Embracing Queer Anger as a Source of Knowledge
Enter a queer Asian American multiverse through Chen Chen's poetry collection "Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency"
The poems of Chen Chen’s debut collection When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities possessed the color and intimacy of late-night gossip. Nothing seemed off limits: There were porn stars, superheroes, Kafka references, sometimes all within the same poem.
Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency feels even more vibrantly absurd. Written in part during the pandemic, the collection explores Chen’s strained family relationships as he embraces a more independent life with his partner, as well as the increasing rise in anti-Asian racism. Its sorrows feel more profound, but its laughter becomes more hard-won, more hopeful as a result. This is a book that asks, with all sincerity, “What makes poop more pungent on certain days?”, embracing the small wonders that lie at the center of our world. Despite the personal and political problems that weigh down on him, Chen attempts to write “toward [joy], / walking to / the school of // try again.”
I spoke to Chen over Zoom about the knowledge anger can hold, the politics of grief in the United States, and the embodied ways we learn from art.
Austin Nguyen: In previous interviews, you mentioned you wanted to rely less on humor after your debut was published, and your new collection, albeit playful, definitely feels more frustrated, at times austere. What did you discover about yourself, about your writing, as you tried to turn away from levity, and what possibilities did this change open up?
Chen Chen: I’m so glad that came across, those differences, and I’m struck by your use of the word austere because that was the poet I was trying to be early on. I wanted to be this really serious, devastating writer, and I would read that kind of work—I still love reading that. But stylistically, it just wasn’t natural for me, even though that’s what I gravitated toward in my reading life. It was more natural to be playful, and I agree, I think the new book is still very playful. There are some really funny moments; it’s at once a darker and funnier book.
I discovered mainly that I was a lot angrier than I thought I was, when it came to family. It was also something I was really interested in exploring, as a subject of its own, because I think so often, when we see queer narratives, queer characters are often not allowed to be really angry. Or that anger is really one dimensional; it’s an anchor that reduces them to a stereotype or a caricature. I wanted to delve into a much more complicated and layered kind of queer anger because I just think that’s honest.
For about a year, when I was living in West Texas, it was the farthest I’ve lived from my family forever, so I had this great physical distance from them, and also this emotional distance. I really needed to reflect on what happened in our relationship and what came up in that reflection was that I was really, really angry about their homophobia and their violence towards me. In the first book, bits of that showed up, so I wanted to let that be more visible and prominent in this new collection. It was complete bullshit that I was treated in these ways, so why not name that for what it was.
AN: Do you consider anger a form of care in this collection?
CC: There’s so many shades of a particular emotion. There are kinds of anger that are petty—although I don’t have anything against pettiness—but there are kinds of anger that are more shallow and not worth spending that much time on. Then there are kinds of anger that are really sources of knowledge. They show you something about the truth of what you’re going through and what you feel and what a relationship dynamic is and what it isn’t. It can show you those gaps in what you want and need the world, your family, to be, but they aren’t.
I’ve had plenty of anger in institutional situations as well, and anger can be this form of knowledge that tells you a lot about what’s going on. But so often in these situations you’re pressured not to feel or express anger; you’re expected instead to only be grateful. You’re supposed to be thankful for whatever crumb you received: a crumb of affection or empathy, a shred of dignity or recognition. You’re supposed to just settle for that and wanting more is seen as ungrateful or selfish, even though what you’re asking is actually not that much more. It’s not an impossible thing to have happen, so I think anger can do a lot of affirming things actually.
AN: I love this idea of emotions being a form of knowledge, because I feel like there’s always this disconnect between rationality and emotionality.
CC: I mean, one of the reasons why I fell in love with poetry in the first place is because I see reading it as this opening up of a space where thoughts and emotions didn’t have to be separate. They were very much intertwined: You think through your emotions and you can feel through your thoughts. There’s not so much of that strict binary between so called rationality and emotion.
AN: One of my favorite lines from “a small book of questions: chapter four stood out” as a thesis statement for the collection: “If we could finish grieving there’d be no need to live.” How did this line transform the way you thought and wrote about grief?
CC: Building on what I just said, one of the reasons why I continue to return to poetry is because so-called negative emotions like anger, sorrow, grief get to live full lives in poems. Grief is such an important part of our lives, and if we don’t make the space to really inhabit and go through that whole emotional process, then we’re actually cutting off a part of ourselves. We’re denying loss, the fact that we are mortal beings who exist in time.
That’s something during the pandemic that has really frustrated and saddened me as well: this push—and it’s from the top down, but it’s also ingrained in US culture in a lot of ways—where you’re expected to move on and increasingly quickly, too. It’s not even six months; it’s a week, 24 hours. You’re supposed to move on when the new cycle moves on, which is absurd. I’m really glad for poems, reading and writing them, because it really allows me to live with my emotions instead of just trying to distract myself or move to something else very quickly, just lingering there and seeing what else that brings up.
AN: I appreciate this idea of making space for grief, because I think something that I have always had an interest in about grief is this idea of its invasiveness and how it encroaches into different areas of life. And in your collection, grief isn’t just this domestic phenomenon but it takes root in a classroom, the supermarket, and in nature.
CC: I’m really interested in the inner life, the dream life as it shows up in all sorts of settings. It’s not contained to one setting or one mode of expression, and a lot of that for me is connected to coming out narratives and feeling like too often, what we get in the media is this one-and-done scene of a character who comes out. That’s it; it either goes really well or not. It’s been really important to me to write truthfully about coming out as not this one isolated event, but something that continues through one’s life in various contexts. Your own relationship to coming out and outness changes over time; I really wanted to show that. Individually coming out versus introducing a partner to your family—it can be a very different kind of experience, like coming out in a workplace versus coming out to new friends and so on. All the specificity of those experiences I really wanted to get into more fully.
AN: Your writing has always been politically charged but there’s a reinvigorated sense of urgency here as you deal with issues and events like white supremacy and the Pulse nightclub shooting. What do you hope your poems do politically speaking?
CC: My politics and my writing, which are very much intertwined, have been shaped by so many other writers and friends. I came into an Asian American political consciousness in college. I didn’t really know where it came from or what it meant until I started taking classes as part of an Asian American studies certificate program. I started to apply some of that to my writing, and in the middle of my MFA, I attended my first Kundiman writer’s retreat in New York, where I met some amazing people there, including Muriel Leung. There are conversations with her that have shaped the direction of certain poems in this book like “Items May Have Shifted,” which is dedicated to her. I just learned so much about form from one of her essays in verse, “THIS IS TO LIVE SEVERAL LIVES,” which is in her second collection Imagine Us the Swarm; that’s just one example.
There’s also Justin Chin, who I discovered in college. I was reading his work, thinking about his life, his death, but also how he played with hybrid genres and essays. His poem “Lick My Butt” is just fantastic; I was like, “I have to use these lines from ‘Lick My Butt’ as one of the epigraphs for the book.” I also wanted that framing right away to signal to a reader: You are entering a queer Asian American multiverse. Then I have the poem that’s dedicated to him as well because it’s one of my griefs that I never got to meet up or have an actual conversation with him, but through the poem I imagine doing that.
AN: I’m glad you brought up “Items May Have Shifted” and Justin Chin’s hybrid genre. How did you arrive at some of the formal innovations this collection has like playing with genre and punctuation?
CC: I wanted this new book to really be different from the first, so when that wasn’t happening in terms of subject, I really wanted to push formally and challenge myself to do some different things on the page, visually and structurally. I was reading all this work that really inspired me, like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, being really excited and drawn to her experimentation with text and image. Playing with poetic essay forms or essayistic poem forms is something I’ve been interested in for years, so I really wanted to explore that myself.
I also just wanted to work on my sentences because so many reviews of my first book made me feel very self-conscious about repetition, anaphora, listing. I was like, “Okay, Let me try to start my sentences in a different way,” and that’s also what led to so many of these prose forms in the book. The seasonal poems, “Summer” and “Winter,” are all written with a sentence as a stanza, which forced me to look at each individual sentence and try to vary the syntax a lot more. It was basically homework that I gave myself after feeling like, “Okay, maybe I’m over relying on this device, I like it so much and I naturally go there.” But that’s how you try to grow as a writer: You notice your tics and quirks and try to use those inclinations in different ways and bring other elements to the table as well.
AN: Another one of the throughlines of the collection are the sequence of poems that are all named “The School of ___”, and I was wondering: As a professor and poet, how are your teaching and writing in dialogue with each other and what does school represent in this context?
CC: It’s similar to how I was thinking about the concept of growing up in my first book. Like coming out, it’s not this one-time thing; you’re settled into this new state of being for your life. It’s continuous, ongoing. I feel similarly about learning and education. One of my former teachers, Aracelis Giramay, I remember her saying in an interview, “I went to the school of that poem,” which I really love—that idea that each poem or book is an education as well. That kind of learning is what I’m most interested in: learning that involves genuine surprise and deep engagements and slowing down to really notice something, an education that involves the senses and emotions.
It’s trying to break down this idea that learning is just about the mind, that it’s just cerebral. It’s emotional, it’s embodied, it’s all these things. That is what I was writing towards in those poems and really want to emphasize, but I was also reflecting on becoming a teacher. I was getting more teaching experience through grad school, and I started teaching undergrad classes at Brandeis in 2018. All of that came into those poems.
AN: I’m curious to know how you think this collection offers a politics of grief. Narratives surrounding mourning are very much seen as isolating and solitary, but in your collection, it’s one that’s very collective and ripples out in relationships and memory. I’m also thinking of “four short essays on white supremacy” and the line “to feel is to window” and how this metaphorical window mediates our private emotions and our public lives.
CC: I mean as introverted, as Pisces as I am, my writing process I’ve come to really think of as a conversation: with the poems and books I love that have moved me and shaped me, with other poets and writers, with friends and family. The poems would not be what they are, not happen without all of that interaction, responding to others’ thoughts and questions. Grief I think about in a similar way. I do think it’s a very private personal singular experience; each person’s grief can be quite different. But it doesn’t deny the fact that we need one another to process those emotions. In fact, I think that is where grief can be so different, person to person: why we need to talk to each other, to write poems to each other, or just show up for each other. It doesn’t have to be verbal either. In many ways a poem can explore grief, but can also just hold the space for whatever wants to bubble up.