Interview with Chen Chen on “Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency”

by Nov 11, 2022Interviews

To celebrate Chen Chen’s latest collection of poetry, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, Community Manager Misha Ponnuraju chats with the poet to talk about the changing seasons, the lineages of his poetry, and what plants can teach us about writing.


Chen Chen’s newest book is a sparkling new world that buzzes with conversation and teems with tender moments. As the title suggests, this book calls upon distant friends and loved ones and offers us a framework for joy and grief during an emergency. This book is a celebration and investigation of queer Asian American identity, looking thoughtfully into the past while trying to make sense of uncertain futures. Reading Chen’s newest book is like entering a warm room full of laughter after months of silence. This collection welcomes the ache of your loneliness while reminding you that there’s a party going on in the next room, whenever you’re ready to walk through the doors. You can order your copy here


Misha Ponnuraju: So let’s get started. Something that really stood out to me in this work is the way that you travel through space and time, and the pattern of seasons within this collection. I’m really curious about how you arrived at the seasons as a theme or a pattern in your work? What brought you to them? How did they inform like the like, not only the poems themselves, but like the structure of the collection as a whole?


This collection is about so many things, one of them being the pandemic. I’m interested in how, especially early in the pandemic, the seasons were an ominous reminder about how little has changed, how the world kept moving on. I’m curious about the relationship between the seasons and the pandemic through these poems, and would love to hear your thoughts about that. 


Chen Chen: That’s a fantastic question. Thank you. I’ll start with just talking about the seasons and how that came about. 


So in my first book, at that time, I didn’t really think of myself as someone who was very influenced by landscape or the changing seasons. But once it was published, and I was reading it, I realized, “No, I am completely influenced by these things.” And actually, in a lot of the work that I love reading, those are very prominent features. 


I just felt this increasingly after moving to West Texas. That was in fall of 2015. So I moved there to do a Ph. D. program at Texas Tech. I’m from the Northeast, basically. It’s where I identify with the most. I moved to West Texas in Lubbock and yeah, the seasons just felt so different. The summer just felt so long, the fall felt a lot less distinct. In New England and the Northeast, you have these four very distinct seasons, and fall and spring are really dramatic seasons. And so by living in West Texas, I was realizing how much seeing external change affects me internally. I didn’t have the same reference points as I did before in terms of the landscape, in terms of the seasons. That really made me reflect on my writing in a different way than I had before. I’ve been doing this kind of subconsciously and not super intentionally. But these are my reference points, you know? So then I started to wonder what if I started to lean into that intentionally, and that’s where many of the season poems in this new book come from. 


Most of them are titled either summer or winter because it felt like those were the only two seasons that existed when I was living in West Texas. They did have four seasons, but it was just a lot less dramatically differentiated than what I’d experienced in the Northeast. There’s just one autumn poem and one spring poem. It’s really meant to emphasize those transitional seasons and have those be pieces in the collection as a whole that stood out differently. 


As for the pandemic part of your question, that came in pretty late, as you might imagine, in the process. In 2020, like many writers, I had a lot of trouble writing and a lot of trouble reading anything other than the news. I wasn’t reading much poetry. I was rereading things for teaching, but I wasn’t really diving into a lot of new work. I didn’t know how I would potentially write about what was happening in poetry. 


So then some prose editors reached out. One of them asked me to write some craft essays. The other one asked me to contribute to this flash fiction series on the Asian American Writers Workshop’s online publication, The Margins. It had been a little while while since I had

really explored prose, whether nonfiction or fiction, to that extent. So it was summer 2020, I was working on these prose pieces and that really opened things up. One piece was published as a flash fiction piece called “Summer,” and it’s one of the poems addressing the pandemic in this new collection.


MP: Oh yeah, the piece that takes place at William Sonoma. 


CC: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, with Carol, the sales associate. It’s very autobiographical, as a lot of my writing is. It’s kind of funny to me to have published this as a story, because I kind of thought of it as a longer poem to begin with. So then it just made sense to include that in the collection, because, again, the seasonal reference and because I’m working in a prose form. A lot of the other season poems are in this prose format.


MP: I appreciate what you said about being from the Northeast and not realizing at the time that you were so informed by your outside surroundings, by these gestures from nature. I’m curious if the lack of seasons and the loss of those gestures felt like a loss of home, which, I think, can maybe speak to other themes in your poems with regards to family and found family as well. I’m curious about the way that you both have broken away and recreated home in these poems and both collections too.


CC: Yeah, it’s interesting, because I definitely felt like an outsider there in West Texas. And I was, even though a part of me is used to being an outsider, as an queer Asian American. In many spaces and contexts, that’s true. But I definitely felt very isolated when I was there. And I was able to find some pockets of community, more queer community and not as much Asian American community, which is sometimes the case as well. That’s something that I think about a lot: When are you able to fulfill a part of yourself and find community for one version of yourself but not your full self or experience? 


That was hard when I was living there. It was also a very conservative area, a very conservative city. When I was teaching there as a grad student, there were many cultural and political differences in the classroom, which is something I just had not experienced to that degree previously. So that took some getting used to and some of that comes into the poems as well. I was reflecting a lot also about education and learning, and how sometimes those are the same things, and other times they’re actually very separate things. I was at an institution of so-called “higher education” and I was thinking about what it means to work at an academic institution, but also be a student at the same time and in my own capacity, and have to navigate these kind of tricky dynamics with students who had very different upbringings and have developed different worldviews. 


For many of them, it was their first time they had a queer Asian American instructor in the classroom. I was also living there through the Trump election in 2016. It was just a very specific time to exist in general, but to be living in a city where you knew that there were a lot of people who voted for him in your everyday life, to be walking around right after the election. It just made me want to hide at that time. And hide in a way that I hadn’t for years. You know, it made me realize how I had struggled and what a hard-earned place I had reached to be more fully myself—not just in my writing, but in my everyday life. I needed to hide or shrink myself in some way. I didn’t want to step out too much in that space. 


MP: In your poems, there is kind of a constant negotiation between what you are allowing yourself to be vulnerable with and whatever audience you’re choosing. Even in those moments where we know the speaker is hiding, there is, at the core of it, a resistance to like those outside forces that feels both tragic and triumphant. And I think that you become self-referential about that in one of your poems, where you write, Oh, they call me so brave and that becomes its own persona. 


The second collection is really interesting, because I feel like there is such a striking response to the conversations you’ve had about your first collection. So I’m curious about what that was like to have your first collection out in the world, to experience this wonderful success. But there was also a problem with the white gaze and its response to your work. Now that you’re writing again, what was it like to have that experience then return to the page? And later, to return to the public with this publication? 


CC: Yeah, I feel like even when there’s a retreat or hiding away, I’m never completely withdrawing from the world. There’s still a form of engagement that happens on the page and in the imagination, as well. Poetry is always that place for me where I don’t have to hide. And I get to kind of speak at full volume whenever I want to. It feels like a very liberating space for that. Although I’ve also been reflecting on how, at times, I can be over-reliant on that space for me, and just personally wanting to venture out more, as well, or apply things that I’ve learned in writing and reading and thinking about poetry to kind of other aspects of my life. 


But to your question, specifically, about the books. So the first book, yeah, I feel really grateful and excited that it’s received the response that it has. It’s been overwhelmingly positive. And especially when other Asian Americans, other queer Asian Americans, tell me what the work means to them, that feels incredibly special because that was not an audience that I thought I could have for many years. I was constantly told in writing programs that my interests, my experiences were too niche and it would only appeal to a small number of people or no one. That was the implication: no one who mattered, which speaks volumes to who is centered in literary discourse, who is considered the main audience for the work. It’s often cis-het white people. 


It’s been very rewarding and validating to get the response from readers who have similar experiences or occupy similar subject positions. At the same time, it did feel like there was more pressure with whatever would come next. How can I, on an artistic level, grow and feel like I am making progress in my art? In the more public-facing sense, when it comes to publication and the expectation and the pressure for the next book to do well (or do better than the first one), I think neither of these are great head spaces to dwell in. You’re working on something, because you want to give yourself the permission and the freedom to explore and experiment, which includes making mistakes and learning from all of that.


And so I had a lot of anxiety going into this second book. For a while, I was feeling very dissatisfied, actually, that it wasn’t enough of a departure. I initially wanted it to be very different from the first book, because I was just kind of tired of writing about myself in certain ways and writing about family. But those were the things that kept pulling me back in, and that felt the most urgent to work on. I’m always telling students, your obsessions choose you. Your task, as the writer, is to keep figuring out ways to make those obsessions fresh and interesting, first to yourself. Find a different angle, find a different entry way into them. I feel like eventually, that’s what I was going for. That’s what I was attempting. I hope that it comes across as a continuation of a lot of the subjects and themes of the first book in some different forms and from some different perspectives.


MP: It comes through incredibly clear. Something I deeply love about your work is this generous, surprising, delightful sense of collection. You create these little worlds of these celebrations of things that you love: Sandra Bullock romantic comedies, bubble tea, pink fanny packs. You honor these ordinary things with so much splendor. I’m really curious about what your process of revision is like, because your work is so dense, yet every detail of every memory, every thing you choose to include in that collection of celebration and grief feels extremely intentional. By the end of the poem, by the end of the collection, it feels inevitable. So I’m curious about what it’s like to parse through so much work to parse through so many words and to tighten it to get to that place of true intentionality.


CC: Yeah, there’s just so many things I want to write about, where I am inspired by, in one way or another, something from literature, or something from pop culture, or something from my own experience, something from a conversation with a friend. I try to stay really open and receptive to wherever that inspiration might come from. 


So yeah, I get these all ideas. And then sometimes, I’m like, “Oh, do I really want to write a whole poem about bubble tea?” Maybe one day, but actually right now, I just want to put it in a poem. So it’s in the poem that addresses Justin Chin. Those poems aren’t about bubble tea, ultimately. But I just love bringing in some specific texture from everyday experience, and letting that sit and live within a poem. I feel there’s so many things that I want to bring into the space of poems, that sometimes I’m like, “Oh, maybe I’ll write a whole piece about this down the road” But for now, I just want to hold onto this thing that I enjoy, or that moves me, that resonates with me. I just want it to be a detail. 


MP: I’m so glad that you brought up Justin Chin and your poem, “The World’s Most Italian-est Restaurant.” I loved that poem. I think through that poem, through your Bhanu Kapil-inspired ”a small series of questions” series—there’s like a beautiful sense of lineage in your work. There’s a sense of honoring the Asian American poets that have come before you. I was thinking about the title of this collection, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency. I was thinking about how life-giving it feels to find storytellers and poets who make us feel seen, who help us kind of recognize ourselves while still telling their own beautiful, unique story. I was thinking about how returning to those poets feels like calling an emergency contact. It feels like a life raft when everything around us is collapsing. 


What is it like to be part of that lineage? What is it like to respond to these other poets? To these other stories? I think that your identity as a reader is really clear in this work. You’re a writer who loves the act of reading. I am curious about what it is like to write from that sensation of loving reading, of loving words?


CC: Yeah, I love this question. I also realized I didn’t really speak to revision. I can say a little bit about it, and then I’ll circle back to this new question.


It’s a longer collection than many would suppose but it was actually cut down from even longer manuscript. Once I put everything together into one file, there were a lot of decisions I had to make about what to keep and how to organize this collection. I ended up cutting a whole lot of poems that felt redundant in a way. For instance, I was writing all these moon poems, which I love. In this last section, there were maybe like five or six of them. And now maybe there are two or three, which is still a fair amount. But then I was like,”Oh, I think I’m actually gonna save some of these and really go in that direction in the next book and just let myself have room to explore that further.” So yeah, there were considerations like that. With the season poems or “The School of…” poems, I went back and forth on certain poems. How many of these do I need in each section? How do they really speak to each other? Is there one that is kind of an outlier? Or could it be used for something else in a different way? 


For your second question, I love reading, which I don’t think would be surprising to anybody. But I especially love it when I can’t write, when I feel stuck in my own process. Then I can turn to reading again and really be immersed in that. There’s a kind of losing oneself with surrender, surrendering oneself to that process. Once I’m really deep in reading again, the writing tends to come back very naturally. That’s also why I try not to push too much. Like, if I’m writing and it’s not really going anywhere, I can always read! There are always so many books to read.


Specifically, when it comes to lineage, it was just really important to me in this book because there are just so many influences. I really wanted to be clear and specific about the voices that really informed my own and shaped the writing: having one of the epigraphs be from a Justin Chin poem and then to have the poem of mine that addresses him, the poem dedicated to my friend Muriel Leung, another one dedicated to Jennifer S. Cheng, Michelle Lin at the end, all of these contemporary Asian American poets whose presence and whose work has been so important to me. I just love it when you can be really direct in a poem about where something came from. It’s like you’re tracing the lineage of the thought or an image. Then a reader gets to experience that in real time as well. I just love that, as a reader, when I see an epigraph or dedication that brings me into a larger personal and collective history that that poet is a part of. That’s how I’ve learned about a lot of other writers, through those references. 


MP: I love that. I think that so much of your work feels like a continued epigraph, a continual dedication to some other beloved person or thing. The sense of communication and messaging is so striking in your work. There are so many instances where you call out to conversations with friends, conversations with your parents, or even overhearing shitty homophobic conversations.


The title, Your Emergency Contact has Experienced an Emergency, brings us back to this sense of communication. I’m curious about how much of this work feels like a specific message to someone else? Who did you find yourself like writing to? Who were you getting answers from? I’m curious about this as you wrote this book during the pandemic, when communication relied so heavily on written words and on other mediums beyond face-to-face conversation.


CC: I’m fascinated by all the ways that we communicate or miscommunicate. I’m fascinated by phones and all the different forms of it — historically, culturally. The telephone booth is a really interesting space to me and one that doesn’t quite exist in the way it did before. Then, the cell phone—having this portable device that we can carry anywhere, the simultaneous ease and dread of being contactable at any time. 


That’s been on my mind a lot with crises, with being in an emergency: who you call, the method of calling, what kind of message is given and what kind of messages we receive, how those might be different things, how the call is interpreted if it’s picked up. It quickly became a really rich metaphor as well, like a figurative way of thinking about how we perceive each other and how we show up for each other (or fail to). So whether a call is dropped, whether it’s picked up, hanging up—all the emotions associated with the different things right you do on the phone. How important the phone and online keeps being and becoming, as you mentioned, during this time of the pandemic, as it became such a primary form of communication for some people, whether it’s professional, personal, social. So much is mediated through a phone or a screen.


There have been studies done about this too. You can still feel alone or actually your loneliness can be worsened by being on the phone. Although I think that’s also true with certain in-person interactions, right? You can feel lonely in a full room of people if you don’t feel connected to them, if you don’t feel that sense of belonging in that space. It’s not this completely new phenomenon, just with technology. But yeah it’s something I think so much about and, as I said, it just became this metaphor and this larger lens for looking at a lot of other issues.


MP: Yeah, absolutely. I think that there’s also a great deal of attention given to what is unspoken as well in this collection: things that you don’t share with the reader, things that you instead share with specific audiences, or things that are just left unsaid. I’m thinking about your poem, “four short essays personifying a future in which white supremacy has ended,” which Foligfter got the pleasure to publish first. The first section is this long erasure, this long absence with “….therefore” in the middle of it. I’m curious about what it’s like to speak into those types of absences and to refuse to be translatable in certain instances, especially when you’re addressing white supremacy and you are writing in a time period in which it has ended. I’m curious about what is unsaid and what is untranslatable.


CC: In that poem in particular, I was thinking about how difficult it is to really imagine a world in which white supremacy has ended because it is so foundational to this country, and so many of its institutions. Even the concept of personhood as well. The U.S. is so premised on whiteness and proximity to whiteness, how one is perceived in the dominant culture as a full person or not, and the degrees of that. It’s this whole hierarchy that has to be dismantled. The whole sense of personhood also has to shift. In that poem, I’m playing with what or who gets to be personified and considered person-like, like how animals are treated better or empathized with more in this country than people of color. With this poem, it starts with this absence because I just wanted to mark the space of possibility. What opens up if we consider a world in white supremacy has ended, if we just sit with that thought and stood in that space? So I wanted it to be this literal open space. 


But at the same time, I want to mark silence because of how much people don’t talk about how white supremacy is a problem in this country. It’s also kind of marking the silence or hesitance to address it, to name it head-on. Finally, I was wanting to mark the difficulty of this, like what is the next step? It made a lot of sense for it to be this poem in numbered sections. They bleed into each other. I’m stumbling into the next thought, like I’m trying to find the next foothold right as I’m climbing the problem that the poem is thinking about.


MP: I love that sense of climbing as a way of finding that next step, or that that world without white supremacy. Silence makes complete sense as a poetic gesture for these short essays.


Beyond these silences, I returned to the sense of collection, the sense of togetherness that is so present in your work. Found families is such a important part of a queer person’s experience and navigating the world. I was also thinking about it as a creative act. In your collection, there are so many instances where that sense of found family is shown. One of the poems that really moved me was, “One Year Later: Her Answer,” which was such a beautiful, restrained but powerful poem. Later on in the collection, you wrote “ode to my beloved and brevities,” where you begin to include so much into this family of loved things. 


I’m curious if there’s any kind of relationship between your poetic practice and this act of creating and finding community, of finding families? What kind of relationship do you think the two have in your life?


CC: It’s funny because I consider myself quite an introverted person but I’m kind of an extrovert around poets and other writers because I can just talk about it endlessly. It’s just such an inexhaustible topic. 


But yeah I used to think that you just have to be solitary. You have to be really quiet all the time and you have to retreat from the world and reflect and that becomes the writing. And I think that’s still a piece of it but increasingly, I am seeing just how much I am influenced by conversation and having these shared experiences together: by talking with people and sharing snacks, sharing a meal, sharing some bubble tea, going to the beach, going on a little road trip, looking at things together, walking through an art gallery, walking around a park, just observing things together, or sharing an inside joke, noticing a funny billboard on a drive somewhere. All of that can come into poems. This goes along with thinking about the epigraphs and dedications and lineage. I want to be really upfront and honor these connections really clearly. It’s become clearer to me how much I enjoy it personally, but also how much it’s inspired the writing. 


MP: I know we’re about to approach the hour but I have two (hopefully shorter) final questions for you. I love the things that you list as things that nourish your writing: the road trips, the billboards, the meals. I’d like to ask you what is currently enchanting you? What is filling you with wonder or delight or curiosity? 


CC: Oh my gosh, yeah a couple things I’ll just quickly mention. One of which is kind of a funny answer to how you worded the question because it’s a TV show, Severance. The emotion it provokes is dread, an existential dread and the drudgery of life under capitalism. But I just really appreciate how that show examines labor and the workplace, and how people are incentivized to work and not question certain things about their lives. And then, what pushes them, what drives them to start to question things and become more critical of the situation they’re in. So I don’t want to give too much away about this show, but I just think it’s one of the recent shows that is looking at class, labor, capitalism, productivity culture and also trauma and how these things are interrelated in just really interesting ways. While just being super creepy! Yeah, they do it really well. 


On the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve started reading the Sailor Moon manga. I had never before because I’d grown up as such a big fan of the anime. I’ve watched all of it and some of the Sailor Moon movies, which are more like special episodes because they’re like 60-70 minutes. So I’m well-versed in the world and lore of Sailor Moon, but there are quite a few things that differ between the manga and anime. So that’s been really cool to find out for the first time. It’s just the characters and world that I really enjoy dipping back into. 


MP: That’s wonderful. I love that you’re revisiting something that is familiar and learning new things about it, and that is a source of wonder. My final question is do you have any words of advice for other young writers, for other young queer Asian American writers? For other young writers who want to be able to use poetry as a way of surviving and creating beauty in this world?


CC: One thought that I have is just based on the plant in your background. So this is actually something that I haven’t done yet myself, but I am planning to do this: Get yourself a cute house plant. It may not sound like writing advice but there’s something about taking care of a living thing. That kind of thinking can be applied to writing. You’re taking care with your language, taking care with the kind of imagery you construct, taking care of the metaphors, taking care of this malleable, evolving thing. It has this aliveness. I think so much of writing is paying attention to where it is really alive and strengthening that, building upon that. 


So getting a house plant is also based on a class that Sarah Gambito has taught at Fordham. She talks about it in an interview, where in this poetry class, at the beginning, she gives everyone a small plant to take care of for the semester. Which is a little overwhelming maybe, but I love the idea of that. You’re nurturing something and paying attention to it and seeing how it changes.


The other thing that I would say is to really seek each other out.  Go to readings, attend them online if that’s what is most accessible for you. Thankfully there’s still many places that are doing online events or hybrid. So yeah, attend readings and other literary events: panels, discussions, workshops. 


Find your people. Find people who inspire you, find people who you want to talk to more, find people who are good readers for your work—and, you know, where you feel like you might be able to offer the same. Start those conversations because whether you draw as much direct inspiration from being around other writers or not, you still need that to sustain yourself on a creative path. You still need other people.


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