Let Not-Knowing Push You Somewhere New10 min read

Urvashi Bahuguna interviews poet Chen Chen


“I am making my loneliness small. So small it fits on a postcard / a baby rabbit could eat,” writes Chen Chen in his debut collection of poetry, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities. In another poem, he articulates a related wish “for a place big enough for grief.” Chen makes space on the page for loneliness, for mental illness, for a difficult childhood as a queer son of Chinese parents, and for the experience of immigration. His masterful poems earned him the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize as well as a spot on the longlist for the National Book Award for Poetry. Chen told me why he thinks labels benefit a book of poetry, what he loves about long titles, and his hope that his parents read the poems about them as readers first. – Urvashi Bahuguna


Urvashi Bahuguna: The back of your book lists the categories POETRY / ASIAN AMERICAN / LGBTQ. How do you respond to being referred to as an Asian American poet or a queer poet?

Chen Chen: I embrace these labels because I think it’s important to be specific about the experiences and histories from which I’m writing. I want to question the supposed universality of work that doesn’t label itself by specific identity markers. Why doesn’t work about middle class white people in suburbia announce itself as such? Like: POETRY / MIDDLE CLASS WHITE PEOPLE / SUBURBIA / A LOT OF OBSERVATIONS ABOUT BIRDS PROBABLY. But that kind of writing typically just gets categorized as poetry, plain poetry. The assumption is that work like mine operates within a narrower landscape. But I want to show how expansive and messy and strange writing out of or in response to these particular categories can be.

“Asian American” can mean so many wildly different things. And “queer” is a category that historically, politically aims to destabilize identity and relationality. I like the contradictions in “queer”: at once referring to a specific set of experiences, group identities… and then pointing out the constructed-ness and fluidity of these categories. So, in writing the way I do, I try to explore specific life-worlds, but I also try to question the terms of my exploring, the assumptions I might be making and need to interrupt.

As an Indian reader, I thought some lines in this collection so perfectly captured parental expectation and disappointment in Asian families, such as “I am not the heterosexual neat freak my mother raised me to be. / …& my mother has placed what is left of her hope on my brothers.” Was it apparent to you, when were you writing this, that your experience might speak to other readers from countries and cultures in Asia and the Asian diaspora?

I’m so glad those lines resonated with you. When writing, though, I’m not thinking so much about audience on such a large scale as “the Asian diaspora.” I write something to figure out a problem for myself. Or I’m thinking about a friend, writing to a particular person. I hope the poem ends up speaking to more people, but I think about that in a sort of vague sense. It can become too much pressure to consider audience any further than that.

I don’t see myself as a “representative” of any sort. I don’t want to tell other people’s stories for them. Or assume my story “represents” anyone else’s. When it comes to how I depict my family, too, I hope that it’s clear I’m writing from my own subjective viewpoint. What I write is my version of things and I have to hold myself accountable to my choices in language.

“In the Hospital” is a very different poem about your mother than the rest. This one acknowledges male privilege and the domestic responsibilities of women, like grocery shopping.

“In the Hospital” came out of the observation in my own life that many people would rather avoid dealing with other people’s illnesses or health issues because doing so reminds them too much of their own bodily problems or potential bodily problems – or their own mortality. I would count myself among the avoiders, the afraid.

But with this poem I wanted to highlight how avoiding out of fear doesn’t help anyone – and that this action (or non-action) leads to an isolating of the person who is ill, in this case, my mother. She then has to shoulder more responsibility. She isn’t “allowed” to fall apart or feel fully her own real anxiety and fear. Instead, she has to maintain the family, both on a practical level and an emotional one. Patriarchal norms (American and Chinese) reinforce the dynamics of this situation where, yes, the male speaker and his father can more easily detach from domestic responsibilities. Or the men can fail to help out and it’s no big deal; they can fall back on the mother to keep things going. The mother herself understands that this task of keeping the family intact, feeding the family, is her expected task.

When you’re writing a collection as deeply personal as this, do you speak to the people you’ve written about to let them know?

My parents know I often write about them; they’ve known for a long time now. I don’t think they always read what I write, not every piece. But much of what I’ve written about them takes place years and years ago. So I’ve had conversations with them in person, not through poems, and these conversations address or somewhat resolve issues that I’ve left very much unresolved in the writing.

Certain issues between me and my parents do remain unresolved, and these issues have their roots in events from the past. Currently I’m interested in writing about the relationship I have with my parents as an adult – and what I’d like the relationship to be now. This is a trickier subject, perhaps, because I don’t have the benefit of hindsight. What I can see is what’s unfolding in the moment, right in front of me.

Still, I think of the poems as poems – language-worlds or meaning-bodies that are meant for a reader. So when my parents read them, I hope they read them as readers first, and then as parents. But I know that’s been difficult at times. Of course it would be: they see flawed parts of themselves emphasized and it’s not pleasant. I don’t ask for their permission to write about them, but I do use my judgment, and if a poem seems too much like I’m telling a part of our story that isn’t mine to tell, then I won’t send it out. I also hope that the poems about my parents show them as strong people. Complicated people with complicated responses to Americanness and their own Chinese identities.

In “First Light,” you pause to speak in what you imagine is your mother’s voice. The line, “Here, my mother says, as though it’s the most difficult, / least forgivable English word.” As  the son of immigrants, do you think some of your poems are about making space for your parents?

That moment in “First Light” is an imagining. I hope it’s clear: the poem is speaking in a poem-version of my mother’s voice. The constructed-ness, the artifice is important to the poem’s trajectory. “First Light,” as a whole, questions my immigrant memory and presents gaps, distortions, alternate versions.

The poem imagines, then reimagines my family making the journey from China to the United States. In the middle of the poem is a different but overlapping journey: of the speaker, as a queer adolescent, almost being disowned by his parents and having to start charting his own path forward.

With this poem I want to say, look at how messy and difficult it is to depict the self; consider how messy and difficult it must be, then, to depict a collective experience, the so-called “immigrant experience.” I want to rupture this idea that there can be some definitive depiction, which relies on a rather reductive idea of a stable and ultimately monolithic “experience.”

At the same time, I think “First Light” articulates some very real feelings – of loss, of the impossibility of the immigrant to “return” to the homeland as a fixed, stable thing. There is also the necessity of leaving, particularly for the figure of the queer child. For him, the home space is a source of fracture and pain, and while leaving it or defining himself as separate from it is also painful, doing so can be a source of strength.

I know Li-Young Lee was one of your influences. Could you name some more?

Joseph O. Legaspi immediately comes to mind; his second book, Threshold, has just come out from Cavankerry Press. Joseph’s one of the founders of Kundiman, an organization dedicated to Asian American writers, and he was my mentor during my first Kundiman retreat in 2014. His first book, Imago, was a big influence for me when I was completing my undergraduate degree and working on the poetry thesis that would become my first chapbook. Joseph’s work is so sensual, and queer, and so complicated in its own ways when it comes to race, family, history, and love.

Another influence that comes to mind right now is Jean Valentine, whose work I also started reading as an undergraduate. I think I will always be a student of Jean Valentine’s work – her utterly idiosyncratic economy of language and use of white space. Her vocabulary of dream and water. Her visceral pauses. I don’t write like her and I don’t think I could, but that’s also why I gravitate toward her poems again and again: she’s doing something that’s all, unmistakably, hers.

In an earlier interview, you mentioned that the titles of your poems are a balance of one-worders and “obscenely long” titles like the name of your book. How did you know that this particular “obscenely long” title was the right one for your collection?

I decided that this would be the title of the collection fairly early on. The title comes from a poem in the collection. The full meaning of the title, though, didn’t really reveal itself until much later, once the book was picked up for publication. I just liked the sound of the title. I thought it was funny yet also serious, which felt like the spirit of the poems. I realized later that growing up is a perpetual process, not just of finding further possibilities but creating them – these are the central themes of the book. The manuscript really started off as a “pile of poems,” as the phrase goes. It took a long time to transform that pile into a book, from revising the individual poems to deciding on an order for them and revising toward an arc or unifying vision. I had to sharpen the focus, making sure the final versions of the poems really worked together. The title helped, as I kept returning to the question, does this poem add to the meaning of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities? Sometimes, in my head, I would shorten it to just Further Possibilities, because yeah, it is a mouthful.

What are you working on next?

A second book of poems, tentatively titled Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency. Yes, long titles! This collection explores living in West Texas as a queer Asian American, the loss of my partner’s mother to cancer, the role of education in the era of Trump politics, gun violence, and some strange sources of joy in the face of calamities both personal and societal. I’m also working on some creative nonfiction pieces, but I have less of a sense at the moment how they all fit together, or if they do. Can’t be totally put together 24-7. Sometimes you have to jump in, without knowing, and let your not-knowing push you somewhere new. ∎

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017). Featured image by emilykneeter and used under Creative Commons license.