Poet Victoria Change speaks to students in a writing session.

Poet Victoria Chang led a Craft Talk for Amherst students as part of LitFest 2023.

“I write as one who walks on the surface of a frozen river beginning to melt.”

That’s what one student read aloud at the craft talk given by Victoria Chang, as a light snow fell outside, four-squared by the windowpanes in room 207 in Converse Hall. Chang is a poet and writer whose works include The Trees Witness Everything, named one of The New Yorker’s Best Books of 2022 and Obit, a New York Times Notable Book from 2020.

She warmed up by asking the 28 students, sitting here in a wide circle, to read aloud in turn the essay “Why I Write,” by Terry Tempest Williams, which delivered the quotation above. “I brought this in because writing can be very difficult,” said Chang of the essay. “Life can be difficult, too. Writing can be challenging at any point of time in one’s life.”

And then the students read, one by one, as if passing words to each other. “I write because it allows me to confront that which I do not know,” read one. “I write past the embarrassment of exposure,” read another.

Chang smiled when the room finally fell silent. “Y’all did such a good job,” she said. “Did you see how we felt each other’s presence?” Then she asked the students to take a few minutes to put down why they write, in either verse or prose. Verse won out, no surprise: when Chang asked, earlier, “Who here writes poetry?” nearly every hand shot up.

As the students bent to their task, you could hear the hum of the building, the sound of keyboard clicks and scratchings on paper. Then some volunteered their creations to the group: “I write to do somersaults outside my non-athletic body,” read one student. “I write because I can be defined by words I haven’t tasted yet,” read another. The others finger-snapped in support after each share. 

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“You should be constantly asking yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing or not doing,” said Chang. “Centering yourself. Having that moment of consciousness.”

Then she said, “I’m itching to read some poems!” And she passed out a printout of two praise poems: “Praise House: The New Economy,” by Gabrielle Calvocoressi, and “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,” by Ross Gay. Calvocoressi’s poem is subtitled “after and for Ross Gay.” Said Chang of this interplay: “Those of you who know a lot of poetry know we speak to each other all the time.”

Once again, the students traded off reciting lines and Chang asked what they noticed. The students spoke of how Gay’s short line breaks seem to make the poem tumble, which was apt since it opens thus: “Tumbling through the / city in my / mind without once / looking up…” A student observed how little punctuation marked the poem. Chang noted how the students instinctively recited more slowly when a handful of commas appeared: “the fig tree grows/ in groves it wants, / it seems, to hold us, / yes I am anthropomorphizing…” 

“Line lengths, pacing, punctuation: You are in charge of the poem,” said Chang. “Ask yourself, ‘Where do I want to move more quickly, more slowly?’”

In parsing Calvocoressi’s poem, the students noted the contrast between long lines and short: Such as these: “Also dumplings / filled with steam and soup / so my mouth fills and I bubble / over with laughter. Little things. / People kissing on bicycles.”

“It keeps you on your toes,” said Chang, of the line length dance, and asked the group to categorize the poem. “A list poem,” ventured one student. Chang nodded in agreement: “It’s a kind of catalogue,” she said. “It could be deadening after a while, but she maintains interest really well with that variation.”

And then Chang asked the students to write a praise poem of their own, right now, in 10 lines or so. After a few minutes, as the snow quickened, one student read out loud about her grandmother in the kitchen: “I love sliced dragon fruit, speckled with black seeds. She cuts it into strips and calls it a boat.” Another offered praise, even for difficult things. “I praise the way anger settles in my chest, praise the cold that shook me…Thank God for no more secrets.”

“That was beautiful,” says Chang. “Thank you for thinking, feeling, trying to make something.”

Several students listening to a speaker in a classroom.

And then she took questions, and her responses cited the poet Marianne Moore, the haiku and tanka forms of poetry, the uses of enjambment, and the power of simile and metaphor, the latter of which marks her own work, per this line from Obit: “A door that can’t be opened is called a wall.”

Poets habitually frame the world through metaphor, she said. “I’m always thinking that thing is not that thing—it’s something else. Force yourself to try new things and combine them in interesting ways.” Then she pointed down to the thatched carpet pattern in the room and offered a for instance: “Take this pattern, its bluish blackish tone, but use it to describe someone’s hair.”

When a student asked what advice she had for the young poets in the room, Chang put it this way: “For those of us who really love poetry, it’s just a part of your life, no different than brushing your teeth, or breathing, or drinking water. But life will get in the way. My advice is to let it get in the way. Let your life go on and material will come from what you do.”  

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