A Conversation with Ocean Vuong
BY DIVYA MEHRISH
Ocean Vuong is the author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds and the New York Times bestselling novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. A recipient of the 2019 MacArthur “Genius Grant,” he is also the winner of the Whiting Award and the T. S. Eliot Prize. His writings have been featured in The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. His new poetry collection Time is a Mother is available now.
Divya Mehrish: Ocean, it is an honor to discuss with you your deeply intimate and propulsive book of poetry, Time Is a Mother. You have spoken about the pressure writers feel to “conquer the white space.” In Time Is a Mother, you surrender to the white space, you embrace it, you “confront the right margin,” as you approach each “cliff” with extraordinary delicacy. What is your current relationship with poetry as a visual form, and how has this relationship evolved for you?
Ocean Vuong: I think what I love about poetry is its linguistic play at the site of language’s most tenable and malleable form. It’s breaking syntax down to the syllable. And I think any time you have that, you’re a sculptor, sculpting space, sound, time, and silences. The poet is akin to the painter, sculptor, and musician. Our tools are finite. The word “the” has one meaning, and so we’re extrapolating multiple meanings out of finite mediums. I think that friction should seem impossible, it should feel like fool’s gold to try to pursue this, and yet our species has proved that there is so much that needs to be said and so much that has already been said. It feels inexhaustible to manipulate space in poetry, and this is why I feel, linguistically, that poetry is the most innovative medium. We are forced to make decisions at the most minute stages of the craft.
DM: What a beautiful way to think about poetic craft. You have previously described poetry as a “form that requires fracture in order to realize itself.” How do you approach the process of fracturing your language at a molecular level into fractals of meaning that divide, together, into a kind of unity?
OV: I think this manner of breaking towards meaning is how we often live. We don’t live cohesively; we live in fractals, we live in fragments. We don’t live in a plot point. I think poetry is mimetic of that status of being human. We text in utterances. We speak in bursts. We pick up conversations that occurred hours before. Our most meaningful discourse happens in pieces, in broken ways. Our most difficult conversations happen in these ways, like for queer folks, coming out to our parents. And when we apologize, it’s rarely in a complete sentence. For me, fragmentation in language is perhaps the most human moment of our speech. For poetry to be so comfortable with that, to be so capacious with how grammar peters out and how it needs to be resuscitated towards new modes I think is a mimetic of how we’ve always been living. I think there’s a certain honesty in the ability of poetry to consider breaking not as a flaw but as a strategy, a kind of technique.
DM: I want to ask you more about the language of apology. In your poem “Reasons for Staying,” you write: “Because I stopped apologizing into visibility.” When I read this line, I reflect on how the word “sorry” gives us presence, meaning, something to take back, something to guilt over—a sense of responsibility in the eyes of the “other.” What does it mean to you to use the vessel of apology to make yourself seen?
OV: I think that’s often how most people of color learn how to be. We learn how to traffic in apology. The apology is a formidable way to be visible and yet unthreatening. When one apologizes, one can’t necessarily ask for anything or demand anything, and I think we figured out ways to apologize ourselves into spaces and rooms and conversations. At a certain point, however, we have to decide that that is not enough. Language that appeases or placates others so that we may be recognized only gets us so far. But I think we’ve used apology, to a certain extent, as a survival mechanism. Even as a trauma condition. And that’s how I felt most of my life. How do I enter those spaces in which my body is not recognized? When we think about white privilege, often the rebuttal is “well, there are poor white folks as well.” What I’m most interested in is how bodies, or politicized bodies on the margins, have limited access to space. White privilege is about the ability to enter any space and be legible as a human being with rights. On the surface, we acknowledge that in the Constitution or legal or civic treaties. But in practice, we have Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man going on a jog in a certain space. He is no longer legible as somebody exercising, but only legible as somebody “committing a crime” or “trespassing” in a space in which they don’t belong, which rendered him dead. White privilege is about the freedom to put your body in those spaces where everyone should have permission to go. I think for the many folks of color who apologize themselves into visibility, like my own family working in service jobs and nail salons, apology is a way to make yourself known and legible by being non-threatening and undemanding, just in order to enter a certain space. I’ve seen my mother enter stores and just say “I’m sorry” instead of “Hello.” As in, “I’m sorry I’m here.” It’s a sad, unfortunate moment, but also one of innovation. To get ourselves through the day, we must navigate through many rooms and spaces.
DM: And how do you think poetry can be used to reclaim that language of apology?
OV: Poetry always has the promise to stretch meaning. To take what is signified and trouble it, and add to it. When you put a word or a phrase into a new code system, it offers new meaning. In my novel, I took the word “I’m sorry” and I didn’t do anything but observe that the word “sorry” in a nail salon is not necessarily an apology but a sort of pandering, a negotiation in which one “apologizes oneself” in order to gain sympathy, to gain a tip. In that case, it becomes an innovative mode of negotiating one’s salary, if you will. But there exists a discord between the speaker and the client, because “sorry” depends on how that word is received by a client. “Sorry,” in the speaker’s mouth, is very different in meaning than how it is perceived in the listener’s ear. And already, there are two meanings of the word within the small space of a nail salon. And I think, in the small space of a poem, we can also expand and complicate a certain meaning and phrase. This is what really excites me—at the end of the day, a poet is an alchemist. We have the potential to change something. I don’t say this as a hyperbole; I truly mean it. This is a fact of the practice.
DM: Thank you for that, Ocean. You have called your novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, your artist’s statement. How does Time Is a Mother challenge or honor this artist’s statement?
OV: For me, Time Is a Mother departs from any artist’s statement. I couldn’t tell a story without explaining why my telling of the story was important. That’s why I believe my novel was, first and foremost, an artist’s statement. It’s a story via artist’s statement. Those two modes are equally significant. We’re often told “don’t tell, show.” And yet, when whiteness, the dominant culture, demands writers of color tell the story, what they’re really saying is, “I’m on the tour bus, let’s get going. I bought the ticket; go ahead and drive. Get your mouth on the microphone and tell me what I’m seeing. Tell me what horror I am watching amongst your community.” And so, there is this voyeuristic spectacle inherent in this urging to just “go ahead and tell it like it is.” Right away, that demand strips the artist of any aesthetic and philosophical apparatus under which to operate, shoving us into the narratives that we might want to narrate in different modes. For me, it was important to know and anticipate that many readers will “get on the bus” of this novel. But my bus isn’t going anywhere. I’m just going to talk, and narrate my artist’s statement while you buckle up. We’re not going anywhere, but just talking about why this is important. I am going to talk about why the people I write about are important to me, to American history, and to the American imagination. In that way, it’s a subversive act. A Trojan horse, if you will. Time Is a Mother is the artist’s statement realized, made felt. It’s the enactment of a dream. That’s why I think I’m proud of this work in a way I haven’t felt about my previous books.
DM: Between these two forms, the epistolary form of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and the poetry collection that constitutes Time Is a Mother, both of which represent and encapsulate deeply personal and introspective deliberations, which form offered you more liberty and why? How did you claim these spaces in different ways?
OV: For the first time in my career, I compromised nothing in Time Is a Mother. In my other two books, there are things I owed my family, my community. I couldn’t show too much humor then. I’m a very funny person, and my humor finally comes through in this book. But I couldn’t laugh—I couldn’t laugh at myself, at us. There’s a certain point at which you don’t want to laugh or produce witticisms that will risk giving white folks the opportunity to laugh with you to the point where they might be laughing at you. There is a slippery slope between the two, and I couldn’t risk that with the subjects I dealt with in Night Sky with Exit Wounds and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I didn’t want to be mistaken for a clown in those themes, because so much of those stories were lived by my elders, not necessarily myself. I didn’t feel like it was my right to use levity then. In this book, I feel like there’s more tongue-and-cheek humor and satire that are more indicative of who I am as a person, only because I was able to finish that work that was obligatory to me in my previous two books.
DM: Within this humor, you explore the themes of pain and personal reckoning. And yet you render these elements into treasure troves of tender images. How do you approach this process of balancing humor with this level of painful profundity?
OV: You know, I think a lot of artists have come to understand that pain, if nothing else, is a way towards knowledge. And that’s a point where there are many departures, depending on the artist. For me, that knowledge leads me to compassion and tenderness. When you observe the pain and suffering of yourself, of those around us, of the world, you realize how necessary that compassion is. Pain amplifies how vital beauty and tenderness really are. Pain teaches us the necessity of compassion. For me, that’s the philosophical mode through which I approach a difficult subject matter. At what point does this compel me towards compassion? It is when I reach this point that my poem can really open up, when it becomes more than just the sum total of its parts. It starts to become more mysterious, too. Why, I must ask myself, did I arrive at compassion when I really should be furious? I think that is where a lot of the wonder comes from, when my poems start to take on their own lives and I start to take the backseat. I become an observer of the awe and the tenderness, rather than someone exerting complete control over it. I think that’s the pinnacle of any art, to take something very terrible and gain transformative knowledge.
DM: And you embrace these moments of compassion with such a profound yet delicate sense of urgency. As a writer who lives in a country that defines itself through a violent lexicon powered by war and historical amnesia, as you explore in your poem “Old Glory,” what do you believe is the role of poetry to remember and memorialize?
OV: I’m wary of poems becoming monuments, because they have their limitations. They have these finite destinations to them, they have objectives. And I’m wary of poems becoming objectives, because they’re so much more than that. But it’s important to see how phrases of harm can be recalibrated towards a discomfort of awareness. “Old Glory” is a found poem that recycles “innocuous” speech that we hear all the time. We think nothing of this language when it’s implanted within a longer paragraph within its particular context. But the violent nature of it is inherently still true. And so, for me, the site of the poem is the only way, the only medium, whereby this discomfort, this awareness can be achieved. Under the guise, the architecture of a sonnet—which is what it is—this traditional, archaic form, I compress these violent phrases, one after another. And you realize—it’s horrific. Phrases our loved ones use all the time, that we use constantly, compressed into the space of a sonnet, where these phrases are relentlessly repeated with a volta. When I explained, to my aunt and my mother, the violence of the American lexicon, they met this knowledge with horror. “Why?” I wanted to recapture this utter bafflement my elders displayed when I shared this truth with them. In Vietnamese, speaking of the dead is taboo. Speech is like a spell. If you speak of death or of destruction in your home especially, you bring that dark energy to you. And so, we take speech very seriously in Vietnam. I wanted to find a way to amplify that horror, so I relied on and reused the canonical form of the sonnet to deliver the relentless compression of this terrifying speech and its violent nature, to amplify this level of uncomfortable awareness.
DM: I want to dive a little deeper into the theme of love existing within a context of horror. As you describe the experience of embracing one’s father in your poem “American Legend,” you write, “it was perfect / & wrong, like money / on fire.” This image is so profound—I imagine a circle of spectators gathered around a pile of flaming bills. What strikes my mind’s eye most about this scene is the awe—of recognizing that something we consider to be so valuable is finite, just like us, just like love, just like a fleeting embrace with one’s father. What, then, is the space for love and tenderness within this world of terrible beauty or beautiful terror?
OV: I think we realize that beauty and terror are not black and white. Rilke says, “Every angel is terrifying.” I think that much is still true, perhaps only truer in the earthly realm. What I think he means is that the sublime occurs in the mundane. Embracing an estranged father seems somehow mythical, charged with an otherworldly connotation. But it’s still a very normal, common, and simple act. I think the world is like that. I’m particularly interested in where the poem locates those moments of sublimity within the mundane. Because it is terrifying—it feels like a magic spell is happening right before you. This is how I experience good poems—I feel like I’m experiencing magic. I know this sounds sentimental and romantic, but it’s true; this feeling hasn’t waned since I started writing. Dickinson says “it’s like your head has been cut off.” It’s not that violent for me, perhaps, but I feel as though I’m at the source of some magical well that is being human. A lot of that is because I don’t understand what I am witnessing. In the West, specifically, we traffic in knowledge as ultimate knowledge and freedom, and transparency of facts. On the one hand, that’s admirable, but on the other, we lose the sense that the unknown is also quite beautiful. When we think about indigenous and native traditions, including indigenous, precolonial Vietnamese traditions, the idea of a trans or multigender person, is actually quite beautiful and celebrated because of their complexity. The Greek prophet Tiresias was able to experience life both as a man and a woman, at their own will. That was considered a source of power—something to be respected, worshipped, revered. In the same way, poetry and its obliqueness embody the same genderless foundations, or at least have the capacity to. That is quite beautiful, in its mystery, to me.
DM: You mentioned reading pieces that inspire a sense of magic in you. What have you come across recently that has generated these feelings in you?
OV: Oh, so many. I love the work of Thomas Merton, who is a Christian monk who really struggled with his faith, and was really open about it. He was a great model for me to see that we are not what we have chosen, or that we are not what our labels or cloaks or even what society says we are. An identity, a condition, or even a vocation is not a box but a quality that is ever-evolving. I teach Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, and I think that embodies Merton’s myriad ontological presences, even more clearly. Literally on every page of Dictee, there is a refreshing or renewing of selfhood under the condition or the medium of language, which is so powerful for me. I teach these works, so I revisit them every year, and they always give me something new, or something more to think about.
DM: Thank you for sharing that. I want to ask you about voice and narrative. In “Dear Rose,” you break the fourth wall for one of the first times in the collection, directly addressing the reader with the line: “are you reading this dear / reader are you my mom yet.” You do not pose this as a question; rather, almost as a command. It is as if your language expects your reader to become capable of mothering. And, by virtue of your title, capable of embodying time. While we assume this poem is a letter to your mother, your language feels inclusive and expansive, the second-person voice taking the reader under its wing, too. When you wrote this poem, how did you hope your reader would respond?
OV: For me, there is a bond in the work of writing, in that it does not exist unless a reader reads it. And that’s akin to the Zen Buddhist koan that we all know—if a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound. And that, to me, is the paradox of being a writer. Your work is not complete until a listener or a reader, another person with an operating system of senses, comes along and experiences the text. In this way, you work in total removal of the world, and yet you depend on the world in order to finish the work. But this is the very friction involved in what it means to be a person. You have your own desires and dreams, but these don’t exist in a vacuum. You are still a citizen, with civic obligations. I wanted to make that negotiation felt, to make it alive, or rather point to that bridge. This is not me just telling a story. I don’t want to render the reader passive. I think I would truly fail at my work if a reader “gets lost” in my story. We often want that, but I think I would totally fail if my reader felt they had entered my world so completely that they “lost themselves.” It’s important for me to constantly point at the fact that we are two people, negotiating one unknown. That, to me, is more beautiful than my reader getting “lost” in my story.
DM: Wow, thank you for sharing that. Throughout your collection, you explore themes of personal heritage, loss, and reclamation. “You are something made, then made / to survive” is a line from your poem “Tell Me Something Good.” We have all been gifted with life, but many of us spend our lives trying to reclaim ourselves and our personal histories, to redefine our relationship between our making and our makers. What is this space between the making (our creation) and our survival?
OV: There is a great book called On Beauty and Being Just, by Elaine Scarry. She points out something very potent: that we, as a species, have always tried to replicate the beautiful in order to extend it across time. So that the replication of something valuable or beautiful almost guarantees its survival. It’s a matter of collective multiplicity, in extending what is valuable into the present. Especially because the material degradation of the world can render something lost. If I were to read Gilgamesh, I would be reading a text that is four thousand years old. The human mind that created that text emitted an energy, and compressed that linguistic energy into stone. And now, through the generations, Gilgamesh has been replicated in paper. And now, I receive that energy, as through a line of electric energy that has not died, but transmitted through various media. You and I, as writers, we are doing exactly that. There is something very humbling in that. As writers, we are not just “making things” but participating in the long chain of preserving what is good and relinquishing what is harmful. Just as when we revise, we make the decision to edit out what is not working. Survival, or innovation, or making—whatever you want to call it—is actually the practice of discernment. We must ask ourselves, “What am I discerning, and what am I letting go, and what am I preserving?” In this process, you recognize your values, you realize who you are. What you end up with is something you believe in. When we arrive at a poem or a novel, we are arriving at what one person truly believes in as their best self. As a reader, you are reading someone’s best self. We don’t have access to a technology that can produce someone’s best self. We are lucky, as writers, to have this power.
DM: You have said before that energy never dies. When you write, what is the energy you hope to transmit to your reader? Can you speak to the translation of energy between a writer and their reader?
OV: Energy, rendered through language, creates meaning. Meaning, however, is slippery because language is slippery. The book is not the final destination of an energy, nor is it the final meaning. There are so many forms of impulses and energy that can be translated as a piece of meaning in time. That meaning then changes. Every word has its own life, its own growth, and we use what it is in its present state to contain that energy. But those words degrade. You know, you think of Chaucer writing in Middle English. Now, that English is different from our current English, as definitions and syntax have shifted. But the energy is still there, and the various renditions of that energy are still felt. There are as many ways to tell a story or write a poem as there are feelings and emotions. And that’s a beautiful thing.
DM: You have said that you struggle with the third person point of view, that you feel as though you are judging your characters by writing about them rather than from inside or among them. How have you been able to redefine your relationship with the third person in Time Is a Mother? And, in your approach to poetry more generally, what do you believe is the space for the third person within the “I” voice?
OV: I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with the third person. I used it in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, where I wanted to approach all points of view to prove to myself that I was taking the task of being a novice, an apprentice to the form of the novel, seriously. I didn’t want people to say that I was just a poet who went from writing in the first person in one medium to another medium, because it made sense or seemed easy. I wanted to really put myself through the work of learning the techniques of the novel, which are thoroughly different from those of the poem. I wanted to do my due diligence as a new student of the form, which is why I wrote from all three perspectives in my novel. But the third person is hard—it’s very strong in literature. Many nineteenth-century European novels were written that way. One of my favorite books, Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, was written that way. Also D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, a lot of Baldwin too, like Go Tell It on the Mountain. So I’m not against the third person, but I have a different relationship with it when I make within it. I’m uncomfortable looking down or onto my characters the way one looks through a dollhouse. There’s too much power there. And perhaps this says something about me. I’m very uncomfortable with power. I think you might be really correct in saying that a lot of my career has been a negotiation of alternative power sites. Because of that, I’m really suspicious of myself. I don’t feel good in the third person; I don’t feel comfortable moving people around so easily. This ultimate power of the omniscient third, of having the world at your fingertips, kind of freaks me out. I’m also suspicious of the reified form of the third person in literature. Again, the third-person, nineteenth-century novel is considered the peak of literature because it’s vast, it’s large, but it’s also patriarchal. And we can see why so many men in the canon have fallen under the third person as a way to write. It’s so tantalizing. It’s closest to God. I’m interested in what it is about the third person, about being so close to God, that initially was attractive enough to men to become such a patriarchal form. Why is it considered more respectable for men to achieve the third person? But when writers of color or queer folks or women use the third person, it’s considered merely autobiographical, unrestrained, myopic, lesser than. It’s just the “ramblings” or “stream of consciousness”—a term I despise because it’s used to strip consciousness, and artifice, and artistic merit from the act of making, which takes a lot of care. I’m still invested in widening that scope, but I’m still greatly uncomfortable with the third. You can call that a limitation, but I don’t feel like myself; my ideas are not fluid or open, and I don’t feel as compassionate in the third. But in the first person, I’m in the world. I have to own up to my flaws in thinking, to the limitations of a point of view, to the limitations of having a body through a speaker. I’m certainly not my speaker, but having a speaker that is contained and finite is actually a restriction that leads to innovation and discovery for me. Very much in the way the sonnet is a restriction that could lead to innovation.
DM: I think coming so close to your characters, and writing from within them, is one of the ways you’re able to touch your readers in such a profound manner. Where are you taking your words next? What are you currently working on, and what questions are you pursuing in your writing?
OV: I don’t have anything left. You know, I empty everything in one project and then it’s over. And so I’m in the place of starting over, which is a good space because you read, and watch, and can just be present. What I’m working towards is trying to answer, in one way or another, this question of care. How do people care for one another when they don’t know how to express care to those closest to them? My hypothesis is that when the people we want to care for most are no longer accessible, either emotionally or physically (through death), where do we express our care? My theory is that we do transfer this care to other spaces, whether the recipients are animals or coworkers. I think the failure of care is this glitch, this chaotic mistake that actually leads to something very beautiful, that our care starts to lend itself outward, it starts to open. They say that grief is love with nowhere to go. I think as humans, we start to figure out where else our care can go, where it may lead to. And that discovery of finding a different medium through which to express care, and different recipients, is actually how compassion and care ripple out from communities. I don’t know what that means, or what that leads to, but this is a question I’m obsessed with right now.
DM: Thank you, Ocean. It’s been such a pleasure to speak with you, and I appreciate your taking the time to discuss your new work of art with me. Congratulations on Time Is a Mother. It’s a stunning collection. And I wish you all the best with the process of seeking out the answers to those questions.
OV: Thank you, Divya. And thank you to Adroit for being so game-changing in publishing young poets and having young poets take control of the narrative and where the art is headed. It’s rare to have such a space, and so I’m really proud of Adroit for achieving that and continuing this process. It’s a real honor to be a part of it in any way.