Sunday, March 6, 2011

An Evening with Chinese American poet and lawyer Ken Chen

Ken Chen 陳聖為came to our area last Thursday to read and discuss selected poems from his award winning book Juvenilia.  This was what one of the announcements said: “Mr. Ken Chen will be at the Brookdale Community College for reading and discussion of his poems and experience.  Ken received his B.A. degree in English from U.C. Berkeley and J.D. degree from Yale Law School in 2005.  He was born and grew up in California.  His parents are immigrants from Taiwan.  As a young attorney, Ken successfully represented the asylum claim of a Guinean teenager who had been detained by the Department of Homeland Security.  The case was named one of the top ten most significant pro bono cases of 2007 by American Lawyer and profiled by The New York Post, Essence, and The New York Times.  

Ken is the 2009 recipient of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, the oldest annual literary award in the United States. He is currently the Executive Director of The Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Ken will be reading and discuss selected poems from his award winning book Juvenilia. As Louise Glück, winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize of Poetry wrote in her foreword, “The power and originality of this collection owe in part to Chen’s use of immigrant displacement as a metaphor for the adult’s relation to his childhood, or origins.”  Ken will share, through Q&A, his personal experience of growing up as a second generation Chinese American.  Did he have a “Tiger Mom?”  What advice would he give to “Tiger Moms”?  How did he manage his urge to be a poet while working as an attorney?  Did his parents support his decision to abandon his legal career?  What advice would he give to young Asian Americans in pursuing their dreams?  Join us and discover answers to these and more.

How interesting and exciting! Ken Chen is a second generation Chinese American at an age similar to our children’s. In his opening poem My Father and My Mother decide My Future and How Could we Forget Wang Wei 王維? Ken says “…Dropped the keys in toilet.  But that’s what life is like. You’re young, my Father says. I’m not sure to me or Wang Wei, You don’t understand the world, the world which loves those who enter it …” I swear I did not pressure my kids into any particular professional career, did I?  Not too often we get a chance to meet in person and hear from a young and promising Chinese American like him in pursuit of literature. Not too often we get to meet with an obviously bright young man who is still searching his ways while living off his passions.  

“And then Wang Wei: Red hearts in the southern country紅豆生南國 Spring comes with stems enlarging春來發幾枝I didn’t know you two were still together...” Similar to many who grew up and were educated in Taiwan, I had learned and impressed with many famous Chinese poems and classics, but I am totally ignorant with English poetry and found the subject rather difficult.  The depth of language barrier seems overwhelming when I attempted to translate poems between Chinese and English.  Sometimes, I would run into poems that I simply had to declare it is hopeless and gave up on my attempt as the metaphors and the sentiment are so foreign in the other culture and experience.  Have you ever wondered what happens if you translate a Chinese poem to English and then back to Chinese?  Have you ever doubted when you read a work which has been translated two times from original to English and then to Chinese?  The truth is I bought his book and tried to read his poems unsuccessfully last year after I heard about it from news reports.

The evening reading and discussion by Ken continues.  Once the background and context of the poem was told, it became so much easier to follow the drift and leap back and forth in time and space with his thoughts.  It is no longer a futile exercise of finding paths while lost in woods.  It is now a joy ride as one makes turns and jumps in winding roads of imagination.  I did have a slight disagreement with Ken’s comments on movies like Inception in explaining the style of some of his poems.  I thought the analogy did not do justice to his poems which lead the readers to infinite spaces and time to regurgitate and explore for themselves.  Yeah, I can see more the influence of the work of art movie director Wang Kar-Wai.  The narratives, the effortless flows, and the lone emotion that bubbles up through the calm on the surface from time to time bring one to parallel worlds until you can’t distinguish them. 

Ken read his Dramatic Monologue Against the Self in his beautiful voice.  I bet he can become a great singer if he wants to. Um, perhaps I should suggest that to him since he seems still open to ventures with abundance of creativity.  Best song writer and singers are often great poets, you know. “My name is Ken Chen.  For my essay today, the organizers of this panel have procured a microphone named…”  Wait, it is about a sub presenter.  So this is Ken who reads a poem about someone who presents Ken’s essay as if he was a sub.  “- Well, to be honest, I don’t know if I buy this…”

Although Ken Chen has chosen not to continue with his career in legal system, his western legal training did get reflected through his vivid insight about the truth came out of the rubbles of the collision of adversarial arguments.  His poem Adversarial makes the point: ”…a thirteen-year old girl tells van Gogh that food is better than painting.  If he stops painting, she says, he will live.  If he stops eating, he will die. … if we stop painting, we will live, but if we do not love one another, we will die...” Hold on, say again; how did hungry love fall off from a logical argument?  “If everyone is equally unique, then everyone is equally replaceable.”

Ken is witty, charismatic and more grounded than you might be led to believe by his resumes and portraits.  Yes, the new sideburns, mustache and beard helped if you looked at photo of him last year.  His sensitivity with humanity is clear from his pro bono work as a lawyer and his literary work. The biggest surprise for me was that he has spent a lot of his energy and time in business-niz stuffs with his association and work in non-profit organizations.  He obviously can be successful in doing anything he chooses to.  I am impressed that he had already left his marks on legal system and literature at such a young age.  I wish him well.

If you found the flow of this blog a little unusual, I was merely trying to borrow a little of Ken’s style in his poems.  Not sure how successful my attempt was but the evening with Ken was very enjoyable and rewarding.  If you are interest in learning more, you should read his work.  Talk to you soon!

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