Image credit: DF/Public Seminar
Victoria Chang is a Chinese American poet whose writing explores themes of death and grief. In her new book The Trees Witness Everything (Copper Canyon Press, 2022) Chang explores how we experience grief over time, and how nature experiences it along with us. Informed by the pandemic, the theme of isolation is ever-present in the book.
Nomaris Garcia Rivera: What is this book, The Trees Witness Everything, about—and can you tell our readers about the experience of writing it?
Victoria Chang: If I were to say that The Trees Witness Everything is about something, I would say it’s about existentialism, being alive, and finding meaning in our presence here, especially during a pandemic. I was sort of post-Obit (2020) and post-Dear Memory (2021), and I was just looking to do something a little bit more fun, and that was almost like playing a board game or something.
So, I employed things like syllabics and used someone else’s poem titles, in this case, specifically W.S. Merwin. I think of this book as a little skinny box of poem chocolates. You can just open it up wherever, pick one, and just read it. It’s not meant to be particularly serious, even though the themes can be serious.
We put so much gravity on a book of poetry being, like, “the next big thing”. I wasn’t really interested in that. I was just interested in having a good time writing.
NGR: Following the success of Obit, how did you feel going about introducing the theme of death in The Trees Witness Everything? How did your writing transition between these two books?
VC: I recently finished another poetry manuscript that I’ve been working on pretty hard since last August: death and grief are still a theme there, but it’s different. Death has been, and is, a big part of my life, as much as life is a part of my life. The Trees Witness Everything has so much death in it, but it’s sort of like the next phase of death because time has passed.
These poems were written before the pandemic started, so I started writing these in February of 2020, and I wrote them all the way through. So, has that kind of feeling of isolation and grief and death throughout, and ‘what matters?’ sort of feeling.
NGR: Thinking about the pandemic itself, how much grief were you observing, not just in death, but also for the lives that people were leading and that were changed so abruptly?
VC: One thing I heard was many people asking: “What is time?” People were like, “I don’t even know what day is or what time it is,” and that was new. There are different periods of existence or situations where I think we can lose this idea of time, and it sort of changes and morphs and either compresses or slows down. For example, when people have a newborn, they’re like, “I don’t even know what day it is or what time it is.”
Time can be very elastic and when you’re grieving, you also lose track of time. Sometimes I forget my mother is dead. I was just thinking about her very intensely yesterday. I think it was right before I fell asleep, I was just missing her so much, and she just seemed so vivid to me. I think that’s a strange sort of change in time. We have an idea that just moves minute by minute by minute in 60 seconds, but I think it’s not.
I think time is one of the most malleable things that we experience in life.
NGR: How did you manage to work through the different themes of the book in a nonlinear time frame, and maintain cohesiveness?
VC: It’s hard to put any book together but this one was different because I was using someone else’s titles, so I felt like there needed to be two poems on each page. I don’t know why, it just felt like they were lonely by themselves. Some poems are really short, so I wanted to pair them so they could each have a companion. I cut them out, literally used scissors and paper, laid them on the floor, and then started combining them based on feeling and whether they looked good.”
Then once I combined them, I taped them onto paper, spread them all out, and then started picking which ones I felt like I wanted to go in a certain order. Poets do this all the time, but this was a little different. It’s like, “Oh, I’m just going to go walk out the door and today I’ll turn that way, or I’ll turn that way,” and it was very organic. I felt it out.
NGR: Can you explain the Japanese form waka? And why did you choose it for this book?
VC: I wrote some tankas in Obit, and I really enjoyed working with syllabic forms. Obviously, many poets in the past have done this: Marianne Moore absolutely comes to mind, and I think that David Baker, Brian Teare have all written in syllabics at some point. I think it’s fun, it’s just another constraint.
When it comes to Japanese forms, Americans are most knowledgeable about the haiku, which is so fun. I love it. But I did some research, and there are all these other forms. Waka means ‘Japanese poem’, and although I’m Chinese there are a lot of connections. Japanese characters oftentimes use Chinese characters so I can read some of the Japanese characters.
But like I put in the notes, there are many different forms. There’s the katauta, the sudoku, the tanka. In Japanese and Chinese, one character is one syllable, as opposed to English, which is characterized by its multiplicity. Multiplicity. That’s five syllables. But the use of syllabics in Asian forms of poetry doesn’t quite translate over to syllables in English, so I really think of them more like syllabic poems.
We could just decide right now we’re going to do four, eight, three, two, seven, and then write a whole poem, four, eight, three, two, seven, and we’re going to do six stanzas. And we’ve just created our own syllabic form.
But that form has constraints. I wanted to write certain words and certain images, but they just didn’t fit, and it drove me crazy sometimes, but I think I was always up for the challenge and had to be okay with some of them being a little flatter, some of them not working as well. I was like, “I enjoyed the process and that’s most important to me.”
NGR: Did you plan the different styles of the three parts of The Trees Witness Everything before you started writing, or did it come about in the assembly process?
VC: Assembly: I never plan anything out. I just put one put in front of the next and I write a poem and then I’ll write another poem and then I’ll write another poem, and then I just keep going. The result can look well-packaged and put together, but I don’t think the process is ever that way.
I think my books get called “project books” a lot because of that, and sometimes it’s a denigrating comment. I have nothing against series or project books, even if someone’s like, “I’m going to write a book about this.” I’m like, “Go for it. If that’s what you want to do, as long as you give yourself freedom to change while you’re at it, that sounds great to me.”
If I sound soap boxy about it, it’s because I am. I’m like, “Just do whatever and mind your own business.”
NGR: What advice would you give young writers about how to write about their experiences of grief and loss, and also happy moments, without getting caught up in what audiences want?
VC: It’s so hard not to get caught up in it. There’s so much envy and fear of missing out happening on social media. I always say, “Why did you start writing?” For many of us, writing is like breathing. It’s air. It’s as important as water and food. We do it because we have to, and some of us are just wired that way.
People do other things because they need to: they run marathons, they make visual art, or they compose music. Everything doesn’t really have to be for an audience. I started journaling as a very young child and then writing poems and there was no one reading that stuff. And if we want to try and do more with it–have the poems published or find an audience–that’s a whole other story, and it’s difficult to navigate. If we mix all this up together, it can be really debilitating.
So, just focus on the writing and try to make your writing the best that it can be at the time in your life.
NGR: Do you have a favorite poem or section in The Trees Witness Everything?
VC: More and more, I’m liking the middle section best. It was really so process-driven. But it’s hard for me to pick a favorite: all the poems were just fun to write, although some posed more challenges than others. But readers probably have poems they like more than others, and that’s fine too. The publisher put one in the back, so that means someone liked that one best.
But all of them are my children and they’re all equal.
NGR: For readers that aspire to publish: how do you go about presenting a manuscript to publishers?
VC: It’s like an elevator pitch. I try to describe what the poems are, I send it to them, and then the editors tell me what they think. But that can be more difficult than it sounds, because it’s hard to know what I’m doing in any of my books, and I think other people often describe them better than I can because I don’t really think of my work as being very precious if that makes sense.
My mind is just very active, and these books are just a representation of my brain at a particular time.
NGR: Is there ever a time when you need to advocate for certain poems, or words in a poem?
VC: I don’t consciously try and push the envelope with editors, but my personality is naturally geared toward trying new things, pushing things in different areas, and blowing past boundaries. My whole writing life, I’ve been constantly in a different place than other people might want, especially what the editors and publishers want or even understand. I always feel like I’m a little bit over there when other people are over here.
There are other people who are way more experimental, way more radical, than I am, but I definitely think for conventional US publishers, I am often pushing things a little bit.
That often extends to the book design. I’m probably one of the few people that would want a book to be this small, not want trees on the cover, and to have it look really bright and be an art object. I want to push the envelope as far as I can and if it breaks or falls over that precipice, that’s cool. That’s fine too. I’m always advocating for difference and change because I’m interested in it.
I don’t like to be too involved in the design, because that’s micromanaging people who are doing something for a living. So, I have an aesthetic vision, but it’s a general one. In this case, I said, “I want a beautiful object.” For this other manuscript that I’m working on, I need it to be square. I need clean, sans serif fonts. But for the cover of The Trees Witness Everything I said, “I need it to be a beautiful object. I need it to be physically beautiful.” And I don’t always say that.
This is my third book working with the same designer. He gives me a whole bunch of stuff and I react to it: “I like this. I don’t like this. Here are the reasons why I like this.” I remember specifically liking this type because it reminded me of Jenny Holzer, the visual artist who uses neon lights. It also reminded me of Dan Flavin, whose art I saw in Marfa.
It didn’t seem like it would fit the poems, and that’s exactly why I loved it! The more unusual something is, the more interesting it is. Then, the designer said: “I want the book to be narrow,” and I was like, “I’m on board.”
NGR: The book really stands out.
VC: Right. Although, we’re not like talking about: “Let us make a book that stands out so much that it will sell more copies.” I’m trying to make a book that’s physically just really cool. The poems, they’re little tree poems, in some way, and they’re little nature poems, there are animals everywhere. So why not just go as much against that as possible and do something interesting with the design to press against that, make it fun and daring.
How many books do we see that are literally the same shape? I have stacks and stacks and stacks of them. How dull.
NGR: It also makes you question the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
VC: Totally. It’s kind of subversive because it’s sneaky. I also switched out my author photo at the last minute for a photo with the two wiener dogs just to be a bit jokey. The whole book is a bit jokey. I think that there’s so much gravity and seriousness in the poems that why not be a little more whimsical with the actual physical object?
Victoria Chang is an American poet, writer, editor, and critic.
Nomaris García Rivera is a journalist and designer currently pursuing her MA in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School.