I’m Sally Wen Mao, your guest blogger for the week, and this month, my first book, Mad Honey Symposium, is coming out. You can check it out at the Alice James Books website or Amazon. Here’s a review on Publishers Weekly and here’s one on The Literary Review.
May also happens to be Asian Pacific American Heritage month. This week I’ll be featuring a few APA poets who are fellows of Kundiman, an Asian American poetry collective based in New York. I’ll feature a poem and a short interview with each poet. The first in this series is Ocean Vuong.
Ocean Vuong is a recipient of a 2014 Pushcart Prize as well as fellowships from Kundiman, Poets House, Civitella Ranieri Foundation (Italy), The Elizabeth George Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Poems appear in Poetry, The Nation, Beloit Poetry Journal, Guernica, Quarterly West, Denver Quarterly, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the 2012 Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. He lives in Queens, NY. (www.oceanvuong.com)
I first got to know the incomparable Ocean Vuong when he came to Ithaca for a residency at Saltonstall Artists Colony in the fall of 2013. Ocean is a poet who deserves to be listened closely. That is because the voice in his poems ripples, sears, and dazzles, a voice that disarms with its contradictions, but also a voice that listens back. The reader will take note of the way in which his speakers experience haunting. In the following poem “Telemachus”, he disarms the reader from the beginning with the phrase “like any good son, I pull my father out/of the water.” The father, the epicenter for the speaker’s contradictory emotions—ire, tenderness, reverence, fear, empathy—is surprisingly vulnerable. The speaker has the power in this narrative: the will to act, the will to “drag him by the hair/through sand”, the will to “touch/his ears” and “turn him over”. The combination of violent images (“bullet hole in his back”, “bombed cathedral”) with sacred images highlights the great tension of the poem: that is, to actually look at or behold someone unbearably close to you, to see the image of his face come alive before you, that is difficult to survive. “To face/ it”, he writes, “The cathedral in his sea-black eyes.” The ending, an act of mercy and an almost-redemption: “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.” The poem brims with complexity, tenderness, and violence, and as my students have said, Ocean’s work is “deep without confusing the reader”, which in a sense, is the ultimate compliment.
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 this is,
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.
First published in Beloit Poetry Journal
To quote Angry Asian Man: who are you? What are you all about?
This is something I'm still trying to figure out. It's hard to put language to it because I feel like what I am keeps changing every day. But maybe I'm not supposed to know. Do I even want to know? Some days I feel like a human. Some days I feel more like a sound.
Tell me about your current or most recent project. How did you transform it from its genesis to its current form?
I just completed my first full-length poetry collection so my mind is taking a respite from poetry at the moment. Which gives me space to work on this essay about fire escapes—something I have been thinking about for a couple of years. And there are so many of them in New York—most of the time I am looking up at all those little dark steel skeletons. I have found that the more I observe them the more I see them as representations of art. There’s this allure to the idea of a utilitarian vehicle of “escape”, and that something so infused with connotations of danger is also fully present and visible in our daily lives. In a way, the fire escape achieves what I aspire to do with poetry: explore my own fears and desperations without shame or guise—and I think: how can my work as an artist be as honest and clear as the fire escape? What would the poem look like if it was all fire escape and no building? All bones for departure? What formal enactments, what rhetorical gestures would have to occur for the poem to inhabit such a space? And, most importantly, how does the view differ from up there?
Tell me what you get excited about, in terms of your poetry and your work. What have you discovered in the process of shaping and forming your manuscript(s)? What has shaped, challenged, or invigorated your poetic practice?
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'd just keep it in my pocket, like a little seed, warming in my fist. In a good year, I draft about 6-8 poems—and maybe 4 or 5 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.
Who are your influences? If you could map a poetic lineage, how would it look? Or the opposite: whose work do you admire and come back to, but contrasts from your own work?
I tend to find my influences 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 harbored 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.
What is one thing that you desire to say as a poet, but haven’t said yet? What does the future hold for you, if you could hold it?
I don't really know. I often find myself writing to the terrified versions of myself. And maybe all I really want to say—if anything at all—is that you (whoever you are) are not alone. Maybe because this is what some of the most important writers in my life have been telling me over and over again in their myriad and unique ways. I go back to the boy I once was, the boy who hid in the library during recces to read a book covered in his lap so no one will know he has betrayed “fun” for secrets. So no one will know he loves words. Because lovers of words were thought to be weak and effeminate. And effeminate boys were strange and strange things don't last very long in this world. So I read to find my own hand in the pages of books. In the future, I want to keep holding books. To touch myself on each page, saying “I am here. I am here. I am here.”