interview: Catherine Chen

Catherine Chen

Catherine Chen

Catherine Chen [she/her, they/them] is a poet and performer living in New York. A recipient of fellowships from Poets House, Lambda Literary, and Sundress Academy for the Arts, their work has been published in Slate, The Rumpus, Asian American Writers' Workshop, Apogee, and Nat. Brut, among others. They are the author of the forthcoming chapbook Manifesto, or: Hysteria (Big Lucks).

Catherine is a—I’m not even gonna say all that out loud. 

CC: I am a poet and an aspiring kazoo artist. 

Kazoo artist! I like that. 

CC: My godson had his first birthday last year, and we bought a bag of 12 kazoos for the kids from Target and put them in separate goodie bags. None of the kids cared for it, but I did. 

Awesome. [laughing]

CC: I think a lot about starting a 50-person kazoo cover orchestra. Just 50 people on a stage. We all come out dressed in black and have lapels and plastic kazoos. 

I would buy tickets, honestly. And be front row. 

CC: It’s like revisioning high-class art for toddlers. 

Exactly! The Kardashians would love that, and probably sponsor you. 

CC: I could probably get a lot of field trips from expensive day cares in the Tri-State Area. 

Yes, all the charter schools! If you could give your poems a physical form, what would they look like? What would their hobbies be?

CC: Oh you’re thinking of a person-form. I was thinking more like a menu at a nail salon. 

Admittedly, I was thinking of a person, but form can be anything.

CC: Okay. I like that, too, though. I think their hobbies would be bird-watching, dumpster-diving, and cricket. 

Yes, cricket! I know nothing about it but it seems cool. 

CC: I think that question brings up more questions for me because it has never occurred to me to think so consciously about the lives my poems would live. To think of a body of work not like I have all these poems & essays but like a literal human body. Where would they go? What would they do? I never thought about that. 

Yeah, it’s just a reworking [of language] because your poems are living things, but if it was the way we envision living things outside of poems, thinking of what they would do. Would you be friends with them? It’s always interesting for me to consider.  

CC: Absolutely, I’ll have to take that. 

I have some questions about Manifesto, or: Hysteria. From the first poem, “From the Edge of Space,” and throughout I was really interested in form—specifically, the inconsistency of spacing. You move from prose blocks to single lines, and back again. I’d like to talk about your relationship to form and how it informs the poems in Manifesto. 

CC: When it comes to writing, I think so much of [mine] happens in blocks and chunks and the form acts as an afterthought. I’ve always viewed that as a kind of distinct failure. [laughing] Or something that makes me not very well-versed as a poet, meaning I don’t know the history of poetic forms. Like the difference between a sonnet and sestina. There are people that can recognize a meter and rhythm of any poem, and I’ve always felt inadequate towards those things. I’ve come to view this inadequacy as a space from which I can begin. Playing with space is something that I took a lot of liberties with while structuring and editing Manifesto. Honestly, I probably would’ve been content with having the whole thing as one paragraph, but that’s just not sustainable. I even know that for myself because I have a low attention span. Essentially, it’s just a place of weakness, and I wanted to challenge myself throughout that. 

I appreciate that because a thing I’ve always admired about your work is the liberties you take. The way that your invented forms mirror the content is always really strong and necessary. Making your words match its container is a skill, and it’s cool to see you’ve mastered that skill. 

CC: Thanks! 

I wanted to talk a bit about how you move through poems. Specifically, your poem “Wildly Simple” does this movement from a kind of a reflection on salsa to an image of a hypothetical person being kidnapped for labor, so it moves into consumerism, and then the speaker ends at this residency. It’s more lyric moves than driven by any kind of narrative. I want to know where that instinct, to move like that, comes from.

CC: That’s a really good question. I think it comes from being fascinated by advertising and seeing how the market relies on what's reductive and banal to sell products. [I think] that system can be uprooted. By whom and for what ends? With that poem in particular, it’s literally about something I saw on a salsa jar but also me feeling disassociated from it, like, This can’t be something I’m actually experiencing right now. I think that’s something that a lot of people I knew at the time were dealing with because I was in Boston, part of a queer Asian-American activist community, [and] there were a lot of difficult conversations about accountability, identity, and what stakes do we have in this struggle of gentrification and police brutality and violence. I think I can now better understand that these things happen simultaneously, or in overlapping dimensions. When writing this poem I think I was struggling with [understanding] that. 

Is there an overall story you’d like to offer about Manifesto, or: Hysteria

CC: A lot of Manifesto, or: Hysteria is written out of and through my struggles with wellness. In these years [of writing it], I wasn't really inhabiting my body. I was sick and had unhealthy expectations of wellness. I loved thinking about what I would do as a ghost after death. Despite my distress that felt humbling. Incrementally, a body came into focus. 

And what is this body? What is a body’s function?

CC: Writing the queer body is speculative writing. It's about manifesting what is apparently not possible but has always persisted. The process of making something manifest is a suspect act, and I'm distrustful of my own speculative writing because it feels freeing up until the moment I realize what I am doing. It's a terrifying moment of realizing in horror that I have tried to negotiate my psychosis in a poem. Like who do I think I am! I could be gardening, or sleeping, or watching The Tudors.

Every poem is a negotiation of self, the lyric I. In my understanding, the lyric I feels very far away from who I actually am and the poem is the lyric attempt to process this distance. Do I approach this self? Do I leave it alone? Do we awkwardly ignore each other? A poem offers a model for reconciling distance and tension in ways that I see as generative. I guess the ideal outcome is resolution but the reality is really just a rearranged stasis: a different space, though to the undiscerning or exotic eye it's absolutely the same. Maybe the only change is psychic, or it's dust gathering, but I can register a shift. Change is perplexing for the limited imagination. It reminds me of a time when an older white male professor and I were discussing a Hemingway short story about a woman who leaves a man for a woman. Totally unprompted, he asked me, "Why would she do something like this? Would you ever do something like this? Tell me, have you ever left a man for another woman?"

As a poet, how do you communicate this?

CC: I'm trying, but I do also enjoy the pleasures of remaining difficult. By being difficult, I mean: I love cultivating a literary authority that insists you will not learn anything about me through my writing, you will not trust the multitude of selves made visible in every written and unwritten poem. This in my practice makes poetry exciting and problematic.

Interview by Nia KB.
Photography courtesy of the author.

Read an excerpt from “Cyborg Love Affair” by Catherine Chen