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‘I’m just playing with clay’: Victoria Chang on poetry and language

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“It’s not so precious,” award-winning poet Victoria Chang said of her writing in a reading and Q&A hosted by the Creative Writing Program on Thursday. Throughout the event, Chang emphasized the malleability and possibility of language, and the way that plays into her poetic process. “Everything I do is not precious,” Chang said again. “I’m just playing with clay.”

Chang is the author of five poetry collections and the editor of an Asian American poetry anthology. She has received numerous fellowships and awards for her work. Her most recent poetry collection, “Obit,” appeared on numerous “best of” lists in 2020 — including from The New York Times, TIME Magazine and NPR — and was longlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry. Last Friday, it was awarded The Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry.

On Thursday, after opening with a short passage from Donika Kelly’s “The Renunciations,” Chang read first from “Obit.” The majority of “Obit” takes the form of newspaper obituary columns, and the 70 or so poems in the collection were written in the weeks after Chang’s mother died. The themes of loss, memory and grief came through during the reading: “Grief is wearing a dead person’s dress forever,” Chang writes in the poem “The Blue Dress.”

In addition to the obituary poems, Chang read from the middle section of “Obit” — shaped from fragments of elegies from another manuscript — as well as some of the tankas that are interspersed throughout the book. Afterward, she turned to a few new poems: “itty bitty packages” written in patterned syllabics that all take their titles from poems by W.S. Merwin. “I really was interested in writing about nothing,” Chang said of these poems. Indeed, these new, short pieces — with titles such as “When the War is Over” and “A Death in the Desert” — strive to simply pay attention to the small. 

All of Chang’s poems are so attuned to the details of nature that they enlarge their beauty; they are full of a tiny and quiet elegaism. The dead are real presences in these poems — they become alive again, in the nature around us. “The dead are an image of the wind,” Chang read. “And when they comb their hair, our trees rustle.”

When asked about her interest in formal constraint and poetic patterns, Chang, quoting poet Robert Creeley, said that “strong feelings require strong containers.” She noted that her mind “is one of spillage, constantly leaking,” and thus these containers — which she likened to guardrails in a bowling alley — are helpful in creating a shaped space within which her poetic voice can be free. 

This freedom seems to carry Chang’s poetry forward. Listening to her speak about poetry, one senses that Chang is constantly renewing her sources of energy and inspiration for her work, never settling into easy or tired forms. She noted that the blocky form of her “Obit” poems was partially inspired by the artwork of Donald Judd, and her use of Merwin’s titles came about serendipitously, by the coincidence that her publisher is also the primary publisher for Merwin’s work. “I’m interested in possibility,” Chang said. “I love to change and try new things.”

The reading ended with a question about the state of American poetry today, to which Chang answered that it was a “horizontal feeling,” hard to define as any single movement. She said that the present is a time defined by change, disruption and an expansion of the possibilities of poetry as well as those who are able to participate in it. “It’s lively,” Chang said. “There’s not one notion of what American poetry is.”

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Lily Nilipour is the Vol. 259 Reads desk editor for Arts & Life and an English major on a gap year. She loves to talk modernism — especially Virginia Woolf — digital humanities and literary magazines. Contact her at lnilipour 'at' stanforddaily.com