Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire, But all these in their pregnant causes mixt Confus'dly, and which thus must ever fight, Unless th' Almighty Maker them ordain His dark materials to create more Worlds
—Paradise Lost, Book 2, lines 912-916
Much has been said, all deserved, about the lyric and character of poet, Ocean Vuong. In 2013, Monkeybicycle called his chapbook, No (2013), published by YesYes Books, “absolutely gorgeous,” a haunting collection of poetry that reminds its readers of “lives [they] haven’t yet lived.” Amy King, of the Boston Review, said in 2014 that Vuong “distills ideas” which we, in turn, steep inside; she identifies Ocean’s work as bodily, at once both “life force [and] also decay,” “elements in motion that are not-us.”
Ocean himself is part quietude and a low humming frenzy, and his poetry reflects this seeming paradox: Zukofsky’s tuned “image holding in the line,” what William Carlos Williams called a “small machine made of words,” yet where objects of sound and language are basically organs pumping bloody feeling and music into the reader’s senses. If poems are bodies, Ocean’s make you surge for something. And yet I started with Milton for a reason: Ocean’s poetry also resists and defies category in that it both feels underived and also hyper-specialized, prime movers with knife-edge specificity. Is there a surgeon-god?
I first encountered Ocean’s poetry—and Ocean himself—at the first annual LitHop PDX. LitHop, like, say, LitQuake in San Francisco, is a Portland-based event featuring a whirlwind of readings, where publishers or reading series partner up with different city venues and organize an evening’s literary-themed program, and where attendees “hop” from coffee shop to coffee shop, bar to bar, listening to their favorite writers read. One of my acquaintances, Coon, wanted to hear the gay Vietnamese poet (something, in large part, Portland lacks). Phillip and Jenny, BACKWORDS Blog’s curators and my compatriots with the Press, were sitting beside me, too. It is fitting we all first heard him together.
I was floored. I bought his chapbook, No, immediately. I picked up Burnings (2010), done by Sibling Rivalry Press, in a luck-buy right before they ran out for good. (I peeked on Amazon today, out of curiosity. You can find Burnings for about $999 new nowadays.) I devoured anything I could find from Ocean online, but it was me who was left feeling devoured: reading him was like having my body replaced, cell by cell, from the inside. I couldn’t get enough.
There is something even a little spiritual about Ocean the man. When we started corresponding, back in 2013, I was surprised by his generosity—despite a busy schedule, plenty of (again, deserved) critical acclaim, and my rather at-once-sparing-at-once-gushing affect. He signed every note with "onward, in every word," which had the odd effect, no doubt unknown to him, of pinging in me the tune of a Christian battle hymn; and there’s something special to me about that fact, having embraced my creative endeavors with the ardor I once held for god. Yet Ocean’s religion, if you can call it that, seems to be goodness as much as art. His religion takes the form of attention, of noting the fall of sparrows—yes, I pulled that from Scripture; and, no, I don’t mind the comparison (though Ocean might)—while other times taking the form of dignified social justice. Staircase Quarterly, this last year, published a kind of bibliographical sonnet from Ocean, entitled, “Best Online Poems From Women Poets of Color (2014),” which listed without fanfare fifteen poetesses working and writing around the world today. Ocean notes them quietly, yet unapologetically marked “Best,” letting his own publishing credits meld into the background so representation can do its thing. (It’s not a one-off, either: Ocean’s Tumblr is filled with lists like these.) Poets in the United States, especially young poets, are not often known for their commitment to social justice, yet Ocean might be.
I chose to reach out to Ocean partly because I could think of no one I’d rather ask, no one I’d be prouder to publish. But I also asked Ocean because I respect an artist who is an equally damned good human. The union of these two qualities is rare indeed.
Here’s hoping that, if Ocean Vuong believes in what we’re doing at BACKWORDS Press enough to share his work with us, others will find it as valuable. Please look for Ocean’s poem, “Untitled,” released in BACKWORDS Press’s first issue on April 29.
Matthew D. Kulisch
Ocean Vuong is the author of Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016). A 2014 Ruth Lilly fellow, he has received honors from Kundiman, Poets House, The Civitella Ranieri Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, The Academy of American Poets, and a 2014 Pushcart Prize. His poems appear in the New Yorker, Poetry, The Nation, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, Best New Poets 2014, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the 2012 Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. He lives in New York City.