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.

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.

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities


BOA Editions

"This is a book that is part elegy for the past and part love song for the future." —Victoria Chang

"This is a book I will return to whenever I forget what a poem can do, whenever I am in need of song or hope." —Aracelis Girmay

BOA Editions


Trident Booksellers (Boston)


Barnes & Noble


Get the UK edition (Bloodaxe Books, 2019).

For a signed copy, get in touch:


National Book Award Longlist * Winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) New Writers Award, the Writers’ League of Texas Book Award in Poetry, and the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry * Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry Finalist * Stonewall Honor Book in Literature * A "Best of 2017" poetry book, according to The Adroit Journal, The Brooklyn Rail, Buzzfeed Books, Entropy, and Library Journal

“Chen reminds us in this tender and free-wheeling debut that all relationships are ‘a feat of engineering’, whether with one’s country, one’s family, or oneself.” —Mary Jean Chan, The Guardian (on the UK edition)

“Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up… is a debut collection that cannot be ignored. This collection is by turns comic, dark, self-obsessed, playful, and restless. …This is a book whose narrator is bursting at the seams with energy because he has so much to say. …His strategies of association allow him to say a lot, connect a lot, and feel fresh. These poems are embracing of our human flaws while also turning to the positive connections we make in our lives.” —Judges, GLCA New Writers Award 

“As the title suggests, in Chen’s work the new lyric ‘I’ is open-ended, cumulative, marked by potential. His poems boast the frank ease of a late night Gchat with a bright, emotionally available friend… Chen has an avid eye for everyday details that bridge emotional, domestic, and cultural landscapes. …It’s a bracingly wry meta-reflection on his story of identity—the loving particulars balanced by a dose of filial bitterness. Chen is a rarity among this new cohort of poets.“ —Jesse Lichtenstein, The Atlantic

“Chen balances the politics surrounding shame and desire with hearty doses of joy, humor, and whimsy in his vibrant debut collection. To consider the titular act of growing up—to recognize what potential could mean—Chen must make sense of his past to imagine a better future in his poems… As a gay, Asian-American poet, Chen casts his poems as both a refusal of the shame of sexuality and of centering whiteness or treating it as a highly desirable trait. Readers encounter sharp, delightful turns between poems, as Chen shifts from elegy to ode and back again… Moving between whimsy and sobriety, Chen both exhibits and defies vulnerability—an acute reminder that there are countless further possibilities.” —Publishers Weekly ★ 

“Visually vivid, erotic and intimate, at times bitingly funny, and refreshingly world-observant, Chen’s poems are steeped in the pain of being other as both Asian American and gay… The standout poem ‘First Light’ enumerates many different, often outré ways Chen envisions having come to this country, embodying the kind of imagination it takes to adapt to a new culture. Throughout, there’s ratcheted-up emotion yet an amazing command of language: ‘I carried in my snake mouth a boxful / of carnal autobiographies’ says the world. VERDICT: An A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize winner; expansive work for expansive audiences.” —Library Journal 

“Chen’s debut, When I Grow Up… is a masterpiece of arrival and revelation. Rarely does a poet announce every aspect of himself with so much candor, while still playing with all the dark and light that comes with that. There is joy in identity in these pages, a feeling I’d long forgotten… Chen’s greatest act of defiance here might be that he doesn’t want to provide the answers—he turns it over to us, the readers, to piece for ourselves.” —Porochista Khakpour, Virginia Quarterly Review

“Chen’s work approaches the lyric with a vibrant, wicked sense of humor. At times essayistic, at times conversational… his sentences are perfect spies; we never quite see the magic coming.” —Franny Choi, The Massachusetts Review

“Chen’s poetry transgresses the space between vulnerability and surrender, a steady pulse against the tides of forgetting. His loss of self is not delineated by an explicit anti-identity, but instead a subtle reconfiguration of the subjective… The radical empathy in Chen Chen’s poetry is a practice of amnesty—even in moments of anger his words are not vengeful… Chen Chen writes that he is ‘dreaming of one day being as fearless as a mango.’ And I am dreaming of one day being an orange with my mother’s thumb rooted in the rind." —Angie Sijun Lou, American Poetry Review

“Then there was the time I came home from teaching one night in spring, when my in-laws happened to be visiting. I’d left my copy of When I Grow Up… on the coffee table, and an hour or so later found my 83-year-old mother-in-law in the middle of it, reading with fascination… what makes his work so infinitely appealing is its capacity to bring every kind of reader back to what poetry is supposed to be in the first place—a space of endless and transformative possibility, of buoyancy, of radical joy. —Luisa A. Igloria, RHINO

“Chen excels at uncovering the simultaneous hilarity and trauma of the everyday… The poems are funny and uncomfortable and honest in their attempt to tell a story, relying on transparency rather than artifice… In the foreword… poet Jericho Brown writes, ‘The major question of this book is how to feel.’ As the title of the book and its eponymous poem suggests, maybe there isn’t one right answer. Or, on the other hand, the answer isn’t as important as the process of looking for it.“ —Michelle Betters, Ploughshares

“The jubilantly titled debut from Chen Chen weaves together his complex narrative as an immigrant and a queer man. The poems are full of wisdom and wit, engaging with the slow revelation of the poet’s sense of self but also with metaphysics, psychology, and the cosmos.” —Jennifer Michael Hecht, American Poets

“Chen’s collection is filled with versatility… Each poem is its own little narrative, an ode, an elegy, playful to grim to playful. Each poem reflecting questions asked in new and brilliant ways, and a mind that won’t settle for anything but the truth. May this be the first book of many.“ —Haven Gomez, The Texas Review

When I Grow Up… by Chen Chen is the latest A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize winner from BOA Editions, and it’s easy to understand why… When Chen describes the sea as making ‘a sort of sensual / moo’ or when he dreams of ‘one day being as fearless as a mango,’ I am taken aback. How did I miss the empowering nature of this fruit, the common ground between sea and cow? This mix of bold imagination and gorgeous dream-logic welcomes the reader on every page. I am moved and delighted to the core until it feels as though I ‘fell in love in midair.’” —Michael Schmeltzer, International Examiner 

“Since emigrating from China at the age of three, Chen has braved both the Texan wilderness and the New England winters as an unabashed queer and Asian American. When strangers, God, family, and friends diminish the speaker, Chen’s goal remains ‘to trick adults / into knowing they have / hearts.’ …Chen Chen commands the powers of the cute to address the kingdom of the crushed. His brittle and squishy lines appeal to our sense of touch, while making difficult affections, queerer strivings, and confrontations with power all the more palpable.”  —Jeff Nguyen, Harvard Review

“Before I open a book of poems, I always feel a sense of hope. Oftentimes that hope quickly deflates in the first few lines… Very rarely, that hope turns to something akin to joy. Chen Chen’s debut book of poems... falls into that rare category—it’s a book that is miraculous in all its pain, trauma, and humor… This is a book that is part elegy for the past and part love song for the future. This remarkable debut is hopefully the first of many possibilities to come.” —Victoria Chang, Tupelo Quarterly

“In Chen Chen’s debut... the poet deftly explores the possibilities within identity, family, faith, the contemporary moment, our use of language, and always, always love. Chen’s conversational tone, easy wit, artful use of patterning, and focus on his own lived experience smoothly wins his readers’ attention. One can easily imagine Chen as that BFF who is a well-read conversationalist… with a flair for language, and who tells you everything.” —Janice N. Harrington, Vinyl Poetry & Prose

“It’s the restlessness, the constant movement between identities, that might be the heart of this work—a heart big enough for elegies and odes, porn stars and the sea, growing up and running away. And it’s all earnest. Even when the poems sigh with melancholy or force a bitter grin, there is a sincerity that overrides snark or sarcasm or nihilism. These poems are ultimately pointing toward something—something happier, sexier, fuller.” —Andrew Sargus Klein, Kenyon Review

“Chen’s sense of wonder is accompanied by a razor wit with which he whittles an identity from questions of family, heritage, sexuality, and existence in this three-part exploration of potential as a destination… This is a new kind of desire, the oldest kind imaginable. This is a whole nation of future tense. This is a list of further possibilities.” —Matilda Berke, Winter Tangerine

“Some have said Chen’s love-laments suggest forerunner Neruda. His use of the deep image seems precast by Lorca. In other words, it’s pure Chen: grandiose, a bit surreal, funny, a poet consistently struck by the world’s stinging beauty. These reveries wrap themselves around very real tensions, however. Navigating, negotiating, and reconciling disjunctions — with gods and llamas, with Envy and Sorrow — is central to When I Grow Up.” —Michelle Lewis, Anomaly 

“As Chen’s younger self had to escape from constricting familial expectations (become a lawyer, marry a woman, buy a house), the adult writer has to escape from the constrictions of autobiography, into hyperbole, stand-up comedy, fairy tale, twisted pastoral. …[I]t’s easy to imagine a young reader seeing himself here as he had not seen himself in poems before. As for this not-so-young reader, I wish that this long first book were longer.“ —Stephenie Burt, Yale Review

“This rangy book makes room for the sensual, the prosaic, and the quietly weird… Chen notices the ordinary even in his dreams: an old, Whitmanesque bearded man holding an ice-cream cone and wearing a ‘look, not of joy but impatience, like him & ice cream / got a meeting, got other hims & ice creams to see.’” —Calista McRae, Boston Review

“How does poetry like this move so gracefully from the particular to the universal? It’s a mystery, I think, but throughout this collection, Chen demonstrates that he knows how to unite the two… What makes Chen’s poetry so exhilarating is that these poems always have a center of gravity—the self—that keeps the many subjects they explore in orbit.” —James Davis May, The Rumpus

“Chen’s love is more than romantic or sexual. It is a radical understanding of caring and being cared for. Chen mentions speaking ‘our specks of here to the everywhere’ which is possibly my favorite definition for love (and/or poetry for that matter). When I Grow Up is a conversation between a boy and the world in which he finds himself—one confusingly sad in terms of the way some relationships fail or falter while it is also radiant with joy…” —Trevor Ketner, Lambda Literary 

“When I read Chen’s poems, I am reminded of Toi Derricotte’s famous quote ‘Joy is an act of resistance.’ The joy of Chen’s language-play and whimsy is not simply a resistance against the structures that seek to destroy queer POC, immigrant life, but also a resistance against us forgetting our own hearts during the exhaustion of resisting… I carry Chen’s work with me to remember the root: the joy of language, of play, of the ‘anything’ and the ‘everything.’ Of sudden elephants, and jelly beans, and nipples, and attics, and the profane. In the face of growing up, in the loneliness of capitalism and its demands, of everyday mourning and survival, I am reminded of the transformative power of poetry to endure it all.“ —Michelle Lin, The Operating System

“Chen Chen’s debut… is thoroughly of the moment… All these [experiences] are told in a fresh, playful, and often lonely voice shot through with references to high and low art, Celan and Kafka and Optimus Prime.“ —John W. W. Zeiser, The Los Angeles Review

“I am drawn to poetry about the difficulties of family, about the pain of feeling one is a disappointment to their parents, about the sense of separation that can come as a result. Chen Chen’s debut collection is filled with work which explores this universe. This is tricky subject matter to tackle, because it lends itself to both rant and cloying sentimentality and it’s easy (I know from experience) to have them go sideways like a car on ice… . The result of Chen Chen’s unique take is that many of the poems in this book show how joy and pain, far from being opposites, coexist and even exist symbiotically.“ —Brian Spears, The Rumpus

“What does Millennial poetry look like? One answer might be this wild debut from Chen Chen. He seems to run at the mouth, free-associating wildly, switching between lingo and ‘higher’ forms of diction. Nothing’s out of bounds or off limits, no culture too ‘pop’ to find its place in poetry… And yet this is a deeply serious and moving book about Chinese-American experience, young love, poetry, family, and the family one makes amongst friends.“ —Craig Morgan Teicher, NPR Books

“Chen Chen’s work is versatile, skillfully adapting to different forms and functions; on one page, there will be a traditional poem, lines grouped together in rhythmic couplets. On another, lines run together into paragraphs, blurring the difference between poetry and prose. Chen Chen’s poems are odes and elegies, considerations of everyday life. In When I Grow Up… Chen Chen muses his way through the idea of inheritance (specifically, what it means to inherit things like love and family), a concept that is central to his identity as a queer Chinese-American immigrant.“ —Literary Hub

“Debut poet Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities has, in addition to a killer book title, a beautiful and complex story of identity to share. The collection tells describes a mother/son relationship from the perspective of an Asian American immigrant, queer son, and explores the complicated grief and love of familial bonds.“ —Bustle

“The collection, as the title itself suggests, is about ‘further possibilities,’ about revising, reinventing, and reimagining the relational modes we currently have. If we are all tasked with being ‘someone ‘for’ someone else—a son, a friend, a partner, a student, a dear love,’ we cannot afford to be complacent or static in the ways that we inhabit and think about those relations. Interdependence is at the heart of Chen’s writing, and if we are to survive in these troubled times, we must continue to believe that there really are new ways to find the impossible honey.“ —Travis Chi Wing Lau, Up the Staircase Quarterly

“Chen Chen refuses to be boxed in or nailed down. He is a poet of Whitman’s multitudes and of Langston Hughes’ blues, of Dickinson’s ‘so cold no fire can warm me’ and of Michael Palmer’s comic interrogation. What unifies the brilliance of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities is a voice desperate to believe that within every one of life’s sadnesses there is also hope, meaning, and—if we are willing to laugh at ourselves—humor. This is a book I wish existed when I first began reading poetry. Chen is a poet I’ll be reading for the rest of my life.” —Jericho Brown

“Chen Chen is already one of my favorite poets ever. Funny, absurd, bitter, surreal, always surprising, and deeply in love with this flawed world. I’m in love with this book.” —Sherman Alexie

“The radioactive spider that bit Chen Chen [isn’t that how first books get made?] gave him powers both demonic and divine. The bite transmitted vision, worry, want, memory of China, America’s grief, and People magazine, as well as a radical queer critique of the normative. What a gift that bite was—linguistic, erotic, politic and impolitic, idiosyncratic and emphatic. What a blessing and burden to write out of the manifold possibilities of that contact.“ —Bruce Smith

“I so deeply love this poet’s imagination where old shoes might walk back up the steps of a house, where one speaker pledges ‘allegiance to the already fallen snow’ and another says ‘Let’s put our briefcases on our heads, in the sudden rain, // & continue meeting as if we’ve just been given our names.’ In precise and gorgeous language, Chen Chen shows us that the world is strange and bright with ardor. He reminds us of the miracle of the sensual and sensory. This is a book I will return to whenever I forget what a poem can do, whenever I am in need of song or hope. If a peony wrote poems in a human language, I think that these would be his poems. If the rain wrote poems… I mean: this is an important work by an astonishing and vital voice.“ —Aracelis Girmay