A Vessel for Peace: An Interview with Writer Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong is a Brooklyn-based Vietnam-born writer whose shy demeanor is eclipsed by the grandeur of his poems. At the age of 25, Vuong is the author of two chapbooks: NO (YesYes Books, 2013) and BURNINGS (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2010), both of which were selected by the American Library Association’s “Over The Rainbow” list of recommended LGBT reading. With six Pushcart Prize nominations under his belt, Vuong has been published in the American Poetry Review, Verse Daily, Southern Indiana Review, Guernica, and Drunken Boat, amongst others. He is also a Kundiman Fellow, a recipient of a 2012 Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize, an Academy of American Poets Prize, and the Connecticut Poetry Society’s Al Savard Award. Vuong tumblr, FIELD NOTES: poetics and paraphernalia is a beautiful balance of James Baldwin videos, reflections on an impromptu visit to Yusef Komunyakaa’s apartment, and photographic artifacts from his childhood.
I first heard Vuong’s poetry in early 2012. He read from BURNINGS. A friend passed his chapbook on to me and I was both paralyzed and moved by the honesty of his words — “When the last exhalations fade,/through with desire, we dress/in silence, say the awkward farewells./You clutch your father’s bible./I smear my neck with lipstick.” (Paramour, 2010) Vuong’s poetry is delicate and deliberate. From the syntax, line breaks, the syllabic stresses to the luscious imagery to the beautifully crafted cadence.
1. First, I am curious about this name, “Ocean”. How did you come to have this name? What does it mean?
I was born Vinh Quoc Vuong but, after divorcing my father, who was very controlling, my mother renamed me Ocean. She initially wanted to name me Jackie, after Jackie Chan, the notorious action-movie star, who was very popular in the eighties in Vietnam, but my father insisted on going to a fortune teller to attain my name. When we came to the US, my mother decided to rename me as a way of reclaiming her independence from her husband. She told me, much later, that she chose Ocean because, like the Pacific Ocean, we don’t truly reside in either the United States or Vietnam; like that expansive stretch of water, I touch both nations but belong solely to neither.
2. You have spoken about being raised by women — a single mother, aunts, and a grandmother. How has this influenced your work — the content, the style, the intended audience, etc.?
I don’t know if I have an intended audience. My main focus is translating art as effectively and as accurately as possible to the page. But the female gaze has always appealed to me. We share (for the most part) the perception of men beneath the same sexual scope, as well as the relationships that correspond with that vantage point. But, more importantly, the female gaze is also the gaze of the witness. Men create wars and often die within them. It is the women who are usually “spared” and must live with the inheritance of trauma propagated by men. Even the concept of “sparing” is itself a representation of male dominance and presumption: who’s to say that death is not easier than living a lifetime in a survivor’s psychological abyss? Perhaps this is why history repeats itself—the women who live to tell of it have little access to change its social and political discourses—although things are improving.
3. Speaking of women, how do you approach masculinity in your work. In “Masturbation of Men”, a man beats your mother, then muffles his cries in the bathroom. Why present this dual existence in this manner? Growing up with women, who were the men you could look to for support or models, even if flawed, of manhood?
The speaker’s father is as vulnerable as any other father, son, brother or husband, and I wanted to show that vulnerability as a transgression of violence. I think the poem is the space where this is best explored: if history is not always as black and white as we would hope, how can the lives of our loved ones, how can even the most basest emotions and actions be so?
Being raised by strong women, I was able to witness the strength, ferocity, bravery, and diligence of womanhood. However, I also know how often they fail, how wounds can become catalysts for some of the uglier things in a person. In other words, growing up, women were more human to me than men. They were available, exposed in all their beauty and flaws. The only men I knew existed in movies and music videos. What’s more is that I lived in an a rather impoverished neighborhood where all my friends and neighbors share the same fatherless existence. We salivated and idolized drug dealers with tricked-out cars and wads of money stuffed into their jeans. They were not only heroes, they were demi-gods and everyone wanted to be one.
4. Describe the transition from Vietnam and refugee camps to the housing projects of Hartford. How is this physical, spiritual, and emotional migration manifested in your work?
When we first arrived in the U.S. in 1990, my family (seven of us) lived in a one-room apartment in Hartford, Connecticut. We had no TV, no radio, and no one knew how to read, in any language. So we told stories. After dinner, we would all gather around my grandmother. She would close her eyes and the words would come slowly, but within minutes, every wall would melt into fantastical landscapes of ecstasy and terror. While snow dusted the streets and the winds rattled the windows, we sat, our heads lulling on each other’s shoulders, singing and weeping deep into the night, the tea pot emptied and filled a dozen times over.
When I started to write poems, I wanted to honor these memories. And when my grandmother passed away in 2008, this pledge was even stronger. Because I am the only literate person in my family—the war interrupted everyone’s education—I write their history as a way of keeping these stories alive. But I do take some liberties as a poet. My Vietnam is transgressive, the Vietnam that rears its hideous head again and again throughout our human history; it is the Vietnam of the Middle East, of Troy and Rome, the one in our streets, our homes, and our minds.
5. In “Photo” and “If You Were a Refugee”, you speak about the failings of photography. What inspired “Photo”?
When I saw Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, I was completely stunned.. To me it is the ultimate allegory for all human failures and I wanted to capture that in the poetic form. Photos, as much as they are revealing, are also obscure. Their focus is limited by the lens, the light, the shaking hand. Nonetheless, that photo is even more relevant now than ever, perhaps because these scenes still happen. Whether we like it or not, someone is always being executed, someone is always being forced to kill another being, often times against his/her own will.
6. You are a devout Buddhist. How does Buddhism and the meditative practices within that tradition affect your writing rituals? I am curious about how desire plays a role in your work. How do you balance your life as a poet and a Buddhist?
For Buddhists, the root of all suffering is desire itself. I accept the fact that I’m not a monk, that my life is too often dictated by even the most basic desires: a job, a house for my mother, so and so’s new book, a man’s body, quiet, open spaces. What I find nearly impossible to accept, however, is being both a Buddhist and a poet at the same time. Yes, other Buddhist poets like Jane Hirshfield and Gary Snyder, both of whose work I admire, have pulled it off. But for me, what’s most problematic is the very desire to make poems at all. As I write this, hundreds of monks in Tibet are being beaten, killed, and persecuted by the Chinese government. How can my poem make a difference there? It’s hard to come to terms with my writing when the world’s on fire and here I am, obsessing over a handful of paper.
Like this very body I possess, the act of writing is, to me, just a means of translation, a place to store the soul. What’s more is that I have to face the fact that the poem will never be what I intended it to be—I can only get very close (if I’m lucky). I have to accept the fact that the very material I work with will ultimately fail me. Jack Gilbert perhaps said it most poignantly: “Love, we say, God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words get it wrong.” They do, they get it wrong, and still we get up, we try to love each other, to resist our incredible ability to be cruel, and we try, we work and we mine language until it satisfies our need to make something meaningful. But the trying is what I fear. I pick up the pen and think: “could I be doing something better with these hands?” As I fix the flaws of the poem, the flaws of a man stack up around me, often times unnoticed. This scares me more than anything: the idea that I will end up using this precious time on earth making poems very few people will read, while there is still so much I can do with this body I am given.
7. “Echo” is beautiful in that it deals with the internal struggle around your sexuality — the language is almost apologetic. In “Revelation”, you are not apologetic. There is this innocent curiosity and pleasure as you write lines like, “…and I dreamed/the extraordinary things light would do to the parts I touched:”. And in “Paramour”, there is this image of “starving” men who tear at one another’s flesh. Were these pieces written at different points in your life or do you see them as a spectrum of feelings on any given day?
My poems are, actually, not (always) derived from my own experiences. I know most readers tend to assume this but I don’t think it does any favors for the reading experience. For example, if I were to tell you that “Revelation” was really about baseball, that wouldn’t deter you from taking from the poem what you have already acquired from it, does not make the language, images, and nuances any less true. Similarly, the subjects and themes within the poems come from many sources, both primary and secondary, but the beauty of poetry is that regardless of where the origins of a poem is harvested, the work is no less tangible, no less effective (if done well, of course) on the page.
One commonality in all three pieces is this idea of hiding — hiding behind language in “Echo”, hiding in the darkness in “Revelation”, and hiding behind the fictions of a devout Christian and man in a heterosexual relationship with a woman. While your poems are explicitly about your experiences as a queer man, do you feel that you are still hiding or that you haven’t found a home in the queer community?
We are all, as humans, hiding from something. Being queer is no different: we have fears, insecurities and desperations just like everyone else. But the hiding you read in those two poems is not the hiding of queer bodies from one another, (rejection from a community) as you suggested, but rather the hiding from the society in which these queer bodies, by no choice of their own, must operate within. It is more about survival than shame, although those often go hand in hand.
8. The body always appears in your work — fragile and vulnerable … sometimes diseased and abused. The most vivid imagery comes in Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome where you write about a “sunken chest”, “where fingers pressed into muscle, there was no resistance”, and “deep canals of your ribs”. The images are haunting. This poem is about AIDS, but AIDS is never mentioned other than the title. The focus is squarely on the corporeal. What role does the body play in your work?
The body is a major vessel in my poetry. I would even go as far as to call it a slight obsession. As a Buddhist, I am trained to perpetually question the body, to study it and to never trust it. I think the fact of its impermanence, it’s propensity towards aging and then, ultimately, its failure to function is quite fascinating. I think the possibility of discovering beauty and meaning on and inside the body are endless. One can spend a lifetime exploring the body and still come up with very few answers.
9. What was the inspiration for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome? Do you plan on writing more poetry along these lines?
When a childhood friend of mine passed away a few years ago from HIV complications, I didn’t know how to deal with the sudden actuality of grief, the slow weight of it. I prayed and chanted mantras, I went to the temple and made offerings, asked the monks who spoke of karma and reincarnation, but it wasn’t enough—I needed to speak to the dead. So I started writing letters to him. I wrote about twenty pages and, naturally, my pen started to insert line breaks. Soon, I had poems—poems I never meant to publish until a friend adamantly encouraged me to do so. Sometimes I would just sit there and fill page after page with “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.” I think the technology of the poem, its ability to be honest yet deceptive at the same time, allows us a space to say “I’m sorry.” I think most of my poems are really just apologies—often to myself.
10. In writing about Vietnam, you seem very deliberate. What are the narrative threads you try to avoid? Whose work do you look to for inspiration on how to write about home without romanticizing home?
Whether one is writing about Vietnam—or any traumatic event in our collective past, it’s important to avoid a sentimental approach towards nostalgia, particularly that of place—it should seek truth without the anxiety to force convenient conclusions to historic trauma. I think a lot of younger writers, especially those who were not born or lived in Vietnam, are more susceptible to depicting Vietnam as a convenient and often limiting trope, replete with palm trees, rice patties, buffaloes, the one-legged farmer hobbling along a dirt road, etc. The problem with this approach is not that it’s inaccurate, but that it’s very reductive, offering little to the reading experience. What’s more is that Vietnam becomes less of a real, lived country and more of a collection of icons of which the poet uses to mend whatever personal and political agenda he’s negotiating. In this way, Vietnam is reduced to a tool used to resolve one’s own afflictions—or even worse, the poem’s rhetoric. I guess this is where the important question of “artist responsibility” is most relevant: as poets, we literally have the world in our hands; a few strokes of the pen and a city can rise or fall, the temperature and climate of a nation changes, a history is created or forgotten. With such great power demands greater awareness. It’s tempting to look for the end of the page or the last stanza as a space to answer some of our most impossible questions—but sometimes a poem is most powerful when it admits defeat, admits that it, too, is as human as the human who created it.
11. A lot of what I’ve read about you focuses on the maturity of your work “despite” your age. How do you feel about the way people have responded to your work in the context of your age? What are some overlooked difficulties of being a young writer?
I don’t really consider myself a younger writer. I just write. I consider everyone my peer, whether you’re in high school or a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. I give everyone the same respect I think they deserve, not only for their effort as writers, but for simply being human and undergoing the massive obstacles and traumas every sentient being must go through. I think no matter what your age is, you, as an artist, will get only what you put into the work. Despite the difference in ages, we all have 24 hours in a day, and it’s what you do with those hours that matters most.
12. I read about one radio interview a few years back where you compared writing a poem to pregnancy. How is that similar to or different from your current writing process?
I don’t mean to imply I know anything about pregnancies– far from it (obviously). But it’s the best metaphor I can apply to that process. And Yes, I do still compose this way. But it has been a long and arduous road toward this method of composition. It occurred to me that the writing process has, in fact, very little to do with actual writing, with “butt-on-chair-time,” if you will. Rather, it has everything to do with one’s perception, how the writer absorbs her environment and how that information manifests itself as poetry inside her. For me, this process can take months; some poems have been “brewing” for years. I think I’m most comfortable when I know exactly what a poem is trying to do. Even before writing a single word, when I close my eyes I should see the minutest detail in a poem, down to the way the light falls through the empty room, the strand of hair on a boy’s flushed cheek, the dust on the cabinet, etc. This doesn’t mean there is no room for discovery within the compositional process, but I feel that I must know a poem very intimately before thrusting it onto the page. Once I know a poem the way I know an extension of my body, the poem can finally exist as a physical product. The rest is a matter of grammar and line breaks.
Of course, I didn’t always write this way. When I first started writing, I was very insecure with myself (and, in a way, still am). Language and literacy haven’t come easy in my family. We come from a line of illiterate rice farmers from Vietnam and I am the first child to go to school past the sixth grade. When I decided to be a poet, I made it my intention to write every day. I would wake up at five in the morning and just write and write. I thought, like anything else in life, that practice makes perfect. This, of course, is true. However, for me, the act of writing wasn’t necessarily practice—it was a distraction. Writing every day, especially a poem per day, which was what I was attempting, was too overwhelming, language became cheap, something I just “cranked out.” By slowing down the process, I was able to narrow the mind and filter the poem with more precision, and so had better command of the poem’s voice and rhythm. With a slower process, there’s more at stake, and I like the intensity that can bring to the composition.
13. Ocean, what work should we look forward to next?
I have a little chapbook that’s coming out next fall (October 2013) from the wonderful YesYes Books. The book is, in short, a book of elegies dedicated to people dear to me who were lost too soon due to suicide. I call it my “little black heart book”. But maybe all my poems are such, anyway.
Thank you for your insightful and invigorating questions. It was a great pleasure. May all sentient beings find happiness and live with loving-kindness and compassion. May our enemies be our best teachers. May we all possess the strength, tenacity and determination to use our bodies as vessels for peace, alleviating the pain and sorrow of others.