Ocean Vuong Interview, with Mari L’Esperance
As you know, I learned of you and your poems through poet Jessica Goodfellow's blog and was taken not only by the maturity and depth of feeling in your poems, but by your description of your writing practice, in particular (in Goodfellow's words, in response to your interview at Blog Talk Radio's Blood-Jet Writing Hour with Rachelle Cruz): "Vuong compares writing a poem to pregnancy. For months he walks around with the poem inside him, nurturing it constantly without bringing it into the world, without putting anything on paper, until the right day comes and he is seized with 'a frenzy of creativity after months of idleness.' At that time, Vuong writes 10 to 25 drafts in the first sitting, which can last for hours, and within about three days, his poem is complete." I found this account of your creative process not only reassuring and forgiving, but was also struck by its departure from the conventionally touted Daily Writing Practice. Is this still how you typically compose poems and, if so, how is this approach more aligned with who you are than is a DWP? And do you think there's a cultural component for you in the Ocean Approach v. the DWP?
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 blossoms into poetry inside her, organically. 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. 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. 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, 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.
You came to this country at a young age and were raised by your single mother and an extended family of women in the projects of Hartford, Connecticut. What was it like for you to grow up in that environment and then be the first in your family to read and write and attend college? And what does your family think of your decision to write poetry?
I have been blessed with the love of women in my life. Yes, I grew up in government-assisted housing, but I also grew up in a small village of women. Women who, upon arriving in the States, gave up careers and educations and went directly into nail salons, scrubbing the feet and hands of strangers in order to put food on the table.
I guess I am also fortunate in that, unlike more traditional Asian-American parents who want their children to become doctors or lawyers, my family is very proud to have a scholar and poet. I think for them, reading itself is a power they have never understood or experienced, and therefore they see it as something worthy of great reverence and importance—even as surreal. There are times I will be reading People or some other pop-culture trash at the kitchen table and everyone will slowly dissipate from the room, whispering amongst each other, “Shhhh. Let's go somewhere else. Ocean's reading.” To them, reading is not unlike magic. And in a way, they're right: in our household, I take care of everything regarding words. Even from New York City, I take care of bills, doctors’ appointments, taxes—I even go to my younger brother's parent-teacher conferences. It's the least I can do for the sacrifices they have made for me. And I have tried many times to teach my mother English—but it's difficult in an Asian household for a son or a child to teach anything to an adult. The hierarchical roles play a major part in our relationships and such reversals can be very straining, if not impossible.
The poems in your chapbook Burnings (2010 Sibling Rivalry Press) are lush, expansive, erotic, tender, musical, heartbreaking, and courageous. The body figures prominently, and not the romanticized body, but the diseased and broken and vulnerable body, the body of sex and decay, the body as vessel and ambassador of feeling and human frailty. At a time when it seems much visible American poetry favors the intellect and abstraction over emotional depth, it's been gratifying to discover your work. Do you have any thoughts about the place of poetry in our complicated and divided country and your particular place in it as a poet?
I am not sure where I am in the poetry world. Heck, sometimes I don't even know where I am in New York City! I tend not to see poetry in sub-genres, but rather as how individual poems affect me as an artist, a reader. An “intellectual” poem can invigorate me just as much as an emotional-narrative one. Likewise, I don't see myself making a choice between the two while writing, although I do realize I lean toward the lyrical voice. I'm still in my formative stages and have only been writing for four years—who knows, I might be writing my next poem backwards, I might not be writing at all! Nonetheless, whatever the trend may be, I think it's important for poets to look at experimenting with form and language as a vehicle toward translating ideas into poems and not so much for the sake of being “new” or “cutting-edge”.
On the other hand, my first love was the lyric poem. And that's probably due to how I was raised: most Vietnamese would look at a sunset and say, “Oh, how sad.” Yet, like everyone else, we seek out that natural phenomenon because, for us, sadness can be a favorable experience, a space for contemplation and a promise of change; after all, one can’t be unhappy forever. A sunset is sad for a Vietnamese because something wonderful is fleeting. Likewise, the same sunset is “beautiful” for an American because of the optical brilliance observed in its colors. Both vantage points are correct, and I think the power of poetry is that it does not need to succumb to the limiting tendencies of singular words. It can be an embodiment of an entirely new definition for the infinite range of emotions we experience as human beings. I think the poet is most successful when she strives to find new meanings for “sad” or “beautiful” or any other word—all the words. I would even go as far as to say that dictionaries should replace their very definitions with poems, or at least refer to poems when adverbs and adjectives fail us, as they so often do.
Your poem "Getting it Wrong" is stunning in its integration of loss and beauty. In Japanese culture, these two things are inextricably intertwined, so your poem spoke immediately to me. Can you tell us a bit about your poem's genesis?
Almost all of my poems come from a lived life, whether my own or others. The scene here is derived from a trip I took to Venice when I was 18. I fell in love with my current partner and, within two weeks of knowing each other, we decided to run off to Europe together (I know—how naive!). This happened before I was a poet. Which is important because I realized that the moment I called myself a poet, I also started to see the world differently. I suddenly became more analytical, a constant hunter of meaning, of metaphor. I walked and moved through my environments more perspicaciously. When I was in Italy, I didn’t have this way of perceiving things—I took it all for granted, running here and there looking, but not really “seeing” everything. So this poem, along with a few others, is from this mental re-visitation of the past—to explore it again with the eye and ear of a poet, albeit through memory.
Although you are of mixed Asian descent, your poetry does not focus itself exclusively on this aspect of yourself, but ranges widely in the realms of the human heart and the physical world. Do you identify as an Asian-American poet? And whether you do or not, how do you perceive the state of (what is conventionally labeled) Asian-American poetry in 2012 and where, in your view, is it headed?
I have been told that my poems can be political. At first, I felt uneasy about this label—mostly because I dislike overtly “political” poems. However, as I started to grow and develop as a writer, I realized that to write as an Asian American is to be political. As a person of color, for me to even be writing, engaging in a creative discipline as historically white and high-brow as poetry, is very political. As such, I do identity as Asian American, even though I understand the anxiety many Asian-American writers have about losing themselves within a certain diasporic or cultural trope. But instead of trying to resist an Asian-American theme in order to better assimilate, I think a more powerful and challenging approach for any minority writer is to attempt to change the American literary canvas by adding one's own color to it. In this way, an Asian-American literary experience would soon be just as normal and integrated as any other American narrative without sacrificing its rich cultural idiosyncrasies.
For me, regardless of what the label entails, I can't be anything else but Asian American—even if I were to consciously disregard my cultural roots, my narrative would still be Asian American. In this way, I think Asian-American poetry is heading towards an era of expansive landscapes and exciting new possibilities. There are more and more Asian Americans writing today than ever before, many who have had much success and have contributed a great wealth of quality work to the American canon. Mostly, I think it's important to not be afraid to tell the story that's already been told, because chances are you can always bring a fresh perspective to that narrative, can always make it better. Alas, my sights are aimed at writing the best poem I can possibly write, regardless of how “Asian” or “un-Asian” I am or ever will be.
Thank you for your insightful questions and for having me in your space, Mari. It's been a pleasure and honor to share with you and your readers my words and thoughts.
“My Brother’s Ghost Returns”
He arrives at the threshold, home again.
Blue sheets of moonlight drift over kitchen tiles.
A cup of tea where morning left it—filmed
with dust and days. The wooden chair
where she sat and crooned that broken song
into curses, the small bundle of towels too cold
in her arms. He picks up the cracked violin
slumped in the corner, silent crescendos mastered
in its hollow. The names he calls go on
unanswered. But in her room, where the last breath
still lingers, his fingers trace the items
suspended in living: a cap-less bottle of perfume,
a bookmark trapped between loss
and triumph, the photo with lip prints still fresh
on a face not his. Slowly, he crawls
into her bed, under her sheets. Bereft,
he presses into her scent, vestiges
of skin, hair—all of a mother a bed will keep.
Sleep comes in the hum of that familiar
tune, the room narrowing into a sack
of music, his body curling back
into her warmth—her womb.
Home from prison, the father sleeps.
His body curling into its shadows.
In his dream, he's submerged in a world
of water. All around him the warmth,
light falling in ribbons, falling through
his hair a billow of ink spilled in the midst
of a once-great epic. Here the creek bed
of his face, worn from years of whiskey
and mistakes, starting to lift and fill.
Here the heartbeat returning to his sunken
chest, softened with years and rain.
Hearing it, his eyes open—the boy lying
beside him, golden with afternoon,
his breaths: small waves waking the hairs
on his father's arm. How else to begin,
the old man thinks, how else
but to close his weary eyes
“Getting it Wrong”
The money gone, I followed him
to the edge of a sinking city.
Early morning and the streets
dusted blue. But it was the flecks of amber
slipping between the chimneys
that had us running.
Every alley leading to nowhere
or water. Then
the Piazza San Marco
opening the Mediterranean.
That sudden brightness—
from the angels' rusted shoulders.
How could we have known,
as the plaza erupted in panels
of gold, as our knuckles whitened
in clasped hands,
that the heart would fail—not
in its breaking
but the tightening.