Voices of Bettering American Poetry Volume 2 – Chen Chen

Who would you have nominated for this anthology? Is there a poem you have in mind that you could link to?

Keegan Lester‘s “to the tin band that read: keegan matthew lester.” I’ve been obsessed with this poem since August, when I read it in Keegan’s magnificently titled debut collection, this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all i had so i drew itThis poem healed my heart when I very badly needed it. I was going through a lot of doubts about the poetry life. Mainly I was tired of the rigmarole of applications and submissions and panels and applications and being a “professional author.” I mean, I love sharing my work at readings and I love the beautiful conversations that can happen at conferences and festivals. When actual poetry community happens, that’s the sweetest thing. But my favorite kind of poetry community is rooted in a love of poetry rather than a love of being poets. I just never developed much of a taste or skill for small talk or the academic version, e.g. “who’s adjuncting or PhDing or fellowshipping where now?” Keegan’s poem reminded me that I’d rather talk brontosauruses and how maybe-made-up-maybe-realer-than-real dinosaurs can teach us to care for each other better. I want a rigmarole of brontosaurus care.

Oh and I also said some things about this poem on a podcast called Poetry Pharmacy.

Do you feel that your writing is assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption? Does memoir play a role in your poetry?

I don’t mind people assuming my writing is autobiographical. A lot of my writing is. The speaker is me. Or a version of me. But “me” every day is a version of me. What I mind is the assumption that the autobiographical is somehow easier, more transparent, diary stuff as though some of the most wrenching writing hasn’t come from diaries (I think immediately of Marina Tsvetaeva and Anaïs Nin). I’ve been writing more memoir/creative nonfiction and let me tell you, it is hard. Especially when you incline towards the expansive, as I do. I love poetry’s constraints and tendency toward compression. It’s like light BDSM (though maybe heavier on the M part). It’s the exact right amount of kinky tied-up, for me. What was I saying?

The autobiographical. Yes. As a queer Asian American, I’m keenly aware of the political forces, the layers of artifice, the whiffs of strategic essentialism, and the bouts of slippery fragmentation, that go into group identity formation. To say “queer Asian American” is always to say a version of “queer Asian American,” to keep multiplying and re-configuring what these terms could mean. I think of Kazim Ali’s Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities as well as Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee–the autobiographical in these works is deeply complicated, uncompromisingly stacked and subverted and personal in the strangest fire-giving way.

How do you feel about recent conversations about “literary success,” prize culture, personal brands, and the idea of “poetry business?” What are the best ways to support poets and poetry?

I’ll say this first: prizes and fellowships are extremely validating and usually come with some material value, monetary value. I don’t think we should underestimate how precious any bit of funding can be for poets.

But we should also work to compensate poets’ labor better, more regularly, more as an ordinary occurrence. Poets should not be expected to do so many readings, workshops, mentorships, random editing projects for free. Many poets are already performing nonprofit org labor and/or customer service labor and/or academic labor and/or activist labor, and so on. Writing programs need to have more honest conversations and more meaningful solutions to the often underpaid or just unpaid labor in our field–especially when it comes to graduate students, adjunct faculty, and those without academic affiliation. I think currently we rely too much on people just applying and applying and crossing their fingers for some bigger opportunity. Scarcity politics still informs too much of the po-biz; we need to keep creating our own opportunities, and collective opportunities–opportunities that are not just “here’s a room for a lonely writer to write in” (though that’s wonderful, don’t get me wrong) but also “here’s a way to move forward together.”

Can you share work from other media that either inspired or is in conversation with your piece in Bettering American?

Yes. I have watched this Perfume Genius music video for their song “Slip Away” approximately 8 million times. This song was released after I’d written my poem in the anthology, but the two feel closely in conversation, as though my piece was inspired by the music. I’m not sure how and maybe I’m just obsessed with this music video and song, but whatever. Check it out!


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 out now from BOA Editions. A Kundiman Fellow, his work has appeared in Poetry, The New York Times Magazine, Poem-a-Day, Buzzfeed, and other places. He helps edit Iron Horse and is a founding editor of Underblong. He is pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry Volume 2. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for these anthologies. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.