Robbie Short

Ocean Vuong is, to offer an incomplete list, a poet, professor, queer person, Vietnamese American and refugee. Last year he published his first full-length poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, for which he received the Whiting Award for Poetry, the Thom Gunn Award and the Forward Prize for best first collection. Night Sky was praised as a “best book of the year” in The New York Times, The New Yorker, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR and other publications.

Born outside Saigon in 1988, Vuong immigrated to Hartford, Connecticut, two years later, and didn’t learn to read English well until age 11. He writes about his family’s stories of displacement and loss, his own experiences as a gay man and his complicated relationship to the language he writes in. He was educated at Brooklyn College, where he studied under author Ben Lerner, and at New York University. He began teaching in the MFA program for poets and writers at UMass Amherst this fall. He visited Yale this week to give a reading at the Beinecke.

The recent hype is about Night Sky With Exit Wounds, but I wanted to start with something from a while back: your undergraduate education. I read in the New Yorker that in 2008, when you started at Brooklyn College, you weren’t sure that a life of writing was possible. Now you’ve had two chapbooks published, you’ve had a full-length collection that was reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, you’ve won all these awards, you’ve been named a faculty member at UMass Amherst, you’re about to give a talk at Yale. How are you experiencing the prominence?

I don’t know. I feel like I should say that it’s disorientating and all that. It’s a surprise. It’s never part of anybody’s plan, I don’t think. At least it wasn’t part of my plan. I just wanted to have a book to show my family, you know, a physical thing. Because they can’t read, and they’re not, you know — I’m the only one who went to college. So having a physical book was the end goal, and I didn’t necessarily imagine momentum that would accrue beyond that.

So it’s a surprise, but I think it’s just part of my work. I think part of the way I see the world is I take it as it comes and improvise based on what happens. I’m always corresponding with the world, and all of this prominence is just part of the correspondence. I see it as continuing the vehicle of the work. Because the book is a vehicle. It’s nothing in itself.

Do you feel any sense of pressure to keep up with the quality of the work that you’ve put out, now that there’s so much attention on you?

Yeah, there’s some pressure, but I wrote this book alone. I never had readers in mind, writing it. So much of our world, being alive as a person — we are sort of shackled to time, logistics, schedules, the body, and when we get to arrive at the page, that’s a brief and tenuous moment of a kind of freedom. And so, I kind of unleash myself into that space. Because so many people coming from where I’m coming from do not get the chance to speak, let alone write and communicate, let alone perform art. And so, I see my writing as working in a rare moment of borrowed time, and so I just throw myself into it. And right now I’m writing a novel, and I’m doing the same thing, where I’m just throwing myself into it.

But the pressure, I think, is there. I just don’t know what it means. I feel it, in an existential sense, but in the everyday sense, I’m just doing my work. The thing is, when you have questions that are potent for you — as a person, as an artist — and you tend to those questions, they take over. It’s like a storm. It’s like weather. Right? Your questions and your curiosity become weather, and how can you have time to feel pressured? Pressure is a luxury. But if your questions are urgent enough, they become the foundation of your psyche and the pressure seems extraneous at that point. It comes through, but most of the time, I’m just trying to get the next sentence good enough.

What kinds of questions are occupying you right now? Are they different from ones you’ve had in the past?

Well, they’re always growing, but there are the same foundational questions, which is what I explored in Night Sky. What happens, in the American body, when it arrives at the intersection of geopolitical and personal violence? And how does it contribute and expand the notion of Americanness? Not so much to appropriate into, not so much to blend into a melting pot, but to insist that idiosyncrasy is a part of one’s large identity as an American.

The other part is: What of the queer body? Where does the queer body stand in American culture? And I see it as a plight, but also an opportunity, because queerness is something that resists fixed labels, fixedness. It is something that shifts and grows and moves. It’s an organism, queerness. And I think, when you tackle something that grows, it’s exciting, because this is what one would call the “avant-garde,” in the true sense, being on the forefront of where art and thinking is going, and I think queerness and avant-gardeness is right close to each other. But also it’s very fraught, and a lot of the book investigates, and attempts to investigate the queer friends I lost for various reasons.

Queerness comes up a lot in Night Sky, but I’ve noticed that in some interviews you haven’t dwelled on it too much. For instance, you told the New Yorker, “What can I say? I like penises.” Is that a conscious choice, not to dwell on queerness in interviews?

I talk a lot about it. But this is an opportunity to talk about how it’s edited out. Editors have their own agendas and necessities and presumptions. In interviews, I say, “I want to talk about the queer body,” and they say, “We already did that. We want ‘refugee.’” So there’s this whole commodification, and therefore amputation, of the self that happens in media.

I always talk about queerness. How can I not? And that part — the penises — was part of a larger conversation It’s kind of funny — I can see why they used it. But we arrived there after talking, you know, about the queer tradition in New York, what it means, how it’s grown, the movie Paris Is Burning, with the queer drag shows, and how beautiful and brown it was, and how it was the brown resistance, the brown bodies and Stonewall and how that’s erased. All that, and then it got this little, “I like penises.”

But it’s an obsession, for sure. But that’s just because it’s who I am. And I think, in a sense, queerness has taught me so much about being. Because it’s taught me about being a survivor. And, in retrospect — and only in retrospect, because it was miserable growing up this way, constantly hiding, constantly editing yourself, everyone saying, “You’re a homo” all around — But it taught me to pay attention. How do I become a chameleon? How do I do it so that I’m not outed? So that I can be safe? What place is good for me? What are the signals? What are the red flags? Being queer was ultimately a nurturing of vigilance. And being an artist, then, is transforming vigilance into attention and care, based on the gaze. And so I realize to be queer, then, is to be training my whole life to be a poet. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I believe in reincarnation, and I hope in my next life, I’ll be even queerer than I am now.

You’ve written that you didn’t learn to read well until you were 11. Could you speak about your relationship to the English language, both as a poet writing in it and as a second-language learner?

I always saw it as this gyrating river of language. Not a fixed standardization. But that’s how I received it — or, rather, it was demanded of me to see it as a standard to which I had to master. The grammar, the rules. But I never — it felt somehow false to me, that thinking. I didn’t have the theoretical musculature to grapple with that, but it felt arbitrary. Why must it be structured like this?

Because I came — I come from Vietnamese, and there’s so much more — It’s a much more economical language, first of all, Vietnamese. There’s no past tense. So everything is indicated by a single word at the end of a sentence. So whether you know it’s present or past, you have to pay attention. So the words are all the same, and a single modifier at the end of the sentence will tell you where you are in time and space. So you have to pay attention, and it’s very quick, so conversations are fluid and the writing is fluid.

So I panicked and I struggled with English grammar. But as I began to be a writer and to look at etymologies and the evolution of the English language, I realized that a lot of these rules were ways of excluding certain speakers. It’s a political method of division. And we go back to James Baldwin: Baldwin was asked, “Well, why do you speak in Ebonics? What’s wrong with Ebonics?” He was asked that by a black student. And Baldwin said, “Well, nothing wrong with it, but the world that I live in, in order to be heard and understood and respected, in order to make things move, I have to learn the master’s English.” So it was a moment of negotiation for him, and I highly respect that. I thought it was a brilliant mode of surrender and also wisdom, because he was privileging his ideas. He wasn’t making a claim or statement. He was privileging ideas, which were more urgent, and so he chose the methodology that worked best for spreading his ideas. So he learned the master’s English.

I would do the same — you, as a journalist, would do the same—but in the back of my head I would know this is arbitrary. As a poet, then, you can always subvert it. For example, in this book, the last poem I wrote has two words in it that I never thought I would use. Well, one word, but two occurrences. It’s the word “yikes.” In “Notebook Fragments.”And I thought I would never be able to say that. It was the last poem I wrote, and it felt important to me because that felt very true in my lexicon and thinking. In fact, what we call slang is actually the most innovative use of the English language. It’s poetry in usage. Because we’re reinventing how we use English in ways that satisfy immediate necessities. It’s nothing theoretical. It’s here.

Robbie Short robbie.short@yale.edu .