NEA Literature Fellowships

Chen Chen

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Chen Chen

Photo by Jess Chen

(2019 - Poetry)

"Winter"

The grackles flap dark & showy into my sleep.

I know they are only my synapses sparking pretty hallucinations but still they flaunt their rough &
            many consonants.

Kellogg’s! Lacuna! Grief counseling!

These are the sounds they like to make.

Then they ask about my mother & father, whether I’ve spoken to them lately.

In this way, they are just like my boyfriend.

I tell them my cell service is terrible, that I often think of switching, & then the company texts me,
            Thank you for being a valued member of our community!

The grackles say to speak more slowly. They are still learning human.

It starts to snow & I wish I lived alone, in Paris.

Or maybe in my parents’ house, without my parents.

My boyfriend’s mother lives in a box.

My boyfriend lives with his mother in slow, not quite stories during breakfast.

I wish I wasn’t tired of his sadness.

But I’d rather look at the snow, falling like silver confetti, another pretty thing my mind can make.

I wonder if I’d be a better person if I learned to speak bird.

The grackles say I should learn to pick up the phone.

I ask for a different assignment.

Call, the grackles say. Call back.

("Winter" was original published in Tin House)

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 and won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, the GLCA New Writers Award, the Writers’ League of Texas Book Award for Poetry, and the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. Bloodaxe Books will be publishing a UK edition in June 2019. Chen has received fellowships from Kundiman, Lambda Literary, the Saltonstall Foundation, and others. He holds an MFA from Syracuse University and a PhD from Texas Tech University. He teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence and lives with his partner, Jeff Gilbert and their pug dog, Mr. Rupert Giles.

I am thinking of this next book of poems, tentatively titled Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, as a switchboard operator, picking up and connecting calls. Raucous 2 a.m. calls. Whispered emergency calls. Calls like birds calling out, birdsong, calls from inside the house of heteronormativity, a burning house, calls from my own hands and eyes. A poem holds onto the calls of dancers fallen on a dancefloor. The poems are a sea of the still ringing. And sometimes, the poems record the dropping of a call, a failure or a refusal to pick up. Which voices do I need to pick up, listen to closer? What happens when the people or the institutions I rely on—that I call on in times of great need—are themselves struggling through calamity?

The NEA has faced threats, will continue to confront those who would rather see calls and questions and listening cease. Financial stability at this moment for me is a serious gift. The encouragement from the readers for this award—thank you. This fellowship provides major support to keep working on a second book and to live closer to where I teach. I am also beginning to plan out how I can give further support to individuals and organizations engaged in caring, life-expanding work. Poems are mighty, I believe that—so, too, are funds, shared. What happens, what must happen when things shatter? You answer my call. I, yours.