Every year, it feels like summer is too short. Before we know it, the weather is getting colder and the leaves are starting to change colors. Whether you’ve just gone back to school, just finished celebrating the Midautumn Festival, or are dreaming of pumpkin spice lattes, you can make fall even cozier by exploring these eight new and forthcoming works from the Asian American poetry community.
If you enjoyed MICHAEL CHANG’s sensual epistolary poem in Issue 8.2, their forthcoming book, Almanac of Useless Talents, is a must read. Described by Clash as “part confessional, part experimental, and completely original,” CHANG’s decadent poems delve into a world of potent desire.
Chen Chen’s poem “The School of a Few or a Lot of My Favorite Things,” published in Issue 9.1, will also appear in his second poetry collection, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced An Emergency. Tracy K. Smith notes that in the book, Chen writes “with humor, deep intelligence, and what feels to me like a luminous everyday philosophy.” An exploration of life as a queer Asian American in contemporary America, this book is one we are eagerly anticipating, and we hope you are too.
Issue 7.2 contributor Jenna Le is releasing her third full-length collection, Manatee Lagoon, which explores a Vietnamese cultural heritage in a politically fraught America. Matt W. Miller praises Le’s creative use of form, remarking that “with a lyricism that is sometimes the night-light you want, sometimes the lightning you deserve, Le masterfully weaves poems out of inherited forms and meters that are at once surgically precise and organically necessary.” We hope you’re as excited as we are to pick up this book!
As an Asian American–focused publication, Lantern Review stands for diversity within the literary world. In solidarity with other communities of color and in an effort to connect our readers with a wider range of voices, we recommend a different collection by a non-Asian-American-identified BIPOC poet in each blog post.
Please consider supporting a small press or independent bookstore with your purchase.
Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with poet and professor Chen Chen about his upcoming poetry collection, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, and how he envisions the poems in this manuscript as rest, fuel, and a tool for writing through trauma. Read on to learn more about his other collaborative projects, his experiences writing in quarantine, and more. (For more on Chen Chen, check out our previous interview with him in conversation with Margaret Rhee.)
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LANTERN REVIEW: Can you share with us a little bit about your upcoming second full-length poetry collection, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, and what inspired you to embark on this project? How do you think the current sociopolitical landscape has affected or complicated your work?
CHEN CHEN: At this point, pretty much all the poems are written and in their final form. There might be one or two more poems the collection needs. Of course, I thought I was at this close stage last year. And then I kept writing new poems. And those poems influenced revisions on older ones. That’s how it goes.
This second book explores some of the same subjects as my first: blood family, chosen family, immigration, sexuality, and how to be a person fully embracing every aspect of my experience and identity. The key difference between the first book and this one is now I’m examining these subjects from an older perspective, much more of an adult perspective—whereas before, I was interested in childhood and adolescence. I think Your Emergency Contact is a sadder and angrier book, and at the same time, a funnier one. That tonal shift or tonal deepening has a great deal to do with the current sociopolitical landscape. Writing in and about the Trump era has led me to deeper grief and outrage, as well as sharper humor. The humor is a coping device, but also a way into the difficult emotions.
There’s a shift in setting, too. Your Emergency Contact grapples with what it meant to reside in West Texas—as a PhD student, as a young teacher, as a queer Asian American in a very conservative part of the country, a particularly conservative part of Texas. Some poems look at gun violence and gun culture. There are poems addressing the Pulse nightclub shooting, which took the lives of people who were (for the most part) queer and Latinx. These were deeply complicated poems to write, as I didn’t want to speak for anyone else, yet I needed to engage and process my own sense of grief regarding this violence.
Ultimately, Your Emergency Contact is about an exhausted world, a world in which those I’ve relied on for care during crises are themselves experiencing calamity and depletion. The hope is that these poems create a space, however small and fragile, for the vital practice of recognizing marginalized people’s exhaustion. I’m tired. Those I love and those who love me are tired. Maybe these poems can offer some rest and some fuel.
LR: Can you share with us the origins of your collaborative chapbook project GESUNDHEIT! with Sam Herschel Wein? Why did you decide to embark on this project?
CC: Sam and I started writing collaborative poems years ago. Part of the genesis of our friendship was realizing we had many shared poetic sensibilities. We both love humor and play. We’re both obsessed with pop culture and queer culture. It felt completely organic to write together. I’d send Sam a line over email, and he’d reply with the next line, and so on. These early attempts were not very good. But we had so much fun. We kept dreaming of a collaborative body of work. Eventually we decided that it would be a chapbook containing poems we had each written individually, plus a couple we wrote together in this trading-lines-back-and-forth fashion. Fun fact: originally the chapbook was called Scarves of My Gayborhood. (We might still use that title for something else!)
As we put the chapbook together, it became apparent that friendship would be one of the major themes—in particular, queer friendship and how we grew to be part of each other’s chosen families. Sarah Gambito blessed us with the absolute best blurb, which includes this perfect summation of the work: “these gorgeous poems hold high the cherished intimacy that is activated in deep friendship.” I love that verb, activated; it speaks to how my friendship with Sam feels—active, empowering, full of action toward true mutual growth. GESUNDHEIT! is an ode to working together, playing together, discovering together. Rather than eliding or flattening out differences, the chapbook celebrates how we’re distinct poets and people, while simultaneously celebrating the conversations between us.
LR: You are the coeditor and cofounder of literary journal Underblong. How has your role as coeditor and cofounder inspired and helped you in writing? What have been the biggest challenges? What have been the biggest rewards?
CC: Underblong is a labor of love and laughter and the longest FaceTime calls with my coeditor and cofounder, Sam. Recently we brought on a fantastic managing editor, Catherine Bai, who’s helping us stick to our goals and to a better timeline for assembling our issues. We also brought on five wonderful new readers, Aerik Francis, Albert Lee (李威夷), Angelina Mazza, Cassandra de Alba, and Juliette Givhan. We’re ecstatic to welcome these new team members, or “blongees,” as we affectionately call them, and one of our main activities this fall has been working to make sure everyone gets to know each other. We’ve already been so lucky to work with readers E Yeon Chang (장이연), Emma William-Margaret Rebholz (a.k.a. Billy), and Mag Gabbert. Mag also serves as our fabulous interviews editor. I just had to shout out the whole team because they’ve been integral to the journal’s success and ongoing vibrancy or “blonginess.” Each team member has expanded our notion of what the journal can be.
Sam and I started the journal because we wanted to do something different from what we’d seen in the literary landscape. We wanted a journal that wasn’t afraid to break with so-called “professional” conventions and decorum. We wanted a journal that embraced poems about butts, poems about glitter, poems that speak back to racism and imperialism, poems that listen deeply to urgent cultural currents, poems that reimagine the future and insist on a more livable now. We envisioned Underblong as a space not only for publishing work that we feel pushes the boundaries but also as a space for us, as editors, to be as wacky and imaginative as we need. I think this freedom is reflected in each issue’s editors’ letter, in the “what we like” page, in the call for submissions page, in the website design, in the response letters to submissions, and in the overall vibe of the journal. And we wanted, from the very start, to center the voices of queer and trans Black writers, queer and trans writers of color. With each issue, we try to deepen our commitment.
My role has inspired my writing in all sorts of ways. I’m inspired by the work we publish. I’m inspired by the conversations about submissions. I’m inspired by the cover art. I’m inspired by responses from those who read the journal. I’m blown away by the support and enthusiasm folks have expressed for Underblong. That’s the biggest reward: seeing how the work we publish reaches people. For instance, how often the poems in Underblong inspire others to write their own. Another giant reward is, of course, getting to publish work we completely believe in, especially poetry by lesser-known writers—and most especially to be the first (or among the early ones) to publish an exciting voice.
The biggest challenges all have to do with time management. I teach undergraduate classes and also work with MFA students. I have my own writing projects. I have time commitments when it comes to my beautiful partner and my beautiful friends. Sam and I started Underblong with the goal of publishing two issues a year. It’s been one issue a year, and we’ve always struggled to release issues when we say we’re going to. I’m hopeful that will change with this next issue (scheduled for December) and with next year’s issues.
LR: In other interviews, you’ve talked about being a manic reviser. Can you tell us a little more about your revision process?
CC: It’s taken me a long time, but I really have come to love revision, as utterly frustrating as it can be sometimes. I’ve come to see the challenge as an invitation to continue discovering something through the act of writing. I cherish the surprise of finding something out about myself or about the world—something strange and sparkling I couldn’t have known without writing that exact poem.
Often, a first draft is merely the skeleton of what the poem ultimately needs to become. I know there’s placeholder language I’ll have to replace with excitement. I know there’s flatness I’ll have to transform into a mountain full of swaying trees or a sea roaring with all its sea-ness. And most frequently, in my poem drafts, there’s humor that starts off as just a silly riff on a stray thought or as a jumping-off point—and I know I’ll have to make the laugh as necessary as the lament. I’ll have to find that balance between tickling and truth telling. But first, I try to give myself complete permission to goof off, to experiment, to generate and generate.
I usually overwrite and then pare away. I like having a wide field of material to work with; from the field I whittle things down to the row that’s most alive, then tend to each stalk, each bulb, each petal. Sometimes I overwhittle and then have to zoom out again, add back a detail I’ve cut, or write something fresher in its place. Maybe the poem actually needs to be a whole wide field and not just one row. The unpredictability can be maddening or glee inducing; I tend to oscillate between the two states while revising. A poem can start off as six pages, then shrink to one, then grow into three.
LR: How have you been engaging with writing poetry and the poetry community since quarantine?
CC: I haven’t written a lot of poetry during this time. Actually, I’ve been writing more prose. I was asked by Spencer Quong at Poets & Writers to contribute short essays for an online series called “Craft Capsules.” My essays have ended up being sort of unconventional—a weird mix of craft commentary and personal writing. That’s just how I had to write them. I guess I was getting tired of being asked to produce prose along the lines of neat, easily digestible article or column writing. I needed to break out of those boxes. Fortunately, Quong and Poets & Writers have been very supportive of me doing things more my own way. Quong has also provided immensely thoughtful editorial feedback on all the essays. These pieces would be such a mess without his critical input and super-smart line edits.
I was also asked by Swati Khurana to write flash fiction for a new series at The Margins, the online magazine of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Though I think of the piece I wrote as basically a lyric essay or an extended love poem, it’s been really lovely to see folks read it as a flash story. My first fiction publication! And Swati, as an editor, was also incredibly generous and insightful with feedback.
It’s been scary, writing and publishing in a genre I’m less experienced with and comfortable in. I did study creative nonfiction in graduate school; indeed, during my PhD, it was my secondary genre. I love reading creative nonfiction of all types. But as a writer, I feel very much at home in poetry. Poetry, including prose poetry, feels like how my brain works. Straight-up prose feels like trying to walk around in someone else’s brain. Or like spending a week at someone else’s apartment. I’m intrigued and I learn a lot, but by the end of the week I’m eager, I’m more than ready to return to my apartment.
My literal apartment is where I’ve been spending most of my time this year. It’s been difficult, much more difficult than I anticipated. I thought I’d be sad but still fine since I’m an introvert. But I’ve realized that becoming a part of poetry communities over the last several years has turned me into a bit more of an extrovert. I need people. I need conversations with people who also wildly love this wild thing called poetry. In 2020 I’ve had many of those conversations over Zoom, and they’ve been nourishing—but still not the same as in-person interactions.
I miss the literal nourishment of sharing food with poets. The metaphorical nourishment of conversation alongside the food on the table is magical. There’s something about sharing a meal with fellow poets and talking not about poetry but about the food. I mean, poets have a special craving for words, and that comes out no matter the topic, though my favorite non-poetry topic is food. Or gay sex.
LR: You teach at Brandeis University. What is the most rewarding thing about teaching poetry?
CC: The most rewarding thing is getting to hear students say, “I didn’t know you could do that in a poem!” This exclamation has happened after reading Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, with its two-act play structure and its use of sign language. It has happened after reading Mary Jean Chan’s Flèche, with its experimentation with formatting and its use of Chinese script. It has happened after reading Sarah Gambito’s Loves You, with its recipes as poems and poems as recipes. It has happened after reading Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of, with its stunning triptychs of family photographs, body-shaped poems, and erasure poems with body-shaped cutouts. It has happened after reading Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art, with its mix of documentary and surrealist poetics. Students come in thinking that poems have to look and sound a certain way. It’s such a fun honor to get to show students that poetry is a laboratory, and they get to be innovators, too.
For the final project in my poetry workshops at Brandeis I ask students to invent their own poetic forms. They always end up doing the most incredible things—playing with white space, with punctuation, with diction and syntax, with imagery, with typography, etc., etc. I’m always wowed beyond what I thought was my capacity for being wowed.
LR: In your interview with AAWW, you speak about finally realizing that queerness and Chinese identity can come together to form an intersectional identity. In fact, writing about these identities is central to your work. For me, also as a queer Chinese person, I find it hard to write about traumatic events tied to my identity. How do you go about approaching trauma at the intersection of these identities?
CC: I let myself write as slowly as I need to. Sometimes in graduate school it was hard to stick to a slow process because I had to turn in poems on a much faster schedule (though deadlines can also be helpful; they keep me from endlessly tinkering and staying in my own head). Ultimately, I believe that each writer has their own pace. And for marginalized writers, it’s important to question why one is writing about trauma. How much of that comes from a white gaze, from the expectation that one should be writing about trauma, about suffering? I think it’s crucial that one has one’s own reasons for writing about these subjects.
One of my main reasons is I want to examine the narratives that I’ve inherited—my father tells me one narrative for immigrating to the United States; my mother tells me another. I want to understand better why my parents have these different accounts. Another main reason is I’m invested in complicating the stories I’m used to telling about myself and my past. Why do I talk about my coming out to my family in this way? Why not another way? So the poems aren’t about constructing one neat picture of my experiences; they’re about giving myself a multiplicity of interpretations, a liberating complexity. Slowness is essential for writing this way. I have to first do some personal work, some deep emotional work, to process the traumatic events. Then I write.
Often it’s messy, and I do relive some of the trauma, but the poems can’t be a pure reliving of the trauma. If it starts to be that way, I have to take a step back. I have to take time. I have to slow down further and protect myself. I’m not interested in subjecting myself to remembering over and over the worst things that have happened to me for the sake of a white audience—for the sake of any audience, really.
Poems can be healing, but they can’t be the only form of healing I rely on. If I overrely on poems for my mental health and well-being, poetry becomes a toxic force. It’s similar to overrelying on a romantic relationship for all one’s needs. I need to take care of myself outside of writing, then step back in. For weeks I might write just one more stanza. For months I might work on other kinds of poems. For years I might have no firm idea of where a poem grappling with trauma is headed. I trust, though, that if I’m doing this for the right reasons, the right language will come.
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Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions), which was longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry and won the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry, among other honors. He has received a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from Kundiman and the National Endowment for the Arts. With Sam Herschel Wein, he runs the journal Underblong. He teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence.
Please consider supporting an independent bookstore with your purchase.
As an APA–focused publication, Lantern Review stands for diversity within the literary world. In solidarity with other communities of color and in an effort to connect our readers with a wider range of voices, we recommend a different book by a non-APA-identified BIPOC poet in each blog post.
Over the course of this National Poetry Month, we’ve been curating a conversation about Asian American poetry and the book as object. If you’ve been following along with our collaboration with the American Bookbinders Museum these past couple of weeks, you’ll also have noticed our thematic emphasis on the chapbook and its unique relationship to the print traditions of poetry as a genre. Today, in continuation of that discussion, we’re pleased to be able to present a conversation with poet-scholars and two-time chapbook authors Chen Chen and Margaret Rhee. Chen, the author of Kissing the Sphinx (Two of Cups Press, 2016) and Set the Garden on Fire(Porkbelly Press, 2015), and Rhee, the author of Radio Heart; or How Robots Fall Out of Love(Finishing Line Press, 2015) and Yellow(Tinfish Press, 2011), spoke to us about the delights and challenges of the chapbook as a form and shared some of their experiences from the process of shaping and finding publishing homes for their chaps.
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LR: What appeals to you about the chapbook as a form, as distinct from the more traditional format of the full-length poetry collection?
CC: I love that you can read a chapbook in one sitting. I mean, I do that with full-length collections I love, but a chapbook feels like such a good, healthy portion of poetry. You have just enough energy to devour it properly.
I love working with small presses. And I’ve been so lucky. Porkbelly Press did my first chapbook, and I remember giving the editor, Nicci Mechler, all these different ideas for cover art (maybe a train? a moon? a single flower? multiple flowers but not too many?)—and she just knocked it out of the park. I think that’s the first time I’ve said “knocked it out of the park.” Well, written it. I don’t know if I’ve ever said it out loud. I would say it out loud for Nicci Mechler and Porkbelly Press. Those cleavers. That perfect purple. Two of Cups Press did my second chapbook, and we were able to use Lizzy DuQuette’s fabulous image for the cover. I’ve felt so listened to, cared for, by these presses. At AWP this year, Leigh Anne Hornfeldt, the editor at Two of Cups, organized chapbook signings for her authors and a last-minute-but-really-fun joint reading in her hotel room. With both chapbooks, we ran into formatting issues (my lines just got too long!)—both times, the editors knocked it out of the park.
MR: I love the ephemeral nature of chapbooks, how artistic the chapbooks can be, and the possibilities of risk (as poet, as publisher) within the chapbook form.
Moreover I like how chapbooks are not tied to the capitalistic market (as limited as it is for po-biz); there’s something pure about them. This kind of poetry isn’t really about money.
In addition to editing my first chapbook, Susan graciously wrote a blurb for my second chapbook, which also speaks to the generative relationships when working with an editor on a chapbook of poetry. I learned tremendously from Susan and count her as a formative mentor. A precious gift.
LR: Each of your chapbooks has a unique project or conceit that shapes and informs it. Can you describe for us how these projects came about?
CC: For Set the Garden on Fire, I was interested in the child’s voice, the queer child’s voice, the voice of a child of immigrants. So a lot of the poems in this first chapbook wrestle with childhood, early adolescence, and engage coming of age in this very intersectional way. Companion poems like “Write a Letter to the Class About Your Summer Vacation” and “Write a Letter to Your Mother About Your Longest Winter” helped structure the collection—echo and break, circularity as well as surprise, I hope. Flowers and fires, yes, but donuts also play an important role. The chapbook is full of questions about what tenderness means and what kinship or community could look like.
Kissing the Sphinx is much less autobiographical. Or less directly so. I think of it as my chapbook of wacky love poems. There’s a hot air balloon and fuchsia snow pants. There’s Eros and Mariah Carey. One of the speakers makes a trip from Helsinki to Shanghai that I’ve never made. I had to Google how many hours that flight is. The loose arc of the collection goes from early (attempts at) dating to this (attempt at a) more serious relationship. The chapbook wonders, what is “serious” and what is a “relationship”? There is also Tom Daley and a Russian driving instructor.
Yellow was a poetic investigation of . . . [questions] around meaning and difference. But it was also an experiment on poetic form and how formal qualities shape “the racial” and color. The title poem, “Yellow,” was my first conscious attempt to fuse the two (formal + racial) and signaled a turn for my relationship with poetry. . . . [At the time of writing Yellow,] I was inspired by French avant-garde poets of the 1960s such as the Oulipo and Stephane Mallarme, but I was also responding to avant-garde poetry and the privilege of racial omission when utilizing color in poetry, for example. With the exception of “Body Maps,” the poems in the collection were all written within a span of six months and with experimentation as a key focus of writing during that time.
The chapbook is a section of a poetry manuscript I am completing, tentatively entitled “I Love Juana” and Other Poemas, a collection on sex, sexuality, art, activism, race, and protest.
Radio Heart; or How Robots Fall Out of Love came about via various research I was doing on robots and culture for my PhD work at UC Berkeley. At the time, I found that poetry-writing about robots was an interesting way to engage and question demarcations of difference through the science fictional. It was also a reprieve from the scholarly research. In every sense, the robot love relations in Radio Heart are queer relations, but not explicitly so. It was refreshing to take a different turn from my previous writing, which deals pretty centrally with issues of difference (race, class, sexuality) and to explore how science fiction poetry can ask questions on difference, but through worldbuilding. However, I still write explicitly political poetry (Yellow is a section of a poetry manuscript [as mentioned above] I am completing on sex, sexuality, art, activism, race, protest); it’s simply part of my orientation and practice, I realize—activism that seeps through into the poetic. But I also turn to science fiction as a way to worldbuild other possibilities. My next book is about space exploration and Mars.
LR: While writing each of your chaps, how did you go about deciding which poems belonged in the manuscript? Were there any poems that didn’t make the cut?
CC: The page limit that each press provides in their submission guidelines was very helpful. It seems the typical chapbook is between twenty and thirty pages. I like this. It makes the cuts easier for me, because I can just blame the press’s page limit. Sorry, poem about two male astronauts having a homoerotic moment right before getting blasted into space—it’s not you, it’s not me, it’s the page limit. A bit more seriously, though: I consider which emotional notes have been hit and whether I’ve been banging one gong a bit too frequently. I think: the gong of sadness over a breakup has been hit. Or: the gong of being silly about homoeroticism has been hit. I want to keep the psychological or narrative arc of the collection clear and tight.
MR: All the poems in the original manuscript made the cut, but I would add, I have a section entitled “Radio Heart” that contains four-line poems. The section was inspired by the work of Descartes on the body (Discourse on Method). I decided to leave the poems on separate pages in the chapbook, but in the larger book manuscript, they are all placed on one page, as one poem.
LR: Of the poems that appear in your chaps, is there one of which you’re most proud? We’d love to hear its story if you’d care to share it.
CC: I’m pretty fond of “Race to the Tree” from Set the Garden on Fire. This fondness came after deep frustration. This poem took forever. I started it in college. Then I couldn’t look at it for a couple years. In the second year of my MFA, I looked at it again. Bruce Smith, one of my brilliant teachers at Syracuse, was teaching us about the ballad form. Something clicked. Or not really “clicked,” because the poem isn’t in ballad form. But something about quatrains and a dark night and a song that is also a narrative and then the three sections . . . it took me a long time to think of the poem in such formal terms. The emotions in the poem were/are so volatile. The night I sort of accidentally came out to my parents. The night of the argument that would push me back into the closet. The night I thought I would run away and never return. The night I saw my parents as strangers (and I’m sure they saw me that way, too). So. Then. Writing, rewriting. I revised it again when it went into my MFA thesis. When it went into the chapbook. Now the poem’s in my full-length book. I’m pretty sure it’s done, now. But when I say, at the end of the poem, “I was 13, I am 13, it is/night”—every time I read that aloud, it’s true.
MR: This is a great question! I’m pretty proud of “Beam, Robot.” It was originally published in Hyphen magazine’s literary section that is edited by Karissa Chen. Karissa is a fantastic editor, and she had some really wonderful words of advice on how to enliven and tighten the poem’s language and world. When I was interviewed on the poem for the magazine, it helped me reflect on the project as a whole. It is a rare opportunity to work so closely on a poem with an amazing editor like Karissa, and I’m really glad about how it came out.
LR: Figuring out how to navigate the publishing world can be a notoriously difficult process for emerging poets of color. Can you tell us about the decision process that went into choosing the publisher for each of your chapbooks? Do you have any advice for Asian American poets who are hoping to find the right home for a first chapbook manuscript?
CC: I’ve answered this one a bit with the first question. But yes. The right homes. The editors who will listen and care and listen. My advice to Asian American poets wanting to publish a chapbook: check to see if the press has published any Asian American poets before. More than one? Look at the submission guidelines. Are the editors explicit about seeking and supporting work by writers of color, queer writers, queer writers of color? Do they use this language? Are they explicit about being feminist, antiracist? What is the exact language of the guidelines page or the call for submissions or the “about” page? For example, Porkbelly Press describes itself as such: “We’re a queer-friendly, feminist press open to all, and encourage works from authors all along the identity spectrum.” And: ask folks who have worked with that press before. Their experiences.
Also, the design and production quality matter. The cover art matters. Not while you’re writing, of course. But while you’re deciding where to send the writing out. If you can, obtain a chapbook from a press you’re considering (and sometimes, the submission fee is a chapbook purchase because the press wants you to be familiar with what they do). Hold the physical object in your hands. Turn the pages. Is it a beautiful thing? Is it an artifact you want in your hands, your home? Is it a home for poems? Could you see yourself with a chapbook like that, reading from it, to an audience, one lovely day?
MR: With Yellow, I was lucky because my friend (and my formative mentor) Craig Santos Perez recommended me to Susan Schultz as a potential poet for her new series. It turned out to be the best home for Yellow, given Susan’s commitment to experimental poetics, Korean American poetics, and poetics of the Pacific. With Finishing Line Press, I submitted in part because I loved their chapbooks and the attention they give to women’s poetry. I am thinking especially of [LR editor] Iris A. Law’s chapbook Periodicity (which I taught and reviewed) and Karen McPherson’s Sketching Elise. Both are wondrous chapbooks.
For emerging poets of color and Asian American poets, I would recommend seeking out a publisher with a sensibility you feel kin to. This may mean seeking out chapbooks you love and checking out who published those collections, and submitting accordingly. Ultimately, you want an apt home that can take care of your poems.
I just received the second printing of Radio Heart, and it’s been interesting to think about the myriad of approaches to chapbook publishing. My publisher made some changes to the second version, and it feels more like a book. But in many ways, I miss the first version of Radio Heart, the staples (the second printing is perfect bound), the colored vellum (the second printing has a new image of the publisher’s logo), and the paper (the second printing is glossy). The second printing feels more like a book, while the first printing really feels like a chapbook (more porous in its paper materials and ephemeral in its staples).
I am getting used to this second version, but the first edition will always be dear to me, most certainly for the same reasons I love poetry chapbooks (as opposed to full-length books).
My friend the amazing poet Neil Aitken consoled me in saying that the second version just makes the first version more special. I will heed his expertise, as it makes me realize the experience of chapbooks: how limited they are, but also how special.
LR: You’re both academics as well as poets [Rhee is currently a visiting assistant professor at the University of Oregon; Chen is an English and creative writing PhD candidate at Texas Tech University]. In what ways has your critical scholarship informed your creative work? How do you balance your scholarly pursuits with the labor that it takes to promote, sell, and market your chaps and other published creative work?
CC: I’ll start with the second question . . . when I first joined Twitter, I almost broke down and sobbed, I was so overwhelmed. Information overload. And although it was the reason I made a Twitter account, I just hated being self-promotional. Which, now, I understand is a necessary part of being an author, especially now, especially as a poet. I don’t have an agent or a publicist. Editors and presses help. But folks seem most interested in reading and/or buying my work if I’m the one telling them about it. I mean. I want to share the work. I want the work to do things in the world. I want the work to be useful, in some way, to someone. Still, the publishing author is different from the writing poet. I don’t know that I’ve balanced it, yet. Or maybe each day is a different attempt at balancing, some more successful than others. The poet Scott Woods made a beautiful and important post on Facebook the other week, basically insisting that you should “put your book on the table” at readings and other events. Take some healthy pride in this work you’ve made. Join the literary conversation, which is certainly happening on Twitter, as well.
My scholarly work focuses on contemporary US poets of color. Recently, I’ve written essays about Tarfia Faizullah, Bhanu Kapil, Robert Hayden, Nikky Finney, and Aracelis Girmay. These essays need more work before I can seriously consider sending any of them out. I’m interested in notions of the transnational and the planetary, transgressive conceptions (and enactments!) of space, and large scales of time that challenge me to see strange connections between poets and poetries (poetics and ethics, as well . . . ). When Finney excavates a prehistoric space in one of her poems, I follow and try to read the prehistory within the history, within the now. When Girmay suggests that the donkey is closer to “us” than we might first believe, I try to believe and read the donkey in how poets speak and sing and what this donkey song has to do with justice and grief. The poems I’m writing now are grappling with grief, are grieving—my partner’s mother passed away from cancer last fall—and asking questions about education or learning. What does the university provide? What does the university police? What other “schools” do I need to explore? Is there a “school” in prehistoric aliveness, a “school” in donkey song that I need to enroll in?
MR: Throughout graduate school, it wasn’t really hard to balance poetry and scholarship, because it all seemed to be part of the same practice: questioning, investigating, writing . . . looking back, I think it wasn’t challenging to balance both because I didn’t actively seek publication for my poetry. It really remained a practice, and I simply published when I was invited to submit and very occasionally sent out work (perhaps once every three months or so). I did very limited publicizing for Yellow, and ironically, because of my scholarship, I was at a critical theory seminar at the University of Hawai’i that summer the chapbook was published (which is where Tinfish is based), and so it was poetic kismet in a way. I was able to have a “launch reading” in Hawai’i, with Craig, Susan, and others, because of the scholarly training I was engaging in at the time.
I guess though, now that I am out of graduate school, and teaching a full load—time, my time, feels much more limited. Two years ago, I was also given some formative advice from a cherished mentor to send out my work more often. I waited a few years between Yellow (2011) and Radio Heart (2015) and upon my mentor’s advice took more time to send out work, which is how Radio Heart came about.
I would say helping promote Radio Heart has taken more time in terms of interviews and other kinds of publicity and readings. I am grateful, because like this interview, it is a generative process. But the work of promoting and submitting is such a different animal than writing. I really prefer the latter rather than the former.
LR: One of the things that we love to do at Lantern Review is to continually highlight new work for our readers. What are a few of your own favorite chapbooks by APIA writers that you would recommend?
MR: I second Organic Weapon Arts: Joseph O. Legaspi’s Aviary, Bestiary. Neil Aitken’s Leviathan (Hyacinth Girl, 2016). [Also,] not APIA, but pretty fabulous and we have a Salvi-Kore connection, and I love her chapbooks: Raquel Gutiérrez, Breaking up with Los Angeles (Econo Textual Objects, 2014).
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Chen Chen is the author of two chapbooks, Kissing the Sphinx (Two of Cups Press, 2016) and Set the Garden on Fire (Porkbelly Press, 2015). His full-length collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, was selected by Jericho Brown for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and will be published by BOA Editions, Ltd. in spring 2017. Visit him at chenchenwrites.com.
Margaret Rhee is the author of chapbooksYellow (Tinfish Press, 2011) andRadio Heart; or How Robots Fall out of Love(Finishing Line Press, 2015). Her literary fellowships include Kundiman, Squaw Valley, and the Kathy Acker Fellowship. She holds a PhD in ethnic and new media studies from UC Berkeley and teaches in women’s and gender studies at the University of Oregon.
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[Editors’ Note: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Susan Schultz’s name and, at Margaret Rhee’s request, to clarify Craig Santos Perez’s role as her mentor as well as a friend.]