Poetic possibilities 

Nearly a year after the release of his debut poetry collection, Chen Chen will bring poetic prospects to a reading at UCO.

click to enlarge Poet Chen Chen will read from his collection of works, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, at the University of Central Oklahoma. - JESS CHEN / PROVIDED
  • Jess Chen / provided
  • Poet Chen Chen will read from his collection of works, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, at the University of Central Oklahoma.

It’s a common question: What do you want to be when you grow up? The answers are pat, sometimes full of naïveté: Doctor. Lawyer. Astronaut. Superhero. Often asked of young children, the question points to larger, subtler tensions of identity: Are you what you do? Who are you, and what can you be?

In his debut poetry collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, Chen Chen investigates the nuances of modern life.

Chen delivers a reading from his work 6 p.m. April 13 at the University of Central Oklahoma as part of a national book tour.

“I’m very excited to come to Oklahoma, to get to meet some of the … faculty and students there, as well,” Chen said.

Released in April 2017 by BOA Editions, Ltd., When I Grow Up has received positive critical acclaim. The collection won the 15th annual A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and was longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Poetry. United States poet laureate Tracy K. Smith referenced Chen in a recent interview with The New York Times.

Chen’s entrance into the world of poetry began as a draft for his thesis project during his Master of Fine Arts studies at Syracuse University.

“I was working closely with poets there — Bruce Smith — and really just going poem by poem,” Chen said. “At the time, I wasn’t sure exactly how they would all go together as a collection. … I knew that it would need some more tweaking, but I just needed some time to live with the work.”

After graduating, Chen said he continued revisions, putting aside the work and then returning to it. He sent the manuscript to various presses and submitted it to contests. Once it was picked up, Chen said that he had a further six months or so to continue editing the work.

Revision, much like writing, might be considered a largely solitary process, but for Chen, it was collaborative.

“I really have to get outside of my own head. I feel like often, I can get stuck in this very internal, cerebral process,” Chen said. “I really need to be in dialogue with other writers, with teachers, with friends. … I’ve been very fortunate to work with some really smart fellow poets who understand what I’m trying to do with a specific piece and then the collection as a whole.”

Chen said that the first poem in the collection — “Self-Portrait as So Much Potential” — initially came later in the book. After a friend and peer suggested that it come before the first section break, the collection snapped into focus.

“All of a sudden, I understood what the first section needed in terms of the pacing and how the poems fit together,” Chen said.

Collaboration during the revision process furnished some critical distance from the work, and Chen said he was able to see the bigger picture of the collection.


When I Grow Up I Want to Be a  List of Further Possibilities - PROVIDED
  • provided
  • When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities


Conversational exploration

Counting Pablo Neruda, Jean Valentine and Martìn Espada among a wide array of poetic influences, Chen worked at developing his distinct poetic voice, which often infuses heady subject material with wryness and authenticity.

“I think for a while, because I was drawn to poems like this, I was trying to write in a very spare, serious, devastating style,” Chen said.

After trying to write in the same vein as poets like Lucille Clifton and Louise Glück, Chen took a different approach.

“I started experimenting more with bringing in a voice that is closer to how I actually talk and how I am in conversation with friends or people that I’m close to,” he said.

Chen said adopting a more conversational style allowed him to draw from influences while also coming into his own.

“That really changed things for my writing, and all of a sudden, it came alive and surprised me in different ways,” Chen said.

The formal component of Chen’s poetry dovetails with frequent themes of the collection: Asian-American experiences, queer identity and interpersonal relationships. For Chen, such categories of identity remain fundamentally open-ended.

“In my own experience, ‘Asian-American’ means so many different things, and things that I don’t have a full understanding of and things that I’m still really learning. And the same for ‘queer,’” Chen said. “I feel like I’m not trying to speak from some definitive position or a position of authority, but more from a learning position and a very subjective position as well.”

In addition to investigating questions of identity as a poet, Chen is also working on a Ph.D. in writing and English at Texas Tech University. The two modes — academic and poetic — have enriched one another, he said.

“To me, I guess, it comes down to the kind of questions that I feel like I can ask, or the kinds of questions that occur to me to ask … in reading scholarly work, critical theory, that really pushes me to think,” Chen said. “It’s this indirect path, and I can’t predict how one thing’s going to influence another, but that’s sort of the pleasure of it, as well.”

As a contemporary poet, Chen has had the opportunity to interact with readers of his work on social media. Chen said he occasionally uses platforms like Twitter to brainstorm or test out ideas, but he always tries to make time and space to return to writing itself.

Chen said he wants to explore writing more creative nonfiction.

Visit chenchenwrites.com.


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