Art Works Blog

Art Talk with NEA Literature Fellow Ken Chen

"Unlike most poets, I do not teach at a university, possess an MFA, or even spend very much of my time talking about poetry." --- Ken Chen

Author, attorney, translator, executive director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW), and a 2013 NEA Creative Writing Fellow, Ken Chen takes the term “well-rounded” to new heights. He’s a modern-day Renaissance man, balancing his life as a writer with his leadership of a national not-for-profit arts organization. Ken’s first collection of poems, Juvenilia (Yale University Press, 2010), received Honorable Mention in Poetry at both the 2010 Los Angeles Book Festival and the 2011 New York Book Festival. His work has  been published in the Boston Review of Books, Manoa, and Field, among other magazines, and he is the 2009 winner of the annual Yale Younger Poets competition judged by Louise Glück. We spoke with Ken about his writing life and his work at AAWW.

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement or experience with the arts?

KEN CHEN: Private memories are the opposite of public monuments in that we don’t know quite when they start. What I can say is that when I was in elementary school, I founded a secret society, which was rather unimaginatively called S.E.C.R.E.T., an acronym that changed every few days if you were in the secret. This was about the same time that I wanted to be an actor, but realized this would be an impossibility: I bit my fingernails and knew that a close-up would spell the end of my dramatic career.

I think as a child I had intuited that one could only be interested in an artwork if one saw a commercial for it on TV. Less important than my earliest exposure to the arts, I think, was my earliest exposure to subcultures that seemed stranger, less comfortable than the suburban area I grew up in, spaces that disabused me of this bias. Sometimes one’s ability to imagine a scene or a community or an alternative way of living one’s life can be more important than experiencing great art. What affected me more than innumerable field trips to the community theater were things like A Wrinkle in Time (the local science fiction and comic book nerd headquarters), Stacey’s Books (seemingly the one bookstore in my childhood that actually had author events), the bootleg Chinese VHS rental store next to Tin Tin Grocery, and the slightly seedy guy who sold me alternative comics at the De Anza flea market.

NEA: What's your version of the artist's life?

CHEN: I don’t like terms like “the artist’s life” because they impute a sacral aura around the role of the artist, who is as you say merely (or as great as) another worker. I would say that my version of the artist life differs from others in that as I grow older, I am becoming a cantankerous primitive and more and more suspicious of the idea of the artist or of art as a special domain untouched by politics. To put in a more positive way: what I value about the life of the artist is the transformation of certain psychologically unruly qualities (say, misanthropy, iconoclasm, melancholia) into something simultaneously smaller and more heroic, whatever that means. I believe an artist must be politically oppositional in a context where it’s not clear what that means and countercultural in a milieu when most non-commercial art is irrelevant to the general culture.

NEA: You're an attorney and a poet---how do those two practices inform each other, if at all?

CHEN: Becoming a lawyer was one of many experiences in my life that were broadly negative for my writing, but ended up helping it. Law is, in many ways, a scholarly, text-based field that’s all about reading and writing, but law is like anti-matter for poetry. Poetry is all shape; law is pure persuasive information, brute geometric argument. Law taught me how to write not like a poet, which was helpful for a number of reasons---one of them being that I had been trying to learn how to write a poetry of analytical reason, a poetry influenced by analytic philosophy and the LSAT.

NEA: When and how did you begin writing and have you always written poetry?

CHEN: I didn’t grow up in a house with poetry and what really engaged my interest was an English class in my senior year of high school and then writing workshops in college. I didn’t always understand why (or if) a poem was beautiful, but it seemed clear that poems were stranger and more emotionally charged than anything else we read in school. Possibly the most important poetry reading experience in my life was spending an anti-social summer in a youth program in Taiwan, with only [photocopied] pages of "The Waste Land" and a Doctor Who novelization to read. I wrote a lot of poems when I was eighteen and I think it was a way of trying to find out how I felt about the most important things of my life without actually realizing what I was doing. I don’t know why I write poetry now.

NEA: Can you talk about your influences, not just in terms of specific authors but also specific works, whether they're works of literature or other disciplines?

CHEN: I sometimes feel like I’m the poet I know who’s least influenced by poetry.

NEA: Not only do you write and practice law, you're also the Executive Director of the Asian American Writers' Workshop in New York City. How do you balance these distinct roles?

CHEN: Running the Asian American Writers’ Workshop has been a disastrous miracle. It’s changed my life, but because it has been my primary creative project, it’s often meant that much of my creative energy doesn’t feel like it goes where it should, into my writing. But what I do write is quite different than had I not run the Workshop. Unlike most poets, I do not teach at a university, possess an MFA, or even spend very much of my time talking about poetry. I am often put in spaces where I have very little in common with those around me, doing things that I sometimes would rather not do. I’ve had less time to write, but I think it’s made me a richer person. I’ve visited the concentration camps for immigrants at the Arizona border, curated a few literary festivals with panelists talking about an alternate racial history of the ‘90s or the post-9/11 security state, and built three magazines trying to build the future of Asian and immigrant intellectual culture. So, unlike many poets (such as John Ashbery, who writes that poetry is its own subject matter), I have begun to believe in the primacy of subject matter.

My work as executive director of the Workshop has also made me more aware of the smallness of poetry in comparison to, say, the novel, though I’ve met a number of important people who do not read novels and have not heard of, say, the Pulitzer Prize. As a result, I don’t think that I accord poetry as much importance as I used to, whether as a vulnerable signifier of my true self (!) and see it as just another, rather miniscule power structure. I think that this marginality is great and that poets should embrace it and become verbal free jazz artists.

NEA: The manuscript you submitted for your grant application incorporated photographs. Do you often use visual art in your work, and can you speak to the relationship between text and image in your poetry?

CHEN: I wrote that piece after joining the march that sprung up when Occupy Wall Street was evicted from Zuccotti Park. I took about a thousand mostly bad photographs and thought the “badness” of the images really captured what it was like to be there (e.g., you’re mostly staring at the back of someone else’s head). I’ve always been interested in visual arts---I wrote my undergrad thesis on comic books and almost became a graphic designer---but what interests me about them isn’t specifically the visual, but the synthetic way in which text and image collage together. In this respect, the image might just be another word spoken in a different register.

NEA: Your work also focuses on the immigrant experience and the politics of that experience. Do you see your poems as primarily political?

CHEN: I spend a lot of time thinking about what it would mean for a poem to be political, which increasingly seems like the wrong question to ask since, among other reasons: 1) our idea of what is political is limited to electoral politics; 2) art is explicitly defined as that which has no utility, something double-true in our age of mass commercial culture; 3) our cultural discourse de-legitimates “political poetry” the same way as it does “ethnic poetry” and imagines both as shorthand for a virtuous ghetto devoted to virtuous opinions; and 4) our culture is centered on the private, rather than the social or political spheres.

Many of the poems in my first book are very internal, so it has been a struggle for me to wonder what a more obviously political version of my poetry would look like. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I suspect that writing as if I had always been a socially or politically situated subject---rather than the disembodied voice of most poetry (whether the voice of edified introspection or “witty” stand-up comedy)---is a start.

NEA: Do you have a writing routine---a specific space or time where you sit down to work? Again, I’m curious about the balance in your life---how do you find the margin to write?

CHEN: I mostly don’t, which leads to an emotion that many writers feel---self-loathing. My most successful routine this year has been to wake up early and write and then to sketch out notes for what I want to write the next day (say, bullet points) while I’m on the subway. Because I’m on the subway, I have no room to edit or to deploy the masterful resources of the word processor and the Internet and am forced to dream, while also dodging people’s elbows.

NEA: At the NEA we say "Art Works," meaning the work of the art itself, the transformative way arts work on individuals and communities, and the fact that artists are indeed workers. What does that phrase mean to you?

CHEN: Artists are certainly workers and the reverse is often true, that many workers are artists without realizing it. We recently published a story on the AAWW magazine Open City about a dumpling maker in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. His shop has been written up extensively in Chowhound and other bourgeois foodie outlets, but it turns out, he wasn’t aware at all. He was too busy clocking in twelve hours a day in the kitchen. Additionally, what often bothers me is that artists are workers and many of them often share the same social formation (for example, adjuncting at universities or receiving grants). I can’t help but think that the silo-ed nature of artist labor will produce a narrower range of art. As Linh Dinh once told me at an event we held for him, if you want to improve as a writer, you should try to go places where you feel very uncomfortable.



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