Bringing the Exterior into our Private Rooms: A Conversation with Victoria Chang
At the beginning of the pandemic, Victoria Chang began writing small poems using the Japanese waka forms, never planning for them to be part of a cohesive collection of poetry. Chang credits her close friends, who she describes as her cheerleaders, for the inspiration that became her latest book, The Trees Witness Everything, published tomorrow by Copper Canyon Press. “It was a book written out of confusion and hope,” she says. “It doesn’t directly reference the pandemic, but it was written right then and there, at the beginning.” At the book’s center, “Marfa, Texas,” is a section of haunting prose poems, a multisensorial celebration of our shared humanity.
Chang dedicates the book to naturalist and poet, W.S. Merwin (1927-2019) and uses titles from his poems “as frames and mirrors for the text.” She contrasts the natural world with the immeasurable spaces of human experience, often asking questions of the reader. “How is it that trees / don’t feel the way humans do? / The oldest tree is / five thousand years old, great storms / captured in its trunk.” Copper Canyon Press, Chang’s publisher, was also the publishing home of Merwin, the naturalist poet for whom the world of poetry represented the beauty and freedom found in the natural world. Chang’s homage to Merwin, combined with her use of form, gives her new collection life. Most pages contain two small poems, paired and balanced, making the book simultaneously intense and readable.
Chang’s previous book, Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief (Milkweed Editions, 2021), was listed as a “Most Anticipated Book” by TIME magazine, the Los Angeles Times and Literary Hub. Her collections of poetry include Circle (2005), winner of the Crab Orchard Review Award Series in Poetry; Salvinia Molesta (2008); The Boss (2013); Barbie Chang (2017); and OBIT (2020), which received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize, and the PEN Voelcker Award in Poetry. In 2017 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Chang and I wrote to each other in a series of emails about The Trees Witness Everything; the organic writing process that produced it; why Marfa, Texas proved to be more than a quiet place to write; and how she’s continued to see friendships and community as the greatest help, for all of us.
The Rumpus: When someone told me you had a new book of poetry, I thought they were talking about Dear Memory. I was actually surprised to find it was this one. You’re industrious, I know, but how did you manage this?
Victoria Chang: I get asked this question a lot, especially lately. I used to feel ashamed of my recent prolific-ness, but then, I wondered why. After a long, long fallow period, the last six years have felt so creative. From the time I was twenty-two to thirty-two years old, I didn’t write a single poem, because I hardly had any time. Now, even though I’m still strapped for time, I have learned to integrate writing into my life in ways that I couldn’t before. I grab minutes whenever I can, even if I “show up” for ten minutes at a time. I spend weekends working on my own writing, whenever I can.
I’ve looked closely at other poets and their publication history, just because I wondered if I had published more than other people—in poetry at least. I’ve published five books, but Merwin, by the time he was my age, had already published ten. Maybe there’s a misconception that I am prolific because I dabble in other genres, like Dear Memory, the prose book I recently published. Compared to some other poets, I’m actually not that prolific. I appreciate you asking this question, though. I was surprised at what I learned by doing some math!
The Rumpus: Speaking of math, the size of The Trees Witness Everything was the first thing I noticed about the book, since it’s half the width of a traditional book (4″x 9″). What was the idea behind the design?
Victoria Chang: The book is not typical in size. This wasn’t my suggestion, but the brilliant idea of the press and the designer, Phil Kovacevich. This will be the third book that Phil has designed on my behalf, and I prefer to provide very little direction. I want the designer and the press to have as much freedom as they need to do what they think is best for the book. My only request was to, “make this a beautiful art object, and no trees!” I didn’t want anything too literal, and I think the resulting cover is really beautiful and askew. It reminds me of a Jenny Holzer installation or a Dan Flavin piece of neon art.
Rumpus: The book also pays homage to W.S. Merwin, a Nobel Laureate who was passionate about ecology and conservation. Each waka has a Merwin poem title, meant to frame and mirror the text. Why did you decide to do this?
Chang: I really like Merwin’s poems and his passion for the environment, so it definitely wasn’t random, but there is a randomness to who we read in general. If I weren’t with Copper Canyon Press, I might not have read quite as much Merwin as I have. They’ve sent me every Merwin book they’ve published. I wasn’t trying to be him, or mimic him, but I liked his titles and how general they were. This was a tribute and a prompt at the same time. I was playing around, trying to inhabit a person’s mind and in some ways, by borrowing his titles, I felt like he was present when I was writing my own poems.
Rumpus: When you get an idea for a collection, do you ask other writers/poets/friends what they think? I know you and Ilya Kaminsky are trusted friends and readers of each other’s drafts.
Chang: The idea for The Trees Witness Everything was actually Ilya’s Kaminsky’s suggestion. He said, “Maybe you should write a whole book of short poems.” He knows that writing is what always saves me, and I have to keep doing it. As a good friend, he’ll always try to get me writing. That’s what good friends do—they keep you going, keep you accountable. They care about your creativity, your words, your mental health. They’re cheerleaders, rather than naysayers.
Rumpus: I love how you call these friends “cheerleaders.” They are the ones who keep us going during the rough times. What have you learned about the craft, or yourself, during these seasons?
Chang: Oh yes, I like cheerleaders! I don’t do well with the other kind of folks, not to say they aren’t useful, but I prefer cheerleaders and try to be a cheerleader for others. Usually, in my long-fallow periods, I’m too busy to be conscious about the learning of craft or about my own growth, but I’m certain all that growing is occurring. By the time I get back to writing, it’s in the writing somewhere. Sometimes I’ll emerge from these fallow periods feeling like I’ve aged about a hundred years.
I never set out to write a book. My books and poems are very organic, not predetermined. I set out to write short poems just for fun, without any other intentions, writing these tiny poems in February of 2020, and finishing a draft three months later. I continued working on the poems all through the first year of the pandemic. Writing so much about the outside was trying to bring the exterior world into my little room with my little desk. The mind can be so expansive and imaginative and I never once felt like the world was not inside my little room.
Rumpus: There’s musicality to these poems, a metered song, inside each waka. Is music a part of the writing experience for you?
Chang: Yes! I grew up playing lots of instruments—I played piano for ten years, and percussion (snare drum) for many years too. I also learned how to play the moon guitar when I was younger. The visual and the auditory are a big part of my upbringing. I think I listened to music the entire time while writing and revising these tiny poems. I would play around with words, like practicing scales in piano, kind of mindlessly.
Rumpus: The notes at the end of your book helped me understand your use of form, specifically the Japanese syllabic forms called wakas, translated as “Japanese poems.” Tankas (a thirty-one syllable poem, and a form of waka) were part of OBIT, and were spaces where I breathed and reflected. The same reflective properties are here.
Chang: I think of these tiny poems as extensions of the tankas in OBIT. Once I started writing, I couldn’t stop. I did a little research on other syllabic forms to expand my own repertoire. These are English syllabics, since Japanese syllabics operate differently than English. I think of my tiny poems as little exercises in concision and compression. I had fun writing them. It was harder than I had thought it would be, but any writing usually is. I have grandiose dreams when I sit down, but then I start writing and I have no idea what’s happening.
Rumpus: I remember the tankas in OBIT as light and airy. But In the Trees Witness Everything they seem deeply contemplative, as if they’re making the emotions they contain more digestible. When you say “It was harder than I thought it would be,” did these poems take several versions? Was it a stop-and-start process?
Chang: I think the tankas in OBIT may just appear light and airy because their job was to be that, next to the tomb-like obits? And they were written to children so maybe they felt a little less heavy? Honestly, I’m not sure, but what you notice is smart.
So many people have written in syllabics, so it’s nothing new. Brian Teare’s fabulous book, Doomstead Days, Marianne Moore, of course, David Baker. Japanese syllabic forms aren’t really translatable to English in syllabics, as I just said, but I decided to use those syllabic structures and give myself English constraints. I have a stack of revisions five feet high—these went through a lot of revisions. I did nothing but work on these tiny poems, every spare second I had, for an entire year. It was a fun challenge, like a puzzle, but it was hard. I’m sure I failed at times or more than at times, but it was fun to be so challenged.
Rumpus: Challenging because the poems were small?
Chang: The formal constraints were a big challenge. I would be satisfied with a poem on one day, but the next, I’d be dissatisfied with another. Editing felt like whack-a-mole, constantly revising poems that I thought were finished. The pandemic kept on cycling, so I kept revising.
Rumpus: What’s your process for line stops, or enjambment? I’ve been meaning to ask you since Barbie Chang. How do you decide how to wrap, or end a line?
Chang: I pay a lot of attention to lineation, especially enjambment, and also end-stopped lines, etc. For Barbie Chang, I read those poems aloud while revising over and over and over and organically felt my way through each line rhythmically. For the poems in The Trees Witness Everything, the syllabics drove the line breaks so those were not my doing.
Rumpus: The last poem in the book should be on a bookmark: “Let me tell you a story / about hope: it always starts / and ends with birds.” That is like a goodbye kiss, for the reader. It also brings all the birds in the poems together. The recurring life, the trees, the wind, the air, the sunsets, everything seems to have birds attached. Do you think this happened naturally?
Chang: Birds always seem to be in my poems! I can’t help but to include them. I haven’t really scanned the birds in this book, but I think the natural world is probably explored a lot in this book subconsciously, perhaps because of my use of Merwin’s titles.
Rumpus: And then, they turn out to be more than this: carriers of olive branches, or other forms of metaphor?
Chang: Likely! I don’t consciously think of metaphors when I write, even after they emerge in a poem. I actually try not to bring their figurative qualities into focus. I like a multi-faceted, unclear, blurry metaphor.
Rumpus: The center of the book is a community of prose poems called “Marfa, Texas,” inspired by your viewing of art pieces at the Chinati and Judd Foundations. You even use words from the catalog of the Tang Museum, describing their Energy in All Directions exhibit.
Chang: I’ve always loved viewing art and going to museums. I’ve also written ekphrastic poems since the beginning of my poetry-writing life. I’ve thought a lot about this recently and think my brain might work a little more like a visual artist. I write in series sometimes in the same way a visual artist might paint a series of paintings.
In the case of the “Marfa, Texas” poem, I received a Lannan Residency Fellowship, and was there for two weeks, but was really unmotivated and uninspired. My friend started writing me letters to jumpstart my writing. These letters were in poem form, so I started writing poem letters back to him. I reshaped them, based on the rectangular art I had been viewing by Donald Judd. I worked on these poems for a while, and eventually combined them into one, longer poem. It was very much inspired by the landscape of Marfa, Texas, a beautiful but strange town. This book, made up of small poems, seemed like it needed something else, so I inserted the Marfa poems in the middle. I think they speak to each other in some interesting unexpected ways.
Rumpus: I was drawn to the “Marfa, Texas” section, especially the first poem: “ . . . Once I / loved a man so much that / when he didn’t love me back, / I closed my eyes and drank a / whole bottle of night.” The floating feel of the language, as if the ghost of someone was speaking. The whole section seemed otherworldly to me, a separated existence?
Chang: In Marfa, I took walks, followed a pair of owls around, and looked at artwork. My biggest job was to write—what a privilege—and it made me freeze. It was a moment of reckoning spiritually, as Marfa can be. I was awakened to something that I’m still grappling with now. I’m still not sure what it is—existentialism? Since my mother passed away, there’s been this weight of grief that’s never departed. Recently, my father also passed away, so now there’s a double-grief on my back.
Rumpus: You even write, “Even the / restaurant signs use small / words, as if hiding. The desert / doesn’t hide anything.”
Chang: I think people travel to Marfa to see the art, but they experience something spiritual there. Just being alone, in Texas, with nothing but this huge sky and fields is beautiful. I’ve never had an experience like that before. I tried not to check email. I took long walks to nowhere. I am of the age where women have emotional and physical changes; this was the beginning of that journey.
Rumpus: When you do get inspired to write, what do you reach for?
Chang: For poetry, I always write in pencil first, in a notebook. Eventually, I type these poems into a Word document and then keep printing it out and editing by hand—a rinse and repeat process I’ve used for several years. I used to write in my car, but now that my children are older, I write at my desk, like most writers.
Rumpus: How do poets get their work seen? What’s the most important element of connecting to readers?
Chang: Now that is the million-dollar question! I saw something, recently, on Twitter, about people paying a lot of money for a publicist to handle their poetry book. It raised a lot of questions for me about access and whose work gets attention and why? Is attention what we really want or need as writers?
Poetry is not immune to the more sinister aspects of our capitalist economy. I try hard as an editor or critic to look for lesser-known poets, translated work, small presses, experimental work, etc. I do my part to offer additional alternatives to that book, the one that someone (or some press) paid a lot of money to place in front of us. I will say, this work is exhausting. There’s only one of me to go around.
For my own work, I decided long ago that I was going to focus on the work itself. I also want to focus on doing what makes me happy, in the writing. The reception of OBIT was a surprise, and still a bit jarring for me, but I don’t think it changed anything. Now I get to do some cool things, and have some opportunities that I didn’t have before, but it’s also made my inbox too full. I can no longer answer every email I receive—it’s impossible.
I keep my head down, read a lot, focus on my own writing. When I come up from that dream-state of writing, I focus on building community. Engaging with other writers matters. I do editorial work, volunteer my skills and time, celebrate other writers, publicly or privately, and try to be nice. There’s no reason for cruelty; the joy is in the writing. I always try to remember why I started doing this thing: Because I had to. It’s not a choice for many of us writers to write, but we do have a choice about whether we’re going to be nice or not.
Author photo by Isaac Fitzgerald