Thursday, April 16, 2009

#20 - Jennifer Chang

How often had you sent out The History of Anonymity before it was chosen as a selection for the VQR Poetry Series?

I had been sending it out from 2002 to 2006, though it had only been in its final and current form for the last two years. I never sent to more than a handful of contests (Whitman, Bakeless, Yale, Sarabande, Alice James, and occasionally others if the judge was “appropriate”) and I sent it directly to a few publishers (Graywolf, Wesleyan, California). I think it’s worth it to be both picky and patient: I wanted the best publisher for my book, I wanted to see the book in bookstores, and I didn’t want to rush myself or my poems. (All these wishes, I’m happy to say, came true.) When Ted Genoways, the series editor, contacted me in spring 2007, he told me that it could take several years for the book to come out. I told him that I was in no hurry—what was another three or four years? I’m still shocked and extremely honored that The History of Anonymity was among the books chosen to inaugurate the series.

What was the process like assembling the book? How many different versions did it go through as you were sending it out?

The book was originally dominated by the lyric sequence "A Move to Unction," which had also been the original title. This poem overwhelmed the manuscript and the shorter lyrics somehow couldn’t meet its psychological challenges; they didn’t quite match its tenor or tone. So I struggled through many versions (and writing many more poems) trying to balance “A Move to Unction” and the shorter lyrics.

I’d always thought that the lyric sequence “The History of Anonymity” would be for a second book, but Phillis Levin pointed out to me that it would balance the manuscript out and that it would open all the poems to more a metaphysical inquiry. She was absolutely right. Now “The History of Anonymity” opens (and titles) the book and the short lyrics section act as a fulcrum between it and “A Move to Unction,” which concludes the book.

I left out—threw out!—nearly thirty poems in the process of assembling the book. Many of these exist only in my MFA thesis or are hiding in an “RIP” folder on my hard drive, and I doubt they’ll ever find second lives in any future manuscripts.

How much work did you do as far as editing the poems from the day you knew the book was accepted for publication to the day the book was in its final proofing stage?

I struggled about deciding whether or not to include the poem, “Obedience, or A Lying Tale,” which I’ll discuss in more detail on Brian Brodeur’s wonderful site How a Poem Happens. Ultimately, I kept this poem. I also revised “those who speak most say nothing.” into quatrains; it had been in stanzas of irregular lengths. I thought about leaving this poem out, too. I’ll be first to admit that it doesn’t quite fit—it’s the oldest poem in the book and it’s the only one in the book that I wrote while still in the MFA workshop at UVA. But I kept it in for private, sentimental reasons. I kept it for myself and I’ve never read it in public.

You mentioned a few weeks ago that sometimes it takes you months to write just one poem. Was this the case for most of the book, or just the longer poems and sequences? And are there poems that are written surprisingly quickly after working so hard on certain others?

My poems often emerge from a question that I cannot answer, a question that troubles me into artistic activity. If I write or think slowly, it’s because I’m working through a process of inquiry and discovery takes time. The poems don’t represent resolution or solution, but a measure of time and thought, a meditation in language and music. All this takes time and time is an especially scarce commodity for poets, who can’t make a living from their craft but must work and live in a too-often unpoetic world.

The title poem took years. I was living in San Francisco and I was keeping a journal more assiduously than usual. I was having trouble writing complete poems, so I was gathering ideas, observations, fragments of poetry, found quotations, and questions. That was nearly two years of gathering. Then my husband and I moved to Brooklyn; soon after I was awarded a residency at Djerassi, an artists’ colony in northern California. During my first week in residence, I was able to piece together the fragments into “The History of Anonymity.” I think it helped to leave and then return to that landscape, which had inspired the fragments in the first place. I had known that many of them had been of a piece, but I hadn’t known how to construct them into a coherent poem, though the poem ultimately resists coherence.

Drafts of the short lyrics generally do take less time, but I can be a very obsessive reviser. For example, I wrote “Pastoral” very quickly for a workshop at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, but then spent months revising and refining it to its final form. Granted, I don’t revise a poem day after day—I need to let the draft rest, to allow myself distance from it—so I’d come back to it whenever I was between poems or particularly troubled by a draft’s unfinishedness. More important, even though I love and need to write, it’s not always easy for me to write, so I’m also writing against inevitable obstacles (self-doubt; conceptual, linguistic, and emotional difficulties; life’s ten thousand distractions; etc.) that make me not want to write. Nothing makes me want to write less than a bad writing day. Oddly enough, “Apologia pro Vita Sua,” though a longer poem than “Pastoral,” took a morning and afternoon to write because I was, in a sense, ripe for that poem. I needed to get through that line of inquiry quickly: I needed to understand a specific loss, which at that time felt too strong to ignore. That’s a sad poem, but it was a good writing day.

What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?

I’m a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Virginia. I remember coming home from a stressful day at school—I was doing coursework and teaching—and finding a small package on my doormat. I had no idea what it was. I opened it: it was a single copy of my book. It was mid-January. The book wasn’t supposed to come out until April and I hadn’t heard from the publisher since turning in my final proofs. I was not expecting the book at all. I was so stressed out from school—I was working on a monstrous essay on Yeats that was overdue and that I couldn’t finish—and seeing the book somehow stressed me out more. I felt utterly nauseous. I slipped it into a stack of papers in my office. This sounds crazy unless you understand how frantic balancing coursework and teaching can be, but I kept forgetting about the book and then I’d stumbled upon it in that stack of papers and I’d feel nauseous all over again. Of course, I was very happy about the book, but at the time I was more terrified that I’d never finish that Yeats essay. (I finally did two months later.)

Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover? Or were you offered choices?

I had suggested the spring painting from Cy Twombly’s Quattro Stagione (Four Seasons). I wanted an abstract representation of nature. They did a version of Primavera, but it didn’t look right. We didn’t even discuss it—I think we all knew it wasn’t right—and days later they gave me three new cover choices. All of them were marvelous and demonstrated how sensitively the designers had read the book. I hadn’t expected this. It was humbling and, at the same time, deeply satisfying—to be read and “seen” as I’d hoped to be. It further affirmed the rightness of the VQR Poetry Series for The History of Anonymity. I love the cover. I think it perfectly captures the mythical and philosophical inflections of the poems. And I love that it’s an actual place. It’s a photograph of a beach in Iceland. My husband found this out after some Internet sleuthing.

Before the day you ripped open that box and saw your book for the first time, did you imagine that your life would change because of it?

No. I mostly hoped it wouldn’t give me a big head or embarrass me or my family.

How has your life been different since your book came out? Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?

I have a lot more Facebook friends. (Like you!)

Poets whom I admire have told me they admired my book. That was a big surprise. I got a really thoughtful review by Shara Lessley in Gulf Coast and another one by Kristina Marie Darling in Boston Review, both of these surprised me. I don’t know either of these women, but it means a lot to me to have such intelligent and insightful readers and, as an occasional reviewer, I know how much work can go into even the shortest review, making their particular attention all the more meaningful.

I didn’t expect anything to happen, so any attention has been lovely and surprising.

What have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?

I lucked out. I did very little on my own, but many opportunities opened up and many generous friends helped out or invited me to read and I said “yes” to all that I could fit into my schedule. University of Georgia Press and VQR organized a book signing at AWP in NYC and readings in NYC and VA. Joseph Legaspi, whose first book Imago came out a few months before mine, asked me, and other Asian American poets with recent books, to read with him at NYU. Matthew Ohlzmann asked Gaby Calvocoressi to read at the Inside Out Literary Arts Project in Detroit and she asked him if I could read with her. The excellent Ed Skoog invited me and my friend and series mate, Cecily Parks, to read at Idyllwild Arts Academy in southern California, and then her friends Lytton Smith and Tom Haushalter helped us arrange a mini-tour from LA to SF. That was fun—we rented a hybrid SUV and Cecily drove up some steep cliffs as I held my breath. My husband, Aaron Baker, whose book Mission Work was published at the same time, was asked to read at Malaprops Bookstore in Asheville, NC and he suggested me as a co-reader. (I don’t mean to name-drop; I’m just trying to give credit to instrumental generosities.) As I said, I lucked out, mostly because many friends, with whom I’d agonized over manuscripts and lost contests for years, got their books taken around the same time as mine. It was a year of celebration, of visits and travels with friends I’d grown up with in poetry. I had at least one reading a month in 2008, the year my book came out, and nearly every reading derived from one of these friendships. Nearly every reading began as an opportunity to meet up with a good friend. This made the readings especially happy occasions.

What advice did you get before your first book came out?

The best advice I got was from Timothy Donnelly. I knew him through writing for Boston Review, though I had never really met or talked to him in person. A couple months after my book was taken, I ran into him in New York and he told me to enjoy the time before the book came out. He said it very eloquently and poignantly, which I can’t approximate though I remember being startled into attentiveness. He said that to be “about to be a first-book poet” was ephemeral and precious and that it was an excitement for the unknown that I wouldn’t experience again. He advised me to be mindful. I’ve butchered what he said, but it made a profound impression on me. He was right. That was a great time, and following his advice, I’d often pause and reflect on the moment and become filled with gratitude and excitement for what I did not yet have or know. If I hadn’t gotten that advice I would’ve wasted a lot of time stressing out about unwritten essays and unpaid bills.

But before I knew the book would ever come out, the advice that I gave myself, the advice I give to everyone, is to be patient. No one likes to hear this—often I didn’t/don’t like to hear this—but art takes time, poems take time, and nothing matters as much as the work itself. I realize that everyone knows this, but it can be so excruciatingly hard to be patient in the face of rejection and in the brouhaha that is “po-biz.” All that stuff is nerve-racking, but it’s also entirely circumstantial. One’s first book of poems should be worthy of one’s love of poetry, and, in my opinion, that can’t be rushed.

Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?


Jennifer Chang, author of The History of Anonymity, has published poems in A Public Space, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and Poetry Daily. Her book reviews have appeared in The Believer, Boston Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review, and she’s received recent fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and Virginia Commission for the Arts. A Ph.D. candidate in English at UVA, she is writing a dissertation on race and the modernist pastoral.