Becoming Poet: Victoria Chang
We’re honored to have had the chance to chat with the amazing Victoria Chang, author of four books of poetry and recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship—here’s what she has to say about the journey of becoming poet.
What’s your relationship to rejection?
Victoria Chang: It used to crush me. Literally. But after a while, I started separating the rejections from my personhood. Now I get them and I feel nothing. Literally. I’ve received two good ones lately, both from prominent journals. The first told me that I didn’t win the poetry contest I had entered (I hadn’t) and the second said they liked my “pitch” for prose which was the wrong genre. I’ve never had the horror stories of some of my friends who have had some mean comments from editors.
When did you start calling yourself a poet and why?
VC: I remember being at Warren Wilson’s MFA program and feeling uncomfortable calling myself a poet. Maybe after I got my MFA or after the first book was published? The word “poet” feels restrictive to me even now because I write, I read, I think, I teach, I jury, I do so many other things and to me, that’s all poetry.
What was the journey of getting your first book, Circle, published?
VC: I had begun sending out my first manuscript early before I had an MFA. My teacher at the time (through Stanford Continuing Studies) was Rick Barot and he helped me by giving me some thoughts on it. I entered the Crab Orchard Review first book contest a few times because they seemed to be one of the few presses and journals that were publishing people of color at time and I was a semifinalist, then a finalist, and then a final judge selected my manuscript to win the prize. I love Jon Tribble and Alison Joseph–they really are and always will be my heroes.
How do you climb out of a dry spell of writing?
VC: I don’t worry about climbing out of dry spells because I do think that living is writing. Thinking is writing. Reading is writing. All those non-writing activities are writing. I get the nagging itch to write at some point. I’ve always had that come (whether I want it to come or not). That itch has made me realize writing is just something that I have to do that maybe non-writers don’t feel. That’s made me feel that this is what I want to be doing with my life.
What’s part of your job as a poet that would surprise most people?
VC: Hmmm. I would say that it might surprise people how many emails I field a day related to people asking me for things. Blurbs, recommendations, help, reading poems, reading manuscripts, jurying prizes, contests, interviews ;-), readings. It feels like good fortune, of course, because when I was first starting out, and for years and years, no one ever asked me to do anything. So I’m not complaining, just answering your question.
How do you keep your chin up amongst all the rejection?
VC: When I first started out, I never ever ever (to infinity) thought I would ever publish a book, let alone 4 books. I never thought I would win a Guggneheim in my wildest dreams. So there’s a lot of unknown along the way, but the thing to always remember is that I never stopped doing something that I liked to do and that’s been the great joy of it. If none of those things happened, I would probably still be writing. That’s why we do it in the end.
Victoria Chang’s fourth book of poems, Barbie Chang was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2017. The Boss (McSweeney’s) won a PEN Center USA Literary Award and a California Book Award. Her other books are Salvinia Molesta and Circle. She also edited an anthology, Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation. Her poems have appeared in the Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, POETRY, Believer, New England Review, VQR, The Nation, New Republic, Tinhouse, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Sustainable Arts Foundation Fellowship in 2017, along with a Poetry Society of America Alice Fay di Castagnola Award in 2018 for her manuscript-in-progress, OBIT. She is a contributing editor of the literary journal, Copper Nickel and a poetry editor at Tupelo Quarterly.
Her children’s picture book Is Mommy? (Simon & Schuster), was illustrated by Caldecott winner, Marla Frazee and was named a NYTNotable Book. She lives in Los Angeles with her family and her weiner dogs, Mustard and Ketchup and teaches within Antioch University’s MFA Program. She also serves on the National Book Critics Circle Board.