Poet Ocean Vuong is always grieving. As an artist, he sees language as an architecture to reckon with loss, both personal and communal, and his writing is informed by his decades-long practice of death meditation. “The poem is a profound death meditation,” he shared with Tricycle editor-in-chief James Shaheen and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg in a recent episode of Life As It Is. “It’s a place where death doesn’t even have to be mentioned in order to be felt. Sometimes you can feel that death and dying haunt a work without it having to be named.” His latest collection, Time Is a Mother, was written in the aftermath of his mother’s death to cancer in late 2019 and offers an intimate portrait of grief, loss, and survival.
James and Sharon sat down with Vuong to discuss the immediacy of poetry, the cultural work of the refugee, and the relationship between his poetry and his Buddhist practice. Read an excerpt from their conversation below, and listen to the full episode here.
Sharon Salzberg: You grew up surrounded by storytellers, and you’ve spoken about how you see writing as a kind of communal exchange. Can you share more about how the styles of storytelling you encountered as a child influence your poetry?
Ocean Vuong: Absolutely. When we think of the refugee, we often think of a passive, needful, and pandering subject. There’s this perennial victimhood that is reductive to the identity of people who are very complex. For me, I like to reorient how we see refugees as people who are incredibly creative and innovative and have to make life-saving decisions not only for themselves but for the people they love. Nobody survives by accident. Survival is an innovative act. I saw that right away with the women in my family in the stories they decided to tell. They had to make decisions. The mind can only hold so much, so what do you remember? What do you leave behind? They’re doing cultural work.
As a culture, we’re having discussions now of which works we should read and which works we should leave in the past. Who do we carry? Who’s problematic? Which texts are harmful? We’re doing this all the time as a culture, and often it’s in institutions and discussions and syllabuses. But I realized these women were already doing this on the boats. As they were fleeing, they were deciding: What do I give to my children, to my grandchildren? What stories do I pass on so that they can make use of? This is at the heart of civilization. We can go back to the epic poets of Gilgamesh or Homer and the Iliad. Those texts were so vital to the flourishing of our cultures because they were civic treaties about one’s obligation to the community through reciprocal civic bonds. I felt the same thing happened with how the women in my family told stories. There was always a lesson. There was always a purpose. And they edited their stories down every time they told them. Looking back, I realize that I was at the heart of a master class: how my grandmother would pause over details, what details to leave in, what to gloss over, how she sped up time and slowed it down. I would learn much later in college how Faulkner and Whitman and Toni Morrison did this as well, and I realized my grandmother was doing this intuitively. And so when I look at my personal canon of creativity, the women who raised me are right up there with the Faulkners, the Joyces, the Virginia Woolfs and James Baldwins.
James Shaheen: You’ve talked about the “language lab” and the linguistic innovation that takes place in queer communities of color. I’m wondering if you can share about the role poetry plays in articulating different possible futures.
Ocean Vuong: This has always been poetry’s role. I’ve always felt that as long as there were soldiers, there were poets, and I think that’s always true: the history of poetry is the history of displacement. It’s the history of war. It’s our species-wide condition. And that’s why I think it can never die, regardless of how we read it. There have been conversations about the crisis of printing, but now there’s Twitter poetry and Instagram poetry because it’s so portable. For any marginalized community, innovation often occurs through the most portable and malleable forms of art. This is true with hip-hop and how hip-hop blurs into poetry for communities of color in spoken-word traditions. Poetry can happen anywhere. It has the power to interrupt. You don’t need a plot or context. You just need the self, the body. A poem can happen at any given moment. The power to be portable and interrupt is why poetry can cross so many borders and why it means so much to so many people. You can participate in it. I tell my students that to be a nurse or a doctor, you have to get a nursing degree or go to medical school for eight years, maybe a decade. But if you want to be a poet, you could do it tonight. You could do it right now. And there’s an incredible exhilaration of power that the form really offers you.
People often feel frustrated with poetry because they feel like it’s beyond them. We’re taught to plunder a text for a thesis. As soon as we’re in elementary school, we’re asked, what’s the summary of this passage? Critical thinking tells us that we are outside of meaning and reading will help us enter, and then we become hunters in the text. But that’s only one way of reading, and it’s a failure of our pedagogy because another way to read is to read a poem the way we experience weather. What is the meaning of rain? Rain doesn’t have a secret. It just exists. It’s the same with music. You experience music. Why do we cry listening to Bach? There’s no meaning inherent in the notes. This is also true with mantras. There’s no inherent meaning, but the intention creates a profound effect on the sonic wave and then the brain and then the emotions.
Part of my work as an educator is to undo a lot of these strict ways of reading that have been hammered into our students. When I encourage my students to read this way, they get really excited but also really nervous. They’ll say, “Oh my God, what do you mean, it could be anything?” And I say, “Yeah, just like weather and music. Just experience it, and then you realize that there’s so much pleasure.” I often turn to Basho and Issa, the 17th- and 18th-century Japanese poets who were influenced by Buddhism. One of my favorite Issa poems is the haiku, “Crickets on a log, floating downriver, still singing.” You don’t need to decode that. You can get a PhD on it if you like. Nobody will be upset. But you don’t need to. It’s there. To me, poetry is both rhetoric and the enactment of life as it is perceived. It’s a phenomenological approach, and there’s no right or wrong way to experience it.
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