Victoria Chang’s second book of poems, Salvinia Molesta, was published by the University of Georgia Press as part of the VQR Poetry Series. Her first book, Circle, was published by Southern Illinois University Press. She lives in Southern California. Her poems “We are afraid to be afraid” and “Edward Hopper’s Automat” were published in the Fall 2012 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
The two poems (We are afraid to be afraid…) and (Edward Hopper’s Automat) are part of a larger series of poems titled “The Boss” and these poems all basically look the same with long lines and no punctuation. I wrote all of these poems over a period of two months and was trying to get them out as quickly as possible in a breathless burst. They explore power and the loss of power in many aspects of life ranging from the workplace to the body/illness to parenthood, etc. The hardest part of writing these poems is always the hardest part of writing any poems in that there is a constant fear that what one is writing is unimportant, unoriginal, uninteresting–all the usual “uns”.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
That it is hard to innovate within yourself–to breakout of one’s own predispositions and body. And of course, to keep going forward and writing.
Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
I love reading VQR because of the nonfiction stories, especially, in the same way I love watching 60 minutes or feature shows on TV that go deeper into stories and current events, hidden stories. I like Tin House and I’m always interested in seeing what American Poetry Review and Poetry are publishing. I like reading Threepenny Review, AGNI, Ploughshares, Smartish Pace, Iowa Review, Blackbird, Diode, and so many more.
Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a (hu)man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write?
I like what Larkin says, particularly about the first phase and second phase as a writer. The first stage for me is more akin to a scab caught under a huge cast on my body that I cannot reach–it might be an “emotional concept” or it just might be a scab. I’m not the kind of poet that sits down to write before I have that itch that I cannot reach with a chopstick or a backscratcher. It’s not a pleasurable feeling for me but more like feeling desperately thirsty in the hot desert. Sitting down to actually write something is what I try and do at a later time and while I write I feel absolute agitation, a desire to get words down as quickly as possible but there’s a strange feeling that my pencil wants to move faster than my mind and heart can sort out exactly what I’m trying to write, so there is this tension, this paradox. It’s not a comfortable process. For me, the third stage is a feeling of relief that I have something down on paper and whether I like it or not will affect my mood for a long time thereafter.
In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
My credo is to have no credo. But if I were forced over a fire to state my core beliefs, I suppose I would state that I would make an argument for poetry and reading poetry and writing poetry. The purpose of all of this is that poetry is one of the rare forms of art that when you drop a bucket into the well that is the human soul, the poetry bucket goes deeper than anything else can. It’s bottomless and endless and that is the beauty of poetry.
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
I went to Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers and all my teachers were tremendously helpful. Mostly, I believe the best teachers to me are poems, especially being as isolated as a writer as I am (having a day job not in academia) and living way out in Southern California. I don’t have a lot of interactions with other poets or writers or frankly being in Southern California, people who think much about conventionally “indoor” activities like reading or writing. So I have to look to the poems to be my teacher, although I myself am often tempted to go outside and play!