How grief became path-breaking poetry in Victoria Chang’s ‘Obit’
2021 L.A. Times Festival of Books Preview
Victoria Chang, poet and author of “Obit,” a finalist for a 2020 L.A. Times Book Prize in Poetry, will read from her collection on the L.A. Times’ Virtual Poetry Stage.
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It happened before she expected it: Victoria Chang’s parents were struck by illness. First her father was severely debilitated by a stroke; then her mother died. She felt so isolated by caregiving that she started writing down her anger, her fear, her frustration in notebooks that eventually became the poems in “Obit,” a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize. Their form is innovative, a thin short column down the middle of each page, playing off the traditions of a newspaper obituary.
But it’s Chang’s face that appears on the book’s cover, as well as her obituary. In addition to memorializing her parents’ declines, she has written obits for herself, for voicemail, sadness, appetite, friendships. At intervals, the book includes tankas — a traditional Japanese poetic form often written by women — and a long sonnet-like series that stretches in fractured lines across the pages, a visual and textual counterpoint to the sharply confined obits. While playing with and even inventing forms, Chang, chair of Antioch’s creative writing program, also makes overt references to other poets: Sylvia Plath, Brian Teare and Virginia Woolf.
Born and raised in Michigan, Chang has made California home for decades. “I am such a Californian,” she tells me via Zoom from her place in the South Bay. “It is who I am in terms of identity, in terms of politics, in terms of the food, the culture, everything just feels so right.”
She spoke to the Times about writing, grief, dark humor and what it’s been like talking about a book about mourning during the pandemic.
In one of your poems, you write, “Sadness is plural, but grief is singular.” How is that idea reflected in what we’ve experienced this past year? Has COVID changed grief?
I think there’s been something oddly comforting about knowing that the whole world is going through something together, where this idea of collective grieving has emerged. I still feel like so much of grieving is private, though, because each person grieves differently. Each person feels differently.
I think people may disagree with me, but so much of grief in my experience — and depression — is very lonely. At the end of the day, you’re facing no one but yourself. Mostly I think just being human, it’s really hard. I’m amazed when people experience different things and they just bounce back, you know? ‘Cause I tend not to be that way.
How did you come up with this obit format?
I think making art is so not intentional, not conscious — I was just messing around and playing. I first started sending them out when32 Poems, a small literary journal, came knocking on my door and said, ‘Hey, do you have any poems?’ I had just drafted a bunch. I was like, maybe I’ll test these out and see if anyone understands or likes them. Once they got out into the world, I just started hearing from people more and more. I began to think maybe these are resonating with people. I was trying to write the book that I needed to help me through my grief because I didn’t find anything in poetry that helped me. I think the reason why this book resonates with other people too is because a lot of people are grieving.
The awards recognize outstanding literary achievements in 12 categories, including the Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, with winners to be announced April 16.
While of course, the obituary as a poetic form is dark, these poems can also be funny.
I can be very sarcastic as a person — I think that comes through in my writing without me realizing it. On a daily basis, I’m constantly making jokes. That sometimes comes through my writing even though I try really hard to not have that come through.
While poetry often uses analogy and plays with language, the obituary poems seem very different, plainspoken.
Sometimes those poems are very grounded in reality, and then other times they’re very surreal and imaginative. That’s kind of what grief feels like to me — you’re constantly in that liminal space between the real and the imaginative, the dead and the living. And it’s intentionally, diction-wise, really flat. It’s mimicking the obituary form in that way, because I think it’s really hard to pull off really sad poems by being sad. I just went in the other direction, really stark and really dry and really clean. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but I think that’s what I ended up doing.
There is also no mention of “God” or “Jesus.”
There’s a lot of religion in our culture that we don’t even realize is here. I’m a Chinese American person, I’m a Taiwanese American person. We didn’t grow up with that Western religion. We went to a Presbyterian church, but it was mostly for them to socialize with other Chinese people. My parents absolutely did not believe in any sort of God that would be recognizable in this country. It’s just not a part of my family upbringing.
As an non-religious person, it was nice to read your book without religious overtones. I wish it had been around when my mother died. I didn’t realize how bad that would be until after it happened.
I’m known to be a tough person and not sentimental — a tough cookie, you know, I just deal with stuff. I’m tough as nails. When my mom died — oh my gosh. I never even thought I had a sentimental bone in my body, but suddenly all the feelings started emerging.
The festival will be virtual for the second year in a row, but expanded from 2020, hosting close to 150 writers over seven days beginning April 17.
Two writers you cite are Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath; they both committed suicide. Was there something about their connection to death that resonated with you?
Yeah. They’re both depressives. I think a lot of poets have depressive tendencies, and I certainly do. The type of writers that I admire, they’re always people who are pushing the boundaries and trying new things. I think both of those writers were Gertrude Stein-y, playing and viewing writing and language as Lego blocks. I always say you can build it and break it — you can always build something else. It’s not a big deal.
Can you tell me how you came up with the cover, with a repeating image of your face and obit poem?
I am the kind of person that knows what my skill sets are and, uh, design is not one of them. Many poets are much more involved. I’m very hands-off. A designer who works with Copper Canyon Press sent me all these things and this cover freaked the [crap] out of me, to be honest. I’m a very superstitious person. I was like, this is really scary. Then everybody who worked at Copper Canyon Press, they loved this cover. OK, well, I trust you. I think people have liked the cover because it’s bold, like I’m going to face death. And I was like, good luck with that because we lose; it’s automatic. The game is never one that we win.
Kellogg is a former books editor of the Times and can be found on Twitter @paperhaus.
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