Poet Of The Week

Ocean Vuong

     April 10–16, 2017

Poet and essayist Ocean Vuong is the author of Night Sky with Exit Wounds, winner of a 2016 Whiting Award. The recipient of a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, he has also received a Pushcart Prize and honors from the Lannan Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation and the Academy of American Poets. Vuong’s writings have been featured in the Nation, Atlantic, New Republic, New Yorker, New York Times, Village Voice and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize for Younger Poets. Selected by Foreign Policy magazine as one of “100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2016,” Ocean was also named by BuzzFeed Books as one of “32 Essential Asian American Writers” and has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and PBS NewsHour and in VICE and the New Yorker. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he lives in New York City. On Thursday, April 13, he will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series with Catherine Pierce and Tina Cane.

Queen Under the Hill

I approach a field. A black piano waits
at its center. I kneel to play
what I can. A single key. A tooth
tossed down a well. My fingers
sliding the slimy gums. Slick lips. Snout. Not
a piano—but a mare
draped in a black sheet. White mouth
sticking out like a fist. I kneel
at my beast. The sheet sunken
at her ribs. A dented piano
where rain, collected
from the night, reflects
a blue sky fallen
into the side of a horse. Blue
thumbprint pressed
from above. As if something needed
to be snuffed out, leaving
this black blossom dropped
on a field where I am only
a visitor. A word exiled
from the prayer, flickering. Wind
streaks the pale grass flat
around us—the horse & I
a watercolor hung too soon
& dripping. Green waves
surround this black rock
where I sit turning bones
to sonatas. Fingers blurred,
I play what I know
from listening to orchards
unleash their sweetest
wrongs. The dent in this
horse wide enough to live
by. Puddle of sky
on earth. As if to look down
on the dead is to look up
at my own face, trampled
by music. If I lift the sheet
I will reveal the heart huge
as a stillbirth. If I lift the sheet
I will sleep beside her
as a four-legged shadow, hoof homed
to hoof. If I close my eyes
I’m inside the piano again
& only. If I close my eyes
no one can hurt me.

–From Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Copper Canyon Press, 2016 (originally published in Pleiades).

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I was thinking about what it means to create safe spaces, what those spaces might contain, and if they are even possible. And I suppose this poem is my attempt to answer that question for myself. I think, for me, safety is more a feeling than a space, a feeling that I often get out of language. In this sense, I feel most safe when I am creating my art. That is not to say it is without terror and doubt.

What are you working on right now?

Trying to calm down.

What’s a good day for you?

When no one is mad at me.

What brought you to New York?

I got a scholarship to attend business school back in 2008. But I dropped out after three weeks.

So you live close to, but not in Brooklyn. Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

Right now, I live in Astoria, Queens. I’ve been here for nearly six years. I love it—but, like most places in the city, it’s gentrifying fast. My time in the city is ending, however, as I will be moving to Northampton, MA, to begin my position in the UMass–Amherst MFA program. Life will be slower outside of New York—but, at this point in my life, I am looking forward to that reprieve.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

I launched my book, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, at Greenlight Bookstore, and I like to think of that night as a sort of small ark that we built together, with all the people I love and believe in. In my worst moments, I rethink myself back inside that ark, and I have hope.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

I think a good poetry community should be synonymous with any successful community, where people respect, celebrate, encourage, challenge and, most of all, collaborate with one another, without forsaking the strange and odd beauties of an idiosyncratic self.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

I’m not entirely sure what being a “Brooklyn poet” entails exactly, so I hope it is okay to instead list poets who are important to me right now. And in this moment, particularly after the election, I have been returning to contemporary writers like Solmaz Sharif, Sally Wen Mao, Ben Lerner, Morgan Parker, Angel Nafis, Natalie Diaz, Eduardo Corral, Christopher Soto, Mahogany L. Browne and Peter Gizzi. I don’t know if these poets are “Brooklyn poets” or not, I’m not even sure where they all live, but I know they saved me with their work.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

My poetry mentors are Yusef Komunyakaa, Sharon Olds, Ben Lerner, Eduardo Corral and Jen Bervin. Every single one of them has taught me not only how to write the better line, but also how to hone my craft as a human being, and how the craft of poem-making and kindness and compassion are one act.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I really like Simone White’s new book, Of Being Dispersed, and Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, a genre-bending epic in poetic, essayistic and downright inexhaustive discovery.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I am capable of reading only physical books. I read them cover-to-cover, and I read very slowly.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I want to try being a pigeon in a poem. A pigeon standing on a hot dog.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

Right now I am writing inside of a friend’s closet, which feels nice because it feels like the cockpit of a spaceship.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

For years I’ve suffered from terrible agoraphobia, which made it difficult to travel, so I haven’t spent enough time in Brooklyn to have a favorite space. But I guess I would have to say Brooklyn College by default since I spent so much time there, particularly in the library basement, where I used to binge-read Poetry magazine in between naps.