Ocean Vuong on Why Reading Will Always Be a Political Act

Ocean Vuong is a poet and essayist whose first book of poetry, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, is a multi-award-winning bestseller—no small feat in publishing these days, let alone from a book of poetry. But the work by the young Vietnamese-American writer is powerful and has caught the eye of many the world over. We caught up with him when he was faculty for the Literary Arts program Writing Studio in Spring 2017 to talk about the creative process, reading as a political act, and what it's like to work on his first novel. 

We’re seeing more poetry books on bestseller’s lists. Why do you think that is? 

I think poetry has always been important but a lot of the way we’re reading is changing because technology has allowed this sort of short, lyrical reading—tweeting, and social media—and I think for a lot of the younger generation, the reading of poetry almost seems natural. You’re starting with articles that are more like listicles, so for you to enhance and get more depth, poetry seems like the next step.

Because we live in a time where so much catastrophe is present or at least digestible through media, there’s a collective despair that happens and I think poetry, historically, has always come in when the social ground falls apart. Without the catastrophe, we get comfortable in the social dialogue—“How are you? Good. Fine. Oh, it’s so beautiful. How about them Patriots?”—which is fine, we use it to get through the day, but I think as humans we have this desire to go deeper. 

Whenever that happens, people that come into contact with poetry during those catastrophes might stay. And they might say, ‘wait a minute, what happens if it’s not a social but a private catastrophe, a private hurt? Can poetry still be useful to me then?’ I think there’s this reckoning where people say, this could be part of my everyday. It’s not against me. It’s simply like weather, you step inside it, and then it’s over. You just feel the whole thing, and at best you recognize something in yourself. 

You’ve said that reading poetry is an act of political resistance. Do you think it’s because people come to it in those political moments? What is resistant about reading?

I think reading itself—and reading poetry, of course—is political because it’s such an anti-capitalistic genre, that to engage with it at all is to resist almost everything that attempts to control and manipulate us towards capital. Because we’re inundated with media—there’s fake news, there’s fake wars, there’s fake money—so what is real? What is real that we can still feel? 

For me, to read a book, regardless of whether it’s poetry or not, is a way of reclaiming one’s internal self, and reclaiming what is real for oneself, as a way of rejecting all these other modes. 

In literature we get to stop, we get to control how we read, we get to go back and use critical thinking to say either ‘yes, this is is true’ or ‘no this is not,’ and then respond accordingly. Whereas with commercials and billboards, the sensations overtake us and we lose so much agency. So for a reader to say, ‘no thank you, I’m going to read a book,’ that’s a political act. 

Your recent New Yorker piece is about the fact that you couldn’t read English proficiently until you were 11 years old, and how your mother still can’t read. You make your living writing—can you talk a bit about your relationship to the written word?

I had a lot of difficulty. I had ESL teachers, and only when I was 11 was I able to sit with a book by myself. My family has a long history of dyslexia, and mental illness, and learning disabilities, and a lot of it is traced to war trauma. When I started to look at that, I saw that Octavia Butler also had difficulty spelling and reading. And Marcel Proust. All these great writers—Flaubert, Fitzgerald couldn’t write a sentence for a lot of their lives. I realized a lot of my favourite writers had trouble reading and had a very tense relationship with the written word. 

What happened then is that they had to read differently, and they had to make and rethink a method of reading for themselves—one that was not necessarily passive. If you read so easily, so well, you’re almost lost in the language; it becomes just a flow. But if you’re struggling, you start to see the words as these objects and you start to interrogate them, and you create second and undercurrent readings underneath those readings. I think, for me, that’s what happened, and in retrospect, I think it helped the way I look at language, the way I see it and how I break it apart. 

Does the ability to speak two languages affect that? In translation, often the whole work hinges on getting one word just right, moving one work over into another language—the dichotomy of how things can mean the same thing but slightly different. 

Vietnamese played a major role because it’s a different music. It’s kind of like, you have Bach and then you have Miles Davis layered on each other—that’s a whole different genre. That’s kind of how I moved through English, I moved through it with a Vietnamese metronome. That creates a sort of dissonance, but also interesting discoveries in how I write the line, how I look at the beat. That’s how it feels. 

You’ve described writing poetry as an act of survival. When you’re writing does it feel like something you need to do, or do you sit down every day at the same time to work?

I don’t sit down and write. I fail every time I try to do that. It’s an accumulation. When you look at the world, you react to it, you acquire, you communicate with it. It’s almost like forming a sentence. An “I” or a single word is not a complete sentence. You have to accumulate those words, and similarly, with thoughts and images, narratives, it begins with an accumulation. 

Like, with that essay in the New Yorker, I just stumbled on this article about the monarchs, and I thought, ‘My God, there’s something here.’ But I carried that around for years not knowing what to do with it. But when I started looking at how we inherit things, migration, and DNA, I realized that after a while the meaning of that piece just started to spill over. I didn’t sit down and think, ‘One day I’m going to sit down and write an essay about monarchs’ or ‘Now I’m inspired, I’ve got to put down these dishes,’ although sometimes that happens. But it’s more like the slow, arduous, not very glamorous accumulation, often of debris. 

You've said in a good year you write six to eight poems. How do you know when one of those pieces is finally finished?

It’s never finished. [Publishing] is just letting go. Paul Celan said, a poem is only abandoned, and I think it’s true. Publishing is just an abandoning to write the next. But if I were to edit my book today—it’s been a year—I would probably edit everything. It would be interesting to try it and see how different it actually is. This book of poems is just a snapshot of a single tree, and that’s what it is. The power is not in the page, or even the poem, but what we do with it. So, the book is just an archive of something that is still growing. I took a couple of pictures of this tree in March, 2016 and now that tree has grown. Just like how we take pictures of ourselves when we’re 12, we don’t look the same today, yet we’re the same person. My idea of finishing is to simply write and capture the same tree and update it where it is. 

Some reviews of your book peg it as being set to become part of the cannon. As a person of colour, not often enough represented in the cannon, what does that mean to you?

I’m suspicious of cannon-making because when you say ‘cannon’ what you’re saying is something with walls, something with barriers. I hear “empire,” I hear “gates.” 

So, for myself, the cannon was something I had to dismantle in order to even write anything. I think the idea of cannon-making should be re-interrogated anyways because what it does is set up a false hierarchy of quality that is exclusionary. And I knew, although I couldn't prove it early on, that the best creative thinkers surely, surely are not straight white men. But I just didn’t know how to begin with that immediate confrontation. So I was immediately suspicious and I kind of just meandered on the outside and dipped in wherever it was helpful. 

It taught me a great deal about how to negotiate the cannon. To read Whitman, to get the best of Whitman and also to leave his racism behind, his misogyny behind. And I think that negotiation and interrogation of the text and the body was a place of agency for me as a POC. That I can love this part of your work, and I will learn from it, but I don’t have to accept this part. 

You’re working on your first novel. What's it like to move into a different genre?

I was attracted to it because I wanted to feel stupid again. I’m always stupid in some ways, but I wanted to feel utterly at awe. You do anything for 10 years and there’s a certain level of familiarity. I’m still stunned by poems, but you get comfortable. And I’m not comfortable with comfort. Most of my life has been in such disarray that I’ve kind of gotten used to that feeling. I’m very suspicious of comfort and stagnation. And with the encouragement of my friends, I went to a different form. But what propelled me was that genre feels as fluid as gender to me. At the end of the day, we’re writing sentences and we’re telling stories. 

What are you bringing from your experience of writing poetry into your novel? 

If the sentence is how we move forward in any text, why not spend time being the apprentice of a sentence? I think poetry in action breaks the sentence down into multiple units: a breath, a word, the line break. Basically, it’s this incredible study of sentences. Some poems are one sentence. You learn about how to pause, how pauses torque and amplify, how momentum is shifted with the line, through pauses. Why not do that? 

When you’re writing your novel does it feel like when you’re writing a poem, or does it feel like you have a wide open space? 

It feels very anxious. Too much room! You go into a field and someone says, where do you want to go? I don’t know! It was a panic. But then when I started walking into that field, prose allowed me room to keep going whereas a poem is like, ‘alright, you took a couple steps, time to wrap it up.’ Prose is kind of forgiving in that it allowed me to fail more, it allowed me to go on detours. I like that the parts of myself that I discovered—even though they were sometimes terrifying—they gave me more time to be in that world. 

You're here with the Writing Studio program, working with emerging writers. Any advice for aspiring poets? 

I would say read everything and try to hold off any totalizing judgement on what you read. Just be in it the way one is inside weather, rather than trying to shut things down. It allows for more discoveries. I think being a reader is just as hard as being a writer because you have to sacrifice so much peace of mind just to discover. If you’re moving through a landscape, there could be a mountain but you have to move through the mountain to get to the meadow. That’s just how it is. Don’t let the mountain stop you.

Ocean Vuong was faculty for the Literary Arts program Writing Studio. Learn more about Literary Arts programs and apply today.