a chant in my head, getting to this feeling of isolation. Also, in your acknowledgements, you mention that working as a poet is really isolating.
Chang: I think being a poet, period, is isolating, because it’s so marginalized in our culture. On top of that, I’m a female poet, which is another sub-segment of an already-marginalized art. And I’m an Asian American female poet, which is even more marginalized. I’ve always just liked writing poetry, but it’s much later that I’ve discovered that there’s this whole poetry world out there, that you almost have to be accepted into, like this little club. And it’s based on art, whether people like your work or not, but it’s also based on a lot of other things—geography, who you happen to connect with and where they sit in that ladder—and all of that felt really isolating and disheartening to me when I figured it out. After all, I decided to ignore it and just work on the writing.
But I do think that given my background as a poet, and also I work in a different field, you’re sort of neither here nor there. Most of my writing friends are working in academia. Most of my business school friends are always talking about bringing companies public, and money, and making money, and lots and lots of money. It’s just a different environment. When I talk to either party, it’s always been hard to merge those two, so I never actually tried. I think this manifests itself as that feeling of isolation in all of my work. And this is the first book that it all comes together, because at the end of the day I realize, even though those populations are distinct and don’t like to come together, I think they’re not mutually exclusive.
It took me awhile to not be ashamed to be a poet in the business environment, and to be a business person in the poet environment. I’ve always felt alone and isolated, and living on the West Coast, there’s no poetry community out here, and if there is, it’s really spread out—because it’s LA, it’s spread out. But I think e-mail and social media and all that has made me feel way less isolated than ever before. Facebook, Twitter, and all that stuff, which I’ve really enjoyed using. I think I’ve always felt very isolated, and I’m sure lots of poets do.
Rumpus: Your comment about geography reminded me of the recent controversy—did you read the whole, what, twenty poets…
Chang: I did. Flavorwire? I did. Yeah.
Rumpus: And people looked at it and thought, Oh, that’s interesting! Look how many are living in New York, white, part of this same poetry community. Living in New York, I notice how easy it is to be doing what could be called “a writer’s life,” while actually doing very little writing. Because you’re going to events, you’re talking to other writers, you’re doing all of this other stuff.
Chang: That’s interesting. I’ve never thought about the con of living in New York as a writer. Because I always think, Oh, what fun to be around so many writers. Because I’ve never been around so many writers, except at AWP, which can be absolutely daunting.
I do think there’s a degree of freedom living on the West Coast, and being away from all of that. I have one or two good friends, or three or four. I don’t need all of these people. But you do feel like there’s so much action going on in New York. I kind of feel left out half the time. Sometimes people ask me to do stuff in New York, like “Can you read at this thing?” And I say, “Nooo, I can’t just get on a plane with these two screaming children—I can’t just get rid of them on such short notice and take vacation and fly over to New York.”
Rumpus: It seems like both work and parenting inform your poetry a lot.
Chang: Absolutely. It didn’t used to, because I didn’t have kids before, and work—I just never let it go in there. And if I did talk about the corporate world, it was always from that third person. I was sort of obsessed about corporate people committing suicide. That’s still third-person, hands-off, and I’m very removed from it. This is the first book where I’m saying, This is how I feel, I’m just going to start writing. Many times in poems I still resist that first person, and I just can’t stand the idea of writing a poem about that first-person “I.” Plus, who’s to say it’s not fictionalized, but people automatically assume that the speaker in the poem is the poet. So, I just say, “Okay, fine, it is.” Maybe, maybe not.
Rumpus: I noticed you use your name in some of the poems. In “My Father Says,” where you’re talking about names, and what names can a CEO have. It seems like you’re asking the question, “Who can the boss be?” and also, who the boss is changes depending on who you’re talking to, and is everyone a boss to someone?
Chang: Right! It’s an exploration of hierarchy. We’re all just a part of this large, spiraling, constantly fluid hierarchy and changing. At some points in your life, you feel crushed by that, depending on who you come in contact with. In this particular case, I was feeling absolutely crushed by the boss that I had, three years ago—was a slow burn. But I didn’t do anything wrong! My work was good. I try not to think about it, but it was really hard, simultaneously with the economy and everything that happening around us politically. And then having children can be such a gift, but it can be a crushing experience for a certain kind of mom. And I am that certain kind of mom.
I feel fiercely independent, and I still want my own life, and I think all of that spiraled with my dad losing his voice; it became a book about exploring that hierarchy and how it’s there, everywhere we look, in every aspect of our lives.
Rumpus: I think that’s something that’s very much on the national consciousness right now. Every time I see any kind of article about motherhood or women’s choices, I click on it. It’s a whole anxiety-producing cycle. Where is the line between maintaining individuality and being a part of something larger than yourself?
Some of my favorite poems were the ones that talked about your father’s aphasia, and the idea that speech can fire you. And the theme of performance. In “We are high performers,” I love the lines: “the doll I had is now my / daughter’s doll she will dream of balls and / gowns and sparkly towns when should I tell her all the / towns are falling down.” This idea of shielding, and protecting—and how soon does that change, and also how does that change your hierarchy? I also love where you talk about a child training to be the boss, and how that changes the hierarchy.
Chang: I just didn’t want any order in anything. I have to leave an ordered life for them—the kids—and my job. I have to be at my desk at a certain time, and I have to answer e-mails within a certain time period. I have to get back to people and schedule phone calls. I have this much time with this CEO, or that. Everything is so ordered and organized. I love disarray. I love mess. I love surprise. I just wanted these poems to be who I really am, and what I really want. The only thing I have left that I feel can be really messy.
Everyone always says that having kids is messy and sloppy. It’s true, but you as a parent have to try to bring some boundaries and control over that experience, or you’d have out-of-control kids. They have to go to school at 8:00. So you have to get up at 7:15, and there are all these schedules. There are a lot of responsibilities, which is true at the workplace as well. So I just wanted to be free, and so that’s what was really fun about all the language play, and letting the book be what it wanted to be, versus me trying to control it.
Rumpus: That reminds me of the Flaubert quote: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so you may be violent or original in your work.” So for you, then, are you saying you wish you could allow more mess in your life so that it fits into your writing, or do you think that this constant schedule- and boundary-setting also allows you to write this kind of work?
Chang: My life all-around is really different than a lot of other poets. Not poets that are parents, too, but just that I can hardly find anyone who works in the industries that I’ve worked in. Dana Gioia  and I connected, and he said he hasn’t found anyone, either. But he was the head of the NEA for awhile, which is still an arts organization.
My life in general, orderly or not, it allows me more freedom in my own writing. Sometimes I wonder, though—I have friends that sit around and just write all day. And I think it’s the coolest thing. Imagine that: while they’re writing, and thinking, and dreaming, I’m on the phone constantly, and working, and running around like a maniac, driving around, dropping kids off, picking kids up, washing faces, brushing teeth, fighting with them about sleeping at night, and this or that. I don’t get that time, at all. But I wonder if that kind of lifestyle makes me—for me—a different kind of writer. I know I wouldn’t have been able to write any of these kinds of poems if I didn’t lead the life I led.
I wonder, though: what if I had gone to get a PhD. in literature, and went to work in academia? Would I even be able to write poems? Some of my friends say that academia can be very stifling on their writing. My gut was always that if I taught students poetry, I would give too much of myself to them and have nothing left.
I feel like I give myself all day long to other people and other things, and I still seem like I have something to write once in awhile. Not often, though. I haven’t written anything since this book was written two years ago, short of editing those poems here and there. That’s a new thing for me, because I used to think, I have to write every day.
Rumpus: I hear that all the time, and I think it’s from the people who think that’s important for themselves.
Rumpus: This feels like a book where everything came together at the same time, versus writing lots of different poems and then figuring out how to connect them into a book. So for you, is it more that you have the concept of the book, and then the poems come? Or how does your process work?
Chang: Normally, I just sit down and write poems. This book was written over a two-month period, every Saturday. I was waiting for my oldest child in a language class, and it was in Irvine—which is pretty far, about thirty minutes away. The language class was two hours, so every Saturday I pulled into the parking lot, dropped her off, sat down, and found myself with nothing to do. I wasn’t going to drive back and drive back down, so I thought, Maybe I’ll bring a notebook, and start writing some stuff that’s been on my mind, but I didn’t know how to write it. So I parked in front of the same tree, every week, sat down, and just wrote until she was done.
After two months, I had this huge notebook filled with all these long-lined, no-punctuation things that weren’t even poems to me. I didn’t know what I was writing. Over the next six months, I thought, Maybe I’ll just start—I’m curious if everyone would ever be interested in this junk; so I started sending out a few of them as poems. They were kind of well-received, I think, for me! And I thought, Maybe this is something I can make into a collection.
Over the last five or ten years, people have been really into these book-length poems. I can always tell when people say, “I’m going to write this book of poems on blank-blank-blank.” I can feel it. It feels manufactured. I didn’t want that. That’s not how I’ve ever wanted to write. I’m a total bottoms-up kind of person. I like things to bubble up. That’s how these were written.
I sent that to McSweeney’s and a few other places, and McSweeney’s e-mailed me and said, “Hey, I wanna talk to you about these.” And I thought, Oh no. That means they’re interested. So they called me, and the two editors spent thirty minutes on the phone—really funny, great guys—before they said, “We wanna take this. There are a lot of interesting things going on here. But we’re, like, editors. We edit.” So they just spent thirty minutes telling me that they like to edit. Because they’re so scared of poets that are like, “Don’t touch my work!”
I said, “Oh my gosh, I’ve always wanted editors that actually edited my poems.” So we were a great match in every possible way. I think McSweeney’s, as a whole, philosophically fits me. They’re kind of renegade—they’re part of the crowd of publishers, but they’re fiercely innovative. Always trying new things, and young, and fresh, and excited about stuff. They don’t really fit into any category, which is how I am.
But to go back to your question, it never started off as anything, let alone a book-length sequence of poems. Katy Lederer had written on the back, “Beautifully sustained meditative sequence,” and I was thinking, Oh, wow. That’s amazing that she would say that, since it came out of disarray and mess.
Rumpus: Do you see it more as a long poem than a sequence?
Chang: I think it could be viewed as a sequence, or one long poem. Because they didn’t have titles, either. They just added the first couple words of the poem.
Rumpus: So the titles were totally an editorial choice?
Chang: Yes! And another editorial choice was to have the four-lined stanzas that were staggered, because they felt like the long lines that went across the whole page were really hard to read with no punctuation. That’s a decision I struggled with, but I said, do it.
In the end, I’m really happy with the choice. Poets hate the word “accessible,” but they’re more accessible, and I think people can now have an easier time reading it. But I did have a poet friend who disagreed and said, “Oh, that’s terrible.” He felt like the form really informed the actual poems. I agree with him to some extent, but I’m always happy for feedback.
Rumpus: One of the first things that got me was the form of it, with the four-line stanzas throughout the book. So that’s funny, if you started in couplets, that they ended up in four-line stanzas. Or was that also part of the editing?
Chang: I think they made it work out that way. It took a little juggling to get it to work out to four-line stanzas.
Rumpus: I wanted to ask you about the Hopper poems in your book. Have you read Mark Strand’s poems about Hopper?
Chang: I think I’ve read all the Hopper poems that are out there! There’ve been books of collected poems written about Hopper paintings, because in my first book, I had Hopper poems. They’re actually on the Poetry Foundation website [here and here], because they were in Poetry magazine about ten years ago. I’ve been obsessed with those paintings, like a lot of people are. I have a whole book that shows all of them. That’s when I really became obsessed with them, because I noticed how many of them took place in the office. That’s where I found another entry point. I was looking for triggers—ways to inspire new poems, because after awhile, I just kept writing and writing, and thought, You know, I need more. I need something else to bonk me on the head and inspire me. I want to write more poems on Edward Hopper, even though it’s such a cliché.
Rumpus: Is it?
Chang: I think so.
Rumpus: I think a lot of poets are drawn to Hopper because of isolation.
Chang: Right. So, I thought I’ll just keep doing and let it all take me where it takes me. I started looking at all the Hopper paintings that take place in an office.When I ran out of office Hopper paintings, I started looking at the same ones again and riffing more. I have multiple poems on the same paintings, which I thought was fun to do. In one of them, the man was the boss. In another one, the woman became the boss.
Who’s to say who the boss is? Sometimes I feel like I’m on top of the world, and other mornings I feel like crap. Some days I feel really great, even about this book, and I’m so excited it’s out! Other days, I’m mortified by it. I think that’s human nature.
Rumpus: There’s a certain vulnerability in having writing published. I was just remembering before—we ended up talking about something else, but I laughed because you said when the McSweeney’s editors called and your first reaction was, They’re interested! Oh, no.
Chang: Exactly! See, you think you want something, and then you get it, and you think, I don’t know if you want this! Or you have mixed feelings about this. As a poet, I don’t sit around and say, “Oh, I want to write a book and get it published in the world.” Anymore. I used to, when I was younger, when my goal in life was just to publish a book. As I published books, I realized, that’s not really what I want. I don’t care about the books as much anymore. I just want to write poetry. This whole process of getting a book published is just part of the process. The last of the process that I enjoy the least, to be honest.
Rumpus: Would you decide to just stop publishing books, and publish individual poems?
Chang: Yes! Or not publish any poems at all. I don’t need to publish anything. I don’t need to write anything. I was telling the poetry editor at McSweeney’s that if I never wrote a poem again, and never published another book, I really could care less. That’s just the phase of life that I’m in. I realize so much that it doesn’t matter. Yet, I’ve spent my whole life trying to do all this. Now that I feel like I’ve done these books and stuff, it just doesn’t appeal to me anymore. I could be one of those candidates that drops off the poetry world, and you never see me again, and I wouldn’t mind. Or, I could come back and write something in two years, or ten years. I don’t want to think about it anymore, because I’ve spent my whole life thinking about stuff like that, and wanting so badly to have books out. I’ve also seen the whole poetry world—something I had no idea even existed.
I’m not sure that I love being around that or in that. I love being part of poetry conversations. I love talking about what I’ve read. I regularly talk to poets, and it’s just like, “Have you read this?” Me, being as busy as I am, I’ve read a lot more than most of the people that I know, except for one of my really close friends reads way more than I do. But, in general, I find that poets spend a lot of time thinking about themselves, and not a lot of time thinking about other poets, or other poetry. Unless they think about how it affects them, or how it could impact them.
I love when I meet generous poets, and generous meaning nice people, who give to the poetry community, who do interviews, read other people’s books, and talk about them, spread the…love, I guess. That means a lot to me. It’s surprising—you don’t meet a lot of people like that. For the most part, it’s a world of artists that are very in their own heads.
Rumpus: So who are your favorite poets to read?
Chang: I was just talking to someone about Thomas Sayers Ellis, who I think is brilliant. I definitely have favorite books by favorite poets, but poets’ books also vary. I could like some books, but not like another book.
Rumpus: Okay, so what are your favorite poetry books?
Chang: I really like Brigid Pegeen Kelly’s Song. Carl Phillip’s The Tether. I like Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, which isn’t really a book of poems, but it’s a book of essays. I really like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, which I think is a book of poetry. Larry Levis’s Elegy. John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Oh, and recent books—I really liked Richard Siken’s Crush.
Rumpus: I love that book!
Chang: It floored me. That book was really great because I read it, and suddenly I felt like writing poetry again. It inspired this book in some ways, or at least it opened the door. It think that book as the key to the door that was closed. My door now of writing is closed. I’m hoping something will open at some point—I don’t know when or how, but it’ll probably be something I’ll read.
Rumpus: How did you discover McSweeney’s?
Chang: At AWP in Chicago, I heard that there was this McSweeney’s reading, and that the poetry series was being launched. And I was like, “No way! I have to go see it.” None of my friends wanted to go with me. They were all in the hotel lobby, drinking and hanging out and looking depressed as poets do; and so I said, “I’m just going to go by myself.” So I hopped in a cab—it took me forever to get there—and then I got into this place, and oh my god. It was the youngest, hippest, best-looking crowd I’ve ever seen, all wearing black, and you just hear, “Chh. Chh.” And everywhere I looked was Pabst Blue Ribbon.
I had gone to see Matthea Harvey read from her book, and also Rebecca Lindenberg, who was the first poet of the series. I thought, I’ve gotta see what they’re doing. I so badly wanted to be a part of the McSweeney’s club, because I felt like, This is awesome. The fact that none of my poet friends wanted to come, but I’m a perfect fit for McSweeney’s. I didn’t look it, because everyone was so good-looking, and they’re all wearing such cute, hip clothes, and they’re so young, and I just didn’t fit in at all. And then I talked to Matthea there, and I loved her erasure poems. I bought both of those books and had them signed, and I was so excited. I was like, Oh, there’s no way McSweeney’s would ever take my manuscript. But that’s how I found out about the poetry series, and then I sent my manuscript to the open slush pile.
They knew me, because I had published a poem in The Believer before. And I’d heard Matthea lecture at Warren Wilson. I take so much inspiration from her. Everywhere she goes, it’s standing room only, and I know why. There’s a childlike wonder to her, and I’m drawn to her work.
Rumpus: You did your MFA at Warren Wilson, and did the low-res program. How was that?
Chang: I loved it. Out of college, I was going to apply to MFA programs, and then I just decided to not do that. I was afraid. Then I applied another time, and was accepted to Houston, of all places. Ed Hirsch was trying to get a hold of me to tell me that I had been accepted, and I had moved. They were frantic—like, “Where are you? We’re trying to tell you that you’ve been accepted to Houston!” And I was like, “Oh, I’m sorry you couldn’t find me. I’m not going to be able to go.” I felt like such a jerk telling them that, and having applied, so I said, I’m not going to play that game anymore. The reality of it is I can’t go. I can’t just move. I didn’t have a family or anything, but I had a job, and I just couldn’t do it. I wanted to keep my job. Someone told me about the Warren Wilson program, and I thought, Wow, that sounds really perfect for me. I’ve always done things that were good for me, whether they were viewed as being as prestigious or whatever. They gave me a Holden minority fellowship, which covered the whole thing. And I thought, “That’s a sign that I should do it.” I had great teachers: Pimone Triplet, David Baker, Elizabeth Arnold; James Longenbach was my thesis advisor.
Rumpus: Oh, wow. I read his book, The Art of the Poetic Line, where he’s talking about the whole idea that there are no line breaks, there are “line endings.” Which hasn’t seeped into poetry workshop terminology yet.
Chang: The one-on-one letters that I got back from all these teachers were amazing. It was perfect for me because I didn’t have to quit my job, I got to go a couple times a year to hang out with poets, and I learned a ton. I broke that open, and started doing my own thing. My second book, Salvinia molesta, was very much an outcome of going to Warren Wilson. But yeah, it’s a great program. I recommend it to everyone that I see that wants something a little bit different, or has lifestyle issues that make it hard for them to—you know, not everyone can just pack everything up and live in starvation for two years. And wants to be in that kind of crazy, competitive—oftentimes competitive—not to say that Warren Wilson wasn’t competitive, but I never felt like it was overwhelmingly so.
How’s your writing going, by the way?
Rumpus: Uhh…it’s fine. I mean, I haven’t written anything all summer. So, that’s not good. I did the poem-a-day project in April, and I actually got some good stuff out of it. So maybe I’ll try to do something like that again. I’m still trying to figure out, now that I’m working more, how to fit in more writing and find that balance…like the rest of the world.
Chang: I think all poets, to some extent, feel that way. We just beat ourselves up when we don’t write. I don’t know that we have to beat ourselves up. The world doesn’t need another poem, clearly.
Rumpus: Erin Belieu has a similar quote about not writing, or the world not needing another Erin Belieu poem.
Chang: There’s so much stuff being written! Every year, how many books come out? I can’t keep up, and I read a lot. It’s amazing.
 Gioia was part of the team that invented Jello Jigglers, according to a 2007 New Yorker article.
Listen to Victoria Chang read “We Are High Performers” from The Boss:
To play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin.