In Class With Professor Victoria Chang of Antioch University Los Angeles
A primary mission of Frontier is to provide high quality resources and practical help for serious poets—so we’ve been reaching out to poetry professors to help give clarity to this strange journey and stranger craft. This month, we got the chance to hear from Victoria Chang, Program Chair of Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles.
What features do you believe define contemporary poetry today?
Victoria Chang: I really try not to define contemporary poetry in all honesty. But what I will say is that there’s a lot happening and it’s exciting to open each book or begin each poem with hope. I read a lot of books and poems and I can say with all honesty, that reading is the most hopeful experience. I personally also believe literature has opened up a bit and that is something I never thought I would see in my lifetime and that makes me happy to think about. There’s also a lot of noise everywhere all the time but I try and focus on the writing and always remember why I love writing so much.
What are the most common pitfalls you see students falling into as beginner writers?
I think every student might have a different set of challenges. Some people start very “advanced”–so much talent right away. Other students start at an earlier level of development. I try not to rule out anyone too early because you just never know how a writer might develop. People with clear early talent can fall harder. People who start at an earlier level have so much growth potential.
Cliched language is obviously a big one. Not having enough ambition for the thinking in the poem. Not having enough ambition for the poem itself. I’m always eager to think about what’s not in the poem–the possibilities of the poem as currently unfulfilled. I see a lot of writers transcribing their life experiences. I think of writing as creating a separate piece of art from the actual experience. The biggest “pitfall” though is not reading or not reading enough. All you have to do is to read some contemporary poetry and you’ll learn from that experience. I can often tell who hasn’t read enough. You can see it in their poems. I can also tell who hasn’t read a lot of historical poems. They think they’re writing something so clever, but Eliot’s already done that or Rilke or Stevens or Bishop, etc.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
I literally give different advice to different students. Every person is so unique and a lot of the writing advice ends up not being “writing” advice if that makes sense. I think some of the most valuable advice teachers can give students is about the student’s once we get to know them better. Some things I’ve said or heard other teachers say is, “why haven’t you written about that?” “Why are you avoiding that material?” “What are you afraid of?” So perhaps it’s more personal advice. I also think telling students what you think they might like to read is super useful.
What poets are you teaching this semester?
I give different reading lists to different students based on their work. Incidentally, I’m not teaching this semester at Antioch since we’re short-staffed administratively. But I always assign craft books and also essays on poetry. For books, I often pull the latest Publisher’s Weekly seasonal poetry guide online and allow students to select books off of that list so they can write reviews as well. Then I sprinkle in “older” books. One of my friends, Wayne Miller and I were recently talking about how we don’t teach anthologies anymore and how that is a disservice to students and it occurred to me that just teaching single books of poems might limit the scope of what poets read so I might start teaching an anthology as part of my own personal curriculum too.
What’s the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?
Breakthroughs! I love seeing how students progress and when they have either a breakthrough in terms of thinking and/or breakthroughs in their writing. I’ve seen it happen again and again and I can feel it, they can feel it, it’s tangible. It’s so gratifying when this happens that it feels like one big hi-five. It’s also gratifying to see students fall even deeper in love with a poem or with poetry in general. I’ve seen that happen again and again too. This is soul work we do and teaching can sometimes feel like the antithesis of soul work so I try really hard to remember how much I love poems and to try and convey that love through teaching.
What book of poetry / craft would you always recommend to new poets?
It largely depends on where I think they “are” as a writer. I have a whole stack of favorites. But at the very beginner level, Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux’s The Poet’s Companion is a classic. Once I ran into Kim at a reading and I asked about updating the poems in there because some are quite old, but she mentioned that permissions is an issue. Still, I still love the actual prose about poetry. It’s the perfect combination of craft and soul. I also love reading essays about poetry. Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey is a favorite. Craig Morgan Teicher’s We Begin in Gladness is good. Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry? is also very good. I could probably mention a dozen more.
Victoria Chang’s new book of poetry, OBIT, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in April 2020. Her most recent book, 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 has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacDowell Fellowship, a Sustainable Arts Foundation Fellowship, a Poetry Society of America Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, a Pushcart, and many other awards. 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 NYT Notable Book. Her middle grade verse novel, Love Love is forthcoming by Sterling Publishing in Spring 2020.
She lives in Los Angeles with her family and her weiner dogs, Mustard and Ketchup. She works with a team to run Antioch University’s MFA Program, as well as co-coordinates the Idyllwild Writers Week. She also serves on the National Book Critics Circle Board.
She graduated from the University of Michigan, Harvard, Stanford (MBA), and Warren Wilson (MFA).
More information on the Guggenheim Fellowship page.