Craft Episode 2 Transcript: Chen Chen
By Wasafiri Editor on January 24, 2022 in
Welcome to Craft. Each month we bring you one international writer talking about one of their works for about thirty minutes. This month, Chen Chen talks about his poem ‘Nature Poem’ from his debut collection When I Grow Up, I Want To Be a List Of Further Possibilities. Chen Chen’s second book of poetry Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency is forthcoming from BOA Editions and Bloodaxe Books in September 2022. When I Grow Up, I Want To Be a List Of Further Possibilities was longlisted for the National Book Award and won the Thom Gunn Award, among other honours.
This is a poem called Nature Poem. It was published in my first full length book When I Grow Up, I Want To Be a List Of Further Possibilities, which came out in the State from both editions in 2017 and came out in the UK from Bloodaxe Books in 2019.
“The birds insist on pecking the wooded dark. The wooded dark
pecks back. It is time to show the universe what you are capable of,
says my horoscope, increasingly insistent this month.
But what I am capable of is staring
at the salt accident on the coffee table & thinking,
What sad salt. I admire my horoscope
for its conviction. I envy its consistency. Every day. Every day,
there is a future to be aggressively vaguer about.
Earlier today, outside the cabin, the sudden deer were a supreme
headache of beauty. Don’t they know I am trying to be alone
& at peace? In theory I am alone & really I am hidden,
which is a fine temporary substitute for peace, except I still
have email, which is how I receive my horoscope, & even here
in the wooded dark I receive yet another email mistaking me
for another Chen. I add this to a folder, which also includes
emails sent to my address but addressed to Chang,
Chin, Cheung. Once, in a Starbucks, the cashier
was convinced I was Chad. Once, in a Starbucks, the cashier
did not quite finish the n on my Chen, & when my tall mocha was ready,
they called out for Cher. I preferred this by far, but began to think
the problem was Starbucks. Why can’t you see me? Why can’t I stop
needing you to see me? For someone who looks like you
to look at me, even as the coffee accident
is happening to my second favorite shirt?
In my wooded dark, I try insisting on a supremely tall,
never-lonely someone. But every kind of someone needs
someone else to insist with. I need. If not the you
I have memorized & recited & mistaken
for the universe—another you.”
So the way that this poem began if I can think back to it – it’s quite an old poem now – really started with that title ‘Nature Poem’. And it’s funny because I think this was before Tommy Pico came out with that book-length poem called ‘Nature Poem’. And then actually one of my best friends Sam Herschel Wein, also a poet, has since written his own poem, called ‘Nature Poem’ that’s sort of after mine. I’m sure there are others, but I was just really drawn to the title as this kind of meta tongue-in-cheek nod to this genre, or sub genre of poetry: the nature poem or nature poetry. And I guess I’ve been thinking about that sub-genre quite a bit, because it’s not how I usually write. And I was curious what would happen to my voice and my sensibility if I were to write a nature poem. And it’s funny, because it’s a sub-genre that I love to read. I’m a big fan of Mary Oliver, for instance. She’s sometimes considered a sort of cheesy or easy kind of poet, because her work is very popular, at least in the United States. I think there’s some scepticism around nature poetry, even though it’s a huge part of what poetry is. And I think of some other poets like Brigit Pegeen Kelly, for instance, who draws from draws imagery from the natural world in such brilliant ways. It’s something that I had in part consciously avoided because I wasn’t sure that it could really do it justice. But I think subconsciously, I just – it wasn’t where I intuitively would go for the images or the diction for a poem; I tend to write about people and relationships between people. So I really wanted to see what would happen if I tried. And so I started really with those initial lines, with the birds insisting on pecking the wooded dark, the wooded dark pecks back, and then my mind immediately went to something not so nature-y with the horoscope, and then the coffee table comes in. And I realised that the way that I was going to write a nature poem was by acknowledging the fact that even in a natural setting, or supposedly natural setting, like a cabin in the woods, with deer all around, things would sort of intrude from outside of that bubble of nature. And instead of trying to push those things out, I was really curious, you know, what would happen if I did let them in and let that carry me through the rest of the poem? Where would I end up going, and where I ended up going was thinking about these microaggressions, these incidents of racism and mistaken identity, and being called different names or being mistaken for other Chinese people, other Asian people. And that’s happened quite a few times over email, and also in person. And so part of what the poem really became about was how inescapable that experience is, unfortunately. So even when you think, ‘Oh, I’m somewhere else, I’m isolated, I’m out in nature, I’m enjoying being away from society’, society will still find ways to intrude; to knock on your door and be like, ‘Hey, are you this person? Those assumptions don’t vanish magically, just because you’re in another setting. Even when there aren’t other many other people around, it can still happen. And, in part, the poem is also about the incredible, and I think kind of sad, sometimes maddening, level of accessibility that people have to reach you. If you have email on your phone, or just text messages on, things like that, people can really reach you at any point in any space. So the poem’s also thinking through that issue.
I do think the way that I usually work is trying to see what I haven’t done yet. I really don’t want to repeat myself. And I think it’s going to happen anyway. Because you are the writer that you are; you have the consciousness that you have, you have the obsessions you have. And so I try to trust that those abiding things are going to continue, they’re going to show up anyway. And so I really want to try to push myself in some new directions, I do want to challenge myself and continue to grow as a writer. So often I am keeping track of tendencies of directions, and seeing where is there an opening. Where is there a detour that I can take? So yeah, ‘Nature Poem‘ definitely came out of that. I can think of many other poems that have a similar trajectory and a similar origin point, where I was wondering, ‘Oh, why haven’t I written that kind of poem yet?’ Or even something as small as ‘why haven’t I used that phrase or that word yet in a poem?’ Am I deliberately avoiding it or it just hasn’t occurred to me yet? And thinking through what my relationship is to that piece of language or that kind of language or that kind of poem.When it comes to ‘Nature Poem’ specifically, I’m looking at the earlier draft of it as well. Recently my partner and I were visiting a friend of his in Rochester, New York. And we’re just talking about movies, upcoming movies that we want to watch. And this friend, I would describe him as intensely spoiler-phobic. So he really didn’t want to know anything at all, not who was in it, nothing about the plot, obviously, but not even how long the movie was, or the setting of it. No details. He wanted to go in cold and just have that experience. And I think that’s how I tend to be with poems. So in a lot of cases, like not even knowing, like, what’s this title going to be? I might have the beginning of the first line, but I don’t want to have a fixed sense that, ‘oh, this is definitely going to be the first line’. I don’t want to be absolutist, or decided about anything. So I try to go in spoiler free, as much as I can. And definitely looking at the earlier draft of ‘Nature Poem’, I think you can maybe see that I let myself go in some tangents and some wilder directions, I ended up editing out or refining a bit in, in later drafts. But in an early draft, I really believe in the roughness of a rough draft, and letting myself fall into the mess, and embracing it as a draft. And I just try to give myself complete permission, I just tell myself, ‘Oh, no one else is gonna see this’. Maybe you won’t even see this as the author later on, maybe you’ll delete all of it. Although I do try to save all the drafts, usually. But it’s really important for me to have that permission and freedom, especially at the beginning, just to explore, just to see what’s going to arise. Because I think a lot of the best discoveries happen in those detours; in those unexpected twists and turns. So that’s definitely what happened in this poem. I was talking through walking through the poem, and being like, ‘oh this is what it’s about, and this is how it turned out’. But that’s so after the fact. I didn’t know any of that, really, when I started out. I just was trying to write one interesting sentence after another, or one interesting line or phrase after another. After I write one I think, ‘ what might be the most surprising or funny or weird next thing’. Just step by step, trying to see where that language and where that imagery was leading me.
It’s taking a lot of willpower for me just to look at the older draft. Because I just experienced a lot of embarrassment looking at older versions, and actually, I went through this exercise recently with my undergraduate students at Brandeis, where we were talking about revision, and a colleague had really pushed me to share some of my own drafts, which usually I don’t do usually talk about. Other people, like famous poet’s drafts, sure; we’ll look at Elizabeth Bishop’s drafts, and it’s fantastic to look through her process. But the vulnerability of looking at drafts, I think it’s important for students to see that but also, on upon reflection, I think it’s good for me to look back in this way. I think the way that I work, I have to be okay with mess. And over the years, well, I just I keep thinking of our great organisational guru, Marie Kondo, who, in one episode – I think this is from her Netflix series – she says, ‘I love mess’, which is maybe kind of a surprising thing for her to say, because she’s so pro-organisation and decluttering. And she’s saying this to a couple who’s struggling with her methods, and as sort of reassuring. But I think it is also genuine, actually, because she loves thinking about stuff, and what do we do with our stuff? And why do we have our stuff? And I think those are really vital questions. And I apply similar questions to my work. But first I have to embrace the mess and the stuff that’s on the page. And kind of appreciate it for what it is. I think a lot of poets have a similar experience to this, where you have this initial exhilaration and elation with just having something new that you’re working on, and you’re like, ‘This is great’, and you write a full draft of it. And then the next day or even two hours later, you look at it again, and you’re like, ‘What the hell was I thinking?;
So this is just from the ending stanzas, or the second half of Nature Poem, the version that was published by Adroit Journal.
“the problem was Starbucks, when probably the problem is
human error, casual racism, the history of imperialism,
& Starbucks. Why can’t you see me? I want to say. Why can’t I stop
needing you to see me? For someone who looks like you
to look at me, even as the ketchup accident is happening to
my second favorite shirt? I’d like to live to my wildest humanity,
humanmost wild, to be, at the grocery, unhinged
by pineapples, the aperture of my mouth opened crazy
to the color, the startle, yes, I want to grow tall, post-
apocalyptic pineapples right out of my skull, to erupt
without you confirming such erupting is possible, acceptable
in someone who looks like me. I try to insist on this someone
& a future dark with so many shades of luscious.
But every kind of someone needs someone else to insist
with. I need. If not the you I have memorized & recited
& mistaken for the universe—another you
I am slowly becoming capable of needing.”
I think I just I tend to overwrite. I overgenerate, I just create a lot of stuff. And then I have to find some kind of shape for it, some kind of Ikea modular furniture storage solution that will work for what is most exciting within all that stuff. And so I would say my editing and revision process really involves taking that harder look, and it’s many looks often over many months, where I just keep revisiting. It’s like Marie Kondo going to someone’s house over a year. You know, saying like, how is the attic going? How is the basement coming along? How are your kitchen drawers? Are they still full of old receipts? What’s going on in there? And so you just start to look at the layout of the whole thing. And think, ‘oh, okay, well, this lamp in the middle of the poem is the most important part of the whole thing. It’s the illuminating part. I’m just gonna see how far I can stretch this analogy’. But basically, you identify the most important pieces, the most exciting bits of language, the most interesting ideas that come up, the most surprising moments, and see if you can really showcase them. It’s like what Marie Kondo says; the stuff that’s most important to you. That’s what you want to show. And that’s what you want to wake up in your space and look around you and see. The stuff that excites you or calms you, whatever it is that you need. That’s what you put on display. And then there’s a whole lot of other stuff that maybe you don’t need to put on a bookshelf.
The first drafts or the earlier draft that did appear in Adroit, I think — this poem went through a number of drafts, maybe twenty, twenty-five, somewhere around there. And actually, what happened was I took this draft back in 2014 to my first Kundiman writers retreat and Kundiman is an organisation that supports Asian American readers and writers, and they have an annual writing retreat in New York City. And it’s such a fantastic experience. I remember specifically bringing this poem to a workshop that the poet Michelle Naka Pierce was teaching. And she just had such weird wacky approaches to revision where we’re kind of drawing from experimental theatre and shouting or whispering lines from our poems out loud. She made this box out of red tape just on the tile floor. She just outlined this red box and we had to stand in it and then perform a particular piece from the poem. We looked at artwork that she had brought, including these silhouettes by Ana Mendieta, these amazing pieces, and then we had to do our own; we had to construct our own silhouette. So we would go out onto the lawn of the campus, find an area to lie down. There were students all around; the campus was still fairly active in the summertime. And so we did lie down in the campus and read our poem to ourselves, but out loud, and the idea was to completely reorient yourself, reorient your body and your mind to the poem, and to your own process, and interrupt habitual ways of thinking. And so actually, the bits I ended up cutting came out of those exercises, those like, kind of revision exercises, where it’s like, what else can you do with this poem? And so I think they’re kind of they like these wilder moments. And so it makes sense to me that they came out of those wild exercises.
Rereading, re-encountering this earlier version of the poem, was making me remember more of the conversations that I had with Jericho Brown and Peter Connors at BOA with their notes and suggestions through vision, so there are bits I ended up cutting, even though there’s language in it that I still really like, in particular, post-apocalyptic pineapples. Which I might recycle for something else looking at it again. But I remember talking with Jericho. And specifically, I think he mentioned something about just the transition in location being strange because we already have the cabin in the woods, which is the nature side of things in the poem. And then we also have Starbucks, which becomes a kind of character in the poem, along with the cashier at Starbucks. So I think adding this third location of the grocery store where something entirely different is happening really takes you away from what was building in the poem. There is this kind of urgent momentum that was building up in the questions, and I kept the questions pretty much intact in the final version, the book version of the poem. And so yes, through that conversation with Jericho that I really realised, ‘oh, that’s where I need to stay’. That’s where the poem needs to stay, is in that movement.
But ultimately, I’m glad that I went. Those wacky exercises at the retreat were so fun. And I’m glad for the writing that they resulted in, and also the way I added to the poem, because then it became clarifying later on. Also, what what does it really need, right? So again, this decluttering process happened, but I think sometimes you have to make mistakes, you have to allow yourself to go on tangents and go on little side adventures within the poem, and then return home and unpack and figure out ‘oh, this souvenir that I bought is useless’. And maybe I don’t need it, or I can regift down the line to someone else.
Craft is brought to you by Wasafiri Magazine and Queen Mary University of London with funding from Arts Council England. Our theme music is by Josh Winiberg, our logo is by Alaa Alsaraji, Tom Wilson does our editing, Peter Falconer does our Sound Design, interviews and the introduction are by me, Malachi McIntosh and Afsana Nishat does everything else. See you next month.