Readers in Rochester enjoyed a rare treat on Friday, April 20, when award-winning poet Chen Chen gave a free reading at City Hall in honor of National Poetry Month. The event was co-sponsored by the City of Rochester and BOA Editions, a local not-for-profit independent publisher of poetry and other literary works.
Chen is a celebrated young poet whose debut collection When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities won the prestigious GLCA New Writer’s Award, the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Award, and was longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Poetry. His work draws on his experience as a queer Chinese-American immigrant and has received critical acclaim for its poignancy, its compassion, and its blending of autobiography and pop culture.
Chen read numerous poems from his collection at the event, including several that explored his at times tense relationship with his parents.
“I am not the heterosexual neat freak my mother raised me to be,” Chen read. In another poem, Chen described an uncomfortable dinner party between his conservative Chinese parents and his partner. “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.”
The event also commemorated the City of Rochester’s celebration of National Poetry Month with a proclamation honoring BOA Editions. Founded in 1976 by poet, translator, editor, and SUNY Brockport professor A. Poulin, Jr., BOA has published more than 300 collections of poetry, poetry-in-translation, and short fiction since its founding in 1976, including the publication of Chen’s debut collection last year. Other notable BOA poets have included Li-Young Lee, Kim Addonizio, Naomi Shihab Nye, Nikola Madzirov, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and Lucille Clifton. BOA’s publications have won numerous prestigious literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Whiting Award for Poetry.
Monroe County Library Director Patricia Uttaro read the official proclamation on behalf of Mayor Lovely Warren’s office that declared Friday, April 20th as BOA Editions Day in the City of Rochester.
“The City of Rochester is honored to be the home of BOA Editions, a prized artistic jewel of our community: one that represents Rochester’s artistic vitality to the world,” Uttaro read.
The mayor’s proclamation also described how the publisher gives back to the community by donating hundreds of books each year to institutions that lack the funding to purchase new books for the adults and youth they serve. These institutions include senior centers, hospitals, libraries, schools, Native American reservations, and YMCAs in New York and around the country.
“Like many Rochesterians, we do our work quietly, but with great pride and first-rate quality. Because our books find readers and garner awards on an international scale, it’s our honor to represent Rochester’s artistic vitality to the world,” said BOA Publisher Peter Conners in a prepared statement.
His sentiments were echoed by BOA Board Chair Jack Langerak, who noted with pride how the copyright page of every BOA book advertises that this book came from Rochester, New York.
“These books go all over the country, and they go all over the world, and we’re very proud to be representing Rochester on that kind of scale at this level of work. It’s a real honor to do that,” said Langerak.
Langerak also formally announced the formation of a National Advisory Committee at the event. This committee is comprised of distinguished authors, business leaders, academics, and entrepreneurs across the United States who will continue to support BOA’s mission in their local communities.
Miranda Mims of the University of Rochester's Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation hosted a display of selected material from the department's archive of papers and memorabilia from BOA Editions. The display included rare documents such as hand-written correspondences between Li-Young Lee and A. Poulin, Jr., newspaper clippings from BOA's early years, and a BOA Editions catalog from 1990.
Rochester-area residents filled the City Hall Atrium to standing-room only during the proclamations and poetry reading. Many individuals stayed behind after the reading to buy a copy of Chen’s book and to have it signed by the author, who lives in Pittsford with his partner, Jeffrey Gilbert. One audience member asked why the couple decided to move to Rochester.
“I like the Upstate area! Jeff and I really wanted to be back in the Northeast after living in Texas,” Chen said. Chen explained that they missed having all four seasons and were attracted by the affordability of the Rochester area, in addition to both partners having family nearby.
“It was more of an emotional decision,” said Chen. “I wanted for once to make a decision based on where I actually wanted to live.”