Skip to main content

Ocean Vuong

Friday, June 9, 2023
7:30pm Pacific Time
KQED Broadcast: 08/06/2023

This event appeared in the series
Cultural Studies

Watch the webcast on YouTube now →

We've made a recording of this event free to all. Please support our institution and these productions by making a tax-deductible contribution.

Ocean Vuong‘s exquisitely crafted poetry and prose ask perennial and pressing questions about race, masculinity, addiction, trauma, and courage. His beloved novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, for which he recently finished writing the screenplay, tells the story of a queer Vietnamese refugee coming of age against the backdrop of violence, poverty, and addiction. Vuong is the author of the poetry collections Night Sky with Exit Wounds and his newest, Time is a Mother, “full of concentrated, kaleidoscopic riffs on the feelings and sounds, the delirious highs and darkest lows, that make up contemporary life” (The New Yorker).

Mike Mills is a filmmaker, graphic designer, and artist best known for the films Beginners20th Century Women, and most recently C’mon C’mon.

Want a copy of the poster from this event? It’s available for order in our poster shop!

Books/Magazines Referenced

    Writers Referenced

    • Robert Lowell 
    • Robert Frost
    • Robert Duncan 
    • Li Bai
    • Susan Sontag 
    • Leonard Cohen
    • Marcel Proust
    • Thomas Wolfe
    • Nan Goldin 
    • William Shakespeare
    • John Milton
    • J.D. Salinger
    • Sylvia Plath
    • Horace
    • Arthur Rimbaud
    • Patti Smith
    • Jim Morrison
    • Hart Crane 
    • Walt Whitman 

    Poems Referenced 


    Audience Member 1: We love you Ocean!

    City Arts & Lectures Ocean Vuong with Mike Mills. June 9, 2023. 7:30pm. Sydney Goldstein Theater. city

    Ocean Vuong: Thank you so much. Thank you. It’s really incredible to be back. And I’m really happy and relieved that I can’t see any of you. I’m going to pretend I’m in my living room with Mike. Otherwise, I would probably melt. So thank you to the lighting directors for making 1200 people invisible.

    Mike Mills: For my birthday last year, I got a book in the mail and it was signed by Ocean, who I’ve had his books in the past. And somehow you got my address and you just sent a book to me. And I was so touched and moved, I was in a very down mood.

    Ocean Vuong: The poetry mafia runs deep. 

    Mike Mills: I was so perplexed, I was like, How the f*** did he get my address and know about me? And I’m so touched and honored–How does he even know I exist?–That I actually looked up your signings of books to make sure someone wasn’t pranking me. But lo and behold, in this total act of kindness, it was you. And just sort of like, this gesture out in the dark to me. So that was really so meaningful and so wonderful that it ended up here tonight.

    At first I thought it’d be great to ask you to read a little something as an opening. There’s this one part of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous—there’s so many parts that are so moving—but I thought this part brings together so many of the threads and seeds of your journey with all of your work, and I do feel like it’s this one big body of work. Going through, I spent the last reading the last three books a lot. And I really felt like it’s this big mine of interest and care that you’re sort of exploring. So, could you do us a favor? 

    Ocean Vuong: Sure, sure. Thank you so much, and thank you so much for doing this.

    Mike Mills: I’m honored. 

    Ocean Vuong: And also for your incredibly courageous and patient world building in your work. I learned so much watching–being enmeshed in your films is an embodied experience where compassion is centered. And that is so rare in our culture. And for you to do it again and again, not as a one off, but as a total commitment it’s deeply inspiring to me, and you’re a bit ahead of me in story making, and so I look to you and I think hopefully I can be that steadfast in my career as well, so thank you. 

    Mike Mills: That’s much too generous. Anyways, go ahead, please read.

    Ocean Vuong: [Reading] “It’s true that in Vietnamese, we rarely say, ‘I love you.’ And when we do, it is almost always in English. Care and love for us are pronounced clearest through service. Plucking white hairs, pressing yourself on your son to absorb a plane’s turbulence and, therefore, his fear. Or now, as Grandma Lan called to me, ‘Little Dog, get over here and help me help your mother.’

    “And we knelt on each side of you, rolling out the hardened cords in your upper arms, then down to your wrists, your fingers, for a moment almost too brief to matter, this made sense, that three people on the floor, connected to each other by touch, made something like the word family. You groaned with relief as we worked your muscles loose, unraveling you with nothing but our own weight.

    “You lifted your finger and, speaking into the blanket, said, ‘Am I happy?’ It wasn’t until I saw the mood ring that I realized you were asking me, once more, to interpret another portion of America. Before I could answer, Lan thrusts her hand also before my nose. ‘Check me too, Little Dog. Am I happy?’ It could be in writing you here, Ma. I am writing to everyone. 

    “For how can there be a private space if there is no safe space? If a boy’s name can both shield him and turn him into an animal at once? ‘Yes, you’re both happy,’ I answered, knowing nothing. ‘You’re both happy, Ma.’ 

    “’Yes,’ I said again. Because gunshots, lies, and oxtail, or whatever you want to call your god, should say ‘yes’ over and over, in cycles, in spirals, with no other reason but to hear itself exist, because love, at its best, repeats itself. Shouldn’t it? 

    “’I’m happy!’ Grandma Lan threw her arms in the air. ‘I’m happy on my boat. My boat, see?’ She pointed to your arms, splayed out like oars. She and I on each side. I looked down and saw it, the brown, yellowish floorboard swirling into muddy currents. I saw the weak ebb, thick with grease and dead grass.

    “We weren’t rowing, but adrift. We were clinging to a mother the size of a raft. Until the mother beneath us grew stiff with sleep. And we soon fell silent as the raft took us all down this great brown river called America. Finally, happy.”

    Mike Mills: I have so much I want to talk to you about or ask you about. I kept feeling this thing in being kind of steeped in your stuff. I want to wrongly call it opposite forces, but I think that’s totally wrong because I feel like you do this thing of refusing to choose between binaries in your work.

    And the opposites, to me, are like this deeply observed world that you create for me, like very felt bodies. I feel like in your world, I’m always this far away from someone. Like when I’m reading your books, I’m about to kiss someone, I’m like in this space, you know? And then also the space from Hartford, Connecticut to the Vietnam War, right?

    But anyways, there’s this amazing ability to kind of pin me down just through your ability to observe something, this kind of radical, soft observation, which to me is like a trust in words. And words are like caring, right? And then there’s this other side, which is the imagined, and it feels very swiping or very subversive at times.

    And so there’s this very concrete, careful, observant, and then there’s the imagined world, which to me–I wonder how much it comes from the alterity that you feel at times. The alterity that I’ve heard you talk about as being like a source of power. Is that too crazy of a starter question?

    Ocean Vuong: No, that’s perfect. I think when I was a younger writer, I loved rules. I saw rules as kind of like the guardrails of the work. And now that I’m a teacher, my students love rules. First thing they say is, “What should I–should or shouldn’t do?” And I understand that. I sympathize with that greatly because when you’re starting out as a young person doing anything, you want to make sure that, you know, Am I a real poet? Am I going to where all the other poets are going? You know, Am I going where Robert Lowell’s going? Robert Frost? Robert Duncan? It’s a land of Bobs, at the end. And I like them all well enough. But I think after a while you realize, and I don’t know what is the impetus, and I have some ideas, maybe it’s queerness, maybe it’s just being a strange person relative to the other kids on the playground.

    But I said, I don’t know if Bob Land, as much as I enjoy it, is where I want to go. I have to look outside of the guardrail. As I start to look, I’m interested in the forest outside. But it takes a lot of courage, and it took me a long time to–what you’re describing is a balance between control, restraint, and a kind of wildness that comes, I think, from a respect and a sort of allegiance to awe and wonder. 

    And after a while, as an artist, I’m sure you feel the same way, you said, well, the road only takes me to a known point on the map. And I think for me it was queerness that gave me the courage to say, I have to get off this road. It’s not built for me. And I began my career looking at maps, metaphorically, and now I’m just following kind of like a North Star.

    And I’m following, when I write something, and it surprises me. It shocks me. I know that I can lean into it. When I first started, I was very scared of that feeling. It comes up and you’re like, Oh God, what is that? That’s not poetry. That’s not, no one has done that. I shouldn’t. Oh, get it away. It was almost like a psychological horror.

    And if nothing else, experience teaches you that, I’m going to set up camp here and dig. And you don’t know what it is. You just dig in the dirt. And sometimes, it’s just more dirt. But sometimes, a flash of white bone comes up. And you say to yourself, My goodness, am I going to discover an unknown dinosaur species, or a murder victim?

    Mike Mills: Or being myself, maybe. 

    Ocean Vuong: Yeah, yeah. But that trepidation is why we do this. I think our vocation demands of us to lean closer to the terror because I think the line between awe and terror is just one breath’s width away and I think that’s what I’ve tried to lean into in my work, that the sentence can be the medium that transforms awe and terror into a kind of meaning. So I think so much of my work is the performance of meaning with the belief that meaning is fallible, slippery, and ultimately ethereal. 

    Mike Mills: I love this too, so obviously, words are care, and so often I just feel like you’re loving someone when you’re writing, like your mom, Lan, Peter, different people, right? It’s like love and words. So it’s like care. And so words feel very powerful and needed and like the ground. And at the other side, words mar. You say that you mar your mother when you write about her. Right? And that words are illusions, or like names are illusions. I love that you say that. I’ve been reading this lovely book, this refusal to choose between binaries, refusal to even think that way. And, and those themes of like, yes, words mar and words are everything. I feel like you make energy out of that.

    Ocean Vuong: I think energy is right. And, you know, you read a poem from the Tang Dynasty, and the poet is long dead, their contemporaries are long dead, but that energy, that loneliness that Li Bai felt, the wonder, the isolation, the confusion. You read a poem and the sentence just brings that current right to you, and I haven’t figured out how that works, I just know that I’m kind of at its mercy. And the older I get, the more I realize that so much of my writing is listening, space building, rather than filling the page. And you talk–another energy is care and anger. I think a lot of folks ask me, “Are you ever angry, Ocean? You’re so calm.” And I think if you’re not awake, you know, you wouldn’t feel angry, but to be alive in American bones is to be enraged at what’s happening.

    And of course I feel anger, but I will say that I’m incredibly proud. I’m not proud of many things in my work, but I’m incredibly proud that not a single sentence or page I’ve ever written in my work was written out of anger, and what I mean by that is that it’s not that I’m not angry, but that I’m not useful as a writer, as an artist, when I’m angry.

    And I think when I feel the somatic experience of anger, you throw things, you shout, perhaps at the people you love, you’re on the floor, metaphorically, physically, and then after a while, you have to get up. You have to feed your dog, answer emails, meet a student. In other words, you have to kind of move towards care. And I think for me, care is anger improved. It’s part of the same ecosystem. And I think I’m interested in dismantling the border between those two things, because we’re told that they’re two opposite sides of a spectrum. But I think they’re actually very close together. They inform each other. And, it’s hard. I love Susan Sontag’s quote where she says, “There’s no luck in writing.”  There might be luck in other arts, photography, any photographer would tell you that. You wait for the right light, right place, right time, but it’s very difficult to accidentally write well. And Lord, I’ve tried. 

    The medium of language is so fragile, which is why I think I have great kinship with it, because it falls apart so easily. Like myself. And so when I come to a handful of words, I’m just like, Okay, I know you. I know you. I’m like you: one false comma and I’m on the floor, too. I think that kinship with it is an incredibly humbling experience. And you realize that rage has, for me–and I know writers have produced incredible amounts of work with the energy of rage and anger–but for me that care that I have to give the sentence is then memetic. It almost calms me down. It’s hard to be rageful when you’re working with something that needs your care. If each word is a citizen in this world of the text, they’re so dependent on me to think clearly and with restraint and with a sense of compassion and dignity to them. And I think I would lose their confidence in me, in a way, if I were to approach it with too much of myself, I have to kind of pull myself back and in a way—we talked about this backstage—that as a maker, you get to that moment. You enter a room and you start working. We talked about you listening to music. I listen to music, too. And you do these rituals to get yourself into a space removed from yourself, removed from your personhood into a deeper, mysterious selfhood.

    You’re no longer ‘person,’ ‘species,’ but a consciousness. And when you start working really well, your heroes walk out of the room. Your family that you fret over, your brothers, your mothers, they start to walk out of the room. Your enemies walk out of the room. Your bullies, the people that doubt you. When you’re really hitting the horizon of your inquiry. You’re asking the questions that can’t be answered, but you’re showing up every day to it. You’re chasing that horizon. Pretty soon, when you’re really hitting it, even you walk out of the room. And you’re floating. You’re just a consciousness following the question. And I think that is the greatest feeling on earth. It almost doesn’t matter if it’s a book, or a film, or a screenplay, or a poem. It’s just, you’re a person questing. And I think at my best, as a maker, I’m always on my way towards something. I don’t want to arrive anywhere. Certainly not at the land of Bobs. 

    Mike Mills: And you so don’t, which is great. What you just described has such poise, such calm. What you’re writing about is often so intense, so filled with generational trauma, generational violence, intense desire, desire that edges up to violence or is or is inclusive of violence, right? And I say ‘violence’ not just as a bad word, but just as a peak or just as an overflowing, you know? So often the words are overflowing with this heart or content and yet you’re describing such an out of body, peaceful thing. How does that go together?

    Ocean Vuong: I think that’s what I signed up for. Every writer would tell you a different vision and all of it would be correct. As much as I’m not interested in telling a reader how to feel, I would never tell a reader, “you got that wrong, I meant it this way,” never. I think that’s, to me, a taboo. Whatever one feels within the conductor of the sentence is truth. And I’m actually interested in a different approach. But I think for me, when I decided to be a poet, and I didn’t know what that would mean, I said, “The task for me is to look closer at this world.” Because that’s what my elders did. They taught me how to look. That looking and observation is not static.

    But in our culture, we’re taught that these things are sites of failure. To not participate, to think, to observe, to introspect, is a kind of death, right? If you’re not on the go, if you’re not visibly producing in this country, then you’re not worthwhile. A child in elementary school who is considering the question, perhaps for days, now has a learning disability.

    But the child who blurts out whatever, now gets participation points. And I was lucky to have elders who taught me that vigilance is power, observation is agency. And my whole life I’ve encountered this thing called the imposter syndrome. And it’s interesting, you know, I like to question the question. And we’re taught that what we feel as outsiders–to feel excluded from the center and to have that feeling be authored by a larger systemic force brought forth way before you existed–is now pathologized as your illness.

    How powerful language can be that it can gaslight you into thinking that you are ill for feeling exactly what they wanted you to feel. And so I think for me, I observed this idea of the imposter syndrome and the more I work the more I realize that what they’ve called imposter syndrome are some of my greatest strengths as a person but also as an artist.

    What is imposter syndrome but to enter a space with diligence, perspicaciousness, skepticism and an awareness of those around you? But also a kind of necessary humility that you don’t own it. The day I walk into a stage or a room or a classroom as if I own it, is the death of my imagination. I don’t want that. Give it to me on a silver platter, that comfort, and I will reject it every time. So, I realized that what has been pathologized for me, my imposter syndrome is actually, in retrospect, my imposter immune system. It has given me everything that was required of me, not only to be an artist, but a person: a kind of open awareness to the world. And it was my elders who taught that. They didn’t have the language for it. But I watched them move, and I said–

    Mike Mills: –Which elders? 

    Ocean Vuong: Mostly my mother and my grandmother and my aunts. They were nail salon and factory workers. And when my mother was working in a nail salon, she does her own nails in about 25 minutes, but she works on a customer for 45 to an hour. And me being the quintessential American son, the capitalist, I say, “Ma, you can knock them, two at the same time. Why don’t you do two customers for an hour? We’ll double the money. We’ll be in a mansion in no time.” Here I am as a 12 year old trying to run my mother’s business, you know.

    And she said, “I can’t afford to do that. Because I can be sloppy with my own beauty, but I can’t be sloppy with the client’s beauty. Because if I spend 25 minutes, and they go out, and there’s a chipped nail, the paint is off, they come back from the parking lot, and it’s another 25 minutes, and I don’t get paid for that one.” And I think I really embodied that kind of ethos in my own work. That even this conversation is to me not superfluous or a burden. I met someone on tour and they said, “We love your work, you shouldn’t be here, you should be at the desk.” And I respectfully say, “No, this is my work.” 

    Because I’m thinking. I’m thinking with you, I’m thinking together with us, and I treat this as the center, because this is just a residue. It’s a crafted residue, it has artifice and contrivances. But I love what Leonard Cohen says when he says, “Poetry is the ash of a life well lived.” And I think, what a radical way to think about a product in which artists are measured their entire lives is their body of work, the corpus of work.

    But what if that’s actually not the destination? If we go back to the road and the guardrails or the wandering in the forest, what if making of art–for myself, this is a question I’m asking myself. What if all of this, one book after another, is not at the end to say, “Look what I’ve done, look at the material manifestation that I’ve done,” but rather that the hard diligence it takes, the care–as a filmmaker you know this, too–the care you put into making something is actually a practice? It’s not a product, but a practice in order to embody life better. What if all of this fretting, because the poem demands so much care and consideration, what if all that is actually the practice to live more fully at the end? Is that the best use? I’m really hoping that I could make that of my life. That the poems and the books are the residue, the ash of the practice of paying attention. That’s what I’m hoping to get at, not just the CV that I’m told I should mark my success by.

    Mike Mills: Can we, can you read another thing? Another poem, excuse me.  

    Ocean Vuong: They’re things. I don’t know what they are after a while.  

    Mike Mills: Well, from what you just said, I felt like I would like to ask you to read “You Guys.” 

    Ocean Vuong: Oh, this is a wonderful–okay, you don’t know about this anecdote, but this is really great. So “You Guys” came after nine months of silence. It’s the longest since I started writing in 2007. It was after Trump was inaugurated. I walked into class, I was teaching that day at NYU, a group of undergraduates, and I was supposed to somehow be their leader,  and I was just so… vacated of myself. And I got there and it was like walking to a kind of funeral because it was on their faces, it was in their… And I just told them, I said, “We can just be for a moment. Because your desire to be a writer is enough.” 

    The desire is everything. Because the intention to be an artist, when we encountered someone else’s art and we said, “My goodness, I want to do that. I want to do this thing that somebody mercifully is giving me before even knowing that I exist.” That intention is so powerful. It has ripple effects to the rest of our lives. That intention came to us as knowledge before we knew what an MFA was, before we knew what The New Yorker was, before we knew what prize or CV was. We just want to say, “I want to do this magic. How do I do that?” So I told them, “Go back to that intention.”

    We’re taught in this culture to refute the past. That our older selves have nothing to teach us because they’re older. That progress is linear. We know more, we have more money. We have a longer CV, we have more accomplishments, more degrees, so we’re better now. But in fact, that person that didn’t know all the trappings of being an artist, but was at the seat of wonder, I told them, “Go back, and can we rescue that person into the room?”

    And I was really just psyching myself up. I needed to rescue myself. So I said, “Let’s not write any poems today. Everyone, let’s go around and just talk about when you first read the poem that gave you permission to be a poet. Bring that, go back and bring that person into this room so we can double this room with that intention. Because they got you here. They were so powerful. That epicenter was so powerful. It got you here.” And somewhere along that line from that day after it took me nine months to write, and this was the first thing that came out of that absolute silence. And it was an assignment I gave them that first class, but it was one I was giving myself and it took me nearly a year to finally get back to my work and for a while I thought that this might be it, but here we are. 

    “You Guys

    brushing my teeth at 2
    in the morning I say
    over my shoulder
    you guys you guys I’m serious
    what are we going to make
    of this mess my voice
    muffled with wintergreen foam what
    are we going to do now
    that it hurts when I look
    at those I love like
    you two you
    who have been through
    so much together the thick & skin
    of it I’m proud of you both
    I say as the foam pinkens
    through my lips I’m told
    our blood is green but touches the world
    with endings my name a place
    where I’ve waited for
    collisions you guys are
    you listening I’m sorry
    for being useful only
    in language are you still
    with me I ask as I peer into the tub
    where I placed them gently down
    the two white rabbits
    I had found on harris st the way back
    from Emily’s where we watched American Dad!
    on her mom’s birthday her mom
    who would have been 56
    this year we ate rocky road
    in bowls with blue tulips
    I’m too tired she said
    to be this happy
    & we laughed without
    moving our hands perhaps
    the rabbits are lovers or sisters sometimes
    it’s hard to tell gender
    from breathing
    earlier I had scooped them
    from the pavement
    they were crushed but only
    kinda one
    had a dented half-face
    the other’s back flattened like
    a courage sock
    I cradled them wetly
    in my sweatshirt but now
    the tub is a red world save for the silent
    island of fur flickering
    in my fugitive words guys I say
    just wait for me alright
    just wait a bit longer
    I swear I’ll leave this place
    spotless when I’m done I say
    reaching back
    to my wisdom teeth forgetting
    it’s been 4 years
    since they were gone”

    Mike Mills: Backstage you were talking about your grandmother and what she taught you, what the uniqueness of her mind opened up for you, and I feel like there’s a piece of that, maybe, in there–am I wrong? Some of that wildness of her mind?

    Ocean Vuong: Absolutely. I didn’t learn surrealism from the modernists. I learned it from my grandmother, because of her schizophrenia. When you’re a child with an elder, who you respect so much, who experienced mental illness, you are invited into another world and another truth. And you realize that the physics in her mind, that love, in a way, is self abandonment into the portal of another personhood.

    And so when my grandmother says, “Ocean, there’s a  snake coming through the floorboards.” And you learn after a while just to hold her hand and say, “Which one? Which one are they?” You just enter her world. And to kind of accept what they’re painting for you, I learned much later, is actually the work of a reader.

    I was reading my grandmother, and what a great way to commit to a sense of love but to follow the sentence that they’re painting for you. And, I have really poor eyesight. So, in a way, a lot of my world is blurry. And her schizophrenia clarified it for me. You know, she said, “Well, this is what’s happening and we’re going to deal with it.” But that’s also the technology of the sentence because the sentence is a linear medium. It can have circumnavigating tangents as we can see in, you know, Proust or Wolfe. But at the end, you only get to the period by getting it one word at a time in this linear temporal reality.

    And I think when you say closeness, I think there’s something to that, because I write only by hand first. And so what I learned in this novel, for example, there was a scene when I was describing Lan’s fingernails. If I wrote that on the computer, I would just describe her fingernails and then her rough hands. The goal was just to describe her hands as rough. And the computer can achieve your goal. You know, it’s great for emails, ‘cause you just get it done and forget about it. But for me, when I do that, writing my work, just achieving the goal is not enough. There has to be a kind of embodiment. And so when I write by hand, I spend about 10 to 12 more seconds on the sentence. And when I was describing Lan’s hands, I realized I started to see other tangents. You’re just spending more time in that world. So if this 10 seconds is multiplied through the thousands of sentences of a novel, now one draft has hours more thought into it, just because you slowed down. And when I slowed down, I said, “Wait a minute, I’m seeing something else. Her fingernails should be perfectly pink with nail polish because that is now the sign of her daughter’s work of beauty. The masterful work of beauty applied to the mother.” Now I went from describing an object–a pair of hands–into an embedded relationship between character building.

    Mike Mills: To me, you open up a lot of your poems, because it’s that extenuation of time that invites all these ruptures, or you used the word “collisions” in that last poem, and I feel like there’s so much collision happening. Of perspective, of embodiment. I so appreciate the breadth you give… Like, your mother says, “Am I a monster?” And you say, “No you’re not,” but then you admit that you’re lying. But you meant to say being a monster is not such a bad thing, or how can one not be a monster and be fully alive with this history, with your life?

    How do you hold so much love, so much care, so much–what’s the word? Like, indebtedness? That’s a bad word, but she gave you so much. 

    Ocean Vuong: Reverence. 

    Mike Mills: I sense that all the time. And then also, she hit, she did other things. She had all sorts of violence to herself, to you, just so much going on, and you hold it, I find, so fully. Can you talk about that a little bit? Do you feel like you’re ever surviving your mom in your writing?

    Ocean Vuong: I hoped that was the case, but I don’t think so. I don’t know how much that I’ve healed from anything. I don’t know if writing can heal, but it gives us the tools so that we can rescue ourselves.

    I don’t think anyone saves us. But art making, thinking, the practice and the consideration of being fully engaged in the world without judging. I think we have a culture that judges way too quick. You ask someone, “Did you go see that movie?” “Ah, yeah. I like it/I don’t like it.” Right? So liking and liking becomes a way of trafficking in time. And what a boring way to live. 

    And so I think for me, when I enter my work, and even with relationships that come from my family, I’m not interested in finding a villain or a victim. We could be victims of many things, factually, victims of war, of abuse, but whether we live in victimhood or not is up to us. We get to make that decision. And I think for me, art making is a way for me to complicate things further by allowing the person to be fully present, even in their flaws. That’s the most human thing we can offer each other is the acceptance of our flaws. 

    And I think, as a writer, that’s the first thing I ask of characters and poems, is “How do I transform the facts into something that is completely blurry, completely amorphous to meaning?” That the person that should be this way from chapter one ends up being something completely different because that’s what everyone I know is. You talk to someone for an hour and you realize, oh, wait a minute. There’s so much more here.

    I had the great privilege of being photographed by one of my heroes recently, Nan Goldin. And something happened. We’re in St. Mark’s Poetry Project courtyard. It’s this legendary place of avant garde poetry and I was so privileged to be there and she was shooting me and she said something that I think will stay with me to the end of my life.

    And the light was coming through the trees in this beautiful way. And Nan was shooting with one cigarette in hand in this beautiful way. And at one moment she put the camera down and she said, “Ocean, everything I’m seeing is so beautiful right now. You’re so beautiful. The light is so beautiful. I wish the camera wasn’t in the way of this work.”

    It touched me so much because here’s a woman who has committed her whole life, and has gone through so much doubt and ridicule and disrespect and has triumphed with this gadget. And for her to sit before me and say, “I want to see more than what this allows. I’m privileging my vision over the medium that makes my vision manifest.”

    We turned from each other and just started weeping together. And there were, like, reporters standing around. And Nan, in such a beautiful, courageous way, we’re wiping our tears, her cigarette still blazing, she turns to them and says, “Don’t write about this.”

    And it was just so…I said, “I want to get to a place in my career where I can put down the camera.” Where I could put down the camera metaphorically, where I could put down the pen and say, “It’s not about how much I can make, but how I can make so that I can be satisfied with stopping meaningfully.” I don’t want to turn myself into a factory, but I want the practice of art to teach me how to be okay with just looking with everything down. I’m not there yet, but I hope I get there sooner than later. 

    Mike Mills: Yeah, wow. Should we have some questions now?

    Ocean Vuong: The lights. Oh my God. Oh my God. What? 

    Mike Mills: The spaceships! Yeah, I mean, I’m kind of glad I didn’t know you all were here too. 

    Audience Member 2: Quick question, Ocean. So I think my favorite poem of all time is Rumi’s “The Guest House,” and I think the “too long; didn’t read” of it is, you have to let in tough emotions and have a conversation with them.

    And you mentioned how you embrace your imposter syndrome and turn it into a positive, so if you could just speak quickly on how you deal with those discomforting emotions and turn it into a positive when you are writing your poems in your art.

    Ocean Vuong: I think for me, maybe because I grew up with elders who normalize their suffering as a way of revealing historical truths to their children…You know, it’s almost Shakespearean, the setup with my family, in that you have all women who kicked out all of the men who abused them in order to raise all sons. All my cousins are sons. 

    It’s almost like a fictive set up that all my aunts, my grandmothers, my own mother, they all had sons, seven of us. And when you see elders whose agency and power has been so denigrated and stripped away, the very English that traffics and becomes capital in this country is unavailable to them, you realize that they start to create their own mythologies as a way to garner agency and dignity and respect within a room of young men in a patriarchal world–and I’m talking both countries, Vietnam and America. 

    And so for me, we talk about autofiction, for example. Western criticism often creates a box that is formulated by whiteness, for whiteness, and then says, “Here’s autofiction.” Something that comes out of, say, the mid century, took off in the early aughts, and deals with some sort of autobiographical mundanity of the suburbs and the euphoria of being a person in modern culture, often set up by the sort of hallmark white writers participating in that. And then any writers of color who come in and talk about the self are then pushed into that narrow box and asked to be measured against something that’s actually quite alien to them.

    And so I’m interested, first and foremost as a literary scholar, of widening that. What is autofiction in relation to Saint Augustine’s Confessions? A most likely Black saint in North Africa, witnessing the fall of Rome. So for me, reading helped me sort of gain a wider rubric so that I could, in a way, be suspicious of whatever the canon is giving me as fact because literary epochs transition and change over time. If we ask Shakespeare, if he’s writing literature, he wouldn’t even know what literature was. If we ask Milton, “Are you writing a poem?” he would say, “No, Paradise Lost is me channeling God himself.” He’s a sort of medium. So when I looked at my elders, I said, “What were they doing in their attempt to use autobiographical facts with embellishment as a way to self-mythologize and garner dignity and respect in a household where that power is so shaky? What were they doing if not autofiction?” That their authorial presence was just as legitimate as J. D. Salinger’s or Sylvia Plath’s to me. And so I think for me, having them be my first storytellers taught me that the work of the writer is to look at all of humanity, to look closer. And it’s expensive work on the soul, but nobody forces me to do this. It’s not harder than working in the nail salon or coal mining, I know that. So I see this as a privilege. I see it as my duty to look even closer when I’m told to turn away.

    And I think I believe in Horace’s–the Roman poet’s–credo, where he says, “Nothing human is alien to me.” And I truly believe that. And I think it’s a privilege that I get to be awake. And this is a Buddhist perspective, right? Buddhists say that to have a human form, is as rare as a sea urchin making its way onto shore and entering a tiny hole in a tree. That’s how hard it is to get the human form, right? Most sentient beings are ants, are animals led to slaughter. They live horrible, difficult lives. But to have this form is so precious. I don’t want to waste this form looking at only the beautiful things. I want to use it to look at all of us. Because the darkness teaches me how to value the beauty. Beauty is nothing if it’s overwhelming. It has nothing in relation. There’s no relief, right? So the variation in human experience is what I think makes consciousness charged with a kind of diverse and discernible presence. And if nothing else, I hope that’s all my work is.

    I think your, your child said it best when you said they were describing your work and they described it as–

    Mike Mills: –”Oh no, life is happening.” That’s my genre. 

    Ocean Vuong: That’s the genre. You won’t find it in Cinemark, but I think it’s the one that I’m most interested in being. The emphasis is on the oh no.

    Mike Mills: Yeah. It’s in italics. 

    City Arts & Lectures: This question is up in the balcony. 

    Mike Mills: The balcony really feels like a ship up there. Of people. 

    Audience Member 3: Ahoy. 

    Mike Mills: Ahoy. 

    Audience Member 3: I just wanted to ask you, did you come into the world knowing that impatience causes blindness? How did you learn to go slow so that you could see more?

    Ocean Vuong: I just had a very slow operating system. I think, to be very accurate, I’m still operating on Windows 95. And, It’s been very difficult for most of my life. I can’t drive for that reason, there’s too many buttons. And I don’t know where the car ends, everything blurs.

    It’s too fast. And, if I have a good line in my head, someone could die. So, as a responsible citizen operating on Windows 95 I keep myself at home, but I think that’s memetic–me being overwhelmed by a car, even just being on the passenger side–is actually very memetic of how I am.

    And I think, if nothing else, I hope that we can recalibrate what progress means. Those of us who work slower, and who need time and space to think, being forgiving of yourself is really hard work. It’s a lifetime’s work because you don’t just do it once. It’s not a threshold like a door.

    And you say, “Oh, there’s, you know, cruelty and then forgiveness.” It’s actually a huge field. It’s a horizon. And the work of walking–and I prefer to walk slowly–towards that. Because you start to look over and you see someone like a Mike Mills along the way. And then you see friends along the way. And I’ll say, “Oh, okay. We’re seeing a lot of things on this journey together.” And you miss a lot when you drive too fast. 

    Mike Mills: More questions, I’m sure?  

    Audience Member 4: Hi, I kind of have two questions in one, but, you’d mentioned earlier that the poem that inspired you to become a poet, and I wanted to know what that is for you, as well as, how did you realize that you were going to be a poet in the modern vocational sense, and that poetry was the right medium or vessel for your work?

    Ocean Vuong: Great question. I never knew how to do this. No one told me, no one said “This is what you can be.” To be honest with you, I failed into this. I went to community college and as happens in community college–and I couldn’t drive then, so I rode my bike and after class my friends would say, “You know, if you want to ride home…” you know, because sometimes you ride your bike and there’s a blizzard or you can’t get home. They say, “Well, you want to ride home, come with us. But we got to stop at a punk show first.” And so to get rides, I would just end up in these punk shows in someone’s basement with like seven other people. And actually I felt really at home with that ethos of people just uttering their feelings and turning that into an instrument.

    And while I was there one day, there was a coffee table in this basement, and I picked it up and I was reading this poem. And it was from Arthur Rimbaud, “The Drunken Boat.” It was in rhyme quatrains. I was like, “Oh my God. Which band is he in? When are we going to see him? You know, this kid’s amazing. Who’s Arthur? I haven’t met an Arthur in my whole life.” And everyone laughed. 

    Rimbaud inspired Patti Smith and Jim Morrison. And everyone laughed and said, “No, no, he’s been dead 200 years.” And then I went to the library the next day at the community college. I went to the Dewey Decimal System in the French section, I found Rimbaud, looked at his photo and realized he was 17. His whole career went from 17 to 21. And I said,  “I don’t know what this is. I want to do this. I just want to do it, and whatever I have to do to take care of my family, I’ll do that, but I’ll do this on the side.” And so it was punk music and these outsiders, these social outsiders, they were also vegan, many of them were queer, I joined Food Not Bombs with them in Hartford, and so we were doing these things, and I was open to this whole other alternative art world through them. Eventually I said, “Okay, this is all good, but I have to take care of my family.” That whole immigrant first son guilt. So I went to business school at Pace University in New York. I studied international marketing and I lasted five weeks. 

    Mike Mills: That’s a long time. 

    Ocean Vuong: It’s a long time! I dropped out, I wasn’t cut out for it. Everyone came to class in suits. And they went off to internships at Chase Morgan, all these firms, and–

    Mike Mills: –That was how you were going to take care of your family. 

    Ocean Vuong: So, I dropped out, I couldn’t stomach it. I just couldn’t. I realized that marketing was lying for a corporation, and I thought, if I’m going to lie, I might as well be a poet and lie for myself. I’ll just lie for myself. And I left the building, I never signed out. I didn’t think I was not going to come back, but I walked–Pace University is right next to the Brooklyn Bridge–I walked across, I was thinking about Hart Crane and Whitman who wrote about this bridge, and I said, “My God, what am I going to do? I’m already a failure.” My mom is so proud to have a first son go to college, fall semester, Obama is a few months away from being elected. Everybody’s hopeful, everybody’s excited, and I am just ruining my life. I couldn’t return. I was so scared to return empty handed and tell her I failed, because she couldn’t even pronounce Pace University, but she had the brochure at her nail desk, and she would take it out to clients and say, “My son is in college. Look, my son’s going here.” And I had that thought, I got to Penn Station to go home and I just turned around and I said, “I can’t.” 

    So I started to couch surf with friends and I went into bars to read poems. In the back of a bar was where I learned how to write a pantoum. Before the open mic, you pay five dollars and somebody teaches a workshop in the back of the bar. Very similar to the punk musicians that I met in Hartford, in New York there were these spoken word, open mic kind of circuits. And they really took me in and anybody can sign up. You get five minutes on the mic and that’s yours. You can control the linear technology of the sentence. I was so enthralled by that. And eventually someone said, “You know, you can… Why don’t you just get an English degree?” And I was so outside of it. I didn’t even know. And I was like, “I can speak English pretty well.” I got, you know, defensive, and they said, “No, no, no. You can go to CUNY, which is very cheap, and you can study English, and you’re studying basically literature.”

    So I went to Brooklyn College, and I got there, and I said, “My goodness, how perfect. I can get a degree in literature, graduate, and tell my mother it’s a business degree.” Because she couldn’t read the degree anyway. And so I think my life as a poet began with failure and fraudulence. And, I’m still doing it. You know?

    Mike Mills: I sort of feel your mom around. What you deliver–to use a capitalistic metaphor, the product you deliver–is so much love and consciousness and connection with all of their love for you, in a funny way. So, that’s your “business.”

    Ocean Vuong: In a way, yeah. And when I realized I failed the other things, I didn’t want to fail this one. Again, imposter syndrome. 

    Mike Mills: “This one” being poetry?

    Ocean Vuong: Poetry and writing, yeah.  I said “This is it. This is the last shot at anything.” And I realized…When I went to visit my mother after I decided to be a poet, I’m seeing her and I’m saying, “Yeah, business school is going really well.” I saw her bend down at the nail desk. One after another. Her whole day her spine is just bent down.

    And I realized something when I was observing her and I said, “Oh, I now do the same thing.” I too, at the end of the day, go to my desk. And I put my body at the same position that I’ve been observing her do for the rest of her life. 

    Mike Mills: And you work with your hands. 

    Ocean Vuong: And I work with my hands. My whole family has put their head down, fed me, gave me a livelihood, gave me permission. There’s the stereotype of a tiger mom, my mother was never like that. She said, “Just do whatever you can to be happy, to be content.” And that freedom allowed me to stay in that position. And I realized she was the role model. I was in the same position. And they put their head down again and again and again, just so I can eventually put my head up.

    And I think in every immigrant family, you see the same narrative. The doctor, the writer, the politician, the star, the visible one, behind them is a trove of people who were putting their heads down, just so they can put their head up. And so, it’s really important, when I talk about my influences, to say that my elders are right up there in the pantheon with the writers I adore. There is no hierarchy. 

    Mike Mills: And that’s so felt. I feel like that was a beautiful place to end the night, with your mom’s words. What did she say about just… “Do what it takes to make yourself happy?” How did you say it?

    Ocean Vuong: I’ve already forgotten. But essentially, you have to choose your own life.

    And she told me, “You realize something with success as a refugee. That there’s so much support when there is support.” It’s not always, in families that sacrifice everything to come to another world. There’s not always that support. Sometimes, they put their ambition onto you: “You must be a doctor.”

    And I try to tell my students who have these families that they have to try to be a bit sympathetic to their elders because their measurement of ambition and safety is different than yours. And so, their understanding of safety and success is literally displaced. It’s from another time and space. It’s in this one. And so we get the privilege and luxury to do something else, but they didn’t. And so, in a way, the best way to realize their ambitions is to betray their dreams in order to realize their dreams. And that’s a very difficult thing. And so, you pursue your art or whatever it is you do–cooking, thinking, making pharmaceuticals, doctor–whatever your dream is, you feel their courage and their encouragement the whole time.

    And after a while you’re moving toward a horizon with their blessing and you start to realize you don’t hear them anymore. Where did they go? I was collecting all these shiny things and I want to turn around and show it to them. “Look, I did good with your sacrifice. Look at all these things I have to show you.” And you turn around and you realize that you’ve been sent on a boat. And you thought that they were all on that boat with you. But you turn around and you realize they were on the shore. And the horizon has engulfed them. And that suddenly becomes incredibly lonely. As children of refugees, as a writer of color, where you realize that as much as you’re trying to betray their dreams, to realize their dreams, they’ve also betrayed you, right?

    Mike Mills: Yeah, they didn’t tell you. 

    Ocean Vuong: They didn’t tell you that they weren’t going to be there but they knew the whole time. And then all you have after a while, you look across, you can’t look back. It’s unbearable to look back. And you realize that they’ve sent you this whole way. And you look laterally and you say, “Oh, there’s another little boat, with another little person who was also sent forth.” And so you recognize each other in this loneliness. So it becomes a kind of community. 

    If I may, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to just end with a song. 

    Mike Mills: Oh, please.

    Ocean Vuong: I’m no singer, so I apologize ahead of time. But I grew up, among other things, in what we now call the opioid epidemic.

    It started in Stamford, Connecticut, with Purdue and the Sackler family. And so we felt the first impacts of it before politicians talked about it. Before it was a term. Before we knew what it was. And it was kind of this brutal, silent, immediate slaughter. Teachers were dying overnight.

    This is the early aughts, 2004 and 2005. And, I lost so many friends from that. And, you know, they would overdose, you didn’t know what overdosing was, you didn’t know what a narcan was, and they would be dropped in the back of their homes, stone cold. And the families were so ashamed that their child was a quote unquote “junkie” that there were no wakes, no obituaries. And soon these families who lose children would move out of town. This is before social media, before the iPhone, so you imagine the sensation of literally having a friend vanish, not a trace of them, not a photo, after a while you think, Were they even real?

    And after a while we gathered at graveyards without gravestones. And we would be at other people’s gravestones to perform our own wakes for them, you know. So it’s kind of this strange displacement of grief and we’re kind of grieving a beautiful child that just died on a 300 year old gravestone. And there was a song, this Appalachian hymn that was repeated again and again. And it’s just been staying with me all through these years that a song from the hollers of West Virginia, which experienced its own version of this crisis, lands in Connecticut, and here I am, a Vietnamese refugee, enthralled by the power, the ancient power of the word.

    So, if you just indulge me, I’d like to sign off the night with this song.


    Bright morning stars are rising
    Bright morning stars are rising
    Bright morning stars are rising
    Day is a’breaking
    In my soul

    Oh, where are our dear mothers?
    Oh, where are our dear mothers?
    They have gone up to heaven shouting
    Day is a’breaking in my soul
    Day is a’breaking in my soul.

    Thank you. 

    Transcribed by Gabriel Hawkins