“I FORGET MYSELF/MY POWER WHEN I'M NOT IN CONVERSATION WITH OTHER CREATIVE MINDS”
// an interview with Chen Chen
// by francesca ekwuyasi
Chen Chen’s poems are a delicate synthesis of subtle comedic wit, stark wise truths, and vulnerability. Incredibly inventive, his words hold unassuming profoundness. We met last summer when he hosted a guest seminar at the Winter Tangerine We Sweat Honeysuckle workshop for queer writers. By then I was already familiar with the brilliance of his work as a writer and and an editor.
Published by BOA Editions, Ltd. in April 2017, Chen’s most recent book, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, won the 15th annual A Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize. It also won the 2018 Great Lakes College Association (GLCA) New Writers Award in Poetry, and was longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Poetry. This full length collection of poems is highly praised and truly couldn’t be more deserving. Read it. Read all of his work.
I had the opportunity to pick Chen’s brain about his thoughts on fear, creative nourishment, family, and power.
Who do you think/know that you are? How does that influence the ways that you move in the world?
These questions are wonderful! I just can’t answer them in any definitive way. Any answer I give right now would be partial and dependent on whatever’s floating through my head-heart-body… so, um, I am a cleaver! Backstory: I was just in St. Louis with my dear friend Sam Herschel Wein and we were on this, like, friendship tour of the city—going around meeting all these incredible friends of Sam’s. And our last stop was at Sam’s friend Hattie’s place. We were on our way back to Chicago. And Hattie had bought all these cleavers and for some reason they gave her a LOT and so she’d been giving them out as presents. Sam got one and then mentioned how the cover of my first chapbook, Set the Garden on Fire, has cleavers on it. I chimed in, talking about the poem that image is from. Growing up, I saw my mother use a cleaver to cut everything, from big fish to super big watermelons. It’s a favorite household object, full of memories and dreams and my mother yelling at me in rapid Mandarin.
So there I was, in Sam’s friend Hattie’s living room, talking about that poem and my fondness for cleavers. And then…Hattie pulled out another cleaver! For me! I felt so honored. And deeply taken aback. Because who has cleavers to give to their friends and then also to someone she’s just met?! A stranger! A traveling poet weirdo! It was, and I don’t believe I’m exaggerating, one of the top ten moments of my youngish life thus far. Forever I will cherish this cleaver. Except the person actually using it will be my partner, Jeff Gilbert, as he is the chef of our relationship. I’m a pretty good sous chef. If you give me really exact instructions every time. Okay actually I’m a so-so sous chef. But cleavers!!
What are you most of afraid of and how have you/can you/will you use that in your creative career?
Well, I used to be most afraid of my partner walking in on me while I’m going number 2 in the bathroom but now I’m (mostly) over that—in part thanks to writing poetry about the (supposedly) ickier parts of being a human animal.
I guess my other big fear is not seeing or listening to people fully. That I’m not taking the time I need to. In a moment, in a relationship, in a poem.
I’ve been working on some new poems that feel like they’re taking different kinds of risks. I’ve been trying to write about the shooting at Pulse and it’s been such a complicated process—of doing research, of being too sad and angry to do the research, of bringing in the sorrow and rage, letting these emotions sit next to or inside the research. I worry about not getting details right or not thinking through enough the grief and the politics of this collective queer grief…how Pulse is a national grief or should be, but the loss is ultimately a local one, too, and I’m outside of that, as a distant observer. I want to stay honest to my subject position—as a queer Asian American cis man—and not assume things or come off as though I’m telling someone else’s story. I want to keep learning, but I also feel broken by the learning, when it comes to violence against queer people of color.
I hope I’m listening to this fear of not doing enough, not being present enough. I don’t want to pretend I can overcome or triumph over this fear—I think it’s an important fear. I should keep trying to do better, which doesn’t mean “perfect.” It means effort and accountability.
What other art forms colour your work? Tell me about how you stay nourished creatively.
Visual art and installation and textiles. Agnes Martin’s work. Yayoi Kusama’s. Nick Cave’s. Carrie Mae Weems’s. Barbara Kruger’s. Paul Klee’s. Ann Hamilton’s. Mickalene Thomas’s. Julie Mehretu’s. Sarah Sze’s. Anya Liao’s (St. Louis-based artist who makes all sorts of beauties, including gorgeous shirts with bok choy and gaysians on them!).
Wong Kar-wai’s movies. Especially Chungking Express and Happy Together. That moment in Chungking Express when Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character asks, “Do you like pineapple” in three languages. Takeshi Kaneshiro is such a babe.
What are your thoughts on the ideas of Power and the Voice, particularly as a writer. When have you forgotten yourself (and your power), and how did you remember who you are?
As paradoxical as it sounds, I forget myself/my power when I’m not in conversation with other creative minds. And that conversation can take the form of talking to fellow poets at a Chinese barbecue restaurant in front of an opulent and succulent Peking duck dinner…or it can take the form of reading, reading, reading. I have to get outside my own head—in order to return to my head, replenished, rebuilt. I need constant rebuilding. I get so bored with myself, my well-worn thought-paths. Conversation, good surprising conversation, shakes me out, loose.
Image from Asian American Writers' Workshop by Axel Jenson
Lately, I’ve craved talking with non-poets, those who can appreciate a poem but have no desire to write one themselves! It’s so great. People who are creative in other ways, people who are alive in their own ways, people who have things to teach me, yes. Recently I learned about: what to do with leftover Peking duck, the field of performance studies, Chicago gay bathhouse history, the existence of a plant called Gray Ghost Organ Pipe, why Wisconsin Cheese Curds are a must-get item when stopping at a Culver’s, the joys of FedEx, secret alter egos that do all the “bad” stuff you don’t get to!
Do you feel/know/think that you belong? What is home to you?
Currently, home is Rochester, NY. Home is also wherever questions about home live, grow complicated. So, sometimes, a poem is home. And, sometimes, a shrimp cocktail samples table in a Costco is.
Tell me about your family; do they know you? Do they inform your writing?
My family knows parts of me. And a big part of writing my book was trying not to separate myself out into parts. To bring the compartments and departments and trees and streets and snows and anxieties together, somehow. And not to articulate a wholeness or some foundational coherence, but to spill forth an expansive unwieldy uncontainableness. Something as gangly and wonky as the word “uncontainableness.”
What are your thoughts on the ideas of Salvation and Redemption? Have you found either of those in your creative life, and how have those notions impacted your poetry?
I don’t know how important these particular ideas are for me. I’d have to think further on these questions, as Salvation and Redemption are not terms or values I’ve assigned to my work or that I experience while working. I guess I’m hesitant to claim these terms also because I don’t know if I believe in saving or redeeming… I think, for example, there are some facets of society and some institutions that are not worth saving, salvaging, reforming—like the prison industrial complex and white supremacy. In these cases, I believe in abolition. Too, I dislike the kind of heroics associated with saving; in my view, Americans are too obsessed with heroism, acts of swooping in and “liberating.” Americans would prefer to be “saved” than to be steadily healthy and abidingly ethical.
Still, there have been a few moments when I have felt saved in some sense. I’ve been saved by poetry. I’ve been saved by my brothers’ acceptance of me—when my parents were/are still having trouble with that. So, I can’t say for sure what Salvation and Redemption mean to me or my writing.
What poems did a younger version of yourself need to hear? Tell me about it, tell me about that version of yourself. For whom do you write?
What amazing questions. If we’re talking about my book, the poem that comes to mind is “Spell to Find Family,” from the third section. This poem is dedicated to Kundiman, an organization that nurtures and champions Asian American writers. I started the poem at my first Kundiman retreat, in 2014. I was so moved to meet fellow Asian American poets at that retreat. It’s where I first met Monica Sok, a poet I admire deeply, a friend I love and love. And poets Muriel Leung, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Fatimah Asghar, Joseph O. Legaspi… such a magical time, that retreat, that summer.
“Spell to Find Family” Is about expanding one’s notions of family, of kinship—expanding and queering. When I was younger, I never thought I would find other queer Asian kids like me. I couldn’t imagine a community of Asian American and LGBTQ+ Asian American writers. Now I’m contributing to such a community. “Spell to Find Family” is a spell cast in the hope of continuing to find one’s family, a spell that recognizes that importance of chosen family for LGBTQ+ youth of color.
When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities is your most recent collection of poetry, and your first full length book; what did it cost you? Can you share your thoughts and experiences on what it takes to peel yourself open with poetry the way that you do?
I don’t know how folks have more than one full-length book! It was such a daunting process. It took everything I had. Ultimately, I’m glad it did. And I’m immensely grateful for the editorial insights of Jericho Brown, the judge who picked my book, as well as Peter Conners, my editor at BOA Editions.
I felt completely drained after I turned in the final version of my manuscript to Peter. I’d gone through two big, big revisions of the whole thing, and then four rounds of proofs, which included lots of little edits, last-minute tweaks. It got to the point where I was doing that stupid writer thing of putting in, then taking out, then putting in a comma. It was hard for me to let go.
Sometimes I still want to change things, but then I realize that I’ve changed, as a writer. I wouldn’t write things the same way, in some of these poems. But that’s okay (I tell myself) because this book is also a record of an earlier version of me, poet-me. It’s a sign of growth that I wouldn’t write the same way! I try to think of the book as belonging to readers, now. It’s their experience. I mean, I’m proud of what I’ve created, I love sharing poems from this collection at readings. But I also have to get back to writing new poems… which will somehow become the next book.
Name yourself and tell me why.
Gray Ghost Organ Pipe. Because I move about as much as a plant and I cannot sing except in the shower.
Keep up with Chen on his portfolio at chenchenwrites.com and find his most recent book When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities here as well as his chapbooks here.