Earlier this month, we featured a short profile on the New York-based Emerging Writers Program of Poets House, which featured a number of writers from diverse cultural backgrounds.
As a follow up to that post, we’re happy to provide here a short profile of one of the writers on that program, Ocean Vuong.
This series is a part of an ongoing conversation about ways that writers and artists of diverse cultural backgrounds are working in a range of contexts, both in contrast and comparison to our own work here at Peril. We welcome your thoughts.
Peril Poetry Editor – Eleanor Jackson
Reviews of Ocean Vuong’s book, NO (published by the aptly titled YesYes Books in 2013) describe it variously as “brimming with lyric intensity”, conjuring a “ravishing devastation” and reminiscent of “those dreams we have in common”. Praise for his earlier book, Burnings (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2010) is no less enthusiastic, and so it is with some trepidation that I meet with Ocean at his apartment in Queens, wondering just what to expect of someone capable of such “rare lyrical gifts”. Both books were selected as recommended LGBT reading by the American Library Association’s “Over the Rainbow” reading list and from my own dipping into his work, I feel its beautiful personal intensity.
What transpires has a beautiful soft quality to it: the light is soft, the falling rain in outside is soft, and Ocean himself meets me with a gentle calm. Having spent some time on his tumblr site, which has a great repository of musical and artistic inspirations that sometimes lead to his poetry, has given me a sense of this poet who is often noted for the quiet of his personality as much as the intensity of his poetry.
Ocean believes that “writers will write no matter what” and that it is “a matter of simply waiting to find what triggers it. And sometimes that waiting can take months, even years”. For Ocean, the trigger to start writing was a realisation that he was in fact the only member of his family who could. Growing up as the only did it child who could write in either English or Vietnamese, poetry was always important, but primarily an oral act. Calling upon the tradition of communities in Vietnam who share news or community stories via sung couplets, Vuong was inspired by the “ephemeral artefacts” of his grandmother’s poetic storytelling. In this way, he sees his early writing as almost a historical act, having seen “so much poetry in real life, in the stories” of his family. An inspired non-fiction reader, he also looks to diverse sources for the catalysts for writing, treating poetry are almost as a kind of bridge between fiction and non-fiction because “the natural world and real, lived lives just have so much drama, grounded in real circumstances”.
He feels that “to be writing in a western country, as an Asian American, is in itself a political act, regardless of what you are writing about, and there has to be a certain awareness of that, whether you choose to write about diasporic and immigrant themes or about life on Jupiter”. Yet still, he also believes it is important to resist those labels as a writer, “as something that the consumer, or the established gaze, uses to simplify”. He is fascinated not by the simplicity of categories, “are you this kind of writer or that kind of writer?” but the more essential question of “what do you choose to write about?” Rather than looking to pigeonhole others, or be pigeonholed, into a fixed category, Ocean is interested in seeing themes exercised as tendencies rather than fixed identities.
As a writer of Asian family background who also identifies as gay, Ocean notes that there is often a great deal of conversation in America around the alleged conservatism of “Asian family values” in relation to sexuality. Yet for Ocean, as an Asian American, he feels a greater danger in the more biblically-inspired conservatism, as opposed to the traditional Vietnamese vantage point. Homosexuality may be taboo – and being an Asian America Gay Writer a kind of “perfect storm” – yet he still feels that there is “a less active need to destroy that threat” in his Vietnamese cultural heritage.
In fact, while visiting family in Vietnam’s a few years ago, he once witnessed a troupe of beautifully-attired drag queens who had been hired as part of midnight pre-funeral activities, “as a way of holding over sadness because the funeral home would not be open until the morning”. For Ocean, he can’t “write about sexuality without writing about the home, the Asian American home and how it breaches or does not breach certain values” and with that said, he “can’t write about homosexuality without writing about the King James Bible”, intrinsically informed by his complicated, Asian American gaze. Within that, he tries to keep the poem “loyal to its reality, like a citizen loyal to the complexity of his state”.
Ocean’s work has been published, anthologised and recognised by prizes, reflective perhaps of a growing diversity in the publishing market. Yet, while he feels that publication and prizes are an important platform, much like “the gallery or the museum” for an artist, he still looks for an “inner abundance, that might offer a chance to answer the more difficult questions”, even as he is happy to see that the publishing industry is more receptive to writers of colour. Perhaps this is a part of Ocean’s complex and sometimes contradictory perspectives on writing as a poet who is also a practising Buddhist, often trying to find a balance between the external/ego and the internal/non-self qualities encouraged by Buddhist philosophies. This, in effect, leads him to try “to forget himself” when he writes while trusting that all of his identities will be distilled into that writing, that all of our lives have Whitman-esque “multitudes” that allow us to “push beyond our names and our identities and find what lies behind that”. A self-confessed introvert, Ocean draws inspiration from writers like Emily Dickinson, her private and compressed will to write, and combines it with a Zen practice of meditation.
The Poet’s House Fellowship offered Ocean an “immeasurable gift”, to even be acknowledged after months of “deep solitude and doubt” and to be supported to continue writing. The mentors and mentoring process enabled people to share and encourage one another. For Ocean, “it was the epitome of what you hope of life in art and poetics would be, that through solitude you find community, and through community you find suture and an engine for work.” Both a challenge and a profound support, the fellowship enabled Ocean to prepare the first draft of his full-length book, and brought a new and deep appreciation to reading others’ work through critique and encouragement.