Chen Chen on writing poetry while Chinese, American and gay

The word “stanza” means one thing when it refers to a poem: a snippet of text, a line or several. In Italian, it means “room.”

Poet Chen Chen combines those definitions when he writes, thinking: what should be in the room of this poem?

In his earlier work, he began to answer that question with pieces that explored his own intersecting identities, parts of himself that other people told him could not exist at once.

“I felt like I couldn’t be Chinese and American and gay all at the same time. I felt like the world I was in was telling me that these had to be very separate things,” he said. “Poems were a way for those different experiences to come together, for them to be in the same room.”

At the same time, he was reading Li-Young Lee, Mark Doty and others whose work drew him with its personal intensity. “There was just this emotional intensity and honesty to their work that I was really drawn to as a teenager, and as someone who was struggling with my sexuality and thinking about identity in all sorts of ways — with immigrant parents, thinking about how to come out,” he said.

In his work, Chen said he considers the spectrum of voices, experiences or types of diction that fit within the space of one poem. Expressing that range is important to his work, he said.

“I think about, what am I allowing into this poem? What belongs here in the space of the poem? In the room of the poem what is being left out or denied?” he said. “It’s this way to have different voices or people or experiences fit together in the poem, sometimes in an uncomfortable way, but in a necessary way.”

His poem “How I Became Sagacious” revisits the night that Chen’s parents confronted him about his sexuality after overhearing a phone call with a friend. The poem juxtaposes a traditional, lyrical voice with conversational elements and abstract images to build a dreamlike retelling of the night.

This combination was unexpected, Chen said. “It surprised me as I was writing it,” he said.

Chen’s first book, “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities,” won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize this March and will be published next spring.

You can read Chen’s poem or hear him read it below.

How I Became Sagacious

The day the window grew till it no longer fit the house
lllllllllwas the night I decided to leave.
I carried in my snake mouth a boxful
lllllllllof carnal autobiographies.
I went in search of a face without theory.
lllllllllThe window went on to sing a throb of deer
melody. The shape, the day of my belly sobbed
lllllllllwith the outline of a deer.
The clouds were a mouth-shaped poison,
lllllllll& ready. I saw violence in anything
with a face. I wished for a place big enough for grief,
lllllllll& all I got was more grief, plus People magazine.
There were some inside things I was going to make
llllllllloutside things, just for one person in a godless
living room, full of passé plants. Now what?
lllllllllSo blah & bewildered, my hands
have turned out to be no bee,
lllllllllall bumble, unable to tell the difference
between the floor & the ground. They feel dirt,
lllllllllbut it feels like something they made.

Chen Chen is the author of WHEN I GROW UP I WANT TO BE A LIST OF FURTHER POSSIBILITIES, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and forthcoming spring 2017 from BOA Editions, Ltd. His work has previously appeared in two chapbooks and publications such as Poetry, The Massachusetts Review, Best of the Net, and The Best American Poetry. He holds an MFA from Syracuse University and is currently pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. He lives in Lubbock, Texas with his partner, Jeff Gilbert. Visit him at This poem and audio recording originally appeared in Drunken Boat.