This is no. 77 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
1. I started to write poetry because of a secret that I had trouble sharing even with myself.
2. I continue to write poetry because, in the fifth grade, my short story about a pregnant witch living in Venice received the following peer critique: “You do know it takes nine months for the baby to grow inside the mom, not two?” I write poetry because I wish I’d responded, “You do know this is a witch baby???”
3. I knew I would always be a poet after a barely audible “goodbye” in the doorway of a tenth-floor apartment. How there was no elevator and it was the middle of summer and I had to walk down and down those stairs.
4. I wake up craving poetry because Sawako Nakayasu once said, “I work mostly in poetry because it claims to be neither fiction nor nonfiction, because it acknowledges the gap between what really was or is, and what is said about it.”1
5. Poetry because French class, Russian class. Because Mandarin and English and Hokkien at home. Because English. Because I learn and learn, then forget so much Mandarin. Because I forgot all my Hokkien2 by age seven. Poetry because my first-year advisor in college, a professor of Russian Studies, asked me why all my three-page Tolstoy responses were so late. “Go on,” she said, “give us your narrative.” Poems because I loved how her prompt was a comment on the expected form of my response. Poet because I said, “Time management’s an issue,” which really meant I wanted every paper to be about everything and I wanted Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character in Chungking Express and I wanted Takeshi Kaneshiro and was rewatching the film over and over and Googling stills.
6. In eighth grade I began writing poetry outside of school assignments because I couldn’t keep imitating Robert Frost. I kept writing poetry because it seemed no one else with a secret like this looked like me.
7. Poet because I am a failed musician. Failed painter. Failed scientist obsessed with the moon.3 Failed gymnast, though once I was very, very good at cartwheeling. Poetry because my favorite scenes in Power Rangers were when, instead of running, they all backflipped and backflipped to where the fighting would take place.
8. The violence of the state. The silence of the h in French words, like homme. How violent, many homes. To ask, “Where is home?” as if it’s ever a simple question. To say, “I have a home” as if it’s an unremarkable statement. To say “I have” in Russian, you use a genitive construction that translates to the awkward English, “At me there is.” At home the adults asked, “Why did you get an A-?” in three different languages; there were no questions about whether I would ever start hating myself for what and whom I loved.
9. I continue to read poetry because it seems every poem has a big secret at its core and I always want to know if it’s a big gay secret. Because Anna Akhmatova wrote, “Sunset in the ethereal waves: / I cannot tell if the day / is ending, or the world, or if / the secret of secrets is inside me again”4 and that seems pretty gay to me. Because Denise Levertov wrote, “Two girls discover / the secret of life / in a sudden line of / poetry”5 and that sounds definitely gay.
Because for years I had to settle for subtext and total projection.
Because when I found Justin Chin’s Bite Hard in a college library, I glanced at just one poem then added the book to my stack to check out. Because I moved it to the middle of the stack, as if hiding it from both the sky and the ground. Because I was so moved to see both “Chinese New Year” and “ex-boyfriends” in one poem. Because was it hide or protect, and do I know the difference now?
10. In English, I still have trouble with lie versus lay, which I always feel ashamed to admit, though I know English is a troublesome, troubling language that makes one want to lay down, to lie one’s body on its side till all one’s lies have tumbled out from one’s head and belly, and are lain out like one single shadow-body of a liar on the grass.
11. I started off as a fiction writer.
12. I started as a reader of fantastical literature, a writer of both fantasy and science fiction. I started on the playground, telling friends that the jungle gym was a spaceship and we’d better hurry onboard before it took off: “Danny, you’re new to the cause, like me. Amanda, you’re the chosen one, our only hope.” I couldn’t get enough of the galactic, magic, any-kind-of-epic mission; the dueling-with-lasers-or-wands journey. I acted them out, wrote them down.
Moments of poetry occurred in my stories when I stayed too long in the pocket dimension of an emotion; when I strayed too far into the magic of an image; when I mismanaged the time and leapt through the wormhole/plot-hole back to my implausible Venice and its witch baby. Poetry erupted when I couldn’t keep performing the narrative I was supposed to—that of a boy who liked Amandas, not Dannys.
13. Looking back, dueling with lasers or wands sounds definitely phallic.
14. I became a poet after my friends no longer wanted to play the games we made up. After they decided to only play games that would help them grow up. But growing up, for me, meant no longer just playing at, dancing around what I desired. And some days I wanted to grow up. And some days I wanted to die.
15. I had to Google “coming out.” I had to Google “lie vs. lay.” I had to Google “gay and Asian” and found mainly what white men had to say about bodies like mine. I had to Google “gay Asian American literature.” I had to Google “queer.” I had to Google “fag.” I had to search for one sentence with “I” that eventually I could say out loud.
16. Poems became my favorite way of telling stories because poems can tell a secret and talk about telling that secret and along the way become another secret.
17. Of course, all this can and does happen in other genres too. And when I write poems I’m drawing on aspects of fantastical fiction, autobiography, realist fiction, standup comedy, Tolstoy as much as Takeshi Kaneshiro, TV shows that got way too many seasons, and elements I don’t want to be able to name. In recent years, lots of prose poems and lyric essay–esque pieces have been showing their blocky faces to me. And very recently, a teensy spoonful of fiction. To call myself poet just makes the most sense, personally, creatively. Poet is where I feel freest to do this and that and wtf.
18. Some nights I just want to be an international sex symbol/pop star with Grammy-worthy vocal chops but still a ton of totally relatable habits, like eating bread. I envy the pop song that can end simply6 by repeating its chorus over and over, slowly fading out yet also burrowing itself into your ear.
19. A barely audible “hey” in the collapsed year. The violence of state-sanctioned language. My own unbroken, snowy silences. To ask “Where is home?” as if there is one answer. To write home in a poem, like a poem could be a home—is this happy or sad? Strange yet not uncommon, to weep with and into joy. A form of power, a kind of language: to weep and disobey silence. My favorite silence is a space for thought, is spaciousness. A wormhole named Maybe. A parallel galaxy called Another Way.
20. I continue to poet because now I have all these poet friends who’ll text me to ask what poems I’m writing and I have to start writing again so they’ll stop bugging me and I never want them to stop.
I continue to poet because I’m not satisfied with the definitions behind, the narratives around “coming out,” “lie vs. lay,” “gay and Asian,” “gay Asian American literature,” “queer,” “fag.” I am always trying to say the everything I’ve lived, am living, but I never want to feel like I’ve said it all.
For years I believed poetry was the only place where I could be all my selves, any self. I wrote, trying to answer the question, “How can a poem hold the myriad me’s and realms and loves and ferocities and shards and velocities—this whole multiverse that the life cannot, yet?” But can a poem do this? A book of poems? Is poetry a place?
I am a poet because I ask poetry to do too much, and then it does it.
1. From a working note that prefaced a set of Nakayasu’s poems published in How2.
2. Except what my parents call each other.
3. What joy! Poets! Not caring one bit how annoying we are when we go on and on about the moon!
4. “A land not mine,” translated by Jane Kenyon in From Room to Room (Alice James Books, 1978).
5. “The Secret” in O Taste and See (New Directions, 1964).
6. With the best pop music, this is no simple feat; the chorus has to be excellent.
Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), which was longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry and won the Publishing Triangle Thom Gunn Award. His work has appeared in many publications, including Poetry and the 2015 and 2019 editions of The Best American Poetry. He has received a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from Kundiman and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence.Thumbnail: Romain Gille