The Boss, Chang’s third book, is one of the most fascinating and exciting collections of poetry I’ve read in the last few years. The poems in The Boss feature the same speaker, a woman who shares major biographical characteristics with Chang: she’s a mother of several young children taking care of her ill father and dealing with a stressful work environment. The speaker’s language careens from one homophone or homograph or rhyme to the next, in a manner similar to Stein’s Tender Buttons. This technique produces a portrait of a woman whose psyche has been stunted by the social structures into which she was born, so that the effect is less reminiscent than that of other speakers encountered in poetry than of the protagonists found in Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, and Chris Krauss’s I Love Dick. Like those books, The Boss is about a woman desperate to convey her obsession with the cost of living in America—the unavoidable, mundane struggles of late‑period Capitalism and the terror of the unforeseeable tragedies awaiting us.
Front Porch: The Boss was written during a very short period of time. This makes a certain amount of sense, given its tight construction, but it’s also surprising considering the quality of the work. Could you discuss the drafting process of your book? What concerns and challenges did you face while editing?
Victoria Chang: That’s a nice thing to say, because I am never quite sure of the “quality”—it seems like there are always so many poets that are way more talented and capable than I am. I wrote this book in a minivan waiting for my oldest child to finish a language class. We had leftover classes at this place after we moved, so I had to sit and wait for her for two-ish hours each Saturday until those classes ran out. So I just wrote in a notebook in front of the same tree every Saturday for a few months. And when that language class ended, I realized I had a lot of pages. I then realized I needed more pages to make something bigger and started looking for ways to reenter the poems; I wrote a few new ones based on Edward Hopper’s paintings, because I noticed many of his works took place in the office. After that, I did some editing, moving around, and reworking, until I felt like I didn’t want to work on it anymore.
FP: Edward Hopper’s paintings have shown up in all your collections, and you’ve discussed his work extensively in interviews—his work is something of a go-to for you. The Hopper poems in The Boss are striking because they rely on the speaker misinterpreting the painting as a way to reveal herself to the reader, much like the way Berryman’s “Winter Landscape” hinges on the speaker mistaking—or possibly intentionally naming—the hunters’ spears “tall poles”. What draws you to Hopper? What function(s) do they perform for you and for the speaker in The Boss?
VC: I think the mystery of the paintings draw me in. I get to look into the secrets of people and these characters, yet no matter how I look, I can never really know or understand. I’m attracted to physical art and the act of looking, and although it is a cliché to write about Hopper, I just couldn’t help it. I think it comes from a truly authentic place where I really wanted to learn about the characters in these paintings, but never could. That reaching is what I feel life is in general.
FP: The poems in your first two books are defined by a certain deliberateness in pace. The diction in those first books is often spare, the syntax traditional, and the units of sound short. As a result, the poems seem hushed and full of silence. The Boss seems to take the opposite approach; one of the things that surprised (and delighted) me when I heard you read from the book was how fast you read the poems, almost trying to get to the end in one breath. How do you think about The Boss in the context of your previous work? Were you, as Louise Glück does, purposefully writing against some aspect essential of your poetry in your previous books?
VC: My previous work was all tutelage—I was learning how to write, and basically both books were essentially exercises that happened to get published. When I look back at it, I’m not sure either deserved to be published, but I guess I’m lucky or unlucky that they did, because they are now out there for everyone to see. I feel like The Boss is more polished in many ways, but I couldn’t have written the book without first writing the first two. In fact, there are two other manuscripts between my second book and The Boss. I think they both were finalists in the NPS and maybe elsewhere, but I just lost interest in them and stopped sending them out. They are on some hard drive somewhere—I have no idea. I think I had no intention of writing The Boss,and there was no real purpose, and I think that’s why I like the process so much: it felt very organic. The first two books were definitely more forced and I was still trying to find a voice.
FP: This is your first work to contain strong autobiographical elements. Could you discuss any concerns you had about writing about your life and how you approached those concerns in composing the poems?
VC: I hate talking about myself and prefer to ask other people questions. I like to ask interesting people questions, I should rephrase. I despise narcissistic self-centered people and I suppose my allergies are often reflected in my own work where I like to remain hidden. Who would care about my daily affairs anyway? But these poems just seemed like they were bubbling up and I felt this great sense of urgency to express all the challenges I was feeling in my life at the time. It was oddly refreshing for me to get them all down on paper. But I still, as you see, like to go outward. For better or for worse, I am a macro thinker. Details irritate me. I am only detail-oriented when I absolutely must be, like work or scheduling, but otherwise, I like to keep my head in the sky.
FP: The governing principle of the poems in The Boss comes from linguistic associations instead of classical, rhetorical logic. It’s a slightly jarring technique, because each new word has the potential to reveal some hidden worry or desire in the speaker. What did you find beneficial and challenging about taking on this kind of voice and alternative “logic”?
VC: I think I wanted the form to follow the disarray and messiness of life. I wanted the poems to go where they wanted to go, rather than have me control them as I always have. I realized after the fact how much I hated writing poems the way they had been written before. In the future, I want to write in a surprising way—I want the poems to lead me versus me controlling the poems. There is no logic in the poems, they go where the language goes, but as you pointed out, my deepest concerns always seem to make their way into the poems somehow. It’s the subconscious always working.
FP: That’s really interesting, since a lot of people think of writing as a way to make sense of the world. Would you discuss your relationship to control and uncertainty in the writing process?
VC: I think with poetry, there’s so much emphasis on control and revision and forming the poem, but I’m more interested in how the poem forms itself. I love the idea of an invisible hand, much of what our lives are like. There’s talk of controlling your life and your ambitious, etc., but I think often about how little control we ultimately have over everything, and I wanted the poems to reflect that. I’m not sure I was wholly successful, and I still feel a great sense of fear in my writing, but I would like my poetry, at the very least, to be authentic. I don’t think you can write as well as you can write when you’re trying to control everything.
FP: On a similar note, one of the surprising and most moving parts of the book is the speaker’s relationship to her family–specifically her father. The intrusion of family into the poems lends them more urgency because they are now about the future and are, therefore, often about the speaker’s fear of the final boss, death. Would you discuss the importance of family to your interrogation of hierarchy and to the work of the book as a whole?
VC: My family is very complicated. Because it is complicated, I’m very suspicious of people who have perfect families. I’m actually very jealous. I try very hard to create a healthy supportive environment for my own children today, because I never really felt this growing up or even now. I won’t go into further detail, but when there’s mental illness or mental issues in your family, it’s hard on everyone around, and it’s only now as an adult that I can see things more clearly and realize not everything is my fault. Yet despite all of these complications, watching my father, who I am most like, lose all of his power while I felt I was losing my power in the workplace and in my life, was jarring.
On social hierarchies, being an Asian-American female does shape my views on life and the world, and I’m always surprised by the little micro-aggressions I experience on a daily basis that I know other people might not experience. I’m always interested in how different the way I view myself is from how other people view me.
FP: The poems in The Boss all share the same form, give or take a stanza or two. What led you to consider this uniformity and what do you think the collection gains from it? Did it produce any new concerns for you in the editing process?
VC: Actually, I originally wrote these things as couplets, long-lined ones that bled to the end of the page. No punctuation. I wasn’t mimicking Katie Ford’s book Deposition, but I just noticed recently that she has the same form. It was McSweeney’s and their editors that thought it was hard to read, so they decided on the form you see in the book. I was hesitant because I loved the long lines, but ultimately ended up liking the form they picked because it is easier to read. During editing, we had to think about where lines should break and it was a bit of a pain, but all lineation for me is a pain.
I think lineation is incredibly important for all poems. I have to say, however, for me, it’s a very intuitive process. I felt a rambling long-breathed voice when I wrote these poems and thus initially the long lines and couplets were for ease of reading. I love McSweeney’s change to shorter quatrains to help the reader. I think either might work for different audiences. I think lineation should support the poems and, done poorly, can be a real distraction.
FP: 9/11 seems to play into some of the poems, most notably “The Boss Has A Daughter,” “The Boss Calls Us At Home,” and “There Is Only One.” The imagery of plane crashes could seem out of place, but it doesn’t—it lends the poems an extra sense of urgency and realism, and broadens the scope of the speaker’s feelings of helplessness. What about this series of poems made including a topic that American poetry has famously struggled with discussing seem natural for you?
VC: I am obsessed with tragedies like 9/11. I still can’t stop watching and thinking about that man who was hanging from some kind of rope but ultimately couldn’t hold on and fell. I can’t stop thinking about people who made the choice or had no choice to jump. I think about these things daily. I think for me the concerns are genuine and I think writing about things that happened to other people has to come out of the heart; otherwise they feel so fabricated. There is a tremendous risk, though, in writing about historical things—they can seem so fake. Authenticity is very important to me. I used to do more exercises and write certain kinds of poems. Now I refuse to write anything unless I feel deeply and urgently about the issues. That could explain why I haven’t written that much since The Boss and actually took a more than two-year’s hiatus from writing altogether.
Victoria Chang is the author of Circle, Salvinia Molesta, and The Boss, and editor of Asian American Review: The Next Generation. Her poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The American Poetry Review, POETRY, The Believer, New England Review, VQR, The Nation, New Republic, The Washington Post, and Best American Poetry among others. She lives and works in business in Southern California with her family and her Wiener dog, Mustard.