Feng Sun Chen – First Book Interview

Interview by Kallie Falandays with Feng Sun Chen, the author of Butcher’s Tree from Black Ocean

How did you come up with a title for your book?
This actually came from the help of my editors, because I couldn’t decide or come up with a satisfying title. My editor Janaka took a phrase from one of my poems that stood out to him, and I felt that he made a good choice.

How long did it take you to write your book?
About a year.

In your poems, naked moles, voles, and witches speak. Where did these ideas stem from?
These are the floating characters in my head from the static that comes from popular culture and bits of mythology my parents grew up with, which I am alienated from but nevertheless familiar with. I think that the speakers in these poems are secondary to the feelings they carry, since vessels are somewhat interchangeable, but my choice of who and how they are represented is always deliberate.

How did you come up with the various names for the book sections? [Milk Vein], [Wolf Teeth], and [Grendel is a Woman]?
I’m not sure. I believe that since I found that so much of the book had to do with viscera and parts of the body, it would seem natural to have titles that combine anatomy and references to larger themes.

The last section of your book, [Grendel is a Woman] features one long poem. Did this begin as one poem or did you create the poems separately?

This was always a long poem in my head, but each section also had its own space on the page, and I worked on them as such, but always kept in mind how each part is connected to whole piece.

Were these poems created in the order they appear? How did you decide the order of the poems?

I believe my editors again had a huge role is helping me order the poems in the first 2 sections of the book. They saw an arc in it that I was unable to see because I was so close to my own work. Since I’m quite flexible with my “visions” of what my projects should look like, their input had maximal impact on the final outcome, because most of the time I would agree with their choices.

How many places did you send your manuscript before it got picked up?

I can’t even remember! I sent it to so many places that rejected it. Black Ocean was a total surprise. It felt like something just fell out of the sky.

Many of your poems seemed placed in myth. What are some of your favorite myths or legends?

The Little Mermaid, Sun Wu Kong, Pinocchio, A.I., Blade Runner, Melancholia, Tropical Malady.

Who are 5 of your contemporary poetic influences?

Lately, I like Inger Christensen’s “It,” Madeleine Thien, Debbie Hu (herself and the poets she introduces me to), James Baldwin (all his stuff), and Mary Gaitskill.

If you had to describe your book in one sentence, what would that sentence sound like?
The sentence would sound like the heartbeat and bubbling you hear when you’re submerged in murky water.

What was the worst part of having your book published?
I felt anxious and ashamed for a long time because by the time it was published, I felt like it was an outdated version of who I was as a writer. I had to come to terms with my past before I felt comfortable having it as my first book.

What is the title of the last poem you’ve written?
Spiritual Death.

What are some dream journals you’d like to be published in?
I would like to appear in my friends’ and lovers’ dream journals.

Where do you (or would you like to) see yourself or your poems in 5 years?
I want to be a strong and powerful witch in 5 years.
my blog (which I hardly keep up with) is fengsunchen.wordpress.com