Ching-In Chen leans against a brick wall.

Photo by Cassie Mira

Ching-In Chen is the author of The Heart's Traffic (Arktoi/Red Hen Press, 2009) and recombinant (Kelsey Street Press, 2017). Born of Chinese immigrants, they are a Kundiman, Lambda, Callaloo and Watering Hole Fellow and a member of the Macondo and Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundations writing communities. A community organizer, they have worked in the Asian American communities of San Francisco, Oakland, Riverside and Boston, as well as helped organize the third national Asian Pacific American Spoken Word and Poetry Summit in Boston. Chen is also the co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (South End Press, 2011) and Here Is a Pen: an Anthology of West Coast Kundiman Poets (Achiote Press, 2009).

Chen's poetry has been featured at poetry readings across the country, including Poets Against Rape, Word from the Streets, and APAture Arts Festival: A Window on the Art of Young Asian Pacific Americans. Their work has been published in anthologies and journals including Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, A Face to Meet the Faces: an Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, Quarterly West, Court Green, Indiana Review, Diagram, Iron Horse Literary Review, and BorderSenses. They have won an Oscar Wilde honorable mention for "Two River Girls," a poem from The Heart's Traffic.

Their poem-play "The Geisha Author Interviews," also from The Heart's Traffic was nominated for a John Cauble Short Play Award. Chen has also been awarded residencies and fellowships from Soul Mountain Retreat, Vermont Studio Center, the Fine Arts Work Center, the Paden Institute, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Millay Colony for the Arts, the Norman Mailer Center, Ragdale Foundation and Can Serrat.

A graduate of Tufts University, they earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside and a PhD at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Chen has taught creative writing at Sam Houston State University and currently teaches courses in the Interdisciplinary Arts department at the University of Washington Bothell campus.

from A Conversation with Ching-In Chen

The Heart's Traffic was conceived as a novel-in-poems, with a fictional narrative thread loosely connecting these poems together. Could you talk about your choice of this form? And how did this effect the discovery of each individual poem as you wrote?

Ching-In: Each poem was a discovery and a challenge to do something I hadn't tried before. I don't think I realized it was a novel-in-poems until after I had written the first set of poems. Slowly, as each poem of that first thirty unfolded, I realized that the protagonist voice wasn't me (because previously, I had never written in persona before), it was Xiaomei. After I figured that out, it was a matter of getting to know her better and the world around her and the people she comes across. Because this was a very different way of working for me than before (when I was just making poems from making sense of my daily life), I found that using poetic forms helped me contain my imagination to this one girl's story.

The goal of Arktoi Books is to publish lesbian authors in order to involve them further in "the conversation." What does it mean to you to be published by this imprint?

Ching-In: I love being published by an imprint where the goal is to move what's marginal towards the center and to create access to a place at the table for those who might not have that. What I am passionate about and spend my time and energy on is doing that work. As a queer woman, as an Asian-American woman, and even as a poet, it's disheartening to see how many of the presses that published our work have folded over the years or how the people behind them get burned out from that work. So many of the books that have been crucial to my own development as a writer and person living in the world today would never have lived in the world without independent publishing. So I'm grateful that Arktoi is in existence and has chosen me to be part of this community, which is how I view it, rather than just as having a book published.

From your work as Director of the Asian American Resource Workshop for three years and to your organizational efforts with the national Asian Pacific American Spoken Word and Poetry Summit and your co-editorship of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Partner Abuse in Activist Communities, you've diligently worked as a community organizer. Do you feel as if your political concerns have fed into your writing? Do you feel a social responsibility as a poet?

Ching-In: My commitment to my community work has always fed my writing, but I think that the way that it has done that has changed as I've matured as both a community organizer and a writer. I was led to writing through my community work and I owe a huge debt to the community that I come from, for nurturing my voice in many ways. I do feel, however, that there is no one way to be a socially engaged poet, and I'm interested in new ways of being just that in the world. To me, that means giving back to my community in whatever ways I can.

Read the full interview (Adobe pdf file)