The Landing: An Interview Series seeks to gain insight into the diverse creative processes of some of our favorite writers with the hopes that we can inspire others through this sharing. Each quarter we will highlight one previously published poem in a short interview.
CHEN CHEN is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and forthcoming spring 2017 from BOA Editions, Ltd. His poems have recently appeared in Raleigh Review, The Poetry Review (UK), the PBS Newshour weekly poem feature, and the Political Punch anthology. Visit him at chenchenwrites.com.
Poem: "The Sea Is a Secret Net for the Bogeyman's Feelings" by Chen Chen, published in Leopard Skin & Limes.
Why was it important for you to speak for the bogeyman and what, if anything, does this poem seek to reclaim?
My partner Jeff and I have a running joke or jokey argument about the bogeyman—I like to claim that he’s really alright and just wants to have us over for brunch or something; Jeff refuses to believe in the bogeyman’s goodness. So, the poem tries to make the bogeyman a sympathetic figure, someone you might want to have brunch with. This bogeyman is old and retired and meditative in a melancholic way. But also, smart and experienced and glad that he’s retired. He’s not necessarily “good” but sort of ordinary. With his quirks and charms. The bogeyman, historically, is a rather vague figure of terror. Very generalized so that parents can make him up as they go along and children can imagine the worst. I wanted to make him particular and ambivalent, somewhere between brunch guest and fantastical creature. But also, I started writing the poem mainly because I had those first two lines, or some variation, stuck in my head.
The bogeyman is often viewed as a type of parental enforcer, a tactic used to scare children into behaving. Your poem “Tale of the Heart & Knife” asks of parents, “You talk about them so tenderly... How do you do that?” The same could be asked about the bogeyman. How do you make a person out of the monster?
So, I’ve answered some of this in the first question. But I think that people are many things at once, or certainly, different to different people, different at different times. Parents can be monstrous. Children, too. Everyone can tap into a monstrosity deep inside, or not so deep, not so inside. Tenderness works similarly. I try, first in single poems and then in collections, to ask the monstrous and the tender to sit together. Sometimes they don’t want to sit. They stand and yell. They talk past each other. They pretend to check their phones for texts. I let them. I scold them. I pretend to check my phone for texts. It’s an ethical act, though—or I try to act ethically in the poems, by letting in parents, bogeymen, children, hearts. I give them space. I give them knives, sometimes. And hope that they cut tomatoes, mozzarella, fresh basil.
I imagine there are many more things you could have chosen to say about the bogeyman. How did you go about deciding what to say, what not to say, and how to title the poem?
I limited the poem to fourteen lines. I don’t think this necessarily makes the poem a sonnet. If other people want to call it that, that’s cool. Fourteen lines just felt like the right length. For talking about this bogeyman. For repeating the word “bogeyman” as many times as I do. So, yes, I cut some lines and phrases. As for the title, I wanted that to lead into the first line in a very clear way—the parallel structure, there. Sea – sky, secret – hidden, net – pocket, feelings – philosophy. Still, I always try to think: anything could appear in this poem. Anyone could show up, with a crate of oranges or a big ol’ planet.
In your recent interview on the blog Writing like an Asian you state that, “Dissonance is important to me. Contradiction, paradox, seeing multiple things to be true at once.” What advice do you have for those who seek to create poetry with dissonance in unexpected places?
Read old drafts, old journal entries. Look at that former self of yours. And who you are now. Read any two statements by Donald Trump. Fall into a puddle. Fall in love. Write a poem from the perspective of your vestigial tail. Tell the truth. Tell the truth. Tell the truth. Walk around your current neighborhood. Take mental notes, dream notes. As a teacher of mine says, examine what silences you’re loyal to. Read Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Hello, the Roses. Ask your appendix why it exists. If you’ve had it removed, ask your ghost appendix about the future.
Take the last word of each response I’ve given here and use them, your own way, in a poem: head, basil, planet, future.
Interview by Rhiannon Thorne.
Read more The Landing: An Interview Series