The City of West Hollywood recently announced the selection of Jen Cheng as the next City Poet Laureate, serving from October 2023 to 2026. An installation event will take place on Sunday, October 22, 2023 at 5 p.m. in the Plummer Park Community Center, Rooms 5 and 6, located at 7377 Santa Monica Boulevard.
In light of her upcoming installation, WEHO TIMES interviewed West Hollywood’s newest Poet Laureate to discuss art, literature, her connection to the City of West Hollywood, and how she’s bringing us a multi-sensory experience we won’t want to miss at her installation event this Sunday.
RSVPs are requested, but not required: https://WeHoPoetJenChengInstallation.eventbrite.com
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Oakland, with a multicultural elementary school where we celebrated different cultural holidays. As an urban city girl who had intercultural friendships, I had friends who did everything from hip hop dancing to Indian kathak dancing. Every weekend, my family did grocery shopping either in Oakland Chinatown or San Francisco Chinatown among a mix of Asian immigrants. As the eldest daughter of immigrant parents, I was naturally a translator, curious about different cultures and acting as a bridge across generations and languages. In my high school days, I spent time in San Francisco with a summer journalism program and continued on as a teen activist with the ACLU where being different was celebrated. By the time I came out as a queer femme in San Francisco as a young adult, I realized the Bay Area culture made it easier for me to accept who I was.
What’s your connection to the City of West Hollywood?
I love that West Hollywood is the gayborhood I was looking for and it has such a strong arts community. When I moved here from New York City fifteen years ago, I specifically wanted to live and work in West Hollywood because I knew at some point, I wanted to develop my creative career and find my people. And because we have a pedestrian culture, we can walk and bump into neighbors, to connect as neighbors, more often than other places in Southern California. In 2019, I started focusing on my writing and that’s how I got started with WeHo Arts through the Pride Poets project, which led to my other efforts in poetry. With the hundreds of poems I’ve written for our neighbors and visitors, reflecting their lives, we end up connecting in ways that some friends don’t normally know about each other. I often try to invite my neighbors and friends to participate more with the arts offerings we have here. We have such a beautiful opportunity to try out new things and create collaborations. This last April, I tried out my form of Feng Shui Poetry with the Poetry Spa on the Respite Deck of the Rec Center, and it was such a fun experience, I’ve shared this form at other events. We attract people who appreciate creativity here.
What are your early memories as a poet?
Since I was a young kid, I loved how words sounded. I’m multilingual and my first language is Cantonese, which has idioms and phrases that are naturally poetic. In elementary school, I loved how a haiku could say so much or how rhymes in songs and poems give you that tickle, like you know something special. When I was in college, I wanted to read Pablo Neruda’s poetry in the original Spanish, so I figured out ways to learn Spanish abroad. While I studied economics and public policy, poetry has been a great way to connect with different cultures, express challenging themes, and help cope with a broken heart.
How has your poetry evolved since those early years?
I write poems for storytelling and healing with the intention that helps others feel less alone in their struggles. I’ve gotten quicker with my writing. I was discouraged from having a creative career and worked in other fields after I got out of college. During these last four years that I have been focusing on poetry, I have found that my life experiences give me connections with a wide variety of people. I sneak in humor and larger social themes into my poems and engage strangers in a form of improv when crafting spontaneous custom typewriter poem. We co-create a poem together that captures where they are.
What do you enjoy most about your craft?
Poetry allows for us to connect to our humanity. As United States Poet Laureate Ada Limon says: “Poetry leaves room for both breath and mystery. Poetry is wonder.” I try out my poems at open mics and readings and the audience response gives me inspiration. I enjoy finding the wonder and hope that I inspire wonder and connection with others.
What’s the hardest thing about being a poet?
When I write poems for other people, we have such a beautiful deep exchange about life questions, but then I don’t get to find out what happens next. It’s like being in the middle of a story and not getting to know the ending! Recently, I’ve heard about several people being challenged with career transitions and I really want to know where they end up with their unique career choices.
Thinking back to those early years, did you ever imagine you’d be sashed as the West Hollywood Poet Laureate?
When I decided to focus on my writing, I wanted to be a storyteller. To be recognized a cultural leader and have this public role as Poet Laureate is an honor that I couldn’t have dreamed of.
What prompted you to apply for the Laureate title?
First, I really love West Hollywood and its role that it plays as a “Creative Capital,” and wanted to see if I could be part of this amazing cultural leadership. Second, I have strengths as a community organizer and contribute so many ideas to build our arts community. Since I have been active with the WeHo Arts programming, I knew I could propose relevant and creative projects for the application.
What was your reaction when you learned you were selected?
I found out around my birthday and it truly was the best birthday present ever. To know that people appreciate my contributions as a culture creator and want to see more, that is such an honor and responsibility I’m excited about.
What does the title mean to you?
Being a Poet Laureate means I am a cultural ambassador, and I can help welcome people to engage with the arts. The arts can have a way to help us bridge across differences.
What can we expect at your poet installation?
My intention is to have an event where anyone from the West Hollywood community and the greater arts community of Southern California would find something delightful and feel welcomed.
There will be poetry and music, and a special ode to West Hollywood that is a duet poem written for the occasion. Since Brian Sonia-Wallace is the outgoing Fourth Poet Laureate and I’m the incoming Fifth Poet Laureate, we wanted to create a poem together, sharing our different perspectives and mutual love for West Hollywood. I’m excited that our First Poet Laureate Steven Reigns and most recent Los Angeles Poet Laureate Lynne Thompson will also share their poetic gifts. I asked our new Acting Library Manager Arpine Eloyan to read a well-known poem in Russian and English, as I want to welcome and connect with our Russian-speaking neighbors. Since I have appreciated the beauty of ASL interpreters from my past experience performing with choirs, I hope that the deaf community will feel welcomed with my friend Sher Smith providing interpretation. With my hopes of connecting across generations, I have three kid musicians playing live music. And there will be a plant sculpture for the event from my friend Andi Xoch from Latinx with Plants. I hope people will enjoy the multi-sensory experience.
What’s next on the agenda as West Hollywood’s Poet Laureate?
In general, I hope to raise curiosity from people to be engaged with poetry and bridge across communities. In December, I’m excited to bring in a project called the Holiday Poetry Hotline as part my community outreach efforts to engage more people who might not consider themselves poets to come enjoy the love of poetry. When holiday stress can make this a tough time of year, I hope people will call in to receive some support and entertainment.
In general, I am pleased that I get invited to be a guest at City events. In November, I’m invited to share a welcome poem as part of the WeHo Reads event, “Literary Death Match.” As a lifelong teacher, I will be teaching poetry and writing workshops around town and with the Library and you can find workshops for November and December on the Library website or on my links. I am also planning for an afternoon panel of Civil Rights discussion in January. More information on my events is regularly updated on linktr.ee/jencvoice
Overall, I look forward to connecting with other cultural leaders in the region and nationally. I’m delighted that the Glendale Poet Laureate and the Culver City Artist Laureate are early collaborators for a multidimensional art experience for my book launch party. To learn more about my poetry and my new book, Braided Spaces, please check out my poetry page: www.JenCvoice.com/poetry