In Jericho Brown’s introduction to Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, he aptly describes the collection and the speaker as “obsessive and curious,” filled with “humor,” “comic delight” and “a sense of wonder.” For poetry, these terms of praise don’t seem out of the ordinary but for poetry by a queer author that consistently and openly takes on queerness as a subject of inquiry, this description is not what we would expect. In the introduction to Michael Snediker’s Queer Optimism he says, “Melancholy, self-shattering, shame, the death drive…this queer pessimistic constellation—nonetheless have dominated and organized much of queer-theoretical discourse…Queer theory’s analyses of negative affect and ontological instability have been and continue to be both generous and generative” (Snediker, 4). He goes on to outline his project as clearing a similar space for inquiry into queer optimism. In this passage Snediker essentially says that queer theorists and critics of queer poetry have long concentrated on suffering. I will add that often the poetry about the queer experience itself, not just critique of it, has remained boxed into this category of suffering due to its conception as a culturally acceptable queer narrative. Chen Chen’s work pushes back against this in many ways. Brown goes on to say about Chen, “he won’t be satisfied with any answer until he has thoroughly reviewed every possibility, every option for becoming a more whole self…” In this lies a deep sense of optimism. The queer author who has struggled with family and society throughout his life still has the capacity for hope, and for becoming. Melancholy in this collection is not a permanent staple of queer experience, nor is it a staple of the poet’s identity. Though his struggle with strict homophobic parents shapes a good amount of subject matter, it is often presented with humor, wonder, or a vulnerable sense of reflection which leads to growth and becoming. This extends beyond a brief moment of joy or pleasure among misery and melancholy. Chen Chen’s work supports Snediker’s project of queer optimism in that the sense of humor, wonder, and curiosity are patient and sustained in the voice of the entire collection.
In speaking about this gap in critical work, Snediker says, “Hope is promissory; hope is a horizon. Shame, on the other hand, occurs in a lavish present tense. What if the field of queer optimism were situated as firmly in the present tense as shame? Even as scholarship on shame may arise out of generosity and hopefulness, this work, within queer theory and affect theory, provides shame all the more eloquent and vibrant a vocabulary, while leaving positive affect (itself lexically impoverished) to fend for itself” (Snediker, 16). Essentially, Snediker focuses on studying optimism in the present tense, not as a possibility, but as an actual occurrence in the moment that is as intelligible and as apt for analysis as shame or pessimism. He finds essential to his argument the “separability from the promissory” of queer optimism. In other words, he works against the idea that all queer optimism is not worth studying because it is only and always in the future and therefor fleeting and unintelligible. I will agree with Snediker to the extent that it is important to study optimism and its persistence with as much critical rigor as is used to study pessimism and its seeming permanence in the queer experience. I will disagree slightly or go further to show how Chen Chen’s collection shows promissory queer optimism as a rich sight for critical investigation as well. As is signified by the very title of the collection, the speaker of these poems is filled with hope and a desire for fulfillment despite struggle and sadness. Even though Chen’s optimism often relies on a future, or a promise of a future—this drives the sense of humor, wonder, curiosity, and what I will call the “life drive” of the poems on the level of content and language. Essentially, suffering is very present in this collection but it never leads to pessimism, it instead leads to motivation to live better, more fully, and with more love. The very idea that a future is possible is what makes the poetry and the speaker consistently and patiently optimistic. I will propose that Chen Chen’s collection is subversive in that it posits queer optimism as a consistent force and not the outlier, even though it is attached to a future and always intrinsically connected to suffering.
When discussing Emily Dickinson’s poetry through the lens of his queer optimistic project, Snediker says, “Dickinson’s understanding of happiness is inseparable from happiness’s encroachment on pain. Dickinsonian happiness and pain, however, are not simply antonymous. That is, they do not replicate the unproductive yin-yang of happy/sad, whereby one can’t have the former without the latter, or vice versa” (Snediker, 95-96). Essentially, Snediker’s queer optimistic reading of Dickinson relies on the idea that happiness doesn’t have to exist as solely the opposite of pain. In his reading, Dickinson often uses pains temporal qualities such as patience and persistence to describe happiness in unexpected ways. Chen Chen’s poetry is similarly illuminated when we accept that an understanding of the joy and wonder in the work is not separable from the speaker’s experiences of suffering. To place these things on a binary is to overly simplify them, and to, as Snediker mentions many critics have done, ignore the happiness in the equation because it seems obvious.
In the beginning of When I Grow Up…, before even the first section, there is a poem called “Self-Portrait as So Much Potential” that immediately invokes these ideas in simple lines with lots of white space. It begins, “Dreaming of one day being as fearless as a mango” (13). This line at once mourns the speaker’s lack of fearlessness and invokes hope and a drive towards the future where this is possibility. Later in the piece the speaker says, “I am not the heterosexual neat freak my mother raised me to be. / I am a gay sipper, & my mother has placed what’s left of her hope on my brothers” (13). On first read, this is heartbreaking. The speaker feels that he has let down his mother and has been rejected from a family of “beautiful sons.” Why, then, does this line invoke laughter and lightness? The term “heterosexual neat freak” makes fun of heterosexuality, showing that the speaker is comfortable with his own identity to a certain extent. Additionally, the internal rhyme of “neat freak,” me,” and “be” is sonically delightful making this line roll easily off the tongue and feel almost bouncy. The second line makes a similar move with the internal rhyme of “sipper,” “mother,” and “brother.” Though the content of the lines is one of suffering, the comedic tone and sonic pleasure invoke a feeling of hope and uplifting.
Even in pieces that are filled with solemn and mourning, the poet is sure to pick us up. In “How I Became Sagacious,” a poem that details leaving home because of the lack of acceptance, he says “I wished for a place big enough for grief, / & all I got was more grief, plus People magazine” (28). This poem holds a deep hopelessness in content but we never forget the humanity of the speaker—even in the darkest moments, he finds the smallest things to live for, and offers readers a bit of light. This comedic tone comes in and out of the collection but is almost always used to relay moments of struggle, or to show a reflective speaker who has lived through and can now add humor to experiences of struggle. The short poem “Summer Was Forever” uses this same move in the lines “My parents said: Doctor, / married to lawyer. The faucet said: Drip, drop, / your life sucks” (19). The pressure from the parents is exemplary of the child of immigrant’s experience. The speaker, however, doesn’t quite fit the image of who his parents want him to be. Even in this piece which is clearly from the perspective of the speaker’s younger self, he already knows that he won’t fulfill this ideal set out for him. This line is immediately followed by the faucet telling the speaker “your life sucks.” This follows the above-mentioned comedic lightness of struggle but it also shows a mature speaker in the present reflecting and even making fun of this past self that was so steeped in tragedy. Because of this “I now” verses “I then” duality, we understand as readers that the speaker has made it through this struggle and come out not just unscathed but with a sense of humor and reflection.
This poem goes beyond the pairing of comedy with suffering to exemplify the kind of queer joy that is so powerfully optimistic. Retuning to Michael Snediker, he argues that in queer theory about poetry typically dismiss optimistic emotions like happiness and merriment because of their nature as evanescent. In his reading of Dickinson, he shows that the happiness should be attended to critically because the emotion can be formalized and prolonged just like pain: “So patient—like a pain, Patience is what renders the smile anomalous, by granting it (less an afterlife than) a life that exceeds the sudden break by which smiles ordinarily are known” (Snediker, 107). In other words, he finds Dickinsonian joy worth attending to critically through queer optimism because of its unusual quality of temporal longitude which works against usual ideas of optimism as passionate and not worthy of study. This is not the only premise on which Snediker argues for the critical study of optimism in queer poetry, but the temporal argument is prevalent. One of his primary arguments as mentioned previously is for studying an optimism which is not futurally oriented or promissory in nature. I will show in contrast that Chen Chen’s collection uses a joy that is passionate and fleeting, and often futurally oriented, but which is still a valid site for critical inquiry. For these poems that contain the wonder and curiosity of a child even when they are inhabited by an adult speaker, the future and its possibilities for queer love and joy are what allow the speaker to be optimistic of a better future and fuller self. The fleeting, passionate, and sometimes waxing violent moments of the collection are what lead to the speaker’s sustained and consistent life drive.
To continue with “Summer Was Forever, the poem turns when the speaker speaks about seeing the “local paper boy on his route” and begins showing what we understand to be his regular fantasies about this boy from afar. As the imagery spirals into the imagination it becomes a whirlwind of passion:
…I knew: we would be so terribly
happy. Our work would be simple. Our kissing would rhyme
with cardiac arrest. Birds would overthrow the cathedral towers.
I would have a magician’s hair, full of sleeves & saws,
unashamed to tell the whole town our first date was
in a leaky faucet factory. How we fell in love during jumps
on his tragic uncle’s trampoline. We fell in love in midair.
To begin, this whole section is in the future conditional, using “would” before the verbs. This construction shows that the speaker has a strong desire and hope for passion and love. He imagines a future in which this kind of love is possible. As the poem goes on, the “would” construction is dropped in “How we fell in love during jumps…” and finally the absolute of “We fell in love in midair.” This shows the imaginary as it comes true for the speaker and the love becomes a reality. The poem ends here on this light and optimistic note. The speaker and his lover are literally in midair, so light from love they fly off the page at the end of the poem. We hardly recall the beginning of the short poem where the speaker was feeling pressured and inadequate. The imagery that surrounds the pleasure in this piece also takes on an interesting pairing of pleasure with violence, almost as if the passion tips over into violence at its most intense. This dichotomy is set up with “terribly / happy.” Especially because it extends over a line break, the terrible nature of this happiness is emphasized. Then, the kissing rhymes with a lethal attack; the passion is so intense that it can kill. Birds a small, pleasant animal associated with song and spring, destroys cathedrals. Then we have the image of “saws” and a “tragic…trampoline.” This imagery of violence so closely associated with passion shows that this joy is fleeting and would usually be deemed not worthy of study. As previously shown, this joy is clearly related to a future-oriented promise because the experience here is an imagined one. In other words, the joy in this poem goes against all the traits that Snediker uses to deem Dickinsonian joy worthy of study. This joy is worthy of study for queer optimism, though, because the hope and drive for love and passion are what bring the speaker out of struggle. He no longer hears the faucet saying “your life sucks,” in favor of his fantasized love. Though the joy is not temporally sound, it is worthy of investigation as queer optimism because it moves the speaker through sadness and into hope.
Some of the poems do show joy in a specific present moment, and though these moments are not dependent on a future, they still act the same way. These moments of joy are what bring the speaker out of suffering and lead him to a maintain optimism. He addresses this idea himself in a poem titled “Poem” when he says, “Racked by doubt, but not yet / wrecked by it…” and later, “…doubled over / by dour, but not yet / doomed to it, I mope with / some hope, desperately open” (52). Even in doubt and dour the speaker self acknowledges that he is “desperately open” to any possibility of hope and happiness. In this poem, his desire to live fully is so strong that he becomes uninterested in death as a concept. Towards the end he says, “I / don’t want to know / how the book ends, / that the book ends…” This lack of desire to see the end of something shows a grounded voice of the present moment and its joys as well as a drive to live a full and joyful life. The poem ends with the speaker thinking that he should call his mother and ask her about her garden. The suffering and death that is ever present push the speaker to moments of joy and ensuring that he takes all possibilities to live fully.
It’s particularly impressive how the collection accomplishes this in poems that are overtly about sadness or tragedy and are yet, somehow, still optimistic. The poem “Elegy for My Sadness,” appears somber from the title itself. The elegiac nature of the piece implies a death and the poem is about the speaker’s sadness. When we look a bit closer, however, we see that if the poem is an elegy for sadness, sadness must be what has died. Chen writes, “I want to be a sweetheart in every moment, / full of goats & xylophones, as charming / as a hill with a small village on it. / I want to be a village full of sweethearts…” The construction of “I want,” though implying a quality that the speaker does not currently have, shows a drive towards a fuller self and a better future. Even in the deep throes of sadness, the speaker is capable of imagining a future where this is not the case. There is also the element of humor and sonic pleasure in these lines with “goats & xylophones.” The selection is strange and delightful and the internal rhyme emphasizes a bouncy quality. The poem goes on to show how the speaker’s lover comforts and supports the speaker in these moments of sadness. The love he is given makes him examine his own sadness: “You are just / in the same room with me & my unsweet, / uncharming, completely / uninteresting sadness” (37). These lines are particularly interesting because critical work on queer poetry, and queer poetry itself has often focused on and created robust arguments around sadness. As Snediker explains in his introduction, queer suffering already has a wide vocabulary and theory around it; it is joy and optimism that are deprived of this same critical thought. This moment, through this lens, reads as subversive. Chen essentially says that sadness is boring and chooses instead to focus on the intricacy and fullness of love.
This melancholy is not a permanent fixture of the speaker’s experience, nor of his identity, and he certainly doesn’t want it to be. The poem ends:
I wish I could write an elegy for my sadness
because it has suddenly died. I wish I could mourn it
by kissing you again & again while neither of us
can stop laughing, a kind of kiss where we sometimes
miss the mouth altogether, a kind of kiss
I think every single dead person
in every part of the world must crave
with violent impossibility.
Although in the moment this is said, the speaker is still very much inside of their sadness, the piece does not focus on that. Instead it takes on a vocabulary of desire with “I wish” structuring the beginning of the sentences. This sense of desire shows that the speaker is more interested in love and pleasure than in his own sadness. He craves a future where sadness can be pushed aside in favor of kissing and laughing. The choice to make “every single dead person” the subject towards the end is interesting. The poem itself is an elegy, but not for a person. Here we see a similar move that was made in “Poem,” where contemplating death turns the speaker to a distinct desire for life, a strong resistance to death without having lived fully. The speaker here doesn’t want to waste time on sadness when there is love being given to him. He imagines that the dead crave the kind of love he has right in front of him and this leads him to crave living more fully in the moment. The way this poem ends also enacts the hope for the future that the speaker has. Though the speaker is still experiencing sadness, the poem is structured so that it ends on love and happiness, even if it’s only a possibility. The reader is left with the lightness of a kiss where the speaker and his lover “miss the mouth altogether.” This structure privileges joy as the poem effectively “kills” the speaker’s sadness with an outburst of love. In another poem concerning death, “If I Should Die Tomorrow,” the speaker does not enact the archetypical motions of regret. Instead he speaks about what he will miss. The poems speaks about the pleasure of language and the pleasure of the body. Merely thinking about the possibility of no longer experiencing these pleasures, drives the speaker towards life and full living.
It’s clear through these pieces that suffering and sadness are not removed from the picture in order to convey a consistent feeling of optimism. In fact, suffering and sadness are often starting points for these pieces, grounding them in the queer experience of being cast out by family or society. This suffering and sadness, however, never translates into pessimism. The speaker of these poems himself finds sadness and loneliness unproductive and trades them in for love, joy, and pleasure whenever possible. He says, “I am making my loneliness small. So small it fits on a postcard / a baby rabbit could eat” (24). He never avoids talking about negative emotions. He instead acknowledges them as true and uses wonder, curiosity, and desire for love to create a consistent optimism, to reach for an answer or many answers to his questions of being and becoming. In attending to the joy of this collection, even if it’s difficult because it is fleeting and passionate, I’ve found a fuller reading of what is possible in both the queer experience and in poetry. The capacity to study joy as fully as we’ve studied suffering can make way for more joy, for more queer poets and critics of queer poetry to engage with joy seriously, for it not to be written off as easy or obvious. When so much of the queer experience and queer poetry has been based off of melancholy and suffering, and when the path towards joy is rocky and uncertain, how can we call joy obvious or easy?
Chen Chen writes for his younger self, as well other young queer people who might never have seen any representations of queer happiness, who might need to see the possibility of joy to keep going. In this way, the work of looking at queer joy closely and rigorously is one of activism, of clearing a valid space for this kind of work and the positive impact it has. I’ll conclude with a quote from Chen Chen when asked what advice he has for young queer people who are struggling: “It’s important to say: your heartbreak is real. There is nothing wrong with you if you continue to feel heartbroken. Your emotions, including your sorrows, are real. Always. In my book, there is no “happy ending” to the conflicts between unaccepting, homophobic parents and a queer son. The lack of reconciliation is my reality. Maybe that’s your reality, too. You are still amazing and if you’ve had to make the choice—for your own safety and health—to cut off communication with family members, I see you, too. I love you, too.”
Chen, Chen. When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities. BOA Editions, 2017.
Snediker, Michael D. Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions. University of Minnesota Press, 2009.