Prac Crit

Daily Bread

by Ocean Vuong

Interview

by Zoë Hitzig

Ocean Vuong speaks so softly that I worried my Dictaphone would fail to catch his words over the operatic music and manifold conversation in the packed Caffe Reggio, an historic café in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The following interview took place in the café’s sunny window seat during a brief break between Ocean’s teaching commitments around the corner at NYU. As we settled in and ordered green teas, we spoke about the café, which boasts the oldest espresso machine in NYC.  Ocean recounted with delight the glamorous literary history of the café – Derek Walcott, Yusef Komunyakaa and Joseph Brodsky, Ocean relayed, had been frequent visitors. We also spoke about his upcoming trip to the UK – his visit to London this spring will be his first – and our impressions of the differences between British and American poetics. Then, we turned to his poem ‘Daily Bread,’ which appears toward the end of his first collection. The poem brought us into a discussion of his work’s oblique relationship with Christianity and the Vietnamese language, then to a description of weighty trips to Italy and Vietnam.

OV

Someone said once that this poem is a sort of praxis for the entire book, and I think that’s right. It’s funny because I actually wrote that poem as an assignment to myself.  I told myself I was going to write a poem about bread, not about the father figure, a theme I had been obsessed with for the book. But then the poem became a poem about my father. It was maybe the first time I let a poem fall apart and then keep going. I ended up writing a poem about my father anyway from what started as a poem about bread. It felt truer to enact that invasion, to allow a collapse of form, rather than starting over and writing a more polished piece about either subject. I felt this rupture to be, in a sense, a culmination of everything I was working toward. To speak about what happens when a poem is forced to lose its identity as an architecture means it has to reinvent itself. Or rather its true self emerges through the shell in order to speak. In a way the poem has to come out of the closet of this contrivance. I was really interested in what happens when those layers collapse and fall apart. Who gets to speak? By the end it was a conscious decision to end the poem in my father’s voice.

ZH

Why bread?

OV

Bread is so potent.

ZH

Of course.

OV

It goes all the way back to the Bible. There’s a semi-Christian theme throughout the book. One of the arguments that this is a very American book is that although I am not religious, nor Christian, I write through those spaces. It is such a crucial part of American identity that I can’t really sidestep it. So I decided to work through it.  From the beginning of the book, in the first poem, the speaker kneels. It’s a confession – or perhaps looking through the confession booth. It’s also there in ‘Prayer For The Newly Damned.’ The book has a complicated relationship with god. In that sense the body of Christ dissolves into the body of my father. It’s already there through the mythology given to us through the Bible…

ZH

The opening line of your book is unbeatable (‘In the body, where everything has a price / I was a beggar’). I think many poets would love to have written that opening.

OV

Thank you. Sometimes these lines just come to us and we don’t even know what they mean! We just have to write them down. Oftentimes meaning and order come after, as a surprise.

ZH

‘Daily Bread’ has moments in which you almost seem to resist meaning for the sake of the music (‘A fistful / of hay & the oven scarlets. Alfafa. / Forsythia. Foxglove. Bubbling / dough.’). Many of your poems have these dense clusterings of musical language – I’m thinking especially of ‘In Newport I Watch My Father…’ – they are almost Hopkins-esque. Can you tell me about your relationship to Hopkins? ‘Daily Bread’ especially made me think of the poem that has that gorgeous, painful line ‘selfyeast of spirit, a dull dough sours.’

OV

The ‘Terrible Sonnets’!

ZH

Yes!

OV

I really relate to Hopkins both in his spirit – in his work, musically – and his queerness and his struggle with queerness. His sense of being a social and monetary outsider. For Lent he gave up poetry! That shows you what poetry was for him – how poetry was this private trespass, this indulgence. The sounds and the rhythms are in themselves a result of this indulgence, this potency. One of the clearest enactments of Hopkins is to not necessarily reject standard traditions of song but to say ‘I’m hearing something else’ and give oneself permission to push that sonics forth and legitimize it. It was a pivotal moment for me in my own writing to be able to say ‘If I hear it, it’s true to me, and therefore I want to insist on it.’ A lot of times I follow my own music just to see where it goes.

ZH

Have you always been able to follow your music that way? Or was there a moment in your writing life in which you found yourself more able to trust that music than you had been previously?

OV

I have thought about this often. Some musicians will tell you that they start off hearing what could be – the possibilities of the beats in a line – how a line could be ‘da da da da’ or ‘da da da da’ – it’s very intuitive for them even before they know what the music charts are. For myself, growing up in a Vietnamese household around a language that is tonal – inflections raise or lower the meaning – lends a very definitive understanding of the word. Take the word ‘ma’ for example: ‘ma’ is mother; ‘ma’ is ghost; ‘ma’ is but; ‘ma’ is grave; and ‘ma’ is horse. Ma, ma, ma, ma, ma [Varying inflections].

ZH

Wow.

OV

In the womb, then as an infant, your ear must be sharp in order to catch the intonations. So naturally I think Vietnamese is a very musical language. My work has these rhythms that might be novel to the western ear, but for me they were always there.

ZH

I wonder if that has anything to do with your line length – it does seem that there’s a particular line length that your voice is most comfortable in.

OV

Yes definitely.

ZH

It’s maybe a 7-12 syllable line?

OV

Yeah. Well, line is form – there can be very long lines, too. I think what you are touching on is the caesuras in the line…

ZH

Right, yes.

OV

…where the breath finishes. Because the lines can vary depending on what the poem is imagistically trying to achieve. But you are very right that there seems to be a very Vietnamese – in other words clipped and shortened – breath. Direct statements without subordinate clauses. Vietnamese has very few subordinate clauses.

ZH

On the topic of form, I was intrigued by the poem in the second section about the murder by immolation of a gay couple in Texas, written in footnotes –

OV

‘Seventh Circle of Earth’?

ZH

Yes, that poem seems to deal head-on with something latent in the other poems: a kind of hidden or hiding quality of the voice. I’m curious about your decision to put the poem in that form. I imagine the voice in many of your poems would want to speak from the footnotes.

OV

I wrote that poem in tercets because I was, of course, in conversation with Dante. The seventh circle of Hell is where sodomites are punished by fire. Because the two men were murdered in that way, it was, in many ways, a kind of hell on earth. I wrote it at first trying to mimic Dante’s terza rima. But it felt false. In fact I abandoned the poem for a long time. I thought it wouldn’t go into the book. Later I looked at it again, after coming back from a visit to Italy. When I went to Italy, I was looking at Michaelangelo sculptures and the curators were talking about how, within a few earthquakes, some of his most important work is in danger of falling and cracking into infinitesimally small pieces. At which point it would no longer be able to be recast into the original. I thought this was a stunning moment because looking at the ruptures, I wondered would happen if a poem or piece of art refused repair, refused refurbishing? We are so obsessed with the idea of restoration. For me there is a great danger in that impulse because it removes the violence that created the ruptures in the first place, ruptures that are still felt in bodies, in politics and in everyday life. I thought, what if the poem was not resurrected but demands the reader to go down to the actual epicenter, the ground-zero of its making. What if it insisted that even here a life can still be told – a life worthy of literature and art. Despite not being whole, and complete, and restored, it can still say something. I think that was the moment where I felt the poem started to be truer to me. Because in the end I am taking on the assumed supposed voice of two murdered people. I was uneasy speaking for them in the form of a conventional poem. To be confronted with overwhelming emptiness is often how we confront these epicenters after desecration. I wanted to remove the possibility of the text and invite the reader to look only at what has been destroyed.

ZH

I am fascinated by this idea of equating the impulse to restore with the impulse to erase violence. As you were talking about Italy I thought about that poem that begins with the image of a ‘shepherd stepping out of a Caravaggio’ painting. Some of Caravaggio’s work, especially his insistence on an overripe-ness in his images, seems to echo a similar idea.

OV

Right. How many layers does that offer us to hide under and also how quickly can art cut through it. There’s this painter coming back into the real and yet, the entire scene is a hallucination of the speaker’s mind. That’s why there’s a mirror at the end. How many of these contrived worlds can we move through? It goes back to the legends. There’s a legend about a Chinese painter who was asked by the emperor to paint a landscape so pristine that the emperor can enter it. He didn’t do a good job, so the emperor was preparing to assassinate him. But because it was his painting, legend goes, he stepped inside and vanished, saving himself. I always loved that little allegory as an artist. Even when it is not enough for others, if it is enough for you, you can live inside it.

ZH

That is a lovely legend. It makes me think of the ‘exodus tongue’ in ‘Daily Bread’ – that one’s own tongue could be an apparatus that enables his own exodus.

OV

I guess I’m interested in complications! [Laughs] There are no answers, just more drama.

ZH

Yes exactly, the idea of exodus in the book is highly complex. The first section of the book is about an exodus that the poet did not experience, then the last section tries to create for itself a different kind of exodus in the present – wrought in words or perhaps imagination?

OV

I think it’s the same thread pulled through different light. The way the light of the day falls reveals different things about one object. I was looking at the idea of displacement through different guises. How encompassing can that force of displacement be for the psyche, the body? In the first part, I was a part of that displacement but I was only two years old. You’re right that I was not a ‘witness.’ So I was careful not to speak for my parents. I think that’s why I turned to mythology. I felt myself working in the same tradition as Homer who wrote the Iliad four hundred years after the Trojan war, so he had to create an entire mythology. So is the Iliad a historical document? Who knows. It’s certainly a document of fiction, of poetics, a stylized representation of the war. But without it we would have nothing. That is what I was confronted with. I didn’t want to recreate or claim my family’s witness, which is why their eyes are covered in the photograph on the book’s cover. I took their stories and recast them into my own Homeric version of what history was. The second part became my primary source – the American life. I got to move away from mythology. The third part was an attempt to weave the two prior threads into something, like you said, something like the present. What do they look like in the contemporary world when they are forced to interact?

ZH

One color that dominates the book and yet looks different in the different ‘light’ of different sections, is the color of night – a dark blue that wants to be black. Various shades of bruise, perhaps? In so many different poems and moments this color appears somehow dynamic, it is always trying to move away from itself into something else, whether it’s a blue that tends toward black or a black tending toward a blue.

OV

Hm, you’re right.

ZH

Especially in the Rothko poem, there’s that line –

OV

Yeah! ‘They say the sky is blue / but I know it’s black seen through too much distance.’

ZH

Right.

OV

Yes I think it’s the idea of illusion. The idea that without light everything is dark. What does that mean for the gaze? What does it mean to be of color? It is an interrogation of color itself, how shifty it can be. My mother is half white. Sometimes she ‘passes’ but when she speaks, she is ‘outed’ because she doesn’t speak English. Sometimes people mistake her for being Native American, or Latina. So there’s a slippery sense that identity cannot be held long enough in a primary color. As soon as we try to identify it as such, it starts to change, the language falters.

ZH

So how did you come to the title of the book?

OV

As a queer child, I always found myself looking at the sky, particularly the night sky. Because it felt, in many moments, that the world surrounding you is not one of safety, not one of benevolence. I would find myself looking at the one sure thing, the stars that, for centuries, have never changed. The sky, no matter what happens on earth, no matter how damning or terrible, will always be the same. Describing the stars in the night sky as ‘exit wounds’ says a lot about the viewer. Through gazing we have an autobiography of sight, through that we can map a history. I was interested in how what we see says about how we think.

ZH

We understand, through this vision of the stars as ‘exit wounds’ the utter lack of safety the speaker finds himself in. It’s a brilliant title – I can’t help but think of Robert Frost’s saying – that poetry is about ‘getting into legitimate danger so that we may be genuinely rescued.’

OV

Frost is so interesting because he’s often pigeonholed, miscarried as this conventional, sentimental momentary poet of New England. In fact he was very complicated, extremely dark, his poems often misread. ‘The Road Not Taken’ is often misread. Most readers want it to be this rebel cry, but that’s not what’s in the text! In the text, he’s saying it doesn’t matter, that you will say you chose the road less traveled only in retrospect –when really – they’re the same. He says the two roads are the same early on in the poem! It’s stunning what we want to forget that. It reminds me of politics – what facts choose to carry and what we choose to abandon. It’s interesting that an American poet can warn of us that and yet –

ZH

And yet be ignored!

OV

We undermine it anyway.

ZH

To go back to ‘Daily Bread’ – there’s an image in there that is not in the other poems but nonetheless seems important to your project. I’m curious about the prosthetic limb and the idea of prosthesis. What does it mean to be missing a part of the body and then have it replaced? How does this relate to the first poem which states that ‘everything has a price’ in the body? What does it mean to have that prosthesis be the effect of a remnant of war, an unexploded ordnance?

OV

In my visit to Vietnam I saw people with prosthetics everywhere for the first time, but also people without prosthetic limbs because they can’t afford them. History does not let you look away, at that point. Because at that point, chances are it was a landmine. In this poem, it became this charged metaphor, or sub-metaphor, for what the poem is navigating. What is the real? What part of the poem was the prosthetic – the baker or my father? The bread, or the language? It happens again with the cigarette smoke that becomes the son, there’s this phantom limb effect. What does it mean when the phantom limb extends to the psyche. Of course the phantom limb to begin with is a part of the psyche. The psyche believes that history still remains, the memories, the part of itself that is gone. I think that is such a charged moment about what it means to move – not only as a self but as a society – through war and the after-effects of war. The timeline tells us that the Vietnam war lasted for 10 years. It doesn’t say that there was really no true end. The end is not identifiable as the timeline would suggest. The ramifications live on, lives are still lost. How does one decide when a war ends? Is it simply when American troops leave? That seems to be a very biased way of looking at it. For some, for those who step on the wrong patch of dirt (and it’s still happening today) the war is alive and well.

ZH

Have you back been to Vietnam many times?

OV

Only twice. Once to bury my grandmother, a second time to do research – family research. It’s a hard place for me. The legacy is still so rich. It is very disorienting because you have the Vietnam that’s given to you by your family, and the Vietnam that exists. They are not the same thing. So in a way I was carrying around a time capsule, an imaginative time capsule. The present betrayed that. It was like immigrating all over again – it was rough.

ZH

I imagine it must have been. How did language mediate those experiences? Do you ever feel that your composition requires some element of translation from Vietnamese because your poetic language happens to be English?

OV

I settled on the language that I think and dream in, which is English. Although Vietnamese, as we discussed, is in many ways a stronger language. It has a more powerful effect in that when I hear it I go back to a very specific, charged space. English is more material, more neutral. Even the most neutral Vietnamese has heightened, idiosyncratic connotations for me.

ZH

I should have qualified that question or asked it more precisely. The counterfactual doesn’t make much sense – it would rely on a poet not thinking about audience while composing.

OV

Yeah, though sometimes Vietnamese words come in, as you know. Those moments just happen intuitively. The Vietnamese will help me start writing. At first I censored all of it out. But then I wanted to insist on the poem becoming an enactment of the imagination rather than a fabricated distillation of it. Whenever I could I wanted to have a map of the imaginative process, so sometimes Vietnamese comes in, and then comes out.

ZH

I’m interested in this self-censorship. Do you think of your revision process as censorship of a true self? Or is it merely a process of shearing excess?

OV

Hm, yeah, I think for me it’s never ‘merely’ anything! Of course it depends on which poem, and which draft. I see the process of revision as a collaboration with the self that made the first draft. The third draft is a collaboration with the two selves that made the two earlier drafts. Before you know it, you have a room full of forty Oceans working on one poem. Then you have a team, a little family! I think that’s neat.

ZH

Are there any poems that the first Ocean got right? Poems for which the first Ocean didn’t have to consult any later Oceans?

OV

The gifts, you mean!

ZH

Yes! The gifts.

OV

Maybe three. Yeah, three. You just have to thank the poetry gods when that happens and move along.

ZH

Who are your poetry gods? Are they poets?

OV

Not necessarily just poets: Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Lucille Clifton, James Baldwin, my grandmother, Le Thi Bai. They are all on the same plane for me, I don’t have a hierarchy. My bookshelf is one level and they are all on there…how are we doing on time?

ZH

Oh you have to teach soon! It’s 2:40!

OV

Okay yeah, we have another five minutes! I am enjoying your questions – they are a scholar’s questions. I get to be a nerd with you! [Laughs] Oftentimes Q&A’s are just, what’s your process… and I’m like, uh, I don’t know anymore! Mental illness?

ZH

[Laughs] Is this your first semester teaching or have you taught before?

OV

This is the first time I’m teaching undergrads, so it’s a different challenge. But they are inspiring because they all do different things. I have biomedical students, I have a marketing major. They all love poetry. It’s humbling for me. I once was proud of being in a small vacuum. But I think poetry has always been everywhere and we are just starting to see these mainstream works breaking through. Like Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. A lot of my friends turn their nose up at it. But I think it’s a positive moment.

ZH

I am with you, I think it’s positive too!

OV

People are reading a book of verse! I don’t see any advantage or any gains from thinking we’re above a certain book. It’s doing something that people care about – it’s speaking to people – that’s not nothing. I think denouncing or dismissing a work simply because it does not meet our own standards of craft is an elitism we can’t afford right now. We don’t have to love it – but we should respect it for its power to communicate. I’m excited, I think we’re in a good time for poetry. I’m excited for your own work, too!

ZH

I think teaching is a powerful way to tap into that potential. I haven’t taught writing or literature, but I’ve taught math and economics, and found that teaching allows for a particular kind of self-discovery. It can be a very vulnerable position.

OV

At first, yes it was. But your passion carries you. As soon as you open the text, you’re all there together. My students fascinate me because they see things I never saw before. I think it’s important to foster a culture of collective recognition, where everyone gets to say what they see. Everything that is seen is just as valid as everything else. There is no one way of looking at a text. It’s similar to how a scientist thinks. I have a lot of scientists in my class. We say, what is this thing? How do I classify it? What is it doing? What does it reveal?  What happens if we look at this object at a different angle? In a way it becomes a kind of collective experimentation. It’s beautiful.

Daily Bread

by Ocean Vuong

                  Cú Chi, Vietnam

Red is only black remembering.
Early dark & the baker wakes
to press what’s left of the year
into flour & water. Or rather,
he’s reshaping the curve of her pale calf
atmosphered by a landmine left over
from the war he can’t recall. A fistful
of hay & the oven scarlets. Alfafa.
Forsythia. Foxglove. Bubbling
dough. When it’s done, he’ll tear open
the yeasty steam only to find
his palms – the same
as when he was young. When heaviness
was not measured by weight
but distance. He’ll climb
the spiral staircase & call her name.
He’ll imagine the softness of bread
as he peels back the wool blanket, raises
her phantom limb to his lips as each kiss
dissolves down her air – light ankles.
& he will never see the pleasure
this brings to her face. Never
her face. Because in my hurry
to make her real, make her
here, I will forget to write
a bit of light into the room.
Because my hands were always brief
& dim as my father’s.
& it will start to rain. I won’t
even think to put a roof over the house –
her prosthetic leg on the nightstand,
the clack clack as it fills to the brim. Listen,
the year is gone. I know
nothing of my country. I write things
down. I build a life & tear it apart
& the sun keeps shining. Crescent
wave. Salt-spray. Tsunami. I have
enough ink to give you the sea
but not the ships, but it’s my book
& I’ll say anything just to stay inside
this skin. Sassafras. Douglas fir.
Sextant & compass. Let’s call this autumn
where my father sits in a $40 motel
outside Fresno, rattling from the whiskey
again. His fingers blurred
like a photograph. Marvin on the stereo
pleading brother, brother. & how
could I have known, that by pressing
this pen to paper, I was touching us
back from extinction? That we were more
than black ink on the bone-
white backs of angels facedown
in the blazing orchard. Ink poured
into the shape of a woman’s calf. A woman
I could go back & erase & erase
but I won’t. I won’t tell you how
the mouth will never be honest
as its teeth. How this
bread, daily broken, dipped
in honey – & lifted
with exodus tongues, like any other
lie – is only true as your trust
in hunger. How my father, all famine
& fissure, will wake at 4 a.m.
in a windowless room & not remember
his legs. Go head, baby, he will say, put yor han
on mai bak, because he will believe
I am really there, that his son
has been standing behind him all
these years. Put yor hans on mai showduh,
he will say to the cigarette smoke swirling
into the ghost of a boy, Now flap. Yeah, lye dat, baby.
Flap lye yu waving gootbai. See?
I telling you…I telling yu. Yor daddy?
He fly.

From Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon, 2016 / Penguin Random House, 2017). Reproduced with permission of the author.