Conversation with Ocean Vuong
Button author Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib (The Crown Ain’t Worth Much) interviews acclaimed poet Ocean Vuong, author of Night Sky with Exit Wounds.
So, I mostly wanted to talk about how your first book came along, or what it came out of. But beyond that, I’m interested in your relationship with history in your work. I think that how you approach history in your work feels very beautiful. I feel like I’m reading a historian. How do you take such care with history in your work? Your history, of course. But also history as a general term.
That’s a wonderful question. And I think it’s something that I both consciously and unconsciously consider, every time I’m writing. I think the most important moment for me was when I realized that history is always part of the present. To navigate it in writing, one must consider everything that leads up to the present moment. In this way, I don’t see history, or the past, as a linear projection. I don’t see it as something that has passed on, or is irretrievable. I see it more as a spiral, particularly when we consider how one experiences memory. We move away from the epicenter in this sort of spiral-like shape, where we get closer to it every time, and yet, a distance is still traversed. There is a progression, but not one that is totalizing (and therefore reductive) in the way a “timeline” represents.
I think, in this way, history starts to have certain characteristics that appear in the present. I can’t write about Vietnam, for example, without thinking about Iraq, or Afghanistan, and the myriad nuclear threats that we face in our contemporary moment. In this way, one could not be any less intricate, in writing or otherwise, when the present is so irreducibly interwoven with the past.
Did you spend your formative years in Connecticut?
Yeah, my family lives in Hartford. We live in government-assisted housing, and that’s where my mother still is. My brother, too. They work in the nail salons in and around Hartford.
Can you talk about what that was like, as far as America itself, and your experience in Hartford specifically? I live in Connecticut now, though I’m from the Midwest. I realized that my perceptions of Connecticut were really wrong, before I arrived.
I live in New Haven, but I go into Hartford. There are parts of Hartford that signal a type of familiar feeling of home that I didn’t expect. I grew up poor in the Midwest.
Oh, ok. So you know how it is.
Definitely. I think the discussion about “living in poverty” in America is sometimes discussed in ways that are really flat, not all-encompassing. I came to Connecticut and assumed everyone had money, because that’s the image of Connecticut that is most prominent, the reputation it best has in the Midwest. Now that I’m a resident, I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about what it was to grow up here?
Yes, I think southwestern Connecticut, Danbury and Greenwich, really dominate the connotation of what Connecticut is. You think of people drinking wine on their porch with sweaters tied around their necks. And that’s certainly true, but that was made possible by places like New Haven, Hartford, and Bridgeport. Maybe this is just in retrospect, but I felt like it was a very rich childhood. By rich, I also mean dangerous and scary. As I moved away from it, I see that there was so much life and color there. We didn’t have TV or radio, but we had stoop life, we had songs and stories and legends, even playing the dozens was a kind of narrative. We had the Baptist church and gospel music. That was a community that informed the way I think. The way I talk. The way I listen to language. Even that way someone says “uh huh” or “mmhmm”…the intonation of sounds, and how that, too, is communication.
It was also a bit disorientating, because Hartford is a place where people worked. People from the suburbs would come in to work for the day, but by six o’clock, the streets would be empty again. Downtown would be a ghost town. Except us, of course—because we lived there. The people with business suits and careers, they had “bedroom communities” (also known as the suburbs) where they went home to. And we would go to the welfare office downtown, we would see this wealth. We would see people having these big lunches, and living what appeared to be great lives. And then we would go back to where we lived, only a few blocks away.
There was so much shame in being poor, you know? I remember, as a kid, food stamps used to come in this colorful packet, like a packet of coupons, except each bill looked a lot like money. And I would always see the discarded, used packets on the ground and think it was a dollar bill and I would run to pick it up, but my mother would always yell at me, slapping my hand away, saying we were not the kind of people to use that. It was so odd to me then, because I knew she had the same packet in her purse.
I get that. I really thought that, once I moved here, I would be surrounded by all of this incredible wealth. To some extent, we are. I grew up with very little proximity to wealth. Even those who worked were still poor. In a way, seeing pockets of Connecticut that are similar to that make me feel more grounded, more honest.
I used to do this thing, when I was about 14 or 15. At night, in the summer, my friends and I would be so bored, we’d take our bikes and ride across the bridge and the river. It was only about a 45-minute ride across the Connecticut River, and we’d go into the suburbs and just look at all of the mansions at night. And it was incredible, you know? All of these mansions were separated by orchards. Apple orchards, pear orchards. That was how those folks bordered their homes. We would stand at their long, winding driveways and look up. It was an extraordinary feeling, to see how close we were to all of this.
I think having that window into a life that is not yours was really great for me, as a writer. Figuring out how to occupy imagined spaces, or spaces where I may not be welcome. Do you still feel like you lean into that?
Absolutely. And I think an otherness can be useful for perspective and insight into other feelings, ideas, even diction. There are layers to it, of course. And at every layer I think it’s evident, whether it feels terrible or exhilarating, that there is even more we have yet to name of ourselves. And that the self and its experiences are only a departure point. I found my borderlessness and my otherness to be a potent moment of exploration. Of course, I looked into that more when I became a writer. But when I thought about it, I realized that I was feeling that energy from the very beginning—even if all it did was make me feel lonely and frustrated.
I’m most drawn to the well of language and imagery that you pull from in your writing. Not just the words themselves, or the images themselves, but how you give them life. What about language excites you?
Thank you for saying that…you never know how things are going to work out. You just go inside yourself and hope to pull out something valuable. My family is illiterate. So they have no choice but to carry language, to memorize stories, and poems—inside their bodies. They composed poems without knowing how to read or write. They just created the rhythms. It’s a rich tradition, going back to Vietnamese farmers. The farmers would pass news to one another by putting information into rhyming couplets, and sing them. So my family was always very vocal.
So, naturally, the ear became my first instrument. Hearing is not a passive act, but an active one. My ear became a filter, and I started to have this very intimate relationship with language, one that was removed from the written word. Language is something I hold, and keep close. I internalize and listen to…I speak it, I chant it. For me, the writing is the last part. And there’s discovery there, too—in pressing a word out of the pen and asking of it more than it might hold. But a lot of the linguistic developments happen when I carry a line in my head for a long time, allowing it to grow, becoming more malleable and myriad at once.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds came out in April. I’m curious about your approach to writing the book, especially with so much anticipation. Is there work from your two previous chapbooks in this book?
Yeah, there’s work from the chapbooks in there. I never think anything is really finished, so I just keep working on it until editors just say “stop.” I’m always growing, and I want to keep my poems growing with me. As for the book coming to being, it was a stroke of luck. Copper Canyon was the only place I sent the manuscript to. I got to a place where I was satisfied with it, which happened to be the same time their open reading period was announced. It just seemed like the next step. I was just hoping for a personal rejection, because that’s what they promised. They respond personally to everyone. And I thought that would be nice, you know? That’s better than what you often get. It’s usually just “dear writer…sorry” or something like that. I thought something personal and nice would be great, and I could move on from there.
And then a few months later, they said they wanted the manuscript. It happened really strangely, but also organically. I put the book together, and it felt, for the first time, that I had nothing else to say on the themes that I was dealing with. It was enough, and I felt okay. And that’s when I knew it was done. But of course, that feeling of exhausting one’s obsession is only temporary. I was naïve to think I could be through with it. Now I don’t think questions are exhaustible at all—not as the world keeps changing.
What are some of the things that you want the book to do? Beyond any measure of success, I mean. How do you want it to hold up in this global moment, or this American moment, or in the minds of the people reading it?
I hope that it’s an agent of unraveling. I hope that it troubles ideas of what it is to be an American, what it means to be a person. To be a person in love. To be queer. What it means to be many things. We always go back to Whitman, right? Well, I hope that it will contain multitudes, for this moment as well as the next.
We’re kind of in this same cohort of poets who are in this space and exploring how to push the door open wider and make space for both us, and a potential generation of poets after us. I really find a lot of joy and warmth in turning to the work of my peers when I’m looking for both a way out, and a way in. Who do you look to?
I go to what surrounds me, which is the work of both the dead as well as the living. And I think the difference between literature and life, if there is one, is that in literature, we can speak with the dead, and therefore the past, quite clearly. The syntax of Lorca is still true because it is there, on my shelf—speaking, whether I am reading it or not. It speaks. The present, again, is a sum total of the past. And reading my peers, my contemporaries, my friends. That makes me happy. Whether it informs my work or not, it gives me joy to know that people around me are dealing with difficult and challenging things. Who knows if it enhances my craft. I don’t know HOW one enhances their craft, really. But I know there is pleasure and joy given to me when I read, and I know I feel nourished. When I read the works of my friends or my contemporaries, the works of writers like you, I just feel happy. And that’s enough.
You don’t write a lot of poems per year, am I correct in remembering that?
No…I tried that, and it didn’t work for me. I’m envious of my friends who are brilliant writers and can produce a lot of good work frequently. I wish that I could do that, but I just couldn’t get it to work. It took me a while to be ok with that. In a good year, I’ll write about seven poems. Maybe six will be good enough, and one or two, I’ll put away or lift decent lines from for other poems. That’s my pace. I don’t ever plan it, that’s just how it goes. People often ask how I am so prolific—I guess because there are a number of my poems out there. But the truth is, what you see is about 85% of everything I’ve written. Beyond that, all I have left are scraps.
There’s often this difficult conversation that people have to have with themselves, trying to figure out how much they “should” or “shouldn’t” be writing. Before I ever wrote poems, I dabbled in journalism. The demand to produce there is high, there are deadlines everywhere. I think that, in some ways, hurt my early approach to poetry. It took me a long time to feel fine about not writing, or finishing a poem. To be hopeful about a tomorrow where the poem just arrives, instead of consistently chasing it. What would you say to someone who is struggling with the idea of output, or of quantity?
First off, you know Patricia Smith started off as a journalist, right? So you’re in good company. I think writing begins with how we define “work,” as artists. We want to believe that by calling ourselves artists, and by practicing art, we are removed from capitalistic obsessions. After all, we are not trading stocks and commodities on Wall Street. We think we are instantly cleansed of it. Part of the issue is our very vocabulary, our language, this thing from which we fashion our voices and ideas, has been dominated by centuries of capitalistic and mercantile obsessions. It would be foolish to believe that by simply turning away from the market, we have liberated ourselves from its influence.
And when we examine the way we create, we can see that destructive capitalistic notions have already seeped into the way we look at art making. The way we talk about the workshop, for example, is charged with the language of market production, the assembly line, the “tweaking” or “tightening.” The “cutting” and “scaffolding.” It’s part of our culture, as Americans, to value things by quantity. Something is only worthy when we can count it as such. There’s this fear of stasis. Silence, even a thoughtful, meditative one, is equivalent to death. Publish or perish, we say. If you are not working, you must be lazy. You must be a fraud, an imposter. There’s, always, in the American writer, an inherent shame in not meeting the capitalistic quota that has consumed her culture, and now the way she considers her work.
What I would say, then, to a poet who is struggling with that expectation is to redefine “work” for yourself. When we start to redefine what it means to create, when we start to step away from the production line of peer comparison and self-shaming, and go into our first intentions as artist, the original questions that drove us here in the first place; when we start to nurture those things, without the anxiety of producing, we realize that we’ve been doing a LOT of work. Sure, there’s no writing. Sure, there’s no evidence or “proof,” which is another thing we’re obsessed with, proof. Paper trails. But, when you take an idea and you nurture it, look at it from every angle, and you care for it and tend to it every day, you will realize that you’ve built an entire world, even if there’s no proof of it on the page. That, too, is work. That’s valuable work. Every moment we live, the places we go, how we wash the dishes, how we talk to one another, me talking to you now. This is all work. This is us—building something that can never be quantified. This is us opening doors.
Ocean Vuong is the author of Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), winner of the 2016 Whiting Award. A Ruth Lilly fellow from the Poetry Foundation, he has received honors from The Civitella Ranieri Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, The Academy of American Poets, Narrative magazine, and a Pushcart Prize. His writings have been featured in the Kenyon Review, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Poetry, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he lives in New York City.
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. He is a poetry editor at Muzzle Magazine, a columnist at MTV News, and a Callaloo creative writing fellow. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, is out now from Button Poetry