Chen’s visionary poems address youth, family and love playfully and tenderly, navigating the intersections of queer, Asian-American and immigrant identities. Poets & Writers named Chen in their Inspiration Issue as one of “Ten Poets Who Will Change the World” and The Atlantic featured him in the article “How Poetry Came to Matter Again.”
“Chen Chen refuses to be boxed in or nailed down,” writes Jericho Brown. “He is a poet of Whitman’s multitudes and of Langston Hughes’s blues, of Dickinson’s ‘so cold no fire can warm me’ and of Michael Palmer’s comic interrogation. What unifies the brilliance of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities is a voice desperate to believe that within every one of life’s sadnesses there is also hope, meaning, and—if we are willing to laugh at ourselves—humor.”
Chen Chen was born in Xiamen, China, and grew up in Massachusetts. His debut poetry collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. His work has appeared in two chapbooks and in such publications as Poetry, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Best of the Net, and The Best American Poetry. He is the recipient of fellowships from Kundiman, the Saltonstall Foundation, and Lambda Literary. He earned his BA at Hampshire College and his MFA at Syracuse University. Chen lives in Massachusetts with his partner, Jeff Gilbert, and their pug dog, Rupert Giles.
Poetry Center Reading:
I’m Not a Religious Person But
God sent an angel. One of his least qualified, though. Fluent only in
Lemme get back to you. The angel sounded like me, early twenties,
unpaid interning. Proficient in fetching coffee, sending super
vague emails. It got so bad God personally had to speak to me.
This was annoying because I’m not a religious person. I thought
I’d made this clear to God by reading Harry Potter & not attending
church except for gay weddings. God did not listen to me. God is
not a good listener. I said Stop it please, I’ll give you wedding cake,
money, candy, marijuana. Go talk to married people, politicians,
children, reality TV stars. I’ll even set up a booth for you,
then everyone who wants to talk to you can do so
without the stuffy house of worship, the stuffier middlemen,
& the football blimps that accidentally intercept prayers
on their way to heaven. I’ll keep the booth decorations simple
but attractive: stickers of angels & cats, because I’m not religious
but didn’t people worship cats? Thing is, God couldn’t take a hint.
My doctor said to eat an apple every day. My best friend said to stop
sleeping with guys with messiah complexes. My mother said she is
pretty sure she had sex with my father so I can’t be some new
Asian Jesus. I tried to enrage God by saying things like When I asked
my mother about you, she was in the middle of making dinner
so she just said Too busy. I tried to confuse God by saying I am
a made-up dinosaur & a real dinosaur & who knows maybe
I love you, but then God ended up relating to me. God said I am
a good dinosaur but also sort of evil & sometimes loving no one.
It rained & we stayed inside. Played a few rounds of backgammon.
We used our indoor voices. It got so quiet I asked God
about the afterlife. Its existence, human continued existence.
He said Oh. That. Then sent his angel again. Who said Ummmmmmm.
I never heard from God or his rookie angel after that. I miss them.
Like creatures I made up or found in a book, then got to know a bit.
Self-Portrait as So Much Potential
Dreaming of one day being as fearless as a mango.
As friendly as a tomato. Merciless to chin & shirtfront.
Realizing I hate the word “sip.”
But that’s all I do.
I drink. So slowly.
& say I’m tasting it. When I’m just bad at taking in liquid.
I’m no mango or tomato. I’m a rusty yawn in a rumored year. I’m an arctic attic.
Come amble & ampersand in the slippery polar clutter.
I am not the heterosexual neat freak my mother raised me to be.
I am a gay sipper, & my mother has placed what’s left of her hope on my brothers.
She wants them to gulp up the world, spit out solid degrees, responsible grandchildren ready to gobble.
They will be better than mangoes, my brothers.
Though I have trouble imagining what that could be.
Flying mangoes, perhaps. Flying mango-tomato hybrids. Beautiful sons.
Sorrow Song with Optimus Prime
You are an unhappy thing, cursed with legs,
every step carrying the love who left, the love you left,
the job lost, the mountain of low, the mounting lack.
But your legs grow tired of holding it, so you transfer it
to your head. Then your head grows tired, so you delegate it
to your shoulders. Then they are tired & you are tired
& you don’t know what to do but replant it in your legs,
your feet, & walk it to the supermarket.
You try to sell your sickness to the octopus
whose tentacles lie in severed strips. But he refuses.
You try to freeze your darkness but the industrial fridge
spits it out. You put a pink hat on your gloom & march it
to the toy store. Where you try giving it away, giving it
back to the latest version of the unattainable
robot from childhood, the truck that transforms, grows
wondrous arms that hold laser guns, could hold your grief, you.
But the sorrow is held by your heart now, your own
exquisite machine that seems finally to contain it.
Then even your most stubborn muscle grows weary, & sends it
whirling through bloodstreams. & your blood carries it,
everywhere in your body at once, so there is no more moving.
So at last you sit, on the floor of the toy store, like the end
of an avalanche, each rock, tree, & small wish of you
crushed, heaped. & the scream of your total defeat
is the cry that brought the mountain down.