An Art That Has ‘Always Been Here’

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Victoria Chang is the editor of The New York Times Magazine’s poetry column, a position that has rotated yearly since 2015. She has also published several volumes of her own prose and poetry, most recently “The Trees Witness Everything,” in which she employs waka, a Japanese syllabic form. In a phone interview from Los Angeles, where she teaches in Antioch University’s M.F.A. program, Ms. Chang spoke about the purposes art serves, how poetry became a force in her life and how she considers her weekly selections for the magazine. “You’re kind of building an anthology,” she said. This conversation has been edited.

You publish one poem a week in the magazine. Are you building something that you hope will feel whole at the end of your yearlong term?

I have a plan in mind, and I also pivot accordingly. When I first came on, I built a spreadsheet with every poem and every poet that had been published since the beginning of The New York Times Magazine poetry. One of the first things I wanted to do was showcase some of the smaller presses that are a big part of the poetry ecosystem.

I really wanted to showcase lesser known, fabulous poets. I’m trying to find great Native poets and women poets to publish. I’m thinking about representation a little more broadly. All the editors have done such a great job in the past; I just want to widen it a little more.

You wrote in your introduction to a poem that you had found it on Twitter. How often do you come across poems on social media?

I think Twitter is rich in terms of poetry and community. It is really an interesting tension, because the whole point of Twitter is it’s rapidity, right? It’s so fast moving. But a poem on Twitter really does make you stop and slow down. That’s a beautiful thing. Poetry has really flourished on Twitter and Instagram, and they bring poetry to a younger generation of readers in a different way. Any way to get poetry read by more people, in any form — I’m OK with that.

What kind of reader do you have in mind when you write your introductions?

I think of The New York Times Magazine as a great place for people who like to read. They’re intellectually curious. I imagine them sitting with their coffee, with the magazine in hand, or maybe reading it online. I imagine them being interested in lots of things, but maybe they have not read a ton of poetry. I feel an obligation to explain some things about the poem that may not be obvious to them. I feel that I can unpack the poem in a way that could give someone an entry into it.

You use form several ways as a writer. How do you use it as an editor?

I’m always looking at how poems look on a page, and all the formal elements. For the magazine, I only have around 30 lines, give or take. So I am picking shorter poems — that is the first challenge. The second challenge is that it’s really hard to format poems in the magazine. In poetry, every word matters; every space matters; every line break matters, whether it’s one or two returns. We want to make sure that we follow exactly what the poet’s intention was.

Do you think about poetry’s place in American life? Does it matter?

I think it’s always been here. And to me, that answers the question. I think that poetry can capture and represent our deepest emotions in ways that I don’t feel like anything else can. Music has its own way of doing that as well. Music and poetry are related. Poetry, in my mind, is related to visual art, but also philosophy and history.

All this is here because we’re deeper than we seem. We each are an endless, deep well. I think it’s only the arts that can recognize or manifest emotions that for the most part are hidden.

When did poetry become important to you?

I started writing when I was in elementary school, because the teachers made us. In high school I had great English teachers, and had to memorize Emily Dickinson and read Shakespeare. In college, I still didn’t know it was a thing you could do. My parents were immigrants, and we had practical things like encyclopedias, books as information dissemination. My parents had to survive, so I didn’t know you could be a poet or writer. I was told to go make sure I could feed myself. Poetry wasn’t the way in which one could usually do that. It took me a while, but after I figured out ways to feed myself, I gave myself permission to focus more on poetry.