In the first lines of poet Victoria Chang’s latest collection, With My Back to the World, she declares, “This year I turned my back to the world.” Chang’s impulse emulates the practice of abstract painter Agnes Martin, who sought artistic inspiration by closing herself off to the causes and concerns of the world. Martin would sit alone in her studio, emptying her mind while waiting for a vision of her next painting to appear. Chang elaborates on the cost of isolation in this titular poem: “I let language face / the front. The parting felt like a death.”

Chang is no stranger to writing through grief. Many of her recent works such as, “The Trees Witness Everything,” “OBIT,” “Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief,” “Barbie Chang,” and “The Boss,” reflect on the grieving process, especially around her parents’ aging, illnesses, and deaths. In With My Back to the World, most of the poems are ekphrastic studies, a form of writing that vividly describes pieces of art. They are resounding interactions between poet and painter. Chang’s distress not only permeates the scored rectangles of Agnes Martin’s canvas, but bleeds along its edges to saturate every poem. Chang’s signature word play and repetition are present, but their circuitous associations detail her self-defined depression. Where Martin famously turned her back to the world to channel happiness or beauty in her paintings, Chang embraces art as a means of investigating her unhappiness. In “Untitled #10, 1990” Chang writes, “In the / midst of depression, there is even a difference between I and me. / Tears never come out, but drip within the body.”

Born in Detroit, Chang was raised by her Taiwanese parents. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Asian Studies, as well as an MBA from Stanford Business School. She also has an MFA in poetry from the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as numerous literary awards, she currently serves as the Bourne Chair in Poetry at Georgia Tech and as the Director of Poetry@Tech. Chang has written six previous books of poetry, where in addition to the grieving process, she examined popular culture icons, literature, film, and the paintings of Edward Hopper.

Chang originally responded to a painting of Martin’s through the Museum of Modern Art’s Poetry Project, when they requested she write a poem about any artwork in their collection. “I decided to pick an Agnes Martin piece because I was too overwhelmed by their huge catalog of art, and I had read her Writings years ago,” Chang said during an interview with The Oxonian Review. (Feb. 21, 2022) “After writing that poem, maybe a year later, I read it aloud for the first time at a reading, and there was something about reading it aloud that activated something inside me and I went home and started studying her paintings and reading everything I could about her. I wrote another poem, then another and another, and one day I looked up and I had written about 50 pages.” Chang’s ekphrastic engagement may be influenced by Martin’s visual depictions of innocence or happiness, but many of the poems express sadness and despair, confusion and futility. In “On a Clear Day, 1973,” Chang truncates the poem’s lines into short couplets forming columns down the page, emulating Martin’s signature gridwork. Each couplet is an open box, incomplete on its own, dependent upon the whole to tell Chang’s story. The day is clear, but the view afforded to Chang’s speaker remains disjointed and compartmentalized. “I keep counting / grids. / But no / matter how / I try, I still / get / 6 dead / Asian women who / don’t fit into / 48 boxes.” The number of rectangles in Martin’s painting can be counted, but death cannot be reconciled as Chang reflects on the March 2021 murder of eight people in Atlanta, which included six Asian women. Chang’s speaker concludes “That / lines are / not meant / to hold in / our emptiness.”

Chang’s instinct to contain her emotions within Martin’s gridlines is not unusual. Utilizing formal poetic structures such as the sonnet, the tanka, and the epistle, Chang’s books demonstrate a mastery of focus, even if their initial conception may feel foggy to the poet. “I don’t think I’m looking for containers before I start writing, but perhaps querying the work to see what the work might desire, and sometimes that seems to be a container,” she mentions during an email exchange. “I think my mind tends to spill easily. It’s sometimes hard for me to focus so on occasion, I think that even having a light sketch of something to hold my thoughts in can be helpful.” 

That sketch resonates with local poet, memoirist and ceramicist, Jane Wong, who will speak with Chang as part of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Poetry Series on April 2 at Rainier Arts Center. “In playing with patterns and rituals to alter poems, such as thin black brush strokes that resemble trees in ‘The Trees, 1964,’ Victoria embodies how depression makes its way deep in the body: ‘If I turn the canvas on its side, the lines look like my depression stacking.’ This book opens more questions than it answers, which art does for me, and I’m grateful I get to touch these lingering pages.”

Chang elaborates on her multi-level interaction with Martin’s paintings: “I think I had a desire to draw, to make marks of a different kind with my hand. I sometimes can’t get at a thing with writing, through language, and then I turn to something else…It’s a form of deep engagement with the act of moving my hands, which can take my mind off of all the stressors of life.” Her drawn embellishments to some of the poems invite readers to visualize not only Chang’s reinforcement of the containers Martin inspired, but of her transformation within those layers as she sought relief. Chang populates the form of a painting with her own words, then draws lines over them that can be interpreted as visual placeholders for her grief. The final product is a multi-layered, complicated canvas where grief drawn onto a preconceived happiness illuminates a marked, nuanced expression of both, giving way to a reanimated artistry. “It sounds ridiculous to say, but my engagements with Agnes Martin’s work saved me,” wrote Chang. “I think that’s the power of art. Art can literally and metaphorically save people.”

Seattle Arts & Lectures presents a talk by poet Victoria Chang on Tuesday, April 2, 2024 at 7:30 pm (PST) at Rainier Arts Center at 3515 South Alaska Street in Seattle. In-person and online. For details, call 206-621-2230 or go to lectures.org.

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