More than Sex

By Ocean Vuong

Poem

His body trembling
in the brilliant ripples
of orgasm.
I cannot join him—
this man gasping for air,
shivering in the thrill
of his new skin.
Is it right to love
this hunger making us
more beautiful
than we have the right?
How quickly the animal empties.
We ‘re alone again
with these bodies.
His face pale as a boy’s, struck
with October.
And there, in his eyes,
beneath the lamp’s gold glaze,
I find what I came for:
a sea of lilacs
unfurling
their withered petals.

Exiled, I found citizenship
in the republic of my body—
that ravaged landscape I navigate
by heart. And it’s easy, becoming
what’s yours. Can’t say I know
why Adam asked for another—

my Lord lies

between my thighs, and each morning
I curl to meet my maker’s lips.
I pray faithfully in the cathedral
of raised legs, my hair haloed by sunlight,
as I bow deeper, eager to receive

His blessing.

Burnings

By Ocean Vuong

Poem

            photograph (circa 1989)

Refugee camp in the Philippines.
I sit, flanked by mother and aunt: my saviors.
Here, they are young again,
their bodies smooth and unscarred
beneath the white garments illuminating
from the shack’s interior.
No. This is not a metaphor
for angels—but there are halo shards
locked in their mouths. Do not believe
the light in their eyes, the grins stretched
so wide, there is no room for joy.
Do not say our names. These faces
cannot belong to the ruin they became.
Do not say our names as this flame grows
from the edge of the photo, the women’s smiles
peeling into grimaces, the boy spreading
into black smudge, filaments of fire
dissolving into wind. No, do not say our names.
Let us burn quietly into the lives
                                                                 we never were.

Many reviewers have noted your age in their reviews of your chapbook Burnings. Can you discuss the paradox between your stage in life and how it affects your work?

Many people have held my younger age as something admirable when regarding my work, saying things like “despite being only 22…” or “It’s so refreshing to see such restraint in a younger voice…”, etc. I appreciate these comments and they give me much needed confidence in my work and my development as a poet, but I am not sure if they are exactly true. I mean, behind the poems, I feel am still too young to successfully handle the creative process. I have come to learn that the muse is a terrible and exciting creature that when treated too carelessly can prove quite devastating. My poems might show a sense of maturity, but what they don’t show is the psychological difficulties in making them. I am too often obsessed with my work, mulling them over in my mind when I really should be focusing on the task at hand, like being a better friend, lover, son, and human being. It sounds absurd, but I can’t do these things very well when constantly living inside my poems, being haunted by them even in my sleep. I think older poets would know, through experience, a better way to manage a state of balance between their work and their domestic lives. I really commend writers who are able to teach, work a 9 to 5 job, and at the same time raise a few children while writing between the gaps. As I grow older I hope to one day be able to establish a working method for myself.


How do you define success as a poet, does your recent poetic endeavors help pay the rent?

For me, success as a poet means that you are being read, and that your words are affecting others in some profound and memorable way. This is how I gauge success in other writers and I apply the same standard to myself. Am I taking myself too seriously? Of course I am, and why shouldn’t I? I care about my work like all writers do, and I want my work to do things beyond my own intent. I am not delusional, I know it’s poetry, that not many people read poetry, not too many lives are dramatically changed or saved with poetry, but sometimes it does happen and if my poems were able to contribute to that in any way, I would consider it successful. I have been fortunate enough to receive letters from folks around the world who have read my work, printed them out to keep in their pockets, wallets, or purses, people who read them at 2AM in Wal-Mart parking lots, who share them with their family and friends, at events like Passover and the Tet New Year. In a way, I don’t see a clear difference between cooking and writing, both forms of art entail giving nourishment to others, and I take that very seriously. To me, this is the only and ultimate success, it is why I write.


How does your Buddhist practice affect your work as a poet?

I have been a Buddhist long before I started writing poems and I think as far as perception is concerned,
Buddhism has had a major impact. My meditation practice made observing objects “as they are” a lot easier and this has helped in the avoiding the younger writer’s tendency towards canned or cliched phrases like “rolling hills”, “deep blue eyes”, or “shattered heart”, for example. Practicing Zen made it natural for me to question whether those hills are really “rolling”, or that perhaps those blue eyes are not very deep at all, maybe they’re hollow or crystalline, perhaps they resemble a mine shaft studded with jewels, a sea of lilacs? What I am saying is that there’s a danger in falling into these easy and common descriptions and by stripping the object of its very name, we can begin to see it in a more clear and unique way. When we remove an an object or idea from the relative nature of language, we can see how stunning it really is all by itself, naked and fully present; we can see, at last, that an elephant is big only when it’s next to something small.


What are the pitfalls of writing about yourself and your family?

There aren’t many. Sure, there is a sense of feeling exposed. However, liberties are taken when writing poems and to borrow from Emily Dickinson: my “I” is often a dramatic one. Sometimes my poems don’t paint my family in the best light, but my family is illiterate and they probably won’t be reading any of my poems. I would like, however, to have some of them translated into Vietnamese and then read to them sometime (I am fluent in Vietnamese but lack proficiency in reading and writing the language). My family’s past is an inheritance which I cherish, and although it is not the most pleasant history, it is one am proud to write about and be a part of.


How do you define a queer or gay poem? Can it even be defined as such?

If one were looking to assemble an anthology or create a “queer section” in libraries or bookstores, than I think it should include any work that deals with homosexuality in any way. Despite being confining, these labels are still important, especially in helping young LGBT people look for voices that speak to their lives and experiences. I am wary, however, when gay poetry is written for the sake of being gay. For me, sexuality is merely vehicle towards the more crude and basic communication of emotion. For example, we can have a poem about gay subjects but those subjects should be employed to explore the more core feelings of love, loss, grief, joy, etc… If we use our gay experience in order to move towards a space where all people regardless of sexuality can identify with, then our work would be successful. Ultimately, I think the matter of sexuality, like all forms of identity, should not overshadow the way a poem affects us as human beings. There is still much work to be done. I would like to see more journals like the New Yorker or Poetry publish more explicit LGBT content. Too often these larger, more conservative publications shy away from poems exploring the idiosyncratic language and images of LGBT-themed subjects. These are often the first magazines where people come in contact with the literary world and it’s a shame that such works are left out, especially when they hold as much beauty and importance in their conceits as any other work being produced today.


You write very few poems, sometimes only 4-5 a year. What’s your take on writing so sporadically?

When I first started writing seriously about 3 years ago, I would try to write everyday. I soon found that that creative process was too distracting. I had difficulty beginning a new poem when I my mind was still lingering on the one I wrote yesterday and the day before that. I think living in a capitalist society, there is a great anxiety to constantly produce in order to feel productive and proactive. There is a sense of guilt and insecurity when one doesn’t produce “like everyone else”, and I think this is very harmful to the creative process. At least for me, experience requires time in order to be filtered and formed into some sort of wisdom. Only once thoroughly absorbed do I feel an experience or idea is ready to be made into a poem. I think poems are like pregnancies, the more time you spend in nurturing them, the more promising they will be. So I try my best not to go into labor until they are ready. For some reason this results in 4-5 poems a year. I don’t plan on that number but that’s just how it happens.


Do you work in any other genres and mediums?

I am a failed painter. But I continue to explore more sufficient mediums in expressing art. I think poetry is only a means to an end, sometimes a rather debilitating one as words are so often finite and inadequate.


What would your life be like if you were not a poet?

I would probably do sometime tangible with my hands like work on a farm. When I was 15 I worked on
a tobacco farm illegally and found being so close to the earth, feeling the heat of it, to be quite a magical
experience. There’s a good chance I would join the Peace Corps or do some sort of humanitarian work abroad, such immediate and palpable work helps me stay away from my own thoughts, which can be rewarding. Idleness and silence can be very dangerous. There was a time I considered shaving my head and moving to a monastery in Nepal, Vietnam or Thailand, which on some days I feel is still not out of the question.