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Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph RanchA Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.
4.23.2017 Poet Chen Chen on arriving and belonging, the craft of writing, and Texas
Lubbock poet Chen Chen has been featured on the PBS Newshour and in OUT magazine. He is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize from BOA Editions, and a Kundiman and Lambda Literary Fellow. His work has appeared in publications such as Poetry, The Massachusetts Review, The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, Best of the Net, and The Best American Poetry. He spoke with us via email last week. Chen’s poem "Things Stuck in Other Things Where They Don’t Belong” is reprinted following this interview, with the author's permission.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Chen, you were born in China, and raised in China until you were three. What brought you to the U.S., and how has being an immigrant affected your life?
CHEN CHEN: My father decided he wanted to study in the States. He started off as a graduate student in religion at Texas Christian University and then eventually switched to education. He lived in Texas on his own for a bit, before my mother and I came. It was a difficult decision for my mother, since she loved the big network of family and friends she had in China—coming to the United States meant leaving behind a whole life. As for the second question, I can say that being an immigrant has deeply affected my sense of family structure...most of my extended family still lives in China. But really, I’m not sure I can answer that question in any satisfying way here; I think I wrote my first book in order to answer that question. I’m still answering that question. Basically, being an immigrant has affected every aspect of my life. Understanding the specifics of different stories of immigration is so important. I wish the phrase “the immigrant experience” didn’t exist, because it seems silly to me, this idea that there’s some general or monolithic experience of something so complicated.
When were you first attracted to poetry?
I always loved and found mysterious the sonic texture of language, which I think is central to a love of poetry. I remember finding a copy of Louise Glück’s Vita Nova in a friend’s house in high school. I just started flipping through it and got entranced by the musicality and imagery of the work. I ended up borrowing the book. When I finally returned it, my friend said she’d never seen that book before, though maybe it belonged to her older sister, who was in college. But I don’t remember talking to her sister about the book; I remember talking to her. In any case, it was a gift, stumbling upon that poetry collection. Glück remains one of my favorite contemporary poets.
You are pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at Texas Tech. What made you decide to be a Red Raider?
I heard wonderful things about the folks coming out of the program, poets like Christine Kitano, George David Clark, Rebecca Gayle Howell, Chloe Honum. They were publishing their first books, getting tenure-track teaching jobs, and continuing to write poems I admire. So, that was a major factor: seeing what amazing things graduates of this program were doing. And then, honestly, the high funding rank. Especially for poets, good and stable financial support can be hard to find.
You’ve won prizes and fellowships and have been published many times and received a number of honors. Can you describe for readers your first professional break as a poet?
I would say getting into the MFA program at Syracuse was an important turning point. I wasn’t expecting to get into a fully funded MFA program, so it was immensely validating that that happened.
Which Texas poets do you enjoy reading?
Currently, I’m obsessed with Chloe Honum’s poetry. She’s a graduate of the Texas Tech creative writing program and now an assistant professor at Baylor University. Her work just blows me away. I highly recommend checking out her poem “Spring,” which was published in Poetry.
What is your creative process like? Do you write every day? Do you have certain writing rituals?
I have a very messy creative process. I don’t follow any sort of set schedule. Sometimes I wish I did. And when I was in a residency for a month in Ithaca, New York, I had a schedule that came about organically—I just had so much time to write and I was constantly inspired by seeing what my fellow residents were up to. But usually, I go poem to poem, draft to draft, whenever and however I can.
I’m going to ask you the question that I ask every teacher who is also a writer? Can writing be taught? Why or why not?
Craft can be taught. How to give and how to use feedback imaginatively can be taught. I do think writers need trusted readers, but the workshop format of critiquing stops being all that useful at a certain point. You just need people who understand what you’re trying to do and who will also push you. I agree with the perspective that a startling, deeply idiosyncratic vision cannot be taught…but I also think that reading widely and attentively helps you build a vision that is yours. I don’t know if I buy it that some people are just born with it. I’ve found that opportunity and access to resources have a lot to do with how much people are able to pursue and develop their creative impulse.
What is your favorite part of poetry? Performing or writing? Why?
Writing. Because it always surprises me.
What's your take on the growing interest in poetry slams, open mic nights, and storytelling venues?
I love that more people get to participate in this weirdness.
Last question: Most important! What has surprised you about Texas the most?
How incredibly varied this state is, culturally, politically, and weather-wise. I mean, it’s a giant state, so it makes sense how different it is from region to region. At the moment, I’m in Houston for a reading event and I realized I forgot what serious humidity feels like. It feels like you are walking around inside a sauna all the time but you’re not sweating out in some cleansing, spiritual way, you’re just getting dehydrated. But I’m very excited to be reading here. In an air-conditioned space.
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Things Stuck in Other Things Where They Don’t Belong
My mother one afternoon in a cowboy hat, sitting on a Texan bench of hay.
Me in the same configuration of time, space, & cowboy hat.
The memory in my brain like a boulder in a haystack, like a bad joke.
The sun in our faces.
The year we spent in Fort Worth, Texas, our first year in Mĕiguó.
The fluent Not-English I spoke in kindergarten.
The blond boy from Germany in the same sandbox with me, laughing at my jokes.
His name, Eammon, like Amen, unlike any Chinese or American name
I’d ever heard, a ticklish raindrop
in my ears.
The soy sauce + Tabasco sauce + mud in my “soups.”
The same ingredients + sugar in my “pies.”
Me in the biggest kitchen I’d ever seen, running around the “island,”
chased by an elderly white man my father said to call my “Texas grandpa.”
My father with his full head of black hair & British-inflected English
in the graduate religion program at Texas Christian University.
The grease-tang of kung pao chicken in my mother’s shirts,
in my mother’s far-away look, after shifts.
The Bengal tigers in the tightly fenced “forest habitat” in the zoo Eammon & I visited.
The sand in our shoes, the sun in our faces
as we sweated over castle fortification, all afternoon.
The Goodbye I placed in Eammon’s ear.
The motels & motels I played Power Rangers in, leaving Texas
because my father had won a scholarship.
The way I came to learn the French word for “scar”
by seeing it over & over in a French Harry Potter, in my American head,
in the small bald spot on the left side of my head,
which I received one afternoon in Texas,
when I was the skinniest, sincerest Superman, & flew into the kitchen
where my mother was removing from the stove
a saucepan of milk, still boiling,
& we bumped into each other—“cicatrice.”
The cicatrice of Eammon’s Christmas card, once kept bedside,
now in a box, a basement.
My dream in the motels that my father’s scholarship
was a type of ship & soon we’d get to ride it
& reach Massachusetts, a vast
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Praise for Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities
“What does Millennial poetry look like? One answer might be this wild debut from Chen Chen. He seems to run at the mouth, free-associating wildly, switching between lingo and ‘higher’ forms of diction. Nothing’s out of bounds or off limits, no culture too ‘pop’ to find its place in poetry . . . nor anything too silly to point the way toward serious aims. And yet this is a deeply serious and moving book about Chinese-American experience, young love, poetry, family, and the family one makes amongst friends.” —NPR Books
“The collection, as the title itself suggests, is about ‘further possibilities,’ about revising, reinventing, and reimagining the relational modes we currently have. If we are all tasked with being 'someone ‘for’ someone else—a son, a friend, a partner, a student, ‘a dear love,’ we cannot afford to be complacent or static in the ways that we inhabit and think about those relations. Interdependence is at the heart of Chen’s writing, and if we are to survive in these troubled times, we must continue to believe that there really are new ways to find the impossible honey.” —Up the Staircase Quarterly
“The word ‘stanza’ means one thing when it refers to a poem: a snippet of text, a line or several. In Italian, it means ‘room.’ Poet Chen Chen combines those definitions when he writes, thinking: what should be in the room of this poem? In his earlier work, he began to answer that question with pieces that explored his own intersecting identities, parts of himself that other people told him could not exist at once...” —PBS Newshour
“Chen Chen refuses to be boxed in or nailed down. He is a poet of Whitman’s multitudes and of Langston Hughes’s blues, of Dickinson’s ‘so cold no fire can warm me’ and of Michael Palmer’s comic interrogation. What unifies the brilliance of When I Grow up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities is a voice desperate to believe that within every one of life’s sadnesses there is also hope, meaning, and—if we are willing to laugh at ourselves—humor. This is a book I wish existed when I first began reading poetry. Chen is a poet I’ll be reading for the rest of my life.” —Jericho Brown
“Chen Chen is already one of my favorite poets ever. Funny, absurd, bitter, surreal, always surprising, and deeply in love with this flawed world. I’m in love with this book.” —Sherman Alexie
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