Despite his relative youth, 26-year-old Ocean Vuong has been on the poetry scene for some time. The Saigon-born poet examines heartache, loss, and a type of metamorphosis in his work. He uses enjambment and space on the page cleverly and in a way that only makes his work that much stronger. In “Aubade with Burning City,” Vuong expertly incorporates lines from Irving Berlin’s seasonal classic, “White Christmas” as part of a way to talk about a 1975 evacuation of South Vietnam: “…When the dust rises, a black dog/ lies in the road, panting. Its hind legs/ crushed into the shine/ of a white Christmas.” I spoke with Vuong about the intricacies of craft and process, and why he doesn’t feel fit to offer advice to new poets.
Danielle Susi: Beside the very important content of your poems, one of the things that stand out most about your work is the way you use form and the way you use the page. Could you talk a little about how content and form play together for you and when you feel a particular form or enjambment is critical to the work?
Ocean Vuong: I think I would echo [Robert] Creeley’s notion of form being an extension of content. Although Creeley modifies it as being “never more” than an extension, I tend to shy away from ultimatums. I believe each poem recommends its own rules—if any at all. But I do feel that apart from being a vehicle for the poem’s movement, form can also be an enactment of meaning, a space where tensions can be investigated through the poem’s second (or even third) dimension. The way the poem moves through space, its enjambment or end-stopped line breaks, its utterances and stutters, all work in tangent with the conceit. In this way, form is very important to me—but also very challenging. All of a sudden, a single path diverges into hundreds. With so many choices, it’s hard to know exactly which composition serves the poem best. I think the strongest poems allow themselves to collapse before even suggesting resurrection or closure, and a manipulation of form can add another angle to that collapse. The uncertainty can be quite daunting but can also open the way to many satisfying surprises.
DS: Your first full-length collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, is set to be released in 2016. Did you encounter many of those same challenges, uncertainties, or choices in the construction of this book? I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the experience of ordering and sequencing your two previous chapbooks and the forthcoming collection.
OV: I think every book is different—each with their own stories of genesis. My forthcoming collection came together while I was at a residency at the Saltonstall Foundation. I had never been to an artist’s residency before and the experience was very novel and strange to me. I was so in awe of the place, that such an opportunity was even given to me, that I didn’t get any work done for the whole first week. I felt like an utter fraud. Like I was wasting this precious gift and time just walking around the woods and laying in the fields.
I had trouble sleeping and would get up at around 1:00 in the morning to do yoga. They had just installed this plush new carpet in my room. It was the thickest, softest carpet I’d ever felt. Well, I was doing this yoga move called The Cobra—but instead of lifting my stomach and head off the carpet, I just pressed down and let myself sink into the softness. I ended up just laying there. It felt great. Like the ground was hugging me or something. Naturally, I started rolling around the carpet. The room was huge so there was so much carpet to roll on. I spent hours rolling and rolling. By 4 in the morning, I suddenly felt ready to work. Revitalized, I ran to grab my printed manuscript, which had been sitting on the desk, untouched, and spread it out on the carpet. I took my pen and started revising and editing it with a fresh clarity and purpose. For the rest of my time there, I would work on the book, often stopping to roll on the carpet. I would fall asleep on the floor, wake and go right back at it. There was this beautiful high-quality bed in the room but I never slept on it the whole month I was there. By the time the residency was over, the manuscript had come together. Now, when I work on poems, I roll on my carpet at home. It was a great discovery for me.
DS: That’s both hilarious and beautiful. And also both very private and very performative. Do you consider yourself a performative poet in general? Do you think [the poem] comes alive off the page or that you intend for it to be an individual reader’s experience? Or both? I’d just love to hear your thoughts on how you perform your work and how you see others interacting with it.
OV: When I first started writing, the idea of being a poet in the world was still very foreign to me. In fact, I never even thought publishing was something I could participate in. I had this silly idea that poets were all preordained by some organization—or the government—and that the rest of us had to stand back and watch their brilliance with awe and admiration. Which I was actually okay with. So my own writing and participation in the literary conversation is a privilege I am still surprised of.
In that way, the idea of a poet performing his/her work remains new to me. I used to think that I could write my little poem and then it would exist in the world as my tiny representative, that I didn’t have to stand behind it and read it aloud. But I am starting to see how valuable that performance can be: to be present with an audience or a reader. I am a naturally anxious person so I’m always nervous at my readings. But once I actually start reading the poems, I try to enter the work again, through a new medium: the voice. Suddenly every inflection has different possibilities, different weights and pressures. It’s as if I’m writing the poem again, for the first time. When I read my poems aloud, I try to climb inside them—mostly to hide from the audience—but also as an attempt to be faithful to my work. I want to feel my own words enter my body and to use my voice as another means of manipulating form. There are so many ways to articulate a single sentence, each creating its own tones and connotations. Yusef Komunyakaa once told me that “the ear can detect many frauds.” And I think that’s true. I read every poem aloud as I write it.
DS: Is that part of the advice that you might share with younger or newer poets? What else might you share?
OV: I’m not sure I’m fit to give any solid advice. I second-guess myself and my work all the time. But maybe I’m okay with that. We live in a culture where certainty is often privileged over questioning. And I want my creative work to engage in the uncertain, the idea of being lost. Maybe this is because I have felt lost most of my life. And in my mis-direction, I found tools that nourished me along the way, and along the way I realized that to be lost is never to be wrong.
There is a lot of pressure in our lives to be certain, to be an expert, to have answers. But I think that if an artist is certain of anything, it is that certainty is also the hinge of a door closing. In this way, I wish to work perpetually on the borders—to me, it is a place of potent unresolve—untainted by one culture (camp) or another, a limbo in which I am free to create my own citizenship and, hopefully, my own gods. So maybe that is my advice: if you hear yourself making rules for your own work or perpetuating your rules onto others, if you see yourself polarizing your thinking (and therefore your possibilities), if you find yourself judging a poem with reductive phrases like This is good or This is bad, check your ego and start over. Don’t sell yourself short with easy conclusions. Be forgiving of your own potential for discovery. The nature of the mind is to seek comfort in certainty and art works against that—which is its gift.
Danielle Susi is the author of the chapbook The Month in Which We Are Born (Dancing Girl Press, 2015). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Knee-Jerk Magazine, Hobart, The Rumpus, Lines+Stars, DIALOGIST, and Midway Journal, among many others. Recently, Newcity named her among the Top 5 Emerging Chicago Poets. Find her online at daniellesusi.com.
Ocean Vuong is the author of Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016). A 2014 Ruth Lilly fellow, he has received honors from Kundiman, Poets House, The Civitella Ranieri Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, The Academy of American Poets, and a 2014 Pushcart Prize. His poems appear in the New Yorker, Poetry, The Nation, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, Best New Poets 2014, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the 2012 Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. He lives in Queens, NY.