REVIEW: When I Grow Up I Want To Be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen

Published by: BOA Editions Ltd.

Release Date:April 17, 2017
Genres: Poetry; Asian-American
Pages: 208
Format: Print
Rating: five-stars
Source: BOA Editions Ltd.

Description (Amazon): In this ferocious and tender debut, Chen Chen investigates inherited forms of love and family—the strained relationship between a mother and son, the cost of necessary goodbyes—all from Asian American, immigrant, and queer perspectives. Holding all accountable, this collection fully embraces the loss, grief, and abundant joy that come with charting one’s own path in identity, life, and love.


I will be the first to admit: I dont read poetry because I dont understand it. We all recall reading Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening” and Yeats’ “The Second Coming” at school. My most embarrassing moment was reciting “The Road Not Taken” for extra credit and then completely freezing on the second stanza (kudos to me for remember this poetry term). To further convince you that I am a very unqualified reviewer, I had to Google how to quote poetry (even so, I am not sure I have done so correctly).

Like most people, I am a heavy consumer of music (basically vocalized poetry), especially songs with meaningful (read: hipster) lyrics, so it’s strange that I dont have the same appreciation for poems.

However, “When I Grow Up I Want To Be a List of Further Possibilities” by Chen Chen is the book of poetry that has managed to convince me to remotely like poetry. It is because of this book that I am looking forward to exploring works from modern poets.

This is pretty high praise.

Let me explain. Chen Chen’s poems are infused with quirkiness, honesty, and humor and a sprinkle of despondency. For instance, these lines:

  • “I am not the heterosexual net freak freak my mother raised me to be./ I am a gay sipper, & my mother has placed what’s let of her hope on my brothers.”
  • “I’m not a religious person. I thought/ I’d made this clear to God by reading Harry Potter & not attending/ church except for gay weddings.”

His self portrait poems, especially, capture the emotional upheaval of his identity. As Jericho Brown writes in the forward, this collection asks readers to do one thing: to feel. These feelings require deep empathy–we are asked to identify with an Asian American, immigrant, and queer artist, someone who I, personally, rarely encounter. Despite not knowing one single person who fits into this unique “box”, I felt Chen Chen was a close personal friend who was entrusting me with his secrets. While reading, I was humored and let down my defenses. It is at these moments that the poems almost got too personal, and I found myself startled by my emotions, choking back tears even on a second read.

To illustrate, here’s my favorite poem in the collection:


The narrator in this poem is struggling with his separate identities. His childhood is filled with Asian American elements that I related to (look how much I circled!): Journey to the West, pet fish, Chinese lessons, immigration, and concerned mom. Familial tension is evident as members as separate across states and even continents: “Without my father, for a year, because he had to move away,/ to the one job he could find, on the other side of the state.” & “With my mother’s long-distance calls./ With my aunt’s calls from China”.

The narrator is straddled between two countries. He is attentive to “the earthquake in my other country” as well as 9/11 (“when the towers fell), school shootings (“With the morning the children, spared or missed by the child with a gun”)–all problems still inherent in America. At the same time, he is still a boy who is searching for love from another boy. This pain voices rises above the other anxieties. We all know what unrequited love feels like and can imagine the person who you desire most “calling [you] ugly” because of your ethnicity, you with your “knees on the floor” praying to be white–“for straighter teeth, lighter skin, blue eyes, green eyes.” Praying for a life vastly different than in the poem, a life “other than mine”. This feeling hits home and hits hard.

Here are a few other modern poets & poems you should look into. I’ve included my favorite lines 

  • Danez Smith: “poem where I be & you just might”
    • “but my body/ made up a rumor about your body/ &wants to prove it true. forgive him.”
  • Ocean Vuong: “Someday I’ll Love”
    • “Ocean. Ocean,/ get up. The most beautiful part of your body/ is where it’s headed. & remember,/ loneliness is still time spent/ with the world.”
  • Nayyirah Waheed:
    • “she asked/ ‘you are in love,/ what does love look like’/ to which i replied/ ‘like everything i’ve ever lost/ come back to me.’”
  • Shinji Moon:
    • “There is a shipwreck between your ribs. You are a box with/ fragile written on it, and so many people have not handled you with care./ And for the first time, I understand that I will never know/ how to apologize for being/ one of them.”
  • Lang Leav:
    • “I wanted everything because I didnt want anything enough.”


Thank you to the lovely people at BOA Editions for sending me a copy of the book for review.


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