Every morning when he wakes up, poet and Zen Buddhist Ocean Vuong asks himself if he will use fear or compassion as a fuel for his work.
Vuong’s latest collection of poems, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, has propelled the 28-year-old writer and assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst into the literary spotlight. The collection is a vulnerable, unflinching investigation of Vuong’s identity as a Vietnamese immigrant (he came to the United States as a toddler), a son, and a poet.
Starting this fall and stretching into next spring, Vuong will read from his latest collection at universities and bookstores across the country. The book landed him the prestigious Whiting Award and a spot among the New Yorker’s best poetry books of 2016.
Below, Vuong explains how he transforms fear into a sustainable resource for his writing.
Part of being human is grappling with fear. What frightens you? What practices do you have, Buddhist or otherwise, to either combat or come to terms with what scares you? The thing I fear most is that one day I might wake up without hope. At the moment, though, I’m hopeful.
We see bombs being dropped. We see bullets being put into bodies, all from fear. It is a powerful energy. But compassion is an energy, too. With it, we’ve built miraculous things: cathedrals, temples, schools, and shelters. We’ve made extraordinary works of art. Every day when we wake up, we have a choice. Will we choose fear or will we choose compassion and love? These are very strong, but I’ve learned in my short 28 years that anger and fear exhaust me, whereas if I do work out of love and compassion and kindness, I’m actually nourished. It’s a sustainable energy.
There are days where I say, “I’m too terrified, I’m too tired, I’m too depressed, I can’t do it.” Those days happen. But my goal is to always return to the sustainable resource of compassion. I think my best poems come out of compassion rather than fear.
Fear played a large role in recent political events, including the American presidential election and Brexit in the UK; politics often find their way into your work. Do you see poetry as a method to combat this kind of fear? We see an outpouring of poetry after every catastrophe. After Trump was elected, for instance, Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones” was widely shared. We also saw this following 9/11, when poems became part of the mainstream discourse. They were all over the subways, all over the Internet; they were shared millions of times.
Poems surfacing amid fear and destruction remind me of the Buddhist allegory of the lotus blossom, a beautiful, lush bloom on the surface of a pond whose roots are in the mud. In this political climate, our fear is more visible, but that fear has always been there. The blossoming of these poems reminds us of this—that our roots have always been in the mud, so to speak.
When I was growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, it was not uncommon to hear gunshots at night. Fear was part of the way I grew up. As I started to become a writer and developed my Zen Buddhist practice, I saw that fear is ultimately energy. And as an artist, you ask yourself, “What do I do with this energy?”
My fear is useful only when I’m able to use it to connect to other people. This happens through compassion and understanding, and it’s where meditation and mind training come into play. If I am afraid and you are afraid, we can be utter strangers, and yet suddenly, there’s a common bond that can enable us to say, “I see you. I understand.” We start to recognize one another.
Two poems by Ocean Vuong:
Untitled (Blue, Green, & Brown): oil on canvas: Mark Rothko: 1952
The TV said the planes have hit the buildings.
& I said Yes because you asked me to stay.
Maybe we pray on our knees because the lord
only listens when we’re this close
to the devil.There is so much I want to tell you.
How my greatest accolade was to walk
across the Brooklyn Bridge & not think
of flight. How we live like water: touching
a new tongue with no telling
what we’ve been through. They say the is sky is blue
but I know it’s black seen through too much air.
You will always remember what you were doing
when it hurts the most. There is so much
I want to tell you—but I only earned
one life. & I took nothing. Nothing. Like a pair of teeth
at the end. The TV kept saying The planes . . .
The planes . . . & I stood waiting in the room
made from broken mocking birds. Their wings throbbing
into four blurred walls. Only you were there.
You were the window.
There’s a joke that ends with—huh?
It’s the bomb saying here is your father.
Now here is your father inside
your lungs. Look how lighter
the earth is—afterward.
To even write the word father
is to carve a portion of the day
out of a bomb-bright page.
There’s enough light to drown in
but never enough to enter the bones
& stay. Don’t stay here, he said, my boy
broken by the names of flowers. Don’t cry
anymore. So I ran into the night.
The night: my shadow growing
toward my father.