interview issue 31 Miami Book Fair International

Victoria Chang on The Trees Witness Everything

by Madison Whatley

Victoria Chang’s forthcoming book of poems, With My Back to the World, will be published in 2024 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Corsair Books in the U.K. Her most recent book of poetry, The Trees Witness Everything, was published by Copper Canyon Press and Corsair Books in the U.K. in 2022 and was named one of the Best Books of 2022 by the New Yorker and The Guardian. Gulf Stream Managing Editor, Madison Whatley, interviewed her at the 2022 Miami Book Fair.

Victoria Chang (Courtesy of Antioch University)

MW: Can you tell us about wakas, the form that you used for The Trees Witness Everything

VC: Yeah, so I had written some tankas, which are like 5-7-5-7-7 syllable forms in my book Obit. I see it as sort of an extension of those small poems and miniature poems. I actually think miniature poems are difficult to write. All poems are difficult to write, but I think miniature poems for me. I’ve never really written such tiny poems and thought, “I should just give myself a challenge,” so the tiny poem was a form. The syllables of various different syllabics was a form, like a constraint, I would say, and then I used W.S. Merwins’ poem titles as titles mostly to kind of, you know, get myself out of the way because I really didn’t want to direct the poems at all. I was going to try and just let them be about nothing if that makes sense. 

MW: Yeah, OK, well, that leads to my next question. Did you always intend to focus on that form? Were you writing The Trees Witness Everything to that end? 

VC: Yeah, I mean, for this book, it was more like I decided ahead of time versus, like letting things kind of play out, which is how I usually do it. So, I usually tend to be a little more organic. And this time, I thought it was just like a sort of fun thing to do, if that makes sense. It’s like a little fun project, yeah. 

MW: Can you talk about your relationship to language? How do you feel you use language in your creative work? 

VC: I think, for poetry, it’s all about language. I oftentimes talk to prose writers. I think prose writers who read poetry at least become better writers. Because we’re at the word level. You know, like we’re looking at how words relate to each other. We’re thinking about rhythm. We’re thinking about sound. So, I think, for me, it’s like I could spend so much time on a line. I think of poets as being like stylists, like language stylists, you know, like you spend a lot of time fixing that, like, the last strand of hair. I mean, I wasn’t thinking of a hair stylist, but now that I’m talking about hair, it’s like the last strand of hair is to be perfect. Or, you know, we’re really miniaturists, to some extent, language miniaturists, I guess. 

MW: What is your personal process for writing about difficult things like grief, and what do you do personally to find joy? 

VC: Yeah, so I wrote this whole talk called “A Belief in Angels,” and it was a talk for Bread Loaf Writers Conference last year, and I actually think maybe I have a different view. I don’t think you can find joy. I think joy seizes you, so it’s like lightning, right? But I do think that writing about difficult things doesn’t quite fit into our American culture of packaging, does that make sense? Like, you know, we want to be happy, we want to be joyful, we want to be optimistic, you know. It’s like the “can do” sort of American mentality, so I actually think writing about things like grief or hardship and trauma is a service to this country because it brings you in touch with deeper feelings. In this country, I don’t think we know how to talk about those things. Yeah, so I don’t think I try to talk about them or don’t try to talk about them. I write about what I feel like writing, if that makes sense, and what I’m going through, and yeah, I’m a totally optimistic, joyful person in life, but my poetry is where I sort of explore some of those other, harder things that I’m thinking about because it’s philosophy. It’s poetry. That’s where those deeper feelings come out. 

MW: What is your process for titling? Do you have any tips? 

VC: Yeah, people always say that’s so hard, and I always say it shouldn’t be so hard because, like, you could take any poem, really, like I have Anni Liu’s poem, right? You could look at words in here, you know, “a black car,” “field of vision,” “Itself is sliding,” “you stand in a window” You could take the first line and bracket it. You could take other people’s titles as I have. I think the reason why things are so fraught for people is that they take it too seriously. And it’s like it’s not do or die. It’s like the fun of it is that if you change the title, what happens to the poem? So, I think it’s gloriously fun to change titles. And then, you’re like, “oh, now the poem is about something totally different,” or “now I need to write into this aspect of the title that will make the poem go in different directions. I mean, I’m actually doing that right now with what I’m working on, so I think it’s really fun. 

MW: What was your process for formatting The Trees Witness Everything

VC: Pretty like lowkey. I mean, again, I don’t really take it seriously. So, like, I think if you have a book of poems and there’s, like, a narrative, it’s good to have certain information upfront. Then you put those things up front. But for me, it was like I just kind of lay it out and then just take my favorites and then put my favorite, and then you know, like I look at arcs and I think about how to break things up in the middle. It’s not rocket science. I mean, the thing to think about is that there are many different ways to do it. And there’s no right one, so you just kind of throw them on the ground and play around, yeah. 

MW: What are you watching, reading, or listening to right now? 

VC: I watch a lot of Korean dramas. I read a lot of contemporary philosophy. I’m always reading poems, books of poems, and listening to everything. When I write, I listen to instrumental music. I love going to art museums, so that’s kind of the thing I’ve been doing. I’ve been traveling a lot, so I go from city to city, and I make sure I go to the art museum, so I’m always looking at stuff. 

MW: What are you looking forward to this weekend at Miami Book Fair? 

VC: Poetry. I’ve already seen a lot of poets downstairs, so it’s been fun to see people. I saw Roger Reeves. I’m a big fan. Love the work. And I saw Shelley Wong down there. Yeah, just, you know, looking around just like saying hi to poets briefly and then dashing off. 

MW: What is something that you learned recently that surprised you? 

VC: I have a fraught relationship with the line break. 

MW: Yeah, awesome. Thank you so much. 

Victoria Chang lives in Los Angeles and is Acting Program Chair and Faculty at Antioch’s low-residency MFA Program. She is the current poetry editor of the New York Times.

Madison Whatley is a South Florida poet, an MFA candidate at Florida International University, and the Managing Editor at Gulf Stream Magazine. Her poetry has appeared in Variant Literature and FreezeRay Poetry and is forthcoming in Cola Literary Review. She is on Instagram @hawttymadison.