Navigating Poetry Readings and the L.A. Food Scene: A Week in the Life of Poet Chen Chen
Author: Edit Team
April 30, 2017
“Poetry, I told my friends, is still where I feel happiest and freest […] For true creative freedom, I need forms that demand compression, restraint.”
“The Banal and the Profane” is a monthly Lambda Literary column in which we lift the veil on both the writerly life and the publishing industry. In each installment, we ask a different LGBTQ writer, or LGBT person of interest in the book industry, to guide us through a week in their lives.
This month’s “Banal and Profane” column comes to us from poet Chen Chen.
Chen Chen was born in Xiamen, China, and grew up in Massachusetts. His debut poetry collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. His work has appeared in two chapbooks and in such publications as Poetry, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Best of the Net, and The Best American Poetry. He is the recipient of fellowships from Kundiman, the Saltonstall Foundation, and Lambda Literary. He earned his BA at Hampshire College and his MFA at Syracuse University. He lives in Lubbock, Texas, where he is pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University.
It’s my birthday today. And tomorrow, I’m going to Los Angeles for two Lambda LitFest events and two solo bookstore readings. I’ll be promoting my book, my first full-length collection of poetry. Usually, my life is not this cool, so this account won’t be “representative.” I’m worried, too, about coming off a certain, annoying way. But I’ve decided that I want to document this week. To remember this: my first week of year twenty-eight, most of it in L.A.
Today, though, I was still in Lubbock, Texas. Working in an office. I’m a Managing Editor for Iron Horse, the journal that comes out of Texas Tech’s Creative Writing Program. Today Jill Patterson, the Editor in Chief, worked alongside me. Then, because it was my birthday, Jill took me out to lunch. Actually, she’s taken me out to lunch when it wasn’t my birthday. We just like going out for lunch and Jill is a very nice person. This afternoon, we went to Orlando’s, an Italian place. I ordered a giant antipasto salad and a giant potato and green chile soup. Glorious.
Then when I got home, my boyfriend Jeff surprised me with an amazing birthday dinner: ramen. Let me elaborate: ramen in homemade broth with all the fixings. I’ve been craving this. Jeff had to go to three different places across Lubbock to get all the ingredients. True love. Delicious love.
I landed in Los Angeles in the late afternoon. In LAX I ate an expensive tuna fish sandwich and drank a very expensive freshly squeezed pineapple juice. Both were good, though maybe it was just my hunger telling me that. From LAX I went directly to Chinatown, to my first Lambda LitFest event. I dragged a suitcase—more of a duffel bag on wheels—full of clothes and two backpacks: one with copies of my books to sell and the other with more copies of my books to sell plus my computer and some books by other people. One of the books was Michelle Lin’s gorgeous first book, A House Made of Water. I was thrilled that I was going to be reading with Michelle. And also with: Kazumi Chin, author of Having a Coke with Godzilla, and Shelley Wong, author of Rare Birds. The venue: the Poetic Research Bureau. Isn’t that name so perfect? Don’t we need more Poetic Research Bureaus? Everywhere? Yes and yes and yes.
The event was a celebration of first books, a celebration of queer Asian American poets. The event featured a cornucopia of Asian snacks, thanks to Michelle and Kazumi. Now I feel that one must have shrimp crackers and Pocky sticks at every literary event.
The most beautiful, cheesy thing happened when we came back from an intermission. Michelle and Kazumi asked everyone to join in singing me happy birthday. Then the two of them presented me with a box of cake pops. I took one back to my seat. I ate my cake pop while listening to Kazumi explain the next part of our event, an interactive workshop. Suddenly, tragically, a large chunk of cake pop fell to the floor. Suddenly, magically, the terrific poet and human Kenji Liu rushed to my side with a napkin, picked up the sad thing, wiped the floor.
After the event, a big flock of us flocked to a Chinese seafood restaurant around the corner. After the late-night dinner, I headed over to my friend Marcus Tran Degnan’s place, all the way over in Sawtelle. Thank you to Michelle and Kazumi for driving me all the way over to Sawtelle. Thank you to Marcus’s roommate John Dean for letting me in and making sure I was comfortable. I was still up when Marcus came back to the apartment because I was so moved by the reading and so excited to be in L.A. Marcus and I met last summer at USC for the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Writers. He is a fiction writer, a scholar, and a very funny person. I like bonding with him over people and places and things—any noun, really—that we dislike. Thank you, Marcus, for staying up another hour when it was already 2 a.m. so I could tell you things, things like how my flight had all these weird delays and then I had a ridiculously priced pineapple juice and oh my god I’m in L.A.
I woke up at 8 a.m. I couldn’t go back to sleep but I couldn’t get up, either. From the extremely comfortable living room couch, I messaged Marcus and he seemed elated that I wasn’t ready to rise. Apparently neither of us are morning people.
Eventually, we emerged from our cocoons. As sloths. As in, the rest of the day proceeded at the same utterly relaxed pace. We ate breakfast then contemplated lunch for about two hours. My ramen cravings flared up again. And basically, the main thing I wanted to do in L.A. was eat lots of good Asian food. Marcus knew just the place. We went to get ramen at Tsujita L.A. with another writer friend, Kien Lam. (I swear I’m friends with people who are not writers!) During lunch, our conversation turned to dating and romance. Kien asked me how long Jeff and I have been together. “Like, two years?”
I replied, “It’s going to be five years this fall.”
Kien congratulated me and I thought how funny it was, the things we offer congratulations for. Yes, relationships take effort, and as a queer person, meeting people I can date takes plenty of effort. Still, it’s mysterious: connecting, falling. In the middle of some truly satisfying ramen, I started to miss Jeff. I texted him a string of emojis: heart emoji, heart eyes emoji, pink squid emoji that looks like it’s dancing. Sometimes we like to see if we can have a whole conversation in emojis. Sometimes we like to say that two emojis are dating. Crab emoji and shrimp emoji, for instance. Congratulations, you two. I used to think Jeff and I were the only ones who did such complicated texting. But now I see how all people in love think they are super original, that no one else has been in love, not like this.
In the evening, Michelle and Kazumi picked me up to go to a soup dumpling place in San Gabriel. The place was called “No 1. Juicy Dumpling” and it lived up to its name. I have to thank Michelle and Kazumi again because the drive over to this restaurant took about an hour and a half. L.A. traffic!
After dumplings, Michelle mentioned wanting to get some boba tea and dessert. I nodded with great enthusiasm. Boba tea! Haven’t had it in ages. Then I was sitting with all these fellow Asian American writers and drinking boba tea and sharing mango shaved ice out of a giant bowl. I am hesitant, usually, to put Asian food and drink terms in my writing because doing so can slip into a kind of exoticism or essentialism. I am trying to find ways through this problem because there are certain foods and drinks that are deeply important to me.
Today I got to catch up with a friend from college, a friend I haven’t seen in years. The brilliant Mel Mel Sukekawa-Mooring! And of course, this catching up involved going to ramen for lunch. During ramen, Mel Mel shared their recent success breaking into the TV industry on the post-production side. They also shared a new personal writing practice: a bucket list, in the form of a little notebook they kept adding items to. Dreams, skills, places to visit, places to create.
After lunch, Mel Mel came with me to my second Lambda LitFest event, at Avenue 50 Studio. This event honored the life and work of Mark Aguhar, a femme and trans identified multimedia artist. Mark was about to complete her MFA at the University of Illinois at Chicago when she committed suicide in 2012. Mark’s powerful poem “Litanies to My Heavenly Brown Body” was read aloud by Angela Peñaredondo, one of the event organizers. This poem has become a part of my blood and dream, from “FUCK YOUR WHITENESS / FUCK YOUR BEAUTY” to “BLESSED ARE THE SISSIES / BLESSED ARE THE BOI DYKES / BLESSED ARE THE PEOPLE OF COLOR MY BELOVED KITH AND KIN / BLESSED ARE THE TRANS / BLESSED ARE THE HIGH FEMMES / BLESSED ARE THE SEX WORKERS” and this ending which begins everything: “BLESSED ARE THE BELOVED WHO I DIDN’T DESCRIBE, I COULDN’T DESCRIBE, WILL LEARN TO DESCRIBE AND RESPECT AND LOVE // AMEN.”
Hearing Mark’s work read aloud in a beautiful space full of art and artists, I felt compelled to share poems from my book that seem the most brashly queer, the most enraged and the most unapologetic and the most vulnerable (all at once). I saw and was moved by a similarly radiant boldness from the presence and the language of fellow readers. So grateful to share and open up space with Angela Peñaredondo, Muriel Leung (the other event organizer), Ching-In Chen, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, Kimberly Alidio, Michelle Lin, Kazumi Chin, and Melissa Sipin. And thank you to Mel Mel for coming to this reading and for inspiring me to be more active not just in “professional” matters but with my personal goals, too. Bucket list notebook time!
In the evening, I hopped over to Venice for my first solo bookstore reading. I was nervous, worried that no one would show up. But I also felt overjoyed to return to Beyond Baroque, where I read last year as part of a Lambda Literary Fellows’ reading. Yes, it felt strangely like a homecoming. Quentin Ring, the Assistant Director at Beyond Baroque, gave me such a warm welcome. It was thrill to see my book displayed on a table in the bookstore. Then Richard Modiano, the Director, gave me an incredibly touching introduction. I knew that Richard had liked the two poems I’d shared last summer, but I had no idea that he’d been reading my book with such care. Another heart-filling surprise: Priscilla Gee, another friend from college whom I haven’t seen in years, came to the reading. And she brought her husband. Thank you to people who bring their partners to poetry readings!
I’m staying over at another friend’s place now, Muriel Leung’s lovely place in Echo Park. Muriel is a PhD student in Creative Writing and Literature at USC and her first book of poems, Bone Confetti, is stunning—is making me fall in love with poetry anew.
In the afternoon, I grabbed lunch at a Vietnamese place with Muriel and another writer friend, Jess X. Chen. Jess is also a visual artist and dedicated activist. Over banh mi and pho, we talked about new work and working across genres or mediums. Poetry, I told my friends, is still where I feel happiest and freest, though I’ve begun to write creative nonfiction. I’m not sure why this is the case, but perhaps prose feels too expansive for me. I already have an expansive, rambling kind of voice. For true creative freedom, I need forms that demand compression, restraint.
This evening I had my second solo bookstore reading. I got nervous all over again. Will anyone show up? Which poems should I read? How can I just read poems for thirty minutes? Is it possible for me to suddenly get a lot better at stage banter? I forgot about most of these worries during an amazing Italian dinner at Osteria Mamma. Here I have to thank Donna Sprujit-Metz, the immensely kind writer who invited me to do this reading at Chevalier’s Books. Thank you, Donna, for the reading space and for the delicious dinner. Thanks also to Chevalier’s for the big display—a sign decorated in the style of my book cover, plus a whole row of my books in the window! I felt super glamorous.
I don’t know how to write this next part. This day.
This morning, I received news that one of my Intro to Creative Writing students this semester has suddenly passed away. I write passed away but my student was killed in a car accident over the weekend, the other driver charged with intoxication manslaughter. An article in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal was forwarded to me by another teacher. I read and reread the article until I couldn’t look at the words anymore. At the picture of my student. Her name was Tanya Jones. She was fifty-five years old, a military veteran and a nontraditional student majoring in English.
It feels too soon to be writing about Tanya in the past, Tanya who just before spring break wished me a good trip to Los Angeles, Tanya who asked about my writing process and who wanted to learn more about publishing creative work. She was already publishing columns in Texas Tech’s student newspaper, The Daily Toreador. In class, she asked wonderful questions and spoke her mind. She never hesitated to say whether she disliked a poem, which always led to a more exciting conversation. Other students would sit up: we can dislike something in this class?! In her own poems, Tanya was playing with traditional forms, creating unexpected rhymes. My favorite: in one poem, she rhymed the exclamation phew with the name Drew. It feels impossible that the one present tense sentence I can write about Tanya now is: She is gone. Impossible, that she is gone.
Still in bed, I texted Muriel. I told her what happened with my student. I asked if she was around. Muriel was staying at her partner’s place, having generously offered up her whole place to me. I asked if she wanted to get lunch. I couldn’t think of what else to do. I just knew I felt hungry and even though it felt absurd or somehow wrong to feel hungry—how can you feel anything else but grief!—there it was, my stomach, its ugly noise. It occurred to me that I would have to talk to my students about Tanya’s death. But how?
I met up with Muriel. We decided to go to a ramen place. Another one, yes. I laughed at that. Afterwards, we walked around Little Tokyo. We decided to get a gift for our friend Monica Sok. An amazing, courageous poet. At the Sanrio store, we found a little plush toy that said things when you pressed it. Things like, Leave me alone and I can’t and I give up. The toy said these things in the most adorably defeated voice. Tired yet defiant in its own way. Muriel and I agreed that this was the perfect gift.
Back at Muriel’s place I mentioned how I loved the way she had furnished and decorated her space. We fell into a conversation about furniture and design, about the various pronunciations of the word foyer, about queer people of color making homes, making livable spaces for ourselves.
In the evening, I headed to Santa Monica for my last L.A. “event”: an interview with Poetry.LA. Lisa Grove, my interviewer, asked lovely questions about poems from my book, poems that I don’t usually read because they don’t seem as representative of the book’s arc. But I like these poems and I liked talking about them for this interview. Thanks, Lisa. And thanks to Wayne Lindberg and Hilda Weiss, whose home recording studio we were in.
On the way back to Muriel’s place, I started to think that maybe I could talk to my students about Tanya—that I could create that space in our class for remembering her, honoring her.
Last dinner in Los Angeles: sundubu-jjigae with Muriel and Marcus. Just like last summer, at the end of the Lambda Literary Retreat. Different restaurants, though. And an early spring night, this time. What a beautiful meal, hearty and comforting and I loved the fact that there was more than one restaurant in L.A. that specialized in sundubu. Muriel said, “We’ll just have to do this at the end of every time you’re here.”
Muriel drove me to LAX. Thank you, Muriel. During the drive, we talked about Xanga and LiveJournal, those blogging platforms that had been so important to us, once. We talked about our early reasons for writing: to document daily life, daily emotions and to share vulnerably, openly, before we understood what oversharing was.
In the airport, I ate a fantastic and actually reasonably priced burger. I ate it and then it was time to board my plane. It felt like a movie scene, everything was so well-timed.
Layover in Denver. No time for any burgers.
Arrival in Lubbock. I stood up with my possessions, ready to get off the plane. Then a voice. In Mandarin Chinese. “Nǐ de màozi.” Your hat. I turned and saw a man who looked like me, pointing to my hat on the floor. I’ve lost many hats this way so was deeply grateful. But unable to say anything back. I wanted to cry. I thought again about the impending conversation with my students. I thought about how magical L.A. was. I thought about having to live in Lubbock for several more months as I finish up coursework in my PhD program. I thought about how alone I felt sometimes, as a queer Asian American living in West Texas. And I just didn’t expect someone, a total stranger, to speak to me in a language I usually only speak with family.
I walked off the plane. Jeff came to pick me up. Suddenly I was in an awful mood. I wanted to argue about everything even though I was so happy to see Jeff. Maybe I should’ve let myself cry, right there on the plane. “Nǐ de màozi.” I wasn’t ready to say anything back in Mandarin. I should’ve said, Thank you.