Ocean Vuong on why reading poetry is political

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Poet Ocean Vuong. Photo by Peter Bienkowski

Poet Ocean Vuong. Photo by Peter Bienkowski

Ocean Vuong’s first poems were born of uncertainty.

In 2008, grieving for his grandmother in the Hartford, Connecticut, apartment where she helped raise him, Vuong turned to the page. He began to write, preserving the folk songs that she had sung to her neighbors from the Vietnamese rice farm of her youth — communicating news of marriages, sharing love songs and other facts of life.

He found himself guessing where she would have put line breaks and other elements of form. Already experimenting with her words, he thought, “Why don’t I give my own hand a try next to hers?” The result was a collaboration across time, his grandmother’s voice beside his own.

Growing up, she had taught him how to look at the blank walls in their home as a blank canvas for the imagination. And as Vuong began writing poetry, he learned to leave part of that canvas for the reader. In this way, he subverts the historical erasure of stories like his: of immigration, of queerness, of the aftermath of war.

The poems in “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” which came out this month, navigate the in-between of those realities. His piece “Notebook Fragments” states: “In Vietnamese, the word for grenade is ‘bom,’ from the French ‘pomme,’ / meaning ‘apple.'”

Then, a line break. Silence. The next stanza: “Or was it American for ‘bomb’?”

“I often think that, particularly in this country and in the West in general, we often look at empty space, we look at silence, as a sort of death, a sort of weakness,” he said. “But I think the practice of poetry teaches us that silence and emptiness and space in general is actually quite potent.”

In “Telemachus,” Vuong builds a mythology from the absence of a father figure, one that disappears even on the page as we read it. The speaker pulls his father “through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail / the waves rush in to erase. Because the city / beyond the shore is no longer / where we left it.”

Vuong’s book is an experiment in form, which moves as restlessly between different modes of storytelling as it does between the violent and the erotic. “Anaphora as Coping Mechanism” lays out such a scene: “He dies as your heart beats faster, / as another war coppers the sky.”

The reader is a part of this ambiguity. And the act of navigating that space holds political importance, he said.

“The reading of poetry is in itself an act of political resistance to the mainstream,” he said. “Particularly in this election cycle, where there is this great anxiety for certainty. What is your position? What is your stance? Why are you flip-flopping? There’s an anxiety of certainty and power and boldness … But poetry acknowledges the true complexity of what it means to be human, which is that nothing is ever that certain.”

The book “holds a lot of questions,” he said. “Some of the questions are, how does one live in the intersectional spaces of trauma, now, in our American time? What does it mean to be a product of an American war in America?”

You can read “Telemachus,” or hear Vuong read it, below.

Telemachus

Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair

through sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase. Because the city

beyond the shore is no longer
where he left it. Because the bombed

cathedral is now a cathedral
of trees. I kneel beside him to see how far

I might sink. Do you know who I am,
ba? But the answer never comes. The answer

is the bullet hole in his back, brimming
with seawater. He is so still I think

he could be anyone’s father, found
the way a green bottle might appear

at a boy’s feet containing a year
he has never touched. I touch

his ears. No use. The neck’s
bruising. I turn him over. To face

it. The cathedral in his sea-black eyes.
The face not mine but one I will wear

to kiss all my lovers goodnight:
the way I seal my father’s lips

with my own and begin
the faithful work of drowning.

Ocean Vuong is the author of “Night Sky with Exit Wounds” (Copper Canyon Press, 2016). A 2016 Whiting Award winner and Ruth Lilly fellow, 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, GRANTA, 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.

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