Phoned-In #19: Feng Sun Chen by Luke Degnan & Jeff Nagy

In episode #19 of Phoned-In, poet Feng Sun Chen reads from Butcher’s Tree and blud.

Fengcover Body

Feng Sun Chen, currently an MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota, does not pull punches in the fresh-cut Butcher’s Tree (Black Ocean), nor in her earlier chapbooks blud (Spork Press), Ugly Fish (Radioactive Moat), and Paul Thek (self-published). In these rebuses, your southern Uncle Remus’s reinterpreted with an unplaceable accent, all the rather many potatoes shall be oralized, airily, potAto, verily, verily. So try to get that in your head, Mr.

The poems in Butcher’s Tree Slap Chop authorial voices into an oracular mixed contemporary, swallowing tongues as worn smooth as St. Peter’s toe and regirding them with new grit: a respect for digesting tradition as corrosive to that tradition as stomach bile. In “Play” we are invited to “burn up the futurist museums.” But when the paintings are brought back to life, or so, they’re less Severini’s trains than Soutine’s turbinal carcasses—specimens in a pulsating, mutant meat market, of indeterminate genre, gender, species, space-time. In Butcher’s Tree’s final sequence, a retelling of Beowulf mashed up with The Tempest, The Odyssey, The Little Mermaid and god only knows what else, Grendel’s male tongue is “castrated” by “the sea witch,” leaving a voiceless castrato—but “[This Grendel Is A Woman],” and can psych-sing in (parens) if you’ll ferret the melody down into its warren and out the other side with your unneutered eye.

In the kingdom of the blind, the man with one eye is bluffing. Argos-eyed Chen, dreaming the archival dream, is a one-woman blind man’s bluff at the center of the cultural panopticon, pulling the so-called American hybrid inside out, like trying to vomit up your coccyx. You gotta dig deep, deeper than that.

On a break from her tentacularly diversified web presences, from blog to Tumblr to Action-affiliate left-field necrotheory site Montevidayo to collaborative advice column cowritten by “cheeks,” Feng Sun Chen and I recently sat down together at our respective terminals to do some digging via gchat. The last first word to my forthcoming coccyx, who chooses on this occasion to quote our august guest, who writes, in “Fourth of July”:

I am small, I am small. Here comes the parade! All that beauty!

I want to die! I want to die!

I want to die!

(Hear hear), my coccyx says, (here here).

me: hi, feng, how are you?

ready for chaos?

Feng: yes. i am great when waiting for chaos

me: the wait is over

so – i have some prepared questions to ask you, but i thought this way maybe there could be some more elasticity in the conversation

2:05 PM as long as you’re ok with it

Feng: yes. did u ever see Antichrist?

i am thinking about the fox

me: i saw the trailer but never managed to catch it

Feng: there is a fox that says “chaos reigns”

me: i did see melancholia though

Feng: in really bad CG

me: as in a voiceover?

2:06 PM Feng: yes. it haunts me

melancholia is awesome

that is my answer to your question

me: the question about the voiceover?

Feng: it was a voiceover

2:07 PM me: now that’s what i call an answer to my question

Feng: :)

me: should i ask a real one?

Feng: sure

me: here goes:

Let’s start maybe by pulling this tree out by the roots. Or on the other hand, the same one, to start totally superficially: Butcher’s Tree is backed by blurbs from Lara Glenum and Ariana Reines, the former associated with Gurlesque, as the latter once more forcefully was, although she now trafficks more in some singular ghost that shimmered out of its lame’ corpse. But after having read the book, I was wondering about how you see your work in relation to those very recent foremothers, which relationship doesn’t seem, to me at least, at all straightforward. Your tactical distortion of fables and general avoidance of pop culture namechecks put me in mind more often of Elizabeth Bishop, say, than Chelsea Minnis.

2:08 PM Feng: i definitely agree

i think that the reason why they ended up writing those blurbs was because Janaka (editor) asked me about what poets I liked, and I listed them

2:09 PM actually I was mortified that they ended up reading the book

me: ha!

Feng: but I personally appreciate different types of writing so maybe it wasn’t that bad

I like Bishop, for example

2:10 PM I think when I wrote the book, I was in that stage of my writing infancy

me: i was thinking as i was reading it that it was in conversation with a much deeper tradition than i’d been expecting from the back

which was interesting

2:11 PM can i ask you, without meaning to be leading, if you associate that with a kind of authorial infancy?

2:12 PM Feng: to me, yes, because I was an undergraduate taking workshop classes and reading stuff like Plath

and Anne Carson

if being a writer is a “life” then that was how I was born

I don’t think I’m an adult now or anything. I’m a teenager

2:13 PM me: that’s a fast ascent to adolescence

hormones in the cow-millk

Feng: haha yes

I have zits now

me: Is this chronologically, of your work to appear, the first written?

metaphorical zits or actual (follow up question)

Feng: yup

metaphorical and real

2:14 PM the metaphorical ones are more serious, like cysts

me: imaginary gardens with real zits in them

like marianne moore’s ‘poetry’

2:15 PM i was thinking that your book’s inclusiveness in its aesthetic felt almost polemical in relation to much more pointed ways of proceeding—any of the various -esques or -isms

Feng: that’s interesting

me: any of these movements, some of whose forebears (futurism, surrealism, imagism, etc.) are namechecked in the collection

2:16 PM was that anything you were thinking about? or, how do you metabolize history?

Feng: i think about it the way my mother decorates her home

2:17 PM she is transplanted, and doesn’t have a sense of “theme” or consistency in the way she does interior design

in a way, the different types of decorating/aesthetics are flat to her

me: so that she can put anything in?

2:18 PM Feng: she has random paintings that look italian next to traditional asian poetry calligraphy

she has an indoor fountain with rhinos on it next to tropical things

and ikea stuff

me: but rhinos ARE tropical

Feng: that is true

but i mean in the sense of paradise

2:19 PM like how some people decorate with beach imagery

me: paradise as a place where all aesthetics are equal?

Feng: i mean, palm trees = paradise

she doesn’t think it’s confusing or weird to have like, all that stuff together in the same room

me: if we carry this from your mother to you, then, do you feel similarly transplanted (you were, actually transplanted, right)?

2:20 PM Feng: yes, but I don’t usually feel it. I only see it when I think about it

2:21 PM I have this irrational belief or fear that I don’t have enough feelings

or that I don’t feel things

but I only write feelings

2:23 PM me: well, if you can feel in all these different ways, all these different, incoherent ways of having incoherent feelings, the idea of “really” feeling some “real” feeling seems sort of absurd

2:24 PM Feng: yes, i agree with that

me: and i was thinking it went something like that for writing: if you can write in all of these histories and styles, really write, what is “real” writing?

me: but that even though people might now pay a lot of lip service to that, actually doing it can be a pretty aggressive gesture

Feng: haha yes. i sometimes think about being in America and how expressive people expect you to be

me: right: people here are very earnest

2:25 PM even the poets

Feng: yes, poets should have lots of “feelings”

and they do

me: poets should have lots of “feelings” or lots of feelings?

Feng: both

me: since you said you only have the former…

2:26 PM Feng: i think earnestness is weird.

i don’t have that many “feelings” so i feel like the girl who sits by herself in the cafeteria

me: perfect segue

i was just going to ask, what’s up with potatoes?

2:27 PM Feng: hehehe

potatoes are awesome

i think it began as a joke with lucas de lima

Feng: and after the tony hoagland thing—he was trying to talk about talking about race as a poet

Feng: and he said something like hey look i dug up a dirty potato

and that was his metaphor for this racist tennis poem

2:28 PM me: wow

Feng: but lucas and I were talking a lot about vulnerability, shame, and having to be powerful or seem powerful

2:29 PM and we like how Zurita writes about his cheek

and I think potatoes are like the perfect cheek

it’s all cheek

me: that’s really interesting

Feng: and they sit in the ground while all this shit happens above and leaks down

me: so red potatoes are all blush

Feng: yes

2:30 PM if you turn the potato cheek it’s like, infinite cheek

me: i had some idea it was connected to deleuze and rhizomatic subjectivity, but a much darker version, like the blind tuberous subject instead of the rhizomatic, emancipated schizosubject

“My true face is that of a potato. I have many eyes, but see nothing.” (“Terminal Conversation”)

Feng: right. the Mr potato head

me: without the swappable parts

Feng: but it’s also inviting them

2:31 PM me: i did have a nasty tendency to lose and/or eat those

Feng: haha

that was the whole point. it’s very disturbing

me: a mr. potato head who’s all orifices – like with extra orifices

and then what goes there?

Feng: i like the chinese origin story of hundun

which is that chaos was this huge egg/potato shape

2:32 PM when the spirits decided to pierce orifices into it, it died

me: then what?

Feng: that was it. they wanted to stab it in honor of one of its sons of something

2:33 PM and then all suffering began or something. heaven and earth

me: what’s in the hole, though?

Feng: that is the question

2:34 PM me: So in addition to writing about potato-people, is there a way in which you potato yourself through writing, or is there a julienned lyrical I, or…? What I’m saying is, is this meat-and-potatoes poetry, or just poetry ABOUT meat-and-potatoes, and if which how so?

(i knew potatoes would be fruitful)

2:35 PM Feng: i think sometimes i can’t help being a potato. but writing is hard and sometimes inevitably distancing, which means that I end up cooking it

me: like “cooking the books”?

Feng: yeah. or whatever that raw and cooked stuff means.

i like sushi

me: i was thinking like “faking the accounts”

2:36 PM but raw and cooked makes sense too

Feng: oh right. i just saw breaking bad

me: cooking the meth

Feng: skyler cooked the books too

Feng: i think i have to fake accounts when i write

me: why?

2:37 PM Feng: um, i don’t know. it doesn’t feel like it, but if i were explaining it to someone who doesn’t understand metaphor or is very literal, i have to tell them that i lie about things, and that’s what poetry is

2:38 PM that’s what one of my teachers said. actually i don’t believe it

i just lied again

me: do you associate that with the fabular tone of the poems in butcher’s tree? like, that frame is a way of being honest about it?

Feng: see, this is what i meant by chaos

me: it’s raining

(i lied. it rained yesterday in nyc)

Feng: i definitely agree with my friend who says that poetry makes her feel real, more real than real life

2:39 PM the means to that include all sorts of fabulousness

or not. like, lots of writing is not like that at all

and it feels real

me: even your own newer work

Feng: that it’s not like that? or that it’s full of fab?

me: well, both

2:40 PM or that it doesn’t need the fabular to feel more real than real

Feng: yes

me: i’m thinking about the poems that we published in the claudius app, for example

2:41 PM which are much less allied to storytelling, much more deformed in terms of syntax

but which also feel super-propulsive in this realer-than-real way

what happened between the two?

2:42 PM Feng: um, thinking about different things

in the secret amazon poems, i keep thinking or hearing about terrible things. there is no way to talk about them or tell a story

i think in BT the subjects were less painful

me: (i have to ask about poems called bomb in an interview for BOMB)

Feng: haha yes

2:43 PM i can’t talk about bombs

but they’re everywhere

i have no understanding of them, how they work

they have “nothing to do with me” but they have everything to do with everyone

me: is “the secret amazon poems” a complete forthcoming group?

2:44 PM Feng: kind of. they’re a clump of poems that came from the same place

with amazons and bombs

me: if you don’t feel, how are some subjects more painful than others?

2:45 PM Feng: maybe i should have said feel joy, which would make more sense. but as for pain, i think it’s like going deaf after hearing the same sound over and over again.

2:46 PM but not even a loud sound

me: until the sound has nothing to do with you? since you’re deaf?

Feng: because my life is definitely of the joyful variety

no, it’s still there

like a thought

and low frequency vibrations

2:47 PM me: both kinds of poems for you do seem interested in this kind of public speech or speaking for everyone—and i’m thinking of the kind of almost-oratory that flares up in poetry every once in awhile

like, ben lerner does this sometimes or geoffrey g. o’brien

2:48 PM is that something you’re drawn to, albeit in a vastly different style?

Feng: weird, i never thought about it that way

i am not sure what you mean. is this about universal things?

me: i used my potato-head to come up with this one, probably

2:49 PM well, i was thinking that fabular narratives draw on a common speech, or a genre held in common

Feng: oh i see


i am interested in how things pass through the body

me: and the newer poems get to a similar universality, but through not having anything to do with you and everything to do with everyone

2:50 PM i was really struck by how bodily the poems are definitely

are these two things connected for you?

Feng: i think so

the idea of being part of everything is horrifying

me: i was thinking of the butcher’s tree poems especially as like “meatscapes”

“I will leave your flesh on the mountains, and fill the valleys with your carcass”

2:51 PM Feng: yes. i think kim hyesoon is the queen of that

me: i don’t know her work (confession)

2:52 PM Feng: she is so awesome. you should read all the garbage of the world unite

me: i will!

that title rings a bell actually

Feng: everything i do is like a diluted version of her density

me: density isn’t everything

Feng: i also agree with that

2:53 PM if everything were really maximally dense, we’d be like, at the beginning without the universe

me: chaos

2:54 PM before the orifice

Feng: yes, before the 9 holes

me: that’s such a nice omphalos we should almost stop right here

but i want to ask like three more questions

Feng: sure

2:55 PM me: i definitely wanted to ask about the role of hybrids—between genres, genders, species, traditions

Feng: what a great word i just learned, omphalos


me: see—if we do this in gchat you can google and noone’s the wiser

(i’ll strike that bit)

2:56 PM well, i was wondering how the hybrids relate, like, across levels

Feng: levels?

me: there are all these circulating hybrids—the grendel sequence being the perfect storm of this

grendel is male/female, human/animal

2:57 PM but also drawn from beowulf, the little mermaid, and the tempest

so there’s hybridization IN the text, and hybridization OF texts

me: and i was wondering about, i guess, the combination of hybrid tactics with hybrid voices

2:58 PM Feng: oh, like the characters?

me: i guess i wanted to ask this because of earlier what you were saying about your mother’s interior design

Feng: yes

2:59 PM me: sure, the characters ARE hybrids, but the narrative they’re in is itself cobbled to an extent from bits and pieces of other narratives

now i’m going to put a question mark here, retrospectively making all of that a question

? (my voice lifts)

Feng: haha


3:00 PM i’m thinking about vomit

me: that sounds promising (i say earnestly)

3:01 PM Feng: i am not really sure how that was a question. but i will try to answer

me: if you can’t, i want to know what you were thinking about vomit

Feng: i was thinking about how difficult it is to digest everything

and how some of it is purged

3:02 PM perhaps the reasons for and methods of purging are different

certain combinations of food will make a person vomit

3:03 PM but as for the hybrid characters and tactics and stuff, i think it has to do with how i don’t have an identity.

it’s not like double consciousness

me: is it like purging the undigestible?

Feng: which is often a way of framing immigrant narratives

me: that’s true

3:04 PM Feng: yeah, to look at it. how they were all in the same place in the tummy, where you couldn’t see them. but if you vomit then you can see how they were being digested together

me: poetry as ultrasound or abortion

3:05 PM Feng: yeah. explaining things with other things

i’m always other things

other than me

me: last question

what are you now then?

Feng: difficult question!

3:06 PM me: (as a way of framing an interview narrative)

Feng: i am…

the wrong answers

me: or the secret ones

3:07 PM Feng: yes

maybe wrong things are secrets

me: i like that much better than secrets are wrong

Feng: me too

me: anything else for the record?

3:08 PM was there something you wish i’d asked?

Feng: wow i don’t know.

me: (this is my virgin interview for BOMB)

Feng: anything nothing to do with poetry?

i like this interview

3:09 PM me: man, i was just typing “what are you wearing?,” which is something a friend i talk to once a month or so always asks in an entirely non-sexual way

Feng: haha

3:10 PM i am wearing a shirt with tiny giraffes on it. i put it on wrong, so one arm wasn’t in the sleeve. so then i took the other arm out and am wearing a shirt as a tube top. the color being the top opening. and some brown pants that are too big.

i mean, collar

so i have sleeves under my armpits

and dirty socks

are you going to tell what you are wearing?

me: i like the color being the top opening

3:11 PM Feng: me too

me: um

i’m wearing a ratty tshirt that says “if it wiggles” on the front and “it’s worth it” on the back

Feng: haha

me: the name of my freshman dorm in college was “wigglesworth”

i should wear it as a tube top so the text wouldn’t be visible

Feng: that is great

3:12 PM me: thank you

Feng: thank YOU

me: and thank you for the interview!

Feng: yes, thank us

3:13 PM so this is the end?

me: the only problem with a gchat interview is concluding it

Feng: yeah

me: like, do you hang up first?

Feng: i really like pusheen the cat

me: or do i?

Feng: i will conclude with pusheen the cat

me: is there a link for that


me: i will click it and know that i have reached the end


Feng’s first book is Butcher’s Tree from Black Ocean. She is also the author of chapbooks and experiments Ugly Fish from Radioactive Moat, blud from Spork Press and other stuff. Recent poems appear on her blog, in Conduit, Kill Author, The Claudius App, Radioactive Moat and other places. She is currently a graduate assistant and MFA student at the University of Minnesota, and sometimes blogs for

Jeff Nagy is a poet and co-editor of The Cladius App: A journal of fast poetry.

Luke Degnan is an audio engineer, a poet, and a musician. He has received countless accolades from highly respected institutions.

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