Obsessive, tender, outraged, playful—Victoria Chang’s virtuosic third collection The Boss is a mesmerizing exploration of contemporary American culture, power structures, family life, and ethnic and personal identity. “Brilliant,” writes Ilya Kaminsky of the collection. “To say simply that Chang takes the Modernist’s music and makes it new again, makes it alive, is to say only half-truth, for she truly re-inhabits it, rekindles the flame.”
Chang spoke recently with McSweeney’s editors Dominic Luxford and Jesse Nathan about The Boss, the fifth collection in the McSweeney’s Poetry Series.
McSweeney’s: How did you first become interested in poetry?
Victoria Chang: I think my elementary school teachers introduced me to poetry and we had little poetry contests where everyone won 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place. I wrote these tiny poems and enjoyed trying to create surprise endings.
McSweeney’s: You’ve previously said you wrote the poems in The Boss in “a breathless kind of fury.” Can you say a little more about this?
VC: At the time of writing these poems, I was having challenges in the workplace. I also had very young children, and my father had a stroke, which left him with aphasia. I felt a sudden sense of urgency to write these words, not even poems, with no punctuation and with lots of repetition because that’s how I felt—like my head was banging against this one wall again and again and again.
This book is really about losing control in all dimensions, losing all power. It’s a book that explores hierarchy in all aspects of our lives.
McSweeney’s: Where did you compose these poems?
VC: I wrote these poems in a car while waiting for our four-year-old to finish a Chinese language class in Irvine (which she despised, by the way). I parked my car in front of a tree and opened my notebook and started writing. The fact that the same tree was there, stationary, and waiting for me week after week, actually showed up in one of the poems, I think.
When she was done with class, I stopped writing. Then the following Saturday, I would repeat the process until I had finished an entire manuscript in record time for me—a few months. And that was it. I actually never intended anyone to read these “poems.” But eventually I came to realize they were something that I might share with other people.
McSweeney’s: Why did punctuation fall away in The Boss?
VC: These poems never had punctuation because they were written quickly. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time overthinking the poems. I wanted them to just keep going and accelerating without any inhibitions. I wanted them to propel themselves through language, and hence all the wordplay. I didn’t want to be the driving force behind the poems—I wanted the words to be the driving force. And punctuation just seemed like it would get in the way.
McSweeney’s: Tell us a joke, please.
VC: What kind of bees make milk instead of honey?
McSweeney’s: You work in the business world. What do people in that community make of the fact that you write poetry?
VC: I’ve done a lot of things typical of an MBA graduate—I worked in banking, management consulting, marketing, and business development. Now I work in a “milder” form of business, in Marketing and Communications at a university, but I still spend most of my days speaking with CEOs and senior executives at companies if I am writing for the curriculum or an article. I really enjoy it.
But I feel very conflicted about my many lives. All my business school friends are talking about bringing companies public or investing in startups or making their billions and I wonder if they just think I’m a total weirdo because—while I value monetary comforts, mostly because life is less stressful that way—my goal in life isn’t to be famous or to make a lot of money (although most poets I know—not me—also want to be famous!). Some of my more philosophical business school friends do find the fact I write poetry interesting, but truthfully—no, they’re mostly interested in making money and their careers! Maybe I am too cynical? I value community and finding people who care about other people, people who are willing to help other people for no self-absorbed reason. I’m not that into careerists, climbers, selfish, or self-absorbed people.
McSweeney’s: The Boss includes a series of poems based on Edward Hopper paintings. How do these poems fit into the larger workplace-centered themes of The Boss? And similarly, how does the speaker’s father’s aphasia fit into the collection’s main themes?
VC: Those Hopper paintings I picked all took place in offices of some kind and that intrigued me. I’ve always loved the loneliness and mystery of Hopper’s paintings.
For the aphasia, I felt really bad for my father, who was a really smart man who now didn’t know the difference between a chair and a table, or my sister and me. I couldn’t believe how that had happened. It’s like an extreme version of OCD, but completely irrational. He had lost complete control over his ability to communicate and in some ways, I could relate to him because I had loss all power over my own selfhood after having children, and was experiencing the same thing in the workplace.
McSweeney’s: Do you plan your poems beforehand? Or … how do they arise?
VC: I think I used to think more about my poems and now I believe more in fate. I don’t buy into that whole, get up in the morning and write for an hour kind of thing anymore. I want authentic poems that come from somewhere else and not too much thinking. I want to write visceral poems that must be written or else.
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