“Why can’t you see me? Why can’t I stop needing you to see me?” Chen Chen asks in “Nature Poem” in the third portion of his 2017 debut poetry collection. When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities is both a demand to be seen & an exercise in imagination. His poems range from playfully political to severely surreal. Woven with philosophical undertones, both embracing them & turning them inside out, Chen Chen explores what it means to be human, what it means to be alone in the world, in one’s body, in a room where the quiet outweighs silence.
Present in the midst of playfulness is a responsibility to his intersecting identities: that of an immigrant, that of a Chinese-American, that of a poet, that of a queer man, that of a descendant of wordsmiths & thinkers. In his poem “Talented Human Beings,” Chen Chen laments the disparity of grief between Asian persons & their American counterparts, recounting how he vowed to only to masturbate to a Japanese porn actor Koh Masaki, although he “felt conflicted, listening to relatives in China/ lament the popularity of Japanese cars. But Chinese porn wasn’t as good.” These concerns return for Chen Chen as a need to not only be seen in death but also in life, combating the ignorance of westerns about the lives of anyone not a next-door neighbor, anyone not white & rich. Chen Chen seeks to stoke both care & anger in the face of these tragedies, mourning how western philosophy “keeps your rage room temperature.”
But Chen Chen too is a sponsor of joy. In so many scenes, Chen Chen explores with childlike wonder how happiness might blossom, as in when he and his boyfriend visit the leaky faucet factory on a date, an image I cannot describe any other way than fun. Because for all their intellectual and linguistic turns, for all their political & cultural investigations, Chen Chen’s poems are fun, joyful even when tinged with sorrow. He speaks of the strange comfort of losing oneself in a good book & the sad plight of the not-as-famous-as-its-cousin-the-llama guanacos he glimpses in the zoo, and whether Chen Chen is penning an elegy or ode, there are always more ways to be together than to be lonely.
Chen Chen hopes, through both love and religion, through grief and family, that there might exist still in this world magic. “Believe the facts could be/ at least a little wrong. Please, something. Some/ magic, real as as this ripe life with him.”
“Art is craft, not inspiration.” —Stephen Sondheim
“Sometimes you’re writing to learn how to write a book.” -Julia Fierro
Somewhere in the center of a dark forest stands a cauldron bubbling with black-tar potion. Magic-muse juice percolates within the cast-iron bucket, fumes of inspiration rising toward the night sky. Writers-become-pilgrims trek through this forest every year in search of creativity, the end-all-be-all-cure-all medicine for frustrating writer’s block.
Or perhaps we might imagine creativity in a lighter setting, a golden fluid imbibed by the gods of Olympia. The mind’s ambrosia. Perhaps a secret, clear formula hidden in the storage cache of Dr. Jekyll’s laboratory.
When writers converse about creativity, we tend to mythologize the trait as something almost-unattainable, as something holy—manna falling from Heaven. Words dangling like strings from the fingers of God, alighting like snow on the tongue of a poet or novelist. We tend to engage with hefty, lofty metaphors in order to ensure others that creativity is a sacred attribute.
But creativity is a myth, indeed, if we cannot discuss concretely what we mean when we utter the word. Where does one acquire this magic muse-juice? Give me coordinates, longitude, latitude.
Maybe creativity is not a secret at all.
Creativity is a muscle.
Creativity is a habit that must be cultivated, strengthened through continuous use.
Much like the formal tools of writing—syntax, spelling, grammar, word choice, etc.—one becomes better at using creativity the more one engages with its practice. Practice being the operative term here.
I mean not to malign certain would-be writers, but I have encountered again and again English majors (with creative writing minors) who proclaim their intentions to float into the hallowed halls of author-hood post-graduation without having ever truly written anything. Maybe a story or two, a half-finished manuscript, but nothing more. They harbor the belief that one day, with degree and good juju, they will emerge as writers like a butterfly from a cocoon. Except that they never built a cocoon in the first place.
One must practice a craft in order to learn the craft. Creativity works the same way. I should preface also that “being a writer” doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve published a book or will publish a book; publication is merely process validation for story-slingers, not the goal in and out itself. Writers write. If you write, then you are a writer.
When learning about writing—whether that means taking a creative writing course, interning at a publishing house, or reading blog posts like this one—one becomes aware only of the craft’s silhouette. This is akin to reading the autobiography of Michael Jordan in preparation to become a basketball player; a more playful analogy—a man reading the Kama Sutra so that he may become a master lover without ever having had sexual intercourse. Learning craft from a source outside yourself is merely supplementary education: writing will teach you to write better. Editing others’ stories, that’s even better.
Often, the first novel you will write is only going to be practice. Maybe you’ll get lucky and publish the novel, but this will be still practice for the next. I was about eleven or twelve when I decided I want to become a writer. On that day I sat down at a computer and wrote a book. Took about a year. A horrible, short, badly-plotted, cliché book, but hey, I was twelve! I forced my mother and fifth grade teacher to read said book, and looking back I can imagine their horror at the violence and pessimism of the story. A year later, I was bored with the manuscript, as children may be, so I wrote something longer, more complex. Still childish, but nevertheless, book-length. Ninety-thousand words or so. In about two years.
This trend of writing sloppy manuscripts continued throughout my adolescence. I was singularly determined to be published before the age of sixteen, and of course I’m overjoyed that I was not published. During that time, however, I learned about craft; I learned about characterization; I learned about the economy of words. I even learned to write query letters and write a decent synopsis. Although at the time my purpose was only to publish these stories, I realize now that these experiments informed my later writing. Even now, I recognize that I am still building up toward something better, a story more precise and beautiful than anything I could create now.
Around the age of sixteen, after having penned six or seven bad novels, I began The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County (which was, I should mention, my first foray into realistic fiction after a string of fantasy and super-transgressive noir-crime). This novel too was a sloppy mess, and I spent about two years editing and re-writing before I began sending it out to publishers.
Three years later, I finally got the “yes.”
The above anecdote is not designed to brag on my adolescent ambitions, but only to provide a point. One must write to learn to write. Of course I took a few classes and workshops during these teen years; I scribbled notes while listening to panels at book conventions. But the experiences of story-telling, the ritual of always working on something new, created a habit of writing: now I write almost every day, clocking in particular hours of writing or editing to get the work done. Since writing The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I have written three other manuscripts (two of which are serviceable and that I’m currently whipping into shape). Through this, I mean to infer, I’m still writing. I’m doing work.
Naturally I still encounter “writer’s block” or a lack of inspiration, but that doesn’t stop me from getting my work done. Like a runner straining through the pain on his final lap, a writer can be creative without feeling any special inspiration. Therefore, the myth of creativity and the muse, of stories-come-God—I don’t buy it, not one bit.
Writing is hard work. Yes, it is an incredible fun, eye-opening, soul-searching experience, but at the same time, it’s work. The writer must first practice his free throws before he becomes Michael Jordan; for the record, I’m still trying. For the record, I’m still on the community court throwing free throws. Dear aspiring writer: you are too.
There is no secret to creativity, then. There is only sweat.
You want muse-juice? Drink some coffee, some green tea. Chew gum. Crack your knuckles. Then get to work.
Scaffolding rises around the obelisk, frames of metal bars spider-webbed to provide support for the crumbling monument. Seated below on a patch of iridescent green grass, I tilt my head to better discern the meaning and image depicted on the grotesque statue above. The recent attempts to fix the statue, likely after wear from weather, obfuscate my view of the statue itself, whether that be a person or animal or tomato with glasses (no one knows at this point). In this way, one can often obscure history through the revisions we make in the present.
In Germany this year, one witnesses an era of reinvention, whether that be for better or worse. One sees construction cranes as often as buttered pretzels. With each skyline marred by the machinery of renovation, it seems as if the entire country is receiving a face lift.
One of the largest renovation projects in Germany today is called Stuttgart 21, which is a joint initiative between the state of Baden-Württemberg, the federal government, and the Deutsch Bahn (DB) to expand railroads through the state as well as build a state-of-the-art Hauptbahnhof (fancy German word for main train station). When one stands in today’s Hauptbahnhof, its massiveness is undercut by the intense renovation going on outside its walls; to even reach the main train platforms, one must travel through a specially-designed temporary walkway, which offers a glimpse of the massive destruction and reconstruction of the train station.
For many outsiders, the construction project seems like a non-issue; when I first heard about the project from my grandparents, I simply shrugged my shoulders and mumbled, “Cool,” in the same way someone might react to any calamity removed from their personal experiences. Due to the immense costs of the project, however, many people are incredibly unhappy with the idea, especially since the project has exceeded his budget by more than €2 billion euro as of 2013 (source: http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/berlin-alarmed-at-cost-overruns-of-stuttgart-21-station-project-a-880112.html). In fact, the project has received critical backlash ever since the idea’s inception in the mid 1980’s.
In 2010, the German government began in earnest to move forward with the building project, though since then they have encountered major delays and budgetary underestimations. At this point, several critics wonder whether the dream of a futuristic train station will ever truly become reality. The misanalysis of budget have risen questions among Berlin politicians concerning from where future funds will come.
But I don’t want to get bogged down in the specifics of the project itself, but would instead like to highlight its politics. In the wake of the final announcement that the Stuttgart train station project would indeed move forward, German citizens flooded the street to protest. What begins as a peaceful though passionate protest becomes later a violent clash between protestors and police; the police responded by shooting water cannons at the protesters. On one particular day (1 October 2010), the police helped protest construction crews as they cut down several trees in the Schlossgarten (very near the train station) in order to make room for the renovations. In the protest and subsequent backlash from police, more than a hundred people ended up injured. It is important, here, to note the incredible panache of German protestors standing up for what they believe. They marched against the renovations, citing the ever-climbing budget and the imminent destruction of both nature and culture. Because the project will include new rail lines through Baden-Württemberg’s countryside, one assumes that several more trees will fall before the project’s completion.
Because I cannot describe so well in words the spectacle of the protests, I will include a few pictures below (culled from the internet):
What interests me most about the Stuttgart 21 project is the ways in which both sides of an argument construct their narrative. On one hand, Angela Merkl and other proponents speak triumphantly of a doorway into the future, of the grand and efficient railway systems Germany will enjoy in just a few years. In the eyes of the proponents, no one is really destroying anything, but rather one is building a better future. Meanwhile, the opponents construct a narrative of wasteful spending and unnecessary destruction.
“Building the future” seems to be a good term for the ambitions of the project, but what I think is more appropriate is the term “building the past.” We write the future’s history in the present. Depending on what stories we tell about our motivations, our values, and our dreams, we manage to influence how history will view us. We shape the biases of tomorrow when we spin the right story.
The question, then, remains: is the Stuttgart 21 project truly helpful or more harmful? Will the project ever be completed, and more importantly, will those who protested be thankful for new facilities or remain resentful of the destruction and waste the project has yielded? Which side will claim victory in the hallowed halls of history?
When visiting the Kunst Museum in Stuttgart today, I encountered the art of Joseph Kosuth, an American conceptual artist who came to prominence in the 1960s. Much of his art questions the value and restrictions of art, expressed through neon letterings, physical books, and copy-printed definitions of words such as “meaning” or “idea.” Today at the museum, I spent an insane amount of time trying to translate the text of six books at wooden desks, each under a clock indicating different times. This piece creates an interesting thematic comment on the effect of time, how the time and space in which a text is read changes the meaning of the text. All of Kosuth’s art installations evoke a similar form of communication, asking the audience to react or comment upon his ideas.
For this reason, I scrawled a stick figure in pencil on the blank wall of the art museum next to one of Kosuth’s installations. The guard there (a kind older woman) asked me what I was doing. I told her that I was claiming this space as my own or rather inviting the question of ownership. She didn’t stop me, though I’m sure they will wash away the stick man I drew under Kosuth’s neon message.
Visual Space Has Essentially No Owner.
This piece struck me for some reason. He questions, within the context of a gallery, the sanctity of the gallery. Where art exhibits express that the viewer should not touch or disturb the art, one must also confront the relationship of viewer and art. One view of art, anyways, insists that art cannot exist without the viewer’s eye, since sight itself evokes an image. Without an eye to perceive the art, the art cannot truly exist. This is, of course, debatable. In the same way, art might mean nothing without people to comment upon the art. What does a painting or installation mean without an audience?
If visual space has no owner and the “art museum” is a space for art, then does not the evocation of this idea invite people to draw on the walls? To perform trumpet in the halls of the art museum? To dance, to become art or make art themselves? To reclaim the spaces we have deemed holy, not only the streets but the museums, the galleries? If art must exist in galleries, then why ask the gate-keepers for permission? Why not thrust your voice into the conversation, for the sake of being heard? Claim not ownership but autonomy, because no one’s really stopping you.
And when an a museum guard taps you on the shoulder to ask what the hell you’re doing, answer, “Art.”
She might smile and comment, “I was wondering when someone would finally try that.”
When we are young, perhaps reading a favorite book, we come across new words. I vividly recall frantically flipping through the dictionary in search of the word “immured” which appears Kenneth Grahame’s classic The Wind in the Willows. For those who have not followed the adventures of Mr. Badger of Mr. Toad, “immured” means “to be imprisoned.” This process of learning new words as children mirrors the process of learning new words in another language, except that one must explain and dissect new words with words one already knows; what makes learning a new language for authors is when one confronts a word that possesses no direct translation.
One of my favorite phrases that exemplify this conundrum: de mal de pays, the name of a Franz Litszt song that translates usually as “homesickness,” though according to a character in Haruki Murakami’s new novel, this phrase really means, “the ungrounded sadness of feels when looking upon a beautiful landscape and remembering home.” In German, one encounters several of these words including Wanderlust, Backpfeifengesicht, and Schadenfreude. For those not in the knows, Backpfeifengesicht means “a face that begs for a fist,” roughly speaking. In addition to expanding one’s lexicon, one learns new ways of speaking. I have noticed, for example, that both in fiction and personal essays, I have absconded with the use of complicated words in favor of words-that-are-hyphenated-that-together-means-one-word, which plays on the German compound word. Almost any complicated word in German can be found out by combining two, three, or more smaller words. When I must describe something that does not have a clear and well-known set of description words (for example, technical jargon or sometimes the language of music,) I opt instead for the insanely-long-compound-phrase.
The true learned skill of adopting a new language, however, is that one must communicate with others in the new language. Because the writer might be in a class, he may likely not enroll with others who speak English; of course English-speakers possess a global privilege to travel almost anywhere and be able to speak English with locals. The English language has infected Europe with better efficiency than the Black Plague. When one does however seek to explain concepts in German, a language through which I can only express the simplest expressions, one must fashion precise speech. When speaking with international students, one learns to explain complicated ideas in simplified terms. This teaches the writer to exorcise the jargon from his writing, composing sentences with clarity and economy.
Naturally, I have not performed correct archeology of this subject, the relative skills that bridge writing in one’s mother tongue and also a new language; here, we have only grazed the top soil. Of course I too have learned only German, and I enjoy the language, unlike Mark Twain. When one begins to explore new languages, one learns new idiosyncrasies. I have heard (only through reading books in translation), that to read a manuscript in its original language is an act not unlike sleeping in your own bed after weeks abroad. If you have ever undertaken the challenge of learning a new language or anything new (be it rocket science or funeral undertaking), what have you learned? How has the new-found knowledge affected your writing tendencies?
By the looks of this blog Word Salad, I either died or was captured by Russian spies, but I am still alive and kicking, only with considerably less free time than I would like to have. Generally, the little I do have I contribute to professional projects rather than penning funny, sad, and weird columns for this blog. My output, however, has been tremendous, and I want to share with you some answers to the question posed in the title.
I have been churning out thousands of words a week, no doubt. One class I have enrolled in this semester requires at least one, sometimes 3, papers each week, as well as a book a week. Even for such a prodigious reader and writer as me, this class has taken a toll on me. It has also, however, taught me a lot and made me think about elements of politics I have never before considered. The semester is winding down (or rather accelerating toward the brick wall Dead End named Finals), and I am looking forward to a summer of fun, excitement, and scholarly activities (SIKE!, says the nineties teenager).
Two writing projects currently are still in the works. After months of sending query letters, I have received interesting critical feedback on my novel The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County. Firstly, not many people feel comfortable reading about the Ku Klux Klan, even a comical modern version of it, and after extensive research, I have decided that I too find it distasteful. I expected to find a group of confused southerners emphasizing southern heritage, but mostly the organization is still quite racist (no surprise there). This couple with other problems have spurred me to begin working on other projects while seriously editing the book.
I ain’t no stranger to editing– most of a book’s life is spent in the dreaded editing stage, in my experience. Certainly, I won’t give up on the story, because it’s a story I find compelling: teenagers discovering themselves while encountering the pitfalls of adulthood in a small southern town. It’s a juiced-up, funny-as-hell, exaggerated version of my own experience and the experience of many of my friends. I spent nearly three or four months away from the manuscript and have now returned to engage in editing, and I’ll share some of my favorite passages:
“I had electric veins and ionic eyeballs. Like my heart was hooked up to a car battery, except the energy kept flowing the wrong way.”
” Some of the cities we lived in were actually less like modest hamlets and more true-to-the-core, redneck Nowhere’s. Towns where orthodontists went bankrupt on account of there being only so many teeth per capita.
The sorts of towns where no one had ever heard of smart phones or the Democratic Party or anal sex.”
“Boredom: our natural state, our default. For our entire teen lives in Lickskillet, boredom was true evil, our archenemies, the Darth Vader to our Luke Skywalker. We the free rebels fighting for sacred liberty from this, our mortal enemy we called “boredom.”
We tried everything to absolve ourselves from this carnal sin. Most drank heavily, even idiotically. Which was the best way to drink, with the high possibility of death. Most of the boys drank beer, challenging each other to gulp down more until all had passed out. Girls preferred liquor, mixed or straight. And then everyone, roaring drunk, would smash boredom against the walls. Would take off our boredom’s clothes or pass out on boredom’s lawn.”
Another project I have been vigorously working on (in the months Lickskillet lay dormant in my mind) is The Choke Artist, a story about bare-knuckle fighting, illegal immigration, obese hand models, Alabama lesbians, drug kingpins, murder, Walt Whitman, and time travel. Perhaps when I feel more comfortable with Lickskillet, I’ll post more information about this fascinating, bizarre work.
Essays, novels, and late-night scribbling have accounted for much of my weekly word count, but I have also re-delved into poetry. Last Wednesday, I came away from a school poetry slam, snagging first place. I won an incredibly awesome pen (made with wood from Ireland and GOLD), and it’s probably the best writing utensil I have ever owned in my life. Perhaps I’ll post a picture up next week with a video of me performing the winning poems?
Now you know “Where the Hell” I went and what I’ve been doing. Check in again soon for further shenanigans.
Sometimes, you write a poem and publish it. People read it from across the country, even people who don’t like poetry– the common man will rush out to buy that volume to read your inspirational words. Maybe it’s all theatrics or even sappy love sonnets, literary mechanics and overused syllogisms. Then they pay you a lot of money and let you live in the White House.
Or you write a poem, and a goat eats it from out of your hands.
Or as you’re scribbling lines you’ll hope will make sense later, the wind carries the paper away, your aerial poem rising into the atmosphere, spreading its wings, tearing itself into a million tattered pieces, and raining down on the city.
People will have to start carrying umbrellas so thick chunks of poetic manuscript will not conk them on the head midday. Like hail, the words tumble through the sky, bright and white-hot as comets.
People will recycle the poems into trains to cross from Raleigh to San Francisco on the tracks, drinking tea while watching the Americana scenery rush by. They will build helicopters and time machines to fix their mistakes, boats that never sink and schools were the learning is all around you, poems written all over the walls.
Or sometimes you write a poem, and a goat chomps down, digesting half of the poem before noon.
Poets tend to have a prodigious talent for producing vaguely philosophical conclusions from the smallest details. Think of the greatest haikus, those crisp images that subtly invoke feelings. Even from the blue jay or the rose bush or the gravy-textured sky, we can derive meaning. At first, this sounds a little crazy, though, doesn’t it?
Your friend comes late to dinner, fixing his hair, clearing his throat—this denotes frustration. When penned down, when life is transcribed into novels, we spend hours analyzing what the text means, what we can learn from what the characters do, from how the author describes the shape of the hills in the distance or the used condoms crumpled by simmering storm drains. During our real-life experiences, however, we rarely analyze actions in such a way.
Pay attention to not just what people do, but what it could mean about them. Don’t boast that you can read minds or understand human interactions, because you can’t—everyone is an amateur philosopher, an amateur theist, an amateur poet. No one can be master in such matters.
Especially if you mean to make art, in my case to write poetry, you must watch how people act, what people say. Try to create poetry that is true to the moment, to life. Sometimes, I will sit among a group of people writing down things they say. Strange things, sometimes profound things. We spend hours hypothesizing in lively debates, changing each others’ minds inexorably, only to forget our enlightenment minutes later, the time it takes for people to leave us.
Alone, however, we should continue to consider our actions and thoughts—why do we think this way? Why do we act this way? Whether you approach this psychologically or religiously or senselessly, it doesn’t much matter, because you perceive things others have never before. Of course learn as much as you can, read as many books as you can read, but remember that only you can decide what is true or untrue for you.
We all hold an immense power to determine truth for ourselves. The only way we avoid being overpowered by the ideas of others is to constantly pay attention—life is a 24-hour lecture. Take notes.
Is there something intrinsically different about the way a poet lives versus other people? Do they carry around magical golden powder they snort up their nostrils so their creative juices flow? Perhaps a Grimmorie inscribed in a foreign, forgotten language reminiscent of the clichéd hieroglyphs featured in The Mummy trilogy.
The poetic life, though it inspires poetry that we read and enjoy, does not exist under mystical circumstances but rather a set of principles with which to live according to. And not so much principles in the way of a stringent constitution—these ideas and methods have worked for me, so if they fail to work for anyone else, then that isn’t exactly because they don’t work. Ultimately, no one can really criticize or teach life or poetry or anything else because no one is an expert—we are allowed only an intimate case study from which to draw from.
Don’t look at this like some poorly-wrought constitution, but instead a personal manifesto, if anything only a written reminder to myself of how I should live. Not just in a moral sense, but in a poetic sense—is there such thing as a poetic life? These things I’ve been considering for many weeks, reading books on the idea including Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Rilke.
The philosophy of psychology and the psychology of philosophy come to very much the same conclusion: humans have an innate desire to understand themselves, their world, and how they interact with the world.
Each day, I will post something new, a short essay or explanation of a facet of the poetic life, something I think everyone should strive to understand. Because a poetic life does not only help the poet produce decent, sincere poetry, but it also allows a man to live a sincere life. He constantly thinks.
That’s the first challenge—to think. Not just in class or when in times of turmoil, but every day, all of the time, to the point that thoughts become exhausting. Concentrate on your life, on your actions. Do not act on impulse, but instead consider each action individually. Develop ideas from everyday experiences. Why can’t a trip to the bathroom or a morning shower or a walk downtown inspire?
We have familiarized ourselves with beauty and no longer recognize it’s beautiful. We fail to learn from aesthetics, as beauty too is a type of knowledge. Contemplate all things, every stray word, every gesture, as if the world is a narrative to deconstruct—but never say a shallow thing. Never read from the script of preconceived ideas, of things you repeat, you rehearse, you eject constantly.
For the next week, maybe two, I will contemplate these ideas and share my thoughts with you. If you have more to say on the subject, comment below. I would love to hear your thoughts. What does it mean to live a “poetic life?”