An Interview with Chen Chen

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wildness

Would you mind talking a little about your creative journey? Have you always gravitated towards the written word?

Chen

I thought for a while that I’d be a TV writer. In middle school and high school I was obsessed with the shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, and Alias—still pretty obsessed with Buffy. I love its totally wild mix of genres, tones, vocabularies, its valley girl existentialism and its ethically charged campiness. More recently I’ve been into Please Like Me, Steven Universe, Jane the Virgin, The Good Place, How to Get Away with Murder, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Superstore, Big Little Lies, Dark, and Elementary (really just because of Lucy Liu). Maybe I’ll write for TV one day. I sure watch a lot of it.

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When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions)

And I like TV way more than movies, usually. I like following characters episode after episode, season after season—the serial storytelling. I like that feeling of getting together with your friends or confronting your enemies or maybe your frenemies, again and again. Seeing how they’ve changed, changing alongside them. Like, I used to think Rory Gilmore was the book-loving nerd I wanted to be. Now I understand that she has lived a very privileged, upper middle class/plain old upper class white life and mostly has “grown” to prioritize maintaining that life. After all, her #1 dream since forever was to go to Harvard! And then she had to go to Yale. Acceptance at these institutions does not equal a love of the intellectual/inner life. Anyway, this is not an essay about the irritating tragedy of Rory Gilmore’s character development.

The point is, I’ve always loved character-driven stories and bewildering worlds in which I could completely immerse myself. I wrote both fiction and poetry, then ended up focusing on the latter beginning in the third year of college, after taking a workshop with Martín Espada at UMass Amherst. That workshop was a magical experience. I felt completely seen and supported by Martín—he gave such open-hearted permission to write more deeply toward/into my life, especially when it came to exploring immigration, race, class, family, and queerness. All these threads, inseparable. And I fell in love with the challenge of writing poems, the challenge and the delight. How to compress, how to speak through imagery, how to surprise through sound.


wildness

You’re currently teaching whilst also working towards your PhD, how have you found balancing these two areas? To what extent have the overlaps or juxtapositions expressed themselves to you?

Chen

I don’t think I’ve found a balance, really. It’s more of an acceptance, sometimes frustrating and sometimes less so, that I’ll go through cycles—periods in which I’m more focused on teaching and periods in which I’m more focused on doctoral work, which includes my creative writing as well as scholarly research and writing. Each activity does feed into the other and I’m very glad for that, but at the same time, these are distinct areas. And I like to give intense, total focus when I can, especially when it comes to writing poetry. Making that a priority often means other things slide for a bit—my promptness with responding to emails, the state of my desk and my room, new episodes of Elementary.

I don’t know how other writers do a million things, balancing them on a daily basis. I can do maybe two things decently in a day. Maybe from the outside it looks like I’m one of those writers who’s good at balancing lots of different activities and commitments. Maybe when I’m thinking of other writers who are good at balance, I’m also really looking from the outside. Though I’d say some folks are indeed better organized than I am—or they have assistants. I just recently signed with Blue Flower Arts, a literary booking agency, and I can’t believe how relieved and grateful I feel, to have an agent take care of the events side of my life. I’m very lucky to be able to afford this assistance at this stage.


wildness

Earlier this year When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities was long-listed for a National Book Award, what were you doing when you found out? and what about the book’s publication has surprised you the most?

Chen

I think I was getting ready to go to class. I was still in coursework at Texas Tech University. I saw on Twitter that folks were sharing the announcement from The New Yorker and I was just like, Oh, what’s this and why am I tagged in it?? I was so surprised. Did I throw up from excitement? I did that when I found out my book won BOA’s first book prize. But I didn’t throw up this time because I had other, regular things on my mind—work and tasks that needed attention.

What’s surprised me the most is realizing that I did really write this book for other queer Asian Americans, in particular fellow queer Chinese Americans. These readers have reached out to me over email and social media, they’ve come up to me after readings. I’m so incredibly touched that they’ve found my book and want to share with me how they’ve connected to my work. When I was younger, I didn’t, I couldn’t imagine such an audience. I thought I was the only one with these particular feelings and experiences. Slowly, I’ve come to see just how wrong I was, and that wrongness makes me devastatingly happy.


wildness

You’ve called yourself an “obsessive maniac reviser” in an earlier interview; does this obsessive behaviour permeate all aspects of your life? How do you know when a poem is finished, or at least when you should move on from a piece?

Chen

I’m not that obsessive about most other things. I can get pretty obsessed about a TV show, as I think is clear now. As for a poem being finished, one good test is if I can read it out loud without cringing at any line or moment. I like reading very new work at events for this reason—it’s less a test about audience response and more a test about my internal level of embarrassment. At the same time, I believe many of the things most worth writing about elicit a response of embarrassment, at least initially. So it’s good if I feel vulnerable and a little scared, reading the new work in front of people, but I try to distinguish that nervousness from an embarrassment over the (lack of) craft and music in the poem.

Chen Chen reading at his book launch (at Malvern Books)

Another important test is whether I feel that I’ve made some real discovery in the writing. Have I learned something? Do I see something differently? Is the poem saying something that, before it existed, was unsaid, unsayable? Or is the poem making room for the unsayable to exist more freely, with all its fuchsia tentacles waving?


wildness

If you had to describe your own poetry in a single sentence what would it be?

Chen

Please share these chicken tenders with me, on this big green sofa.


wildness

In your Hobart interview you talked about memory in such a beautiful, compelling way, dispelling and confronting our own notions of what it is and can be: “Am I remembering my memory or am I remembering the photograph I associate with this memory?” How important are the exact details when you’re attempting to evoke a feeling or moment in your work?

Chen

In poetry, I don’t feel so attached to the exact details of an event; I’m much more interested in the processes by which remembering happens. I’m fascinated by the ways in which present circumstances and longings for a certain kind of future can shape, reshape memory. Maybe I’m remembering something this way because it hurts less to see my world, myself this way. Or maybe I’m remembering things another way because it gives me hope for how things could be. It gets further complicated, though. Who else does this event belong to, this memory? Who else is affected? How is remembering about relating, about belonging or not belonging to a social, a political world? Those questions inform my writing, too.

I often return to this poem by Lucille Clifton:

why some people be mad at me sometimes

they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and i keep on remembering
mine

When I write nonfiction, getting the exact details right is much more important. And I do my best to make clear distinctions between the imagined and the real, though I also like, in nonfiction, to grapple with how memory is constructed, and the multiplicity of our constructions—how we each might have multiple versions, contradictory accounts. Selves are messy, lives are messy, and language, language is a big tangle of hair and we try to be big combs, or razors, but we are also hair, tangled.


wildness

Last year you set up Underblong with Sam Herschel Wein (we love the ‘What We Like’ page). What made you decide to start it, and how has the first year been? Also, how has running a journal worked its way into your own poetry, or your behaviours and attitudes towards the community?

Chen

Thanks so much for asking about Underblong! Sam and I are so excited about this project. We’ve created this journal because we want to highlight poetry that makes us (and we hope, others) feel like they have just met the “the patron saint of blowing up rotisserie chickens with fireworks” (from a Sarah Galvin poem). Underblonging, being in search of blonginess—this means a ticklish, fruity kind of aliveness. We also want to support, in particular, marginalized voices—poets of color, queer and trans poets, queer and trans poets of color, poets with disabilities, poets without the resources of an academic program or position.

This first year has been incredible—Sam and I are so grateful for all the submissions we’ve received and how positively, passionately readers have responded to our first two issues. The level of enthusiasm is so moving. And we’re always thrilled to see new work by our contributors make it into the world. We’re trying to stay better updated about what our contributors are up to and share that news on our social media (Platypus Press does an amazing job at this, btw!). At the moment, we’re expanding staff—bringing on brilliant new readers, Emma William-Margaret aka Billy, E Yeon Chang, and Mag Gabbert. Gabbert will also be our new Interviews Editor.

Running a journal reminds me that there are so many ways to make a poem, to reach inside a reader’s chest and dream. There are ways I have not yet seen. There will always be what I do not know. And that’s a hopeful thing. Underblong gives me hope because I see again and again how folks are interpreting this weird term, Underblong, which is a portmanteau of me and Sam’s nicknames for each other—Undertow and Oblong. What a lucky thing, to create a word and to keep learning how others read it. Also, I love the word portmanteau.


wildness

Linked to that, how important is it to immerse yourself in the local (physical or digital) creative community?

Chen

It’s deeply important. I would not continue to be a poet if I were not in conversation with fellow poets, especially queer poets, queer Asian American poets. Writing without community is so miserably lonely. I love writing in a room full of writers also writing. Sometimes I love this more than talking to a room full of writers. My in-person social energy gets depleted fairly quickly. But I do need both—online interaction and in a room, or on a bus, up in a tree…

Recently I was visiting the Bay Area and talking with my friends Michelle Lin, Kazumi Chin, and Muriel Leung (all wonderful poets and cuties!) about the possibility of a podcast where we’re all eating delicious food and talking about poems, politics…this idea kept evolving as the delicious food became specifically delicious hot pot… and then the location specifically a hot tub. Hot pot hot tub!!! This is my favorite idea in the multiverse.


wildness

What does a typical day (if there is such a thing) look like for you?

Chen

Wishing I were Sailor Neptune when really I’m Sailor Jupiter and that’s pretty cool, too. Also, a lot of frantic apologizing for the delay in getting back to someone (multiple someone’s) over email. Also, boba tea or the longing for boba tea.


wildness

What are you working on at the moment?

Chen

A new book of poems, called Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency. Essays here and there, mainly on race, poetry, and how power functions in literary spaces. Sam and I recently finished a collaborative chapbook of poems, entitled Gesundheit! I am also working on saying no more often, to protect my time and energy (with thanks to Monica Sok and Jennifer S. Cheng for the encouragement).


wildness

Finally, what are you reading at the moment? Who would you recommend?

Chen

Sarah Galvin’s Ugly Time. Anaïs Duplan’s Mount Carmel & the Blood of Parnassus. Amy Meng’s Bridled. Michael Burkard’s Envelope of Night: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1966-1990. Yujane Chen’s Paper Daughter (limited edition micro chapbook printed for a reading in San Francisco). I’m also super psyched for Kristin Chang’s forthcoming chapbook, Past Lives, Future Bodies. Porochista Khakpour’s memoir, Sick (just started). Rafael from Jane the Virgin’s impossibly handsome face.


Read more from Issue No. 15 or share on Facebook and Twitter.