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Grolier Poetry Book Shop was lit with warm neutral tones on the evening of Oct. 7. The storefront window was lined with a row of succulents and flower pots, and the doorbell chimed with every gust of the early October wind. In the front of the room, the poet Chen Chen flipped over a page and began to read the first lines from his latest collection, “Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced An Emergency.”
Chen’s new collection dissects inheritance and family, exploring both themes through a queer Asian American lens. The back of the book poses the question, “What happens when everything falls away, when those you call on in times of need are themselves calling out for rescue?” The book is an elegy and devotion to previous creators, drawing inspiration from Asian American poets such as Justin Chin and Marilyn Chin. Chen’s writing revels in different shades and mixes of emotions, vibrating with joy and sorrow, teeming with humor and sensuality.
Throughout the reading, the Grolier was almost always surrounded by life, whether that be paper rustling, soft laughter, or the scratching of pencil as audience members jotted down quotes and notes. After each poem, the audience members snapped their fingers or gave a small nod or hum of respect. Many of them were students, writers, and fellow dreamers, gathered together to both learn and experience through literature.
Every so often Chen paused from reading and cracked a joke. “Thank god for a table of contents,” Chen said while trying to find his next poem to read, causing a couple audience members to chuckle. His playful personality extends to his poetry. Chen holds the reader’s attention while crafting worlds where God steers a magenta rowboat and the wind kisses another wind. “I never feel crowded out by Chen,” said Eben Bein, one of his former students and the person who introduced Chen’s work. “More like he’s just pushing the fabric of space time aside as a way for me to experience other dimensions, like the kind where spooky babes live.”
The only time the room fell silent was after the reading of the poem “Elegy While Listening to a Song I Can’t Help But Start to Move to,” a piece dedicated to the Pulse Nightclub shooting. In the poem, Chen surrounds the reader with images of joy and longing, contrasting queer freedom and love with the tragedy of the event. “Their singing along / their jokes / their swoon-worthy move,” he read, his tone urgent and fervent, and he continued to describe the speaker discovering their sexuality, “I’ve sculpted the air / into a boy: / Jake B. who / sits across in History / I feel finally inside / my own face.” When Chen recited the last line, “Their laughter / I keep hearing their laughter, moments before,” there was no sound from the audience, only the last fragment of a word suspended in the air.
“Chen Chen’s work is a reminder of the joy of living fully and honestly,” said Riya Rana, an audience member. “The main takeaway was to be held in an intimate environment where Chen Chen is fully his beautiful self, which is funny and tender and touching and emotional and sarcastic.”
When asked what was the first word that came to mind after the reading, James Fraser, the shop’s manager, chose “fulfillment.” “One of the things I admire the most of Chen’s poetry is the multitudes that it encompasses and how he isn’t afraid to bring so many different things that other people wouldn’t or couldn’t get into a poem,” he said.
Towards the end of the reading, Chen recited a couple lines from his poem “I will be gone after these brief messages.” His voice, forceful yet clear, propelled each word forward and filled the room with richness and soul. “Life is a joyful thing,” Chen paused and let his eyes drift to the next line. It was quiet enough to hear the creak of the bookshelves, to witness this small world of a room listening, breathing, and grasping for the next lines. “It's probably very good for you.”
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