June 4–10, 2018
Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, which 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 is also a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. Chen’s work appears in many journals and anthologies, including Poetry, Tin House, Best American Poetry, Bettering American Poetry and Best American Nonrequired Reading. With the poet Sam Herschel Wein, he edits Underblong. He lives in Rochester, NY, with his partner, Jeff Gilbert, and their pug dog, Mr. Rupert Giles. On Friday, June 8, he will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at 100 Bogart in Bushwick with Candace Williams and Donna Masini.
Sorrow Song with Optimus Prime
You are an unhappy thing, cursed with legs,
every step carrying the love who left, the love you left,
the job lost, the mountain of low, the mounting lack.
But your legs grow tired of holding it, so you transfer it
to your head. Then your head grows tired, so you delegate it
to your shoulders. Then they are tired & you are tired
& you don’t know what to do but replant it in your legs,
your feet, & walk it to the supermarket.
You try to sell your sickness to the octopus
whose tentacles lie in severed strips. But he refuses.
You try to freeze your darkness but the industrial fridge
spits it out. You put a pink hat on your gloom
& march it to the toy store where you try giving it away,
giving it back to the latest version of the unattainable
robot from childhood, the truck that transforms, grows
arms that hold laser guns, could hold your grief, you.
But the sorrow is held by your heart now, your own
exquisite machine that seems finally to contain it.
Then even your most stubborn muscle grows weary, & sends it
whirling through your bloodstream & your blood carries it,
everywhere in your body at once, so there is no more moving.
So you sit, on the floor of the toy store, like the end
of an avalanche, each rock, tree, & small wish of you
crushed, heaped. & the scream of your total defeat
is the cry that brought the mountain down.
—From When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, BOA Editions, 2017.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote the early drafts during my MFA. The poem didn’t change a whole lot after that, though when it came time to finalize everything in my book, my editor at BOA, Peter Conners, had a helpful suggestion about punctuation that resolved a rhythmic issue. In any case, what came to me first was that first line, “You are an unhappy thing, cursed with legs”—it seemed to contain a lively image and a sort of jolly rhythm, which intrigued me. I mean, I could say something sad in a happy way. Like my favorite type of music: dancey yet mournful, miserable yet catchy, Robyn yet Robyn, down in the dumpiest of dumps but then remembering that the sound of “dump” is funny.
So, the rest of this poem’s opening just tumbled out of that first line, building on that initial image, rhythm, tone. And I kept following what felt alive, or maybe undead, kept parachuting down, or just falling, not knowing where I would land, but landing might not be the point. Maybe my job as a poet is to keep falling and falling, to keep fallin’, as the Alicia Keys song goes. By the way, “Fallin’” is a pretty sad song that also has a kind of vigor, a fervor to it. It’s not mopey. After all, it’s as much about falling in love as out. I couldn’t stop listening to “Fallin’” in eighth grade, falling for straight guy after straight guy, didn’t matter if they were on the track team or in the orchestra or the guy delivering pizza to another crush’s James Bond–themed birthday party. Anyway, as the poem went on, I had some older bits from failed poems that I realized I could fold in—always a fun surprise and honestly a relief that I at least got something right in earlier attempts at this weird art.
Then at some point, the title came. I don’t remember when. But “Sorrow Song with Optimus Prime” was the only title that made sense. It clicked everything into place. Indeed, my MFA thesis advisor, Bruce Smith, suggested “Sorrow Song with Optimus Prime” as a potential title for my entire manuscript. Of course (in the totally unpredictable, mysterious poem sense of “of course”) another, longer title took over. And yes, I’ve left in my long aside about Alicia Keys’s “Fallin’” because I’m thinking about all the strange ways in which poems happen, how distractions and detours and pizza deliveries are necessary.
What are you working on right now?
With the poet Sam Herschel Wein, a joint chapbook called Gesundheit! that explores queer friendship and various forms of relating, loving, building outside of the hetero- and also homo-normative. There is also, yes, a fair amount of sneezing. And a very introverted ghost based on a Paul Klee painting! We’ve just started sending this manuscript out.
Now I’m returning to my second full-length collection, tentatively titled Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency (I just can’t help myself with the long titles, yep). Many of these poems are born out of the time I spent in Lubbock, Texas, as a doctoral student—and a gaysian cutie (obvi). Some poems respond to national crises—the election of Trump, the rise of “white nationalism” a.k.a. the latest most vocal form of white supremacy, the deeply American problem of mass shootings. And some poems engage with personal devastations—ongoing conflict between a queer son and his parents, the loss of a partner’s mother to pancreatic cancer, the loss of a student to a car crash. I’m interested in the intersections between the larger calamities and the personal ones. Oh and one poem makes reference to another singer-songwriter of deep importance to eighth-grade me: Sarah McLachlan. Maybe not dancey yet mournful so much as mournful and mournful. This collection does seem to be going in a less jolly, more dire direction.
Still, there’s hope in these poems. The act of making a poem seems inherently hopeful to me: that there are things worth giving this much attention to, that I want you to give as much attention as I have, then more … that language can ask of each of us even more.
I’m planning on getting back to some essays, as well—personal essays and critical ones, though I just recently completed my doctoral qualifying exams and am feeling a bit fried when it comes to scholarly writing. We’ll see … essay writing is the most fun to me when I’m excited about the overall form and the particular music of the sentences. So, the closer it can feel to working on poems, basically.
What’s a good day for you?
Spending less time fretting over a failed poem and more time watching Lucy Liu as Joan Watson solve crimes involving murderous beekeepers. Also, lots of honeydew boba tea, please.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
Currently, Rochester, NY. Since mid-December 2017. I like taking walks by the Erie Canal with my partner and our pug dog, Mr. Rupert Giles. I like introducing folks to Giles and explaining the Buffy reference. I like the thriving literary culture here, from BOA Editions to Writers & Books to everything the brilliant Rachel McKibbens has done for this city. It’s a wonderful place to be a writer and a reader. And in general, I like living in the Northeast (I grew up in Massachusetts).
I knew I wanted to return to the region after living in West Texas for two and a half years. Not that this region is inherently more progressive … and I mean, parts of upstate New York are plenty conservative. I’ve encountered racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism everywhere I’ve gone. I do feel less nervous to hold my partner’s hand in public here in Rochester. I can say that. Also, I didn’t anticipate how much I would miss the landscape. The trees. And the seasons. I’m a sucker for that college-brochure level of dazzling fall foliage.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
Park Slope—a friend from high school has relatives with an apartment; we’ve stayed there, explored the area. Back in 2012, I think. Bay Ridge—my friend and incredible poet Monica Sok lived there during her MFA at NYU; I visited her in 2014, 2015. I love the parks. The Brooklyn Art Museum. All the poets!!
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
To me, poetry community means sharing drafts with trusted readers; attending fellow poets’ readings; being in conversation with fellow teachers of poetry; working with students and mentees; taking people’s work seriously, which means holding poets accountable for the language they use; listening to those on the margins and with less privilege; laboring to make poetry spaces stronger, aligned with the needs of poets of color, queer and trans poets of color, poets with disabilities; taking people’s behavior seriously; and taking responsibility for one’s own work and actions.
I’m slowly building my own small community in Rochester. Much of my poetry community exists online and through the network of Asian American writers who are part of/who together create Kundiman. As a queer Asian American growing up in New England, online tools and spaces have been important for a long time.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Walt Whitman, duh. Angel Nafis, duh. Tommy Pico, duh. Gregory Pardlo, duh. Wo Chan, duh. Shira Erlichman, duh (I went to college with her!). David Tomas Martinez, duh. And two of the most important poetry teachers in my life—Martín Espada and Aracelis Girmay. I was so lucky to get to work with both of them as an undergrad. What giant-hearted, dreaming-fierce presences. Espada gave me such permission—to write about immigration, queerness, Asian America as I’ve witnessed and inhabited it, and without simplifying any of this for a white, straight audience. Girmay pushed me to honor the idiosyncrasies in my language, in my relationship to words as well as silences. She also encouraged me to dwell more in bewilderment, in what I don’t know, what I’m struggling to discover, what might be waiting to discover me. Espada’s and Girmay’s own poems continue to instruct and challenge, swoon and set ablaze.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Jennifer S. Cheng’s Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2018). The interiority that Cheng achieves is astonishing and gorgeous. She doesn’t write about immigration, the feminine, and Chinese American world building. She writes from inside these subjects and subjectivities. Throughout the book, she takes on Chinese myths and legends and through her inhabiting of them, utterly reinvents them. In one section, she also writes of exploring Hong Kong, the city of her early childhood, now experienced as an adult, and in forms I didn’t know were possible. For example, here’s the beginning of her poem “In Which the City-Island Is”:
1: a mouthful of stars & a crescent 2: at the top of a marginal
Sea 3: wavering dimensions
of child memories 4: staircase at the farthest edge, immediately
beyond which sweltering 5: wild vegetation 6: three little
rowboats roofed by plastic tarps 7: heart-sized bauhinia leaf
pinned to the sidewalk after rainfall 8: outlying islands & those
9: unnamed 10: Mid-Autumn Festival, the city cast in billowy
lanterns 11: remembrance of ferry transits, wooden ridges
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Anne Rice’s new Vampire Chronicles. She’s returned to the series! After a trilogy about Jesus as a teen sensation, I think? Actually, I started reading one of the new vampire books, but it’s much more mythology heavy. For some reason Atlantis now figures into the origin of the vampires. Plus a species of most likely malevolent birdlike aliens. I would say “spoiler alert,” but that’s really only the beginning of the WTF. Probably I should just reread Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat, when things were character driven and super gay with lots of kissing. The good ol’ days.
As for poetry, I’m ashamed to say that I have yet to read Marie Howe’s What the Living Do in its entirety. I will. This month.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I used to dip in and out, multiple books, all the time—that was my preferred method. Now I really love reading one book, cover to cover, total monogamy, not even a dirty pic or two via DM to another book, nope. I think my preference has shifted because of how much busier I’ve become—and distracted.
Earlier I said distractions are necessary for poetry, but there are good distractions and bad. Depending on the day, my mood, and whether conservative trolls are targeting me, social media can be either good or bad or an avalanche of hippo turds wrapped in why god (who is dead) why. The Internet is amazing and I do get lots of writing ideas from online interactions, but I know that I also lie to myself sometimes when I’m like, “Oh this is all research. This will definitely feed into a poem. Eventually.” On one level, that’s true. On another, it’s procrastination. So, it’s great to learn of poets, to discover new poems online. But to immerse myself in one book, no other text—what a treat. That immersion, in turn, makes me want to work on a poem with the same focus and zeal.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I want to put the word “vestibule” in a poem. It just hasn’t worked, yet. And I’ve tried the ghazal form before, but I think I’d do much better with it now.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
On Greyhound buses. I like trying in general to incorporate details from my surroundings into a poem I’m working on, to challenge myself to reimagine where things are headed. If I’m working on, say, a poem based on something that happened years ago in Amherst, Massachusetts, but then I have to put in the tired look of the employee with the 6 AM shift at the Syracuse Greyhound station’s Subway … how might I go somewhere different, somewhere I could not have planned for?
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate 6 a.m. & the lone maker of sandwiches
at the Syracuse Greyhound Station’s tiny,
& what I eat fresh
you eat fresh.
For every spicy Italian footlong traveling
through me as good once traveled
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
is not a Dodger
nor a Jack
nor a Rob.
His only sin
was giving me a pen
& with love
saying, Go to Brooklyn,
be a poet. No biggie.