Victoria Chang reads “Obit”
Don Share: This is The Poetry Magazine Podcast for the week of July 30th, 2018. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry Magazine.
Christina Pugh: I am Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On The Poetry Magazine Podcast, we listen to a poem or two from the current issue.
Don Share: Victoria Chang is the author of The Boss and Barbie Chang. She also writes children’s books and she teaches at Antioch University.
Lindsay Garbutt: In 2015, when Chang’s mother was dying from a lung disease, her father suffered a stroke and lost his ability to speak.
Victoria Chang: So it was very difficult, while my mom was sort of gradually dying, my dad really couldn’t communicate. There was all this stress happening, and this poem is really about trying to find the right care takers for two people that are really struggling in many ways in terms of their own health, but also in how they communicated or no longer could communicate with each other.
Don Share: Chang wrote nearly 100 poems after her mother died using the newspaper obituary as a kind of poetic form to explore her grief. She told us that she was also influence by Virginia Wolf’s The Waves, and used that book as a source to create a found poem.
Victoria Chang: I think “tomatoes” was a word that just appeared in her text and it just entered in here, and I tried to do that a lot with all of these poems to add that element of surprise.
Lindsay Garbutt: Here’s Victoria Chang, reading “Obit”
Victoria Chang: Caretakers — died in 2009,
2010, 2011, 2012, 2013,
2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, one
after another. One didn’t show
up because her husband was
in prison. Most others
watched the clock. Time
breaks for the living eventually
and they can walk out of doors.
The handle of time’s
door is hot for the dying.
What use is a door if you can’t
exit? A door that can’t be
opened is called a wall. My
father is on the other side of
the wall. Tomatoes are
ripening on the other side. I
can see them through the
window that also can’t be
opened. A window that can’t
be opened is just a see-
through wall. Sometimes we’re
on the inside like a plane.
Most of the time, we’re on the
outside like doggie day care.
I don’t know if the tomatoes are
the new form of his language
or if they’re simply for eating.
I can’t ask him because on the
other side, there are no words.
All I can do is stare at the
nameless bursting tomatoes
and know they have to be
Christina Pugh: So it’s interesting that when Victoria Chang was talking about the poem, she discussed the newspaper obituary and how she had used the block form. The block form here also made me think of a coffin. That inability to get in, get out, and the way the poem negotiates that as it continues with its discussion of, how do you define a door that you can’t exit from? Well, you define it as a wall, and so on, is really reflected in this form. I think that the form in this case really adds to the poignancy of what’s happening; the way that the dying cannot exit.
Lindsay Garbutt: I also thought that the form looked like a door or a wall, the way that its narrowly rectangular. I thought about that central question too …
Victoria Chang: … What use is a door if you can’t / exit? A door that can’t be / opened is called a wall.
Lindsay Garbutt:— as also related to, what use is communication if you can’t respond? For her father, language is insufficient, because there’s no way for him to communicate with the others in his life. So for the writer, what use is language if she can’t communicate this experience of her parents dying and failing to communicate with each other? It’s just so many different doors that this poem attempts to open, or at least define.
Don Share: I have to say that the thing that I liked the most when I first read the poem was the tomatoes. i think part of it is that dilemma, the sort of ripening of the tomatoes feels like a very intimate thing. Families often grow tomatoes, you watch them, they sort of go from nothing really into something very lush and profuse. There’s something about the decline of somebody’s life on the one hand and then this profusion of vegetable growth on the other that is really interesting. I think our heightened senses when we are grieving or pre-grieving or still-grieving is that we look at things that seem ordinary in the world and they look like they have some sort of extra energy. It is almost as if it’s trying to tell us something, but what would it be? Those moments when you realize that when we’re separated from people with any kind of finality, it’s that sort of search for the missing language of it that sort of takes over for a long time. People often hear voices, or they look for signs. So that attentiveness to the languages it informs becomes really acute as this poet is demonstrating.
Christina Pugh: It’s also a really interesting moment if you distance yourself just a slight bit, thinking about something like the philosophy of language —
Victoria Chang: … I don’t know if the tomatoes are / the new form of his language / or if they’re simply for eating.
Christina Pugh:— like the whole idea of can you eat a word? What would things be like if you had a language of things instead of the representation of things? That’s just so simply stated. There’s a kind of directness to it, a kind of simplicity that’s very appealing. In the midst of all of this grief and difficulty and dying, there’s some really interesting thought going on as well.
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah, I love that they are nameless bursting tomatoes. Maybe something about their namelessness is what makes them so full of energy they could burst. I love too the similes she uses earlier in the poem —
Victoria Chang: … Sometimes we’re / on the inside like a plane. / Most of the time, we’re on the / outside like doggie day care.
Lindsay Garbutt: There’s something so silly but kind of moving about the idea of being outside a doggy day care and looking in at the dogs playing around, and feeling so separated from that joy or experience. I can’t remember the last time I read about doggy day care in a poem (LAUGHING), so I just really liked those choices there.
Don Share: You can read “Obit” by Victoria Chang in the July / August 2018 issue of Poetry Magazine, or online at poetryfoundation.org. You can also read the magazine and listen to this podcast on our mobile app. It’s free to subscribers, or if you’re not a subscriber and you really should be one, you can purchase an issue in the app itself. Look for The Poetry Magazine app in the App Store and on Google Play.
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all the episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on SoundCloud.
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Don Share: The Poetry Magazine Podcast is recorded by Ed Herman, and produced by Curtis Fox and Catherine Fennelosa.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.