Chen Chen Interview

Interview #10 Chen Chen

Chen Chen, interviewed by Joe Carrick-Varty

Joe Carrick-Varty: First of all congratulations on the book! Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency is forthcoming in September in the US with BOA Editions, and in October in the UK with Bloodaxe Books. How are you feeling this close to publication date… of your second book?! And how have the last few years been for you and your writing?

Chen Chen: Thank you. I’m feeling very excited finally. I say ‘finally’ because for a long while I was feeling anxious about this book—that it was too similar to the first, that I wasn’t doing enough of a departure, wasn’t growing enough in my art. These days I do see how different this book is—formally, stylistically, tonally—though many of the subjects are similar. After my first book was done (a.k.a. handed over to the publisher to print), I felt depleted artistically and tired of what I’d been writing about. I didn’t want to write another deeply autobiographical book, at least not right away as the next book. But one’s obsessions are one’s obsessions. I kept writing about family, about queerness and chosen family, about immigration and Asian American politics, about pop culture. So then it became a matter of finding various ways into these topics, ways of poem-making that would keep me interested and surprised. I hope that’s the case for readers.

JCV: So, before we dive into the nitty gritty stuff, I’d first like to zoom out a little, and ask about the title: Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency. It’s a really interestingly configured title. I wonder if you could talk a little about precarity and vulnerability. Are precarity and vulnerability important to you, and if so, how?

CC: Precarity and vulnerability are central to me and to my work. I often think about how a poem doesn’t feel truly done until I’ve learned—from the act of writing and rewriting—something emotional and strange and honest. Honest in a kind of scary way. I want to get uncomfortable with myself, with memory, with language and imagination. That’s the hardest part of revision for me: not the tweaking of words (which can be a strategy for avoiding scary stuff) but the dive into the deep end of where true feelings live. Always, eventually I have to ask myself and the poem: is this the truth or a simpler, prettier version of it? And if I’m willing to engage that inquiry, then the poem has a chance of really taking off. 

As for the title specifically, I’m thinking about living through an era of layered losses, compounded griefs, particularly during the Trump era and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The question behind the title is: How can I go on when so much has already been lost, when those I thought I could rely on (institutions and collectives as well as individuals) are themselves undergoing enormous difficulty and crisis? I turn to poetry to answer this question, though of course what poetry offers (if one is paying attention) is a deepening of the question. A slowing down so one can inhabit the question fully.

JCV: Zooming in slightly I’d like to ask about the structure of Your Emergency Contact. The book is split into four numbered sections (your first book When I Grow Up I Want to be a List of Further Possibilities was split into three sections). Can you talk a little about the structure and order of the book? How was the process of compiling this book different perhaps (or the same!) to your first book?

CC: At first, I wanted to write a book with no sections. Clearly that didn’t happen! I realized the book needed some of kind of sectioning largely due to the sequence (that’s now the heart of the second section), ‘a small book of questions.’ That piece started as a lyric essay and then a friend in my PhD program asked me why not put it in the second book of poems—and then later, my doctoral committee suggested breaking up the piece into smaller parts. So, that’s how the chapters in ‘a small book of questions’ happened; chapters interrupted/expanded by other kinds of poems. From there it became apparent that the collection needed sections—at least two, as ‘a small book of questions’ needed its own separate room in the house of the book. 

For a while I resisted having four sections, as it felt too on the nose with all the season poems (those titled ‘Summer,’ ‘Winter,’ etc.), but then it just made sense, given the materials. One has to let the poems do what they want to do, including how they converse with one another. The first section introduces the primary themes, key moments: the loss of my partner’s mother; living in West Texas as a graduate student and young teacher; my family’s immigration from southern China; my parents’ homophobia; my relationship to Mandarin after growing up in a multilingual household. The second section, with ‘a small book of questions,’ focuses on difficult conversations with my mother about my queerness and my partner attempting in some ways to bridge the gap between us, motivated in part by his shattering loss. The second section also contains elegies for the victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida—and there are poems considering gun violence and gun culture more broadly. The third section moves into the pandemic and the accompanying escalation of anti-Asian violence. The fourth and final section has lots of love poems: romantic love, chosen family love, love of teaching, a loving dog poem. Wrestling with my blood family relationships is still very much in process, so I again wanted to leave that unresolved, open-ended, hopeful but this time also with a firm sense that I don’t need everything to be okay in that realm; I can still live how I need to and love in the queer ways I love.

JCV: I remember reading a tweet of yours once that said something to the effect of (and I’m paraphrasing here): ‘Wow, this poem about the worst thing that ever happened to me was really fun to write!’ I remember reading this tweet and doing a little fist pump like ‘Yeah!’ because I’m always writing about awful things, and (generally speaking) I find the act of writing to be a fun, exciting, even happy experience (when it actually happens). Maybe it’s the relief writing offers? Or the bringing to light? And I’m thinking particularly of the family poems in Your Emergency Contact (the painful poems… in which the idea of family is complicated and problematised but also illuminated and reconfigured so brilliantly), poems like ‘I Invite My Parents to a Dinner Party’: ‘I’m like the kid in Home Alone, orchestrating / every movement of a proper family’. A proper family! I wonder if you might speak on the act of writing about difficult or traumatic things?

CC: I need to have distance from the personal events to write about them in poems—some time has to pass first and I have to work through many of the emotions before I bring them to the page. So, although some of these poems actually started while I was in the midst of the difficulties they depict, I couldn’t continue or finish them until later. I knew I needed to give myself ample time to ruminate and also to not. To experience and do other things. An early version of this collection was the core of my PhD dissertation at the end of 2018. In 2019, I let myself turn away from the manuscript as a whole and instead generate new poems. More and more poems. 

Like many, I had trouble writing (and reading!) poems in 2020. Thanks to some wonderfully enthusiastic and supportive prose editors, I was able to write craft/personal essays and also a flash fiction piece, which was really a longer poem and ended up going into Your Emergency Contact. I’m a big believer in switching up genres and allowing yourself to experiment wildly. And I’m a big believer in taking breaks from writing, too. Patience is paramount. I used to be incredibly impatient with my writing and such a perfectionist—what a dreadful combo. I’m still impatient in some ways, but I’ve come to recognize how writing has a pace of its own, especially if one wants to write into genuine discovery and not merely repeat previous insights. 

In the spring of 2021, thanks to my best friend Sam Herschel Wein, I returned to the book as a book, with renewed energy and clarity. I felt like now I could see what shape the collection needed to take, how the poems were speaking to each other. I so needed those new poems, the ones I wrote mainly in 2019. I took out a bunch of older work that no longer fit or excited me. And I could at last revisit and revise the older poems that remained—in particular the ones set in West Texas. Living there was hard. It was very conservative and it felt alienating, isolating to live there, as a queer Asian American, though I did make some terrific friends and found pockets of community. 

Still, my partner and I moved away as soon as I finished coursework and didn’t need to be on campus. Then after finishing my PhD, I needed to exist in a different headspace in addition to the geographic change. I couldn’t return to the Lubbock poems for a while. I didn’t want to. They weren’t fun to me, though I knew I had found playful ways into the setting when I was living there and drafting these poems. A good chunk of time and space was required before I could go back. Really, I needed to shift internally because I couldn’t keep working on those poems from a place of only sorrow and frustration. They still contain those core emotions, but the distance was necessary for me to play again, to fool around with the language, to write from a place of art and craft.

JCV: Building on that last question, I wanted to ask about otherness and conformity in Your Emergency Contact… particularly the tension between 1. queer otherness within a family, and 2. the otherness of the immigrant family within white America… and I’m thinking of the poem ‘Summer’, with its ending: 

The next day you will tell your father, You were wrong to say that I had to change. 

To make me promise I would. To make me promise.

& promise.

I’m also thinking of a poem like ‘The School of Fury’, with its tunnelling journey through white America, through a speaker learning Robert Frost in the 8th grade (‘Because I had to learn who the important white people were’), through a poetry class: 

When the 30-something white guy in poetry class says A poem is this—, based
           on what a 70-something white guy once said.
& everyone just nods & I want to say No & scream & would Frost have called
           me a chink? 

Through the early fall sidewalk. Through Newton, Massachusetts. Outside Boston.
          Inside whiteness.

Through my father knocking on the wrong door, the neighbor’s door. Through
           the neighbor’s door, where you can hear them whispering, deciding to
           call the police because who is the man at the door, calling in a strange

This poem really got me, Chen! ‘Outside Boston. / Inside whiteness’, the oscillation of scale here is something to behold. And the image of the father knocking on the wrong door is just heart-breaking. 

So, in summary (this is a very long question… I apologise), would you talk a little about the idea of otherness in Your Emergency Contact?

CC: Thank you for bringing up these two poems! It’s interesting, ‘Summer’ is a much newer poem compared to ‘The School of Fury.’ And I know they’re both in the first section, so clearly, I was also thinking about them as related in some way, part of the same thematic family, though whether they’re immediate family members or distant relatives is something I’ll have to keep reflecting on. The father comes in at the end of both poems. In ‘Summer’ he’s a repressive authority, demanding that the speaker fall in line with heteronormativity. In ‘The School of Fury’ he’s a victim of racism, though he also partly blames what happens with the neighbors on his son, I think as a way to maintain the tone of authority, if not the actual power. 

Throughout the book, I’m exploring how one can simultaneously belong and not belong—how racial, sexual, and gendered forms of belonging can be in tension. Attending predominantly white and largely liberal schools throughout my life, I’ve often felt embraced for my queerness but alienated and at times attacked because of my race and ethnicity. Meanwhile at home, when home meant under my parents’ roof, I was encouraged (sometimes pressured) to identify strongly as Chinese and there was the notion that I couldn’t also be queer, that queerness was a Western invention. A laughable notion, though it caused me a great deal of trauma and grief.

For a long time, I felt like I could only exist in bits and pieces, in compartments—queer at school (but not Chinese and also not too queer, which would offend suburbia); Chinese at home (with the sense that a Chinese American or diasporic way of being Chinese was the lesser version—though of course that’s what we all were or were becoming, including my parents). So much happens parenthetically, whispered or just held in. For years. Thankfully I found poetry. Poems are a space where the parentheticals can speak at full volume; where otherness can demand the rigid categories of belonging to expand or to be dismantled so that something else, something more complicated and freer can take their place. These days, though, I’m questioning how much of my freedom I’ve entrusted to poetry and how I need more liberatory practices outside of the page. I don’t want to be a queer diasporic Asian only in books. I want to live and to speak as my full honest being in many more spaces.

JCV: There are 15 poems in Your Emergency Contact titled ‘The School of…’ We have ‘The School of Australia’, ‘The School of Morning & Letters’, ‘The School of Red’, ‘The School of More School’ etc., in fact, the word school features 71 times in the book! I also noticed a number of the poems in the book contain ‘school’ scenes, whether that’s a school lesson, or a creative writing workshop… and these scenes always bring really compelling insights, especially into issues of queerness and race. I know you teach on a couple MFAs, so I’m interested to hear your thoughts on education, both as an idea in your work, and as an institution?

CC: Oh my god. I didn’t realize how much that word recurs in this book. I mean, I knew it was in there a lot, what with those titles. But wow. I’m actually taken aback—and also deeply appreciative that you’ve taken the time to notice and track this; that you’ve spent such thoughtful time with my work. Thank you. 

To respond to your question, education is vital to my life and to my writing. I would not be the poet I am today without all the brilliant, messy, unexpected, funny, weird, scary, totally beautiful conversations I get to have about poetry. I am so grateful to my students, to my colleagues, to my own teachers, to the friends I’ve found in educational settings. And I am deeply indebted to the poems by others that have been, that are my teachers, as well. I used to think being a writer meant being alone all the time. And I do love being in a quiet room by myself—though it’s never really just me; there are books, there are songs, there are memories of conversations, there’s a dog at my feet or a dog right outside the window, submerging his entire face in a flower because what better thing to do with one’s time on earth. 

I’ve come to understand and to enjoy writing as a perpetual conversation with the worlds churning inside me, with the multiverse swirling and sniffing around me. That’s what ‘going to school’ means to me: to attend one’s life with an appetite for its meanings as well as its musics. And I should mention that this idea/practice is influenced by my former teacher Aracelis Girmay and also by the French feminist writer Hélène Cixous (introduced to me by Girmay). Also, trees. They, too, are my teachers.

JCV: I’ve always felt enamoured by the ease with which your poems balance humour with pain. Like, that’s a difficult tightrope to walk! And it’s always at these moments of tension, in between the interstices, where the poems stretch beyond the place I expect them to go… if that makes sense? Like the poem ‘Spring’, where one moment we’re with ‘queers in the most flattering shorts’, then ‘queers ordering too much ramen’, before: 

How I was in the middle of eggy arugula bliss when he said, Bi-sex-u-al, all
          slow like that, to another guy, as though it were a new type of omelet,
          though maybe it is, let’s ask the waiter?

This stanza, like many of your stanzas, made me lol but also made me really sad and then made me lol again. I wonder if you might speak about the tension between comedy and sadness in your work?

CC: So, it’s funny—I’ve tried to be less comedic in this new book. I challenged myself to write more poems that don’t rely on comedy. I want to keep growing, which involves stretching and the discomfort that comes with the process. Ultimately, though, artistic growth has to happen organically. You can set challenges for yourself, but you can’t force a huge sudden shift. At least for me, it’s been a journey of writing many in-between poems, middling or just plain bad poems that don’t make it into a collection but are still very important for refining, maturing, reimagining. 

And I think you’re absolutely right to highlight this aspect of my work because it’s absolutely still a key element. I can’t help it, which sounds like bragging, but it’s not. I mean, I know not everyone finds my work that funny, and that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be for everyone. In fact, it can’t be! Writing for every single person’s tastes and preferences on the planet? Sounds miserable. I’d rather focus on doing what I can to the best possible level. 

As a reader, I like poems that make me laugh, and it’s great as a writer to make myself laugh with a line or image. I always want something else behind the laughter moment, though. Another layer. Actually, that’s a lie; I sometimes want a moment to just be silly, absurd, pure laughter. Not every moment of a piece needs to be so complicated and literary. In any case, it takes an abundance of trial and error. Like many writers, I err my way through. And gradually, the errors become the intentions—the choices left on the page.

It seems every writer is envious of another’s style, voice, etc. Austere writers want to be funnier; funny, chatty writers want to be sparer and more devastating. When I look at the big picture, I remember that I don’t need to be someone else. That writer already exists; I can just read their work! And I can bring in other elements as I learn how to do them my own way. This is what I’m always telling students: you don’t need to push yourself so hard to find your voice because you’ll find it eventually and very quickly get sick of yourself! Experiment, experiment, experiment.

JCV: Finally, a lot of our readers and submitters are new to writing poetry. What advice would you give to a person at the beginning of their poetry journey?

CC: Let your obsessions and curiosities guide you. Don’t worry about becoming a writer like how someone else became a writer. You just can’t be someone else anyway. You have your own path. Listen to your instincts while also letting your instincts get complicated and expanded by your reading, your conversations. Drink lots of your favorite beverages. Eat lots of your favorite snacks. Know that you are wonderful. And loved.

CHEN CHEN’s second book, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, is forthcoming from BOA Editions in September 2022 and Bloodaxe Books in October 2022. His debut, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017; Bloodaxe Books, 2019), was long-listed for the National Book Award and won the Thom Gunn Award, among other honors. His work appears in many publications, including Poetry, The Poetry Review, three editions of The Best American Poetry, and The Forward Book of Poetry 2021. He has received two Pushcart Prizes and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and United States Artists. He was the 2018-2022 Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence at Brandeis University and currently teaches for the low-residency MFA programs at New England College and Stonecoast.