Where Craft and Mystery Intersect: Meet Victoria Chang, Bourne Chair in Poetry
Victoria Chang, Georgia Tech’s new Margaret T. and Henry C. Bourne Jr. Chair in Poetry and director of Poetry@Tech, thinks that poets and engineers have a lot in common. Science, technology, engineering, and math rely on the same confluence of creativity, innovation, knowledge, and precision artists and poets use.
“Poetry is organized disorder, or disorderly organization. It requires organized thinking,” said Chang. “It’s a technical craft that comes from who-knows-where — this amazing combination of pattern, mystery, the unknown, and the unsayable.”
Chang, who began her role on Aug. 1, would certainly know. The first woman or Asian American to hold the Bourne Chair, she is an esteemed poet and award-winning author. She has won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Poetry, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetryand the Chowdhury International Prize in Literature. She also has received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her forthcoming book, With My Back to the World, will be published in 2024, joining six books of poems, a work of creative nonfiction, two children’s books, and an edited anthology in her oeuvre.
Teaching Poetry at Tech
Victoria Chang will begin teaching Georgia Tech students in the spring, and she is eagerly anticipating working with them.
“I love a creative classroom,” she added. “I love the questions of pedagogy: How do you get people to love poetry? How do you help them understand the craft of poetry, as well as its mysteries?”
Those mysteries, Chang says, are what make poetry and art necessary — not only as part of an education but as part of the human experience.
“Art comes from the soul, from that individual, unique world that’s inside all of us,” she said. “It can be transformative, as a form of expression and perception, and you don’t have to be a poet or an artist to benefit. If my students can carry that spirit of poetry — that kind of soul work — into whatever they do, it will be very valuable.”
Rebuilding Community with an in-Person Reading Series
As the new director of Poetry@Tech, Chang will be working with Associate Director Travis Denton to return the program’s prestigious reading series — which has been held online since the beginning of the pandemic — to an in-person format.
“We hope to bring people back into a physical space where poetry is centered,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity here to reinvigorate and rebuild our sense of community.”
“Travis has planned almost the full reading series for the year,” she added. “He’s a great colleague, and I’m happy to help him finish planning it. I look forward to supporting and collaborating with him to make this happen.”
A Poet at Home with Engineering and Mathematics
Chang said she learned early in life that creativity and artistic ability are natural companions to technical expertise and discipline. Her father, a mechanical engineer, and her mother, a mathematics teacher, were both artistic and creative.
“Technical students feel familiar to me. They make sense to me,” she said. “Georgia Tech and the Bourne Chair in Poetry just felt right to me.”
Margaret and Henry Bourne, the benefactors who endowed Chang’s position, wanted to ensure Georgia Tech students would always have the opportunity to learn about poetry. Henry Bourne, a prominent electrical engineering professor, considered instruction in poetry and the humanities an especially important investment in the growth and development of students in highly technical fields.
Victoria Chang’s Poetry: Soul Work
Chang does not speak about poetry as “soul work” in the abstract. Her acclaimed book OBIT, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and a Time Must-Read Book, among numerous honors, is an exploration of grief following the loss of her mother to pulmonary fibrosis and her father to dementia.
“I wanted to see if I could describe something that seemed so ineffable,” she said. “I kept trying, refracting grief, turning it around and around. I finally realized that maybe you can’t describe it, but you can get close. Poetry can get closer than anything else in the world.”
In her poetry, Chang often explores larger themes through the lens of her own life experience. Her work tackles power and politics, family life, ethnic and personal identity, prejudice and sexism, and more in precise, measured form.
She also finds inspiration in artworks ranging from the stark realism of Edward Hopper’s paintings to conceptual artworks by On Kawara to abstract pieces by Agnes Martin. Her interests, she said, have developed and changed over the years.
“I write about my own perception of the world at any point in time,” she said. “And it’s very much shaped by the life that I lead. That evolution of mind, of perception, means that we’re growing and changing, as we should. That’s life, I think, in a nutshell.”