FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH OCEAN VUONG

FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it? Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.

OCEAN VUONG: Though I was the first member of my immediate family to be able to read or write, I’ve been around the oral tradition of poetry since I was born – particularly through my grandmother. Even when I was in my mother’s womb poems were spoken to me. And they were very complex, wild, and imaginative works, replete with rich musical and associative intricacies. Throughout my childhood, the blank walls in our apartment in Hartford became a blank canvas on which these stories came to life. Through song and speech, they made a tangible personal and historical lineage that informed the way I think and write. I began to write in earnest after my grandmother passed away in 2008 – at first preserving her folk songs, before turning to the opposite page and giving my own hand a try right next to hers.

Language excites me. Irrational thought excites me. I spend most of my time listening instead of writing. A shard of language might come: a phrase, a word, an anagram, and I’ll just keep it in my pocket, like a little seed, warming in my fist. In a good year, I draft about six to eight – and maybe four or five of those will be decent enough to keep and revise. I like to test and explore that creative process, see how far a poem develops without ever writing anything down. I think I’m most invigorated by watching images grow in my mind, how they shift and move, how they layer themselves through days, months, even years. In this way, I feel more akin to a strange and ephemeral mental space shared by all artists, not just poets: the space of absolute potentiality, unbounded by genre or the limits of their tools. I think I write so slowly because I don’t ever quite want to leave this space. The physical poem, for me, is just an artifact of all its senses. Maybe this is why writing is so fraught with anxiety for me. What I find on the page, even at its clearest manifestations, is only a residue. But sometimes, if I’m lucky, that’s more than enough.

FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?

OV: Being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection is an honour which means a great deal to me. I think poetry, at its core, 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 recognise their own strangeness and uniqueness as a human being, seeing one another, without shame, more closely. Maybe it’s these things help us care for one another, more fully recognising each other’s fears, vulnerabilities, joys, and histories. What a gift, then, to share that with one another. In this way, poetry builds a bridge we can actively cross and, hopefully, value one another better. Being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection is to me, an acknowledgment of this bridge, that perhaps something in the collection is being seen and recognised by others, and for that I am honoured and thankful.

FAF: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book? 

OV: Night Sky with Exit Wounds was an accumulation of my work as a poet through the date of its completion. It was the product of my life manipulating language, taking eight years. The collection, I hope, speaks to this present moment, by expanding and extrapolating on the way our lives are experienced under the traumas, joys, and tensions of our world, history, and culture. I put the book together with encouragement from friends and mentors, and felt briefly, 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.

FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?

OV: I tend to find admiration and influence in independent moments rather than entire works – even going as micro as the singular line or syntactic units. In this way, I try to find influence in nearly every poet I read. Of course, this is not always the case – but I think it’s still beneficial to read with this gaze, this aspiration. I just figure that if someone spent so many hours writing and thinking about a work, there must be something it can teach me. Naturally, this inclination extends beyond poetry. And maybe it’s helpful to approach a work of art sans the confines of its genre – or even its artist, but more as a phenomenon of raw observation – removed from ego and the (faulty) expectations harboured through one’s name, identity, or school of thought. In short, I try to approach the world as an artist by trusting in its inherent potency – and my work is only one interpretation of its abundance. In this moment, I’ve been turning to writers such as Solmaz Sharif, Sally Wen Mao, James Baldwin, Ben Lerner, Emily Dickinson, Natalie Diaz, Eduardo Corral, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Duncan, Adrienne Rich, Mahogany L. Browne, and Peter Gizzi.

FAF: What is next for you as a poet?

OV: I’m interested in exploring the long form. I’m also interested in the moment where language collapses, because it always collapses. The English language has been in a state of perpetual change since the Middle English of Chaucer’s time, and continues through to this day. What happens, for example, to ‘LOL’ when it no longer signifies ‘laughing out loud?’ It’s very interesting now, because ‘LOL’ has become almost a period, or rather, a signal in which to say, ‘I’m not angry at you, I’m just okay.’ Like, ‘Oh, where are you?’ ‘I’m outside lol.’ It’s losing its original purpose, but it’s changing into something else. And I’m really interested in that shifting of meaning and usage because it feels innately Queer to me—how language, like people, can be perpetually in flux. That words are, in a sense, bodies moving from one space to another. Our very cells, too, are always moving. They are just overflowing, and dying, and being reborn. What is seemingly so static is actually constantly in motion.

FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?

OV: Take the long way home.