"About the Work" with Chen Chen
In our “About the Work” series, Olga Mexina and Tom Sokolowski ask recent contributors for insight into their writing or for current sources of inspiration. Read Chen Chen's work in SER Vol. 41.2.
While working on “snow day,” I kept returning to Jean Valentine’s stunning elegy, “Ghost Elephants” from her 2010 collection Break the Glass. On perhaps an obvious level, my elephant imagery is in conversation with hers. But on a deeper emotional level, I’m drawn again and again to the penultimate stanza of Valentine’s poem, which reads: “At first the goodbye had a lilt to it— / maybe just a couple of months— / but it was a beheading.” The visceral ways that Valentine describes loss throughout her work are incomparable. I can’t write like her. But in writing like me (what else can I do), I’ve tried to bring a similar sort of emotional structure and deepening into this poem—going from a “lilt” to a “beheading.” I hope there’s a sense in “snow day” of a speaker gradually understanding—and feeling—the enormity of his loss. Such a process means finding language that is as strange and as particular as the loss itself. Language that doesn’t erase or simplify the loss but enters into relation with it.
As for “lust ode,” I need to say how indebted I am to Sam Herschel Wein, who’s the bff with the snail goop skincare and Ren Hang photobook gift, and to Tarfia Faizullah, who’s the one who said at dinner “but what do you want / what is it that you want to do?” I’m so grateful to the people in my life who—like poems, but ultimately better than any poem—cut through the bullshit, my own bullshitting, to turn a conversation, a life (!), toward something true, which in this poem is also something hot and joyful.
CHEN CHEN is the author of two award-winning books of poetry, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency (BOA Editions, 2022) and When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017). His work appears in many publications, including Poetry and three editions of The Best American Poetry. He has received two Pushcart Prizes and fellowships from Kundiman, the National Endowment for the Arts, and United States Artists.