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Interview with Chen Chen, author, and poet

CHEN CHEN born in Xiamen, China, is an American poet who grew up in Massachusetts.

After graduating from Newton North High School, he received his B.A. in creative writing and Asian/Pacific/American Studies at Hampshire College in 2011, and his M.F.A. from Syracuse University in 2014.

Chen is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in English and creative writing at Texas Tech University, where he is a part-time instructor in composition.

He received in 2017 National Book Awards. He wrote Set the Garden on Fire (Porkbelly Press, 2015) and Kissing the Sphinx (Two of Cups Press, 2016).

His work has appeared in Poetry, The Massachusetts Review, Drunken Boat, Best of the Net, The Best American Poetry, The Academy of American Poets, and elsewhere. When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities was a finalist for the Lambda literary award for gay poetry.

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Interview by Dominique Musorrafiti


This is a selected interview from
Planet China Vol. 05 issue

China-underground: What motivated you to start writing? When did you understand your passion for poetry?

Chen Chen: I’ve known since second grade that I wanted to become a writer of some kind. Throughout elementary school, during recess, I would get my friends to act out skits with me on the playground.

These make-believe sessions were based on TV shows and movies, often with my own additional characters or plot twists thrown in.

I would jot down ideas for future skits, sometimes spinning these into short stories.

Eventually, more and more of my own world-building occurred, took over.

As my friends moved on to playing “real games” like soccer or basketball, I kept dreaming up scenarios and increasingly, playing them out on the page.

In middle school, I got obsessed with the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and thought for a while I’d become a TV writer (maybe I’ll still write for TV at some point, who knows).

I loved and continue to love the kind of long-form, serial storytelling that a TV show can do.

In high school, I started to write poetry more seriously—outside of English class assignments, though it was fantastic, dedicated English teachers who encouraged me and looked at my drafts and guided me through my early attempts at rigorous revision.

I feel extremely lucky that I had these English teachers who spent time with me during lunch and after school, talking with me about poetry, what I was reading, what I was writing.

Also lucky: the amazing public library I frequented during my high school years—the Newton Free Library in Newton, MA.

I checked out so many poetry books by contemporary poets who are still my influences today: Margaret Atwood, Louise Glück, Li-Young Lee, Robert Hass, and others.

I also read translations of the Dao De Jing and other works of Chinese as well as Japanese philosophy.

It wasn’t until my third year of college, though, that I started to focus primarily on writing poetry.

Up to that point, I wrote both fiction and poetry, and more fiction.

It was taking workshops with Heather Madden and Aracelis Girmay at Hampshire College as well as with Martín Espada at UMass Amherst that really shifted things—changed my life.

I fell in love with the process of working on a poem for hours and hours, trying to get every line, every image strangely right, fully alive.

Chen Chen
Chen Chen. Author: Keegan Lester

Who influenced you as a person and poet?

My family, both blood and chosen.

And with particular gratitude to my friends Sam Herschel Wein and Mag Gabbert, who have been really important first/trusted readers for my work.

I love trading poems with them, talking about craft alongside our specific visions, our specific hopes for what a poem can do.

Sam and I also collaborate on a number of projects: a joint chapbook, a journal called Underblong, outfit decisions, etc.

My teachers, including graduate school teachers whom I haven’t mentioned yet—especially Bruce Smith, Michael Burkard, Christopher Kennedy, and Minnie Bruce Pratt during my MFA… and especially Curtis Bauer and Jill Patterson during my PhD.

My partner Jeff Gilbert and our pug dog, Mr. Rupert Giles (named after a Buffy character, of course). My community through Kundiman, an organization that nurtures Asian American writers, supports Asian American literature.

And with great love to Cofounders Sarah Gambito and Joseph O. Legaspi, to Executive Director Cathy Linh Che. And the friends, the family I’ve made through Kundiman, including Monica Sok, Muriel Leung, Janine Joseph, Michelle Lin, Kazumi Chin, Swati Khurana, and Jennifer S. Cheng.

Chen Chen
Chen Chen. Author: Keegan Lester

Did you find any difficulties or obstacles to express your points of view at the beginning?

For a while, I kept trying to write like the poets who most influenced me, such as Louise Glück and Li-Young Lee.

But I was trying too hard to be a serious poet, writing about very serious things in a sort of spare, recognizably “high lyric” way. Sometimes I would write much more conversational poems that used a lot of humor, but I didn’t give those poems as much weight or really think of myself as a poet who could be funny and serious at the same time.

It took time for me to see how much more alive my poems were when I allowed a kind of language that was closer to the way I talk with friends, with people I love.

In graduate school, I returned to poems by Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Ross Gay, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Mary Ruefle.

And I saw and valued more the comedic moments in work by Glück and Lee. The play and imagination in these poems led to weird new work of my own. Halfway through my MFA, I started to embrace an approach to writing that felt more wacky, more true, and more me.

Another kind of difficulty, set of difficulties: growing up gay with deeply homophobic parents… and growing up as the child of Chinese immigrants in predominantly white school environments.

I don’t want to simplify things here—I also experienced and continue to experience homophobia from white folks, too. Much of my poetry is autobiographical and explores these confrontations with homophobia, xenophobia, and racism.

Sometimes straight white classmates in creative writing classes have misunderstood my work or been dismissive of it. I’ve had to push through those unhelpful comments.

Finding and building community outside of writing programs has been crucial. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that falling in love with poetry was a life-changing event.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that becoming friends with fellow queer poets of color has been life-saving.

What message do you want to communicate with your works?

I don’t think there’s anyone message I want to communicate.

I hope there’s a range of things to glean from my poetry. I love being surprised by a reader’s interpretation. I don’t think a poem really starts to live all it can live until someone else picks it up, carries it around in their own idiosyncratic way.

That’s the magic: the interaction between someone else’s brain and being with this language-creature I’ve made.

What about your book “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities”? Where the idea come from? How long did it take you to complete it?

This book started as my MFA thesis.

I worked closely with my thesis advisor, Bruce Smith, on the initial version. The title comes from a poem in the collection.

The collection happened poem by poem, over the three years of the MFA, and mostly during the second half of the program.

I started to think about grouping the poems together through working on two different chapbooks—Set the Garden on Fire, which eventually was published in 2015 by Porkbelly Press, and Kissing the Sphinx, which came out in 2016 via Two of Cups Press.

The former chapbook contained very narrative poems, more straightforward autobiography. The latter chapbook had very surreal poems, more fictionalized or just fictional speakers and scenes.

I was working through how to bring these two aesthetic directions together in some way but first had to see them as separate, smaller projects.

My MFA thesis included a handful of poems from both chapbooks and then a great deal of other poems. I wanted the collection to feel expansive, to say something about potential and becoming as a perpetual process, not a thing that ends once you’re an adult.

Growing up goes on and on, in all these surprising ways. And as a queer person of color, I often have to create my own ways forward (and back, too—the kinds of memory, kinds of history that are mine instead of what’s been dictated to or for me).

At the same time, as I said in my last response, I wanted a range of interpretations for the reader, as well. So, I don’t think this book is (about) any one thing.

Post-MFA, I sent the book out to presses. When it won BOA Editions’ A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, the judge for the contest, Jericho Brown, reached out and we worked on revising the manuscript together.

Brown was incredibly generous with his time and really understood the book as a book better than I did—its arc, its shape.

The oldest poem in the book, “Race to the Tree,” I started in college. So if you count that, it took seven years to complete the book. But if we’re starting from when I started assembling these poems as a book, then it’s more like three years.

Do you think that growing in Massachusetts has affected your way of writing?

Yes. I didn’t use to think so.

I used to think I could live anywhere and that I’d be inspired and changed by people, but not the place.

And then I moved to West Texas to do a doctoral program.

It was such an uprooting. I didn’t recognize the landscape, the seasons.

I missed what was familiar to me, growing up in Massachusetts. I missed the trees, the hills, the way the air smells in autumn.

I realized how deeply I’d been shaped by those elements, as a person, and as a poet. If you flip through my book you’ll see all the references to trees and four distinct seasons and snow, lots of snow.

Some of that was also influenced by my time in Syracuse—where I spent three years, for my MFA.

This next collection of poems I’m working on is definitely influenced by the flat, dusty plains of West Texas, and how outside of that landscape I felt while living there… but also the particular beauty of it.

Chen Chen
Chen Chen. Author: Jeffrey-Gilbert

Can you share with us a story that inspired you to realize a poetry that became special for you?

I remember reading, for the first time, the poetry of Pablo Neruda, thanks to a class taught by brilliant poet and Neruda expert Martín Espada.

I remember reading the poem “I Explain a Few Things,” which describes Neruda’s aesthetic shift from a detached surrealism to a politically engaged lyricism during the Spanish Civil War. Espada reading this poem out loud to us in his deep, booming voice… and then going back to my dorm room, I read the poem out loud myself… I was changed, through and through, without knowing that I needed this transformation.

Photos courtesy of Chen Chen. The photos were taken in order of appearance by Jess X. Snow, Keegan Lester, Jeffrey Gilbert

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