Grieving with Victoria Chang

MARFA — “I’m sort of an extroverted and cheery person,” said Victoria Chang, a poet and Lannan Foundation fellow who returned to Los Angeles last weekend. “I get along with just about everyone.”

At 49, Chang is a smiley and chatty author who got into writing as a kid because she “enjoyed trying to create surprise endings,” she told McSweeney’s in 2013. Nowadays, she writes a bit of everything, including poetry, essays, nonfiction and even children’s books.

Specifically, there was the book “Is Mommy?” which she says is about how little kids “say the darndest things.”

“It’s about using language for a different age bracket,” she says when asked how she got into the genre. “Some moms didn’t find it so funny.”

So it may come as a surprise that Chang lists grief and loss as some of the main themes in her work. “Many writers come to poetry through trauma,” she says — and she thinks a big part of art is finding a conduit for those feelings. “Rather than just talking about things I see in people’s life,” she says, “I can make a sculpture.”

These dark themes are on display in poems like “Dear P.,” a haunting, disjointed poem that uses irregular spacing to pull the reader in.

In the brief, 14-line poem, Chang writes of the love that will “make you    weep the tearless kind of//weep.” It’s the “kind of weep that drowns your//organs   slowly there are little oars in your body//little boats grab on to them and row and    row.”

The poem is almost violent, with Chang describing hearts wrung dry and “hands dripping knives.” But “love,” Chang concludes, “is//the only thing that    is not an argument.”

Poems like “Dear P.” show another defining quality to Chang’s work: She spends a lot time thinking about the forms of her poetry. As she sees it, “subject matter decides how the writing should be” — and if you pay attention to what you’re trying to say, it’ll show you whether it wants to be an essay or a poem or something else. Form is “immensely important to me as a writer,” she says.

And then there’s the dark undertones to “Dear P.”, that permeating feeling of loss and grief. “There is an underlying layer of grief in my life,” she says before quickly adding: “I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me.”

To understand what Chang means, it helps to know something about her family history. Her mother fled China in the 1940s, during the revolution. She moved first to Taiwan, where she met Chang’s father, and later to the United States.

Her mother fell out of touch with most of her family in mainland China, and Chang has never met them. “I have no idea how to reach these people, what their names are, or what city they live in,” she said. “I don’t think they even know my mom died.”

Chang’s parents eventually settled in Detroit, where she was born in 1970. Growing up, Chang struggled to fit in as the kid of Asian immigrant parents. “My family got made fun of,” she said. “I was bullied growing up.” Some neighborhood kids chalked racial slurs into their driveway. Her parents tackled these hardships with what Chang describes as a “put your head down, mind your own business” attitude.

“They just didn’t know what being an American meant,” she says.

Chang has spent some time in her father’s home country of Taiwan, including at least two summers in college. In 2018, she took her first and only trip to mainland China: a visit to the Shanghai branch of New York University.

She appreciated the way mainland China, for all its flaws, seemed to have a more communitarian approach to life. “There’s a layer of something over everyone,” she said. “It feels more like a collective, whereas America is all about individualism.”

As Chang got older, she tried rediscovering and reconnecting with her family’s Chinese roots. She asked both her parents if she could interview them. Her mom said yes; her dad said no.

Then, in just a few years, tragedy struck. Around 2009, her dad had a stroke. Then, in 2015, her mom died.

“I feel a sense of grief every day,” Chang says. “Every time, I want to tell my parents something. If you get along with your parents like I did, you want to call them, to tell them stuff.”

At the time, Chang was working in marketing and consulting. But her mother’s death inspired her to throw herself full-time into writing, which culminated in her latest book.

“Obit” — set to be released later this year — is the result of a “feverish two weeks,” the book’s description explains, in which Chang wrote “scores of poetic obituaries for all she lost in the world.”

“Elegies are a big thing in poetry,” she says. “I didn’t want to fall into that cliché.” Instead, she wrote a series of poems about what she calls “little deaths”: things like “the last time your mother can walk” or “the last time she drank a Sprite.”

“I’m not sure if I was successful,” she says of the project, “but I really didn’t care at the end.” Instead, she viewed the book as simply an articulation of her grief. And it allowed her to once again experiment with form, this time blending the poem and the obituary.

Chang’s Lannan fellowship this year, which started on January 14, was her first trip to Marfa. She’s pretty sure it was also her first trip to Texas.

“I’ve thought about this: I don’t know if I’ve spent any time in Texas,” she says. “I may have flown through.” But she’s got more Lone Star trips in the works, including a Texas Librarian Association conference in Houston in March.

Asked what she thought of Marfa, Chang says she loved the landscape and the artistic energy. “I find daily life to be really boring sometimes,” she says. Visiting here felt like “sort of a spiritual awakening.”

Then Chang brings up “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” a 1918 poem by the late Rainer Maria Rilke. The final line is: “You must change your life.”

“I have no idea what that means,” she says, “but I feel like Marfa can do that to you.”