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Victoria Chang shares her favorite #NPRPoetry submissions

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now it's time for one of our favorite things - poetry. April is National Poetry Month, and to celebrate, we've been inviting you to submit your original poems via Twitter and TikTok using the #NPRPoetry hashtag. Of course, we love to read them, and we hope you love to read them. And we also invite an accomplished poet to come and select a few of the entries to share some that stood out to them. Today we've called upon Victoria Chang. She teaches creative writing at Antioch University in Los Angeles. Her latest poetry collection is called "Obit." Victoria Chang, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

VICTORIA CHANG: Oh, thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Before we dive into the poems, can we find out some more about you? Do you remember when you started writing poetry and why?

CHANG: Sure. I started writing poetry in first grade and second grade during elementary school when there were - in a public elementary school in Michigan. And they had these little poetry contests for all the little kids. And that's pretty much my first introduction to poetry.

MARTIN: That's amazing. You were a poetry prodigy. What attracted you to the form?

CHANG: You know, I didn't really know that poetry was a thing because, you know, my parents were immigrants. And so it's not like they were speaking in English at home. And it just wasn't a part of our culture in our house. And so when the teachers introduced us to poems, it just occurred to me that that's how I viewed the world, was through images.

MARTIN: Your last collection of poems addresses something that's very much not for second-graders, but it addresses themes of memory and family. It's called "Obit." I have to say, I found it exquisite and excruciating and so true and so real. You wrote it after your mother died. And I was just wondering if I could ask, how did the idea of writing about this in this way come to you?

CHANG: Sure. Yeah. So the poems are shaped like obituaries in a newspaper. And I really resisted writing a traditional elegy because everyone else in my mind had done it better - you know, Whitman and all the old elegies, Milton. I just didn't feel like I could do anything justice - like, my mother justice. And then I was listening to NPR, interestingly, and they were talking about the documentary "Obit" and about obituary writers. It was about - you know, they were just talking about the film. And that word was just so - it resonated with me, the long O and the sharp T at the end. And it just occurred to me that everything dies when someone you love dies. And then I started writing these poems that were shaped like obituaries, where logic dies. Optimism die. I die. You know, friendships die. So that's sort of how they came about.

MARTIN: Hmm. It's really lovely. Just - one called "Language." (Reading) Language died again on August 3, 2015, at 7:09 a.m. It just - it's so piercing. And I was thinking that "Obit" came out in spring of 2020, so it was written before the pandemic, when so many people have experienced grief, in some cases - in many cases - in ways that they never expected. And I wondered, did that time change anything about how you thought about poetry and writing or what writing is for?

CHANG: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I wrote these poems in the midst of the deepest sense of loss that one could experience, which now I discover having, you know, written this book and published this book in 2020, and so many people have contacted me in different ways and told me that it really resonated with their own experiences of loss. And so that really made me think, wow, I've really reached out my hand to touch people in some unknown way. And I wrote it for myself because I was so lonely in my own grief.

You know, I always say that grief is very asynchronous. You don't go through it at exactly the same time as anyone else. And even when you do, you don't feel the same things. And so I wrote it for myself, but to know that it connected with so many people changed my view of the role of poetry and the power of poetry. And then the pandemic came, and that collective grief just blew my mind in terms of how we are - you know, all of us experienced this together during this time. I mean, I've never felt that way before. And my book resonated with people in that way, too, because, you know, I was talking about very personal grief. But then what is personal grief? It's collective grief because we're all feeling the same things because we're human. We're all human.

MARTIN: That's lovely. So let's get into some of the poems. Why don't you start us - start us off with a Twitter poem.

CHANG: Sure. I'll just start with this one by @j_edney, and it's called "Early Spring." And it's a haiku, which is five, seven, five syllables.

(Reading) Through the crusty snow, crocus thrust vivid banners, urging spring forward.

MARTIN: Tell us why you picked this one.

CHANG: Oh, I just love that second line, crocus thrust vivid banners. And what I look for in poems is always a sense of strangeness or surprise. And that word, banners, is just this kind of injection of unusual language in a poem that's about nature. And so that really is the reason why I selected that poem.

MARTIN: I love it, too. I love that you picked it because it reminded me of, like, teenagers, basically. Like, we're out. We're out. We're out. You know how they - the minute they can - we're out.

CHANG: Here I am. Look at me (laughter).

MARTIN: Here I am, right? All right. Here's one from TikTok that you picked out. We'll play it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Talking to pages. The things I never tell you, I avoid telling myself. Shroud them in pages, of observations, of things in view from afar.

MARTIN: OK. Wow. OK. What stood out to you about this one besides that amazing voice?

CHANG: Yeah. (Laughter) Yeah. I mean, I feel like there's tension in this poem. Like, there's, like - the title's "Talking To Pages." So it's like, yes, I'm talking, but then the first line is, the things I never tell you, I avoid telling myself. And then there's hiding - shroud them in pages of observations. And then there's distance - of things I can view from afar. So this one's a little bit, I think, more complex than some of the other ones. It's a little bit longer. But there's this feeling of speaking, observing, not speaking, seeing things from far away. And there's that feeling of a sense of confusion and loss. And so I like that kind of mystery in that poem.

MARTIN: You know what I like about it journalistically? - because it's so true. You know what I mean? Speaking as a journalist, like, yeah, that sounds right.

Well, thanks for playing. We sure appreciate that you spent this time with these submissions and gave it such care. You teach poetry at the college level, so I wanted to ask, for people who might want to try this and might be a little shy about getting started or if they already write, taking their writing to the next level. Do you have some advice?

CHANG: Yeah. I think reading as much as you can and not just sort of reading the things you learn in high school. But there's so much vibrant poetry being posted on social media, both old poems and then also contemporary poems on Twitter and Instagram, in particular, and TikTok even now. And so, you know, once you kind of get into those communities, you'll see people posting poems all the time. And I actually post poems almost every day, too. And so I think it's just a great way to read what other people are posting. And that's the perfect way to learn.

MARTIN: That was poet Victoria Chang. Her latest book is "Dear Memory: Letters On Writing, Silence, And Grief." Victoria Chang, thank you so much for joining us. It's really been a delight.

CHANG: Yes. Same here. I enjoyed it.

MARTIN: And if you'd like to participate in our celebration of Poetry Month, you can post your original 15-second poem to TikTok with the hashtag #NPRPoetry. Please remember to keep it radio-friendly and 15 seconds or less. Of course, we are also still doing the original Twitter poems. You can tweet those at @npratc, also with the #NPRPoetry hashtag. The original Twitter rule still applies, so poems must be 140 characters or less. Next weekend - it's last weekend in April, so we will have one final poet join us on the air to talk about some of the submissions that caught their eye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.