“What Is the More Complicated Truth I’m Not Facing?”: A Conversation with Chen Chen on Vulnerability

By Joanna Acevedo


Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency by Chen Chen.

BOA Editions, Ltd., 2022.

USD $17.00.

128 pages.


When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen.

BOA Editions, Ltd., 2017.

USD $17.00.

96 pages.


Editor’s Note: This review has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Joanna Acevedo: So I was just looking at When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities and something that really struck me about Your Emergency Contact Has Just Experienced an Emergency was that it feels more cohesive than When I Grow Up.

I think there are a lot of themes in When I Grew Up that very much pulled the book together, but Emergency Contact feels much more like a “project.” I wanted to hear you talk about your thoughts of how the book came together, and how you conceived it, and how it appeared as a complete entity.


Chen Chen: Yeah, I’m so glad that it's come across that way. That was very intentional, the cohesion of this collection, and I think it's often the case with first books where you have all these poems that might be written over quite a long span of time, and then in putting them in a collection, you're trying to tie things together, and it might feel more disparate in a way or there's just kind of this spectrum of styles and forms and so on. Because you're also still figuring things with that initial collection. It's not true for every writer, but it was certainly the case for me, and with the second book I knew that there were certain things—for one that I wanted to work on and strengthen from my first book. So one of those things was just looking at sentence structure and syntax, and because many reviews the first time around pointed out that I use a lot of anaphora, and I know that I do that. I'm glad because it is a feature, but at the same time I was like, “Oh, I maybe don't want to rely on it as much.” Or if I am using it, using it in different ways. And so that led to a bunch of formal experiments, and one direction that took me in was thinking about prose poems in some different ways. So with the “Season” poems, all of those are written sentence by sentence, as you go down the page for the most part. And so that was really trying to force myself to think about sentences differently. How do I get into a sentence? How do I exit a sentence? That was a big consideration. Then there's other things I wanted to experiment with. So I knew I wanted to do things with bilingual poems, poems that combine Mandarin and English. I knew I wanted to experiment more with visual formatting on the page and do some different things with how the poems appear and have that play in the formatting also affect the meaning and interpretation of the work.


JA: I think somewhere in there you say that you thought you were going to write a book about your father. But the whole book is about your mother.


CC: Again, it came out of wanting the next book to be different from the first, and for a while, initially, I was actually pretty annoyed with myself. I was sick of writing about myself so autobiographically and about my family in such personal ways, and it takes a lot to go there, to dive into the really personal material. I was like, this has to be really different. But then all the things that I end up writing return to similar subjects and themes. I’m always telling my students your obsessions choose you, and your job as a writer is to figure out new ways of getting those obsessions on the page and approaching them differently. I think eventually I was able to do that. I hope I was. But yeah, that line came out of some of that frustration as well, but also thinking about how writing and publishing such a personal book and having it out in the world has shifted certain things about my relationship with my family, and that's something that I'm still reflecting on.


JA: Yeah, I just found, when I was looking through When I Grow Up, that line where your friend says that all you write about is being gay and Chinese.


JA: Something that I've noticed in your work is kind of an abandonment of what's appropriate for poetry. I think you talk in Emergency Contact about a poetry teacher telling you specifically that you can't use the word “love,” or you can't use the word “beautiful” or you can't use the word “soul.” And then another poem that I particularly loved was the one where you poop the bed. And then Jeff just cleans it up, and you keep saying “I’m so sorry,” and he just says, “It’s okay, I love you.” I thought that was such a tender depiction of love, and something I loved about the collection also is that it really deepens your relationship with Jeff, which we see in When I Grow Up. We get to see how that relationship has grown. Can you talk a little bit about what is acceptable in poetry, and how you've addressed that concern?


CC: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, this book is kind of a sequel to the first one; it picks up where we left off with all the various relationships, the familial ones as well, but certainly the central romantic relationship. I have such authority issues that I think I take it as a challenge when someone says, “Oh, you can't do that, or you shouldn't do that in writing,” especially where I just want to see if I can make it work in some way. And so it becomes very much a craft challenge ultimately, because I'm like, “Oh, I don't want to just throw, you know, ‘soul’, in the way that's been used a million times before, right?” There's a reason why certain things are clichéd, or people avoid certain words or wording, I get that. But I have a lot of fun, anyway, and not all of the attempts work out. But it is really satisfying when something feels like, “Oh, maybe I found this new way,” or just my own way of using this language that you might not typically expect in a poem. And also it's surprising a reader in that way, like, “Oh, you thought this was going to be just flowers” (which I also love). But actually it's full of all these other references. And similarly with that love poem I feel like, you know, gastrointestinal health is really intimate—the people you can talk about that with, openly and casually, probably isn't that many people in one's life. But I think it's important to talk about. It's your body. It's a part of your everyday life, and how you function.


JA: This has been a PSA.


CC: I just think it's—you know—good to talk about. And so to me it felt very natural in a way actually, for there to be that sense of love in that poem. Especially at the end.


JA: Yeah, I think it's beautiful.


JA: Something that I think you do exceptionally well, and this is related—is to juxtapose humor against sorrow in your poems. There's that line in one of the “Summer” poems: “He says it's snowing, and his sister is pregnant, and his mother is dying, so they / probably won't be able to go on as many rides at Disney. / I say, okay, and I see, but neither is true.” So can you talk a little bit about humor in writing? And how you come to these juxtapositions?


CC: I think humor has long been a coping mechanism, a defense mechanism, a way of processing, really difficult experiences and memories. And so especially when talking with people that I'm close to, it happens very organically in conversation, and it took me a while to figure out how to bring that humorous conversational element into my writing. I was actually trying to be a very different poet, initially, from imitating what I really loved and still love to read, but it wasn't coming from a real place for me.


JA: Like who?


CC: Lucille Clifton, for example. So devastating and also so joyful. In some of her work. I love her writing, and I occasionally write a shorter poem, but that's my tendency. And so that just wasn't really how my brain worked ultimately, and so [I started] bringing in more elements of how I actually talk into my poems. That's, I think, what led to the kind of writing that I do, and further experimentation with it. I'm trying to be accurate to life—that these things often occur simultaneously—the comedic and the tragic, the funny and the sad. They happen at the same time, or side by side, or in quick succession. And so I also want to be true to that range of emotion.


JA: As a fellow fan of long titles, I loved: “After My White Friend Says So Cool Upon Hearing Me Speak Chinese on the Phone with My Parents, I Take Another Sip of My Strawberry-Banana Smoothie & Contemplate Coolness & Chineseness, I Wonder if My Love of Long Titles Stems from the Long Titles of Classical Chinese Poets & Is, Therefore, Part of an Inherently Cool Chineseness I Have Inherited, & Carry, Even to the Smoothie Shop, & Then I Recall a Longish Stream of Not-So-Cool Things My Parents Have Said About White People”. I think that in your work, titles are really important, especially titles of your books, so can you speak to the importance of titles, which are obviously an important part of this collection?


CC: I'm so glad you read that one out loud. In fact, there's a title workshop that I teach sometimes, where we talk about all different kinds of titling strategies and the short title, the really long title, titles that go right into the beginning of the poem, and the different effects those have. I love thinking about titling and different reasons for it. I think it's a really fun challenge to go in the extreme direction of something that I'm already doing. So I'm like, “Oh, I've already had some long titles. What is the longest one to come up with?” And then it was really fun in this specific poem because the rest is mostly in Chinese. So to have that contrast between this really long title that gives you a whole kind of story in itself, and then you know the Chinese, depending on your relationship to language, changes how you read it. I wanted a title that would do some heavy lifting, so to speak, because I knew that some readers might engage with the rest of it completely. I wanted to make sure that there was something that gave this whole scene already, but also would maybe encourage someone to spend more time looking at something they might not otherwise. Yeah, I love what titles can do, the information they can provide, and then the relationship between what the title is doing and what the poem is doing, and the way there can be a really stark juxtaposition between the two.


JA: Yeah, and I think that the idea of the Chinese characters leads right into my next question, which is really about accessibility because for a lot of English-speaking readers the title is the poem; they don't really understand what the Chinese means. So I wanted to ask you about accessibility and the decision to write poems with Chinese characters.


CC: Yeah, it was something I had to give a lot of thought to, and ultimately I feel okay with some folks maybe not getting it or not spending the time to get it because I don't translate.

That was a very deliberate choice. I was looking at Cathy Lihn Che, who's a Vietnamese-American poet, and also Eduardo C. Corral. He uses Spanish. Neither of them translates in their work. I was obsessed with this interview that Cathy gave in The Rumpus and I use it to teach sometimes to talk about this issue of, “Do you translate?” and in it she talks about how she decided not to translate the Vietnamese in her poems because she wanted to write toward someone who shared her historical subject position or had some similarities to her experience and identity. And I just really loved that idea because I grew up in a multilingual household, and that was just my experience. Both of my parents are language teachers as well. It was always the case that there was more than one language being spoken. And so it felt weird actually to me that I wasn't writing in Chinese, or code-switching that went back and forth between Chinese and English, so to me it feels like a very natural choice and progression. It can be trickier with Chinese characters if you don't know much of the language to look them up. But there is actually an app on the phone (I know not everyone has access to that). But if you do, you can actually just go to a website, and you can take a picture of the characters, and it will translate [the text] based on the picture. So there are ways now that we can do this. Also, because my speaking level is probably like the third graders’ in Mandarin, the Chinese is not very difficult. If you've taken a semester or a year in Mandarin you will know pretty much how to read everything. In some cases I give more context clues. In this particular poem, I don't really, because, again, I just wanted to lean into that choice and let it land for different readers in different ways.


JA: Speaking more about racial politics: One of the lines from one of the “Winter” poems, “To realize some of my writing is just my saying to white men: Look how lovable I am.”

That one really hit me. And I think you talk about race a little bit more candidly in the new collection than in the last one. So can you talk about that statement, and also hopefully how poetry can be a tool to combat racism?


CC: I was just thinking about that poem again. It's a pretty intense one. There are a lot of complicated feelings in it, and it was something I wanted to write about for a while. Just specifically sexual racism and racism in dating and relationships and sex; that realm of experience is where I've maybe experienced the most interpersonal racism other than academia. It was just something I've been wanting to address more head on for a while in my writing. I wasn't really sure how and then that piece actually started out as an attempt at fiction, and I was like, “Whoa!” I just needed to let it take the form that I needed to. I was thinking a lot about what it meant for me. In the dating world and hookup worlds when I've been with white men and have internalized sexual racism in certain ways, where I'm thinking about my desirability in terms of the white gaze, and it's really toxic. It can be a really self-destructive mode to be in, and it's something that I’m continuing to process and think through. That poem was one way that I was trying to think through it.


And I think poetry in general—it's interesting. Because, yeah, I absolutely believe that it can be a tool to combat racism. It's an art form that I think if you were from the right place in doing it, and trying to be very honest with yourself in the work, then it's going to lead to some really uncomfortable truths and things that maybe you didn't know you needed to confront in such a way. I think it demands a lot of self-reflection as well, or it can. But I think that's where a lot of the power of poetry comes from. You can't tell half-truths about something if you've decided that's really where I'm going to go. So I'm always telling students that. There's a certain point working on a poem where you might have thrown every technical trick in your bag at it, and it's a very polished piece. But emotionally or psychologically, there is actually all this other work that needs to be done, and that can be the actual hardest part. Not just cleaning up. You know your images and line-breaks, and doing all that technical stuff which can be great, but really thinking, “What am I trying to say? What am I questioning? Did I arrive at an answer too quickly? What is the more complicated truth that I'm not facing?”


JA: I think that that is a good segue into my last question, which is that, ultimately, when I finished the collection, my feelings were that of growth. For you, both as a poet, but also in the relationships that are cultivated. With the relationship between mother and son, the relationship between you and your partner—the poems become more formally innovative as the relationships become more complicated. You've talked a lot about your interest in form. Can you talk about the theme of growth, and how it's manifested for you?


CC: Yeah, I mean, if there isn't growth, then what is the point, really? You know, I don't want to write more poems. I don't want to write more books unless I feel, yeah, like there's something urgent that I need to learn from the process, something that I need to discover or pay more attention to, or listen to more closely, or to respond to in my own way, which are my core obsessions. I return to them again and again, and I think the reason for doing so is not just to write another poem about the same subjects, but to rethink the way I have approached these subjects previously. There's this ongoing act of self-revision that has to occur if you're going to grow as a writer. That means formal experimentation. But again, it also means looking at your experiences and emotions and trying to see them again in a new light.


CC: So yeah, I think from the first collection, I mean, I was. I was thinking a lot about growing up as a more nonlinear concept and process that doesn't end at a certain point but continues and can be this really expansive thing. Continuing to grow is just essential. It's vital. I don’t ever want to feel like, “Oh, I have nailed it.” I want to always feel like, “Oh, there's some opening. There's some other space that I'm still walking toward.”



 

Chen Chen was born in Xiamen, China, and grew up in Massachusetts. His debut poetry collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. His work has appeared in two chapbooks and in such publications as Poetry, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Best of the Net, and The Best American Poetry. He is the recipient of fellowships from Kundiman, the Saltonstall Foundation, and Lambda Literary. He earned his BA at Hampshire College and his MFA at Syracuse University. He lives in Lubbock, Texas, where he is pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. For more about Chen Chen, visit www.chenchenwrites.com.


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Joanna Acevedo (she/they) is the Pushcart-nominated author of the poetry collection The Pathophysiology of Longing (Black Centipede Press, 2020) and the short story collection Unsaid Things (Flexible Press, 2021). Her work has been seen across the web and in print, including in Hobart Pulp, The Bookends Review, and the Write Launch. She is a Guest Editor at the Masters Review, Associate Poetry Editor at West Trade Review, Reviews Editor for the Great Lakes Review, and she received her MFA in fiction from New York University in 2021. She is supported by Creatives Rebuild New York: Guaranteed Income for Artists.