Six Student Snapshots: A Day with Writers Chen Chen & Hilary Plum

On March 7th, the poet Chen Chen and the writer Hilary Plum visited Hope College as part of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series. They visited classrooms, dined with students, answered questions, and read from their latest books. Chen Chen read from his acclaimed first book of poems When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, and Hilary Plum read from her new, celebrated first memoir Watchfires.

It was a cold day, even for an early March in Holland, Michigan. The spirits of the students were very much warmed, though, by the visits of Chen and Plum. Alongside many others, Kellyanne Fitzgerald, Ceilidh Holmes, Sarah Kalthof, Leah Asen, Sarah Simmons, and Allison Lindquist had meaningful meetings with the two visitors. Let their reflections below lead you through the day…

Kellyanne Fitzgerald ’19
Chen Chen Classroom Visit

Chen Chen visited our Advanced Poetry class, and led us in a series of generative ekphrastic activities. First, he asked each member of the class to contribute one verb. Then he pulled up a picture of an abstract painting by Paul Klee of what looked like several jumbled dominoes walking together. We spent about ten minutes working on potential titles for the picture. “Write one long title, and one short title. You can have fun with it, or be more serious,” he said with a smile. Good titles can be very difficult to generate, even for an accomplished poet like Chen Chen.

Later, Chen projected a painting by René Magritte and a second by Paul Klee. Chen closed the class with a prompt: use the verbs we’d written down at the beginning of class to make a poem about our own invented backstory for one of the paintings. I enjoyed having a class period just producing work in response to prompts, and Chen Chen’s presence was creative, upbeat, and friendly.

Ceilidh Holmes ’19
Hilary Plum Classroom Visit

Hilary Plum visited our Advanced Nonfiction class, and we were all very excited. We’d hoped to absorb as much from her talent and experience as possible. Students posed a variety of questions, and Plum shared her insight. Our conversation topics included the purpose and use of an argument in writing, specifics about Plum’s memoir, Watchfires, the process of its creation, and details about getting the book published. We talked about the events and themes in her memoir, like the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. Hilary Plum’s visit to the class was very insightful. We left feeling filled with new ideas.

Sarah Kalthof ’20
Lunch with Chen Chen

A few other students and I had the delight of sitting down with poet Chen Chen for fish ‘n’ chips and conversation. He shared with us his undergraduate experience at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts. We bonded over the small community feel and the fondness for the humanities there and at Hope. Just like in his poetry, Chen was fascinated with the little details. He wondered with us over the Gaelic phrase on the wall of the restaurant, talked of a double-decker grocery store not far from his home, and recommended a Chinese film, Happy Together, which he loves. Chen was positively wonderful company.

Leah Asen ’19
Chen Chen & Hilary Plum Q & A

In an engaged question-and-answer session, Chen Chen and Hilary Plum shared ideas with us about the writing experience. One of the most interesting similarities was the challenge they both faced in their writing: opening up while remaining authentic, yet trying to write against expected norms. Chen said “it is easier to know what I don’t want from my writing than what I do,” and Plum agreed. Both said they have ways to “trick” themselves into writing. Chen tries to lower the stakes by addressing his poems to people and acting as though he is writing to friends. Plum tricked herself by writing her memoir, Watchfires, in the third person, even though it was all about her own experiences. Chen and Plum encouraged us to work against modern expectations. Hope College is so lucky to have hosted such incredible writers.

Sarah Simmons ’19
Dinner with Chen Chen and Hilary Plum

Our dinner at New Holland was served with a side of lovely conversation with Chen Chen and Hilary Plum. We chatted about the menu, bonded over our love of cheese, and made jokes about the chili Chen Chen ordered—The Spicy Poet Chili. Hilary Plum had just bought a house over one hundred years old, and was looking forward to moving in. She had just moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and enjoyed the Midwest.

I sat next to Chen Chen, and later in the meal we touched on deeper subjects. I asked Chen about his view on religion. I found his poem “I’m Not a Religious Person But” particularly interesting. Chen’s parents had taken interest in God through intellect, and he continues to find those ideas interesting, but he explained how the poem set the tone for the rest of his book with its hints at connection with a higher creative power. He recommended Jennifer S. Cheng’s Moon to me after I explained my interest in exploring the divine through my current poetry in progress. It was both a tasty and enlightening mealtime.

Allison Lindquist ’19
Chen Chen & Hilary Plum Reading

The reading showcased a collision of two brilliant minds. Most striking for me was the difference between these two writers. Chen’s subtle sass and self-aware delivery contrasted drastically with Plum’s serious and intimate tone.  On the surface, these writers didn’t seem like they would get along, let alone connect. But it was clear once they both finished the reading that their mutual respect created an instantaneous bond in both craft and topic.

I was impressed that both Chen and Plum refused to romanticize difficult topics. Each focused on their honest, confusing, weird, and strikingly specific experiences of chronic illness, family difficulties, and sexual orientation.  I am honored to have experienced the intimate headspaces that each artist so carefully and openly invited us into.

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