Queers Fail Better – Q / A with listen chen

Queers Fail Better – Q / A with listen chen

In her book ‘The Queer Art of Failure’ Judith Halberstam offers alternative ways of knowing and becoming. Instead of valuing the conventional paths of belonging, achievement and completion, she thinks about and champions the ways of “failure”: losing your way, giving in, being excluded, forgetting, awkwardness, coming apart. Not just rejecting the “normal,” Halberstam shows alternatives to success as paths that have always been there, moving away from mastery and coherence. In this series of Q&A’s with contributors to our upcoming Queer issue, we play with these ideas. When we aren’t trying to finish first (or finish anything) where do we end up?

Think back to when you started writing. What’s an earlier influence you outgrew, abandoned, or turned against?

I think I’m in the process of abandoning writing itself as an influence. I mean writing as a self-evident gerund with a capital “w”. What happens when we consider it an ever-present participle? What other verbs might come forth? Writing as sculpting, hacking, failing, averting. Writing as not writing; writing as re-writing. Materiality interests me. I like that when we reject the assumption that words, grammar, and syntax serve to convey meaning transparently, language takes on an intriguing opacity. The erotic underside emerges. Strangely my recent compositional experiments feel like a return to the confessional indulgence of my teenage years, which I think is often the first influence young writers turn to and the first they outgrow. You can’t avoid being messy and vulnerable when you’re navel-gazing the dictionary and mucking around with language constituently. I used to be terminally insular, always obsessing about my emotions. These days I’ve been obsessing about shapes—sounds, letters, lines—and how they form islands of idiosyncrasy within ostensibly unequivocal bodies of meaning.

When a piece of writing doesn’t work out, what do you do with it? Discard? Fold it into another project? Salvage parts?

I’m not a hoarder but I do hold onto scraps, either for future frankensteining or for purely sentimental reasons. There are definitely older pieces that I’ve buried due to embarrassment, but I’m not sure anything can ever really be discarded—and not just thanks to digital storage.   

What do you do with your rejection letters?

I don’t have a whole lot of these because I don’t submit very often, partly because I don’t produce a whole lot of work and partly because I’m less attached to publication as a way to reify creative endeavors than I used to be. I think it’s human to crave acceptance, whether printed or otherwise, but that it’s equally important to consider the costs of exclusivity and circumscription. 

Do you plan out the piece beforehand or find your way as you go along? A combination of both?

I don’t really plan; I mull. Often I discover a beginning, usually in the form of a first line, and see where it takes me. Other times the end comes first, in which case the poem becomes a process of arrival.

When a project is finished, how do you start the next one? Or do your projects overlap?

More and more I find my projects overlapping, probably because my attention span has diffused over the past year—I find that I like to tackle things simultaneously and through multiple vehicles. My questions about language seem best answered by both creative and academic pursuits, by exploring new methods of reading as much as new methods of writing.

Have you ever not sent a piece of writing somewhere because it seemed ‘too gay/queer’ for that publication?

Depends on how expansively we treat the word ‘queer’. I recently started incorporating Chinese into my writing. I’m very cognizant of what comes across as salient, as an indication of otherness,and my personal feeling is that using the word ‘可’ in an English poem marks it as queer more than the use of the word ‘cunt’ might. I’ve always felt incorrigibly alien, so for me queerness encompasses a lot more than gender or sexuality. To me it’s more often about hybridity and skirting conventional borders of categorization. So the short answer is yes; sometimes it’s hard for me to believe in a receptive audience, especially because we chronically give readers less credit than they deserve (I am definitely against assigning readers to second-class status in the reader-writer relationship. We could all be doing a better job of meeting halfway.). Alterity is part of writing, but perhaps queer writing in particular. I think it’s unfortunate that people use ‘accessibility’ as a red herring that eclipses the inherently ethical activity of approaching otherness.

What do you do to procrastinate?

Cooking is my go-to. I also take great relief in lying supine on my living room rug while staring at the ceiling. Web-procrastination time is often devoted to researching grad programs.

Has anyone ever said something completely discouraging to you as an artist? Did it take the wind out of your sails or did it drive you forward? Or both?

No, but I feel like this may be because publicly showcasing my artistic endeavors is still relatively new for me, so there could be a contingent “yet” in there somewhere. 

Can a piece of writing fail, or is that a bullshit notion?

Not bullshit. Words are leaky containers that gesture outside of themselves for meaning. You can’t ever shake the blank page, the shadow of negation, from behind a sentence. Writing is a cover-up. And even in orality, utterance is merely the imperfect staccato that punctuates silence and unknowing (only death is pristine). But you know, I think it’s a good thing; I think we spend far too much time trying to forget our mortality and not nearly enough residing comfortably in the insufficiencies of language. So from me, you get an emphatic and joyful yes! Writing can fail, because it always fails. And a poem will demonstrate this well: flirting with its own ruptures, summoning inadequacy from the apices of artifice, and asking to be embraced regardless. I think that’s what attracts us to poetry, perhaps to all language—that it fails, beautifully.


 listen chen lives in vancouver and mucks around with words