Setting Off Sparks With Poet Lisa Chen

Lisa Chen

Lisa Chen

By Sean Tuohy

Poet Lisa Chen guides readers through vivid landscapes filled with lively characters and weird plot lines. While reading Chen’s poetry collection “Mouth,” you’ll find yourself transported from Chinese ghost stories to tales of assassins on deadly missions by short but beautifully written sentences.

Chen agreed to sit down and talk with me about her writing process, poetry, and what she feels when she’s done writing for the day.

Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Lisa Chen: I suppose early on, as with many other writers, you write things and a few people who are not your parents tell you that have some talent, and this buoys you and you write some more. That early encouragement is important. But that moment of knowing when you want to be a writer is less interesting to me than what it means to be a writer, which isn’t easy because the criteria is writing itself.

Earlier this year there was a story in The New York Times about a painter who, after receiving some initial critical attention in the 1970s, struggled to sustain notice. He withdrew from the “art world” and vanished into obscurity. But he never stopped painting. When he died, he left behind some 400 paintings. He was an artist.

ST: What authors did you worship growing up?

LC: Stretching the notion of “worship” and “growing up:” Laurence Yep, John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury, Emily Bronte, Kafka, Emily Dickinson, Cesar Vallejo, Maxine Hong Kingston, Yasunari Kawabata, Leonard Michaels, Paul Beatty, James Salter, Chris Kraus.

ST: What was the first poem that you read that made a real connection with you?

LC: Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.” A 24-word, eight-line heavyweight of atmosphere and meaning.

An important book, development-wise: An anthology Robert Hass assigned in his undergraduate poetry workshop at UC Berkeley, Another Republic: 17 European and South American Writers, eds. Mark Strand and Charles Simic. It was my first introduction to writers like Calvino, Cortazar, Ponge, Parra.

As one gets older and becomes a more discerning reader, it’s sometimes hard to remember how influential and explosive a great anthology can be. It’s like walking off the street into a party where you don’t know anyone.

ST: As a writer what is the biggest challenge you face?

LC: The Internet.

ST: How important is it for a writer to set tone early in their writing?

LC: Hm. But doesn’t every poem/story/book have its own gravitational force when it comes to tone? It gets reset depending on the thing being made. I reflexively bristle whenever I read a review of a film or a collection of short stories in which the critic gripes about how the tone changes. Why is that a bad thing? Maybe my definition of tone is buzzing at a different frequency.

ST: For “Mouth” you pulled inspiration from your email’s spam folder. Where else do you pull inspiration from?

LC: Human behavior on subways, advertisements, news items, conversation, "On Kawara," the Chris Marker retrospective at BAM, Young Jean Lee’s approach to playwriting, Hokusai’s 100 Views of Mount Fuji, Myrtle Avenue, the commercial strip nearest where I live in Fort Greene.

One project I’m working on right now is inspired by the performance artist Tehching Hsieh whose works include spending one year punching a clock once every hour, one year spent locked in a cage, one year spent entirely outdoors, no roofs. So for one year I have been gathering “material”—both directly about his art, but also from the effect and experience of time passing in my own life. The project may all fall apart, but for now it provides a constraint and a structure to filter my corner of the universe. Certain things as I experience them in real time start vibrating and setting off sparks because they provoke the project and vice versa.

ST: What is your writing process like?

LC: A few hours of productive bliss followed by many more hours of self-loathing, doubt, not-writing. Repeat.

ST: How long does it take you to write a poem?

LC: Three hours to five years. That three hours bit is probably a lie. The moment of pure invention is usually brief, and rarely immaculate. Then comes everything else.

ST: What advice do you give to first-time writers?

LC: Read a lot, ask other people what they’re reading, experiment with form, write badly, write to people you know, be in and of the broader world. Very few people care if you write a poem or publish a book. Write anyway.

ST: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?

LC: “Lisa” is not the name I was born with. Like with many other immigrants, it was assumed I would take on an Americanized name when I moved here. My stepfather, who met my mother via Adamsville, Ala., the Vietnam War, and Taipei, drew up a shortlist of possibilities, which included “Ginger” and “Mary Ann.” I chose my name because I thought it would be easiest to remember, clocking in at four letters.

To learn more about Lisa Chen, visit her official website.