Welcome to the School of Chen Chen, Hottie Poet Extraordinaire

Fellow poet J.A. Dela Cruz-Smith interviews Chen Chen about his latest book, inheriting his mom’s fashion sense, and the beauty of a musky armpit

Since the publication of his first collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA, 2017), Chen Chen has built a body of poetry that continuously invites us into a world full of heart, tenderness, and exuberance. His poems are distinct for their candor and humor, often wrestling with themes that seem especially pressing today: love and anger, queerness and family, violence and friendship.

Chen is no stranger: We’ve known one another for several years through our shared love for both poetry and the proliferation of Asian muscle daddy representation on IG, though this interview over Zoom is our first video call. I have my trusty elephant staghorn fern and fiddle-leaf fig tree behind me in my background, Chen, his giant red, green, and yellow virtual tulips. He’s wearing a chunky peppermint knit cardigan with what look like sunflower smiley faces on shrooms decorating his shoulders. I can’t quite make out what he has on underneath. His hair is parted down the middle, clear-framed glasses expertly affixed to his glorious face. I’m wearing a black mesh long sleeve shirt and an umber RUXWOOD jockstrap.

Perhaps because we’re friends, the mood was easy, with flecks of flirtiness interspersing the poetry talk. We’re mostly here to discuss his latest full-length collection of poems, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, out now from BOA Editions and Bloodaxe Books (UK). It’s a longer collection than his previous one, encompassing personal and political crises from the last six years: the Trump presidency, the rise in anti-Asian violence, homophobia, the pandemic, among others. In moments when the spiral seems insurmountable, these poems invite us to tend to our anger, to reach out, and to stay curious, stay funky. Though we never got around to it during our call, what’s next on the horizon for Chen is a collection of essays scheduled for 2024.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

J.A. DELA CRUZ-SMITH: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Congratulations on the new book!

CHEN CHEN: No, thank you for having me!

JA: I'm a little nervous about our interview. I guess, this is when I give the disclaimer: I've never interviewed anybody I've sent my nudes to.

CHEN: Well, first time for everything. Don’t worry, it’s going to be good! It's queer culture. To have these kinds of friendships and dynamics that go different places at different times.

JA: To flirt and practice our sexiness while talking about poetry?

CHEN: Yes, I think that’s important!

JA: Why don’t we get into it? There are several threads spread across your book, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency. One of them made up of poems whose titles begin with, “School of…” For those who may have never read your work, how would you characterize the School of Chen Chen, hottie poet extraordinaire?

CHEN: Thank you for that question, and for that title! I accept it humbly and happily. I'm kind of a cheesy person. My work is a big blend of humor and heart. Humor is often a way to get to the heart of an issue, of a memory, an emotion––the core of things. And that's what I’m most interested in as a person, as a writer. Being emotionally vulnerable and honest. Which can take a while; this book took quite some time.

JA: I don’t think many folks really know what we do as poets. Can you give us a day in the life of Chen?

CHEN: There's no standard day for me. It's all fucking chaos. For example, I've been on book tour going from DC to Miami, to Shippensburg, Pennsylvania to Charlotte. When I'm on the road, a day in the life might be waking up in unfamiliar hotels. Maybe I'll take some cute selfies if the light is good in the morning. Then, I might get food on my own or with faculty before going to wherever the events are taking place. My day could involve teaching a workshop or giving a reading. When I'm not on the road, when I'm at home, I'm trying to catch my breath and rest. It's just a mix of all sorts of things. And now, I’ll be heading to a writing residency in Wyoming. I like doing all these other things as a writer but maybe where I'm most at home is in that quiet, imaginative space.

JA: You’re also a teacher, a professor. I think about my queer Asian American teachers and when I have sent work to them, sometimes I feel bad or ashamed. I don't want to reintroduce in my writing a situation that might bring up difficult feelings for them. How do you, as a teacher, bolster yourself so that you can show up for your students?

CHEN: I forget sometimes that I’m an introvert but identify as an extrovert when it comes to poets and poetry. I love it so much that I can forget how much emotional energy it takes. It takes a lot of attentiveness and thoughtfulness and care to do justice to the subjects my students are exploring. It's something I take very seriously. It demands a level of compassion and humility. It means you sit in that intense emotional space again and again.

So rest! Rest is important! Not just physical rest but psychological rest.

JA: Can you talk a little more about the fears you touch on in some of your poems? The piece dedicated to the victims of the shooting at Pulse, “Elegy While Listening to a Song I Can't Help But Start to Move to,” in section 7 you're sitting on the edge of the bed, holding the air out in front of you, imagining a crush, Jake B., and you write, “I’m giddy. Then, afraid.” In those moments of coming closer to who you are, coming closer to the fantasies you make for yourself, what are you afraid of?

CHEN: It stems from the possibility of losing something you finally found, something that might have been hard-won. I'm talking about being in seventh grade in that section and just starting to realize certain things about myself, that giddy feeling of having a crush and at the same time, recognizing the potential danger of encountering homophobia in response to being out and naming the desires for what they are. Naming yourself in queer terms. What I'm thinking through in that poem is for queer people of color, in particular, who are also dealing with racism and white supremacy in this country, How does one let loose? How do you not be in constant state of anxiety or fear?

JA: I really appreciate how you close that poem with their laughter. It was such a wonderful way to honor their lives, to honor their fun, to honor their dancing.

CHEN: What I feel most moved by is not pain or suffering. What I’m moved by, is people trying to go through the world and find connection and kindness despite it all, despite how unjust and cruel so much of the world can be. They’re still seeking it or longing for it, or trying to build it, to connect with more people and better.

JA: I know it’s been kind of weird with the pandemic and earlier this year, that monkeypox outbreak, but when you have the time for yourself, do you like to go out and dance?

CHEN: I used to! I don't think I'm that great at it but it’s something I really like. I was talking with one of my undergraduate teachers, Aracelis Girmay, about wanting to take a flamenco class. The gestures and the poses, there's something extravagantly expressive about that form of dance, and maximalist. That’s the style that I tend to go for in my writing, and how I dress and talk to people. There is that kind of exuberance.

JA: How would you characterize your fashion sense? Who are your fashion inspirations––when you are clothed?

CHEN: Ha, funny. Yeah, when I am wearing things, which is often…Increasingly, I realize it's my mom. Even though she acts like a very pragmatic person, I think it does make her happy, putting together an outfit. It's pattern on pattern on pattern, color on color on color. There might be like three different textures. That eclectic approach really speaks to me. My mom is definitely one of my inspirations. Her and Alexa Chung.

JA: Where do you like to shop?

CHEN: I kind of enjoy going to the mall. OK, I’m a Mall Asian. There we go, so many of us. You get your boba, it’s climate controlled.

JA: You work a lot with dreams, hallucinations, and imaginary moments. I think the poet Kimiko Hahn talks about how we need fantasies––and you said something similar earlier, too––how we need fantasies to legitimize our desires, our longing. What have you been fantasizing about lately?

CHEN: Mmm…I think a lot of my dreaming right now is for more dreams. This is my naughty fantasy. Like literal dream state, like unconscious.

JA: Is your pup, Mr. Rupert Giles, a good cuddler?

CHEN: He loves to cuddle! Though it's always on his terms. He's a selfish lover.

JA: There's a lot of food in your poems. A lot of snacks. What are your go-to snacks when you're at your most crying-est or when you're at your most tired?

CHEN: I love popcorn. Put some chili oil or sriracha on top of it and it's delicious. And dill pickle flavored potato chips! My best friend, the poet Sam Herschel Wein, introduced me to those.

JA: Okay. I have just a few more questions. You love a musky armpit.

CHEN: Yes, yes.

JA: In this next fantasy, we’re at the fragrance counter of a big department store and you’re selling me some of this stuff. Can you describe to me this most wondrous armpit scent you talk about in several of your poems? What are its notes, what's brought forward? What's sturdy in the middle and what's lingering at the back to round it out at its finish?

CHEN: This beautiful scent, musky armpit…The first note has a kind of funkiness to it, a post-gym pungency hits you first. In the middle, there’s a sweetness and warmth to it giving you that feeling of intimacy where you’re so close to someone you’re allowed to really get in there, deliberately smelling them. And then it finishes with a longing for more, it leaves you wanting a little more of that.

JA: I love! Last question. Throughout your book you ask the people you include in your poems wonderful, often heart-wrenching questions. I'm thinking about that incredibly moving poem, “One Year Later: Her Answer” (listen below). You write, “& I could // ask, in a beautiful / poem sort of way, what was the creature she always wanted // to growl as, the candy she always hoped / to create?” How would you answer those questions?

CHEN: Thank you for bringing up that one. That poem is about and is for my partner’s mother who died in 2015, of pancreatic cancer. It’s about the grief around that, the ordinary things you end up missing about people. This poem means a lot to me. So those questions, the creature I always want to growl as? I don't know if the creature I want to be growls necessarily…OK, a mountain goat! My partner and I were just talking about this. He was asking me, “Do you think mountain goats ever fall off of the mountain?” And I don’t want to think about it, but in all likelihood, it probably happens! They’re just so energetic bouncing around up there. So, the mountain goat for its look and its frenzied activity––that’s my creature. As for the candy. OMG. Maybe musky armpit candy? Also, one of my favorite Chinese desserts is a sweet mung bean soup. It’s really refreshing and just sweetened with a little bit of sugar or some honey. It’s so good cold in the summers. I’d take that flavor and make it into a lollipop.

Published on December 12, 2022

Words by J.A. Dela Cruz-Smith

J.A. Dela Cruz-Smith is a Chamoru-Filipino, queer poet living in Seattle. His family is from Dededo and Chalan Pago, Guahan. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Assaracus: A Journal of Gay Poetry, Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia (University of Hawai'i Press), Moss, Poetry Northwest, among other publications. He has performed and read original work at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, the Center on Contemporary Arts, and at various festivals and conferences. He received an MFA in creative writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop and is the director/curator of the contemporary art gallery, From Typhoon. He covers culture and entertainment for JoySauce.

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