Ocean Vuong Is Still Learning

In this case, you were clearly mulling over Sara’s provocation. In other cases, where do you begin writing a poem? Is it a word, an image, an idea?

Every poet could probably tell you something different, but for me there’s two general modes. One is the poem of the premise, and the other is the poem of the line. The line is similar to a jazz riff. You have a good line and then you try to build on that. It’s much more playful, it’s much more exploratory. The poem “Almost Human” is like that. I started with this line: “I come from a people of sculptors whose masterpiece was rubble.” And I was, like, “Wow, how do I use that line?”

A premise poem is like the “Sara” poem. I’m gonna retort and explore this statement. And I knew that I wanted to find common ground with her. That was my goal, similar to an essay or even a chapter in a novel. It’s, like, where are we gonna end up at the end of this chapter? Is there gonna be a divorce? How do we engineer that? There’s “American Legend,” which is another premise poem. Two Asian Americans are gonna do this quintessentially American thing. A father and son driving a Ford to put down their dog. It’s so suburban. I was very interested in putting Asian American bodies in mundane American acts, almost to the point of boredom.

There’s another poem, “Old Glory,”where you recount all these everyday phrases (“Knock ’em dead,” “I’d smash it/ good,” “You truly/ murdered”) that remind us how much of our speech is casually inflected with violence.

That poem was very uncomfortable to write and even to read. It’s a found poem: you take these pieces and put them together. I wanted to do something that only the poem could do. Only the poem could show us that. We hear these phrases all the time, we might even say some of these phrases, but they’re diluted in the larger context, and they come at us sporadically through the day, through the media, different voices say them. We don’t notice them. But then, when we take out all the other context and just stack them together, it becomes brutal in its truths.

I was trying to explain this to my aunt, this lexicon of American violence, and she was utterly horrified. She’s, like, “Why would they use those words?” ’Cause in the Vietnamese context—and it might be similar to Chinese—words are like spells. If you talk about death, death visits you, so you don’t talk about death at the dinner table. There’s a lot of taboo around speech and how it brings forth the darkness. And so, for my aunt, it was totally foreign to her, you know? That’s what I wanted to create. I wanted to create a foreign experience of something very familiar.

Right. In Chinese, there are homophonic puns, so that in Mandarin the word for “four” sounds like the word for “death,” and the number is tainted by association. So even the word for a number conjures something taboo.

Chinese and Vietnamese culture is so much older than America. And I think, in this sense, America is still immature. I would argue that the way it renders and handles language is still quite primitive for a nation and a culture that has so much technological prowess. It’s actually quite archaic in how it imagines the capacity of language, and, and in this sense, Chinese and Vietnamese culture are way ahead, both in the time line, but also culturally, in their wisdom. On good days, I believe that America might end up with that wisdom eventually. We often see these foreign countries as “behind,” but we only measure that in G.D.P. and technology. But when it comes to the spiritual wisdom of how to handle something like language, Vietnam is way ahead, and I hope America catches up one day.

You mentioned that, in your first book, “Night Sky,” you weren’t yet ready to bring in these different registers. Were you already thinking about how to do this, and you just weren’t publishing those works, or were you not yet at a level of artistic maturity where you felt like you could do it?

I just didn’t have the courage. Writing a book of poems is a wonderful education for a young writer because it forces you to keep finding new registers. It also forces you to find more premises. A book of poems . . . thirty, thirty-five poems, right? That’s thirty, thirty-five ideas. A novel, maybe one or two ideas expanded through plot and time and character. But when it comes to poems, you can’t really repeat [the premise] over and over. You gotta find completely different angles. And then you gotta find different registers, tones, styles, modes, forms. I was happy enough, but it was only about sixty per cent of what I really wanted to do at the time.

I’m drawn to this idea of courage on the page. For example, you quote the late rapper Lil Peep in “Not Even.” You bring in other voices, like your cousin Sara’s, and braid them through your work. Is part of this courage you’re describing about giving part of the page away to others?

The more I write, the more I realize that writing is predominantly a curatorial work and it’s about listening rather than making. “Poet” in Greek is a maker, but I think a maker at their best is a maker of space rather than a maker of objects. And so I think, for me, it’s about: How do I create space? That’s the harder work. And I think any architect will tell you that you’re sculpting space, you’re sculpting light. That’s much harder ’cause anyone can fill a page with themselves or their expressions, but how do you collaborate with the material world, with the cultural world? That, to me, was always something I wanted to do, but didn’t have enough confidence.

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