Set the Garden on Fire


by Chen Chen

This is the story of how a man is made up of everything from the cleaver his mother wields in the kitchen to the wonder pulled down from an evening a 13 year old spends draped in the arms of tree under the stars, running shoes laced for a proper leaving. It’s about identity and becoming, and the pain and the beauty in growing up a boy desiring other boys, the son caught between a father’s image and complicated, gorgeously messy reality, and the straddling of at least two cultures & citizenship. Even in the sharper moments, blade-edged and unflinching, this book remains somehow tender. (Porkbelly Press, 2015)

48 pages
inkjet cover
open edition

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from "Tell Me a Story of Deep Delight"

Thank you, my parents, for being poor,
for taking me to the library
with the rocking horse.
You didn’t have to feed it coins,
& my small body could push forth
whole Sunday hours, riding.

Thank you for letting me pick out
my own books, walk them on my own two feet
to the counter. Do you remember?
I could peer up & watch the librarian
roll her wand of changing dates
in its pad of red ink. Red is lucky—
thank you for telling me that.
Thank you for the way
you made the days pass, lucky.

& thank you for asking me to read
to you, for saying, What happens next?
Tell me.

from "Tale of the Heart and the Knife"

You talk about them so tenderly, my friend says. How do you do that?
     We are talking about my parents & I don’t know the answer.
I remember an uncle’s van, Xiamen, the first time back in fifteen years.
     The uncle’s Mandarin too fast & local, I turned to my parents,
Where in the city are we now? & they looked at their hands like maps,
     strange maps they could no longer read. I remember the doctor:
It’s strange, your mother’s still fairly young… I remember being fifteen,
     nineteen, yelling at my father You don’t know anything.
I remember my father yelling You won’t be happy living that lifestyle.
     & after a bad break-up I thought maybe he was right.
My father never yelled, even on the road when someone was idiotic
     & dangerous & I wanted him to. My father didn’t yell
until I yelled, howled I hate you I hate you till my own heart hurt
     but my wolf-mouth was not done would not be done no
I have not always been tender.



Chen Chen holds a BA from Hampshire College and an MFA from Syracuse University, where he was a University Fellow. He has also received fellowships from Kundiman and the Saltonstall Foundation. New work has appeared/is forthcoming in PoetryNarrative, The Massachusetts ReviewCrab Orchard Review, and The Best American Poetry 2015, among others. Chen is the winner of the Matt Clark Editors’ Choice Award, from New Delta Review, and the Joyce Carol Oates Award, selected by Ishion Hutchinson. A 2015 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships, he is currently a PhD candidate in English & Creative Writing at Texas Tech University and lives in Lubbock, TX with his partner, Jeff Gilbert. Visit him at



Nicci splits her time between exploring, telling tales, and painting girls with inky tattoos. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with a pack of roomies & rescue animals specializing in troublemaking and joy. IG: @wickedlittleheart.



“Chen Chen has made his poems partly out of anger and partly out of wonder. The wonder comes from the celebration of the beloved and expanding notions of desire. Chen has the intellectual discernment to identify the disparities and rifts and indignities in citizenship and identity. In his chapbook Set the Garden on Fire, he has brought these ideas together with, well, incendiary effect.”

–Bruce Smith, author of Devotions



“The Tale of the Heart & the Knife” was nominated for a Pushcart in 2015 



reviewed by Toby Altman via Entropy
reviewed by Linda Ashok via The Rumpus
interview with Chen Chen by Jee Yoon Lee via Writing Like an Asian
interview at Lantern Review Blog



When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, Ltd, 2017)**
Kissing the Sphinx (Two of Cups Press, 2016)

** full length collection, winner of the 15th annual A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize.