Our poetry co-editor Erin Post had this exchange with Chen Chen, our Issue #28 and Volume 3 print issue featured poet. Here’s what he had to say about writing communities, pop culture as an influence, and his intentional use of humor in his poetry.
Let’s talk about titles. Several of the pieces we are featuring in Mud Season Review have titles that invite multiple interpretations of the poem that follows—“The School of Sharpening” and “Circle C If You Just Don’t Know,” for example. How do you approach titling a piece? What should a title accomplish?
I love titles. One of my good friends from high school has this game where people look at paintings and have to come up with titles for them. No one knows the actual title. There’s so much room for creativity, and people end up revealing things about their personalities through the titles they invent. Some of the paintings actually take their titles from poems. I had the great honor of hosting the game one time and found all these images through someone’s very dedicated art Tumblr. I wanted a range of periods and styles, a range of moods, so folks would be challenged to go serious and whimsical, literal and abstract, on-the-nose as well as completely off-the-wall. Of course, sometimes the titles are indeed arbitrary; the artist’s just having a good time.
I don’t recommend doing that for poems, though. A work of visual art doesn’t always need a title, since it isn’t usually operating via words. A poem, however, can become something new with a good title. What follows the title should be good, too; a title can’t magically rescue a piece. But the title serves as the first part of the seduction a poem performs. I think of titles like “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem” (Matthew Olzmann) and “Morning, Motherfucker” (Jason Koo). One of my favorite book titles is The Oblivion Ha-Ha (James Tate). Another is People Are Tiny in Paintings of China (Cynthia Arrieu-King). And I also like those titles that are bold, single-word proclamations: Chord (Rick Barot), Anybody (Ari Banias), Look (Solmaz Sharif), Song (Brigit Pegeen Kelly).
Once, I had a conversation with Mary Ruefle at a post-reading dinner. We were talking about Amherst, Massachusetts, where I grew up and where she had spent some time on a teaching gig, if I recall correctly. I brought up an independent bookstore in downtown Amherst, Food for Thought. Ruefle paused and looked at me quite seriously. She said, “What a terrible name for a bookstore. If you ever write a poem with ‘Food for Thought’ as the title…well, just don’t.” I’ve wanted to write a poem called “Food for Thought” ever since that conversation.
The poems here in Mud Season Review seem to take up vulnerability as a theme—vulnerability in sexual relationships, in family dynamics, in friendships. But you often do it with a sense of playful humor. What’s the relationship there?
The humor is just true to how I walk around in the world and how I try to connect with people. For a while, I was writing very serious poems; I wanted to be a Serious Poet. I’m still deeply serious about the work of writing, but the poems I used to write were so dark and trying so hard to devastate. They were lifeless. Then there were these poems I wrote for class but had put aside, thinking they were just assignments. Those poems were closer to how I actually talk. I thought they were sort of silly. But eventually I realized that I’m sort of silly, that maybe there are ways to harness that silliness and take what’s going on in my silly heart seriously.
So now I’m trying to use the humor very purposefully. An absurd image or funny turn of phrase is often how I enter a poem. I need that off-kilter element and honestly, that element of entertainment. A poem should give pleasure, and I don’t just mean carefully constructed images and surprising line breaks—I mean, pratfalls and pies in the face, or whatever the lyric equivalents of such antics might be. Sometimes, though, I know I haven’t done enough to turn the humor into something more memorable—humor in the pursuit of insight, truth, even justice.
I am struck by how your poems use juxtaposition and quick turns to pose big questions. For example, in “How will you live now?”, a reference to the TV series Gilmore Girls asks important questions about identity and the depiction of Asian Americans on screen. This is followed by the lovely lines: “As the slowly expanding/sound of the word/armoire.” There is something happening in between those lines that adds to the poem. Can you talk a little about that space? How do you use these juxtapositions to create meaning, here and elsewhere?
Thank you for noticing that in-between space and for asking me this question! I’ve wanted, for a long time, for someone to ask me about Gilmore Girls in the context of poetry. Maybe that’s why I wrote this poem. Just so I could be asked. Honestly, I’m stalling here because I’m not sure if I can give a satisfactory answer to this wonderful question. Let’s start with: I watch a lot of TV. Probably too much for someone who claims to be a poet. There’s a lot of excellent TV these days, though. Gilmore Girls was a favorite show years ago. Then news of a Netflix revival arrived. Then the Netflix revival arrived. I have a lot of feelings about the revival episodes. Mixed feelings. Mainly about Rory and her love interests. Did Dean really need to come back? Jess aged the best in physical terms. Obviously.
Anyway, I had this poem responding to the question, “How will you live now?” which came from Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. The earlier drafts of this poem had no Gilmore Girls. But I think I kept returning to the word now in the question. I was watching the denizens of Stars Hollow get up to no good (by their quaintly New England standards) again. That was the now I needed. Also, I was pissed that Lane Kim and her mother, Mrs. Kim, got basically zero stories/screen time. Mrs. Kim has run an antique furniture store in Stars Hollow since the dawn of time, and we finally got to see what Mr. Kim looks like, and Lane is way cooler than Rory. The armoire in the poem came out of Mrs. Kim’s furniture store. One draft of the poem had a whole extended reimagining of the show as the Kim Girls. Lorelai buys an armoire but no, it’s about Mrs. Kim selling the armoire to Lorelai. Mrs. Kim and Lane are protagonists. Someday I’ll write that poem/script, but ultimately, for this poem, I needed to move on from my elaborate, subversive Gilmore Girls rewrite. A reader doesn’t need to know the armoire came from the show. The focus has shifted to the sound of the word. The juxtaposition happened by weird rambling, kind of a stupid accident. More importantly: Lane should’ve gotten a full storyline. There was plenty of time! They could’ve not done Taylor’s super long, super pointless musical.
Some of your poems explore sex and sexuality with openness and honesty (such as “First Love” from this collection, and your poem “An Ode to Reading Rimbaud in Lubbock Texas”). Is this a matter of reflecting your own sexual identity in your work? What do you hope readers will take away from these poems?
My poems are often braver than I am. They can say things I’m not ready to, yet. I came out in poems and other kinds of writing before I came out to any person, including myself. I would write about cute boys, but I would put the “he’s cute” thought in a girl’s perspective, or I’d say to myself, this description is just for the sake of this piece of writing. I found ways to distance myself from what was getting closer to the truth.
It’s still difficult in certain contexts and very real places to be out and adamantly vocal. Survival in hostile environments demands silence. But being queer is an important part of my life and my work. No, it’s not the only part, and it doesn’t “define” me or my poems, but it’s kind of ridiculous, I think, not to acknowledge it clearly and directly. People are queer and a lot of queer people have sex and it’s beautiful and we shouldn’t need to tiptoe around it.
I hope readers learn a bit about anal play.
Let’s delve into your past a bit. Your trajectory seems to suggest a life-long love of writing—BA in creative writing from Hampshire College, MFA from Syracuse University, and now a Ph.D. in English and creative writing from Texas Tech University. Can you talk about your journey to becoming a poet? Where did you grow up; who were some of your early influences; when did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
I grew up in Amherst. I memorized poems by Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. In eighth grade, I did a whole project about Frost. Over time, due to Frost being the most overexposed poet of my early education, I came to dislike his work; it’s hard for me to separate a certain image of an old-fashioned and very white New England from my image of Frost. I’m trying to move past that and learn from his craft (again).
Just before I started high school, my family relocated to Newton. So I guess it would make sense to say I also grew up in Newton (I’m still growing up). My sophomore English teacher introduced me to the magic of Li-Young Lee. At the Newton Free Library (an incredible public library), I discovered: Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Louise Glück, Robert Hass, Jane Hirshfield, Haruki Murakami, T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Trakl, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Matsuo Bashō, translations of the Dao De Jing, and Shunryu Suzuki (I was trying out Buddhism but found I liked reading about meditation more than meditating).
I knew I wanted to be a writer in the second grade. I wrote fan fiction and song lyrics and diary entries a la Harriet the Spy. In the fifth grade, I wrote a story involving a melancholic witch who lived in Venice and had to battle Rumpelstiltskin. I don’t know how far I’ve traveled from that basic plot. Until my third year of college, I wrote both fiction and poetry. I wrote more fiction, though I was reading a lot more poetry. Then I took my first poetry workshop with Martín Espada, and all I wanted to do was write poems. Martín introduced me to a long and rich history of what he called “poetry of the political imagination.” Martín showed me alternate canons and literary traditions from Latin America, Europe, and the “America” I thought I knew. I’d written before about growing up queer in a Chinese immigrant family, but Martín encouraged me to go deeper into the subject and provided me tools and frameworks with which to make the politically engaged work I needed to make. Actually, one of the poems in my first book had its (rough) start in Martín’s workshop.
I feel so lucky to have worked with the teachers I’ve had. Just astonishing presences, brilliances, kindnesses, these teachers. I don’t think you’d be interviewing me right now if not for the teachers who’ve given me so much.
You have also taught writing throughout your career, as a University Fellow at Syracuse, and now as an instructor at Texas Tech. How does teaching writing inform your own work? How does your writing inform your teaching?
Teaching is its own art. I don’t know how much I think about my own writing as I’m teaching. Maybe subconsciously, I do. But mostly I’m just trying to give everything I’ve got to the learning environment and to my students’ writing. When I’m writing, I try to give everything to the moment of making something happen on the page. Frequently, I do feel energized after teaching, energized to go write. It doesn’t seem like I get ideas for writing from teaching. It’s more that I’m immersed in that environment of letting the mind roam and consider and respond and play. As I said, my teachers have given to me in enormous ways. Their example is constantly inspiring and pushing me to improve my pedagogy, to listen to what students are offering rather than imposing my ways of seeing and making on them. Listening is crucial in writing, as well. Listening to a poem rather than forcing it to adhere to some preconceived idea. Sure, there are these intriguing overlaps and analogies. Still, teaching is a time with students.
I have found myself contemplating this quote from you: “I used to doubt that word ‘community.’ Loved my solitude. I still do. I mean. I’m an introvert & I’m certainly ambitious about my writing (both the making of it & the sharing of it). But I know now: poetry without community is misery. Unsustainable. Dulled & not so delicious anymore.” What kind of community do you aspire to? How has community made your work more “delicious”?
A part of me tends to think that I became a writer so that I wouldn’t have to talk to people. Sometimes I get tired of social interactions in academia or literary circles. But I’m sure it’s the same in any field—you end up in situations that are obligatory and boring.
The more I think about it, though, it would be more accurate to say that I became a writer because I was a lonely kid who wanted desperately to talk to people…except my kind of talk likes to happen on the page. To talk with those far away, to talk with the dead, and to say only what is essential and to question what is essential, to question beautifully—poetry can do that.
That said, I do love one-on-one conversation. I love conversation about art, food, TV, St. Vincent’s song “Prince Johnny,” St. Vincent’s hairstyles, and not dogs generally but my dog. I love any conversation that enters into something that matters. Small talk, no. But I’m open to talking about any number of small things that matter.
By “community,” the kind of community I love and want more of, I mean spaces and organizations that are doing the urgent work of gathering and nourishing those who often find themselves without community. Organizations like Kundiman and Lambda Literary, spaces like the writing retreats they run. As a queer Asian American writer, it’s been a relief and a joy to be welcomed into these communities. I’ve made lifelong friends. We share work. We celebrate accomplishments. We commiserate and lean on each other. We write in each other’s company. A favorite poem from my book was written in a friend’s kitchen in Brooklyn. I love that I have this memory of her kitchen every time I see the poem. The memory makes me happy and makes me want to keep writing.
How do you approach the revision process? How do you know when a poem is complete?
I revise like a maniac. Revision after revision after revision. I only send out work that I feel is ready, finished. But later, sometimes, I see things differently. For my full-length manuscript, I revised poems that had already appeared in journals, a handful of poems that had already appeared in my chapbooks. Jericho Brown, final judge for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize last year, got in touch a little after I found out I’d won and said the poems were wonderful, but now I could begin the process of writing the book. I realized that he was right: the poems lived together in one document, but the document was not quite a book yet. The revision, then, involved getting some poems to the same level as others…or cutting some (many) so that the book’s true shape could declare itself…or radically altering some so that all the poems were in conversation with one another. Mainly, though, the aim of the revision, as with any revision, was to make each poem, line by line, stronger, as strong as it could possibly be.
When I’m in revision mode, my whole world is in revision mode. I go to the grocery store, and every avocado is taunting me about that one line or image I can’t get right. If there’s a good stretch of poetry time available, I’ll stay glued to my chair for hours, going from draft three to draft fifteen, twenty. I’ll write a couple different endings. I’ll cut the first couple stanzas. I’ll write the entire thing out by hand. I’ll try to memorize and recite it out loud. I’ll write it backwards. I’ll put it in prose, then squeeze it into a sonnet. I’ll take out all the commas. I’ll take something from outside the window or on my desk and throw it into the poem to see what havoc, what bright new wreck it introduces.
I know a poem is done when I can’t seem to hold all of it in my head at once. The poem needs to exist on the page, for a reader. The poem knows something I don’t. The poem is smarter and better-looking than I am. I’m envious of the poem for how strangely it seduces.
Or: I know a poem is done when my trusted readers insist that I stop showing them drafts of it.
In an interview with Howlarium, you explained: “Theorist Avital Ronell talks about wanting to make certain people—the corrupt, the complacent, the oppressors—throw up when they read her work. That is my goal as a writer right now.” Where does this drive come from for you? Has this focus on political/social justice always been part of your approach or do you see this as particularly important in the current political climate?
My life has been shaped by political forces large and small. I think this is true of anyone’s life, whether or not a person writes politically in some direct, immediately discernable way. To get right down to it, though, I am queer and Asian American and the child of impoverished Chinese immigrants—my life has been shaped by homophobia, racism, classism, patriarchies of various origins. Thankfully, my life has also seen and contributed to various forms of resistance to these interlocking oppressions. Writing is part of how I resist. It’s central to how I live, so it seems inevitable that the political would have a clear and abiding presence in what I create.
As for making the oppressors throw up, that goal is particular to right now. In the past I usually thought about the power of poetry in terms of changing hearts and minds. I still believe that poetry can create profound change. However, I’ve become deeply interested in making space for my own rage and not making things comfortable or palatable for those who are only interested in dominating and subjugating me and the people I love.
You have a strong social media presence – over 1400 Twitter followers! And your Instagram feed is fun to browse. How do you think social media can be helpful for writers and artists? What has been your strategy for using it?
Thanks for thinking that over 1400 Twitter followers is a lot! I don’t have a fixed strategy for social media. I’m super inconsistent. I tweet when I feel like it, which means some days I’ll tweet a storm and other days nothing. Same for Instagram, where I’m probably even more inconsistent. I love the interactions I’m able to have with fellow writers on social media, and I definitely learn of many more books and readings and political happenings than I would’ve…but I just don’t know how to multitask where I’m able to be on social media more consistently. Other folks are much better at this than I am. I think sometimes I’m funny or say something in a very direct way, and people seem to respond to that. I try not to just announce professional/promotional stuff all the time. That gets annoying. Oh look, my new blah blah blah and I’m going to be at blah blah blah and check me out in blah blah blah. So maybe my strategy is to minimize how much annoyance I cause.
Given that your dog is named Rupert Giles, we are guessing that you’re a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan! How does pop culture influence your work? More importantly, which character from BTVS do you relate to the most and why?
Yes, I am a massive BTVS fan. And pop culture is a massive influence on my work. As I’ve said, I watch a lot of TV. Actually, I wanted to be a TV writer at some point. When the poe-biz gets me down, I fantasize about going into TV writing. But then I remember what a terrible uphill battle TV writers often face. Anyway, that’s a good question—how does pop culture influence my work? On a surface level, there are the pop culture references in my work. On a perhaps less obvious level, I tend towards a certain jokey conversational style. I love the banter on BTVS. The dialogue on that show made me fall in love with language, the flexibility and unpredictability of an English populated by handsome vampires and the peppy blond girl chosen to fight/love them.
I relate most to Anya, the vengeance demon turned funniest member of the Scooby Gang. Not that I think I am the funniest of any gang. I just like that she has to learn how to be human and that it’s an absurd and frequently difficult process.
You recently founded with a friend an online literary journal called Underblong. What motivated this project? What do you hope to achieve?
My friendship with the wonderful poet and person Sam Herschel Wein motivated this project. We wanted to create a journal that was weirder and less concerned with appearing “serious” than the journals we’d seen. Or we wanted to redefine “serious” to include the outrageous, the naughty, the irreverently rupturing. We hope the journal…well, we hope people will read the journal. There’s a lot out there, and it’s kind of amazing that people keep creating new publications. I’m glad, though. The efforts are important.
Your first full-length collection of poetry will be published in the spring of 2017. Can you talk about the process of creating that book – what surprised you about the process? What did you learn?
Basically, the book started as my MFA thesis. Most of the poems were written while I was at Syracuse University. So, a ton of snow. Trees. Ice. Trees. Wind. I mean, I grew up in Massachusetts so the weather wasn’t new, really. For a while I resisted writing my Syracuse snow poems. Then I just had to.
It surprised me how much weather affected my writing. And landscape. I didn’t think of myself as a place-based writer. I’m bad at describing what particular trees look like, and I don’t know many bird names. Terrible, I know, for a poet to admit. But the surprise and what I learned: I’m a sucker for nature. I’d like to live in a big, vibrant city where I can go to concerts and new museum exhibits all the time, but I need parks, open green spaces, seasons with distinct personalities.
Moving to Lubbock, I’ve had trouble acclimating. To the culture, yes, and to the sky, the land. The sky is a huge presence here. The land is flat and dry. I miss the trees and mountains of snow. I’m trying to write my way into the dust and heat.
Since Mud Season Review grew out of the Burlington Writers Workshop we like to ask: is there a best or worst workshop experience you’d like to share with us?
Other than Martín Espada’s workshop, there was a poetry workshop with Bruce Smith in the spring of 2014 and a nonfiction workshop with Jill Patterson last fall. Amazing teachers and good dynamics between workshop-mates. Learned a lot and also, people enjoyed each other’s company. Bruce gave really energizing prompts and short but very smart craft spiels. Jill chose stellar books for us to discuss and taught us about video essays. Jill also brought pizza and fried chicken. It doesn’t get any better.
What writers, poets, artists, or other thinkers have been important to your development as a writer?
Too many to list in full. Six influences I’ve returned to recently: James Baldwin, Anne Carson, Justin Chin, Lucille Clifton, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde. Also, everyone should read Jennifer S. Cheng’s debut collection, House A. Never have I felt more seen and held by a book of poetry.
What are you working on now?
Essays about living in Lubbock. Poems about the sounds and weathers of living in Lubbock.
What are your thoughts on the state of contemporary poetry? What is it doing well? What could it be doing better?
Contemporary poetry is moving in so many different, glorious directions. I love the energy. I’d just like to see more poems about pug dogs performing heroic deeds. It’s happening in real life. Where is the art immortalizing these brave acts?
On another note, I want an end to Orientalism and sexism in poems. I see this as an editor and it enrages me. Just stop! I’m very tired, and I’d rather eat a bag of a stranger’s hair than read another poem about a white person feeling “spiritual” in Asia or a cis straight man ogling in some “edgy” way. Stop!
Write a poem about pug dogs performing heroic deeds instead. It is happening somewhere in the world right this moment.