Red Letter Poem #56

Steven Ratiner, Arlington’s Poet Laureate, is today’s guest blogger.

Elizabeth Bishop – one of America’s great poets – remained deeply skeptical of the very artform to which she devoted her life.  She feared its tendency toward pretense, posturing, imaginative self-deception.  In an essay, she declared: “Writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes great skill to make it seem natural…“.  I think, then, she’d have been intrigued and heartened by the work of Chen Chen, a young poet who is currently making literary waves.  His debut collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions) won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and the Thom Gunn Award; and his writing has brought him fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kundiman and Saltonstall Foundations, and Lambda Literary.  A scion of Frank O’Hara and his ‘walking around poems’, Chen Chen invites the reader onto the emotional rollercoaster ride that is his inner monologue.  Written in a kind of fevered vernacular, the poems are by turns playful, puzzling, startling, and always wildly imaginative.  The poet himself has commented in interviews that “I forget how sad some of my poems are because people tend to point out the humor.”  But we are so much more willing to take those emotional plunges because of the bracing momentum he’s created, his unspoken belief that the ride is far from over and more breathless surprises await.

Chen Chen was born in Xiamen, China, and grew up in Massachusetts.  He teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence.  In his poetry, he writes about family – both the one he was born into and that sense of the familial he endeavors to create.  Poems touch on the cross-cultural riptides of being a gay Asian male in a society not always hospitable to those qualities.  But above all, I think Chen Chen’s work is about joy, in all its manifestations: those all-too-rare skyfuls of fireworks and the diminutive sparkle of the everyday.  In his poem “Spell to Find Family”, he writes: “My job is to trick// myself into believing/ there are new ways/ to find impossible honey.”  And he performs this trick with deftness and aplomb.  Ms. Bishop would approve.

Red Letter Poem #56: 

Red Letter 56

The Red Letter Poems Project was created in grateful partnership with many of our town’s cultural resources: the Arlington Commission for Arts and Culture, the Arlington Center for the Arts, the Robbins Library, the Arlington International Film Festival, and Arlington Community Education.  See the full archive of the project at  We’ll send out a poem from a new poet every week. If you enjoy them, we encourage you to forward them to friends –  in Arlington and beyond –  or to post them on your social media platforms with the hashtags: #RedLetterPoems, #ArlingtonPoetLaureate. If you want to make sure you receive these poems directly – or to receive notices about future poetry events – send an e-mail to: with the subject line ‘mailing list’.

In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art – and, in truth, even the COVID-19 crisis itself – serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.

– Steven Ratiner

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