During 2016, we will shine the spotlight of our public esteem & rapt attention on two poets per month. This month’s first poet is Chen Chen.
Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world – what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?
Chen Chen: Thank you for these questions—big and kind of impossible, but I’m glad to be living with them. Why poems? I actually started out as a fiction writer; I tried writing novels. These were imitations of whatever I happened to like, from Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In college, I wrote both poems and stories. I also wrote scholarly essays that went on too long and basically argued that literature is super neat (I still do this, in my doctoral program). Then in my third year, I took my first poetry workshop and just fell in love with the weird difficult astonishing ways of saying and wrecking and loving that poems give us.
I am part of so many different communities, histories, sparks, losses, trees, whispers. Poetry is a place where I can ask my Many and if I’m lucky, my All, to come in and converse. I can ask a frozen lake in Upstate New York to talk to an artificial pond in Lubbock, Texas. I can ask Pablo Neruda to talk to the stray cat that greets my partner and me when we pull into our driveway. I can ask your silences to dance with my silences; a form of talking, maybe. So: responding to what I read and love, attempting to create spaces for conversation and stray cats. And lately: what is real learning and how does that intersect with but also sometimes depart from institutions of education? And always: how can I, anyone, keep the heart, a heart, keep our places and selves living?
As for the poebiz, I think it’s crucial not to confuse prestigious publications and awards with what our actual work is. Of course, these shiny things have practical outcomes that are important—I have been supported throughout my graduate school life with scholarships and fellowships. And getting paid here and there for a poem does make a difference. (POETS SHOULD BE PAID BETTER.) Yes. That said… when I was a lonely kid in high school, going to the local library and discovering poets like Li-Young Lee, Louise Glück, and Robert Hass for the first time, I had no idea that blurbs were written by friends or former teachers of the writer and bios were quite often written by the writer. I had no idea that FSG was a “good” press and that it was more prestigious to publish in New England Review versus somewhere else. Now I know these things and I know why they are or can be important. However, aiming to publish in New England Review is not the same thing as attempting to write an exciting, moving poem. (A poem that can give and give.) You can have both “goals,” of course, but the former is achievable in a much more concrete way. The latter is big and impossible and infuriating and wonderful. On a similar note, I think it’s crucial not to confuse a style of poetry with making poems. Finding a style or a voice can be delightful; it can also be deadly. I would like poets to have questions and dreams rather than styles.
FFF: What are your influences – creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?
CC: I love the films of Wong Kar-Wai. I love the music of Perfume Genius. I love ridiculous huge purple snow pants on anyone, anywhere. I love my mother figuring out how to send me texts in Chinese and then how to send me emojis. I love the paintings of Paul Klee and Agnes Martin. I love Audre Lorde’s “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Martín Espada’s introduction to Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination, and this recent book edited by Timothy Yu (Nests and Strangers) examining the work of Nellie Wong, Myung Mi Kim, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Bhanu Kapil. I love a painting by Anselm Kiefer entitled “Everyone Stands Under His Own Dome of Heaven.” I love Kundiman, an organization dedicated to Asian American writers. I love the pug dog calendar that hangs in the living room I share with my love. I love the March pug dog.
FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems – as author and as reader?
CC: I value a poet’s idiosyncratic obsessions and a poet’s depth or scope of compassion. I like seeing a range of emotional and intellectual concerns. In my MFA, I started out trying to be a Serious Poet for some bizarre reason. I like humor, though it’s more important to me that someone real is writing the poem. Being a Funny Poet can be just as tiresome as being a Serious Poet. I like musics and formal dexterities, though the thing needs to move, not just impress. I like disliking a poem and then liking it. I dislike poems because of my tastes, which often need expanding. I loathe poems that harm or erase people. I like erasure poems, ones that demonstrate an understanding of the power dynamics of erasure and erase texts, not people. I like having my mind blown. I love not knowing what a poem is doing to me. I love poems that do what the cherry trees do, to rip off Neruda.
FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something – an experience, a piece of art, anything really – that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?
CC: One of my best friends from high school liked to practice her photography with me as a model. She would take all these pictures and then we would look at them together on her computer. I remember saying, more than once, “Ugh, I look so Asian in this photo.” And my friend would say, “Um, you are Asian.” At the time, I would just say “I know” and make it seem like I was joking—but about what? It has taken a long time for me to really think about the internalized racism and messed up beauty standards I’d accepted and tried (try?) to live up to.
Earlier today I saw a posting about a new scholarship for Asian American actors and performers based in New York City. New York City—a place with a big and super diverse Asian American population. And we need a scholarship. So that Asian American actors have a (better) chance. Part of me is so glad that the organization behind this scholarship is taking action. Another part of me is so angry that the situation (in film and TV, in literature…) seems to improve for a select few and then the idea is that somehow we’re “diverse enough” now.
I grew up in the 90s, started college in 2007—and I still felt like being Chinese, Asian, Asian American, like these were ugly things and the more I could look and behave like a white person, the better, the more beautiful, the more person I could be. I don’t feel that way now, but I do wonder who I would be if I hadn’t spent so much time wishing I was someone else, hadn’t pushed away certain interests deemed stereotypically Asian (piano—I should’ve given piano more of a chance!), hadn’t thought I could never reconcile being both Chinese and gay. The thought of “well, the awfulness shaped me and I’ve turned it into art” doesn’t seem right. I don’t want to fetishize suffering, ever. I think it’s a pretty basic expectation, that people of color should be able to see dignified, complicated, beautiful representations of themselves on a daily basis.
FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.
CC: Two books that have come out in recent years:
Hello, the Roses by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. This book is so expansive and attentive—to landscape, to notions of culture and self, to illness, to the opening of flowers and affinities. Berssenbrugge stands out to me as a writer for how she insists on a spectrum of feeling, perception, and vocabulary. Blending the mythic, the quantum mechanic, the phenomenological, and the medicinal, she makes poems (always now in sequences of longish sentences) that seem densely packed at first glance, but are really some of the most welcoming spaces I’ve encountered on the page. Berssenbrugge writes, “I tell you, your own thoughts and words can appear to inhabitants of other systems like stars and planets to us” and I believe her.
Life of the Garment by Deborah Gorlin. This book is so lilies-&-urine full of life, is living, every time I pick it up—it twitches and shivers and pinches me like a magnificent crab in my hands. A poet of world-bending physicality and a sort of gritty spirituality, Gorlin teaches me to inhabit space the way space inhabits me. Wildly. Graciously. Completely. Gorlin writes, “Cars sorrow too, their glittering/surfaces, metal wigs on wheels” and I believe her.
FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?
CC: Aren’t beavers AMAZING? Aren’t queer poets of color doing the BEST work? I’m going to make more time for walks. And soups. And supporting the poets, poetries I love.
Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and forthcoming spring 2017 from BOA Editions, Ltd. His latest chapbook, Kissing the Sphinx, is available from Two of Cups Press. His poems have recently appeared in Raleigh Review, The Poetry Review (UK), and the PBS Newshour weekly poem series. Chen is a Kundiman Fellow and a PhD candidate at Texas Tech University. Visit him at chenchenwrites.com.