The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Chen Chen about his new collection When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, playing the game white supremacy has set up, and if God is trying and failing to be a cool dad.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: One of the things I was drawn to in your book was the ambivalence (is that the right word?) you seem to show about belief and faith and that sort of thing. Like in the second poem in the book, “I’m not a religious person but.” Can you talk some about how you navigate that subject in your work and why?
For a little perspective, I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and left the church about 20 years ago, so I come from a very conservative religious background that I feel almost no connection to anymore.
Chen Chen: Brian, thanks for the wonderful question. I didn’t grow up in a religious household, so I didn’t face any pressures or expectations to adhere to a particular set of beliefs or religious practices. I was curious, though, about religion. I don’t think I ever felt some kind of intrinsic pull. I was pretty much agnostic from the beginning, and then straight-up atheist.
I’ve always been a skeptic. Enjoyed questioning things. But I’ve never been all that good at science. The quantitative reasoning side of things. I love learning about what scientists have discovered—and the process of such discovery.
Brian S: Yeah, I was a Chemistry major as an undergrad until I got to Calculus classes. But that curiosity about the way the universe works has never disappeared for me.
Chen Chen: In terms of writing poems that explore belief and faith, I guess I’m interested in adopting a kind of skepticism toward my own leanings. Or an openness… a “what if”… as in, what if I were someone who believed in a higher power, a divine presence, a deity? What would I want to say to this entity or force in the universe?
In general, I like pushing myself, in poems, to speak from voices or perspectives that I wouldn’t immediately identify as my own, at least not in everyday social contexts. I think of a teacher I had during my MFA who gave us the assignment of writing a poem 20% meaner or 20% more mellow than what we would usually do. How we would typically imagine ourselves, as speakers or writers.
Brian S: That’s a fascinating assignment. I don’t even know how I’d approach that, off the top of my head.
Chen Chen: With that particular poem you mention, I thought it would be funny if I had this annoyed and sort of combative dialogue with God. And if the angel God initially sent was an intern. Inexperienced. Awkward. Learning the ropes, but not all that well.
Brian S: That killed me. “Fluent only in / Lemme get back to you.” That’s my guardian angel if there is such a thing.
Chen Chen: Now I’m thinking that it would be wonderful to try to write something in which heaven was an office. With cubicles. What if heaven were a Soviet-style bureaucracy? The angels all obsessed with status and ranking. I’m sure that idea of “heaven” would appeal to some people.
Brian S: Or a corporate work farm, complete with backstabbing and ass-kissing and so on. Like that movie Office Space, but with angels who aren’t so angelic. Blur the line between heaven and hell some.
Chen Chen: Haha. I love that. And God as an incompetent, nosy Michael Scott-style boss. Always trying to joke and pal around with his employees.
Brian S: Trying to be the cool dad.
Chen Chen: Yes!
Brian S: Because in the end, it’s a family business he’s running.
Chen Chen: Indeed. I love thinking about the range of voices God or a godlike figure can have in a poem. It’s so fun and can allow for a variety of emotions to happen in a very short span. You can have the wrathful, vengeful God. The God who speaks in riddles. The merciful God. The God who’s just trying to run a family business, yes. But I like this idea of speaking to someone who is supposed to be in charge of everything. And yet *needs* people. Somehow needs us mortals.
Brian S: I’d like to talk about “Nature Poem” a bit. In it you write about people getting your name wrong, and my assumption, given the country we live in, is that these are white people making most of the errors, and erasing you. But you also write in the poem “why can’t I stop / needing you to see me?” Can you talk a little about that tension? The god who’s always trying to pass the blame off onto someone else when things go sideways. That’s why there’s a Satan, after all.
Chen Chen: I’m interested in the tension between power and intimacy, between structures of domination and how vulnerability enters… when someone can recognize the erasure happening, but still craves recognition from the status quo. I’m getting at a form of internalizing power relationships. The speaker in “Nature Poem” knows this game that white supremacy has set up, but still plays it, or feels the need to play it.
Brian S: There’s also, in that poem, the tug between the desire to have peace and quiet and the (for me anyway) addiction to being connected.
Chen Chen: If you’re an Asian American and you’re growing up, say, in a predominantly white neighborhood or town or region, it’s going to feel lonely. Isolating. But you’re still going to make white friends. You still want friends, period. You need social interaction and validation and people to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer with.
And while you’re making friends with white folks, you’re probably going to start internalizing their perspectives on things. White beauty standards, for instance. The socialization you get stays with you for a long time.
Brian S: Yeah, my experience as a Jehovah’s Witness as a kid was similar in that I was pressured by the church not to make friends with kids who weren’t in the church, but those were the kids I saw everyday in school. Of course I’m going to be friends with them no matter how isolated the church wanted me to be.
Chen Chen: By the end of “Nature Poem,” though, the speaker attempts to see an alternative. The speaker acknowledges that the “you”—this white gaze and social environment—is not the only “you” possible, not the only “you” the speaker can relate to.
Brian S: I don’t mean to suggest that my experience is anywhere near as intense as yours, just that as an analog I have a frame of reference.
Chen Chen: Yes. I remember when I was a kid, and just a little after my family came to the States (I was about four), my dad would push me to study English more. To assimilate more quickly. He felt this approach would make things easier for me. His pressuring came from a well-intentioned place. A caring place. But it also led to a lot of inner turmoil. And an internalizing of “English is better. English will get me ahead.” Before I even knew what “ahead” is supposed to mean. Of course, racism and capitalism are intertwined. To get “ahead” means speaking English perfectly, means adopting white standards for behavior and appearance, means not speaking out when the pressures become unbearable.
Brian S: I’m teaching a graphic memoir by MariNaomi right now in a class called Turning Japanese, where she writes about trying to learn about the Japanese half of her family, especially by learning the language. And her mother did the opposite—refused to teach her Japanese—but for very similar reasons.
Does every poet write a “My Cat Jeoffry” poem, do you think? It’s that or the Stevens’s “13 Ways of Looking at X” form, right? (Your boyfriend sounds wonderful in that poem, for the record)
Chen Chen: I’m sure lots of other poets have written an imitation of that Christopher Smart poem. It’s such a wonderful form. How he uses anaphora. How unabashed he is, describing in minute detail his cat’s every gesture. How he delights in the metaphorical and philosophical resonances of this creature. It should be a boring poem but somehow it’s not. And I do love cats, but I think it’s the liveliness of Smart’s language and attention that sustains the poem.
And my boyfriend will be very pleased to know that he sounds wonderful there. I mean, he already knows. All these love poems for him! I wanted to write a queer love poem wherein nothing tragic happened.
Of course, “For I will consider…” still touches on mortality. How typically poetic of me. But I wanted to explore love and mortality here in the most joyful way I could.
Brian S: I did one for my dad. It gets into the dementia and the difficult relationship we had in the last fifteen years or so of his life, but still got to the heart of my feelings for him, and the form allowed me to do that.
Chen Chen: That’s beautiful, how you used to form to examine your relationship with your father.
Brian S: I studied the Smart poem a long time ago in grad school and was taken in by Smart’s biography some. He wrote the poem, if I remember correctly, while he was institutionalized because he was considered crazy. He would stop people on the street and try to pray with them as a way of exalting the beauty in the world. I can see why that would be off-putting if you’re the person being accosted, but sometimes I think it would feel good to be that overwhelmed by beauty.
Chen Chen: Yes, overwhelmed by beauty. For some reason my mind jumps to the fainting goat. Have you seen this creature? It will run around and just faint. I think out of pure excitement. Maybe it’s fear. Or a mix of overwhelming emotions. Like the sublime. So beautiful it terrifies. The original meaning of “awesome,” too. Awe is not just a good feeling. Back to your response to the Smart poem… I love it when a poetic form proves itself to be that malleable. That poem dedicated to a cat can inspire such different repurposings.
Brian S: Do you have favorites, poems you read at every reading?
Chen Chen: I do have favorite poems for readings. With this book, it’s generally been poems that give a sense of its overall arc. So poems like “First Light,” “In the City,” “Nature Poem,” and “Poplar Street.” I also think these are among the strongest poems of the collection. I gravitate toward them often when standing in front of a crowd of strangers and my brain starts going like, “Oh shit, why am I here? Why are they all looking at me? I’m an introvert!”
Brian S: I’m just enough of an extrovert to be able to make it through events like that without majorly melting down, but I need an equal or greater amount of time in a quiet, preferably dark room afterward to recover.
Chen Chen: But at the reading I just did in Houston, I decided to try something different. So I realized that I had all these poems in the book that draw upon my experiences with learning French. I studied French all through middle and high school. Six years total. And still my French is terrible. I mean, I haven’t had much opportunity to practice it lately. But for this reading I thought it would be fun and maybe illuminating to read most of the poems from the book that mention learning French or use a French word or phrase in some way.
Brian S: That’s interesting! I studied French in high school and college and lost most of it pretty quickly. I went to Lyon about a year and a half ago and studied up so I would be able to get around and I quickly learned how much I didn’t know. But I tried and the French people I interacted with were generous and kind.
Chen Chen: So I read poems like “Elegy for My Sadness,” “West of Schenectady,” “for i will do/undo what was done/undone to me.” And these aren’t typically poems I read from the book. The French “theme” ended up being a great way for me to shake things up in my ‘set list.”
During my sophomore year of high school, I did a month abroad in Paris. Stayed with a host family. Developed a crush on the straight French guy I roomed with. Went up the Eiffel Tower. It was really cold. Middle of February. Cried a lot. Knew I was going to be a poet but still fantasized about being a pop star and married to Jake Gyllenhaal.
Isn’t it incredible how I know how to spell Gyllenhaal? Ridiculous, the kind of “knowledge” you develop just by living in a certain pop culture environment for years and years.
Brian S: Ha! That’s amazing.
Chen Chen: I just learned that Lily Tomlin was the voice of Ms. Frizzle. How did I not know this?!
Brian S: Is that The Magic School Bus? I think I was too old to watch it but my oldest child was too young for it, so I missed it. And now I have toddlers again who are interested in all the new shows.
Chen Chen: Now I *have to* write a poem about Lily Tomlin, Ms. Frizzle, that Netflix show Tomlin stars in—Grace and Frankie—and Ms. Frizzle’s iconic pet lizard Liz. I don’t know how I will ever write anything else until I write a poem that encompasses this world of beautiful interconnections.
Yes—Magic School Bus!!
Brian S: I can’t wait to read it! Thanks so much for joining us today and for writing this amazing book.
Chen Chen: I think they’re doing a remake of The Magic School Bus. Or reboot. Or prequel. I don’t know. I just saw somewhere that it’s coming back, in some form, perhaps with Kate McKinnon as Ms. Frizzle.
Chen Chen: Thanks for your amazing questions!