RHINO Contributors Garner Prizes and Honors

RHINO Interns

Rhino Man by David Csisko

Join us in celebrating our contributors’ recent and forthcoming book publications and prizes! 

These listings including information new since the poet published in RHINO. Past and current issue contributors to RHINO are encouraged to email their major literary updates to editors@rhinopoetry.org.

 

Jose Araguz‘s second poetry collection, Small Fires, is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press in 2017.

 

Michael Bazzett‘s You Must Remember This (Milkweed Editions, 2014) was his debut full-length collection and won the Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry. Horsethief will publish OUR LANDS ARE NOT SO DIFFERENT in early 2017.

 

Jan Bottiglieri‘s* first full-length book Alloy was published by Mayapple Press in 2015.

 

Claudia Cortese’s first full-length book, Wasp Queen, will be published by Black Lawrence Press in 2016.

 

Jessica Cuello‘s first full-length manuscript Pricking is forthcoming from Tiger Bark Press in November 2016 and her second book Hunt won The 2016 Washington Prize from The Word Works and is forthcoming in March 2017.

 

Emari DiGiorgio‘s debut collection, The Things a Body Might Become is forthcoming from  ELJ Editions in July 2017. She won the 2016 Auburn Witness Poetry Prize Honoring Jake Adam York.

 

Chelsea Dingman‘s first full-length book Thaw is a winner of the National Poetry Series Competition (2016), chosen by Allison Joseph, and forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press (2017).

 

Katie Hartsock‘s book Bed of Impatiens is forthcoming from Able Muse Press, where it was a finalist for the 2016 Able Muse Book Award (and garnering finalist status for the Yale Younger Poets and New Criterion Poetry Prizes).

 

Rochelle Hurt‘s collection of poetry In Which I Play the Runaway won the Barrow Street Book Prize and is forthcoming in fall 2016.

 

Sarah Katz appeared on the PBS Newshour in a feature about the Deaf Poets Society, a new digital magazine she founded.

 

Virginia Konchan published the chapbook Vox Populi in 2015 (Finishing Line Press).

 

Nancy Chen Long‘s first full-length book Light into Bodies has been selected as the winner of the 2016 Tampa Review Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from University of Tampa Press.

 

Marco Maisto‘s first full-length book Traces of a Fifth Column won the Hillary Gravendyk National Prize from Inlandia Institute.

 

Matthew Minicuccis book Translation (Kent State University Press, 2015) was chosen by Jane Hirshfield for the 2014 Wick Poetry Prize, and his book Small Gods forthcoming from New Issues Press in 2017. 

 

Jennifer Moore‘s first full-length collection, THE VERONICA MANEUVER, was selected by Mary Biddinger as the Editor’s Choice for the 2014 Akron Series in Poetry and was published in 2015.  She was recently granted an Artist Residency Fellowship at Artsmith.

 

Jamie Mortara published a bundle of chapbooks: ANYONE CAN PAINT THEIR NAILS BECAUSE GENDER IS IMAGINARY EVERYTHING IS MEANINGLESS LOVE IS A MYTH SEX IS GROSS WE ALL DIE ALONE AND OUR STUPID BODIES WILL SOON RETURN TO THE DUST FROM WHENCE THEY CAME, congratulations you are prequalified for the darkness that consumes us all, and shit i said on the internet while taking prozac, or: side effects include every side effect ever.

 

Aimee  Nezhukumatathil was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Art. Her forthcoming book of illustrated nature essays is WORLD OF WONDER (2018, Milkweed Editions). 

 

Raul Palma won the 2016 Leo Love Award for the UNM Summer Writers’ Conference in Santa Fe. 

 

Kenyatta Rogers* was a 2016 Breadloaf Writers Residency Fellow.

 

Kathleen Rooney‘s second novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in January of 2017.

 

Erika L. Sánchez‘s  debut poetry collection, Lessons on Expulsion, is forthcoming from Graywolf in July 2017. Her debut young adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, will be published by Knopf Books for Young Readers, scheduled for fall 2017. 

 

Sam Sax won a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and his book MADNESS is a winner of the National Poetry Series Competition (2016), chosen by Terrance Hayes, and forthcoming from Penguin (2017).

 

Philip Schaefer‘s  first book [Hideous] Miraculous won the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize and is forthcoming in 2017 from The University of Utah Press.

 

Laura Van Prooyen‘s Our House Was on Fire, was awarded the McGovern Prize (Ashland Poetry Press 2015) and the 2015 Writers’ League of Texas Poetry Book Award.

 

Ocean Vuong published Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), winner of the 2016 Whiting Award.

 

Keith S. Wilson won the Baltic Kentucky Writers Fellowship.

 

 

*Also a RHINO editor.

RHINO Contributor updates – prizes and honors abound

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Join us in celebrating our contributors’ book publications and prizes from the last few years!

Past and current issue contributors to RHINO are encouraged to email their major literary updates  to editors@rhinopoetry.org.

 

Carl Adamshick received the 2010 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets judged by Marvin Bell. His book, Curses and Wishes, is published by Louisiana State University Press. Carl is also the 2012 Stafford/Hall Oregon Book Award Winner.

 

Jeffrey Alfier is the winner of the 2014 Kithara Book Prize for his poetry collection Idyll for a Vanishing River (Glass Lyre Press, 2013). He is also author of The Wolf Yearling (Silver Birch Press) and The Storm Petrel – Poems of Ireland (Grayson Books, forthcoming). His recent work has appeared in Spoon River Poetry Review, Poetry Ireland Review and Tulane Review.

 

Jeffrey Allen received an Illinois Arts Council Agency Literary Award for his poem “Johnny” in RHINO 2013.

 

Karina Borowicz won the Codhill Poetry Award for her book Proof, which was also finalist for the National Poetry Series and the Nightboat Press Poetry Prize, and semi-finalist for the Akron Poetry Prize and the Felix Pollack Prize.

 

Lauren Camp is the author of two volumes of poetry, most recently The Dailiness (Edwin E. Smith, 2013), winner of the National Federation of Press Women 2014 Poetry Book Prize and a World Literature Today “Editor’s Pick.” Her third book, One Hundred Hungers, was selected by David Wojahn for the Dorset Prize, and is forthcoming from Tupelo Press. Other honors include The 2012 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Award, writer’s residencies with the Mabel Dodge Luhan House and Opus House, and juror for the 2014 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

 

James Capozzi is the author of Country Album (Parlor Press, 2012), winner of the New Measure Poetry Prize.  He was also awarded the 2012 New Letters Prize for Poetry.

 

Kyle Churney received an Illinois Arts Council Agency Literary Award for his poem “Desert Ghazal” in RHINO 2013.

 

Elizabeth J. Colen is the author of four books including Waiting Up for the End of the World (Jaded Ibis Press, 2012) – a collection of poems on contemporary conspiracy theories (the first of which appeared in RHINO in Spring of 2010) – as well as The Green Condition (Ricochet Editions, 2014) – a book-length hybrid lyric essay / long poem. She completed her MFA in poetry from the University of Washington in 2013 where she was the recipient of the Nelson Bentley and Frederick Ingham Fellowships.

 

Lisa Fay Coutley is the author of ERRATA (SIU, forthcoming 2015), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award.

 

Albert DeGenova has published four books of poetry; his 2014, A Good Hammer, is a limited edition hand-made letterpress chapbook from Timberline Press.  He earned an honorable mention in The Allen Ginsberg 2014 Poetry Competition sponsored by The Paterson Literary Review and the Poetry Center of Passaic County, NJ.  Albert continues as publisher and co-editor of After Hours, a journal of Chicago writing and art.

 

Matthew Dickman published 50 American Plays (co-written with his twin brother Michael Dickman, Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and Mayakovsky’s Revolver (W.W. Norton & Co, 2012)

 

Andrea England is the recipient of a Gwen Frostic Award in Poetry (2013) and a month-long residency at the Vermont Studio Center (2014). Her chapbook INVENTORY OF A FIELD is available now from Finishing Line Press (2014).


Jennifer Fandel
was selected by the National Park Service to serve as a writer-in-residence at the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, Nebraska. She spent two weeks in June 2014 working on her poetry manuscript, The Cold Reaches.

 

Kim Farrar‘s second chapbook, “The Brief Clear”, has been accepted for publication by Finishing Line Press.

 

Brett Foster‘s second poetry collection Fall Run Road received Finishing Line Press’s Open Chapbook Prize and appeared in 2012. Last year his poem “On the Numbness That Will Be Our Future” was awarded Baltimore Review‘s 2014 Poetry Prize and he was a featured reader in Yale Divinity School’s “Literature & Spirituality” writing series.

 

Carol Frith won the Gribble Press 2012 Chapbook Contest with her poetry manuscript Elegiacs in a Closed Room.

 

Meredith Davies Hadaway served as the 2013-14 Rose O’Neill Writer-in-Residence at Washington College. Her third poetry collection At the Narrows is due out from Word Poetry in 2015.

 

Rochelle Hurt‘s first book, The Rusted City, was published by White Pine Press in 2014 as part of the Marie Alexander Prose Poetry Series. She was selected for inclusion in the Best New Poets 2013 anthology, and she received the 2013 Richard Peterson Poetry Prize from Crab Orchard Review as well as the TQ3 Poetry Prize from Tupelo Quarterly.

 

 

Don Judson won the 2012 Boudreaux Prize in Poetry from Cream City Review; he has also recently won the Thin Air poetry competition and received a nomination for a Pushcart Prize from Palooka Magazine as well as being a prize winner in the 2013 Joy Harjo Poetry Prize and receiving an honorable mention in the 2013 Nimrod Literary Awards.

 

Virginia Konchan received an Illinois Arts Council Agency Literary Award for her poem “Zsa Zsa Gabor Learns to Read” from RHINO 2013.

 

Diana Lueptow was selected by Peter Campion to receive the 2013 Wick Poetry Chapbook prize. Her collection, Little Nest, will be published by Kent State University Press in January 2015. One of its poems, “Peripherally Yours,” appeared in RHINO 2014. Diana was also chosen for a 2014 Individual Excellence Award by the Ohio Arts Council.

 

Donnelle McGee is the author of Shine (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2012). His first book of poetry – Naked – is forthcoming from Unbound Content and his novel – Ghost Man – will be published in Fall 2015 by Sibling Rivalry Press.

 

Kathleen McGookey’s chapbook, Mended, is forthcoming from Kattywompus Press this fall, and her full-length collection, At the Zoo, is forthcoming from White Pine Press in 2016.

 

Rachel Mennies‘s first book, The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, won the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry from Texas Tech University Press and was published in March of 2014. She recently received a grant from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.

 

elena minor’s book of bilingual poetry, TITULADA, was published by Noemi Press in 2014.

 

Travis Mossotti‘s chapbook My Life as an Island won the Blue Moon Chapbook Contest and was published by Moon City Press in 2013. His second full-length collection Field Study won the 2013 Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize and will be published in 2014 with Bona Fide Books. Mossotti is currently the Poet-in-Residence at the Endangered Wolf Center and a professor of creative writing at Maryville University. He’s been awarded grants from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and the Regional Arts Commission. More information about Mossotti can be found at his website.

 

Elisabeth Murawski won the 2013 Mudfish Poetry Prize for “Waking Alone on Sunday Morning,” selected by Charles Simic. Her poem “Gaithersburg Bus Stop Accident” received a commended in the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine contest (UK) and was published in the 2013 Hippocrates Anthology.

 

Rodney Nelson’s chapbook In Wait was published in November 2012. Bog Light and Sighting the Flood appeared subsequently. The chapbook Fargo in Winter took second place in the 2013 Cathlamet Prize competition at Ravenna Press, Spokane. Directions From Enloe won third in the Turtle Island Quarterly contest. Nelson’s chapbook of prose narratives Hill of Better Sleep is out from Red Bird Chapbooks. Mogollon Picnic, poems (Red Dashboard), is already in print and the poetry ebook Nodding in Time (Kind of a Hurricane Press) is “up.” Another chapbook, Fargo, came out in April 2014. Directions From Enloe has been accepted at Popcorn Press.

 

Jeffrey Oaks‘s new chapbook, Mistakes with Strangers, was published this summer by Seven Kitchens Press

 

Ladan Osman‘s collection, The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony, is the winner of the 2014 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. The award includes publication of her book with the University of Nebraska Press and Amalion Publishing in Senegal.

 

Diana Pinckney won the Atlanta Review’s 2012 International Poetry Prize. She also has a fifth volume of poetry forthcoming, titled The Beast and The Innocent. Her fourth collection, Green Daughters, included the poem, “Out There” that was published by RHINO.

 

Kenneth Pobo has a book forthcoming from Blue Light Press called Bend Of Quiet.  In June 2014, Spruce Alley Press published his chapbook When
The Light Turns Green
.

 

Octavio Quintanilla is a regular interviews contributor to Voices de La Luna: A Quarterly Poetry and Arts Magazine. Octavio’s first poetry collection If I Go Missing (2014) was published by Slough Press. His poem, “Tell Them Love Is Found,” included in the collection, was published in the most current issue of RHINO and was a 2014 Editor’s Prize honorable mention. He has also been selected as a CantoMundo Fellow for 2014.

 

Jim Redmond’s poetry chapbook Shirts or Skins won Heavy Feather Review’s chapbook prize and was published as an insert in Issue 3.2.

 

Christopher Robley is the 2013 winner of Boulevard’s Poetry Contest for Emerging Writers and the 2014 recipient of a Maine Literary Award in the category of “Short Works Poetry.”

 

Jenny Sadre-Orafai‘s debut poetry collection Paper, Cotton, Leather was published Fall 2014 by Press 53. Jenny’s prose was also recently published on The Rumpus and The Toast and she was a Hambidge Center fellow in May 2014.

 

Michael Salcman‘s  anthology, Poetry In Medicine, The Anthology of Poems on Doctors and Diseases, will be coming out late this Fall from Persea Books in New York.

 

Erika L. Sánchez was named One of Chicago’s 25 Writers to Watch by The Guild Complex. She won the 2013 “Discovery”/Boston Review poetry prize.

 

In 2013 Penelope Scambly Schott published LOVESONG FOR DUFUR, a  chapbook about a small wheat-growing town in central Oregon, and LILLIE WAS A GODDESS, LILLIE WAS A WHORE, a verse history of prostitution.  Her newest book, just out, is HOW I BECAME AN HISTORIAN.

 

Peter Sears is the new Oregon Poet Laureate, and his book Small Talk, New & Selected Poems was released this spring (2014) by Lynx House Press.

 

Claudia Serea received the New Letters Readers Award in 2013. Claudia is a four-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize and for Best of the Net. She is the author of three full-length poetry collections: Angels & Beasts (Phoenicia Publishing, Canada, 2012), A Dirt Road Hangs From the Sky (8th House Publishing, Canada, 2013), and To Part Is to Die a Little (Cervená Barva Press, forthcoming). She also recently published the chapbook The System (Cold Hub Press, New Zealand, 2012.) Serea also translated the Romanian Adina Dabija’s Beautybeast (North Shore Press, Alaska, 2012). In 2013, she co-founded and currently edits The National Translation Month blog.
Joan Siegel won Poetry Quarterly’s Rebecca Lard Award and Atlanta Review’s International Merit Award in the 2014 International Competition. Joan has two books, both published by Shabda Press — the first is Light at Point Reyes (2012) and the second is The Fourth River, forthcoming in 2015.

 

Kevin Simmonds wrote the music (and co-wrote the text) for Emmett Till, a river, a Japanese Noh-inspired oratorio that debuted at Theatre of Yugen in late 2013. His most recent collections are Bend to It (Salmon Poetry 2014), Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof (University of South Carolina Press, 2012), the final work of the late writer Carrie Allen McCray, and the poetry anthology Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2011).

 

Danez Smith‘s poem “Dear White America” makes Upworthy from the 2013 Rustbelt Midwest Regional Slam Champion. His full-length collection, [insert] Boy, is forthcoming in 2014 by Yes Yes Books. He was awarded a 2014 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship.

 

Paul Sohar won first prize in the 2012 Lincoln Poets Society contest; second prize in Rode Island Writers’ Circle prose contest (2014); and the Translation Prize from Irodalmi Jelen (2014, Arad, Romania, celebrated in Budapest, Hungary). He published two poetry translation books: Silver Pirouettes (TheWriteDeal 2012) and In Contemporary Tense (Iniquity Press, 2013); he published two prose works: True Tales of a Fictitious Spy (new, revised edition from SynergeBooks in 2013 and the collaborative novel The Club at Eddy’s Bar (Phaeton Press, Dublin, Ireland, 2014).

 

Sidney Thompson‘s now serves as the Assistant Fiction Editor for the American Literary Review and teaches at Texas Christian University.

 

Nhã Thuyên is the author of several books of poetry, flash fiction, and some tiny picture books for children. She currently co-edits the bilingual magazine Ajar, based in Hanoi, Vietnam, an online, printed space for poetic exchange. Nhã has had two books published since 2012: Poems of Lưu Diu Vân (Vagabond Press, Australia) and Màu c xanh trong sut / The Transparent Greenness of Grass -flash fictions, five authors (Tre Publishing House.)

 

Brian Turner’s forthcoming book, My Life as a Foreign Country, is published by W. W. Norton & Company and is scheduled to be released in September 2014.

 

Laura Van Prooyen’s second collection of poems, Our House Was on Fire, nominated by Philip Levine, was awarded the McGovern prize from Ashland Poetry Press and will be published in 2015.

 

Megan Volpert edited the anthology This Assignment is so Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013). It was a Lambda Literary Award finalist for best anthology, honored by the American Library Association’s annual Over the Rainbow list as one of the ten best books of the year, and honored by Split This Rock as one of the top three anthologies of the year. Megan herself is currently serving as her high school’s Teacher of the Year, and her own collection of prose poems, Only Ride (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014), is currently short-listed for the ALA’s Over the Rainbow consideration.

 

Ocean Vuong published the chapbook No (YesYes Books, 2013), won a 2014 Pushcart Prize, the 2012 Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets, and the 2013 Beloit Journal Chad Walsh Prize. He was awarded a 2014 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship.

 

Charles Harper Webb‘s collection of poems WHAT THINGS ARE MADE OF was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2013.  They will publish his next book, BRAIN CAMP, in 2015.

 

Nicholas Wong’s poems were finalists for the Tupeolo Quarterly Contest and in the August issue of Better.

 

William Kelley Woolfitt‘s poem “Memento,” which first appeared in RHINO, will be in his book Charles of the Desert, forthcoming from Paraclete Press.

 

Bill Yarrow published Pointed Sentences (BlazeVOX) in 2012, Incompetent Translations and Inept Haiku (Cervena Barva Press) in 2013, and The Lice of Christ (MadHat Press) in 2014. He was one of nine commended poets out of 6000+ entrants for the 2013 Erbacce Prize. His poem “Cranshaw on a Boat” was nominated for a 2014 Illinois Arts Council Literary Award by RHINO. His poem “We Don’t Need No Education” was nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize and a 2013 Best of the Web award by Blue Fifth Review. His poem “Chapel Access” was nominated for a 2012 Best of the Web award by Friction: Review. He was poetry editor of THIS Literary Magazine in 2012 and guest poetry editor of Scissors & Spackle in 2013.

 

 

 

 

“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.

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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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