New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

Meet the Poet 2: Ocean Vuong by Samantha Maw

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Samantha Maw is studying a Creative Writing MA at Lincoln University in the U.K. and is a member of Lincoln Creative Writers and Outspoken Poets. A qualified teacher who has worked in primary and secondary schools in the UK and in Africa; she has now gained the confidence to impose her poems and blogging skills (couragechasers.com) on the general public. She lives in Lincoln with a scruffy golden lurcher and two ridiculously cuddly cats. In her spare time she likes to tread the boards at her local amateur dramatic society, and leads story time at the local village library.








Photo: Tom Hines

Ocean Vuong has just won the 2017 T.S. Elliot prize for poetry with his collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds. His other works are the chapbooks No (2013) and Burnings (2010), printed by the American Library Association. He is an American-Vietnamese, 28-year-old poet (and soon to be novelist) who is an assistant professor of the MFA programme at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He lives in the Pioneer Valley with his partner of 10 years, Peter.

Vuong’s grandfather was an American soldier who fell in love with a Vietnamese farm girl in Saigon. They were married and had three daughters. In 1975, shortly after he returned to the U.S. to visit family, Saigon fell and the family were separated for ever. American citizens were evacuated from Saigon and Vuong’s grandmother put the three girls in three different orphanages to enhance their chances of survival. Vuong’s mother gave birth to him at the age of 18 and, because of her dual heritage, was eventually deported to the Philippines and then to the U.S. along with the rest of her family. Vuong’s father disappeared very early on in his life, so he was brought up by his mother, Grandmother, and Aunt.

All three women were illiterate. However, they passed down wonderfully animated traditional stories that made a great impression on Vuong. He said of them that their `bodies were their books`. He also struggled with literacy as a young boy. He wonders now if he might have dyslexia, ‘I write very slowly and see words as objects. I’m always trying to look for words inside words. It’s so beautiful to me that the word laughter is in slaughter. `[1]

It wasn’t long before Vuong won a place at Brooklyn College, New York to study Creative Writing and started going regularly to open mic sessions and mixing with other writers; “I found my people. I was seen for the first time.”[2]  He put together Night Sky with Exit Wounds for a competition that promised to send a personal rejection letter to every entrant, and he saw this as a good opportunity to receive feedback and improve his work. However, instead he received an offer to publish his work by Copper Canyon Press (based in Seattle).

Vuong is fresh and unique talent. He has been compared to Emily Dickinson and Gerald Manley Hopkins[3], but he has a special magic of his own. In his poems he explores the themes of change, desire, loss, war, memory and often the absence of his father. In a 2013 interview with Edward J Rathke, he describes his approach to poetry and form; “Besides being a vehicle for the poem’s movement, I see form as … an extension of the poem’s content, a space where tensions can be investigated even further. The way the poem moves through space, its enjambment or end-stopped line breaks, its utterances and stutters, all work in tangent with the poem’s conceit.”[4]

In his poems, Vuong captures specific moments in time like butterflies pinned in a display case. His imagery is so vivid you can experience it with all your senses as if present at that very moment. In his poem Aubade with Burning City, he uses overlapping and contrasting experiences to highlight how strange and dissonant life can be. He places opposing concepts together; love and hate, war and peace, desire and suffering.  The word Aubade means `dawn serenade` and the poem is based on the memories of his grandmother, who witnessed the fall of Saigon on the 29th April 1975. She remembers the evacuation of U.S. citizens in the city while Irvin Berlin’s White Christmas was eerily playing in the background. Vuong talks of two lovers seeking comfort from each other inside while destruction rages outside:

He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips.

            Open, he says.

She opens.

Outside, a soldier spits out

his cigarette as footsteps

fill the square like stones fallen from the sky. May all

                                         your Christmases be white as the traffic guard

unstraps his holster.


His hand running the hem

of  her white dress.

His black eyes.

Her black hair.

A single candle.

Their shadows: two wicks.[5]

The contrasts continue throughout; snow and a red sky; humanity and inhumanity; suffering and pleasure; singing and screaming; death and life – all intermingled. The image of champagne in a teacup encapsulates this perfectly. I also appreciate the way Vuong creates some unusual similes to add depth to the scene: `footsteps fill the square like stones`; `On the nightstand, a sprig of magnolia expands like a secret heard for the first time`; `The song moving through the city like a widow`.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds is a fitting tribute to the horrifying legacy of the Vietnam War. Vuong believes that in some way poetry can disperse hatred. He says of humanity: “Ultimately we are all just writing sentences and telling stories. When you are telling stories it’s hard to hate each other.” [6]

He has inspired me to keep on telling my story. I hope when you read his poetry, he does the same for you.

Vuong’s Honours include fellowship of the Elizabeth George Foundation, Poet’s House, Kundiman, the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, an Academy of American Poets Prize, an American Poetry Review, a Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets, a Pushcart Prize, and a Beloit Poetry Journal Chad Walsh Poetry Prize. In 2014, Vuong was awarded a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. He also received a Whiting Award in 2016. He is also the former manager of Thrush Press.[7]

[1]  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/03/ocean-vuong-forward-prize-vietnam-war-saigon-night-sky-with-exit-wounds

[2] Ibid

[3] Michiko Katutani, New York Times

[4] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/ocean-vuong

[5] Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Cape (April 2017)

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/03/ocean-vuong-forward-prize-vietnam-war-saigon-night-sky-with-exit-wounds

[7] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/ocean-vuong




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