James Shaheen: You’ve spoken about the tension you experience between being a Buddhist and being a poet. In fact, you said that you plan to stop writing at some point. Do you think you might actually stop writing one day?
Ocean Vuong: In the contemporary context that I live in, being an author means doing publicity and touring. Those are things I feel are very antithetical to being a successful, or rather a skillful, Buddhist. I think of the eight winds. The tree must stay firm in the eight winds, and it’s really hard when you enter spaces and there’s a worshipful attitude to them. I joke and say that if I were to assess myself, I would say I’m severely overrated because there’s so much praise out there. And there’s also criticism. But I realized that for me, the work is finished. So if my work is finished, the writing is complete, why does the praise still live on? I’m very skeptical of that. I’m suspicious of that energy, and I’m very wary of that because to me, making a book is akin to sending a raft downriver. You have to stay on the shore to live your life. You can’t live on the raft. I think I’ve seen a lot of my peers live on that raft, and that raft starts to chip away and before you know it, they’re neck deep in the river, and it’s a struggle. It’s a big shock when that raft goes away. And so for me, there has to be a difference between living and making. You make something, you send it downriver, but you have to stay on the steady ground of the shore. That said, I haven’t found a way to do it well. If I ever do, then I hope I can still write, because I love this. This is the only thing that I can do really well.
JS: That’s what I wanted to ask about, the act of writing itself. It seems to me that when we do something really well, we have to get out of our own way.
OV: Absolutely. I think we are really conductors of energies. I’ve talked about this when people have asked me about the themes and subjects in my books. When I wrote my first book of poems, right away my peers and editors and even teachers would say, “Well, now what are you going to do? You already wrote about the Vietnam War and American violence,” as if I should now write about Mars. But there’s this capitalistic anxiety to reinvent yourself, to kind of see the book as an ultimate and finite container of ideas. That’s akin to this market anxiety of “Now better tasting,” “Now with a brand-new look.” We see this all the time when we shop. But I wanted to have a different approach to my work in seeing the books as conductors. They’re conduits of the same energy. They are material manifestations of conductors, and every book actually carries the same themes and obsessions, but with a different medium, a different approach.