“I brush away the poem’s landscape. . .” – Interview with Ocean Vuong

Earlier this year, RHINO Senior Editor Virginia Bell interviewed poet Ocean Vuong, whose poem “Pedicures” appears in RHINO 2012.

photo by Peter Bienkowski

VB: We published your poem “Pedicures” in RHINO 2012, so I’d like to begin with a couple of questions about it. We love the sensuous and sensory language in this poem, and the deeply respectful—even reverent—portrait of the speaker’s aunt as she gives yet another pedicure to a perfect stranger: “Her fingers slide along each lathered / and tortured vein. […] She scrubs and scrubs. / She shines—until the foot gleams / immaculate”.


Can you speak a bit about what or who inspired you to write this poem? And about your favorite language used to describe her in the poem?

OV: The speaker’s aunt is my own. But she is also my mother, grandmother, uncle, cousin, and father. For many Vietnamese living in America, the nail salon is often the vital backbone behind each family. Thousands of lawyers, doctors, musicians, scholars, and writers can trace their achievements directly back to the humble little nail salon. However, the salon is also a lifeline for Vietnam as well: many salon workers send money back to the motherland, often supporting multiple families on a salary of as little as $12,000.00 a year.

photos by Ocean Vuong

This poem was initially written as an homage to these workers. And although the language can be described as lush and sensual, I found it impossible to beautify their difficult work. I think I used the language more as a vessel, chartering me through the work and its images. The last thing I want to imply with my work is that suffering, even that as minute as arduous labor, can be justified by rendering it beautiful—or worse, a writer adorning it with “poetic” language.

As for favorite words: I regret to say I don’t have favorite words. To me, language is a means to an end, and often a cumbersome and limiting one. I write the poem knowing that language will ultimately fail the work’s intent. This doesn’t mean that language (as well as the mastering of language) is not important, but as a craftsman is most skilled when he knows the limitations of his tools, the writer should know the depths of his words.

VB: It also seems to me that the poem makes a sort of argument that the aunt is an artist, even though her work is not appreciated as such and is cheapened by the exchange of money: “What artistry isn’t reduced / to the sound of money being counted? […] my aunt’s face / is swallowed / by clouds of sloughed skin.” Could you elaborate a little on the question of what counts as “art” and who counts (no pun intended) as an “artist”?


OV: This is a tough question and one I have been asking myself since I began writing. I don’t think I will ever have a precise answer because I think the answer changes; it’s a moving target. But I think it’s more of a personal question, one in which every artist should perpetually be asking herself: what do I want my work to do and how will my work reward me? If the answer to the latter is “fame,””wealth,” or even “happiness,” then perhaps it would be better to choose another vocation. This is not to say that an artist should have any one particular goal, but at the very least she should engage her artistic efforts with the hopes of capturing something greater than physical, financial comfort, or even mental comfort.

As for me, I have never considered poetry to be a means of living. I have lived below the poverty line all of my brief 24 years on earth—so the little money there is in poetry never disappointed me. In fact, any money I do get from lectures or readings or awards is treated as a bonus: a gift. But you’re asking of whether I think money deludes art. And in which case I would say—yes. But that doesn’t mean we have to be starving artists, and it surely doesn’t mean that the only legitimate artists are ones who live in poverty. Because we live in a capitalist society (world?), art must often operate within economic confines in order to survive. And an artist, regardless of the number in his bank account, can only benefit by confronting money and myriad ways it changes him.

VB: In your book Burnings (Sibling Rivalry Press 2010), there is a thread of poems about the Vietnam War that remind me—not just in content, but also instyle—of Yusef Komunyakaa’s work. However, where YK’s work is sort of a soldier’s testimonial, your poems often call attention to later generations’ difficulty with knowing and representing the War at all.

For instance, “”The Photo” ends with a reminder that what might be outside the frame, outside the graphic photograph of “a yellow face” and “a yellow hand” “gripping the pistol,” is equally important: “Like where the bullet / entered his skull” or “a white man / was lighting a cigarette.”

How do you see the relationship between your poetry and the cultural memory of the Vietnam War?

OV: Whether one is writing about Vietnam—or any traumatic event in our collective past, it’s important to avoid a sentimental approach towards nostalgia, particularly that of place—which is what I appreciate most about Komunyakaa’s work: it seeks truth without the anxiety to force convenient conclusions to historic trauma. I think a lot of younger writers, especially those who were not born or lived in Vietnam, are more susceptible to depicting Vietnam as a convenient and often limiting trope, replete with palm trees, rice patties, buffaloes, the one-legged farmer hobbling along a dirt road, etc. The problem with this approach is not that it’s inaccurate, but that it’s very reductive, offering little to the reading experience. What’s more is that Vietnam becomes less of a real, lived country and more of a collection of icons of which the poet uses to mend whatever personal and political agenda he’s negotiating. In this way, Vietnam is reduced to a tool used to resolve one’s own afflictions—or even worse, the poem’s rhetoric. I guess this is where the important question of “artist responsibility” is most relevant: as poets, we literally have the world in our hands; a few strokes of the pen and a city can rise or fall, the temperature and climate of a nation changes, a history is created or forgotten. With such great power demands greater awareness. It’s tempting to look for the end of the page or the last stanza as a space to answer some of our most impossible questions—but sometimes a poem is most powerful when it admits defeat, admits that it, too, is human.

VB: Many of your poems are also startling and achingly beautiful in their representations of sexuality and human intimacy. In “Revelation,” the speaker reveals that “fig leaves lay torn by our feet.” In “Moonless,” we find that “the ceiling has dissolved” and “the walls are crumbling.” In “More than Sex,” the speaker stops to note, “How quickly the animal empties,” and concludes by confessing, “I find what I came for: / a sea of lilacs / unfurling / their withered petals.”

Where do you find these gorgeous images? How do you arrive at a balance between literal narrative and imagism in these poems?

OV: Before I started writing I was practicing Zen meditation (Zazen)–which encourages one to approach the world as “a blind man approaches an elephant.” As he touches each part of the animal, he names a separate object: the trunk is drainage pipe, the leg the base of a great oak tree, the ears a dried, cool banana leaf. This is to say that by removing the word “elephant” we can actually see the elephant in its purer nature, freed from the connotative shackles we use to enslave the animal. We can see, after all, that the actual elephant is only “big” when it’s next to something small. Drop the creature into the ocean and it’s suddenly reduced to a minuscule grey dot. Of course, the elephant has never changed—the world has only shifted around it. I try to apply this principal to the majority of things I see, and the images come naturally from this perceptive. Although they do arrive at the strangest times: I would be doing something quite mundane: cooking or washing the dishes, sitting on the train, or singing in the shower and the image comes, wrapped in this precious language. I’d leap out of the tub soaking wet, rush to my little notebook to write it down, and then thank the poetry gods.

How do I find a balance between literal and narrative? I don’t think I have enough awareness of my own technique to answer this question properly. Maybe when I am older this will be clearer to me. But perhaps this is difficult to answer because, for me, the composition feels more organic than cerebral. I write the poem less as an architect and more an explorer, crawling on hands and knees through a dark and newly discovered world. I take the pen and brush away the poem’s landscape until something takes shape.

VB: The titles alone speak to a project focused on refusing conventional and heteronormative conceptions of sexuality and the body: “The Masturbation of Men, “The Touch,” “Self-Fellatio as Prayer,” etc. In “Song on the Subway”—a poem that echoes the voices of Walt Whitman and Mark Doty—the speaker is observing a musician during rush hour on the A Train. By the end, the speaker tells us, “I want nothing / but to put my fingers inside his mouth, / let that prayer hum through my veins. / I want to crawl into the hole in his violin.”

Could you speak about the importance of “desire” in your work?

OV: To speak of desire in my work is to speak of my devout Buddhist practice, which, in regards to poetry, is quite contradictory. For Buddhists, the root of all suffering is desire itself. I accept the fact that I’m not a monk, that my life is too often dictated by even the most basic desires: a job, a house for my mother, so and so’s new book, a man’s body, quiet, open spaces. What I find nearly impossible to accept, however, is being both a Buddhist and a poet at the same time. Yes, other Buddhist poets like Jane Hirshfield and Gary Snyder, both of whose work I admire, have pulled it off. But for me, what’s most problematic is the very desire to make poems at all. I feel, well, sort of guilty—dirty even, when writing. As I write this, hundreds of monks in Tibet are being beaten, killed, and persecuted by the Chinese government. How can my poem make a difference there? Poems take a lot of time to write (at least for me) and I just can’t help thinking that that time could be better used elsewhere. I already volunteer at Tibet Liberation centers but I catch myself, in the middle of a poem saying: “is there something more useful I can do with my hands, at this moment?” It’s hard to come to terms with my writing when the world’s on fire and here I am, obsessing over a handful of paper.

Like this very body I possess, the act of writing is, to me, just a means of translation, a place to store the soul. What’s more is that I have to face the fact that the poem will never be what I intended it to be—I can only get very close (if I’m lucky). I have to accept the fact that the very material I work with will ultimately fail me. Jack Gilbert perhaps said it most poignantly: “Love, we say, 
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words 
get it wrong.” They do, they get it wrong, and still we get up, we try to love each other, to resist our incredible ability to be cruel, and we try, we work and we mine language until it satisfies our need to make something meaningful. But the trying is what I fear. I pick up the pen and think: “could I be doing something better with these hands?” As I fix the flaws of the poem, the flaws of a man stack up around me, often times unnoticed. This scares me more than anything: the idea that I will end up using this precious time on earth making poems very few people will read, while there is still so much I can do with this body I am given.

But this, of course, is not to say that poetry does not change lives. It does. I know this. I posses one of those lives. In fact, there are many writers whose work hold that special capability. The problem, I think, is a lack of readership. I empathize with Whitman’s desire to make his Leaves of Grass a household book, a poetic bible of sorts. And I think it’s okay to not be completely satisfied until we achieve that feat, regardless if it’s with our own work or someone else’s.

VB: We also want to wish you congratulations on being awarded the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize for Younger Poets for “Prayer for the Newly Damned” (featured in The American Poetry Review September/October). In addition to this poem, what other work do we have to look forward to? What styles and topics are you working on? What are your current obsessions?

OV: Thank you. The award meant a lot to me and I thank the American Poetry Review for their selection and for running the contest in the memory of such a fine and important poet.

I have just spent the entire summer in Vietnam helping my aunt immigrate to America, and right now my focus is helping her and my family settle in to their new lives. Right now, I am focusing on planning my move to Iceland (which I plan to do within the next 4-5 years) and eventually obtaining an Icelandic citizenship.

I hope my answers are helpful to you and your readers. I apologize for not being more eloquent in my responses. Thank you for your questions—they were very illuminating and provocative. May peace and poetry and be with you always.


Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Ocean Vuong is the author of the chapbook BURNINGS (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2010) and is a recent graduate from Brooklyn College with a B.A. In English. A Kundiman fellow, he was a finalist for the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Other honors include a 2012 Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize for Younger Poets, an Academy of American Poets award, the Connecticut Poetry Society’s Al Savard Award, as well as four Pushcart Prize nominations. Poems appear in The American Poetry Review, Verse Daily, RHINO, diode, Guernica, Drunken Boat, South Dakota Review, and The Collagist, amongst others. http://oceanvuong.tumblr.com/

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