How has your first book changed your life?
13. Victoria Chang
We were living in a 400 square foot apartment, waiting to move, with screaming kids in the pool across the way and a lady upstairs with an obsession for vacuuming. I was miserable and this little thin cardboard thing came in the mail. My parents happened to be visiting and they made a classic Chinese parent comment: "It's so thin--why is it so thin? That's not a real book!" The book had been damaged in the mail and was bent and distorted, as well as ripped at the binding. It's the book I have used for readings since then and I am superstitious so I don't feel comfortable without it. The experience, as with seemingly all of these types of experiences in my life, was highly anti-climactic and we proceeded to go to dinner and talk about real estate (what else do Californians do?).
When you got home from that dinner and had a chance to look at it alone, how did you feel about the book?
Oh, I loved it! I was so proud of it and I thought it was a beautifully made physical object. I think I kept on looking at it for weeks on end and flipping through it after that. I always laugh at my mug shot, though, which I took with a self-timer, and I think it shows.
Were you involved in the design of the cover or selecting the photo?
SIU gave me a ton of options and I sent them to a bunch of friends who have an artistic sensibility that I admire/trust. They voted and I counted and ended up with this cover. I didn't do anything design-related even though I do have a fair amount of art background. I trusted SIU since they had done so many pretty poetry books before.
Before the day that your book came out, did you imagine your life would change because of it?
Na, never. I'm so outside of the loop of the inner poetry world (is there an inner poetry world?) that I had never even thought about the consequences or the result of having a book of poems out. I just didn't know what to expect so I didn't think about it. I also didn't have any grand delusions that I had written some blockbuster book that would somehow rock the poetry world (I like a handful of poems and the others I could live with or without). To be honest, I wasn't that ambitious while writing the poems in my first book--I was just getting my feet wet in terms of writing and didn't really care if my style or my subject matter was outdated, out of vogue, uninteresting, etc. I just wrote the poems I felt I needed to write at that stage in my life the very best I could.
All in all, I think getting that first book out of the way for me was just that--getting it out of the way. I'm not a patient person and couldn't wait until I was 40 (or never) to have a book out. It gave me the opportunity to work on other things and to stop obsessing about the whole process and revising poems that should have been put down a long time ago.
When I look at your bio, you have such excellent credentials, I wonder what you mean by "out of the loop"--what does that mean to you? (Or, what do you think of as the loop?)
You're right--I do have many of the conventionally desired "credentials," but I certainly don't feel like I'm "in the loop." I think your questioning of what "loop" means to me is a great one. Maybe it's going to Iowa or Houston for an MFA, for example, which I almost did, but couldn't pull the trigger? Maybe it's doing a Stegner Fellowship? Maybe it's living in New York City? Maybe it's not being Asian American? Maybe it's not being a woman? Maybe it's winning the Yale Prize? Maybe it's teaching like seemingly every other poet? Maybe it's feeling like there's a real honest older poet champion(s) for your work? I don't know. Maybe I am in the loop and just like pretending I'm not so I'll work harder and have a greater sense of humility.
Has your life been different since your book was published?
In truth, things do change, but the bigger question is--do those changes matter? People do email you or contact you telling you they liked a poem they saw of yours or they liked your book. In essence, you join an ongoing conversation about poetry and instead of being an observer, you become one of the observed. People start talking about your book if you're lucky. And I have made so many friends--really good people--who also have first books out. We can all, to some extent, relate to each other and it's a very human and lovely experience.
Like I said before, I really am out of the loop so I didn't really have any expectations. I've made some life and career choices that have made anything related to poetry a positive thing, a bonus. So when it did get even a modicum of attention, I was surprised and pleased. These are all little things, of course, but Robert Pinsky selected a poem from the book and featured it in his "Poet's Choice" column in The Washington Post. The book was a finalist for the Foreword Book of the Year Award. And the book has gotten reviewed in a few places by remarkably intelligent reviewers. Anyone who knows me well knows that I'm constantly making fun of the plethora of poorly written reviews out there, so I was pleasantly surprised when Blackbird published this incredibly intelligent review of my book [by Susan S. Williams], as well as the Mid-American Review and several others. I was surprised when Kevin Larimer selected it to be featured in Poets and Writers. A poem from the book is in Best American Poetry, which was also surprising. I guess I'm always surprised! These are places that related to my writing; other types of writing will relate to other venues and that's great too--I'm not saying these are places all poets should strive for, but rather just that I was surprised that people have written about poems or the book on their own.
What kinds of things have you done to promote Circle, and how do you feel about those experiences?
I did the usual stuff--readings, sending books out to potential reviewers/publications/post first-book contests, and more readings. SIU Press has been amazing in this regard--very supportive. I thought I had done a lot of readings (15 or so places each year), but then a friend told me he did 50+ a year! I get tired of hearing my own voice and get bored with myself so I don't do as many. Time is also an issue for me due to work. I also only read at venues that can attract an audience...all the nerves and hassle of getting somewhere to read to an audience of 2 just isn't for me. I know others don't mind it, but I can't bear the humiliation. I also try to help out friends and poets that I like who want to read in California since I now know the good places to read. I know this sounds stupid, but I just try to be a kind and generous person to others.
And how about your website? What made you decide to have one? (Many poets don't.) Do you feel it helps in promoting the book--can you tell?
I love surfing the web, so I wanted to make sure that I had something for someone to surf if they so desired to read more about my work. A friend designed the site and I just told him what I was looking for and sent him some links of sites I like. He's a great designer and the website that's up now is pretty much his first iteration and it wasn't expensive at all--I told him I wanted to do one on the cheap. I wanted to have the site done around the time my book came out just so people could find out more and also to help people if they wanted a bio at readings, etc. I don't track visitors (too lazy and I guess I really don't care), but random people do email me from all kinds of countries asking for signed books, information, etc. And I know for a fact, reading hosts have used my information from there because they always seem to read my bio verbatim from my website and often say they got the information from there. I do wish more poets had websites, but some of my friends are either too lazy or they think it's kind of self-promotionish. I don't agree with the latter, but that's because I love reading about other people and finding the work they want me to see. I think the latter could be poets just being stuck in the dark ages and being too self-conscious about "art" and could be poets just taking themselves too seriously.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? (&/or: What was the best advice you got?)
To quit! Writing poetry is something that (because I didn't/don't do it full-time or even part-time really and didn't do an MFA in my 20s), I never quite realized how difficult it is/can be. I remember Richard Hugo in The Triggering Town saying: "Poets who fail (and by fail I mean fail themselves and never write a poem as good as they know they are capable of) are often poets who fail to accept feelings of personal worthlessness. They lack the self-criticism necessary to perfect the poem. They resist the role of a wrong thing in a right world and proclaim themselves the right thing in a wrong world...." What a miserable life, then, to live the life of a poet--a life of torment and self-doubt, of insecurity, and a feeling of never being good enough. Hugo's right, though...the poets I've met who think their work is good, already there, or have a sense of self-righteousness about them, usually aren't very good poets.
All of my old teachers did tell me to enjoy the moment...it's as if they knew the moment wouldn't last. I think that the one year before a book comes out (when all the preparation is happening) must be the most innocent and joyous time for a first book poet. You're not on the radar yet, but you're just under the radar so you can truly bask in your accomplishment and just be happy--this is, of course, after one has submitted the final proofs to the publisher.
The other thing I wish people had told me is that it's not that big of a deal to publish a first book of poems anymore (was it ever? I don't know)--just look around at all the new presses each year, all the new poets publishing books. I once went to a summer workshop and met this poet, who shall remain unnamed, and we were both fellows there and her bio was huge, I mean big and long with all these "publications"--chapbooks, a book (published by an old teacher at a tiny press because she, in her own words, "couldn't win a contest," not that winning a contest is the ultimate goal or the only way or even the best way, I might add). My non-poet friends and family read our bios online and said: "Boy, she's a lot more accomplished than you, isn't she?" My response was: "Um, yeah, I guess." My point is, anyone can call themselves a poet and fill their bio with publications, chapbooks, books, projects--who cares? It's not that hard to find a random publisher or even to self-publish. It doesn't matter in the end. I know people who get their books picked up by some random publisher/person and I know other people who get their books picked up by some of the most "prestigious" contests (and get Louise Gluck's stamp of approval, for example)...they all meet the same fate in the end. They all go into the vortex and spin and spin and only a few each year get spit out and noticed. I guess "be happy" but don't expect others necessarily to care about your book, is the best advice I ever got.
Oh, and someone told me to resist the temptation to be bitter and mean. Poets can be bitter and mean (I learned that the hard way related to an anthology I edited). I've met some of the best friends in the world who are poets and I've also met some of the meanest people in the world who are poets. I'm okay with being envious of others' amazing work, but as long as it doesn't lead to bitterness and nastiness or personal attacks. The rest of the world doesn't operate as much this way--I think all poets should do something non-poetry-related in their lives to recognize this. Go plough a field, or work for the UN, or be an entertainment lawyer, or be a ski bum.
What influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing?
It's put an annoying pressure on me to do something different, something new, something I've never done before. I'm not saying I've been able to do that (I haven't in any remarkable way), but there is a stake in the ground now, a real anchor that stares me in the face each morning, an old Victoria Chang that I have to beat, to improve upon.
How do you feel about the critical response to your book and has it had any effect on your writing?
I talked about this a little before, but I had no expectations so any response was good. One always hopes for a better response or more response, but a limited response can be a good thing too. I'm not willing to sell my soul and brown-nose or schmooze to "meet all the right people" or do all the right things in the poetry world. To be honest, some of my poetry friends think I'm silly, too principled, too set on being an "underdog." I do owe a lot to a handful of people--C. Dale Young, poetry editor of the New England Review, for example, who was the first editor to notice my work (and I am not name-dropping, I couldn't be more sincere). But I never felt like I used anyone or was nice to someone that I didn't really like that much.
The irony is that I actually went to business school and it's all about connections and who you know, but that's probably why I didn't like it and stepped off the track. And what do I find in poetry? The same kind of person--it's funnier, though, because some poets pretend they have no idea what they're doing or how ambitious they are or maybe they're just in denial--it's comical to watch--we're all the same, aren't we? William Carlos Williams had a terrible time with the critics (both being ignored and being skewered when he wasn't ignored) and I've been reading Bill Knott's blog lately, which is educational for a younger poet on many fronts. It has made me realize that even though many of us are wired (whether by Chinese parents or some internal malfunction) to seek approval from critics, friends, colleagues, it's not necessarily a thing one should focus on--critical response, that is. In the end, it doesn't really mean anything. Who are critics anyway? Just a person sitting behind a desk, with a computer, with personal opinions, maybe smart, usually not. Just some random person. Some people will like your work; others won't.
I think reading other people's books (a wide aesthetic range) has had the greatest impact and effect on my writing and on my brain.
Do you want your life to change?
Of course! Not my regular life--my normal daily life is the best. But I do want my writing to change--I want to be more daring, more imaginative, less forced and stunted. But I don't need these things to happen ever, I just want to always want. If I ever feel like I've arrived at some destination--become the poet I want to be--then I would probably quit.
Once I was talking to the poet Michael Collier about swimming and how I can't get the freestyle stroke quite right, despite having done it all my life, and he said: "Don't try so hard; the more you try, the harder it is," or something like that. I got the message. I do hope patience comes with age. Some of the best advice I've ever gotten in life was from that man and most of the time, we weren't talking about poetry.
Is there something you're doing now that you think will bring about a change that you seek?
No. Nothing. I'm in a writing trough. (I've just been watching stupid reality TV on MTV and marveling at Kathy Griffin's funny reality show about being on the "D"-List, which is something some poets can relate to, I'm sure! And watching the NBA playoffs. And watching my double-chin grow exponentially--I'm 8 months pregnant.) I've learned over the years not to care about that anymore, though. Some people swear by the practice of writing every day, and once in a while I force myself to write when I don't feel like it, but in general, I have to be inspired by something, someone, something I see. "To each his own," is a motto I like, and one of the few cliches I actually use correctly.
Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
I hope that it can, but I'm not sure that it can (that's the cynic in me). And I'm not sure as a poet, I want to think that when I'm writing. I think I would be frozen if I thought anything I wrote could possibly change anything.
After returning from Arkansas, I've never been the
to go à la carte--it gives leverage and leave, it lends
I begin to acknowledge feet with hair on the big toes,
Periodically, there's a 300-point inspection and I'm
but what if the checker is the one missing a tooth?
when I'm more than halfway? Do I turn back or keep
two small dots plucking broken guitars? But when all
have the same green eyes, blow me kisses, toast me
how can I not keep going, to find out whether all along
the right average or whether my father is really rising
next interview: Juliet Patterson
. . .