Two Poems

Poetry / Chen Chen

:: how many coats does it take ::

to paint a car invisible & heroic? 
to keep each secret seat warm? 
what is the unit of measurement 
for your top-secret secrets? 
will they fit in a manila folder, 
a mahogany drawer, 
a gentleman’s drawers
in Manila at noon? 
where is the room-sized ear 
for your bloom-shaped whisper? 
how & when does one privacy 
unfurl into another, into a 
promise, a worry, one sweaty 
why of who’s? 


:: The School of More School ::

God is a honey  
flavored extra strength cough drop. 
I am another attempt to confess 

I have not read Ulysses. 
God is a webinar 
on how to be closer 

to your CV. 
I wear faux leather 
but engage in some real 

kinks. I talk to my neighbors’ 
cat. I carry 2 pencils & 1 purple pen
at all times. I can’t decide 

whether the university 
is a refuge for the bookish lonely 
or a T-shirt store 

run by a soda company. 
Late at night I go out 
to check my mailbox

as though a present 
has just been delivered. 
Tonight, a handsome bundle 

of air. Tonight, I am 
not my mucus. 
God is how difficult it is 

to stay calm. 


From the writer

:: Account ::

I’ve been lis­ten­ing again to Per­fume Genius’s 2014 album Too Bright. Per­fume Genius is the stage name of Mike Hadreas, an artist who’s insist­ed that he’s mak­ing explic­it­ly queer music. How­ev­er, in many of the reviews for Too Bright, crit­ics (most­ly straight) sug­gest that Hadreas appeals to the uni­ver­sal and that’s what ulti­mate­ly makes his music so res­o­nant. At Pitch­fork, the review­er went so far as to add “regard­less of sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion” at the end of a sen­tence prais­ing Hadreas’s bold explo­rations of alien­ation and resis­tance. But Hadreas has said over and over that he wants his lis­ten­ers to acknowl­edge queer forms of strength and anger, to cri­tique “gay pan­ic,” to con­front homophobia.

In a song from Too Bright, Hadreas declares, “I don’t need your love, I don’t need your under­stand­ing, I need you to lis­ten.” Most review­ers seem to miss this point—Hadreas isn’t striv­ing to be “relat­able” or “uni­ver­sal” in some “regard­less of sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion” mode. Anoth­er line from the album: “No fam­i­ly is safe when I sashay.” Every review I’ve seen quotes this line (from lead sin­gle “Queen”), and yet few reviews seem to appre­ci­ate it ful­ly. The music of Per­fume Genius is deeply human because it is deeply queer; it isn’t human because it “tran­scends” sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion. Why is the “human” usu­al­ly talked about in terms of ignor­ing dif­fer­ence? I’m sus­pi­cious of peo­ple who rou­tine­ly con­clude polit­i­cal dis­cus­sions with some “But we’re all human” escape pod of a claim.

As Hadreas has point­ed out, many straight folks still seem uncom­fort­able with lis­ten­ing to and lik­ing a queer artist who is mak­ing very queer art. They would rather think that they are lis­ten­ing to an artist who “hap­pens to be gay” and that what they like is a “uni­ver­sal” expres­sion of feel­ing out­cast. How­ev­er, “feel­ing out­cast” is not the same as, say, sys­temic oppres­sion. When Hadreas sings of get­ting fed up with play­ing the gay best friend/pet of a straight woman in the track “Fool,” he is singing about that sit­u­a­tion. Of course, any­one can project all sorts of emo­tions onto that song (the lyrics spec­i­fy a prob­lem, but when have lyrics stopped peo­ple from know­ing a song’s just for them?). It’s a par­tic­u­lar kind of heart­break, though, and a par­tic­u­lar rage that boils up when I lis­ten to “Fool.” A par­tic­u­lar­i­ty that anoth­er queer per­son, includ­ing anoth­er gay cis man, might not expe­ri­ence. And Hadreas doesn’t speak to how my queer­ness is bound up with how I’ve been racial­ized as Asian in this coun­try. But these dif­fer­ences form the basis for any real con­nec­tion between peo­ple. Ignor­ing dif­fer­ence fur­ther serves the sta­tus quo; it’s always the mar­gin­al­ized who end up hav­ing to deny their own full aliveness.

So. I want to say I don’t buy into uni­ver­sal­i­ty. I’m get­ting more and more okay with not hiding/repackaging my emo­tions, which are human because they are queer Asian Amer­i­can. I am not “just like you.” I don’t want that. Need that. I need you to listen.


Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Fur­ther Pos­si­bil­i­ties, win­ner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poet­ry Prize and forth­com­ing spring 2017 from BOA Edi­tions. A Kundi­man Fel­low, his work appears in two chap­books and in pub­li­ca­tions such as Poet­ry, Gulf Coast, Buz­zfeed, and The Best Amer­i­can Poet­ry. Chen is pur­su­ing a PhD in Eng­lish and Cre­ative Writ­ing at Texas Tech Uni­ver­si­ty. For more, vis­it