Let’s begin simple: who and what have you been reading lately? What’s got you excited?
Chen Chen: Jennifer S. Cheng’s book House A moved me so deeply. The poems use epistolary and essayistic techniques to excavate Chinese diasporic identity on a sensory level. Reading it is like seeing a map of my own heart unfold on a warm surface made of oceanic currents. I see the bodies of water my parents have crossed. I see the homes they’ve constructed. I see the homes I’ve been trying to build. How filled with memory and grief and mung bean soup, these homes.
Your poem, “Nature Poem” in Issue Sixteen is full of fabulous imagery such as tall post-apocalyptic pineapples growing out of heads and deer who are “supreme headache(s) of beauty.” How do these images come to you? Is it visceral or do you have a message you craft your images towards?
CC: I don’t know. I’m probably like most poets, in that a poem for me starts from a windy scrap of a phrase, a hairy fragment of an image, a smelly sneaker of an impulse. I just follow the stench, the screech, the sudden hue. Of course, like any person who thinks they’re hot shit from time to time, I get ideas. I try not to be too attached to any one vision of where a poem’s headed. I try to remember what the philosopher Avital Ronell says: get rid of the hot and just be shit.
After reading your upcoming book, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), Sherman Alexie had this to say: “Chen Chen is already one of my favorite poets ever. Funny, absurd, bitter, surreal, always surprising, and deeply in love with this flawed world. I’m in love with this book.” Can you tell us a bit about the collection? How did it come about? And what, in your mind, is the significance of the ‘further possibilities’?
CC: The collection began as my MFA thesis at Syracuse University. It changed significantly before I sent it out to contests. It changed radically after it won the Poulin Prize and the judge, Jericho Brown, gave me his wonderful suggestions and insights.
Of course, being the obsessive maniac reviser that I am, I really went for it. I took out about fifteen pages. I rewrote the title poem sixty times. I reordered the first section every way I could imagine. I revised a long poem that I had started in college, in my first ever poetry workshop. I fretted over contradictions. I fretted over contractions and commas and semi-colons. I drove my friends nuts, showing them one slightly altered version of a poem and then another, another. After I turned in my final proof corrections, one friend suggested that I put everything having to do with the book on its own external hard drive and then put that hard drive in a safe and get my boyfriend to come up with a combination for the lock.
But working with Jericho has been an amazing gift. He understands what this book is about. He saw its shape before I really did. The book is about my mother. My messy, messy relationship with her. And it’s about “further possibilities,” yes—in relationships, in selves. The book explores what happens when we refuse to stop desiring and becoming.
I am also indebted to Peter Conners and everyone at BOA for the care and enthusiasm poured into making this book a reality. A million gratitudes.
To what extent do you find that your poems are in conversation with each other?
CC: Well, I only write about cute boys and snowy streets, so my poems are always in tune with each other. Seriously, though, I find myself returning to the same subjects. I try to vary my approach to these subjects. Then, while assembling a collection, I try to see where it’s important to emphasize the overlaps and where it’s good to highlight the differences. I want each poem to live and behave and dress whichever way it likes best. But the poems have to find some way to live together in the same house! Sometimes I have to kick a poem out. It’s tough. I write them an excellent reference letter, though.
How did you stumble into writing poetry—was there a collection, a friend or family member, or an educator that particularly intrigued you? And what led you to stick with it?
CC: I think the first collection of poetry I read that wasn’t for school was Margaret Atwood’s Morning in the Burned House. I remember checking it out from the Newton Free Library in Newton, Massachusetts, and just falling in love with the language. I don’t know why I was drawn to that book in particular when browsing in the library. I was in high school. I was lonely.
My third year of college, I took my first poetry workshop, led by Martín Espada. I had been writing poems and stories for years, but Martín opened up poetry for me in the most stunning way. For Martín, the political is inseparable from the artistic. He gave me permission to write unapologetically outraged poems that grappled with injustice and asserted resistance. He also gave our workshop some helpful publishing advice. The fact that he believed in us enough to give us real publishing advice moved and encouraged me.
In that same vein, do you remember the title of your first piece of writing, and/or what it was about? (Mine was something about seashells.)
CC: I used to keep diaries. I still have all of them somewhere. They are super embarrassing. I was very honest in my diaries. I felt like I had to be, like my diary would know if I was lying. Now that I think of it, I was a superstitious child. I believed all sorts of objects had agency and that I had to do things in a highly ritualized fashion to avoid Bad Stuff. Anyway, I wrote about boys I had crushes on but I didn’t know I had crushes on them. I just knew they were really cool. Like, SO COOL. I also wrote about my action figures and what happened in the latest episode of Captain Planet. You know, the timeless subjects of lyric poetry.
As a mentor for the 2016 Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, you already know we as a publication have a sizable youth audience and following. What do you think you needed to hear back in high school, and what advice would you offer students currently in high school?
CC: I think I needed to hear that I wouldn’t always have all this acne and that I would grow up to have more important enemies than my orthodontist. I had braces for a very, very long time. My parents would joke: we could’ve bought a new car with the money we’re spending on your crooked teeth! But what I would tell students currently in high school is this: you are 100% valid and 200% 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.
Thanks so much for answering these questions! To close, do you have a question for our next installment of Conversation with Contributors?
CC: If you weren’t a writer, what other path could you imagine taking?
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. A Kundiman and Lambda Literary Fellow, Chen’s work has appeared in two chapbooks as well as in publications such as Poetry, The Massachusetts Review, The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, Best of the Net, and The Best American Poetry. Chen helps edit Iron Horse and Gabby. He also works on a new journal called Underblong, which he co-founded with the poet Sam Herschel Wein. Chen received his MFA from Syracuse University and is currently pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. He lives in Lubbock, Texas, with his partner Jeff Gilbert and their pug Mr. Rupert Giles.