Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Split This Rock Interviews Ocean Vuong

Fourth in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, April 14-17, 2016. Pre-registration available until March 31 at Split This Rock's website.

by Tanya Olson

(Photo by Peter Bienkowski)
Ocean Vuong is one of the featured poets at the 2016 Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation and Witness; the festival is held biannually in Washington, DC. This year’s conference runs April 14-17. 

Born in Saigon, poet and editor Vuong was raised in Hartford, Connecticut, earned a BA in Nineteenth Century English Literature at Brooklyn College (CUNY), and is currently completing an MFA at New York University. He is the author of 2 chapbooks, No and Burnings. His honors include fellowships from the Elizabeth George Foundation, Poets House, Kundiman, and the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts as well as an Academy of American Poets Prize, an American Poetry Review Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets, a Pushcart Prize, and a Beloit Poetry Journal Chad Walsh Poetry Prize. In 2014, Vuong was awarded a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. diaCRITICS writes that in No “Vuong breaks your heart and puts it back together. In these survival poems, he shows us the human spirit at its most vulnerable as it tries to heal yet never does so completely.”

Vuong’s poetry is notable because of the strength it displays. His isn’t the most recognizable, American version of strength- Whitman’s long line, bluster, and reach- but an interior strength American’s might associate more with Emily Dickinson. When that interiority and steel comes out of the Queens-based poet, it sounds like little else in American poetry today. His first full-length work Night Sky With Exit Wounds is forthcoming from Copper Canyon in April 2016. Ocean and I spoke by email for this interview.


Tanya Olson (TO): Night Sky With Exit Wounds will be available soon. It's your first full-length work. What are 2 things you would like people to know about this book before they open it?

Ocean Vuong (OV): I hope it will be a book that speaks to our American moment by expanding and extrapolating on what it means to be an American. And by American, I don't mean in citizenship, but in the way our lives are experienced under the traumas, joys, and tensions concerning the historic and cultural geography of the United States.
I also hope this book will be carried in someone's backpack or tote bag. That would make me smile.

TO: I'm excited to hear Night Sky explores "our American moment". It's one of the things I think your poems do best--capture perfectly and in full complexity what it is to be in America, in a specific time and place. As someone who has left a country, arrived in a country, stayed in a country, what are your thoughts on the idea of "citizen" right now?

OV: For me, our citizenship is only as valuable as how we treat our most marginalized people. This idea, of course, is not novel--and yet it is so difficult to achieve because the language we use to communicate with one another is often one of distance and hyperbole. The risk is that we end up dismissing or, at worst, shunning the particularities of an idiosyncratic life.
Although not a remedy to this, I think poetry creates a space where we don't have to clear our throats, where we can be as strange and obsessed as we actually feel. And someone can read these thoughts and hopefully recognize their own strangeness and uniqueness as a human being. In this way, poetry is the side door to our inner selves, where we can see one another, without shame, more closely. Because maybe it's these things that make us care for another: when we can recognize each other's fears, vulnerabilities, joys, and histories. Poetry and language, to me, is the DNA of our personhood. What a gift, then, to share that with one another. In this way, poetry achieves something regardless of the employment of superior craft (although that certainly helps), it builds a bridge we can actively cross and, hopefully, value one another better. I know these are lofty, even grandiose intentions. But making good poems is hard. And with a task that demands so much care and attention, and is so fraught with the limitations and impossibilities inherent in language, why not attempt something this embarrassingly ambitious? What do we have to lose when we are losing everything anyway? I think, maybe, this has something to do with citizenship.

TO: I find you to be such a dynamic reader in such a unique way. You always manage to build such an intimate space in a reading, almost shrinking the room, so everyone feels like they are being read to personally and intimately. Could you talk a little about yourself as a reader and a performer, what your process or system or goals are in a reading?

OV: Thank you for saying that. I'm glad you like my readings. The truth is, I am a naturally anxious person. Even after so many readings, I still get nervous. I’m just terrible at saying smart and funny things in between poems, so I just read one poem after another, keeping the notes as brief as possible. When I'm before an audience, in the middle the room, with every one's attention on me, I realize the only place I have to hide is actually inside my poem. So I look down at the page and try to go back in my words. I read them carefully, as if for the first time, trying to imagine the images and turns as I go. This way, I can be inside the "world" I've made for a while, instead of the world my body is in. And it just helps me make it through.
I believe the voice to be second page, if you will. It allows the poem to gain different intonations and inflections, silences and hesitations that might not be present in the written word.  It's one more way of experimenting with form--and I like that possibility, even if it is sometimes terrifying. 

TO: I see that ability to just sit in the present, in a moment, in your poetry and I think it's a real strength you offer to American poetry right now. I associate that with your practice of Buddhism- How else do you think your practice of Buddhism and your practice of poetry inform each other?

OV: I am still figuring that out. Somedays I forget that I am Buddhist at all. And of course, some days I forget I am a writer (which can be very nice!). I think what my Zen practice helps me, in relation to writing, to look at the world and its phenomena without immediate judgment. I think we, as humans, are naturally geared to judgment. After all, our ancestors had to decide which fruit to eat, what was poison and what was health. Being judgmental helped us get here, helped us survive. Ironically, in art, I find fast-judgment to be a neglect of possibilities. 
Buddhism is interested in looking at the world by removing the "Self" from it, from attempting to take out the perpetually referential ego, and see things "as they are." Now, I don't know if I have achieved that "seeing", or even if it's possible, to be honest. But I think even the aspiration to do so helps me see the physical and emotional world without quickly deeming it one thing or another. In this way, Buddhism is, to me, a very queer practice, because it privileges otherness and multiplicity, it gazes on one thing and challenges me to ask, "and what else?" Which is the same question I end up asking myself in art. And what else?

TO: If I were a betting woman. I would put down money on you as the Poet Laureate of America in the next 20 years. So 2034 comes around and you are named- what's your agenda going to be? Tell us a little about your main project.

OV: I don't know. I try not to think too much on the future because the only place I have control over is the present, and even here, I'm not very effective. I would just hope to use poetry to communicate with people better. To be more open in how they feel and how they share that feeling. Whatever tools, linguistic or otherwise, that are available to me, I will try to do that. That was my first intention as a poet, even before I knew someone like me could even be a poet: to make a space, thin and feeble as a page, where I can say "Hi, I'm Ocean, this is what I care about" and then someone else could respond in turn. As long as we can keep doing that, no matter where we are in the future, I think we will be okay. And sometimes to be okay is more that I can ask for. 

TO: Split This Rock believes poetry & poets have real, crucial work to do in this world. What is your job as a poet?

VO: For me, writing, if nothing else, is a bridge between two people, a bridge made of language. And language belongs to all of us. If I enjoy a poem, that just means I am recognizing within it something of myself, something I must already possess. Therefore, to love a poem is to love a part of myself revealed to me by another person. It’s kind of like magic, ya know? At the risk of sounding corny, I really believe that writing is the closest thing we have to true magic. Where else, but in words, can we discover each other out of thin air? 


Photo by Ruth Eckles.

Tanya Olson lives in Silver Spring, Maryland and is a Lecturer in English at University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). Her first book, Boyishly, was published by YesYes Books in 2013 and was awarded a 2014 American Book Award. She has also won the Discovery/Boston Review prize and was named a Lambda Emerging Writers Fellow by the Lambda Literary Foundation. Her poem 54 Prince was included in Best American Poetry 2015.


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