Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry. He is a Kundiman and Lambda Literary Fellow who has been featured on PBS Newshour and Out.com; he is also the author of two chapbooks. Chen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry, The New York Times Magazine, Poem-a-Day, Best of the Net, The Best American Poetry, Bettering American Poetry, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. He helps edit Iron Horse and Gabby, and works on a new journal called Underblong, co-founded with the poet Sam Herschel Wein.
“I want to write and to read poems with this kind of scrappy don’t-fuck-with-me-but-also-gahh-I’m-a-human-ness,” says Chen. There’s a playfulness to the work that illuminates the page — an excerpt from “Nature Poem” reads:
Once, in a Starbucks, the cashier
was convinced I was Chad. Once, in a Starbucks, the cashier
did not quite finish the n on my Chen, & when my tall mocha was ready,
they called out for Cher. I preferred this by far, but began to think
the problem was Starbucks. Why can’t you see me? Why can’t I stop
needing you to see me? For someone who looks like you
to look at me, even as the coffee accident
is happening to my second favorite shirt?
Chen’s poems are quick-witted, full of questions, whimsy, sincerity. The last line of his poem “Summer Was Forever” speaks to a precious enchantment present throughout his work: “We fell in love in midair.” Chen writes what is “true and covered in glitter,”and his poems feel generous and brave. He advises: “All you can do is be open, be curious, be willing to eat a lot of off-brand cereal in the hopes that the Weird Sensation will fly back to you.”
The Weird Sensation, that creative surge, must be omnipresent with Chen. Take with you these last lines from his poem “In Search of the Least Abandoned Constellation”:
Now that you are not even the rain, what train can I take? Remember
when we were morning after morning of such ordinary waiting,
of hair still wet in the April light & suitcases held tight?
Chen’s first book is a refreshing collection of hopeful, funny, and moving poems that resonate with those of us who are becoming and becoming, “spilling over … opening out and piercing through.”
Congratulations on your phenomenal debut book of poems, When I Grow Up I Want to Become a List of Further Possibilities. I loved it and felt especially connected to “Sorrow Song with Optimus Prime.” What do you think it is that connects poetry, song, and hope as forms of art, and what gives you hope? Is there an inherent therapy to art that keeps us humans grounded, together, and well?
Beautiful questions. Thank you. I’m glad you especially connected to that poem. It’s one of my favorites. So much about poetry is about sound. I think of the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva who said: “My difficulty (in writing poems — and perhaps other people’s difficulty in understanding them) is in the impossibility of my goal, for example, to use words to express a moan: nnh, nnh, nnh. To express a sound using words, using meanings. So that the only thing left in the ears would be nnh, nnh, nnh” (translated by Ilya Kaminsky).
Poems are often these very strange moans. These very impossible efforts toward the innermost pangs. Somehow, the trying to go there gives me hope. To reach down and into. To make your whole language and your whole body move that way. Poetry, song, and hope are all forms of breathing and moving — toward a crow, maybe, or the uneven sidewalk, or someone else’s hands.
Toward the end of “Poem,” you write, “& I / don’t want to know / how the book ends, that the book ends.” Does becoming ever end? What further possibilities do you envision for the future of creative communities, especially for the development of poets and poetry?
In my book, I try to imagine further possibilities for a speaker (perhaps a younger self or the self I’m still becoming) who is queer and the child of Chinese immigrants. My poems try to complicate and reinvent the various intersecting identities of this speaker’s world. I hope the book feels restless and unresolved — because I don’t think becoming ever ends, no. The conflicts in these poems are not fully resolvable. At the same time, the joys in these poems are not fully containable. I want a feeling of spilling over, of opening out and piercing through.
I’m thinking now of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of my favorite shows; the Season 2 finale is called “Becoming” (parts 1 and 2). I’m flashing back to that great scene where Buffy’s struggling in the fight and the villain thinks he’s got the upper hand. “No friends, no … ” the villain goes through a list of what Buffy doesn’t have, then asks, “What’s left?” And Buffy says: “Me,” before jumping back into the fight. I love the simplicity and yet the depth of Buffy’s determination in this moment. I want to write and to read poems with this kind of scrappy don’t-fuck-with-me-but-also-gahh-I’m-a-human-ness.
In “Kafka’s Axe & Michael’s Vest,” you write, “Are we even built for peace? I think of breath … ” There is a direness to this question that feels so poignant for our times, and the words that follow feel so timeless. Do you have a spiritual practice or philosophy?
I used to be into Zen Buddhism, but I think you have to be more than just “into” meditation to count yourself an actual practitioner. Maybe one day I’ll find a genuine way in. For now, poetry is the closest I get to the spiritual and the philosophical. Zen Buddhism was certainly an influence on that particular poem. I just don’t know if I could ever be methodical or disciplined enough to follow through on any one spiritual path, philosophical approach. I like the messiness of poetry. It’s a discipline that also requires a lot of sitting, but you get to say things like nnh nnh nnh and gahh.
“Poplar Street” reads like a conversation with the reader, offering an access point for understanding, for empathy. To have this be the final poem of the book resonates as a gesture back to the reader — asking the stranger on the street with a briefcase, “What do you think?” Do you imagine an ideal reader of your work, or could the man with the briefcase be anyone?
I don’t have an ideal reader in mind. Sometimes it freaks me out that anyone is reading my work. I mean, this is some seriously personal stuff. How did I even decide to share these experiences? A lot of my work is autobiographical. I think that’s pretty clear. Somehow I manage to suppress my embarrassment and focus on the crafting of poems. By a certain point, I sort of forget that I’m writing about something that actually happened to me and I’m in the zone of making images, line breaks, etc. Now and again, though, I remember — I see the source, the experience.
So it’s for the best that I don’t think too much about readers, ideal or whatever. I do think about connection, about whether the poem might reach someone else. But that seems different to me. It’s about poem to ear or poem to heart, not author to reader. When I’ve used this term, “the reader,” I mean “the energy/chest that lights up when encountering an offering of language.” But I guess “the reader” is a good shorthand. Oh and my non-poet boyfriend is a great first reader for me. Just sayin’.
Reading “Nature Poem,” I was so not expecting the line to land on “what sad salt.” It felt deeply moving and simultaneously light-hearted. I’ve heard surprise is an important component of effective comedy, and many of your poems make me laugh. What is the function of surprise in poetry? How are poetry and comedy connected for you?
I love poems that make me laugh! Also, cry! Laughing and crying are just the best of human thingies. But yes, surprise is a necessity for me. Surprise is nourishment. I write toward surprise and sometimes I end up deeply frustrated, instead. It’s hard. You can’t force surprise, but you can stay open to its deciding to visit you in the middle of the cereal aisle in the form of another Buffy the Vampire Slayer flashback. Who knows? All you can do is be open, be curious, be willing to eat a lot of off-brand cereal in the hopes that the Weird Sensation will fly back to you.
Poetry and comedy are good friends because they’re both fans of smart rhythm and unexpected turns. Also, good poetry, like good comedy, has to be more than just one thing. I can’t say what that “more than” should be, though; that’s up to each practitioner of the art. That said, I do love a comical falling down the stairs. Some days, I don’t need more than that.
In an interview for The Adroit Journal, you call yourself an “obsessive maniac reviser,” and say that you revised the title poem of your book sixty times. Can you talk more about what the process of developing your first book was like? What do you look for when you revise? How did you know when the book was complete, intact?
I knew the book was done when I was moving around commas for the billionth time. I take commas (and periods and dashes and semicolons) very seriously. But I needed to take them a teensy bit less seriously. The book had already gone through a series of rigorous revisions. Jericho Brown gave me so many important insights and flat-out instructions. Probably seventy-five percent of the edits were just like, Jericho told me to do it and I did it and it was the right thing to do. In many instances, he understood my book better than I did. I was lucky times ten-thousand. I realize I’m giving a lot of weird hyperbolic numbers in this response. It’s hard to explain what the process was like, now that it’s (gloriously) over.
In general, I look for placeholder language when I revise. That is, moments in poems where the language seems to get habitual and is, let’s say, falling down the stairs in an uninteresting way. Those are the spots I need to tend to. Often, those spots are indicative of larger structural issues I need to address. Like, I need to rebuild the stairs so the falling down them gets more interesting. Or, I need to remove the railing so the falling can happen more quickly. Or, I need to install a new spiral-y railing so the falling knows where it’s going. I realize I’m extending this falling-down-the-stairs metaphor very, very far. But what this metaphor also demonstrates is that for real revision, I need to immerse completely in the world of the poem; I have to move through it intuitively and with everything I’ve got.
In the Adroit interview, you offer this advice to high school students: “you are one hundred percent valid and two hundred percent beautiful and no one gets to define you but you. Keep doing what you love. Keep finding supportive people. If you don’t know what you love yet, that’s okay. Challenge authority!! Make things. Try to give people really thoughtful, personal gifts. Learn to cook a few simple dishes well. Do a somersault every now and again. Don’t listen to any advice, including mine, that doesn’t sit right with you.” I love this. What advice would you give adults?
Don’t forget you’re a creature who gets smelly at the end of every day! You’re a creature. Not just so many hours of “productivity” and then “down time.” Forget the plan, the map. Try to be who you say you are. Mean what you say. If that doesn’t work, try a different meaning, a different way of saying, a different trying, a who worth trying differently toward. Say, “I don’t know. I don’t have a clue. Not an inkling. No gist no whiff no crumb. Nope.” Buy a soda for your friend.
In an article for PBS you say that as you write, you ask what “the room of the poem” is missing or being allowed. The space of poetry feels light, weightless, yet not empty, this room. If you filled a room with a poem of you, what would be in it?
Another conversation. Another chance to say something true and covered in glitter. Another chance to listen.