Alexandra Barylski interviews Ocean Vuong
This interview was originally published on January 5, 2018, and it was one of our most read pieces of the year. We are sharing it with you to celebrate the release of Ocean Vuong’s second poetry collection, Time is A Mother.
Poet and essayist Ocean Vuong is the author of Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which was a New York Times Top 10 Book of 2016, winner of the Whiting Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and finalist for the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lambda Literary Award. Vuong received a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and honors from the Lannan Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, The Academy of American Poets. His writings have been featured in The Atlantic, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. He was born in Saigon, Vietnam, and he immigrated to the US at the age of two as a refugee. He lives in western Massachusetts and teaches at UMass Amherst’s MFA for Poets & Writers program.
We met at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library for his roundtable discussion with poet Rickey Laurentiis, an event co-sponsored by the Yale Collection of American Literature and the Yale Race & Innovative Poetics Working Group. The room was full before the discussion began and although chairs were added for those coming in late, for some it was standing room only. After nearly two hours of discussion at the roundtable, we went to lunch at Heirloom, a restaurant in downtown New Haven.
During our time together, we continued talking about history, race, queerness, and class. He related stories from his visit to Pennsylvania coal-mining towns, and he spoke with deep affection for people who knit struggling communities together. He knows from experience that a lasting affinity forms over the shared anxiety of the quantifiable, the counting and calculating of life’s needs from crumpled tips, and that this fear can often bind people together more than a shared shade of skin. We both read and began discussing The End of Eddy, written by his friend Édouard Louis, and we talked at length about how beautifully Louis renders coming to terms with his queerness within the confines of class and his exertion to leave a working-poor town and an expected identity. For Ocean Vuong, “queerness begins with permission to change … it invites innovation; it is larger than sexuality and gender; it is action.” For him, this action begins in stillness so that “silence becomes an architecture under the agency of intent.”
AB: You are a Vietnamese-American poet and a queer poet, but I want to begin by framing you as a religious poet. You’ve mentioned in several interviews that you are Buddhist though not a monk, but I believe the craft of poetry does require a kind of monasticism in that it asks the poet to cultivate a serious interior life that nudges the soul toward continual transformations. How do you navigate this poetic life filled with publicity and success alongside your poetic life that is integrated with your Buddhist spiritual life?
OV: In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition monks or yogis would often go on retreat, isolating themselves in caves or hamlets for months at a time. These retreats were not respites, but rather consisted of intensive mediation and introspection, all in the service of an eventual return back to society. In this sense, the retreat becomes the journey of inner questioning and exploration. In the end the monk returns to his community bearing the fruits of his discoveries. The isolation was always about an eventual rejoining and collaboration with the community at large.
For me, as a Buddhist, that tradition of “isolation as work” rings true, and that correlates with the poem being my eventual correspondence with the rest of the world—that is, in the rare chance the poem is strong enough to achieve itself. I wrote most of Night Sky alone in an overheated apartment in New York in my pajamas with no promise that anyone would care. For the monks, there was a community, a sangha, that sent them off and then received them with open arms, regardless of their efforts. For the poet there is no such promise, there is no one waiting for us.
Still, that monastic model was there for me, and I feel that a certain isolation is necessary for my work. How could I go deeper into my own vulnerability if I were to perpetually exist in a public space, if I had to perform (as we all must do, to some extent) in order to participate in society? So this charged isolation was the first step, and it is what I thought I was supposed to do. I was reading the biographies of my heroes – Lorca, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Dickinson – all of whom spent most of their lives in isolation and died poor or in relative obscurity. I simply thought that that was the life of the poet, the life I had chosen. I didn’t know there would be book tours, lectures, and reading series—all of which I am grateful for and can make a living by, but it was never part of my imagination as a writer. So yes, it is a very monastic relationship with the page.
AB: That brings me to a question about web-presence and younger poets. You have a relatively quiet personal web presence. I’m thinking of your notable absence from poetry-twitter, which I can tell you is a rather clamorous place…
OV: Oh yes, I’ve heard.
AB: …but I’ve also been thinking of the places you do locate your digital identities. Your Instagram and Tumblr communicate in whispers. While visiting those pages one is swept up in a gentle hush of living and being. I am fascinated by the way poets are (and are not) choosing to publicly represent their personal identities online, often entering political discussions on these platforms using their authority as poet and writer. Do you think it behooves poets or the poetry community to have this kind of presence or does it detract from our craft, from what poetry might be? Does it diminish the life a poet might be called to lead in these loud-mouthed times? As you noted in the panel, the West is afraid of quietude and mistakes it for a lack of productivity, for a kind of impotence. How do you view the poet’s role and responsibilities in America and what might this have to do with our web-identities?
OV: Everything you’re saying is spot on. My relationship with social media changes and grows with the platforms and their usage. But a big moment came a few years ago when I realized why my immersion in social media often left me in despair, particularly the corrosively numbed and hollowing kind. The premise of the avatar invites, or even pressures, a fabrication and upkeep of an edited and curated self that is put up to all the social pressures and scrutiny of one’s actual self. One is perpetually in a room being seen, being judged. And I think that despair is a kind of exhaustion. The ego is replicated and stretched beyond its reach and once breached, leaves us voided. We create so many versions of ourselves that we end up losing ourselves all together, or rather, have nothing left to give to ourselves. So I decided to stop seeing social media as an extension of me-ness but rather a conduit for my mind, an interactive notebook where I can correspond, collaborate and communicate with the world the way I hope my poems might do. And I found Instagram and Tumblr to be more suited towards those endeavors. I think that’s the neat thing: that we can recalibrate how we use social media so that it better serves our intentions. Just because they say this is a chair doesn’t mean you have to sit in it, you can use it as a dance partner at an all-night bonfire after the wedding.
These issues are further complicated when one considers how the capitalistic anxiety to take up space as a measure of progress can also express patriarchal ideals of bravado and showboating, which can also signal a kind of conquest. What happens when self-promotion becomes a function of conquest? This notion of “taking up space” through social media is tenuous because we are led to believe that the space is ours, that we own it via participation alone. Meanwhile, we don’t own any of it; the companies own the content we produce on these platforms. We live in a culture that fetishizes the new and the young, the debut, and that becomes its own commodity. The self is commodified. If to be a poet is to be aware of my world, to be vigilant of my histories, then I should also be aware of how I present something. For me, there is a fine line between being excited about an achievement and displaying a conquest, whether we intend it that way or not. Taking up space that excludes others is a kind of psychic conquest. On the other hand, for many disenfranchised people, social media is an opportunity to finally take control of their image, their body, with their hands—which can be a powerful method of reclamation. It’s a fine and challenging line to negotiate.
AB: That is a gracious way to think about your own success. Many people feel entitled to these spaces, either because they were born into privilege or because they feel their work permits them to take up spaces they otherwise did not occupy before success entered their lives. Do you think you have this attitude toward success or the way in which you take up digital spaces because you’ve been made to feel acutely aware of class and race in America? Perhaps you can give us a clearer understanding of how you orient yourself toward your work in this light?
OV: One of my heroes is Emily Dickinson. Dickinson’s force is perennial. Here is a woman who had centuries of patriarchal literature march up to her door, Emerson entered her foyer, invited her down, and she says, “No thank you.” She worshiped at the altar of language. To me, her work was about radicalizing worship, turning the act itself into a gift. If you are going to do something that is so difficult, if you are going to do something that has so little chance of success, like being a poet, why not permit yourself something wild and grandiose in the craft? Why not say, I am attempting to make a gift? Again, I think of the monk coming down from the mountain with empty hands but with so much to offer after months of retreat sacrificing human touch, comfort, nourishment—that monk comes back as someone with knowledge and experience, a gift one cannot quantify. Why not think of your work as gift-making? Which is different from presuming it to be a gift, but doing something with attention and care in the hope that it might be a gift, why would anyone be embarrassed to do that?
In terms of success, I think that if you get to do the work that brings you joy, even if it means writing only one book, then that’s a good life. The idea of a second book, to me, is an arbitrary one. Why should there be another? Because a writer is nothing if they do not write? No, I feel lucky to have one collection (and a couple of chapbooks) that I am proud of—if that is all I ever write, that’s okay. I hope there will be more, but that would be the exception, not the expected. To put in hard work and make one single thing you are proud of is a rare act, and to be able to do it, if only once—that’s a good life.
AB: Speaking of poetry as a gift reminds me of the Simone Weil quote you’ve mentioned in other interviews, “Attention is the rarest form of generosity,” which brings to my mind another quote of hers from Gravity and Grace. She says, “Workers need poetry more than bread. They need that their life should be a poem. They need some light of eternity. Religion alone can give such poetry. Deprivation of this poetry explains all forms of demoralization.”
Bodies are given an incredible sense of worth in your poems. I’m thinking of what you said about how, as a Buddhist, you are “trained to perpetually question the body, to study it and to never trust it.” You are spiritually directed to meditate on the mortality of the physical body, something increasingly dematerialized in a digital world and deprioritized by the violence of the physical world. Your poems reclaim an element of religion—you give dignity to ill bodies and queer bodies in your work and, I think, remind readers there is a spark of that eternity in all of them, that our bodies are poetry, that they are enchanted. I’m thinking of your references to Christian and Catholic icons and prayers in your early work, but also in Night Sky, and I am wondering what draws you to the language of these other faith traditions or how those languages help you shape your religious sense of the body?
OV: To me, the body is the intersection of the sum total of our histories, so my answer is two-tiered. With Christianity I feel, not responsible, but naturally inclined to respond to it as a part of American historic iconography: in God we trust. It’s on our money, on our schools, in our pledge of allegiance, it is woven into our triumphs and tragedies—God bless America, pray for America. So, as an American, living in an American body, that becomes a part of my intellectual and emotional correspondence. I tend to Christianity with a Buddhist gaze, exploring it as a part of America’s lexicon of existence. There is a world of thinking in Christianity that has literally shaped the country and people around me, so I am obligated to respond to it in my work. In another sense, to go back to Simone Weil, this idea that the religion is already so poetic is true; the Bible is written in some of the most potent and charged and complicated language in order to be inexhaustibly interpreted. The Italian philosopher Vico says that history operates in a spiral—which is elaborated by Roland Barthes and Maggie Nelson, respectively. This idea that we do not move in a linear direction, but that we repeat ourselves. The path is singular, yes, but it returns to an epicenter.
AB: Yes. Your language is purposefully repetitious in Night Sky, but the recurring images provide the familiar, which is not to suggest the comfortable. As you are saying now, there is a sense of the past building in each image and bearing itself, again and again, on the present without ever feeling redundant.
OV: For me, the Christian myth is just as potent and complicated as Homer, Dante, Gilgamesh, the Tale of Genji, the Tale of Kieu—national myths, and in that sense I am simply an inheritor of literature, literature’s spiral-like lineage. It’s most interesting to me when the Buddhist principles start to intersect with American working-class and highly Catholic and Christian thinking of sin, abstinence, and purity—these get hypercharged in the space of the lyric poem.
AB: You are currently on the fourth draft of your novel. From what I’ve read, the work is inspired by ideas of fragmentation, but I think your idea of fragmentation actually positions itself in ideas of wholeness. Would you mind revealing a little more about your inspiration for this new work and how, if at all, it incorporates some of what we have talked about this morning concerning identity and history?
OV: I was looking at Michelangelo’s sculptures when I was in Italy a few years ago, and a startling thing that the curator told me was that there is a hairline fracture in David’s ankle. And they joked that he should actually be called Achilles. The marble Michelangelo used was of poor quality—it was a forgotten project abandoned by other sculptors because the marble slab was too thin, and the sculptors before him could not conceive of a svelte or more feminine-looking David, which fit it. Apparently, it would only take a slight aftershock of a small earthquake to collapse the David. So I began thinking about ideas of refurbishing. When I went up to Milan, I was given a tour of the Palazzo Real, which was destroyed by American bombers during Mussolini’s reign. An entire hall of the palazzo was left in shambles. The Italians refused to refurbish it. They did not want to erase the memory of that violence.
We possess this idea that salvaging and repair is automatic progress. We think of this as a good thing, but I learned from the Italians that to repair is to erase the memory that broke and ruptured these things in the first place. I thought about what would happen if I were to write a novel that does not look, for example, at a vase on its pedestal—finished, polished, tweaked, tightened, cleaned—but rather, took the vase, already broken, its jagged and fractured narratives embedded in dirt, and insisted that, in order to comprehend and engage in this work, one does not have to repair the broken history into fullness, but that the story, in shambles, is complete.
AB: That’s striking because your framing suggests things are not actually broken. The world is already whole. Something about our thinking is what classifies it as disjointed, yes? So instead of attempting to glue together the vase, or correct or remedy the narrative, one should accept the series of events, which I think is a beautiful and different way of thinking about wholeness, not fragmentation. We live in an age of irony and flippancy, but wholeness requires a sense of sincerity, of gravity, of rootedness.
Earlier, you talked about how non-linear movement creates an epicenter. So labeling everything as broken and fragmented seems, in many cases, a cop-out for the work of finding that personal center through the spiral of history, but your way of thinking challenges this and asks that we see how people, places, or things retain wholeness when they might appear otherwise. And this leads me to thinking again about how you talk about queerness—it’s not the vase on the pedestal, it’s this iteration, the sum total history of a person into that moment. I love what you said in the roundtable discussion this morning about Yoko Ono, that queerness is this shattering scream and within that we find a more complete identity.
OV: Yes, exactly. We often think of wholeness only in the optical sense, right—what’s missing from the picture? But I think of wholeness as containing all the histories that lead to the visual moment of fracture, and the challenge is that this takes more work to envision such an ephemeral wholeness. It can be easy to put something that is broken back together, but it is incredibly difficult to expound and expand on all the violences that accumulated into that breaking. Queerness is, in many ways, vital to innovation because it operates as a space where permission is offered as change. That is a very rare and radical idea in American thinking and politics—people say, “Oh, you’re a flip-flopper,” but actually, this means that a person is thinking, corresponding, and changing—why would anyone want to stay in one place? And yet, we emphasize stability as progress, the unchanging form, and queerness rejects that and offers a wild, often chaotic yet expansive lesson in what is possible.
I think of Yoko Ono, a straight woman in sexuality, but to me, she is one of the queerest embodiments of art-making because she was always rejecting (and therefore always a threat to) the patriarchal standard placed upon her. Here is an Asian woman who was “supposed” to be obedient and subservient to her rock-star husband, John Lennon, and when that image was shattered, the white establishment portrayed her as the malignant Eastern succubus or witch that destroyed a global treasure called The Beatles. The performance with Chuck Berry and John Lennon, as I mentioned in the roundtable, where Yoko Ono is in the background with a tambourine and, seemingly out of nowhere, breaks out into this guttural wailing, literally disrupting the two male performers overshadowing her, is a queer moment of subversive reclamation. She is no longer the ornamental afterthought; she articulates her pain into that completely male space. Queerness is no longer a whisper but is both a declaration and a celebration at once.
AB: Time presses me to an arbitrary transition. So I want to thank you for joining me here today and ask a final question that honors where we came from. We talked earlier about how poetry bought your mother a garden and how my father’s work as a gardener raised a writer. So this question is to honor your mother and my father. During the panel, you talked about the importance of naming. Do you have a favorite flower and what power is held in its name?
OV: My mother’s name is Rose—Hong in Vietnamese. When she sees roses, it’s a moment of pride. She cannot read well, hardly at all. So as a mixed-race woman in America, as an immigrant, she lives her life perpetually on the outside—outside of language, the dominant culture, the news even. But when you see something that represents who you are, you light up. It’s a moment of power. Whenever we pass a rosebush she says, “That’s me. That’s a rose.” Coming from her difficult history, for her to point to something outside of herself, outside of her own reality, her psychological history and say, “I know for sure that is a rose, and that’s who I am,” is a simple but vital moment of self-empowerment. So the rose is also my favorite flower. And I love that it’s such a time-worn symbol, because she taught me how to look at it anew, how to reclaim a cliché for oneself so that it is no longer part of the mainstream romantic fallacies, but an idiosyncratic piece of one’s identity. When I see a rose, it is my mother at her most powerful.
This interview has been edited for clarity.