Student Spotlight: Anling Chen

Anling ChenAnling and I talked about how she got into writing and her involvement with River of Words. We also talked about her poem “Trains,” which won the One Square Block prize. Her piece talks about cityscapes and the interaction between the manmade and the natural world. Anling is a bright young woman with insightful opinions and inspiring ideas about her environment in Staten Island, New York, and her local watershed, the Hudson River.

Meet Anling Chen:

Q: What is your current age?

Anling: I’m sixteen.


Q: Tell me a little bit about how you got into writing.

A: Well, I started because my dad is a writer. He always encouraged my sister and I to keep a diary, and he thought that by having a diary we would learn how to write and be a step ahead of everybody else. He thought that if we had a step forward in knowing how to express our own feelings, then we would learn how to use that skill later on if we pursue careers in STEM or humanities. He always thought that writing is a very important part of everything that we do.


Q: What do you think?

A: I think so too, one hundred percent. I started writing in my diary when I was seven years old and I’m sixteen now, so almost ten years. I think that recording your thoughts every day is so helpful. If you’re trying to write something, like an essay paper for an English class, for example, it’ll help you because you already know how to express a feeling or an idea. And everybody loves writing about themselves! You can practice that skill and then carry it over.


Q: When do you write?

A: Mostly at night, after the day passed, so I have a good block of information to record.


Q: What do you enjoy the most about writing?

A: As an art form, writing is so comforting. You feel like you have a friend within yourself. Whether I am writing for myself and nobody else is reading it, or I’m writing for the sake of entering a contest, recording my thoughts and writing a cohesive piece that conveys a message, that is really comforting to me. Knowing that I at least have the basics, that I can record simple ideas, that I can communicate with other people and express my passions with them, and share stories with them. I think that’s really awesome.


Q: You received the “One Square Block Prize” for your piece “Trains,” which we loved. This is a prize that we give to poems or pieces of art that talk about cityscapes and the interaction between the manmade and the natural world. Can you tell me a little bit about the urban landscape that inspired this piece?

A: I live in New York City, where there are five burrows, and I live in the most suburban one. It’s Staten Island, and Staten Island is a mostly homogeneous place, I would say, where the houses all look the same. It’s like if you grab the country side and you put the country side in the city. I live in a quiet neighborhood, and we only have one train line running through the entire island. It is also really close to Brooklyn and Manhattan. I live in a bubble, but if I want to exit that bubble, it’s a quick hour train-ride away. I really like that I can have my own space, and it’s quiet, and I don’t have to go outside always on high alert. I also like that I can go to a big city where there are so many events and different people to meet. The way I do that is through trains and subways. I take the subway every single day and the difference between the Staten Island and the Brooklyn subways is that our trains come every half an hour, so if you’re late even by a minute, you have to wait another half an hour. Then you’re just sitting there at the station, waiting for the next train, staring at the houses and trees, at people running to the bus, people running to work. When you’re just sitting there you contemplate what’s going on in your life, what’s going on in the world. I really enjoy that. I can be inspired by just sitting there for half an hour every day.


Q: My next question is about family because the poem touches on the subject of family as well. Can you tell me a little bit about the connection between family and the trains?

A: My parents are immigrants from China, and they moved to Brooklyn first. When they moved to Brooklyn, they were poor college students and they didn’t have the money to afford good housing. They were forced to have eight roommates in one room and they would have to run to the subway. They had to use tokens back then to get in. The subways were really dirty, I mean even now they’re still pretty dirty, but they were kind of rickety. Even though it’s kind of an underground, dingy place, I think you’re still part of a community. Everyone has the same shared goal: to get to where they need to be. Whether it’s your job, or you have a meeting, or you’re just trying to go home, it’s a community within a train. When they moved to Staten Island, my parents wanted a cleaner place to live, but we still have our own train. It feels like we still have that community.

"Trains" by Anling ChenWinner of the 2019 River of Words One Square Block Prize

Q: How did you find out about River or Words?

A: I was looking at poem prompts for contests because I work best if I have a prompt, and I actually work best if I have a deadline. I put the pressure on myself and I had the list of subjects. I knew you guys had a Haiku contest, and one on writing, so I tried to enter as many as I could. I also really enjoyed the environmental part of River of Words because I am very passionate about the environment as well.


Q: What role has River of Words played in your life?

A: You guys have really validated me. Just being recognized for your work is a whole other feeling I didn’t know existed. Being able to have somebody email you and say, “Hey, you’ve won this award,” that is a great feeling. I think it’s great for the youth. I also read the other entries and the other award-winning poems and they are all amazing. I like the ones that were written by people my age. I know it’s weird, but It’s just cool to see people my age writing. I go to an engineering school, so people don’t really talk about humanities. I don’t really have anyone to talk to when it comes to writing. So, I feel like it’s a private activity, but it’s one of my passions and I wish I had more people to talk to about it. So, River of Words provides a community for those people and for the youth in that space.


Q: My next question is about Watersheds. When I think about a watershed, I think about the ecosystem that is built around water. Think about a watershed as the place in your neighborhood where water goes. It could be a creek, it could be a lake, a river, and also the water that’s living underground. It’s were water hangs out until it ends up where it wants to go, which is usually an ocean or a river. It’s also everything around it: the plants that grow close to it, the animals that feed there. It’s an ecosystem. A lot of our work at River of Words is about observing and conserving Watersheds. What does the word Watershed mean to you?

A: I think a Watershed to me is the joining of stories. I thought about this question before and I was wondering about which watersheds are near me. I didn’t realize this, but it’s the Hudson River, which flows through New York City. That’s a watershed. I didn’t realize this either, but my mom takes the Ferry every day. She takes the Staten Island Ferry that goes over the Hudson. So, I was thinking it’s so interesting that it is the same water from upstate. It’s that Appalachian Mountain clean air and water that comes down to a polluted city. Down here the water is brown. I found it kind of sad, but I also thought about the fact that it is a watershed and it is still full of stories from different rivers, streams, and even the sewers. It’s were different facets of civilization meet in one river. Unfortunately, people throw plastic over the boat, or they throw cigarette butts over the boat into the river. That’s terrible, but it’s also its own story. I think it’s an important conversation to have about pollution as well. It’s a story about pollution being thrown into the river that’s supposed to be a pure source of nature for that whole city. You think about all the water trickling down from Niagara Falls that is turning into this murky, brown water that you can’t see through, water with no fish living inside. It’s pretty sad but it’s the world that I live in now. I want to change that and I think we could if we talk about it more.


Q: We call someone who explores their watershed and the environment they live in a Watershed Explorer. Do you consider yourself a Watershed Explorer and why?

A: I think I consider myself a Watershed Explorer. Virtually, it means that you explore the environment, right? So, even puddles in the street corner, I think that’s part of the watershed as well. I like to look at everything around me as if everything has a purpose, as if everything has a story. For example, a table. Somebody had to cut the tree, shape the wood to make a table. So I would consider myself an explorer and an observer. First I explore and I observe, and they I write about it. That’s my process.


Q: We’re getting to the end, and that’s sad because I really enjoy talking with you. Tell me about the advice you would give another young person who is looking into writing.

A: I would say you can start now. You think it’s too late? I’ve heard my friends say “it’s too late to start writing” or “I’m so bad at writing” or “I don’t want to do any job that has to do with writing.” I respond that writing is vital to everything that you do in life. It is a skill that carries over to everything. It has purpose, and even writing itself is an activity that makes you more interesting as a person. I would say start small. You can start with a diary. My dad said, even if you have nothing to write that day, write your grocery list. If you start small, you write a little bit more. You’ll be like “today the chicken dinner I made was terrible,” and then you keep going, you keep going, you build and you build. As long as you’re writing you’re going to get somewhere.


Q: What is your advice for a young person who wants to get involved in taking care of the environment or to getting to know their local watershed? What would you say to them?

A: I would say that in order to solve any problem, in order to be involved in solving something, first you need to know what you’re talking about. You need to know what’s going on. That means taking a step back and being observant first, that’s the most important thing. If you look at what’s around you, make sure to look at the small stuff first. That way, you’re not taking in other people’s opinion as your own without thinking about it first. When it comes to the environment, I think you need to get all the information you can get. You need to look at the space that’s around you first. Ask questions like: Why isn’t my city being more strict on littering? And then before shouting, “We should stop littering!” think about why aren’t they doing more about it? Why are they not taking actions against it? Once you understand all sides of the argument you can get to solving the problem. Maybe the city has no funding for beach clean ups. Then, you can go to your school and start a beach clean-up club and start going to clean up beaches and get service credits. It’s starting small and then building up. Hopefully you can plant the seed in someone else’s head that this is a problem and that they should work with you in solving it.


"Trains" by Anling Chen


magical metal boxes that travel at the speed of light

through cities, country-sides, suburban neighborhoods,

and every one of my towns.

My parents were born of trains-

mama took the R train everyday as a twenty year old immigrant,

her Chinese to English dictionary barely contained by a suitcase she bought from her boss’s mother-

its rusty hinges creaking in

warning every time she rested it on the seat next to her.

she still has it today.

She says it reminds her of her friend who didn’t survive the revolution.

baba rode the 1 train to get to the restaurant every night

he’d rush down the browned staircase leading down to the subway turnstiles,

ignoring the stench of urine, trusting his wallet

has a couple more subway tokens to last him through the week.

after work, baba covered his face with a tattered black fedora on the journey back to his apartment shared with eight roommates, so he’d look poor while he still wore his waiter’s uniform. I said it couldn’t have worked.

He said: never show your face to your enemies.


They moved to the New York City suburbs to have children,

and their children ride their own train.

Not the dirty, underground subways stuffed to the brim with rats and littered plastic,

but a cleaner train, with golden sunshine greeting your face every morning.

Bay Terrace station hovering above the houses by a few feet, you’d feel like royalty

standing on the station,

peeking over gates to see your neighbors in their pool,

or the garbage collectors singing their tunes as their truck inches down the street.

Each morning, I stand on the station

no earphones plugging my senses form breathing in the air from the small clusters of oak trees right under the east end of the tracks, watching the summer leaves sway back and forth, back and forth.

Ma says watching the leaves of the day adds time to your life.

So I watch the summer leaves turn brown, yellow, red, and pink when the air turns colder, and I know that I’ve added youth to my life.

Those leaves litter the tracks throughout the coming months;

I hear the training crunching them under its metal beams like a merciless chomper.

First snow freezes on the windows of the train, the snowflakes crystalizing into flakes of art splattered across the frame.

My eyes track the snow collecting on the trees while I ride the train,

the more snow there is in the morning, the more snow there is when I return to build a snowman in the neighborhood’s basketball court.

My birthday is in spring,

I know it’s coming when small green buds grow at the tip of the barren branches,

continually getting bigger by the day until they blossom into individual wisps of life.

By first rain of the season,

the conductor has turned off heat,

I sit in several layers of clothing to ward off the remnants of winter cold that’ll dissipate in the coming days.


Gentle hums of the train lure me to gentle slumber,

like the breeze in the middle of a forested mountain does.

We hike on mountains upstate every Thanksgiving weekend,

taking the train so my baba doesn’t have to drive for hours to and fro,

or so he says.

I think he enjoys watching gentrified towns fade into blended environments of westward rivers, corn fields, grassy plateaus, and the gradual frequency of moss covered boulders and dewy dots on mountain tops.

Clouds in my city are inferior to the big sky of upstate New York.

Fresh air- fresh beginnings- fresh ideas.

Nothing compares to the train ride to a new you.

Anling Chen, age 16

Staten Island, NY. United States

2019 One Square Block Prize Winner