Surviving the Survival
I first met Ocean Vuong in the spring of 2010 at an open mic reading in New York City. I was immediately struck by the beauty of a poem he read, “Song of My Mothers,” dedicated to “the Vietnamese women who perished during the American war in Vietnam.” I came out to the crowd as queer that night, a fact few people then knew, and Vuong introduced himself to me shortly after I left the stage.
That sort of genuine warmth and concern for the most vulnerable person in the room is typical of Vuong, and those qualities come through vividly in his poetry. Here was a queer poet seriously interrogating the language of lyric and narrative, reshaping the free-verse poetic form to reflect a marginalized identity and experience.
In April, Copper Canyon published Vuong’s first full-length collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds; that same month, I attended a reading Vuong gave at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ annual conference in Los Angeles. He began with a poem in the voice of his mother because, as he noted, “my own life began with her voice.” Vuong was born in 1988 to a family of rice farmers who had gone to Saigon during the Vietnam War. They left the country for a refugee camp when he was a year old and from there immigrated to the United States. Vuong’s family figures prominently in his work, in which he explores the functions and limits of memory, particularly as it concerns personal and historical trauma.
The day after his reading at the AWP conference, I met Vuong and his partner, the photographer and lawyer Peter Bienkowski, at a teahouse in L.A.’s Koreatown, where we discussed the reception of the book, the evolution of his writing, and his plans for the future. The following exchange was edited and condensed.
Congratulations on the publication of Night Sky With Exit Wounds. It’s absolutely gorgeous. How does it feel to have it out in the world?
Oh, thank you! It’s a relief to have it out. I think that the best thing for me as an artist is to be able to turn my back on a piece of work. What that means is that I put my best effort, my best intention and care into it. I see it as a raft that I’m sending down river, and I’m on shore, so I get to turn around and see what else I can make with my hands. Because the book, as important as it is, is not a potent place for me anymore. One cannot build another raft while standing on the raft, right? One can find resources only on the shore of the world, outside the finished work. So I’m really into this idea of writing and then turning around and letting it all go down river, then turning back to the world with my empty hands where I can ask myself the essential question: “What next?”
That’s a beautiful idea, and I think that’s a little bit how I felt when my chapbook came out. I wanted to move away from it. I mean, I was glad people were interested in reading it and talking about it, but I wanted to focus on making something new at the same time.
Right. And then people find the raft, and they do what they want with it. They hop on, and they go somewhere, and then they hop off. It becomes sort of like this public transport in a way. At least that’s my little fantasy of what art is: public transportation—but hopefully better than the MTA.
I’ve been getting messages and beautiful notes. It’s all very affirming, but it’s also tricky because I don’t want to be attached to that. That’s what I mean when I say I’m turning my back on it. I guess I mean to remove myself from the work, almost in an anonymous way—which is impossible. But to do the next work, I kinda have to. So I’m in that moment of transition. It’s a slow turning. But I’m also glad that the poems are reaching other people because that’s the ultimate desire for me as an artist—regardless of what the CV says, what the accolades are. I think when you have a good vehicle to transport and transmit the work to those who want it, that’s kind of like the end goal for me as an artist, to find the necessary bridges so that we can communicate with one another.
I respect the distance you keep from it. I see a lot of poets getting sort of caught up in concern about reception.
You know, you work on something so hard for so long that you naturally want people to care about it the same way you care about it. So I think we get attached to that allure of attention. It is one of the few measures that something is at least happening, as opposed to, say, silence. Of course, we all want to be loved, so why not be loved for something we care about and love to do? But if you start to be obsessed with all that and hang on to it, you’ll start writing toward that. And then you’re no longer in service of discovery; you’re in service of your insecurities. And I think that’s where you start to bind yourself because you’re writing toward fear rather than writing through the exploration of fear.
I like that—“writing through the exploration of fear.” This book is very different from your two chapbooks; there is a lot of material related to your relationship with your father, especially in the first third. Images and lines in some of those poems go all the way back to Burnings, your first chapbook, but it seems as though you’ve written much more deeply into that. Did something prompt you to return to that material, or is that just where the work took you?
I always wanted to speak to my family, but I can’t, because my mind thinks in a much more intricate English, whereas my family speaks in a third-grade-level Vietnamese. It’s very tricky to translate and nearly impossible to articulate my work to them. I saw the poem as a way to speak to them—but only in and through artifice. It’s as if, in an alternative reality in which they could understand English, this is what what I would say to my father. What happened, what pushed me further was that I started to consider being a father myself. What would that mean? I didn’t make any hard tracks toward that, but the idea suddenly started to become real for me. I said, “What would happen?” Then I started to speak to my future child. I realized the same voice started to work when speaking to my father, and I soon realized that I was really speaking to phantoms, ghosts. I became obsessed with the impossibility of speaking to these shadows, the possibility of an impossibility, which occurs for me only in language.
Of course, this blends into the poem “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” in which I speak to my own shadow. In this way, I saw a potent moment: these three characters that are built on mythologies and unbounded by the physical world became fluid to one another. I think that’s ultimately where the queer aspect of poetry is so attractive to me, both in the execution of syntax, you know, the multitudinous aspect of syntax and line breaks, having double, triple entendre, and in that the speaker or the addressee is always in transience, always a shifting person, which I think is the closest we can get to the way I feel as a queer person living in the world.
In “Some Day I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” you write, “the most beautiful part / of your body is wherever / your mother’s shadow falls,” which I imagine would be a wonderful line for a mother to read. In “Headfirst,” there are some lines in your mother’s voice that are more painful, such as “fleshed from the toothless mouth / of a war-woman.” I know that your mother doesn’t read or write and that even in Vietnamese communication might be limited in some ways. How do you talk to her about poems that deal quite intimately with her experiences and your relationship with her?
Our Vietnamese is so elementary that it is nearly impossible. The irony is that English readers will understand more clearly what I want to say to my mother than my mother ever will. It’s bittersweet in that I get to articulate it but not to the person I want to articulate it to most. Even if I were to translate the poem verbatim into Vietnamese, she wouldn’t understand that Vietnamese. So I don’t know—it’s hard to say. I don’t have that answer, but I have the impulse, and I’m glad that impulse led me to poems that satisfied me and surprised me. But I don’t know if I’ll ever answer that question. There’s something briefly satisfying about articulating it on the page. Even though the communication is not real in the sense that the listener cannot comprehend it, coming that close is sometimes more than we can ask for as human beings.
Though you don’t have the satisfaction of reading the poems to your family and having them understand, you and Peter recently bought a house that you will share with your family once it’s fixed up. That is a way your poetry impacts them because a lot of the money that went into the house is money from the prizes that you’ve won, right?
Yes, absolutely. I was very frugal, and I saved a lot of my prize money to care for my mother and to have a space for her. Because, of course, you know they live in tenement housing at the moment. They’ve been there in Hartford since we immigrated when I was two years old. My mother and my little brother are still there, and I saved all my money to get a down payment. You know, it wasn’t a lot relative to a whole house. But it’s enough to make it possible, you know? Now we get to be in this house, and we have a key to it, which is surreal to me.
I never could fathom that, and it’s hard for my mother to fathom it too. “What do you mean, these words can get a house?” They come from manual labor. My family works in a nail salon, and before that, they come from a long line of rice farmers. But it’s very funny—I don’t know if I told you this. My mother went to one of my readings in Hartford at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. She didn’t understand any of the poems, but after I left the podium and went back to her, she was crying. I said, “Mom, I know you can’t understand this. What are you feeling? What’s happening?” And she said, “I can’t believe I would live to see all of these old white people standing and clapping for my son.” It was so odd to hear, but on the other hand, she has lived her whole life in an inferior state of mind, a life perpetually in service of old white people at her daily job. But also, you know, mentally—an immigrant who doesn’t have a mastery of the language always feels like a secondary citizen, and I think it was surreal for her to see these people stand and greet and line up to shake her son’s hand, her Vietnamese son’s hand. That was what did it for her. That was what made her understand my work—or at least its small value.
When you read, people react with awe and emotion and a genuine connection, and they react very strongly. For a young person of color to stand up in front of a room of older white people and speak in a way that they are able and willing to hear is still fairly unusual in American culture. As you said, from the perspective of a Vietnamese immigrant, that can only seem more unusual. But I think in the world of poetry that hasn’t happened a whole lot, historically.
Right. I think particularly for Asian American poets, the lineage is feeble. There are a lot of holes in it, a lot of silences; a lot of people vanished or were erased. I don’t know if I actively embodied my mother’s gaze, but it was good to see. When I’m giving a poetry reading, my hope is that I’m saying things that are relatable and valuable on a human level—but not solely on a human level, right? I mean of course there are idiosyncrasies. I don’t want to use the word universal, but I think we don’t need to live through each other’s experiences to be empathetic to one another. I think that’s my aspiration, and I don’t know if it’s ever achieved. I’m very happy that people are moved, but I don’t know for myself if that signifies whether a work’s successful. In fact, I’m very suspicious of that. Everyone experiences things differently, but I don’t know if tears mean that the poem is successful.
Right, that’s a more complicated question.
I don’t know. I’m happy that people are paying attention. And I’m also happy to retreat from there. That’s where I turn my back because I can’t go further. Now it’s yours. You read the work or you listen to the work, and that’s your experience. You’re actively participating in it. That’s how I participate in other people’s work. I carry it. The most important poems for us are the ones we carry.
I’m wondering who you might have been reading or thinking about as you wrote Night Sky. I know that Li-Young Lee is someone whose work has been important to you—and Ben Lerner. I know Lorca was important to you too. Who else might you have been thinking of?
Night Sky was an accumulation of my work as a poet. It was the product of my life manipulating language, which is very short. It took me eight years. So there’s never been a work that informed Night Sky specifically; everything has informed me. Night Sky’s the sum total of my self-education and experience practicing poems, practicing syntax. I would say vital writers are James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson, people who are innately queer either in technical enactment or self-identification. Robert Duncan is another. Adrienne Rich. Gwendolyn Brooks is one of the queerest writers I’ve ever encountered to this day, at least in the way she maneuvers through the page, through linguistic registers. I mean, “The present tense is my last defense.” It’s like, “OK, I’m done. Bye.”
It’s astounding to me that there’s so little in print of hers. She wrote a book that won a Pulitzer Prize, Annie Allen, that is out of print.
That’s where lineage for writers of color is so important.
Yeah, I think a lot of white writers see lineage as a trap—which could be true, you know, but it becomes a prescriptive gaze on lineage in which some people (often men) say, “Lineage, who cares about lineage. I don’t see a line—I see a sort of soup of influence.” And they don’t want to be pinned down to schools. All that is valuable—for you, right? But writers of color do need a lineage because sometimes the thin, narrow bridge is the only place we can use to cross, to access when everything else is precariously dangerous. When you can walk freely where you wish, lineage is not necessary—and perhaps it shouldn’t be. But for othered bodies, the fostering of elders, the seeking of paths, the linking from one word to another, to further and nurture our own voices, is vital. Although it seems nice as an artistic practice to shatter a linear trajectory of influence, POCs don’t have the luxury of throwing lineage out the window. The institution of erasure was not built with democratic intent; it cannot be dismantled using democratic ideals. It sounds nice, and I hope we can get there. But not yet.
Well, that idea of shattering the hierarchy or shattering the lineage depends on having an established or widely accepted hierarchy or lineage to work with. For writers of color, the lineage is there—there’s no question that the work has been done—but the processes of erasure and subjugation make it much more tenuous to access or to have a conversation with shared premises.
Perhaps lineage is less pressing for white writers because the foundation is already solid: Whitman and Dickinson, not to mention the European canon, whereas for writers of color the foundation is not solid. There is no ground. There are only tethers. Those tethers need to be fostered, and I think we’re getting there. And its just not POCs—white writers are playing an important part in realizing that a future of inclusion is one that benefits and enriches all of us who care for this work, for each other.
You know, we have a Gwendolyn Brooks. We have an Audre Lorde, right? We have a Li-Young Lee, a Wong May, a Garrett Hongo, so it’s a great time to be a poet despite all of the craziness. But maybe there was always craziness, you know? Whitman had a tough time too. He had to self-publish. He was tarred and feathered. Dickinson was “under the surgery,” as she calls it, of male editors. So I think it’s always a tough time, but right now, I think we have a lot of possibilities. If we use them well, if our intention is toward discovery and toward earnest vital communication with one another, we will make something that is valuable beyond vanity or the feeble safeties of political correctness.
You started out talking about turning your back on Night Sky and making the next thing. How is that second manuscript coming?
I know that I want to explore the long form, and it’s exciting—I can’t help but smile thinking about it. The best thing, I think, for me as an artist is to have seeds. And you know me—I just hold on to seeds. It’s self-deceptive because I feel like a genius, I feel very smart—like if I have these seeds and I don’t write anything then I can’t fail. I just hold on to them. So far it’s worked well, but maybe I’m simply postponing my own failure.
When you talk about seeds, you’re talking about within the mind, not written down?
Yes. Holding on to concepts, ideas, projects, without writing them. Right now I’m dreaming of a long form that blurs the genres. In Night Sky, I was interested in, among other things, the enactment of queerness in language, on the level of the line, the level of syntax—some poems, such as “Ode to Masturbation,” do not have punctuation, so they allow multiple meanings in one space. Now that I’ve experimented with that, in the next project I hope to look at other ways of queering the language. What happens if a poem starts out in a sonnet sequence and then just collapses into prose? What happens if it changes? What happens if the prose is actually written in iambic pentameter?
I didn’t have enough room or time in Night Sky, because I had other things to cater to. You know, I had my family’s story, which I wanted to write in a more narrative way so it could be preserved. I think that the narrative is important because we need to know how we got here both physically and figuratively. Now I feel relieved that I have a bit more room; I feel more formally ambitious, even wild. So that’s exciting, but you know, I don’t write it down. If I’d written, I could tell you, “Ah, well, I tried and it’s not going so well.” But if I don’t do that, I can tell myself, “Oh, it’s this brilliant thing! It’s like a unicorn!” So I’ll hold onto the unicorn until I have to turn it into a donkey or something.
[Laughing] But when you talk about holding onto seeds, what I imagine isn’t like a seed of a flower that’s going to bloom and then die. When you said that, the thing that popped into my head was the seed of an oak tree.
I love your insistence on an oak tree because I think that a poem is—particularly those strains of poems, if you will—a snapshot of one tree in growth. So we’re just taking a picture of the same tree as it grows. I think ultimately that’s what a poem is—a snapshot of something that is still growing, just like photographs of us, of people, and we’re always growing. I can hope only that my aesthetics and my artistic values grow with me.
I know you’ve been working on a short novel. How is that coming? It’s something I’m very curious about, hearing your voice in this other context, this other aspect of language.
I won’t talk too much about it because I don’t know what it is yet. I don’t want to be coy; it’s just that part of writing any project is finding language for it. I don’t want to expend that language describing it, because then it’ll become familiar to me, and I’ll lose surprise. I think that’s what I learned along the way about not writing is that I don’t want to commit to language too early and then the material becomes too familiar and I don’t have the same surprises that would propel me deeper into the work. On a more abstract level, I would say that I was encouraged to write a novel because the novel is just another opportunity to explore my obsessions, which are—as evidenced in Night Sky—historical and personal traumas. What does it mean to be a queer American body? What does it mean to survive the survival, which is very important and seldom talked about? Survival is not a destination but a continual growth. I wanted to explore that, and of course this is my sort of immigrant complex. I thought, “Well, I’ll never write a novel because I’m lucky enough to be sitting at the poetry table.” I’d go, “Maybe in the next lifetime,” you know? But with the encouragement of some friends and kind mentors, I saw that there are no strict borders between one genre and another and that we are always sort of blending it to begin with, so now I’ll just slip a little further into this new space and see how I can interrogate the genre with questions I had in Night Sky. Yet I don’t think any artists really answer their questions. They just have an architecture that holds the questions differently. And I think that’s all I can hope for in my books—to have an architecture where questions are held.
David Winter is the author of the chapbook Safe House (Thrush Press, 2013). His poems have appeared in The Baffler, Meridian, and Ninth Letter, among others. He is the recipient of an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council and a Stadler Fellowship from Bucknell University.