Victoria Chang on how grief fueled the poems in ‘Obit’

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2021 L.A. Occasions Pageant of Books Preview

Victoria Chang

Victoria Chang, poet and creator of “Obit,” a finalist for a 2020 L.A. Occasions Ebook Prize in Poetry, will learn from her assortment on the L.A. Occasions’ Digital Poetry Stage.

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It occurred earlier than she anticipated it: Victoria Chang’s dad and mom had been struck by sickness. First her father was severely debilitated by a stroke; then her mom died. She felt so remoted by caregiving that she began writing down her anger, her worry, her frustration in notebooks that finally grew to become the poems in “Obit,” a finalist for the L.A. Occasions Ebook Prize. Their kind is modern, a skinny quick column down the center of every web page, taking part in off the traditions of a newspaper obituary.

However it’s Chang’s face that seems on the guide’s cowl, in addition to her obituary. Along with memorializing her dad and mom’ declines, she has written obits for herself, for voicemail, unhappiness, urge for food, friendships. At intervals, the guide contains tankas — a conventional Japanese poetic kind typically written by ladies — and an extended sonnet-like sequence that stretches in fractured strains throughout the pages, a visible and textual counterpoint to the sharply confined obits. Whereas taking part in with and even inventing varieties, Chang, chair of Antioch’s inventive writing program, additionally makes overt references to different poets: Sylvia Plath, Brian Teare and Virginia Woolf.

Born and raised in Michigan, Chang has made California house for many years. “I’m such a Californian,” she tells me through Zoom from her place within the South Bay. “It’s who I’m by way of identification, by way of politics, by way of the meals, the tradition, all the pieces simply feels so proper.”

She spoke to the Occasions about writing, grief, darkish humor and what it’s been like speaking a couple of guide about mourning in the course of the pandemic.

Book cover with newsprint and mug shots in columns

In considered one of your poems, you write, “Unhappiness is plural, however grief is singular.” How is that concept mirrored in what we’ve skilled this previous yr? Has COVID modified grief?

I feel there’s been one thing oddly comforting about figuring out that the entire world goes by one thing collectively, the place this concept of collective grieving has emerged. I nonetheless really feel like a lot of grieving is personal, although, as a result of every individual grieves otherwise. Every individual feels otherwise.

I feel individuals could disagree with me, however a lot of grief in my expertise — and despair — could be very lonely. On the finish of the day, you’re dealing with nobody however your self. Principally I feel simply being human, it’s actually arduous. I’m amazed when individuals expertise various things they usually simply bounce again, you understand? ‘Trigger I have a tendency to not be that means.

How did you give you this obit format?

I feel making artwork is so not intentional, not aware — I used to be simply messing round and taking part in. I first began sending them out when32 Poems, a small literary journal, got here knocking on my door and stated, ‘Hey, do you will have any poems?’ I had simply drafted a bunch. I used to be like, possibly I’ll check these out and see if anybody understands or likes them. As soon as they obtained out into the world, I simply began listening to from individuals increasingly more. I started to assume possibly these are resonating with individuals. I used to be attempting to jot down the guide that I wanted to assist me by my grief as a result of I didn’t discover something in poetry that helped me. I feel the explanation why this guide resonates with different individuals too is as a result of lots of people are grieving.

Whereas after all, the obituary as a poetic kind is darkish, these poems will also be humorous.

I will be very sarcastic as an individual — I feel that comes by in my writing with out me realizing it. Each day, I’m always making jokes. That typically comes by my writing though I attempt actually arduous to not have that come by.

Whereas poetry typically makes use of analogy and performs with language, the obituary poems appear very completely different, plainspoken.

Generally these poems are very grounded in actuality, after which different instances they’re very surreal and imaginative. That’s sort of what grief feels prefer to me — you’re always in that liminal area between the actual and the imaginative, the lifeless and the dwelling. And it’s deliberately, diction-wise, actually flat. It’s mimicking the obituary kind in that means, as a result of I feel it’s actually arduous to tug off actually unhappy poems by being unhappy. I simply went within the different route, actually stark and actually dry and actually clear. I do know it sounds counterintuitive, however I feel that’s what I ended up doing.

There’s additionally no point out of “God” or “Jesus.”

There’s quite a lot of faith in our tradition that we don’t even notice is right here. I’m a Chinese language American individual, I’m a Taiwanese American individual. We didn’t develop up with that Western faith. We went to a Presbyterian church, nevertheless it was principally for them to socialize with different Chinese language individuals. My dad and mom completely didn’t consider in any form of God that will be recognizable on this nation. It’s simply not part of my household upbringing.

As an non-religious individual, it was good to learn your guide with out spiritual overtones. I want it had been round when my mom died. I didn’t notice how dangerous that will be till after it occurred.

I’m identified to be a troublesome individual and never sentimental — a troublesome cookie, you understand, I simply take care of stuff. I’m robust as nails. When my mother died — oh my gosh. I by no means even thought I had a sentimental bone in my physique, however all of the sudden all the sentiments began rising.

Two writers you cite are Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath; they each dedicated suicide. Was there one thing about their connection to dying that resonated with you?

Yeah. They’re each depressives. I feel quite a lot of poets have depressive tendencies, and I definitely do. The kind of writers that I like, they’re at all times people who find themselves pushing the boundaries and attempting new issues. I feel each of these writers had been Gertrude Stein-y, taking part in and viewing writing and language as Lego blocks. I at all times say you may construct it and break it — you may at all times construct one thing else. It’s not an enormous deal.

Are you able to inform me the way you got here up with the quilt, with a repeating picture of your face and obit poem?

I’m the sort of person who is aware of what my ability units are and, uh, design is just not considered one of them. Many poets are way more concerned. I’m very hands-off. A designer who works with Copper Canyon Press despatched me all these items and this cowl freaked the [crap] out of me, to be sincere. I’m a really superstitious individual. I used to be like, that is actually scary. Then all people who labored at Copper Canyon Press, they cherished this cowl. OK, effectively, I belief you. I feel individuals have preferred the quilt as a result of it’s daring, like I’m going to face dying. And I used to be like, good luck with that as a result of we lose; it’s computerized. The sport is rarely one which we win.

Kellogg is a former books editor of the Occasions and will be discovered on Twitter @paperhaus.

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