National Poetry Month Day 1: Chen Chen








It’s April. 

But still cold. Could still snow. Because that’s what Massachusetts does. 

What do I do? Sleep too much. Too little. Write nothing. 

Except another tweet about another article about the rise of hate crimes against Asians & Asian Americans. A text to a friend. This list of five things I love, in no particular order: Oak trees. Men’s calves. Honey oolong milk tea with boba. The interrobang. A video in which a young Björk says, You shouldn’t let poets lie to you. 

J. always sleeps too little. 

It’s April & where are the tests? 

In one dream I get to go to the boba tea place & I get a house-sized serving of honey oolong milk tea with boba. It’s difficult to carry back to the apartment, but I manage. 

I cry, some nights. J. holds me, says, I’d eat a bag of your hair—a code we developed one long ago night when I asked him, Would you eat a bag of my hair?

It’s April, I’m telling my students, It’s going to be okay.

I tweet about a white checkout boy who is handing a receipt to a customer, who sees me in line, who demands I step back, wait behind the red x on the supermarket floor. I thought it was my turn, apologize. Then while I’m still waiting, a white man crosses the red, steps up right behind me. The boy says nothing.

It’s April. Where are the tests? 

Maybe I should delete the tweet about the white checkout boy & the white man & the red x. Was it racism? It wasn’t getting spat on. Kicked. Punched. Spat on spat on spat on. It wasn’t an acid attack. But, it wasn’t a coincidence. 

J. holds me, says, I’d eat three bags of your hair.

It’s April & the air tastes like rain remembering snow. A student asks what to do when you’re stuck. I suggest a list. I always suggest a list. Here, I say, I’ll do it at the same time as you.

Another list of five things I love: Magnolia trees. Men’s nipples. The sea (not swimming in it, just being by it). The night sky (looking up into it, feeling of it). Lists (lying about how they’re in no particular order).

It’s April & what the fuck‽

I consider Trump’s lies vs. mine. The government’s lies vs. the people’s. Was my student asking about being stuck in her writing or in 2020? 

I tweet about a white cook working in the banh mi food truck refusing to give me a box for my banh mi after seeing my hands on the still-wrapped sandwich. I tell him, The wrapping’s not enough; I’m taking this on a long subway ride back home. He says, We’re not supposed to touch the food again & expresses concern for my safety. Then hands a white customer’s order back to her in the box she asked for. Smiles at her. She smiles back. 

Another list of five things I love, in very particular order: Cherry trees. Men’s musky armpits. Lies that are my backstory of how exactly Björk came to distrust poets, then used an e.e. cummings poem as lyrics for one of my favorite shorter songs of hers. The way I don’t care if heaven exists, so long as men’s musky armpits do. 

The smallest words, I tell my students, can make a world of difference. Conjunctions like “but,” “and,” “or.” Adverbs like “then.”

How often “then” occurs in scenes like at the food truck—the lie the cook tells me, the truth he smiles at her, the reality that depends on the lie that there is only one, pure truth. 

It’s April & when am I going to giggly-hug my friends, again‽‽

Every time I see “Kung Flu” on Twitter, I make a note to get another honey oolong milk tea once Kung Fu Tea reopens.

It’s April & I would eat three bags of J.’s hair, too. 

Though lately can’t stop thinking about how he isn’t the one whose food these other white men won’t touch. 

I make a list of the white men I’ve dated, hooked up with, wanted. It’s a long list. 

It’s almost May & why are all the Chinese American friends I want to guffawly-hug in New York, on the West Coast‽‽‽

I want to write about snow. Instead of my list of white men. Then realize I usually write “silver” to describe snow, instead of “white. The moon, too. “Silver” or “golden.” & any bright light—just “bright.” The fact that I can’t write “white” without thinking of my list of white men. Of my first boyfriend, his bright white teeth as he said, I like your eyes, they’re not really chinky eyes. The way I said, Thank you.

Or my third boyfriend, how he liked to call my dick an eggroll, proudly called himself a rice queen. 

All the ways I said, Thank you.

Or all the dates with white men where I was just elated they didn’t call themselves rice queens. Or the white professor who didn’t call himself a rice queen but was always seen with younger Chinese men. Or the white professor who was always seen with younger Chinese men but didn’t call himself a rice queen. How I was the younger man, had trouble calling myself Chinese. 

The fact that I can’t write about the snow without writing about standing in it, still as a tree, wishing it would cover my entire body in a thick blanket of white, white, white. 

To realize some of my writing is just my saying to white men: Look how lovable I am. 

How I’ve thought that being with a white man would whiten me, lighten my lonely. & actually, factually, being with some white men has blanketed me while covering me in lonelier. 

The fact that I love J. for J. 

Just as this country does. Most of this country does, before learning he has a boyfriend. What percentage of this country loves me, after reading my name, after seeing my face, after hearing me talk about my boyfriend? 

After a list of your loves, I tell my student who’s feeling stuck, perhaps in every possible way, make a list of your questions. Like: 

What is love? Is it just saying I’ll eat a hundred bags of your hair? Or is it also talking, continuing to talk about the fact of his whiteness, my notness? How it is that I am an antonym for person, synonym for sickness? This one & a myriad before & mutations to come? 

Is posing all this as a set of questions when I already know the answers a form of lying? 


It’s May, I need this form of lying. 

In order to spell the facts out. In order not to fall under the facts of the particular order of the world as is. In unordered love. 

In another dream I get to go to my favorite restaurant in Los Angeles. Which somehow is also my childhood apartment in Western Mass. There’s the sporty smell of my boyhood shampoo. There’s no food. Nevertheless, everyone’s seated at big wooden tables with blue linen tablecloths. Chatting away. The clink of champagne glasses, but no champagne, not one glass. & in the background, the beep-burps of dialup Internet, with no bulky Dell computer in sight. 

Mostly, it’s Chinese people. Chinese & Chinese American. Some of them with non-Chinese partners. Some of them queer. Some of them with my face; I mean, at least five of them literally have my face. I sit down next to one. His eyes—my eyes. He smiles. Not my smile, or not yet. 



Author photo by Paula Champagne

Chen Chen’s second book of poetry, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, is forthcoming from BOA Editions in September 2022. His first book, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), was longlisted for the National Book Award and won the Thom Gunn Award, among other honors. He has also written four chapbooks and an essay collection,In Cahoots with the Rabbit God, is forthcoming from Noemi Press in late 2023. His work appears in many publications, including Poetry and three editions of The Best American Poetry. He teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence and also serves on the poetry faculty for the low-residency MFA programs at New England College and Stonecoast. More from this author →