Photographs of Thinking: A Conversation with Ken Chen
part of our Emerging Poets Interview Series
by Eric Higgins
Ken Chen is the author of Juvenilia, winner of the 2009 Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition. His writing has appeared in Fence, Jubilat, Boston Review, Manoa, The Best American Essays, and elsewhere. A lawyer living in Brooklyn, he directs the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Read two poems by Ken Chen.
Eric Higgins: Let's talk about this striking, curious book you've written. There is a dramatic monologue complete with stage directions (though they appear at the poem's end), the book opens with an almost Lynchian scene of a grandfather packing his organs in a suitcase, you interweave numerous translated quotes from Confucius, and you organize the book in a tripartite structure. Which subversive manners are you trafficking in, and which subversions are you trying to subvert? And, further, are the audacity and pretense of subversion part of what the title, Juvenilia, mocks? In a roundabout fashion, maybe what I am asking here is the role of play in the book.
Ken Chen: Ornette Coleman once said, "The theme you play at the start of the number is the territory, and what comes after, which may have very little to do with it, is the adventure." I tried to be formally adventurous with the book, not because I wanted to play games but because I wanted to invent territory. I think that poems are territory-inventing objects. I was trying to record the conversations I was having with myself by inventing the most appropriate verbal shape to contain them. What was important for me at the time was to invent a new way of talking about these banal painful moments that, at the time, felt utterly unprecedented and so demanded an utterly unprecedented vehicle. I wanted to make music videos. I wanted to make people cry. Think of the various forms-the shooting script or the rhetorical argumentation-like X-ray impressions. A lot of the poems in Juvenilia are really just photographs of thinking.
I have mixed feelings about playfulness, because I think it's a process and not a destination. I am skeptical of a popular stream in contemporary American poetry where poetry aspires to self-infantilizing stand-up, one that lacks the politics and self-loathing of stand-up. I am also suspicious when poets use words like subversion, violence, or danger. These words often find themselves attached to technologies of wit and imagery designed to muffle any actual danger with a smooth, beautiful, or playful surface that is always "on," always in control, never embarrassed. There is something terrifyingly joyless about that. I think play is serious business-not because it's fun, but because if all identities are provisional in nature, if we are continually inventing new and incrementally different versions of who we are, then we are always playing.
EH: In one poem, your speaker, a microphone, remarks that "I enjoy being a microphone because I enjoy hearing the thoughts of others." That comment occurs in a dramatic monologue, but another manifestation by which we hear the thoughts of others is in the book's point of view slippages. First person slips into third person fairly frequently but unpredictably, for example. One result of these efforts is perhaps that you disorient the notion of a self, but whose notion of the self is being unmade in these moves? Are they to disorient us from a kind of too-familiar immigrant family narrative or the expected identity politics of a (nearly) first-generation American speaker? It seems the book expresses the murkier, quieter side of the anxiety of influence: the anxiety of not knowing whether one is influenced and, if so, how much. Our speaker "forgets the Chinese / he never remembered" and "Wang Wei asks Who are you? / And my Father says Decide." Is the collection arguing toward some kind of free will for shaping cultural/ethnic/generational identity?
KC: When my friend Aziz Rana read the book, he told me how he was rather astonished at how the book had become categorized as Asian American literature, since I had just been trying to write honestly about my life. I had the same surprise. I wrote most of the book prior to reading, say, Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior (another fantastical, self-subverting violator of genres!). I was more influenced by, say, Alain Resnais movies, Louis Aragon, Love and Rockets comics, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, Ingeborg Bachmann, Chekhov, the romantic voice of Raymond Chandler, and Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective. Given these influences, I could have protested my new categorization by pleading, as many writers of color have professed. I could say: “I am not actually an ethnic writer, just a writer who happens to accidentally not be white.” I understand why many writers, including many Asian American writers, take this perspective-after all, who wouldn't want to be considered on "their own merits," liberated from a pantheon of presumably awful writers?-but this is a dangerous response to take. You become complicit with conflating ethnic writing with writing that can be ignored. It's also a boring response: the most banal Asian American belief is to believe you are an exception to race.
I do think that there is something regressive and confining about ethnic identity-it's in how that identity is understood by the dominant, largely white literary center. The readers who're situated here sometimes read ethnic writers with unconscious suspicion, wary that these writers are affirmative action picks, preemptively offended sometimes that they must empathize with an experience that's not their own, and primed to tell themselves how flat and unnecessary that experience is. These readers see race as the constant subtitle beneath the words of any ethnic writer, who presumably is just writing about whatever they want. Part of the unintended joys of reading books like Woman Warrior-in which the main character turns into a mythical warrior, talks to ghosts, and has her tongue cut out-is that you see how ironic, ambivalent and dangerous they are. While my book ends with a manifesto essentially against Asian American literature, I think that this body of work is one that's already self-critical, strange, avant-gardist, unstable.
More generally, poetry is the medium par excellence for the private life, which means that the poet is only one step removed from writing a chronicle of egotism. This was troubling for me as an aspiring poet, because I spent several years of my adolescence convinced that I did not possess a self.
EH: These poems might casually evade (rather than militantly resist) a certain type of, say, New Critical reading wherein the reader's primary responsibility is to scrutinize a single poem in order to discover its underlying unity. So, what do you anticipate is the relationship of these poems to a reader? And, in a related question, are these poems better read in isolation, or does contemplating them apart from one another diminish their connectivity and perhaps their strength?
KC: The book is divided into three sections: the first focusing on my family, the second on break-ups, and the third a murkier, more illegible account of my family's history. What this framing offers is subtext. Subtext is something that New Criticism replaces with aesthetics and also the most empathetic, wise thing to notice when you're reading. I like a number of pre-theory critics, like Empson and Kermode, but New Criticism does seem politically dangerous in how it redacts, say, history, community, norms, or the majority of how people actually engage with the world. (It's actually hurt me at my job, which is another story.) Funnily enough, I think most readers are New Critics by default now but most of the exciting poets today write in a way that implicitly rejects New Criticism. I'm talking about book-length projects, process-based routines, and appropriation. I probably thought that some of the more obviously poem-like objects were intact units when I read them, but the last third of the book-which is incomprehensible and rips off Wikipedia and Herbert Giles's footnotes-is basically just me chucking New Criticism out the back of the train. I was reading sketchy, deterritorializing books like Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter, Cha's Dictee, Myung Mi Kim's Dura, and Bhanu Kapil's A Vertical Interrogation of Strangers and really admired how they forced you to read invisibly. The unit of reading became the book, not the poem. You were forced to read in the wilderness.
EH: It would seem that with such a playful engine driving these poems, it might have been mystifying to mark down any one poem as, in some sense, finalized. Did you have rules for yourself as you composed, arranged, and revised this book? Limits, boundaries, etc? What guided your decisions about when and where to stop? Writers are often asking this question, but it would seem an unusually thorny problem for these poems, written as they are in varied lengths that combine verse and prose styles.
KC: In my newer poems and my novel in progress, I have a problem. I don't know where the territory ends. I didn't have that problem with Juvenilia because I was trying to turn poetry into a sub-genre of the essay. The limits of the poems were the limits of my thought. The shape of the thought created its own limitation. Lately, I have been trying to write more sculptural, embodied pieces, and unlike in essays, I lose control. I can't confine the map to the perimeter of the idea, because I've given up on a simple single idea that would stake out the borders of the text.
EH: Though these are not overtly comic poems, frequently the collection is eye-height with a clever jokiness. I'm thinking here of the contradictions, self-interruptions, critiques of selfhood, and logic-lampooning proofs (as in "Adversarial"). Why wit? Also, do you see your particular wit as extending from other artistic or comedic traditions?
KC: I don't really know how to write poems. In the first poetry class I took, I told a friend of mine that I didn't understand what poetry was: it seemed like we were just talking about prose with line breaks and lots of crisp images. This seemed like a defect in my appreciation at the time, but more lately I've come to accept that I am simply against beauty. Beauty is fine. I say, why not have it around if it's there, but I'm suspicious of the way it freezes things in place. Juvenilia tries to replace beauty with consciousness as a value. I was curious about the melody of logic, the melody of thinking. Consider the poet Li He, who writes that "If the Gods knew desire, they too would age." This is a syllogism. At the time, I loved writing that was utterly translatable, because the idea was what was luminous, not the language. My friend Katy Lederer told me that the book is about thinking and also what is wrong with thinking. I think intelligence functions in Juvenilia as a desperate crutch, powerful but more callow and limited than a whole life.
EH: Beyond the comic, who (or what) do you think of as this book's predecessors, literary or not? Were there particular books that encouraged your shape-shifting with form or that directed you toward certain treatments of content (about say, identity)?
KC: This question made me nervous because of my anxiety with naming influences. I feel anxious because influences, especially in a camp-like practice like poetry, are a way to definitely say: “This is who I am, these are the writers who comprise my ideology.” This is also hard since I am a different person than the person who wrote my book. I think we are most influenced by the writers who have so saturated us that we forget they even exist. (In fact, I often try to force influences on me-like medievalism and philosophy of the mind-and they don't always take.) One problem I have when writing is that you often write to surprise yourself and what surprises me are things that I don't know. So without knowing it, I end up forbidding myself to use the arsenal of what I actually know. Yet what you actually know is a better plaything for your subconscious anyways, having marinated down there longer. The writings that have influenced me the most are the texts I have most forgotten.
I thought I should mention some influences that don't come out of Anglo-American poetry. First, I thought that film writing was the most noble genre of writing. You were forced to observe your own consciousness and deal with the input of the world. It would be easier for me to name favorite movies than books, since I feel you're more aware of the intactness of movies, whereas I read books more polygamously, reading them together into one mass of text. Second, I was influenced by Chinese and Japanese writers who aren't from the Tang Dynasty, that favorite dynasty for Western readers of Asian literature. I was struck by how Chinese poetics defined poetry not as a transcendent medium, but as simply regimented prose. This meant that poetry had a use value (many famous Chinese poems were essentially post-it notes) and that it could be woven in with prose. Chinese poetry in translation taught the West Imagism, but my favorite Chinese texts are the philosophical texts and the dense historical records, which lack images. Written with a ferocious efficiency, these texts possess a strange mix of the bureaucratic, the uncanny, and etiquette, such as in the Lieh-zi, where local magistrate judges adjudicate property rights in one's dreams and dueling philosophers walk through fire and solid stone.
EH: Let's talk about your documentation and extensive notations on source material, in both the Acknowledgments and within the poems themselves. In a book with such multiform manners, a book in which the dead Chinese poet Wang Wei appears as a literal ghost-cropping up as the very symbol of disembodied influence-does the collection's meticulous citation strike you as odd? Or is this citation and source-linking a counterbalancing measure that weighs down some of the collection's almost buoyant identity-making? Or maybe I'm looking at all this the wrong way, and the records are kept methodically to track, perhaps against the grain of much of the book, the influence of the past on the present.
KC: I want the reader to be able to piece the glass back together after I've administered the chisel.
Eric Higgins has poems appearing in or forthcoming from Barrow Street, Prairie Schooner, Guernica, Mid-American Review, New Ohio Review, and elsewhere. A recent Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the recipient of a Vermont Studio Center fellowship, he holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston, where he was awarded the Inprint Verlaine Prize in Poetry. (12/2012)