Ocean Vuong’s intense poems grace the June issue and he talks to us about sound and rhythm, the influence of sexuality, and great pickup lines.
1. I listened to your reading of your poems. How important is the sound and rhythm to you when writing your work?
Very important. For me, poetry is more than the art of craft and conceit, but also the art of song. Having Vietnamese as my native tongue contributes a great deal to the rhythm in my work. Vietnamese is a very musical language that dances in the mouth. The words are monosyllabic and their inflections must be pronounced with precision or else they can have an entirely different meaning. Because of this, I tend to be very sensitive to the texture of a word as well as the personality of its sound.
2. How has sexuality influenced your writing? How does it clash with your culture?
Sex for me, is a vehicle towards liberation, both literal and metaphorical. I find the tension between sexual urges and social piety to be quite symbolic to many aspects of life as a whole: the constant battle between moral and impulsive consciousness. In Vietnamese culture, sexuality is something one keeps private. More so, queer identity is often looked upon as illegitimate or even worse, taboo. Consequently, I make it one of my purposes, both as an artist and as a Vietnamese, to challenge the way our people look at sexuality, or at the very least, question the conservative Confucian beliefs so deeply rooted in our culture.
Overall, sex is beautiful. The body and all its secretions holy, and because desire is never satiated, we are always hungry, which for better or for worse, keeps us human.
3. Who are your influences?
I never had a proper introduction to poetry, as far as the high school or even collegiate classroom is concerned. The first poet I ever read was the French symbolist, Arthur Rimbaud, who was suggested to me by a friend. I read him and immediately thought: damn, this is the real shit. And because I never read the more reserved American canon such as Frost, Carlos Williams, or Dickinson, Rimbaud’s graphic and absurd depictions of reality was a standard that satisfied me. I knew that this is the poetry that will both confront and question the rigidity of our American society, which is what I wanted to do. I am not sure if I am succeeding, but reading Rimbaud gave me the ultimate permission to try.
4. Give us a mixtape of songs you would recommend us listening to while reading your work.
Ah! Brahms, Mozart, or Pascal Rose. How funny, and how fitting that would be: semen and blood spraying about to the vigorous crescendos of the 9th Symphony. Beautiful!
5. What would be a pickup line that would work for you?
I am not sure; it probably would have nothing to do with poetry. I have had moments on dates when a guy would say something like: “I really like your image in that one poem about the ribbons of sperm laced in the speaker’s hair.”Â Which would then be followed by: “oh–..thank you”Â and then a long awkward silence. In short, I am not a fan of pick up lines, probably because I never have the intention of “picking”Â anyone up. I prefer to get to know someone both spontaneously and gradually. But if I like someone, I would simply say so right then and there, and maybe give them a kiss on the forehead.