Ken Chen

Monday, October 4, 2010


Ken Chen

Ken Chen

Ken Chen is the 2009 recipient of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, the oldest annual literary award in the United States. His debut poetry collection Juvenilia, which will come out in April 2010, was selected by Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Gluck.

A graduate of Yale Law School, Mr. Chen abandoned a promising career at a Wall Street law firm to become the Executive Director of The Asian American Writers’ Workshop (, the most prominent literary arts nonprofit in support of Asian American literature. Most recently, he curated PAGE TURNER, a two-day Brooklyn literary festival that featured more than forty writers, including Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Ondaatje, and David Henry Hwang.

While an attorney, Mr. Chen successfully represented the asylum claim of a Guinean teenager who had been detained by the Department of Homeland Security. The case was named one of the top ten most significant pro bono cases of 2007 by American Lawyer and profiled by The New York Post, Essence, and The New York Times.

His work has been published in Best American Essays 2006 and was recently recognized in Best American Essays 2007. His work is published or forthcoming in The Boston Review of Books, The Yale Anthology of American Poetry, Fence, Jubilat, Film International, C-Theory, Radical Society, and Art Asia Pacific.

Mr. Chen started Satellite: The Berkeley Magazine of News + Culture and also helped found Arts & Letters Daily, a cultural website described by The New York Times as “required reading for the global intelligentsia” and called the “best website in the world” by the Guardian. Mr. Chen has been featured in World Journal, the most prominent international Chinese language newspaper, and China Crosstalk TV. His work on Asia and Asian American affairs has been published in The Boston Review of Books, Manoa, The Kyoto Journal and nationally syndicated Asian American PBS show Pacific Time.

Interviewed by Sara Goudarzi

/One/: It seems like you started out with creative writing and moved to practicing law and then back to creative writing. Can you talk about these transitions?

Ken Chen: That’s right. When I was in college, I took a lot of creative writing courses, with Ishmael Reed and Bob Hass and other writers, so I think as a young writer I had this sensation of being able to walk around and constantly think about poetry and ideas. A lot of times when you have a creative project, that’s sort of like following a scent around a corner; it’s not necessarily an intellectual process. You can kind of smell an idea and you can just keep that smell, that scent, in your life. Most writing, I think, happens when you’re walking around. It’s not when you’re sitting around. But I think being a lawyer was a really weird experience– I think this is a good thing, but when I say it people say it’s a bad thing—because it kind of crushed my spirit. The reason why that’s a good thing is because I think that a lot of times when you’re a writer, writing can make you a smaller person. You can often feel neurotic or have a constant sense of guilt that you’re not writing. There was a time when I was a lawyer where I was working seven days. I could have that thought riding through my head or that scent that was around the corner and not feel guilty about not writing. It really changed my relationship to writing.

I basically stopped being a writer. And even now, I am really not sure I am a writer. In some ways it’s a lot harder to be the director of an arts non-profit than to be a lawyer. I have no resources. When I was a lawyer, I had like six to nine paralegals that could do whatever I wanted. At the workshop I’m often the one picking up the trash, or painting the floor or whatever, so in a way my job has made me much more type A and I’m often just trying to get things done. I think when you’re doing creative work you have to have more of a blasé mind, like a mental luxury where you’re not trying to shoot directly towards a goal.

/One/: So in a way being a lawyer made it easier.

KC: I basically stopped writing when I was a lawyer, but there are ways where being a lawyer influenced my writing. Before I had been a lot more committed to a kind of lyricism. But I really like writing sometimes that’s not very interesting, or that’s trash, or writing where the language is not interesting but the ideas are interesting. You probably read poetry in translation, or writing in translation, and often times there is a translation style where there is no body of language, it’s just all content. In that sense, sometimes I really like that kind of writing. I think maybe parts of my book are like that – but not all of it.

/One/: How’d the transitions affect the book?

KC: The book is strange because some of it was from when I was an undergraduate, some of it from when I was a law student, some of it I wrote when I was a lawyer and some was just from last summer. But I rewrote the book several times before it was published.

/One/: Do you do a lot of rewriting of your work?

KC: I don’t generally. But I was really lucky to work with Louise Glück on this project. Working with her helped me look at rewriting as a form of creativity that’s reactionary in a good way. I think it is very hard to just spontaneously generate something. Often the difficulty is finding a topic, not in actually doing the writing. But if you just try something on a page, then you can recreate it in a reacting instant. There’s this one piece called “Type A novel” and it’s not something that existed before I worked with Louise. It’s a combination of four different poems but it’s one I actually really like. I feel like I can’t really see the joints. I feel like it’s a real piece.

/One/: How did you get to work with her?

KC: She’s been judging the prize [The Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition] for a long time. She has shown a lot of generosity and willingness to help edit the book. She’s sort of like the ideal reader, so for many of the writers who have won the prize she’s shaped the manuscript in a way that, I think, brings out more of the essence of the writer, as opposed to controlling it. But I think what that does is make it so she can pick writers who are more weird because they will often have a kind of a vitality or strangeness but surrounded by things that don’t quite work. As a result she can pick that and help shape it, as opposed to picking something that is sort of less risky. So actually the way to think about it is, it’s like a venture capitalist fund: she can make high-risk, high-return decisions, whereas most poetry things are kind of low risk.

/One/: It is interesting to me, because you write essay and you write fiction, and you’re working on a novel, or were working on a novel, but your book is poetry. I am curious to know what you consider yourself: poet, writer, essayist, or novelist?

KC: It’s funny, I noticed in running the AAWW [Asian-American Writers Workshop], the word “writer” is very policed. When I came in I was like, “Let’s bring in anthropologists, let’s bring in journalists, let’s bring in screenwriters.” But they’d come in and be like, “Well, I am not really a writer. I just write like five books a year about anthropology.” It was like they were ashamed to be called a writer. And I think poetry is a shady word. Everybody is embarrassed to be called a poet, but at the same time it has kind of like, kitsch. You’re basically saying you’re a poor snob when you say you’re a poet.

Before this book, I did not have much success with poetry. My greatest successes actually came through essays. I was in Best American Essays and I’d been working on a novel for a decade. But I see them all as a very similar enterprise. I sometimes spend a lot more time on the essay—for example I would rewrite the whole thing—than I would on a poem. I don’t think the genre divisions are really comfortable. I think what’s interesting for me is that I kind of feel like the book has kind of a lot of, it looks like from the outside that there’s a lot of formal variety because some forms are like essays, some like stories, but I think they’re just all attempts to find a vehicle that’s appropriate for the way of thinking at that particular moment.

At the end of the day I am probably a poet but I am not really that interested in a lot of things that poets are interested in, like beauty. I think poetry for most people is about delegating certain emotions that have to do with perceiving beauty.

If you clock in my hours, most of my writing has been fiction but I have generally not published any fiction and don’t think anyone will ever view me as a fiction writer. I am in a secret writing group, with well-known poets who are secretly writing prose. And when I am in the group, I would notice that that I am always thinking about how to make things more dynamic. For example, a typical mainstream poem could be going on about the world but the result is you can’t have any kind of dynamism in the narrative because the person is not reacting against another person, for example. I feel like a lot of my stuff is set up, there’s a dynamic. People are talking to each other.

/One/: Did you grow up reading poetry?

KC: No. I remember like in second grade I read this poem about a caveman and I thought it was really cool. That was all the poetry exposure I had until I was maybe seventeen. But I think even then I kind of really never got the point of poetry. I think if you read the Western Canon or something, a lot of it is people talking about how beautiful flowers are. I think there’s a weird disconnect because it’s presented in this academic context, right? It’s all about intellectualism. Somebody is talking about how pretty a nightingale is; it’s not a disembodied mental experience. So you’re a little bit like, “Oh, how do I process this?”

/One/: Have you formally studied poetry? There are poets that learn the theory behind it all and ones who are just born with something.

KC: Well I think I am a bad student and a good autodidact, and so I have read a lot of stuff on my own. I was an English major so I took all the Milton kind of stuff. I guess I would say that I’m both more traditional and more experimental than you would think. There are a lot of great books about meter I think a lot of poets my age don’t really read. I like a lot of obscure English poets like Emma Webster. But at the same time most of what I read these days, aside from work, is experimental poetry.

/One/: Who are some of your favorite poets?

KC: That is a hard question because you don’t want to turn your dreams into a reading list. But I can say, I used to really like writers who were writing at the top of consciousness, like Eliot’s essays, because you can feel him thinking at you. It’s this weird experience because you’re inside his mind, but lately the writers I’ve liked are writers who are writing at the bottom of consciousness, where it’s almost before language. It’s not so much about the rational mind. I just read “Veronica” by Mary Gaitskill and it’s totally incredible. It’s as though the body wrote the novel instead of the narrator. It’s sort of about being, what it means to be. But it’s all tawdry and about sex and prostitutes and such. And I really like Henry Greene. He kind of invented this sort of caveman dialect. It’s actually based partly on Arabic syntax and he takes out all these modifiers and words like “the” so it’s sort of like looking at walls written by a caveman or something. And this Irish poet Maeve Binchy who sort of writes weird dreamy things I can’t figure out. These poets are almost like prose writers who are writing the form, the body.

/One/: I know you were born here, I think your parents were immigrants. Did you grow up learning another language or were you always speaking English?

KC: Chinese is actually my first language but I’ve forgotten it all.

/One/: I was wondering how it might influence your writing in English. It probably still influences you.

KC: Well, it’s a weird thing to have a relationship to something you’ve forgotten.

/One/: But something’s there I think – something must be there – in there. It’s a weird thing – but I guess for you it’s not a conscious thing even if it’s there.

KC: Well when I did the reading at Triptych, the co-curator Kaveh [Bassiri] commented on Louise Glück’s intro where she says that the book is a little bit about immigration. He said something like – it’s not really about being an immigrant, it’s about being the children of immigrants. And he said, he, as an immigrant, could never take the liberties of language that Ken does because Ken deliberately uses bad English such as using the language of a Christian Russian immigrant or fake Chinese. I thought that was very moving because Kaveh was saying that as an immigrant, he feels like he’s constantly forced to show that he can speak proper English and you know he’s policing himself, disciplining his own language.

I think it’s very hard to figure out what parts of you come from where. But then I feel a little bit weirded out when I read reviews of the book and they say, “Oh, you know, he does this sort of thing because that’s sort of what classical Chinese poetry is like, etc…” It’s this weird kind of overly determinative placing of me because I am not really a Chinese poet, you know. I’m writing out of the Western tradition.

/One/: Did you do this purposely or do you think people read too much into the work?

KC: Well I mean I think I’m unfair because I quote all these Chinese poets so it’s not as though I’m presenting myself as George Herbert or something. But on the other hand, I don’t read classical Chinese poetry so its not as though that’s my métier. And even if I were to make a list of Chinese writings, I think Chinese poetry would be lower than certain other Chinese writings. So it’s just weird to have someone else contextualize you for you.

/One/: Hmm, that’s what  reviewers do. Do you think that the gig at the Asian-American  Writer’s Workshop  and the contact with all these writers and creatives is helping you?

KC: I think the problem is that workshop ends up becoming creative acts.  Like the creativity I would put into a poem or a story goes into the programming of the workshop. So we do a lot of things that are really creative, for example we just had a book party for Monique Truong’s second novel. She was on the cover of Poets & Writers and we had a feature film actress read the parts for the book. We also gave out miracle berries—berries that rewire your taste buds so everything tastes sweet. Vinegar tastes like Riesling and hot sauce tastes like Moet.  So, we try to do a lot of things that change the idea of what a literary event can be.

The programming, curating, becomes its own art form. But I need to create my own space because I can’t think and the writing I do right now is less thoughtful.

/One/: Do you have any thoughts on challenges that poets face today and do you think that digital media has changed the form of poetry?

KC: I think the main challenges that most writers face are financial. It’s very hard to write and have a job at the same time. I think the problem with poetry is that there’s a surplus of poetry and there’s a lack of demand. One of the most depressing literary experiences I ever had was walking into the small press distribution warehouse in San Francisco, or is it Berkeley, and just seeing rows and rows of poetry books that no one will ever read.

The other thing that strikes me is that when I talk with students who are out of MFA programs, I feel this sort of weird careerism about poetry. It’s sort of like there’s a different level going on where poets I see are almost like technocrats of poetry. I feel like I go to a lot of poetry readings and people don’t even talk about the work; it’s like a social scene. I mean I feel like the poetry scene is kind of nepotistic. I guess these are kind of like structural, economic, social problems that I think effect the kind of work that’s being produced.

/One/: Do you think that’s any different than 50 years ago? Financial problems and all that?

KC: It’s notable that a lot of the writers we remember from the past are the people who were wealthy. A lot of language poets actually, I think, come from money. I think 50 years ago there wasn’t this way where poetry could be a full-time job. And the field was much smaller. Poetry wasn’t a vocation, you know? I feel like MFAs are like a bubble, like the dot-com bubble or the housing bubble.

I used to be really interested in new media. I grew up in Silicon Valley. One of the first pieces of writing I published was actually a journal article about how computers can change the way we tell stories. I helped do this weird narrative computer game art project that was at one of the first digital art conferences. But I’m a little bit skeptical about how technology will change poetry. I think that the ways technology will influence poetry are often different than what you think it will be. I just joined a group blog called Montevideo and I was obsessed with blogs five years ago. I used to read blogs all the time and there are a lot of poetry people who write blogs. I think I’ve realized… I think the blog is not a new form. It’s people wanting to make a magazine online on their own and I think that in 50 years people will be like “What were these weird blogging things?” and people will be like “Oh that’s where people discovered these other ways of conveying information online. It was this obsolete form because they didn’t know what the internet was yet so they wrote essays and threw them online.” But blogs really shouldn’t be like essays. I only wanted blogs that were like essays but that was just my dinosaur nature. Tumblr even Twitter, I don’t really like these forms, but I feel like they’re much more new. There’s a different type of engagement.

I mean if you think about it, we had a new issue of Entertainment Weekly or Us Magazine and it has words being put on pictures, juxtaposed, on every single page, and you know if a poet did that, it would be considered daring. It’s not as though technological capabilities change the way we imagine. You would think that the Internet effecting poetry would be like through hypertext writing, but that kind of started more than a decade ago and it didn’t really take off. A writer who really got a lot out of the internet is Tao Lin. He kind of used his blog as kind of like an incredible self-promotion tool.

/One/: What would be your dream masterpiece project, if you were to have one? Would you want it to be the great American Novel or would you want it to be a beautiful book of essays?

KC: That’s a very good question. My problem is I have a bunch of projects in my head but I just don’t have the time to do them. I’ve been working on this novel for like a billion years so I’ll probably never finish it. I have four different book projects in my head. I guess people reading this on the internet won’t plagiarize any of these projects [laughs] but for one, I want to write a massive globalization novel that will take place in a law firm, and it’ll be all about class. I want to write a pan-Asian novel where every character is a different ethnicity.

Another project I want to do is some kind of essay collection, idiosyncratic essays like Geoff Dyer and Sebald who write unconventional essays. I think I’m really an essayist at the end of the day and I think there’s some kind of project I’m meant to do that is a series of books that are just sort of weird essays. That’s actually what I tried to do the other day at that blog Montevideo. I also want to do a collection of reviews on kind of cool things, and I want to do a book of introductions at the Workshop because they end up being kind of like mini-essays. It could be like a guide to contemporary Asian-American literature. And I want to do a book about comic books.

/One/: You’d better get going–you’ve got a lot of work! If you were to pick one, one that you absolutely had to do, which would it be?

KC: Well I think hopefully I’ll have a body of work when I die, and if I do, the majority of it will be weird essays that are not expository writing, not about a topic. They’re just sort of like this other form. I don’t know how to name it because there aren’t a lot of people who do it.

/One/: Is there anything else you want to ask yourself?

KC: “Who are you?” [laughs] I guess not.

/One/: OK, we’ll stop then.

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