Chen Chen

He // Him // His

[ID: A portrait of a queer Chinese American standing in front of a large beige apartment building with many windows and balconies. His hair is dyed an orangey-blonde. He wears clear-framed glasses, a dark purple button-down with gray polka dot pattern, and a gray blazer. His facial expression is gently joyful.]

Waltham, MA
2022 USA Fellow

This award was generously supported by the Barr Foundation.

Chen Chen’s second book of poetry, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, is forthcoming from BOA Editions (US) and Bloodaxe Books (UK) in September 2022. Chen’s debut, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA, 2017; Bloodaxe, 2019), was long-listed for the National Book Award and won the Thom Gunn Award, among other honors. Chen has also written four chapbooks, and his first essay collection, In Cahoots with the Rabbit God, is forthcoming from Noemi Press in late 2023.

His work appears in many publications, including Poetry and three editions of The Best American Poetry. He has received two Pushcart Prizes and fellowships from Kundiman and the National Endowment for the Arts. He holds an MFA from Syracuse University and a PhD from Texas Tech University.

With a brilliant team, he edits the journal Underblong. He also edits the lickety~split, a Twitter-based journal celebrating short poems. He teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet in Residence and serves on the poetry faculty for the low-residency MFA programs at New England College and Stonecoast.

Chen lives in Waltham, Massachusetts, with his partner, Jeff Gilbert, and their pug dog, Mr. Rupert Giles.

Portrait photo by Paula Champagne.


“Spring Summer Autumn Winter”

I pushed my face toward
the sleeping radiator. I smelled a form
of justice. I wanted to be a poet. I waved
my living hands, dead
coupons. I watched him brush
his teeth. His teeth glinted
gorgeous. I stumbled.
Cartwheeled. I said, I will always fight
alongside you in the fight
against tartar buildup. I said, I will.
I said, Thank God without believing
in thanks. I thought what my parents did,
that wasn’t poetry. I believed
what white people said about my parents.
I had to say, Stop.
Stop believing them.
I suckled. Pickled. Made mistakes
about octopi. Wore a blue jockstrap
& took pictures. Accepted stickers of astounded
apples from friends. I was a wind
smooching another wind, who had
very good teeth. I was a name
everyone in America thought they were saying
right. Even he thought so.
Then asked, Is that right?
I pushed my face toward the noisy radiator.
Its clang & labor & here.
In bed I touched his voice
in his belly. I touched his Goodnight. He said it always
like it was important.
It was important. I believed in
the Silver Millennium. I said, Sailor Neptune,
one day, a poem for you.
I said, Sailor Neptune, teach me the Deep
Submerge, the Submarine Reflection, the thunderously
turquoise hair. I was a name
in America & would forget I belonged
to my teeth.
I dropped a single wish down the cavernous
mailbox. He would ask,
Is that right? He would bring
a single microwaved donut on a blue napkin at dusk.
He would leave me alone
with my poems. O
if I could lick all your toes at once. I would
write that poem. I loved him,
I told him. I loved him,
so told him about the dream.
The dream starred my parents, stars
of a death metal band’s
debut music video. They danced
like everyone was watching. It was important. Their arms
were poems. They said, So what
if we misspell “auditorium,” so fucking what—
we’ll always say
your name right.
They pushed their faces toward me.
Their poems toward me.
They leapt & thrashed, they were stars,
stars, stars.
I woke up weeping. Do you understand?
I thought I could only fall asleep
doing that.