A Conversation with Chen Chen
BY TRYN BROWN
Chen Chen is a poet, professor, and certified pug-lover. His debut book of poetry, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA, 2017; Bloodaxe, 2019), was longlisted for the National Book Award. He’s also authored five chapbooks, including the forthcoming Explodingly Yours (Ghost City Press, 2023). He has been awarded fellowships from Kundiman, the National Endowment for the Arts, and United States Artists, and he currently teaches for MFA programs at New England College and Stonecoast.
I got to chat with Chen Chen about his highly anticipated second collection, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency (BOA Editions, 2022), in which he investigates what happens when the people we rely on during times of crisis are themselves in need of rescue. During this conversation, we talk about playfulness and rest, hot queer sex, and what it means to tend to one another’s growth.
Tryn Brown: First of all, congratulations on the project! It received heaps of early praise, which was easy to understand once I got my hands on it. This collection is simultaneously intricate and accessible, full of moments both earthly and extraordinary. How was your experience writing it through the unpredictable and challenging last couple of years?
Chen Chen: Thank you so much. I’m blown away by the reception for this book so far. It’s wonderful to see, especially since I had so much initial anxiety with this collection. I wanted it to be a radical departure from my first book because I was just tired of writing about myself and writing about family. But then everything that I ended up writing (that was strong, anyway) was along those thematic lines.
So, it was a long process of accepting that these are my obsessions and that my task as a writer is not to evade them or force new obsessions onto the page (how would that work?!) but to examine what obsesses me in fresh ways. I hope I’ve done that. In this new book I’ve pushed my work formally in a range of directions, including different visual formatting, multilingual writing, and a longer prose sequence in the second section (that started out as a lyric essay) organized around Bhanu Kapil’s 12 questions from The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers.
Also, I lived in West Texas for about three years, completing doctoral coursework at Texas Tech, and that setting is key to many of these poems. Having grown up in New England (mainly Massachusetts), that change in environment affected me in all sorts of ways—the weather, the landscape, the cultural and political landscape. Living there made me see New England in some altered ways, too, where it was no longer a kind of baseline setting for me but its own distinct place with its regional quirks and issues and beauties.
TB: To examine obsession in fresh ways—wow, I love that. These poems work through heavy, emotionally complex topics that often relate back to the nuances of blood family and chosen family for a queer Asian American man who has lived in a largely conservative part of the country. Does the act of writing serve as a kind of recognition for you (of communities, fatigue, personal pain, yourself, etc.)? And can it offer some repose at the same time?
CC: I’ve had to take several breaks from this manuscript. The early, rough version was my PhD dissertation back in 2018. And I think that version was okay, but I also knew at the time that I’d need to sit with these poems for longer—and write more. Write new poems. So that’s what I did for about two years. I didn’t look at the manuscript as a whole entity again till 2021, thanks to the (beautiful) urging of my best friend, Sam Herschel Wein. When he came to visit me in Boston, I felt finally like, yeah, it’s time. Time to put the whole thing together again and see what all these new poems are doing, how they’re conversing with the old ones. It was hard to go back to some of the older work, the poems I wrote while in West Texas, because that was a hard place for me to live, as a queer Asian American. Though I also found some fantastic pockets of community—and it’s been hard to live in the Northeast as a queer Asian American, too! In any case, I continue to be so moved, stunned really, to find community through poetry. The poems always lead the way.
And by spring of 2021 I did feel like I had enough distance to engage with the older work again and in a new way, in large part because of all the new poems, the energy they brought to the collection. I felt like I wasn’t writing a West Texas book, which was never my intention anyway—I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that label, since I only lived there a couple years. But West Texas has been an important part of my life and of my writing, so then the process became about making it a book set in multiple places across the US, including Lubbock, and also sometimes in China. Ultimately I’m glad I took my time. I could’ve finished this book earlier, maybe by a year or two, but it wouldn’t feel as complete or as surprising (to me, anyway). The poems that speak directly to the pandemic and to rising anti-Asian violence, for instance, were a late addition that feels important to the book as a whole now.
TB: I’d like to touch more on the idea of interdependence (which sometimes gets a bad rap in our culture). There’s a striking line in one of the poems that I think represents the heart of this collection well: “nobody is SoBrave without anybody’s &, / somebody else’s Strong.” How do you balance relying on others and relying on yourself?
CC: I think about this issue a lot in terms of being a poet these days—I dislike the notion that being a poet = solitude 24/7. Yes, solitude is important for writing and for immersing yourself in your own imaginative space. But conversation and connection have been just as important for me as a poet—sometimes more important than solitude, which in some cases I have experienced as isolation and loneliness rather than as a nourishing quiet.
So, I do believe in cultivating a balance between independence and interdependence. I need to know myself and because the self is continually changing, that knowledge changes, too, and I have to stay observant and honest. And to know myself, I need to know others, or try to, as best I can. The self doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Or if it does, it’s not a self that grows. No growth = no real writing. I think one of the most beautiful things we can do with our time on this earth is believe in and tend to each other’s growth. That seems to me a much more meaningful way to move through the world and through time, compared to what capitalism expects us to do, which is to sacrifice our lives for labor, for someone else’s profit.
One day I will die. Poems also carry this knowledge, which is at once a terrifying and sacred knowledge. But if I want to live well and write well, I have to engage with this fact. However fun the language or fanciful the images, poems help me to not turn away from truth. Turning toward truth means I can better turn toward people and life. Turning toward truth means aliveness toward myself and toward those I need to connect with.
TB: That idea of embracing aliveness toward the self is perfectly in line with my next question! I found myself experiencing every possible emotion while reading this book. Through grief, disquiet, and plain outrage, I was still constantly laughing out loud at lines like, “Now I see even a little gay sex & French poetry would make some folks better citizens.” What role do joy and humor play in your creative process?
CC: I can’t write a poem, not really, till I feel like I’m playing. Maybe this comes from how much I enjoyed recess as a kid! I loved running around the playground. Up the hills behind the elementary school. And down them. I loved climbing trees. I should climb trees again. On a regular basis. Writing also started for me from a place of play. I’d write stories, quite long ones, and share them, chapter by chapter, with friends. It was a way to connect as well as a way to live in my imagination. So, from the beginning, there was both that independence/solitude and interdependence/communicating.
And no one was telling me to write. No parent or teacher or any authority figure. I just wanted to. I just kept doing it because it was so fun and freeing. That’s the energy that’s stayed with me, which feels very lucky, because it is too frequently stamped out by institutions and familial expectations and financial pressures. I want this kind of creative space for everyone.
These days I try not to think too much about publication or promotion or the whole career side of things when I’m writing. I want to preserve the playground. I want to honor my tree-climbing self, a core self that wants to smell pine-filled afternoon air, that wants to carry that smell back into the house, back to the page.
I could be writing about something deeply difficult. I mean, I often am. But I don’t want to push myself to just relive trauma for the sake of making art—an idea and an approach that’s forced upon many marginalized writers. I know how I’m expected to produce consumable trauma, palatable pain, for a white, cishet audience. So, I take a lot of care to do as much as I can on my own terms. I’m still learning how. Joy and humor are part of how. At the same time, I don’t want to over-rely on levity to “balance out” the gravity. Rather, I ultimately want a tonal complexity that feels honest to the swirl of emotions I’m exploring. I want a textured world, a sonic and imagistic world that pulses with pine scent alongside pain, alongside something I could not have predicted at all. That is, something that didn’t happen and couldn’t have happened before the poem started happening.
TB: It does feel like the world would be a more vivacious place if we were all still climbing trees. I mean, within reason—I don’t know if I trust myself to successfully climb a pine tree. Maybe a smallish, safeish tree. So, along with being an educator, you are also the cofounder and coeditor of the literary journal Underblong. Has working closely with others on their writing impacted your own in a significant way?
CC: Yes! Underblong has been such a passion project, emphasis on the passion—we publish very slowly, only an issue or two a year, but it’s immensely rewarding because I get to work with my best friend Sam and our wonderful team of readers. And because we get to publish all this exciting work! We always mostly publish writers whose work we didn’t know before they sent it to us. That’s so vital to me as an editor who wants to contribute to expanding literary space, and as a writer who wants to be constantly nourished by reading, by others’ work. Paying our contributors a modest honorarium is a key part of this project, too. We’d like to increase this honorarium in the future, which will likely involve some grant writing.
Anyhow, yes, I’m so delighted and inspired by the writing in Underblong. I’m delighted and inspired by all the conversations our editorial team has about the submissions. I’m delighted and inspired by the incredible breadth of styles, forms, and voices that get sent to us. It’s a huge honor. And it’s a lot of work, putting these issues together, but it’s always worth it. I’m proud of the wacky, wonderful poems we publish. The issues’ cover art, too! Wow. The talent. Oh and I hope folks are reading the editors’ notes, too—Sam and I have a blast writing those together.
TB: In another interview, you mentioned that this book “is about an exhausted world.” Your Emergency Contact… explores a complicated web of emotions that connects you and your family during their process of acknowledging and accepting your queer identity. It also operates within the larger context of America’s increasing violence toward Asian American communities, queer communities, and other marginalized groups. When faced with multiple layers of crushing exhaustion, how important is it to stay engaged, or to stay in touch with things and with people who ground you?
CC: Exhaustion seems to me like a perfectly reasonable response to the state of the world. Despair, too, to be honest. I think U.S. culture is so afraid of these emotions and these ways of being—because they’re not “productive.” Sometimes I see this in activist spaces, too: there’s little to no room for exhaustion, despair, grief, because they “get in the way” of action. But I need room in which to feel honestly, in which to process emotions, in which to rest, actually rest.
And what I love about poetry, at its best, is that there’s so much room for an array of feelings and modes, including the nonproductive ways. The difficult and maybe shameful ones. I’m not fueled by either absolute cynicism or absolute optimism. Both extreme ends of the spectrum feel like dead ends—though, at the same time, I appreciate when poems explore extremes like these, since they are part of human experience. But mainly I want an honest mix. I can stand in a room or join a Zoom as an educator, and I can also need a delicious meal. I can protest and also be very sad. I can be outraged and also want to have hot queer sex. I can dance in my living room and then lie all the way back down because there’s been yet another mass shooting. Not taking time to grieve is a big problem in this country.
I believe in taking all the action one can but I’m done with heroics, with the expectation for marginalized people, in particular the most marginalized among us, to sacrifice so much for a cause. Too many people don’t survive being heroes. Too much burnout and too much stress and too much dying. I want to live. I want my queer, trans, and queer/trans Asian American friends to live.
Staying in touch with things and people that ground me is crucial, yes. And staying engaged—well, I don’t feel like I really have a choice. I have to, since it’s my life and rights, my communities’ lives and rights, that are under constant attack. But resting and reflecting are not disengaging. They are essential—and really, a large part of what I’m fighting for. That is, the time and space to be full people, which is denied to so many. I am privileged to some degree with how I can take time to catch my breath, which feels like such a sad sentence to write. This should not be a privilege. Abundant rest and reflection and the space in which to move through emotions honestly should be available to everyone.
TB: This collection is hybrid, featuring poetry and prose that unfurls in a variety of forms. In that way, the work itself resists absolute categorization. Do you find a kind of freedom in that?
CC: I do find a kind of freedom in this hybridity, which at first came about primarily because I wanted to work on my sentences. After my first book, everyone and their grandma (sometimes literally! not just an exaggeration!) was talking about my use of anaphora, about my embrace of repetition. And I do love repetition. I still do. I love making sonic patterns. I love making lists. I love how a list can allow a poem to leap and leap while holding a pleasing shape at the same time. I love playing with order and chaos, disorder and pattern. I love to circle back. I love to say “but wait and also…” It’s my maximalist sensibility. I want to throw it all in, including the kitchen sink, including the handsome neighbor’s kitchen sink, including the gorgeous god of kitchen sinks.
So, with the understanding that this is my sensibility, I understood, too, that I needed to shake things up. I couldn’t use anaphora to the degree that I did in my first book—or I could, but it had to happen in different ways. Thus this form in the season poems (the poems titled “Summer” and “Winter” and then the single poems, “Autumn” and “Spring”), where I go sentence by sentence, each one a stanza of its own. I had to put some pressure on my process. This form allowed me to focus on each sentence as its own unfolding, living entity. If I started a new sentence in the same way as the previous, then I was hyperaware of that choice, and it would be a very deliberate choice, rather than a habit of thought.
As I mentioned before, the prose sequence of the second section, “a small book of questions,” began as a lyric essay; this was for a nonfiction workshop. Then I remember having conversations with Jess Smith and Mag Gabbert, classmates/friends in my PhD program, who suggested I play with bringing this prose piece into the new poetry manuscript. It took me a good while to figure out how to do that, with splitting up the essay into “chapters” that are interrupted by other poems. The essay also became more hybrid itself, with some sections lineated or formatted in weirder ways. It was fun to break out of paragraphs. And it was fun to see what kind of poet I could be in paragraphs. Since I started out in fiction way back when, I do gravitate toward a narrative arc—in single poems and across a section, across an entire collection. At the same time, the lyric poet in me distrusts narrative neatness and always wants the work to erupt with sonic strangeness, imagistic pleasure, total leaps in so-called logic.
TB: Speaking of categorization, you speak openly about being at the crossroads of multiple identities as a Chinese American, a queer man, a poet, the son of immigrants, an educator in West Texas, etc. As Lucille Clifton might say, you’ve shaped your own “kind of life” by emerging with authenticity and defying certain expectations of others—a feat deserving of celebration. Do you have any advice for those, especially from marginalized communities, who are forging their own paths?
CC: In general, I don’t love giving advice, as I don’t love receiving it—though I suppose I do give advice all the time as a teacher! I mean, I try not to be (too) prescriptive. There’s no one answer, no one size fits all “solution.” I will say that forging one’s own path can be very lonely, so I recommend finding community, yes. And really that could be one good friend. Two. It starts from there, anyway. Or it stays there, if you’re very introverted, which has been/can be my tendency, though I’ve realized I’m an extrovert when it comes to talking with poets/talking about poetry, so the whole introvert/extrovert binary is an oversimplification.
Do what feels right for you—which involves paying attention to what feels right for you. Always come back to that. You don’t have to make friends or build community like someone else. Or maybe you’re at a point where you have that community and need to spend more time reading. More time studying. More time discussing craft. More time in libraries. More time walking around. Maybe apply for a writing residency, if that makes sense for your goals. MFA programs can be helpful, but you also don’t need one to write or to publish. And you don’t need to write every day. I don’t! You do need to be attentive. As much as possible. You do need astonishment. Wherever you find it. I’m starting to sound like one of my favorite Mary Oliver quotes:
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
(from her poem “Sometimes”)
A line by one of my former teachers, Aracelis Girmay, also comes to mind:
& so to tenderness I add my action.
(from her poem “The Black Maria”)
To what would you add your action? And reflection? To what would you add yourself? And please understand just how serious these questions are—because your life has incomparable meaning and significance. I give you these questions with love and hope you’ll ask them of yourself with love.
TB: In the last poem of the collection, which is structured as a letter, you say that you write “toward.” Could you say more about that?
CC: Thank you for this magnificent question. I’m not sure if I can answer it adequately at the moment. In that poem I’m thinking about how people, including the friend I’m writing to in that poem (the wonderful Michelle Lin), have identified the joy in my writing as a hallmark of my poetic sensibility. And there is a lot of joy in my work. And it’s interesting to think about because I don’t know if I’m “naturally” a joyful person—for me that state is one that involves transformation and becoming. I become joyful through writing, through connecting, through loving.
And that poem is an elegy for a student of mine, who I worked with at Texas Tech and who, as the piece describes, died suddenly in a car accident. I had never experienced this kind of loss before. I was in shock. I’m still processing what happened, several years later. Finding joy again after that loss took time and effort and more time. I was scared to go back into the classroom. I felt sad for my student, for her family and community, for her classmates. At the same time, I wanted/I want to remember how much joy she brought to our class. I wanted/want to remember her writing, her poems. Her questions about poetry. I hope the poem honors her life alongside the grieving.
Back to your specific question: I love the word “toward,” how it always suggests movement. Toward joy, yes—I am often trying to move there. But maybe more often it’s toward surprise. I write to be surprised, even when the subject is loss. I write to wonder: What in this grief have I not looked at yet? What in this grief still needs to be spoken? What can my work attend to better in both the loss and the life? Maybe I’ve failed to arrive somewhere “better,” but I’ve moved toward somewhere else, and maybe I’m still moving toward (which feels much truer than “moving forward”), and that’s what I and the poem need.