By Linda Mahal
Stonecoast MFA guest faculty member and Summer Writers’ Conference 2020 workshop leader Chen Chen is the author of the poetry collection When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), which was longlisted for the National Book Award and won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, the GLCA New Writers Award, the Texas Book Award for Poetry, and the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry.
Chen has also written four chapbooks, including, most recently, You MUST Use the Word Smoothie: A Craft Essay in 50 Writing Prompts (Sundress, 2019). His work has appeared in Poetry, The New York Times Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, and The Best American Poetry, among many other journals. Poets & Writers featured him in their Inspiration Issue as one of “Ten Poets Who Will Change the World,” and his work has been translated into French, Greek, Russian, and Spanish.
Just as the Covid-19 pandemic was surging in the United States, Chen generously accepted our invitation to share some of his thoughts on poetry and the writing life.
I’d like to learn about your process of putting together a book of poems. When I Grow Up I Want to be a List of Further Possibilities is a gathering of 44 poems divided into three sections, with one poem, “Self-Portrait as So Much Potential,” serving as a kind of prologue.
Could you speak about how you engaged with your own work to produce this first book? How did you begin? What guided your decisions? What effect(s) were you seeking to achieve? Did you have any help? What did it feel like?
My book started out as my MFA thesis at Syracuse University, where Bruce Smith was my advisor. Bruce was always pushing and encouraging me to try out a wide range of forms and approaches—he also recognized what was idiosyncratic about my writing and helped me lean into that.
The order of the poems took a long time. What I sent out to first book contests was a revised version of my thesis, but a long ways off from what it would end up being. It was in four titled sections and a good deal longer. Jericho Brown selected my book for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize (at BOA Editions) and he was incredibly generous with his time and his insights during the post-acceptance editorial process. We had a three-hour phone conversation and went over the entire manuscript. I think we ended up cutting fifteen pages, which is a lot for a poetry book. Several poems were also radically condensed, which led to further shortening of the book.
This paring down allowed the book’s true shape to emerge. Jericho said, “I think you’ve written a book about your mother.” At first I sort of resisted that interpretation, I think because I didn’t want to admit how autobiographical and family-centric the book really was. And I still see the book as being about many things, from becoming an artist to queerness as explosive potentiality to falling very earnestly in love to the overwhelming amount of snowfall in Upstate NY. But, realizing that the mother/son relationship was the core—what the poems kept circling back to—was crucial for transforming the manuscript from a packet of poems to a book.
So then it became three sections, the first focused on childhood and adolescence; the second focused on early adulthood and beginning to step into being an artist; the third exploring the deepening of commitments to both relationships and art, and ultimately considering what the mother/son dynamic might look like in the present. The book isn’t strictly chronological, though; I wanted each section to dip back into previous eras and moments, in part to highlight the cyclical nature of memory and trauma. My friend Jess Smith, a wonderful poet and essayist (and occasional fiction writer, too!) helped with the placement of that very first poem, “Self-Portrait as So Much Potential.” That was one of the last changes, actually. I had been struggling for a while with what the first poem needed to be and how to balance showcasing the strongest poems and creating thematic arcs.
Other people who were immensely helpful in finalizing the collection: trusted readers and best friends Sam Herschel Wein and Mag Gabbert; editor at BOA Editions Peter Conners; teacher who would become my PhD dissertation chair Curtis Bauer. Bouquets of gratitude to each of these brilliances.
How did you choose the title poem for this book?
There’s a poem with that title in the book and I just really liked the sound of it. I like long, sentence titles. And this one felt like it fit the thematic concerns of the collection as a whole.
Form is a mysterious thing. Can you speak about your relationship with form and how your varied forms arise? What guides you in shaping your poems in terms of line length, rhythm, and their appearance on the page?
With my first book, I was thinking a lot about Whitman’s long lines—the cataloguing, the inventories, the lists. I love lists and list poems. Rick Barot’s “The Poem is a Letter Opener” is a favorite. I’m drawn to the incantatory power that lists can hold, like spells, like recipes. And I’m into how lists don’t necessarily have any logical conclusion, how they seem to enjoy continuing, self-perpetuating, how they suggest an endlessness, they imply an “etcetera.”
At some point during my MFA, I realized that I’m a very expansive sort of poet, and a fairly conversational one, too. Reading drafts out loud is important, I think for any poet, but because my poems tend to be talky, I need to work out loud at each stage, to make sure there’s music, different kinds of music. I’m obsessed with the varied ways people talk. The particular and wonderfully strange cadences. Inside jokes. Abbreviations and elongations.
Looking back, it’s hard even for me to believe how attached I was to being a super spare poet. I kept trying to write like Louise Glück (Ararat and The Wild Iris era Louise Glück) or like Lucille Clifton. When in fact, my writing is most alive when it’s allowed some excess and effusiveness. This approach doesn’t always mean long lines or long poems. Indeed, there are sonnet-esque or sonnet-adjacent poems in my book (and I continue to write such poems). But what remains constant (at least for now) is an embrace of the chatty, pop culture-inflected, funny-then-serious-or-vice-versa sort of voice. After all, as I’m always saying, one of my key influences as a writer is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Reading When I Grow Up . . . in the midst of the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, U.S. edition, it’s hard not to see my own experience in certain poems, such as “Poem,” in which the speaker is “Racked by doubt, but not yet / wrecked by it,” and caught in a domestic quarantine. I think it’s my favorite poem in the collection, with its spiraling lines evoking the wandering about the house, “scarfing fries,” and the admission that “I have worn the same / band tee four days in a row, / no one outside the apartment / to see . . .”
I love the poem’s juxtaposition of the mundane comfort-eating of starch and the allusion to Madame Bovary, and the startling, poignant confession that “it’s unbearable to know / how someone will die, even a made-up someone who does / unlikeable things, it’s awful / knowing how & when & a large / portion of why.” I’m curious to understand your experience of this poem, at its inception and now.
Honestly, I don’t know if I fully understand “Poem” myself. It’s been quite some time since I wrote it—in 2014 or 2015. But thank you for highlighting it here. I’m so glad it’s living a life beyond me. That’s always wild to me: how poems start off so intensely in the mind and imagination of a poet, but then (one hopes!) they end up belonging just as intensely (or even more so) to a reader.
I can say that “Poem” is one of my favorites to share out loud at readings. And that I was thinking about my mother’s health and my partner’s mother’s health. My mother continues to deal with a set of health issues. My partner’s mother passed away in 2015 from cancer. I don’t think one can ever inhabit someone else’s grief, though I guess I was trying to do that, for a while; I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. But listening is what’s really possible and actually helpful. Listening, paying close attention, being here for one another. Showing up again and again.
I fail often. I try to listen again just as often. Poems can help, can remind us to listen closer. I think of Mary Ruefle’s words: “I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, ‘I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say’; but I know now that I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.”
It’s early to ask this question, but what is it like to be a practicing poet in a time of pandemic, of lockdown and shelter in place?
I’ve been having a lot of trouble writing, but I also understand now from experience that I need to trust that the writing will come back. I’m still reading poetry (though some days I have trouble focusing in that way, too) and I know poetry will continue to be a form of sustenance for me. I just know that.
Teaching poetry is a more reliable source of joy and meaning, at the moment—I think because I’m craving interaction, dialogue. Like many writers, I’m introverted, but that doesn’t mean I just love being by myself all the time. Rather, I want intensely meaningful interactions over interacting for interacting’s sake (some days, though, with all the isolation, I do want some of the latter!). And indeed, my writing is so enlivened by conversations with my partner, with my friends, and with my students.
What would you most like to give to your MFA students?
Pathways and resources toward their own curiosities, inquiries, mysteries, idiosyncrasies, and idioms. Here, I think of (another former teacher) Aracelis Girmay’s words, "in the school of dreaming, / the discipline of dreaming.”
In your book, You MUST Use the Word SMOOTHIE: A Craft Essay in 50 Writing Prompts, you say, “I have done my best not to prescribe a poetics, my own.” How does one teach creative writing without prescribing a poetics?
Remembering to take time to pause and to question the edits, the revision suggestions, the advice one is giving. As in: are these suggestions the best for this student, what this student is trying to do in their writing? Just as there are no real shortcuts or magical answers to writing strong, moving poems, there are none of those quick fixes, ultimately, in the teaching of creative writing. There are some general principles, sure, but those too need to be tailored to each student’s aesthetic drives and learning needs. I don’t want my students to write like me and I don’t want them to write like each other. I want them to write out of their own hunger for the art—and a large part of my teaching is about encouraging students to recognize their own hunger, to live inside that, instead of trapped inside the image of the poet they think they should write as.
What do you enjoy about mentoring graduate students in creative writing?
The students’ passion for learning. The level of discourse we can engage in. Their poems!
What are you reading now?
Rereading Ada Limón’s The Carrying—the book I’m currently teaching in my undergraduate workshop at Brandeis University. And I just ordered Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. I listened to Odell’s now famous talk (the first chapter of her book is based on that talk) and I am already obsessed with how interdisciplinary her thinking is—from bioregionalism to installation art to linguistics to bird watching (or as she calls it, bird noticing), etc. etc.
What are you working on?
Trying not to freak out 24/7 while recognizing that it’s completely reasonable to be doing just that right now. Checking in with friends.
And eventually, I’ll return to working on my next book of poems, which also has a long sentence of a title, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency. I’ve been working under that title since 2017, but now (sadly and strangely) it’s taken on even greater urgency and resonance. The epigraph for this collection is a line from Marina Tsvetaeva, translated from the Russian by Ilya Kaminsky: “Life is a sack—with holes—and you carry it, you carry it.”
Linda Mahal (Fiction '20) lives in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Her short story "Island Life" (Whitefish Review, Dec. 2019) has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.