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Ocean Vuong: ‘I don’t believe a writer should just keep writing as long as they’re alive’ | Ocean Vuong

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Ocean Vuong, 34, is an American poet and novelist born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and raised in Hartford, Connecticut. His 2016 debut poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, won the TS Eliot prize and Forward prize in 2017. His debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, was published in 2019 and is being adapted for the screen by A24. His second collection of poetry, Time Is a Mother, out this week in paperback, was written after the passing of his mother and explores loss, memory, addiction and love. We communicated by email for this interview.

There are plenty of vivid scenes in this collection — from a car crash to stealing tips from a nail salon for a “hit”. What was your approach to storytelling in Time Is a Mother?
I’ve always believed, both in fiction and poetry, in Wallace Stevens’s ideal of imaginative writing coming from a “supreme fiction”. That is, that the poem is an opportunity to turn from memoiristic transcription of information towards a kind of ultimate artefact, charged and changed by the imagination. And it’s through this lens that I approach storytelling in my work. For example, I can’t drive – but the poem American Legend has a speaker driving his father to put down their dog, which becomes a kind of parable for American failure, the car crash the deliberate destruction of an iconic medium of mid-century autonomy and possibility, which liberates the relationship between father and son into a kind of “elsewhere,” or “no man’s land” of relation. What becomes of people, of the story, when its linear promise is elided, when we literally crash the car in hopes of finding another path? Writing from a memoiristic approach would be too limiting.

I make a distinction, however, between memoir and autobiography, the latter I take quite literally to be “the writing of the self”. It’s a tricky thing, though, because I’ve learned that writers of colour are often expected to perform a kind of ethnography in their work that’s devoid of “craft” – or, worse, that their work is read as “mere” reportage, creating a myth that the work is only valuable for its “exotic” subject and not for its artistic strategies. In this way, I have great affinity with [Toni] Morrison’s claim that “I am not my work”, and, further, that my work is not just my experience, but rather a questing forward from experience.

Thinking about the architecture of your poems – can you talk about your use of space, punctuation and line breaks, and how you think it affects the experience of a poem?
Every poem suggests its own kind of physics, each with its various dials for syntax, grammar, pacing, enjambment, line length/speed, and my work is to lean in and commit to that matrix, which is different for each poem. I have a deep suspicion or, more accurately, an ambivalence to the myth of “style”. I believe the common anxiety for a writer to “find” or “establish” a style is actually incredibly limiting – and the longer I teach the more I find this to be true. [Vuong is a professor of creative writing at New York University.]

Time Is a Mother was written in the aftermath of your mother’s death. Did writing these poems help you to process her passing?
I don’t know if writing anything helps one process the mysterious and destabilising sensation of losing a loved one, at least it hasn’t [been] so for me. But I do think there is some sort of satisfaction in building a linguistic architecture wherein others can experience that loss, amplified perhaps by their own, and the poem at least offers that capacity. Ultimately, the poem to me is not so much a site of resolve but perhaps of experience itself – but one enacted by the imagination. But I’m not sure even of that; I might still be too young in my grief to know where it ends.

You have said that this is the book of which you are proudest in terms of craft. Why?
It’s important for me to say that being proud is not so much a claim on quality or achievement in the work, or lack thereof, but of satisfying the artistic potential within oneself. With my other books, I’ve always felt that there was room left over in the glass, that I didn’t fill it to the brim when it was published, mostly because I didn’t have the courage to execute all my techniques, or that they weren’t truly refined (the use of humour, for example). With this book, I felt the water was finally spilling over the top, which is both a relief but also perhaps a reason to mourn. Is this it? Have I stopped growing? Have I caught up with myself? I don’t know – but if that’s the case, then I would be perfectly happy with that. I may be alone in thinking this, but I truly don’t believe that a writer should just keep writing as long as they’re alive. I see my career not by how much I can produce but by how the work can get me to where I can meaningfully stop and be satisfied with what I’ve done. I’m more interested in stopping well rather than endlessly creating.

Were there other poets whose humour you drew on?
It’s actually quite difficult to draw from other styles because humour operates in such a specific vernacular to the poet. Often one poet’s comedic manoeuvres can’t really be applied to another. With that said, I had some north stars that helped widen the aperture of what kind of humour my poems can hold, and for that I turned to some mainstays like Bernadette Mayer, Denis Johnson, CD Wright, Morgan Parker, Joe Brainard, and Kim Hyesoon.

You live in Northampton, Massachusetts. What do you like most about the city?
It’s the perfect balance of urbaness and rurality. Though technically a city, one could ride one’s bike for 10 minutes in any direction in Northampton and be in the middle of a cornfield, which suits me best. I think better, and was able to write my last two books here.

What kind of things do you do just for the fun of it?
I’m a big fan of mixed martial arts, and I’ve managed through the years to introduce it to a lot of artist friends of mine. So each month we’d get together and watch the fights on the big screen. This has also led, somehow, to us attending local amateur pro wrestling (I love the contradiction in this term to no end), which strangely feels like going to poetry readings: a group of people who love the art they perform getting together for very little money to commit to an embodied (and costly) mode of storytelling. I have great admiration for them.

What books are on your bedside table?
Culture by Terry Eagleton. In Love with the World by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata. Fantasia for the Man in Blue by Tommye Blount. All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg. To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems by Graham Foust.


Ocean Vuong, 34, is an American poet and novelist born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and raised in Hartford, Connecticut. His 2016 debut poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, won the TS Eliot prize and Forward prize in 2017. His debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, was published in 2019 and is being adapted for the screen by A24. His second collection of poetry, Time Is a Mother, out this week in paperback, was written after the passing of his mother and explores loss, memory, addiction and love. We communicated by email for this interview.

There are plenty of vivid scenes in this collection — from a car crash to stealing tips from a nail salon for a “hit”. What was your approach to storytelling in Time Is a Mother?
I’ve always believed, both in fiction and poetry, in Wallace Stevens’s ideal of imaginative writing coming from a “supreme fiction”. That is, that the poem is an opportunity to turn from memoiristic transcription of information towards a kind of ultimate artefact, charged and changed by the imagination. And it’s through this lens that I approach storytelling in my work. For example, I can’t drive – but the poem American Legend has a speaker driving his father to put down their dog, which becomes a kind of parable for American failure, the car crash the deliberate destruction of an iconic medium of mid-century autonomy and possibility, which liberates the relationship between father and son into a kind of “elsewhere,” or “no man’s land” of relation. What becomes of people, of the story, when its linear promise is elided, when we literally crash the car in hopes of finding another path? Writing from a memoiristic approach would be too limiting.

I make a distinction, however, between memoir and autobiography, the latter I take quite literally to be “the writing of the self”. It’s a tricky thing, though, because I’ve learned that writers of colour are often expected to perform a kind of ethnography in their work that’s devoid of “craft” – or, worse, that their work is read as “mere” reportage, creating a myth that the work is only valuable for its “exotic” subject and not for its artistic strategies. In this way, I have great affinity with [Toni] Morrison’s claim that “I am not my work”, and, further, that my work is not just my experience, but rather a questing forward from experience.

Thinking about the architecture of your poems – can you talk about your use of space, punctuation and line breaks, and how you think it affects the experience of a poem?
Every poem suggests its own kind of physics, each with its various dials for syntax, grammar, pacing, enjambment, line length/speed, and my work is to lean in and commit to that matrix, which is different for each poem. I have a deep suspicion or, more accurately, an ambivalence to the myth of “style”. I believe the common anxiety for a writer to “find” or “establish” a style is actually incredibly limiting – and the longer I teach the more I find this to be true. [Vuong is a professor of creative writing at New York University.]

Time Is a Mother was written in the aftermath of your mother’s death. Did writing these poems help you to process her passing?
I don’t know if writing anything helps one process the mysterious and destabilising sensation of losing a loved one, at least it hasn’t [been] so for me. But I do think there is some sort of satisfaction in building a linguistic architecture wherein others can experience that loss, amplified perhaps by their own, and the poem at least offers that capacity. Ultimately, the poem to me is not so much a site of resolve but perhaps of experience itself – but one enacted by the imagination. But I’m not sure even of that; I might still be too young in my grief to know where it ends.

You have said that this is the book of which you are proudest in terms of craft. Why?
It’s important for me to say that being proud is not so much a claim on quality or achievement in the work, or lack thereof, but of satisfying the artistic potential within oneself. With my other books, I’ve always felt that there was room left over in the glass, that I didn’t fill it to the brim when it was published, mostly because I didn’t have the courage to execute all my techniques, or that they weren’t truly refined (the use of humour, for example). With this book, I felt the water was finally spilling over the top, which is both a relief but also perhaps a reason to mourn. Is this it? Have I stopped growing? Have I caught up with myself? I don’t know – but if that’s the case, then I would be perfectly happy with that. I may be alone in thinking this, but I truly don’t believe that a writer should just keep writing as long as they’re alive. I see my career not by how much I can produce but by how the work can get me to where I can meaningfully stop and be satisfied with what I’ve done. I’m more interested in stopping well rather than endlessly creating.

Were there other poets whose humour you drew on?
It’s actually quite difficult to draw from other styles because humour operates in such a specific vernacular to the poet. Often one poet’s comedic manoeuvres can’t really be applied to another. With that said, I had some north stars that helped widen the aperture of what kind of humour my poems can hold, and for that I turned to some mainstays like Bernadette Mayer, Denis Johnson, CD Wright, Morgan Parker, Joe Brainard, and Kim Hyesoon.

You live in Northampton, Massachusetts. What do you like most about the city?
It’s the perfect balance of urbaness and rurality. Though technically a city, one could ride one’s bike for 10 minutes in any direction in Northampton and be in the middle of a cornfield, which suits me best. I think better, and was able to write my last two books here.

What kind of things do you do just for the fun of it?
I’m a big fan of mixed martial arts, and I’ve managed through the years to introduce it to a lot of artist friends of mine. So each month we’d get together and watch the fights on the big screen. This has also led, somehow, to us attending local amateur pro wrestling (I love the contradiction in this term to no end), which strangely feels like going to poetry readings: a group of people who love the art they perform getting together for very little money to commit to an embodied (and costly) mode of storytelling. I have great admiration for them.

What books are on your bedside table?
Culture by Terry Eagleton. In Love with the World by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata. Fantasia for the Man in Blue by Tommye Blount. All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg. To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems by Graham Foust.

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