On Thursday, June 14th at 12:00 PM EST The Wonderlings spent some time with Chen Chen. Check out our interview with him!
Celeste Helene Schantz Hi there, everyone, and welcome to our Wonderlings chat with poet and author Chen Chen, who was longlisted for the National Book Award and won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, the GLCA New Writers Award, and the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. The collection was also a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry and named one of the best of 2017 by The Brooklyn Rail, Entropy, Library Journal, and others. His work has appeared in many publications, including Poetry, Tin House, Poem-a-Day, The Best American Poetry, Bettering American Poetry, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Welcome, Chen!
Chen Chen Hi! Thank you for inviting me to do this, Celeste!
Celeste Helene Schantz You’re very welcome! OK, folks- who has a question?
David Delaney How does meter and rhythm enter into your poetry?
Chen Chen Thanks for the question, David. Meter and rhythm… well I write free verse, but I’m definitely influenced by poetry that has regular meter, especially the iambic pentameter of sonnets. Sonnets fascinate me in general because I tend to be a very expansive (sometimes meandering) sort of writer, so I’m drawn to forms that introduce constraints I then have to figure out how to work within. So writing sonnets has been a great training in that.
David Delaney And rhyme? I see you are very influenced by music, what do you use musically in your poetry?
Chen Chen I’m also interested in how poems that are free verse can draw on work that isn’t, or have moments of regular meter… I’m thinking of Robert Hayden’s long poem “Middle Passage” as an example of this… how he draws on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, specifically Ariel’s song, in one section, in order to grapple with the legacy of slavery in America.
David Delaney Yes there is often that call for lyrical music by meter and sound and that will catch into such free verse as in a musical composition.
Chen Chen Oh and rhyme… sorry I missed that part in my answers. I love when rhyme is done well, when it’s not too sing-songy, which is difficult to pull off in poems. I love slant rhymes and internal rhymes, rhymes that are folded into a line, rather than announcing themselves at the end of a line. Some contemporary poets that use rhyme in surprising ways include Jean Valentine, D.A. Powell, Marilyn Chin… I tend to fall into rhymes in the middle of writing a poem. It’s not usually preplanned. I like to see where the music of the poem takes me.
Chen Chen Other questions?
Celeste Helene Schantz This week we’re examining poems about parents, especially fathers (for father’s day). In “I Invite my parents to a dinner party” you negotiate the delicate fault lines of parent and child relationships. Can you speak a bit about that poem?
Chen Chen Sure, Celeste, I’d be happy to talk about that poem.
I write quite a lot about family, as I think those are often some of the most complicated relationships we have… and among the longest. So parts of those dynamics can evolve over time, while some things really seem to stay the same. The poem is autobiographical but also has some imagined bits in it. My parents have had a lot of trouble coming to terms with my sexual orientation. I came out to them as a teenager and it was a big shock to them. Throughout high school we argued about it. They threatened to kick me out. It was a very difficult time.
Over time, my parents have become more accepting. They’ve met my boyfriend, who I’ve been with for a while now. So this poem is about them being in a more accepting place, but still not totally comfortable. And how painful that can be sometimes–when you might want further progress, more change… but people are still learning… or unlearning. In my case, it’s homophobia that my parents continue to have to unlearn.
Celeste Helene Schantz That’s a great way to state it . . .unlearn.
Mark Ordon Yes, I agree! If you look at all the unsettling trends that we see every day – homophobia, xenophobia, bigotry, you name it – it seems that there is a lot of unlearning that needs to be done!
Chen Chen But the invitation in the poem itself is sort of imagined… an exaggeration, for sure, of how I’d actually talk with my parents. I hope there’s humor in that exaggeration. And humor throughout this poem that balances the heartache or actually helps explore the heartache in a deeper way.
David Delaney Yes that is your fulcrum it seems.
Celeste Helene Schantz It’s a great poem which communicates the tensions on each side, and also the dynamics of how we often act in situations which are new to us.
Chen Chen The poem is in couplets, with some longer sentences stretched over several lines because I wanted to maximize potential units of meaning within phrases… and also I think of couplets as a way to highlight tension… each two-line unit has to contain some important part of the overall conflict . . .
David Delaney Your “If I Should Die…” is in tercets – tell me about that.
Chen Chen David Delaney I love tercets in general, as they seem to me to be in between the tightness of couplets and the stately, orderly boxes of quatrains. Tercets feel wilder to me. So I like using them for poems that seem uncontainable, unmanageable. Tercets offer that level of organization I want, but also a level of chaos that the poem needs. “If I Should Die…” is a list poem, with some fantastical items in it… but the subject matter is still ultimately mortality. So tercets felt like a good fit for that tension… play and seriousness.
Mark Ordon I particularly enjoyed the couplets! I am no expert in the mechanisms of poetry (so forgive my amateurish analysis), but your couplets not only highlighted tension, but provided the tension with structure so to speak; rather than feeling an overall numbing pain, you know exactly where it hurts.
Chen Chen Mark Ordon Thank you! I appreciate what you say about the numbing pain… and yet the structure the couplets provide in order to speak through…
Mark Ordon Chen Chen Thanks! I hope I wasn’t too harsh on them (the couplets)
Chen Chen That’s a great point, Celeste, about acting in situations which are new… often, nervousness and fear in those situations can make us revert back to old habits. Like the parents in this poem… the mother’s way of speaking to the son… and the father’s avoidance tactic, hiding behind the comfort of his newspaper.
Celeste Helene Schantz Dads and their infamous newspaper walls!
Mark Ordon The everlasting fatherly safe haven!
Celeste Helene Schantz Can we talk a bit about being longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award? You, Layli Long Soldier and Mai Der Vang were all honored for your very first collections. What has it been like to have that success and recognition? Has your life changed at all?
Chen Chen It was such an incredible surprise and an honor to have this collection longlisted for the NBA, and alongside these stellar books and poets. That recognition has changed some things. That level of visibility. More folks have reached out to me with invitations to read or solicitations to submit to journals. That has been a kind of overwhelming experience, actually. I’m still figuring out how to juggle what I think of as the public side of all this, the “being an author” side. I love doing readings and getting to talk about poetry (and not just my own poetry, but all kinds that I love). At the same time, I have to keep carving out quiet space, meditative space, the space of creativity. So I have to remind myself to get off social media. To shut off my email.
Mark Ordon I’ve heard (though not experienced) about this paradox of sorts that poets and writers see – as you are recognized for your outstanding work, you start to be pulled in every direction 24/7, so finding the time to continue the outstanding work becomes a challenge!
David Delaney Interesting and congratulations on recognition. Sometimes I wonder if life experience becomes stifled with success. Your thoughts?
Chen Chen David Delaney I feel like sometimes I have to pretend that I haven’t had this success. I have to get back into the mind state of when I first fell in love with poetry, as an adolescent, and hold onto that excitement and wonderment. I can’t be thinking about publication and awards when I’m trying to create something from my own heart.
David Delaney Yes. One needs mental fresh air, the sound of a hammer, or wing, and not just recall it from text. What truth I match to objects is critical as is the object (sound smell touch … itself)
Susan Pigman What other poets inspire you? Also, could you tell us a little about your writing practice? Do you write daily? By hand or computer? (I’m sorry to be late with these questions; I was having problems with computer…
Chen Chen Susan, thank you for your questions! Other poets that inspire me… oh, so many. John Keats. Pablo Neruda. Marina Tsvetaeva. Gwendolyn Brooks. Louise Gluck. Robert Hass. Amy Gerstler. Nikky Finney. Mary Ruefle. Li-Young Lee. Sarah Gambito. Joseph O. Legaspi. Eduardo C. Corral. Rick Barot. Henri Cole. The list goes on and on…
And about my writing practice… I’m very messy. I don’t have routines or rituals. I do save every draft and have a filing system that’s worked for me since college. But as for the writing process itself, it’s sort of chaotic. I like to think that I’m always writing… and that reading is a big part of that. Also absorbing other things as a writer, a poet… like watching movies, or taking a walk. I like to stay open to whichever window inspiration might fly through.
David Delaney Yes, that is right to me. The early years perhaps the tools developed and the feet to see, the later years to meld the two. My thoughts are, some stop walking or grasping new sensory issues at the expense of others’ reaches and expose’s
Chen Chen I don’t write daily, but I’m pretty much a writer 24/7, if that makes sense. Lately I’ve been writing more slowly, now that I’m not in weekly workshops anymore (I’ve been in graduate school forever!). So I might work on just two or three poems for a couple months. I’ll get very obsessive about each poem.
Celeste Helene Schantz Revision, revision!
Chen Chen Celeste Helene Schantz Yes, I’m a freak for revision! I’ll create a couple very different versions of the same poem… sometimes to the point where they diverge and really become altogether different poems. But I think of myself as a hands-on sort of writer. It’s hard for me to know what the poem needs until I’ve tried it, and there might turn out to be a dozen kinds of “it.” I’ll jot down lines and ideas for poems in a notebook by hand. But most of my actual drafting takes place on a computer.
Celeste Helene Schantz You wrote “Elegy While Listening to a Song I Can’t Help But Start to Move to” for the victims at Pulse Night Club. The structure is interesting: most lines begin with the word “Because ” (which reminds me of Solmaz Sharif’s “Look” in which the word “Whereas” is repeated. Can you talk a bit about choices in poetry to repeat a word? What power does that lend?
Chen Chen Repetition is one of the great tools of poetry. The music and incantation and the creating of memory through sonic delight. I love, especially, anaphora. Though I’m aware, also, of the dangers of overusing this technique. It can become something habitual instead of a way to keep the poem growing… So with this poem you mention, “Elegy While Listening to a Song…” I was trying to find ways to make the poem different from my other poems that also use repetition at the beginning of a line. Making the poem look a bit more like an essay was part of this experiment/attempt. There are these longer lines, which are then interrupted or punctuated by these shorter ones that cluster into sudden stanzas. I wanted a sense of unpredictable movement, of lines gravitating towards each other, and then apart… much like bodies on a dance floor.
Celeste Helene Schantz Yes! Anaphora and epistrophe/epiphora are memorable in poetry and speech. The resonance.
Chen Chen The repetition of “Because” suggests that it’s difficult to find a reason for why the speaker feels so affected by the Pulse massacre. He doesn’t know the victims personally. And yet, as a gay person, he feels targeted, and he knows what it’s like to feel afraid to express one’s emotions and desires openly. And he knows how intertwined desire and fear are for LGBTQ people. So the speaker keeps searching for the “why” behind how he feels… “Because… Because… Because…” And this poem is also thinking about the pain of having a place that’s supposed to be safe for LGBTQ people attacked like this.
Celeste Helene Schantz And there is a struggle in answering the question “why” because there really is no one definite answer.
Chen Chen Exactly!
Celeste Helene Schantz Does anyone have any last questions for Chen Chen as we finish up our chat?
Mark Ordon Chen, I understand that your poetry has already been translated into several languages and fallen into the hands of many readers abroad. Have you had any feedback on how your work was received and understood? Your poetry addresses topics that certainly can be understood on a universal level, yet translation and immersion in a different culture and mentality can open up new avenues of interpretation.
Chen Chen Mark, thank you for your question! It’s been such a moving experience, to see my poems translated. I grew up in a bilingual household–English and Mandarin Chinese. So I was always doing a lot of translating, back and forth, or codeswitching. I think it’s so important to learn more languages, or attempt to. You learn so much as a poet. Reading poetry in languages other than your primary one. Translating poetry yourself. It shows you that there so many more ways to say something, to sing something.
As for feedback from readers abroad, mainly the connection has been through other LGBTQ people. People finding my work in English or wanting to translate it into another language because of how honestly I write about issues of queerness and family. That’s been amazing, to see that effect, and to get to talk with people very far away.
Celeste Helene Schantz Chen Chen, thank you so very much for joining us today! It’s been a real pleasure. If we could end with one last question . . .What is something important you would like people to know about you?
Chen Chen Celeste, thanks so much for inviting me to have this discussion. Wonderful questions, everyone! And in answer to your last question: I love pugs!! I didn’t grow up around dogs and the only pet I had was a fish. So it’s been a great adventure raising this pug with my partner.
Celeste Helene Schantz (shows a GIF of pug in a birthday hat)
Chen Chen Ahh perfect . . .
Celeste Helene Schantz Thanks, Chen Chen! And thanks to everyone who particpated!
David Delaney Thank you Celeste and Chen for this exchange.
Susan Pigman Thank you so much, Chen Chen and Celeste.
Mark Ordon Thank you Chen, for sharing your (valuable) time with us!
Celeste Helene Schantz For those of you interested in Chen Chen’s book, check it out, HERE!
Chen Chen Wishing you all magic & discovery in your poems!
Check out Chen Chen’s website, HERE