An Interview with Chen Chen
Nicole-Anne Bales Keyton
CHEN CHEN is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, which was longlisted for the National Book Award and won the Thom Gunn Award, among other honors. His work appears/is forthcoming in many publications, including Poetry and three editions of The Best American Poetry (2015, 2019, and 2021). He has received a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from Kundiman and the NEA. He teaches at Brandeis University and also serves on the faculty for the low residency MFA programs at New England College and Stonecoast. With Sam Herschel Wein, he runs the journal Underblong.
In addition to being the finalist judge for the 2021 Peseroff Poetry Prize, Chen has also agreed to answer a few questions from the editorial staff at Breakwater Review. The interview below was conducted in early May over email.
Breakwater Review: At BWR, we appreciate the work you, Sam Herschel Wein, and your many wonderful poetry readers put into curating issues of Underblong! When reading through your latest issue, I took a peek at some of the other pages on the site, including the “what we like” page, and I was intrigued by the array of things, from giant cabbage statues to a Snorlax sporting cowboy boots. From an editorial perspective, I’m curious about how your affinities outside of the more *traditional* modes of literature influence your editorial decision making.
Chen Chen: Ah I’m so delighted to talk about Underblong. It’s such a labor of love, a dream project. And I’m super tickled that you checked out that “what we like” page; I get a big kick out of the URL: https://www.underblong.com/underblonging. Sam and I talk on FaceTime about things to add to that page all the time, and then we forget to jot them down, or we remember but forget where we jotted the ideas down. Anyway, yes, giant cabbage statues and a Snorlax sporting cowboy boots (two of my personal faves from the list)! These items embody, as we at Underblong like to call it, blonginess. We’re always looking for blongy qualities—in poems, in other art forms, in conversations, in our everyday lives. Blonginess consists of a certain playfulness, with heart. Playfulness + tenderness. Though maybe that’s an oversimplified equation/definition. There’s also a political dimension to blonginess—a queerness, a commitment to refusing the status quo, which includes refusing a kind of Literary Seriousness that seems stifling and frankly, heteronormative!
So yes, in reading submissions to Underblong, we’re seeking the heat of wonder, the splash of wackiness, the startle of willfulness toward, as Emily Jungmin Yoon has phrased it, “the language that governs us.” We love poems that rearrange our sense of the possible—in language and in life. We love the ungovernable; we want to publish the unruly. The blongy. Of course, Underblong is only one journal, one vision/version of something more unruly in literature. I’m glad that there are many journals, a myriad of portals into some restlessly ungovernable dream.
BWR: I’m not sure if you remember this, but we actually published two of your poems a few years back, in Issue 12. How does it feel to see your previous work as a contributor and now on the other side of the masthead, so to speak, as a guest judge for our annual poetry contest?
CC: I do remember this publication! Thank you, again, for giving those poems their first home. The book version of one of them, “Elegy for My Sadness,” is actually quite different from this journal version (mainly the ending). But I still like this earlier version, and I’m glad that readers can find both. The other poem, “Song of the Anti-Sisyphus,” hasn’t changed that much from journal to book. It sort of astonishes me to take a look at these poems again on BWR; these poems are among the ones that I wrote during my MFA that seemed most alive, most idiosyncratically my own. Both of these poems are milestones—they mark my transition from emulating work by poets I love to figuring out my own approach, my own poetics, and embracing that.
I’m so honored and blown away to serve as a guest judge for your annual poetry contest. I never could’ve imagined contributing to BWR in this role. The opportunity means a great deal to me in large part because of these poems the journal published—because I wrote them during my MFA, and this publication was an important early encouragement in my writing life. To think that I could provide an encouragement like that to a newer/emerging writer! Just wow. And BWR is run by MFA students at a program I very much admire—that adds to my sense of gratitude and joy.
BWR: Do you have a favorite published poem of yours? Or perhaps a line from one of your poems that just keeps coming back to you on some days, when you’re doing dishes or walking under canopies of flowering trees?
CC: These lines from my poem “Spell to Find Family” pretty much sum up my poetics and also how I try to live my life:
My job is to trick adults
into knowing they have
My job is to trick
myself into believing
there are new ways
to find impossible honey.
I also want to shoutout this poem, “I Invite My Parents to a Dinner Party,” which is one of the key poems in my forthcoming second book, Your Emergency Contact Has Expressed an Emergency. This poem references the movie Home Alone and thinks through my messy relationship with my parents now that I’m an adult building a life with a partner.
BWR: It sounds like you have a busy schedule: teaching, editing, writing, mentorship, journal editing, and likely countless more responsibilities and hobbies outside of your work as a poet. Could you describe to our readers what your “work” life looks like, and how you forge some sort of routine or practice of your craft? Do you have any helpful advice that you’d like to share with those who might be struggling to carve out the time & space to nurture their craft?
CC: Oh I’m terrible at routine. My personality just seems very opposed to it. I don’t know. I don’t like predictable days, but then I can also get overwhelmed by the lack of structure and organization. So, I’m not the best person to ask about this, maybe?
I guess I try to listen to my body, in terms of what I have energy for, and then I’ll fully jump into an activity. I don’t like to half-ass things. Once I’ve decided to give my energy and focus to something, I’m giving my all. That approach can also be detrimental at times—I might spend way too long folding laundry or reorganizing my pens, for instance. But at its best, this approach means I am completely dedicated to a task or project, and this is especially good when it comes to working on poems. If I’m invested in a draft, I won’t let myself get up or shift focus to anything else; I’ll keep revising and tinkering and dreaming on the page. It’s when I tend to be at my happiest: spending time with a poem.
I’ve come to recognize that prioritizing that time = prioritizing my joy. Attending to language in poem ways = tending to myself in the most alive ways. So, even if I only have half an hour between other, less thrilling responsibilities, that can go toward a poem. But I try not to put too much pressure on myself, either. Maybe in that half hour, I need instead to completely dedicate myself to a snack. Or a nap.
The advice I can give is to pay attention to when you’re most thrilled to be writing. That’s going to be something different for every writer. Some like generating best; some absolutely love revision; some most enjoy reading the poem out loud, etc. What gets you hyped up about your own writing and your own process? Lean into that excitement. There are plenty of frustrating, disappointing aspects to writing. Allow yourself to embrace what gets you revved up and ready for more. You don’t have to write every single day. You really don’t. You don’t have to write every week, though once a week is a good regularity if you’re craving that. What I recommend is to try to identify what makes you super excited to write, and when you can make time for it, definitely do that thing, so you’ll really treasure your writing time and you’ll want to return to it sooner rather than later.
BWR: Is there one aspect of your professional/writing career that you find great joy in? Has that relationship changed over time?
CC: What a beautiful question. I find great joy in teaching and mentoring. It’s immensely rewarding. This statement is a bit of a cliché but there’s a deep truth to it: teachers learn a lot from their students. I can attest to that wholeheartedly. I learn things about craft, certainly, but I learn just as much if not more about courage and generosity, gratitude and vulnerability—how to practice and embody these qualities in everyday conversation, not only on the page.
Teaching teaches me, again and again, that every person has a valuable perspective and a rich imagination. Some may just not be accustomed to accessing that imagination, particularly in the form of poetry. But poetry can enable, empower people to access and to activate their imaginations in such vulnerable and surprising ways. My goal in teaching is always to encourage students to value their own hearts and minds—with each class I hope to leave students startled awake to the marvels, the treasures, the glories in their own heads and chests!
My relationship to teaching has changed over the years mainly in that I think I’m becoming a better teacher. Thank goodness! And thanks to brilliant teaching mentors. And thanks to brilliant students who, through their questions and insights and leaps, mentor me all the time in my pedagogy.
BWR: We’ve read a lot of poetry in this year’s submissions pool that was so strongly resonant with the political atmosphere in the US and the world at large. Is this something you see seeping into your own work, as well?
CC: I’ve long believed that the political is inseparable from the aesthetic, the literary, the poetic. As a queer Asian American living in the U.S., it seems impossible to not address political issues and events in my writing. My next book of poetry grapples with Trump, immigration, gun violence, anti-Asian violence during the pandemic, queerness and racialized queer life in a conservative city in West Texas (where I resided for most of my PhD program), among other subjects.
I don’t usually plan to write about overtly political subjects; I don’t sit down and go, “Oh now it’s time for my thoughts on gun violence.” Rather, I’m moved to the page by something specific that’s happened, and everything else going on in my life informs the writing, too. Some piece of the writing has to come from a personal place and also from a place rooted in language, in the music of words. And often I’ll start a poem with just a scrap of a phrase, something from a conversation or a line that’s popped up in my brain and I can’t let it go—and then the writing process leads me to a political subject. With any type of poem I write, I want to be surprised through the act of writing itself—because why write what I already feel certain I know, and because the poems turn out much stronger. As Lucille Clifton has said, “You come to poetry not out of what you know, but out of what you wonder.”
BWR: Do you ever feel tired of (read: burnout from) any of the work that you’re doing as a writer & as a public figure? Especially if your craft involves a strong sociopolitical engagement with the communities you aim to reach? If so, what do you feel like doing on those days when you want to celebrate your identity and the identities of others?
CC: I do sometimes experience burnout when it comes to engaging politically (alongside aesthetically). Being on Twitter can do that to you fairly easily! It’s hard to face online harassment, though as a cis man of East Asian descent, I don’t deal with the levels of harassment that other marginalized people do. I’m not harassed in person as much, either, even when I’m expressing radical political stances. I try to stay aware of my subject position, the privileges I possess along with the ways in which I face discrimination and oppression. That awareness can help with burnout—it puts situations and interactions in perspective. I also try my best to give myself grace while not compromising on my core politics.
On days when I want to focus on celebrating identities and communities, I’ll share (online and in person, if possible) poems by fellow Asian American writers, queer and trans writers, queer and trans Asian American writers. I’m aware that I have a strong (for a poet!) following on social media; I’m committed to amplifying the writing of other people, especially those who are also marginalized. I adopt this mindset in my teaching, too, with what I select for reading lists and how I create assignments.
And I might call or get on FaceTime with a friend—conversations with people I love are one of my deepest sources of joy. Long walks with friends, too. Sharing delicious food, co-delighting in deliciousness—yes, always. Lately, studying Mandarin (one of my heritage languages) has brought me oodles of joy, as one study method involves watching queer Chinese and Taiwanese drama series (for instance, HIStory3: Make Our Days Count or the wuxia series Word of Honor or We Best Love: No. 1 for You and the second season, Fighting Mr. 2nd). The Mandarin I’m learning now is much wilder and indeed blongier than anything I got to learn, growing up. I wish I’d had these series when I was younger; I’m so glad to have them now.
You can read the poem Chen Chen chose from our selected finalists for the 2021 Peseroff Poetry Prize here.
When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities is available now in independent bookstores & public libraries. His second poetry collection, Your Emergency Contact Has Expressed an Emergency, will be released in 2022.
NICOLE-ANNE BALES KEYTON is the editor-in-chief of Breakwater Review and an editorial assistant at Beacon Press. They received their MFA in Creative Writing for fiction at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Their work has been published in RESPONSE and on their blog, HintOfLibrary.com. You can probably find them on Goodreads until there's a better Amazon alternative.
Header art: "Heavy Sorrows" by Edward Michael Supranowicz.