OBIT cover

Obituary Poems Win Awards and Recognition for MFA Chair Victoria Chang

The release day of a book—usually following years of writing and a protracted publication timeline—is a momentous occasion for any writer. This is why these events are often marked by readings, launch parties, and book signings. That is, unless the book was released during the COVID-19 pandemic’s early lockdown. That’s the world that greeted Victoria Chang’s latest poetry book, OBIT, which had the inauspicious release date of April 7, 2020. But in some ways it was perfect that OBIT, a book exploring grief, came out at the beginning of a year marked by collective grieving. And it seems that the literary world needed Chang’s poems, too: the book won or was a finalist for many of the most prestigious awards in American letters.

OBIT was written in the wake of the death of Chang’s mother and the cognitive decline of her father. Chang, who serves as the chair of the MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch Los Angeles, chose to write most of these poems in the reimagined form of the narrow-column newspaper obituary. In these poetic obituaries, she writes about the end of “Language,” “My Mother’s Teeth,” “Optimism,” “The Blue Dress,” “My Mother’s Lungs,” and many other things rarely framed as sites of grief. One poem memorably begins, “Victoria Chang—died unknowingly on June 24, 2009 on the I-405 freeway. Born in the Motor City, it is fitting she died on a freeway.” The poem is ultimately about a metaphorical death: the moment she learned about her father’s stroke, which took away his ability to speak.

Across these poems, Chang explores themes of caregiving, death, declines in the health of parents, and cultural constructions of family. OBIT’s familiar form allows the reader to sit with Chang’s grief over both her mother’s death and her father’s changing mental landscape. At turns wry and tender, elegiac without being overly sentimental, and always aware of social inequities, the book does the work of the best poetry: transforming abstraction into the tangible, through the concrete details of life.

Awards, Accolades, and A Receptive Public

With OBIT’s publication, the literary community took note. OBIT won the PEN Voelcker Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. It was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize. And it was named a TIME Magazine Book of the Year, a New York Times 100 Notable Books selection, and one of NPR’s Best Books of 2020. It was also longlisted for the National Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The breadth of these awards speaks to both the literary strength and the broad appeal of OBIT.

For Chang, part of what has been most satisfying is being recognized by her fellow poets. “To be recognized by peers, a group of discerning, demanding, smart readers, is always an honor and a privilege,” she says. The Anisfield-Wolf award was judged by the poet Rita Dove, and hearing how much she liked OBIT “was really special,” says Chang. “And the LA Times Book Prize is always a big honor because of its reach. So many people contacted me from around the world after I received that award.”

Chang also has fans closer to home—in the MFA program at Antioch Los Angeles. “Victoria has been…characteristically humble in her reaction to her many well-deserved accolades,” says Lisa Locascio, the other Core Faculty of the MFA, who works with Chang, two Program Coordinators, and a Program Assistant to run the program. Locascio emphasizes that Chang has been “insightful about the surprising, contradictory emotional experience of being in the spotlight.”

For Chang, the emotional experience of having a book be so warmly received has been, she writes, “a bit intense!” She explains that it “has been really overwhelming to see how people have welcomed that book into their lives. I get a lot of personal messages and emails from people telling me how much the book means to them.”

Cultivating Literary Citizenship

“Going from the private to the public as a writer is always anxiety-inducing,” says Chang. But this is heightened with OBIT, her fifth poetry collection but the first to be so widely acknowledged. “I couldn’t have imagined the kind of reception the book has received,” says Chang. “I sense it’s a kind of once-in-a-lifetime thing, so I try and enjoy the positive aspects of it, but it can be really overwhelming and scary.”

Between her career as a writer and her work designing, directing, and teaching in the rigorous Antioch MFA, Chang’s workday usually begins at 7 am, and she often doesn’t stop until 10 pm. Part of what keeps her going is a deep commitment to literary citizenship—the idea that writers should not just write but should also create community, help each other to thrive, and make the field more just. Chang regularly spends time writing blurbs for writers, students, and even strangers, planning craft talks, and jurying prizes. She once described literary citizenship as her poetics.

Part of literary citizenship is giving readings and connecting with emerging writers. Although Chang couldn’t meet readers in person during the pandemic, the cultural shift to connecting online opened up other opportunities. Chang has continued her goal of cultivating generous literary citizens through the Antioch MFA program. Thanks to her deep connections across the literary world, together with her growing renown, Chang has been able to attract some of the most prominent contemporary writers to work at Antioch as guest teachers and mentors.

In all of this, Chang keeps her principles at the forefront of her work. “Victoria doesn’t do anything, doesn’t sign off on anything, doesn’t stay silent on anything, or say anything that doesn’t align with her values of inclusion, excellence, and as we say in the MFA program, community over competition,” explains her colleague Locascio. “Victoria is one of a kind.”

Says Chang, “I often find myself putting my all into anything I do, then loving that thing more than the last thing.” In a vibrant literary career so far, that has meant so much more than just writing. Today, Antioch is lucky to have Chang leading its MFA program with a strong sense of mission and enthusiasm. And readers are lucky to have this book, OBIT, a guide to grief in a time of loss.

As to what’s next, Chang says she loves to work and considers the opportunities she’s had to be both a privilege and a gift—and at the same time she is ready for a proper vacation. She has one scheduled for the end of the year.

But first? She has another book coming out. This one, titled Dear Memory, is due out in October from Milkweed Editions. A hybrid work, it incorporates collage with the form of the letter. Chang’s readers can’t wait.

Mair Allen is an MFA candidate in Poetry at Antioch University, Los Angeles. They live in a little house, with a big cat, in Minneapolis, MN.

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