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In the fall semester of 2023, the Eno Arts Mill, run by the Orange County Arts Commission, released a call for submissions for the Coalesce 2024 exhibition. Coalesce showcases the work of twenty Orange-County based artists, including ten poets and ten visual artists. The twenty artists were matched in pairs in which “each poet creat[ed] a poem based on a visual work by their partner, and each visual artist creat[ed] a work based on a poem.” Among the featured artists in this exhibition is Ash Chen, an ECL major and Medicine, Literature, and Culture minor.

For her contribution to the exhibition, Chen was partnered with local artist and photographer, Laura Williams. When discussing the poet-artist dynamic, Chen said, “The pairings were really successful. Laura and I were so excited to work together and have discussed further collaborations, though no concrete plans are made yet!”

When Chen was first notified of her acceptance, she said it “felt incredibly heartening to present my work there. The audience turnout was bigger than any reading I’ve been part of—some people had to sit on the floor or stand in the lobby because the room was so packed!…Morrow Dowdle (co-curator of Coalesce) made a special announcement that three of us poets were young students at UNC; myself, Luna Hou, and Aaliyah Mitchell, so I was—and remain!—really proud of the three of us collectively for representing.”

In speaking to her inspirations for her work and this submission, Chen described her “central obsessions” (recurring images, themes, and words that each poet engages with repeatedly) as being darker, sprawling concepts, focusing on real-world, contemporary issues and social advocacy.

She finds that her writing often concentrates on “embodiment, in the scars and somatic senses working within and around the body and what that tells me about myself and others…Like just about every poet, I also work with my personal mythology and familial themes, especially in the context of my Chinese-American heritage, my socioeconomic standings and roots in Charlotte, NC, and, of course, my loved ones.”

In speaking to how her coursework has influenced her journey as a poet, Chen said, “My Intro to Poetry Writing class started it all.” Chen took Prof. Ross White’s Introduction to Poetry course in Spring 2023 and “not only built a foundation for my poetics, but discovered the specifics of my style and voice as well as my love for certain forms, like the ghazal and the villanelle.”

Chen also credits Professor Eliza Richards’s course on Contemporary Poetry and Professor Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Intermediate course as strong influences on reaching deeper into her voice and “engag[ing] with poetry on multiple levels, through the personal and craft.”

On top of her exceptional work as a poet, Chen also serves as editor for the Health Humanities Journal and treasurer for the Asian American Creative Writing Collective, or AACWC (a-quack) for short.

After graduation, Chen plans to take a gap year and apply for a travel scholarship or writing fellowship to “take a gap year and explore the world a bit!” In that gap year, she hopes to “enrich my own understanding of arts and culture outside my sphere of familiarity and comfort, make new connections, as well as study for the LSAT. I hope to then go to law school to study and practice health and disability law somewhere in the Northeast.”

Recently, one of Chen’s poems was also nominated for a Pushcart prize. Chen said, “It’s an example of one that I think is not technically one of my strongest, but the amount of people who comment on its resonance is its point of pride.”

To stay informed about the wonderful things Chen is doing, you can find any announcements and links to publications on Chen’s writing Instagram (@ashchenwrites) or her website. Chen will also be reading a poem at Steel String Brewery on March 1st in a celebration of Women’s History Month, hosted by Carrboro poet laureate Liza Wolff-Francis!

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