hobart logo

March 7, 2018 | Interview

Chen Chen Interview

Daniel Pieczkolon

Chen Chen Interview photo

Most of the time, I am skeptical of the notion that a writer can find his or her voice.  I warn my first-year students against believing the maxim because, to me, it presupposes that every writer has a natural proclivity for the craft buried deep within him or herself and frames the writing process as a lottery (and not the yeoman’s work I believe it to be).  To believe that you need to build a voice rather than find one is both a comforting defense against inadequacy and a mantra that welcomes slow and subtle progress.  

I say most of the time because, occasionally, I encounter a writer whose voice is so natural and consistent in its idiosyncrasies that it feels eternal, like it was always inside of them somewhere just waiting to be found.  Chen Chen has that sort of voice.  His emails to me (which you can skip to below if you’re not the type for overwrought introductions) are full of the same characteristics that make his poems so satisfying: the unexpected but precise adjectives, the recursive syntax that opens up rather than reduces the ideas it seeks to communicate, and the unbridled exuberance for life and writing and the ways in which they can shape each other.  Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that Chen hasn’t worked at his craft.  His literary output--as a student, educator, writer, and editor--has been prolific and is a clear indication that he has plowed and tilled his voice.

Chen’s collection, When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List of Further Possibilities, was published by BOA Editions, Ltd. in April of 2017 and was longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Poetry.  Chen was kind enough to discuss his collection and its reception with me via email.   

I'm curious about your decision-making process in curating these poems.  The book is split into three sections, but there are no explicit instructions (or even titular clues) elucidating the distinctions between sections for the reader.  Specific ideas and scenes recur throughout the sections, always returning with a slight change (either in the content of the memory or the language and tone used to express it).  How did you decide to arrange these poems?  Do you see the three sections as comprising a narrative arc?  Or is it less linear than that and more akin to distinct meditations on a theme (or themes)?

The process for organizing this book was long and messy and I don’t know how people keep assembling books, over and over; I felt wiped out after turning in the final version to my publisher. The nice-sounding way to describe my process is “organic.” But it didn’t feel like a plant emerging from the ground after a period of getting comfy in the soil. The process felt like pulling out all my teeth, and then putting them all back in—but in a new, deliberately crooked fashion—and then painting some of them a different color, and then some of them were upside down, too. I don’t know.

The manuscript started out as my MFA thesis, at which stage it had no section breaks. Then I put the poems into four sections and each section had a title. The first section was called “The Least Forgivable English Word,” which is a phrase from my poem “First Light.” The third section was called “Loud as Reykjavik Summer,” which is from my poem “Chapter VIII.” The fourth section was “Are you on your way to work, too?” from “Poplar Street.” I’m blanking on the second section title. Oh wait. It was, I think, “I meant for this to be a love letter,” which is from “To the Guanacos at the Syracuse Zoo.” So, I had some basic sense that I wanted the book to start out as a meditation on language, immigration, and separation (from pasts, parents, “inherited” forms of love). And I wanted the book to move into an investigation of love and a reimagining, a queering of love, which is a form of labor. I made sections and section titles to help myself figure out a more intentional order than what I’d had in my thesis.

At the same time, I remained resistant to the idea of having each section house a discrete “theme.” I wanted the sections to be steps and breaths in the movement of the book, but I didn’t want it to be like “Section 1: childhood, Section 2: adulthood, Section 3: travel, Section 4: miscellaneous.”

Jericho Brown, who picked my book for the Poulin Prize, was very much involved in the editorial process post-acceptance. He suggested three sections and mainly encouraged me to see the second section as the one most directly responding to other texts and works of art (so there are the references to Ginsberg, Kafka, Maxine Hong Kingston, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a photograph by Bert Hardy, a fictional fiction text I dreamt up). I liked Jericho’s idea for the second section because it was still roomy enough to include all sorts of very different poems. I think we both prefer weird juxtaposition and startling connection, rather than a clear or clean-cut “these poems are all about x so that’s the order.”

I also like how sections give you more first and last poems. You get to open and close more doors. Restart. Re-end. Upend. Right now it seems to me that the book goes from love as a fantasy or a yearning (section 1) to love as a learning process (section 2) to love as a conscious act of labor and transformation (section 3). But all forms of love involve dreaming and asking, What else could love mean? How else can love be enacted, embodied?

Jericho pushed me to see this whole book as really about my mother. And it is. Every section circles back to my mother. Every section has at least one poem about the night when I (as a teenager) tried to come out to my mother and she violently rejected me. For a while I didn’t want to be writing a book about my relationship with my mother. I didn’t want it to be as “simple” as that. I was worried about being predictable, too. Like, aren’t there enough first books about someone’s parent? (And I thought I’d already done that in a chapbook.) I’ve come to see how it isn’t simple, though, this obsessive subject; the poems with the most weight and wrench and unresolvable pang are the ones grappling with this mother/son relationship.

Two things that happened at the last minute: Jericho suggested that I change the ending of a longer poem that was in section 1 so that I could move it to section 3. I did this and section 1 (which had been the bane of my existence for a few months) suddenly felt right. The right pace, the right amount of poems, the right emotional ramping up. Then my friend (and wonderful poet!) Jessica Smith suggested that I put the first poem “Self-Portrait as So Much Potential” all on its own, before the first section starts. A sort of welcoming incantation before the full spell. Or, a little door before the other doors can open. I loved this suggestion and I think it was exactly what the book needed. Now that the book is out, I’ve heard from many people about how much they like that first poem. It’s since been reprinted in The New York Times Magazine and on Verse Daily. Someone even told me that they’re having a hard time reading further into the book because they just want to linger with that poem more. A fantastic compliment, but also I’m like, please read the rest, it took me years to put together. 

The Maxine Hong Kingston and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha references both appear in "Talented Human Beings" and, tonally, they are somewhat antagonistic: "Pop Quiz: Who was / Vincent Chin?  Theresa Hak Kyung Cha? // Group Project: Name one book by Maxine Hong Kingston / not titled The Woman Warrior."  Oftentimes, when poems address the whitewashing of the canon--or, more broadly, any progressive issue that champions inclusion--they direct their anger at some third-party entity and, thereby, position the reader on the same side as the poet. The world is so terrible but you and I, intelligent and compassionate reader, we get it.  You directly confront the reader here though.  As a reader unfamiliar with Cha, I felt a useful shame when I encountered these lines.  Of course, the poem then goes on to be self-deprecatingly humorous (as many of your poems are), as well as remarkably empathetic and tender towards unnamed and under-paid Asian sex workers.  This is all a long way to ask you to discuss your relationship to audience.  As you're writing, what are you assuming or not assuming about the reader and how does that shift from poem to poem or, even, line to line?  How did you go about managing the myriad tonal shifts that characterize this collection?  

I wrote “Talented Human Beings” after attending my first Kundiman Writers’ Retreat in 2014. For those who don’t know, Kundiman is an organization dedicated to nurturing and supporting Asian American writers. The retreat was the first time I sat in a room with so many other Asian American writers. And for the first time it occurred to me, in a very real way, that other Asian Americans could be my primary audience. I’d become deeply accustomed to writing for white folks; I could do it, even when my heart didn’t want to. But grad school was so and continues to be so white.

My formal “training” as a writer has, so often, been in the company of white classmates, white professors. I’m used to making things understandable and palatable for a white audience. I’m used to translating and re-translating and explaining and knowing that even when the white professor says “don’t explain, just show it through an image,” they actually still want me to explain because they’re not used to doing the work of figuring it out.

After Kundiman, I was both overjoyed and full of rage. I was happy to have found such a vibrant community outside of my MFA program. And I was angry at my MFA program. I’ve since discovered that PhD land is full of similar issues. Issues like white classmates getting upset when I talk openly about racism. Or white classmates getting uncomfortable when I mention Asian American writers they’ve clearly never heard of. And white professors acting like white graduate students’ discomfort is the worst possible thing. All the while, I’m supposed to understand, automatically, inherently, and gratefully, the work of canonical white writers. My own sense of alienation is supposed to take a seat. I remember one time in a grad class, pointing out how James Wright actually can’t inhabit every viewpoint and some of his poems are flawed for assuming a white speaker can. All the white guys in the class got very upset. They loved James Wright. But more than that, they wanted to believe they could be James Wright: the next big white male lyric poet breaking from blossom and looking at horses and being super duper universal, right? Don’t get me wrong: I dig James Wright. But I loathe the ways in which James Wright is considered “universal” while Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is said to be writing about her “experience.”

This is all to say: I wrote “Talented Human Beings” because I wanted, first, to quiz my white classmates on their knowledge of Asian American writers. Then I realized that I wanted to quiz all white writers, all white readers—do you know who these people are? You should. And then I wanted to, I keep trying to write poems that are very much for Asian Americans. I think of Toni Morrison talking about writing without the white gaze. I think of Toni Morrison’s brilliance and craft and vision and then I want to quit writing. But then I foolishly don’t!

As for the tonal shifts, I don’t know that I “manage” them. I did cut poems from the collection that seemed funny in an uncomplicated way, that were too much of that comical note. I’m more aware, now, after the book, of the kind of tonal range I want in a poem and in a collection, but I don’t think that range can be orchestrated. The range comes from walking around and eating omelets and thinking about transnational gay porn stars and protesting police brutality and grieving the lives and lives lost and back to the desk and trial and error and error.

To continue (and broaden) the discussion of audience a bit, you (along with Sam Herschel Wein) just published the first issue of Underblong.  What made you want to start a literary journal?  What goals do you have in mind for the project?  And what was it like reading through submissions and curating the final product?  Did you find going through the slush pile more of a daunting chore or an inspiring, perhaps even generative, task?

Ahh I’m so glad you’ve asked about Underblong. I wanted to start a literary journal because I wanted to do a fun project with my friend Sam, first of all. Sam is a wonderful poet and also a wonderful reader of poetry. He’s hilarious and tender-hearted and I’m so glad for our friendship. The journal is an extension of our friendship. We have editorial meetings over FaceTime and immediately get into a lot of life-tangents because we love talking to each other. But our conversations specifically about poetry are so important to me. Sam always reminds me that poetry can delight as much as it can devastate. Underblong leans into delight and treats joy, humor, and the ridiculous as serious modes/aspects of poetry. Sam and I want to read and publish poems that renew and expand the conversations we’re having. Poems that feel juicy and tingly and queer with life.

We received so many submissions for our first issue; it was really astonishing and humbling. We felt daunted and inspired by how many submissions—and how many good ones—came our way. Making the final selection was tough. We wanted to showcase aesthetic risks and political moves that we didn’t think were being appreciated enough in the landscape of contemporary poetry. By the way, why is it always a “landscape”? Why not a water slide? A hot air balloon? An underblong?The underblong of contemporary poetry. That’s what we’re trying to do. The first issue features poems that grapple with race, sexuality, and gender in ways both necessary and utterly surprising. These poems make us dream and fall in love, dream and fall out of love with the world as we thought we knew it. I’m so underblongingly excited to continue this journal.

Have you noticed any change in your own work since taking on the task of immersing yourself in the writing of your contemporaries?  Have you identified any trends in contemporary poetry that you’d like to avoid?  Or holes in the landscape (or water slide or hot air balloon or underblong) that you’d like to try to fill?

I’ve become more and more interested in hybrid work, work that explodes/dismantles genre distinctions. I think of Muriel Leung’s recent work in Yes Femmes and Nat. Brut—gorgeously innovative and reminds me how so much exciting writing comes out of a radical openness to the question, “But what if this were to happen?” I’ve also been obsessed with Jennifer S. Cheng’s first book, House A. This book has me completely rethinking what a prose poem can do. What the epistolary form can make, unmake. What a lyric sequence, essayistic dream can unfold. The interiority of the children of Chinese immigrants—I’m so moved by how House A inhabits/invents this internal space, full of water and light and the texture of tables, curtains, words.

I just finished Keegan Lester’s first book, too…of course, the long title makes me swoon: this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was and it was all i had so i drew it. I got to read with Keegan in Dallas. Then I slowly, slowly, climbed into the ocean and football field (football ocean?) of his poems. You know, I never thought I’d love poems about football. Maybe I need to watch Friday Night Lights now. Well, I am writing more prose poems and more essays that are actually poems, or vice versa. I’m excited that I have no idea what kind of centaur/Medusa/narwhal my next book is going to be.

As for trends in contemporary poetry, I guess I’d like to see more tonal range. More funny/wrenching poems, more joyful/uncomfortable poems, more angry/sticky, sexy/sad, electric/sweet, I don’t know. I mean, these poems exist but they could use more recognition and support. The utterly tragic poem has always enjoyed a wide audience. And I love the knockout bow-down sad-forever poem. I just want to see more appreciation for work that complicates the accepted poetic mood. Also more poems about gay sex. That would be lovely.

In When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List Of Further Possibilities, you vary your form quite a bit.  There's a great deal of Whitmanic free verse, but also a number of poems composed in couplets and various works that employ/re-imagine tercet and quatrain.  Generally speaking, do you consider the form before you begin writing or is it something that's imposed during the revision process?  Also, what function do these traditional forms still hold, specifically compared to the more radical and/or experimental forms that you're currently exploring?      

I’m interested in forms that challenge me to use my natural enthusiasm for expansiveness in more controlled ways, in tighter spaces, say. My interest in the sonnet is a prime example of this kind of challenge: to bend and squeeze and wrangle my usual long lines or sentences into fourteen lines, into a container that needs to feel complete, somehow. I like the tension generated by this approach, how my love for maximalist sprawl and Whitmanic yawp has to meet, has to enter into a partnership with the constraints and the ultimate shapeliness of a sonnet. Chaos and order. Traditional stanzas are another, though less demanding, way to create this tension.

As for the more experimental forms, I guess those are times when I want to chuck everything I know out the window. I get sick of my tendencies, my routes in and out of poems. I crave detours, back alleys, subterranean wormholes. But experiments also end up being methods—toward some other re-alchemizing of chaos/order. I want to stay restless, stay learning.

In the midst of our asynchronous conversation, you’ve been longlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry.  Congratulations!  Joining your book on the longlist is Frank Bidart’s Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016.  In his review of Bidart’s collection for The New Yorker, Hilton Als refers to it as “a poetic ur-text about how homophobia, doubt, and a parent’s confusing love can shape a gay child.”  Your debut collection addresses a number of similar issues, and I was wondering if you could discuss how your relationship to your family and your sexuality manifest in this collection.   Also, have you read Bidart’s work?  As a young poet grappling with  “a parent’s confusing love” in regards to sexuality, are there elder poets whose work you find useful?

Thank you so much. It's an enormous honor and it feels like my brain's still catching up with the news. Can't believe the company I find myself in--these poets, these books! Frank Bidart's work has certainly been an influence. I'm struck by the way he explores, in utterly clear yet uncompromising lyric language, difficult subjects like homophobia and the unruly or not-so-warm forms of love a gay child experiences. In my work, I hope there's a similar complexity and truth-telling and commitment to the unresolved/unresolvable when it comes to family dynamics and the exploration of a queer self. The strange entanglements of self and body are so present in Bidart's poetry.

Other queer poets who have shaped me include Jericho Brown (of course), Joseph O. Legaspi, Allen Ginsberg, Rick Barot, Nikky Finney, Natalie Diaz, Henri Cole, Rafael Campo, Audre Lorde, Randall Mann, Frank O'Hara, Richard Siken, Walt Whitman, Eduardo C. Corral. I also think of fellow queer poets whose first books have come out more recently: Ocean Vuong, Muriel Leung, Rajiv Mohabir, Michelle Lin, Danez Smith, Kimberly Alidio, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Franny Choi. So glad for these writers and their work. I mean, the history of American poetry is deeply queer--and I'm excited to be a part of the further queering.

I think that notion of the unresolved and/or the unresolvable comes through wonderfully in your work, particularly in your use of memory.  A number of your poems--”First Light” comes to mind immediately but certainly there are others--make explicit the tenuous relationship between memory and experience.  Could you discuss how memory functions in this collection?  How you attempt to reconcile your specific memories with those of loved ones and the collective memory of an entire culture?

Memory is such a tricky thing. Such a trickster. I think often about how certain memories I have from when I was very little are probably stories that my parents have told me over and over—or are so tied to photographs from that time that it becomes difficult to distinguish the physical evidence from the internal construction. Am I remembering my memory or am I remembering the photograph I associate with this memory? Is it any “less” of a memory, if in truth my feelings have been replaced by a symbolic object? Why this obsession with the “authentic,” felt memory? Growing up in an immigrant household, personal memory was always intertwined with collective history, whether or not I could really name that history. So, in a way, everything felt like a story, a narrated and mediated and already interpreted thing.

I don’t think I’m speaking for a collective memory, an entire culture. I don’t think I could. And I don’t want to. Always in my poems I am telling my version of events, my version of the stitched-back-together blob of wants and pasts and tongues and weathers. At the same time, I see how “my version” is relational to others’ versions. I’m not speaking on behalf of, speaking for other people, but I hope I’m speaking with and as true as I know how.

You received your MFA in poetry from Syracuse a few years ago and you're currently a PhD candidate at Texas Tech University where you also teach Composition courses.  Before we wrap up, could you discuss the impact the classroom has on your writing?  Both from the point of view as a student and an instructor.

 So, at Texas Tech I’ve had the good fortune of also teaching creative writing and literature courses. I love the opportunity to teach a range of subjects. The classroom is such an energizing space for me. A laboratory but no one’s wearing safety goggles. Maybe we should wear safety goggles. Texts can be dangerous. (Cue corny laugh track.) But yes. I try to create many different kinds of opportunities for students to experiment with this thing academia has come to call “critical thinking.”

This past semester, I taught a sophomore-level literature class, Introduction to Fiction: Asian American Storytelling. I decided to branch out of my comfort zone and return to fiction, which is the genre I started out in, actually…so maybe this was a return to an earlier comfort, in a sense. In any case, I wanted to focus on Asian American fiction writers because they’re underrepresented in the curriculum and because some of the most exciting fiction, especially recently, has been written by Asian Americans. I got to discuss work by Julie Otsuka, Jhumpa Lahiri, Nam Le (who’s from Australia but has lived in the U.S. so we treated him as “Asian Anglophone”), Porochista Khakpour, and Marilyn Chin. And I asked Porochista to Skype in—which the students loved. She’s an amazing writer and has this very accessible way of talking about the writing process, completely demystifying it and yet at the same time, preserving the real mystery at the heart of making beautiful things with language. The overarching question my students and I grappled with in this course was “Why do stories matter” and then, specifically, “Why do Asian American stories matter?”

Just these last couple of weeks, I’ve been stunned by my students’ final projects. They had three options: 1) create a Spotify/YouTube playlist of songs from the POV of a character you’ve become invested in, 2) write a short story modeled after or continuing a story you enjoyed, or 3) construct a poster visualizing the themes of a favorite text. One student created a playlist for Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story “Hell-Heaven” (from Unaccustomed Earth) and included tracks by Bette Midler, Celine Dion, and Harry Styles, among others. Another student wrote a short story from the perspective of a minor character from Nam Le's “Cartagena” (from The Boat). Another student's playlist was based on the POV of Xerxes, the protagonist of Porochista Khakpour’s novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects and featured songs by Solange and St. Vincent. These projects were accompanied by short essays explicating the choices/selections made. I loved seeing all this creativity and literary analysis rooted in students’ own questions, curiosities. Every student presented deeply original thinking. I hope that they see how brilliant they are, how inventive they can be, when they trust their capacity (their appetite!) for learning.

I hope to be a perpetual student. I come to the page as a student of the page. I am always apprenticing myself to the possibilities of language and imagination. I want always to live in the classroom of an image, a rhythm, a way and another way of saying. I don’t know very much, but I hope to keep wondering and playing and hungering.


image: Daniel Pieczkolon