Digging Through Grief, Language, and Poetry with Ocean Vuong

Digging Through Grief, Language, and Poetry with Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong Portrait with Hand in Front of Face by Gioncarlo Valentine

In early April 2024, Ocean Vuong — poet, novelist, professor of creative writing at New York University, and the 2023–24 Avenali Chair in the Humanities — came to UC Berkeley. Sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities and held at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, the two-day event featured Vuong in conversation with UC Berkeley professor of English Cathy Park Hong and Professor of English and Townsend Center director Stephen Best.

Vuong also gave a poetry reading from his most recent book, Time Is a Mother (2023). The speakers described Vuong’s writing as everything from “a list of desires” to “an act of care.” My favorite image, however, was Vuong’s own description of poetry as “an act of digging.” 

When in conversation with Best, Vuong explained further: the reader, Vuong said, looks over the author’s shoulder, seeing the sweat “gleam on the nape of their neck” as they toil and metaphorically “dig” through the text in search of something — whether that be respite, meaning, or a particular affect. The author maintains an active role within the text; the unraveling of words and ideas mimics the motion of the author’s shovel breaking away at hard soil. Vuong expressed a desire for readers to approach his work in a similar way. Within this dynamic, the reader is more than just a witness; they get to participate in the search. As Vuong put it, “the right reader is the one who creates the text with you.” 

Written in the wake of his mother’s passing, the poems Vuong read from Time Is a Mother reflect his process of digging through grief. A personal favorite which he read, “Not Even This,” comes to the reader in the same way. There’s a narrative, but it’s loose. The poem begins by introducing the speaker, who is in the process of mourning. It ricochets from idea to idea, almost vignette-like, periodically settling on moments so fraught that the speaker’s anguish becomes palpable. The poem is not static in its message of grief, though — in its final turn, the speaker is reborn. The progression of the speaker’s grief from beginning to end encapsulates the ethos of the popular saying, “the only way out is through.” However, instead of locating the poem at the site of the “out,” Vuong depicts his speaker caught in the throes of the “through.”

Yet in-between the fragments of explicit grief lies evidence of Vuong grappling with themes beyond just mourning. Or rather, wrestling with these themes becomes essential to the processing of grief. He "digs" into the dynamics of language, genre, representation, and the Vietnamese-American experience  — themes that not only inform the poem but that came up repeatedly during the two-day event.

“Not Even This” displays a break from traditional genre expectations of the mourning poem. Within the piece, Vuong weaves in brief moments of linguistic levity that are in contrast with the heavy presence of grief, creating a subtle but ingenious tension. When talking with Best, Vuong likened the opening line of the poem — “Hey”  — to a kind of cruising. It's bold and loose, a refashioning of a colloquial greeting to inaugurate a poem about a son’s crippling grief. More than this, though, it’s a poetic decision that Vuong said would not have been possible to make a decade ago when he was writing his debut poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds (2016). Feeling an “obligation to form and genre” in order to prove himself as a young, non-white poet, as well as a responsibility to perform “salvage work” for his family and the Vietnamese community, Vuong shared that there were commitments which held him back as a writer. He described his debut collection as having “the right amount of craft to get out of the kitchen before it got too hot.” The casual “Hey” that opens “Not Even This” is a break from this fear: it's unorthodox, yet it signals that Vuong is experimenting with the genre expectations that dictate how death is meant to be written about. From the Lil Peep lyric reference (“the way Lil Peep says I’ll be back in the mornin’  when you know how it ends”) to the breathy repetition of “Ha” after select lines, this poem is evidence of Vuong going all in with language and tone experimentation.

Furthermore, Vuong’s attunement to the weight of language allows him to harness its malleability. He expands upon what is meant by the "weight of language" in a few lines from the poem:

In my language, the one I recall now only by closing my eyes, the word for 

love is Yêu.

And the word for weakness is Yếu.

How you say what you mean changes what you say.

Some call this prayer. I call it watch your mouth. 

Vuong meditates on how slight changes in tone can alter entire meanings, highlighting the irony that language is incredibly fickle yet also the principal form of human communication. He expanded upon this idea when talking with Best about his novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019). It’s an epistolary work, written as one long letter from a son to his illiterate mother. By nature of this basic formal premise, it is a novel that explores the failure of language to be an effective tool of communication. Referring to On Earth, Vuong shared with the audience that a conversation between two people is “so intimate yet so lonely,” and that within those intimate conversations, especially between a mother and her son, “there’s so much pressure on language to be understood.” Vuong explores this dynamic in “Not Even This” and many other works. 

Yet just as important as how language is expressed, Vuong explained, is how it is received. At one point, referring to On Earth, he told Hong, “I did not imply humor because it was too fraught to have a white audience laugh at my elders.” Vuong was aware that as a Vietnamese writer, the possibility of his tone being misconstrued was high. This realization, paired with the pressure he felt to “represent the Vietnamese diaspora,” meant that he understood the weight that bore down upon the capacity of his language to be received earnestly. This realization narrowed the leeway for linguistic experimentation. Even now, he said, he still reads reviews that call his work “autobiographical” despite his insistence that his work does not represent reality but is rather written with the “gesture of biography.” “As a racialized subject,” Vuong said, “I knew this would be inevitable.” 

Given the pressure society places upon authors of color to represent their communities, the topic of “representation” came up frequently during the event. Meditating on this within the poem, Vuong writes: 

Because everyone knows yellow pain, pressed into American letters, turns

to gold.

Our sorrow Midas-touched. Napalm with a rainbow after glow. 

I’m trying to be real but it costs too much. 

Writing in service to a particular community will always come with the dilemma of authenticity; to be authentic in Western society means to risk one’s experiences getting mined for capital. This is why Vuong does not replicate his family members’ lives within his work, but rather crafts “contextually-true but ultimately imaginative depictions.” Still, many reviewers label his work as “autobiographical” and pigeonhole him as a representative of the Vietnamese diaspora. It’s a subtle but important observation that exposes how often the media forces non-Western writers to operate within the confines of identity, and places the unfair weight of “representation” upon them and their work. When speaking about the dangers of championing “representation,” Vuong noted that representation tends to “eliminate presence.” When a single individual gets crowned for representing their community, this tends to promote the homogenization of experiences from said community. More stories are always better than a single story, or a single representation. 

While a good portion of the event focused on Vuong’s various reflections on past works (he has three books out with a fourth one on the way), it would be unjust not to mention all the ways Vuong looks towards the future. Or rather, it's Vuong’s ability to always face the future with hope that is admirable. Part of his future-oriented mindset seems to stem from his role as an educator. It was evident during the events just how deeply Vuong holds the responsibility of teaching, describing it at one point as “showing up to the ambition of creativity.” The notion of continuously “showing up” for one’s students — finding motivation and purpose through teaching — highlights how Vuong’s role as an educator factors into his view of the future. 

Part of what is so beautiful about the ending of “Not Even This” is that it ultimately rejects the allure of passivity. The middle of the poem represents a slow sinking into indifference: “My failure was that I got used to it. I looked at us, mangled under the TIME / photographer’s shadow, and stopped thinking, Get up, get up.” But the end, when the speaker whispers to his dead mother, “Rose, get out of there. / Your plants are dying,” ultimately embodies a rebound. “Enough is enough” Vuong writes; “I caved and decided it will be joy from now on.” Fearlessness snuffs out the flame of grief. When asked by Hong what “fearlessness” looks like going forward, Vuong acknowledged that the sacrifices his elders made during his childhood are the reason he gets to write today; and so, he responded, “I have no choice but to go all in.”

This is a mantra for writing, but it is also a mantra for living. Grief is quelled by making the active decision to live for a future. It’s a rejection of passive living. Sitting in BAMPFA’s Osher Theatre as Vuong read his poem out loud, I heard his shovel hit rock bottom — and it was triumphant.