Jess X. Chen is a filmmaker, multidisciplinary artist/activist and nationally-touring poet. A member of the Justseeds Artists' Cooperative, her films and artwork have been featured in the Asian American International Film Festival, the Huffington Post, the UN Human Rights Council, and the Asian Cinevision Diversity Screening at the New York Times. Her poetry has appeared in Nepantla: A Journal For Queer Poets of Color, Hyphen, the Margins, and is forthcoming in the Offing. Through art, organizing and education, she is working toward a future where migrant and indigenous youth of color see themselves in stories, whole and heroic, on the big screen, and then grow up to direct their own. You can follow and support her journey at www.jessxchen.com and @jessxchen on Instagram.
When I graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, I decided to pursue the performance of my poetry, the directing of my films, and the teaching of youth art education full time. Growing up with an immense stutter that blocked my ability to speak, and constantly being steered away from the wildness of my own imagination by family members, teachers, and mainstream expressions, I never thought this journey would be possible. Along with the father figures who have been absent from my life, I’ve been uprooted from almost every place I’ve called home, and the content of my work—queer, diasporic, and demanding of migrant and ecological justice—makes it hard for me to survive financially in this world, yet I have still found a way to pursue my art.
Through poetry, I am reminded that if my ancestors have survived their severance from a culture, and my parents still sing the folk songs of their motherland on a karaoke machine, then the human voice must hold all the resilience in the world. Through poetry I have penned my own emotional history and examined that the human body’s ability to rise again and again holds a hope beyond the logic of our rational world. When the windstorms blow me off my feet and all the starlings in the forest take flight, I shudder to discover the eye of the storm in my own words.
Support from Poets & Writers has played an important part in this journey. It has funded many of my poetry performances in noninstitutional spaces, women of color reading series and multidisciplinary writing workshops with youth of color across the country, regardless of their size. Poets & Writers tells me that these little poems, these workshops are worth several hundred dollars: enough money for a week of meals, a week of NYC rent, or a flight to visit a long-distance lover. In the grand scheme of things, this support is huge for emerging writers of color who constantly spend their first years struggling to balance multiple unrelated or semi-related jobs to make their creative work possible. Because there is no limit to the amount of times I can ask an organization to apply for my funding, Poets & Writers helps set a new standard urging the importance of compensating writers for their cultural work.
Poets & Writers recently supported a reading where I had the immense honor of opening for black woman poets, Mahogany Browne and Sonia Sanchez at BRIC Arts Media’s Stoop Series. The reading was also the unveiling of a collaborative mural in the same location cocreated by artist and best friend, Jetsonorama, and I that celebrates Sonia and Mahogany’s intergenerational black sisterhood and their radiant oral tradition. Beginning with an open mic featuring local woman poets of color, this multidisciplinary reading and mural unveiling drew an audience of over three hundred people. Most of them were people of color ranging vastly in age and style. This event is amongst the imaginings of spaces I’d dreamt of as a young girl to someday grow up and be a part of.
I’m learning that dreaming cannot sustain itself without the support of community, compensation, and loving creative spaces that each honor the diverse needs of the artist. Thank you for helping with the sustainment of my dreaming. Today, I am working toward a dream where migrant, indigenous, and LGBTQ people of color can see themselves and their own imaginations, whole and heroic on the blank page and big screen, and then grow up to write and direct their own.
You can support this dream by following my art, poetry and film projects on Instagram @jessxchen. You can also check out the work of two incredible incredible queer poets and activists of color: Kay Ulanday Barrett and Sonia Guinansaca who have both taught me so much.
Top photo: Jess X. Chen. Photo credit: Kat Waterman
Bottom photo: Sonia Sanchez and Mahogany Brown in front of a mural by Jess X. Chen and Jetsonorama. Photo credit: Jess X. Chen
Support for Readings & Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.