Migration Pattern: Chen Chen
First of all, I just wanted to say congratulations on all of your achievements so far: you're a Kundiman fellow, have had a wide variety of publications, and your book When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities was the recipient of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize!
Why do you think writing is so important in this day and age?
Thank you for the kind words and for this (magnificent!) question. Here goes. . .Writing is important because without writing—and I mean strange writing, tender-hearted writing, writing that asks us to reimagine our world in more just ways—we’re stuck with a lot of dead language. Deadening language. The language, if we can call it that, of Trump and white supremacist patriarchy. The language of “alternative facts.” The language of blah movies. I saw Baby Driver the other night and it was visually stunning and the music was used in beautiful ways, but the dialogue…the dreadful dialogue. And the character Debora—yet another example of a cardboard female character written by a male writer. Anyway, I didn’t mean for this to turn into a rant against Baby Driver, but my thoughts about this movie are connected to the larger issues, as well. After all, it’s the language and the culture of sexism that allows for this one-dimensional or anti- dimensional kind of female character to proliferate in movies. Debora exists as The Love Interest and she just happens to be obsessed with the same music and the same old-school- y style as the male protagonist. So, we need writing by women. A lot more, obviously.
We need writing that is alive and writing that sings and writing that cares about people. We need writing by and for queer and trans people of color. I hope my book speaks to fellow queer Asian Americans—without claiming I’m a representative, because I’m not. I’m speaking from my particular experiences and my (usually very fried) brain and I hope my book sparks something glittery and anti-blah and full on rant-y in someone else. And I hope that someone else starts writing, too.
You were born in Xiamen, China, and much of your writing focuses on the intersection of Chinese American and queer identity. To what extent do you think these roles have shaped your writing?
To an enormous extent. Can an extent be enormous? Sometimes I don’t know how to pair nouns and adjectives and maybe that’s where poems like to live—in the confusion. I find my identity confusing and so I keep writing into it, through it, down in the mess of it. I keep writing about my family and about my parents’ problems with my queer identity because that’s where much of the pang and many of the hard questions live—questions about love and what family means, questions about forgiveness and rage, questions about grief, and questions about how I might construct a different sense of being
Chinese American, one that acknowledges how my queerness is inseparable from everything else.
I refuse to cut off any part of myself, though there have been times when I’ve had to cut out my parents. In my book, I’ve left it an unresolved conflict because it’s an ongoing reality and not fully resolvable. My parents are more accepting now, but it’s complicated, in ways that I don’t think many books or movies about “coming out” prepare you for. So, in some of the poems I’m writing now, I’m addressing this next stage of the relationship, i.e. what happens when your (now “accepting”) parents aren’t very good at learning or still resist learning about who you are and whom you love? More questions. At the same time, I’m interested in writing from a place that explores and celebrates the many ways in which I identify as queer Chinese American and queer Asian American, based on my relationships with friends who identify in similar ways. Friendship, I think, is an underwritten subject in poetry. And not all my friends are other poets! Though many of them are!
How did you first start writing, and what is it that keeps you doing it?
I started writing stories in the second grade. In a later grade (I think it was fifth) I wrote a longish story about a witch who lived in Venice and who ran into some trouble with Rumpelstiltskin. Maybe I’ll return to that story one day. I’d like to write fiction again, but I don’t think I’m good at it. I get too impatient with scene-setting and describing things and keeping the world consistent. Maybe I’ll write surrealist flash fiction. Recently I’ve gotten into writing nonfiction—the lyric essay, which is more like poetry, especially the way I write it because again, the patience thing. (Of course, poetry takes its own vast patience, but I just enjoy the process more.)
What keeps me writing poetry specifically is the challenge of using and reinventing poetic structures and devices. And the delight of language. The possibilities of language. The surprise and the music and the restless entangling with. The political inquiry that is also about a hippopotamus. Perhaps. Finally, or really first of all, emotional—I write to see myself and others a bit better, to be a bit better, to live a bit more deliciously. I write to grow up but also to stop growing up in the boring adult ways of getting better at pointless conversations and caring about institutionally recognized and supported forms of “success.” I write to grow out of being that kind of adult. I want a different adulthood. I mean: when I grow up I want to be a witch who lives in Venice, but without Rumpelstiltskin.
You're going to be a mentor in Adroit's 2017 Mentorship Program this year (!) What is some advice you would give as a mentor/teacher to young writers?
Write your heart out and then write it out again and then make a whole new heart and write that out and then put a basket of balloons in there and see what happens and then write your constellation of hearts out. But I mean, take breaks when you need to. Recharge. You don’t need to write every day…unless you need to write every day. The important thing is: make the time. Sit or stand or lie down, I don’t know what works for
you, but find out what works for you. The important thing is: get comfy. If being uncomfy is your thing, then okay, but you might develop back problems. The important thing is: you’re going to need a basket of balloons.
On your Twitter, you talk about the need to incorporate the voices of POC into the curriculum, rather than filling up a classroom with white poets. Moving forward, what do you think writers of color can do to ensure that their voices are being heard?
Since you mention the classroom, I’m coming at this question from an academic setting. I recognize, though, that this is, of course, not the only setting or site of struggle for writers of color. I hope some of my advice here might be useful in other contexts. Tell your colleagues and tell the administrative folks what you need. Insist on what you need (for example, everyone should teach work by writers of color, not just in classes designated ______ studies). Demand and agitate. Negotiate but know what you cannot compromise on. But also: understand that predominantly white institutions (schools, programs, journals, reading series, retreats) will only go so far to support and amplify your voices.
Thus: you’ll need to make your own spaces and your own opportunities. Make your own journal. Start your own reading series. Some of the things you want to create might require institutional funding. But maybe not. Writers of color are doing many, many amazing things inside/alongside/outside existing institutions. Support organizations led by writers of color—like Kundiman, Cave Canem, CantoMundo, VONA. But also: as much as you can, try to make what you need so that your voice is heard and nourished and pushed in the right ways and cared for and cherished.
What would you say to those who argue that writers of color should stop writing about race?
If you could have lunch with any Asian American poet/writer (living or dead), who would it be, what would you eat, and why?
It’s so hard to choose! Ummmmmmmm. Okay. Right now, I would say Sarah Gambito, one of the co-founders of Kundiman, because she is deeply committed to such a radical, open, and always evolving vision of Asian American writers’ community. During my first Kundiman Writers’ Retreat, I was astonished by Sarah’s presence: fiercely attentive, no bullshit, all radical dream and practice of community. And I love, love, love Sarah’s poetry. Her book Delivered changed how I thought about the sentence in poetry and how I thought about what “Asian American poetry” even means, could mean. So, for lunch we would eat devastatingly good ramen because I’ve been living in Lubbock, TX, where such a dish does not exist, and I think Sarah would understand my need for
this kind of lunch. Now that I’m thinking about it, I have already had lunch with Sarah, but like, I want more lunch.
Can you tell us a little bit about what's next in store for you, writing-wise?
A joint chapbook with my bestie Sam Herschel Wein. And a second full-length collection of my own, tentatively titled Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency.
How do you deal with the recognition-driven push for productivity between emerging writers?
I drink some soda (I’ve been into Dr. Pepper—a new development). I try to quit soda (I have a dentist appointment in a few weeks). I try to sing Perfume Genius’s new song “Slip Away.” I go for walks with my partner and our pug dog. Basically: I remind myself that I am more than what I produce that other people see and evaluate. I am also someone who loves soda and can’t sing for shit.
Is there anything else you'd like to emphasize?
Tuxedo Mask is a hottie.