Poet-in-Residence Chen Chen reflects through poetry

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September 28, 2018

On Tuesday evening in the Berlin Chapel, new Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence Chen Chen recounted several excerpts from his book, “When I Grow Up I want to be a List of Further Possibilities.” The chapel was packed full, with students overflowing from the rows of chairs. Chen’s elusive poems reflected his struggles of growing up as the gay son of Chinese immigrant parents, their dark sentiment echoing the falling leaves, rain cascading against windowpanes and cars skidding through the streets in the background.

Chen noted that he grew up in Amherst and Newton, MA, so he’s no stranger to New England. He moved around the country before joining Brandeis’ faculty, getting his B.A. at Hampshire College and M.F.A. at Syracuse University. He was working towards his Ph.D at Texas Tech University before coming to Brandeis.

Chen was a captivating reader, combining humor, vulnerability and wit in his reading. Many of his poems are funny, and he excelled at highlighting the humorous aspects of his work. While soft-spoken, he read with confidence at the podium.

The poems he read included “Elegy For My Sadness,” where Chen alluded to his experience as an exchange student in Paris and the difficulty of being inexplicably inarticulate about his unhappiness. “They should’ve seen me in Paris, a sad teenage exchange student; I was so sad and so teenaged, one day my host sister gripped my hand hard and even harder, and said SOIS HEUREUX. BE HAPPY. And miraculously, I wasn’t sad anymore,” he read. While Chen never states the reason behind his sadness in this work, I interpreted this journey as a means of self-acceptance with his identity and sexuality, given his young age.

Acceptance plays a critical role in the majority of his poems, especially in “First Light,” where Chen takes on a more personal narrative. Here, he shows his disconnection from Xiamen, China, where he spent his first three years of his life before moving to Massachusetts. “What is it, to remember nothing, of what one loved? The China of my first three years is largely make-believe, my vast invented country, my dream before I knew the word ‘dream.’”

Further on, he notes the severity of this disconnection when he explains how his mother slapped him for being “dirty, diseased, led astray by Western devils.” It was disheartening the moment he read that line, as one could sense how his mother was using Chen and his coming out as an outlet to express her disapproval for American culture. How could his mother not expect him to adopt a new culture when everyone around him followed it? His penultimate line, “First light, last scent, lost country,” is a poignant recognition of the separation between his new life in the States, and his family and roots in China.

Affirming his Asian-American identity was not the only element of Chen’s poems that hinted at his struggles. Dealing with racial microaggressions, expressing regret for romantic relationships and navigating his gayness in his more traditional family appears in some of his work as well. Chen remained composed and forceful throughout, despite the harsh stigmatizations of those topics.

“Nature Poem” describes how he receives emails addressed to people with the surnames Chang and Chin. He adds humor by describing how a Starbucks cashier didn’t completely finish writing the “n” in his name on his cup, so his order was called for “Cher.” But the poem then returns to criticize the “casual racism, the history of imperialism” at the root of these microaggressions. “Why can’t you see me…Why can’t I stop needing you to see me?” he reads.  

In “I Invite My Parents to a Dinner Party,” Chen presents a tongue-in-cheek description of inviting his parents to have dinner with him and his boyfriend, and encouraging them to be more accepting of his lifestyle. He describes how he has already told his parents numerous times that he is gay, as if they actively choose to forget in hope that he will change, and now desires more genuine conversations. “I’m like the kid in ‘Home Alone,’ orchestrating every movement of a proper family, as if a pair of scary yet deeply incompetent burglars is watching from the outside,” he read, emphasizing the immense pressure to sustain himself without the safety of his parents’ protection.

Chen also explained some elements of his writing process in the Q&A session, noting how “intense and convoluted” the process may be, with a single draft taking up to 60 revisions, only for him to return the original. A student questioned if Chen wrote fiction, and he replied that he used to, but ultimately transitioned to poems due to his passion for narratives and the desire to articulate feelings of his identity that he couldn’t express as well in fiction. When questioned about the difficulty of being an Asian American writer, Chen immediately acknowledged that it is hard. He referenced how the cast in “Crazy Rich Asians,” while revolutionary for its boost in representation, is a painful reminder of how deprived Asians are in media. We can only hope Chen’s bravery to reveal such private hardships through poetry inspires more Asian Americans to defy cultural stereotypes.

As the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence, Chen will be at Brandeis until 2020. This spring, he will be teaching the creative nonfiction and poetry workshops. The Creative Writing department will be hosting more speakers this fall, including Mickey Rapkin, writer of the “Pitch Perfect” book on Oct. 3, and author Mira T. Lee on Oct. 23.

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