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Finding Inspiration & Refusing Cynicism: An Interview with Chen Chen

Chen Chen is the author of Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, which was published by BOA Editions on September 13, 2022. In his highly anticipated second collection, Chen continues his investigation of family, both blood and chosen, examining what one inherits and what one invents, as a queer Asian American living through an era of Trump, mass shootings, and the COVID-19 pandemic.  Read on to learn more about Chen and his new poetry collection in this exclusive self-interview!  

This is your second book. What makes it different from your first?

I think it’s at once more mature and sillier—there’s more grief and rage alongside more humor and play. Many of the poems, after all, are about/set in the Trump era. And there are some poems about/set in the pandemic. Whereas my first book has this sort of bubbly, youthful exuberance, this second collection uses comedic elements in some sharper, more satirical ways. I’ve gotten older. But I don’t think the work gets cynical. Maybe I have, but I think the poems refuse cynicism, ultimately, while aiming for a firm clarity about ongoing injustices, the many ways the greedy and the powerful stamp out tenderness and compassion, or try their best to, anyway. Somehow the book has even more love poems. Or perhaps I see more deeply now how every poem, including the most overtly political ones, are love poems.

I’ve heard you love TV. What shows were you watching while working on this book?

Yes! I grew up watching a ton of TV and probably still watch too much. I’d love to one day write an episode or two for a show. Buffy the Vampire Slayer remains a big influence on my writing in any genre—though I’ve gotten much more critical of creator Joss Whedon’s brand of feminism and want to spotlight the work of writer/showrunner Marti Noxon and writer/producer Jane Espenson.

While working on this book, I rewatched favorite episodes of the delightful/devastating Australian show Please Like Me. I also rewatched some Sailor Moon (and am now finally reading the manga). New shows I watched include Ted Lasso, I May Destroy You, Killing Eve, and Fleabag. I also watched several BL, or Boys’ Love, shows—a romantic genre originating in East Asia that’s exploded in popularity across the globe. I especially recommend the Thai series I Told Sunset About You (second season called I Promised You the Moon), the Filipino series Like in the Movies, the Taiwanese series HIStory 3: Make Our Days Count, the Japanese series Cherry Magic, and the Korean series Light On Me.

I love TV for how you can follow a cast of characters around for many episodes, sometimes for several seasons, and you witness the characters grow and change in a myriad of ways. I particularly enjoy shows that mix genres and tones. I think I bring similar sensibilities to my writing—episodic storytelling, recurring characters who grow and change across different eras and literal seasons, as well as a mashup of styles, influences, knowledges.  

You’ve started branching out into essays. What does nonfiction offer you and why do you keep returning to poetry?

I’ve long enjoyed reading essays, especially ones that experiment with form in ways not unlike how poets play. In 2020, I had immense trouble writing poetry and had mostly put this second book on pause. I’m so grateful to the editors who reached out and invited me to write nonfiction as well as fiction. I was starting to really miss writing and it was wonderful to turn to other genres.

A lot of my nonfiction starts off as posts on Twitter; editors ask if I’d like to expand on a post, develop it into a fuller argument or meditation. Nonfiction allows me to elaborate on themes and issues I usually do my best to compress in poetry. I’ve found I enjoy writing nonfiction most when I get to combine an analysis of craft with personal narrative—and to do so in a lyric and associative fashion. There’s more expansion, more rhetoric and storytelling, but still, I want to juxtapose and leap and not fill in everything. My brain is very much a poet’s brain, for better or worse. I keep returning to poetry because that’s how I normally think. And feel. It’s how I know what I’m thinking and feeling. It’s where I get to think my feelings and feel my thoughts.

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