Honoring the Weird Fire: Poets Chen Chen and Craig Santos Perez In Conversation
On Idiosyncrasies, Poetry in Politics, and Teaching
Award-winning poets Chen Chen and Craig Santos Perez fire away in The Lifted Brow’s continuing Poets in Conversation series.
Chen Chen: What do you find most exciting right now about contemporary poetry? And: Asian/Pacific/American poetry specifically?
Craig Santos Perez: Right now, I find most exciting the renewed appreciation of poetry that engages with politics, race, gender, sexuality, community, environmentalism, and human rights. I love seeing and hearing poetry in newspapers, protests, rallies, and in the streets. I love how poetry contributes to civil society conversations. I love how important literary activism has become to many literary organizations.
Asian/Pacific/American (APA) poetries have long been engaged with these topics and with community, and I am excited by how our writers are receiving more recognition and visibility than ever before. I was excited to have edited the first ever Pacific Islander feature, and to be part of the first ever Asian American feature, in Poetry Magazine. It was inspiring to see the Asian American Literature festival come together, and to witness all the important mentorship of Kundiman. Hopefully in the coming years we will see an APA US poet laureate as well.
What do you find most exciting in the poetry world? And, with the publication of your new book, how do you see yourself and poetry contributing to, engaging with, or diverging from contemporary APA poetries?
CC: Right now, I’m obsessed with poetry podcasts. The Poetry Pharmacy, Commonplace Podcast, The Poetry Gods, Interesting People Reading Poetry—these are the podcasts I’ve been exploring lately. I’m sure there are more I need to check out. I realized over the summer that I was feeling distant from poetry because my experience of it was limited to pages and screens—a lot of reading in my head, in my own mental voice, I guess. I needed to get out of my head and hear other people reading and talking about poems again. I’ve been isolated in Lubbock, Texas, so podcasts are a lovely way—in between opportunities to travel and meet more writers in person—of getting back into the poetry conversation as it’s unfolding across the country and internationally, as well.
As for how I see myself in the realm of contemporary APA poetries, I feel very much a student, still—though I do teach APA poets in my classes and workshops. I mean ‘student’ in the sense that I want to keep in mind how much more I still need to read and learn from. I hope my book contributes to the growing conversation around how race, gender, and sexuality intersect for APA communities. I feel very lucky to be writing in a time when more and more queer APA folks are doing such groundbreaking work—Kazumi Chin, Franny Choi, Muriel Leung, Rajiv Mohabir, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Margaret Rhee, Ocean Vuong, Shelley Wong, and other rock stars.
When you’re feeling stuck or stalled as a writer, how do you get unstuck, moving again?
CP: That is a wonderful list of poet-stars indeed—what an exciting time to be an APA writer! And thanks for the podcasts. I can relate to the feeling of distance. Hawaiʻi has a vibrant literary scene, but it is difficult and expensive for me to travel to the continental United States to attend conferences, festivals, readings, etc., which I basically just don’t do anymore since moving here in 2010. Sadly, I was not able to tour for my 2014 book, nor will I be able to tour for my book coming out this year. Social media is really the only way I engage with the larger literary scene.
The main thing that stalls me as a writer is a lack of time. I struggle to balance being a full-time professor, mentoring a dozen or so graduate students, editing several anthologies, and writing scholarly articles and political essays. Plus, I have a crazy three-year-old who has way more energy than me. When my poetry starts to feel stalled, I really have to prioritize my time and give myself space to complete a poem.
Did you have moments of feeling stuck or stalled while writing (or structuring) your first book? Many of my graduate students are working on their first manuscripts—what advice would you give to them as they struggle to ready the work for submission?
CC: I struggled with ordering the poems, in particular with the first section. I just couldn’t get the pacing right; I had all these short lyric bursts and then these longer narrative landscapes, and I couldn’t get the balance I wanted. I knew the section needed to move quicker, but I didn’t see how. A last-minute suggestion from Jericho Brown (who picked the book) helped immensely: change the ending of one slightly longer poem and move it to the third section. My friend Jess Smith also had a great suggestion: place (what would become) the first poem before the first section, all on its own. Doing this also cleared up space for the first section to move quicker and the poems flowed into one another better. Now I feel like there’s an urgency that ratchets up in that first section whereas before I felt like it would sort of grind to a halt because some poems were just so dense.
So my advice to your graduate students would be: listen to your trusted readers. They will have brilliant solutions or at least they will ask you the questions you need to hear in order to move forward. Also: try a dozen different structures and see what feels right. Every manuscript is so idiosyncratic, so deeply a particular writer’s vision. Honor your idiosyncrasy, honor the weird fire of your poems. It might take a dozen tries, but it’s worth your perseverance.
What does being a political writer mean to you? Or would you phrase the term differently? What is the relationship between political action and poetry for you?
CP: Thanks for your wonderful advice, which I will share with my students. I love what you say about honoring your idiosyncrasy, the weird fire. Last semester I taught a graduate course that focused entirely on the poetry manuscript. It was great to see the students think deeply about the structures of their own (future) books.
To me, I agree with the idea that all poetry is political, especially in times when the humanities are being de-funded, and especially when written by authors from marginalized spaces. At the same time, I am interested in writing poetry that is explicitly political, and I have written on the topics of colonialism, militarism, extractive capitalism, racism, indigenous identity, citizenship, environmental injustice, climate change, food sovereignty, animal rights, and more. I am also interested in exploring and experimenting with the aesthetic possibilities of political poetry, including the documentary, the traumatized and empowered lyric, the protest poem, the historical narrative, and the subversive avant-garde.
For me, poetry and political action are intertwined. I have performed at rallies and at the United Nations, and I’ve written political articles and poetry commissioned by social justice groups. I really enjoy creating poetic spaces at political events and working with humanities councils to employ poetry as a bridge to civic discussions.
I teach courses on Political Poetry and they always include a community engagement or political action component. Outside my classrooms, I have written a few public pieces on ‘literary activism’ as a way to encourage all poets to find creative ways to engage in political movements (my favorite one is here).
What made you decide to pursue doctoral studies after your MFA? Are you willing to share with us about your coursework, area lists, and potential dissertation?
CC: First, I love how you’re thinking about and practicing the political in your writing and in your participation at activist events. That’s so great, how you’re connecting poetry and political action, bringing your voice into different spaces. I want to do more of that—read and speak out in more spaces, not just literary ones.
As for doctoral studies, I decided to go this path because I wanted more time and institutional support to keep reading and writing poetry—and to do some more scholarly work in literature. I wanted to push my knowledge in critical theory, as well, with a focus on APA poetics and politics, and the amazing work of queer writers of color. I also wanted more teaching experience—I only taught composition during my MFA and I was looking for the chance to teach creative writing and literature, too. Then there’s the creative and intellectual community of programs and departments; I wanted to stay connected to people with similar interests and goals.
My coursework has been a combination of literature classes, theory classes, pedagogy classes, and workshops. Favorite classes have been a creative non-fiction workshop with Dr. Jill Patterson—I really fell in love with the genre because of this class—and a class focused on teaching literature at the college level. I find teaching so fulfilling and energizing. The classroom is a space I used to dread and I preferred finding my own reading and way of engaging with texts and ideas… but now I’m excited every week to try to create a truly inviting and communal learning environment.
At the moment, I’m envisioning my dissertation (which is a creative manuscript plus a critical introduction) as a weird mix of prose poems and lineated poems that explore moving to West Texas; being a teacher; mourning with my partner the loss of his mother to cancer; and figuring out what my relationship with my family is, now that my parents have become more accepting of my queerness. As I type out this list of subjects, I’m realizing how deeply personal this next book is. At the same time, I think these new poems are more directly political than anything I’ve written before.
What do you find most fulfilling about teaching and working with students? Does your work as a teacher influence your writing? What writing projects are you working on now?
CP: Working with students renews my passion for poetry. I admire their curiosity and willingness to experiment. And I enjoy witnessing their growth, confidence, and accomplishment as they learn about craft, poetics, and literary theory. As I progress in my teaching career (this is my seventh year as a professor), I also have the pleasure of seeing students publish their books, complete theses and dissertations, and accept teaching positions. Students are inspiring.
Most of my poetry before I started teaching was composed in organic, projective verse—and the poems were often longer (between 5–50 pages). But since I started teaching, I have been writing more prompt based, 1–2 page poems—and these are often the same prompts that I assign my students. These poems also tend to be more accessible than the poems that appear in my books—being a teacher has perhaps influenced me to write poetry that is more easily teachable to young poets.
I am working on several projects right now. I am co-editing three anthologies: one on Micronesian literature, one on Pacific Eco-Literature, and one on Geopoetics. I am writing my next two books of poetry, one is focused entirely on my eco-poetry and the other is the fifth book in my ‘from unincorporated territory’ series. Lastly I am revising my dissertation for publication, which will hopefully become my first scholarly monograph. It seems overwhelming when I write that all out, but thankfully I am on sabbatical this year, and as long as I do a little at a time, it will all get done.
Thanks so much for this engaging conversation, Chen. It has been great to learn more about you, your work, and your aspirations. And I look forward to following you for many years to come. My last question for you: How does it feel having been long-listed for the National Book Award (Congrats!)? Will you be going on tour for your new book?
CC: It feels surreal and an enormous honor. Such good books, incredible poet-company on the long list. It was especially good to see several poets of color on the list—and recognition for early books, too. Danez Smith’s second book. Layli Long Soldier’s first book. Mai Der Vang’s first book. I’m blown away by and learning so much from these poets I get to call my contemporaries, my peers, my writing-and-fighting-alongside.
As for tour, yes. I’m in the midst of that right now. A mix of conferences, festivals, and bookstore events. Also Skype sessions with classes—do those count as part of a book tour? I love doing Skype sessions. Air travel stresses me out—not the flying part, but just the logistics of navigating airports and making sure I get to the connecting flight on time and lugging all my stuff around. Being in a new place and getting to reach new people is the wonderful part. The reading itself. And the ensuing conversations. I’ve been reminded lately of how vital poetry can be, how poetry can really activate the imagination and the capacity for deeper attention and engagement inside readers or listeners. That’s why I’m a writer: to spark and push those conversations, which are often internal ones, yes, but also happen between real live multiple humans in bookstores and libraries, community centers and rallies.
Thank you for your questions and your own responses, Craig. Your work-in-progress sounds exciting and deeply necessary. I also love that you have this linked series of poetry books. I have trouble writing individual poems that are sequences, so I really admire folks who can maintain that focus across works, while continuing to find new facets of the core subject to investigate. Looking forward to seeing your next poetry book and also that scholarly work you mentioned. Sending warm good wishes.
This interview originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #36.