The authors muse on Wallace Stevens, American boyhood, and abandoning the present for the sake of fiction
Autobiography is fertile soil for Ocean Vuong, both in his poems and his extraordinary epistolary novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which is animated throughout by the spirit of his mother, and was a finalist for the 2020 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Vuong’s mother reappears in his latest collection of poems, Time Is a Mother, a moving act of resurrection in which we are invited to accompany her—like fellow passengers—on her journey as an immigrant from Vietnam to the US. There’s a ghostliness to Vuong’s elegies to the past—his rueful memories of trying to get closer to his father, the taste of Wonder Bread dipped in condensed milk, an inventory of his mother’s Amazon purchases over the course of a year.
One of Vuong’s literary heroes is the French writer Marguerite Duras, who returned frequently to her own coming-of-age story in Vietnam when it was French Indochina; she specialized in a tight, elliptical writing that you can detect in Vuong’s own style. The legendary queer novelist Edmund White is also a fan of Duras—he knew her briefly when he lived in Paris—but that is far from the only point of connection between these generation-bridging writers, who illuminate the particular way in which the best queer writing has always been rooted in direct experience.
If you’ve been lucky enough to meet White, you will know that over the course of his long life he has mentored and nurtured a community of young queer writers, frequently at dinners in the small, booklined New York apartment he shares with his husband, the writer Michael Carroll. Few authors have been as central in the literary life of their city as White, or as generous in using their platform to provide visibility for others. One of our most fearless queer writers, he has long mined his own history to create unflinching autofictions like his 1988 touchstone, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and its predecessor, A Boy’s Own Story, which recounts a young man’s life from childhood through adolescence. As those early books demonstrate, White was always a writer ahead of his time, less interested in the approbation of his peers than the approbation of history. His latest novel, A Previous Life, is a stunning warts-and-all confessional that cedes not an inch to White’s own ego, depicting the writer at his most wretched, needy, and vulnerable. Although a novel, it features “Edmund White” as a character haunting the memory of an aging Italian count in 2050, and is by turns a wickedly funny and deeply poignant meditation on aging, death, and posterity.
Aaron Hicklin: Time Is a Mother is the title of your new collection, Ocean. It’s not the first time your mother has figured in your work. Edmund’s mother, too, makes an appearance in a few of his books. Perhaps we can start with what ‘mother’ means to each of you.
Ocean Vuong: My first collection of poems was haunted by the mythical father. When you don’t have a flesh and form, you create out of the poem a kind of mythos. I think the impulse is as old as the epic poets. We look at the stars and we create a system of knowledge out of them. For this book of poems, I turned to my mother. I wanted to be a little subversive with the title. We often say, ‘Father Time stops for no one,’ but when I look at time and its capacity—its capaciousness—I think it’s more womb-like than anything else, that it gives birth to the present. We are nothing without time. And at least to this poet, time operates more like a mother. Of course, I think a lot of what I’m interested in is balancing my work between grit and grace, so there’s a cheeky sort of time is a motherfucker beneath all that.
Edmund White: My mother was an egomaniac who talked about herself constantly. It’s like she was a balloon filling herself with helium and she couldn’t stay afloat. It was really kind of sad. But in spite of all that, she was a very sweet, loving person, a good cook. And she was always working, like your mother, except not in a nail salon. I loved, by the way, how in your book you play on the word ‘sorry’—how everybody in the nail salon world has to say sorry. I’ve heard them do that. And I’ve had my toenails and my fingernails done, but I felt so guilty about it that I stopped going.
Ocean: Yeah, it’s sort of a paradox, because the labor is conducive to these symbols of bowing, right? So much of working on the hands and feet forces the worker’s face to be lowered. I actually found great kinship in that, because another labor of lowering one’s face is writing. When I stoop over the blank page I find myself closest to my mother, because it is the posture that has supposedly calcified her form throughout my childhood and my adulthood. But you know, we do need people to get their nails done, or else these women won’t be able to support households and writers and thinkers like myself. I’m alive because people wanted to be beautiful. And I think the older I get, the more I realize that they were artists too. It’s an artful work, what they’re doing.
Edmund: This is a dumb question, but how do you choose a subject for a poem? Or does it choose you?
Ocean: That’s not a dumb question at all. That’s the only question. I don’t write often. I think I’m more of a worrier, and that I got this from my mother. I watched my mother worry her whole life. Just getting ready to go to the DMV, she would prepare for weeks, and I think it has to do with being outside of English. So often we waited in the welfare line, you know. Poverty is waiting. You wait in rooms for hours. You sit there amongst other people in dire straits. And then you finally get called. And then you’re missing a form, and then you go home, and do it over again.
Edmund: I love the way you talk about the oxtail, how you resolved to not forget the word since your mother had to act out oxtail at the butcher, who would just laugh, and the humiliation of not knowing another language, but also the humor of it.
“We often say, ‘Father Time stops for no one,’ but when I look at time and its capacity—its capaciousness—I think it’s more womb-like than anything else, that it gives birth to the present. We are nothing without time.”
Ocean: The humiliation of charades, of acting that out. If you don’t have the words you use your body, and body language of course is a thing, but I saw how powerful English is in this country. I saw it even towards the end of my mother’s life in the hospital. When she would go in complaining of back pain, they gave her a heat pad. And when I came in and described her symptoms in full sentences, in my professorial way, all of a sudden she was given tests and scans, and then she was ushered to the oncology ward and they realized she had stage four breast cancer; it had metastasized to her bones.
Edmund: Was your first language Vietnamese or was it English?
Ocean: It was Vietnamese. Bless my ESL teachers. They worked so hard, but my earliest memory in engaging with the English language is perhaps learning the most important word: ‘the.’ I remember Ms. Callahan coming right up to my face, smelling her early morning coffee breath. She would literally spit in my face, saying, ‘Put your tongue on your teeth.’ And I would pronounce ‘the’ with a D, like ‘dog.’ It took me so, so long to finally pronounce ‘the.’ It reminds me how language is almost this other realm, it’s the third universe, if you will.
Edmund: You never fall into cliché in your writing. Is seeing the familiar through new eyes part of your method?
Ocean: Yeah, I think that’s what queerness teaches us. You’re looking at these boys, you know—if I go back to my childhood in New England, I realize that I see them in ways that their mothers will never know them, their fathers will never know them. And I realize, Wait a minute, there’s an inexhaustibility to the phenomenon of the world.
Edmund: I often think 14-year-old boys who are athletic are the most beautiful thing in the world. When you just look at someone who is totally beautiful—the gold hair on his nape, the muscles in his arms, the slight down on his lip—it is the height of human beauty. And if there weren’t gay men, nobody would know it.
Ocean: Right. And there’s so much of the emotional context of where they are in their lives that coils it and charges it with this eros. And I think it’s about frustration, because so much of boyhood, particularly teenagehood, is a perennial spring-ness—you’re expected to launch forth. And the problem with launching forth in 21st-century America is that often you launch right into death; either economic, spiritual, or pharmaceutical. I saw my generation wiped out from it, and they were wiped out way before we had these fancy terms like ‘opioid epidemic.’ It happened to us so early that I would have friends who would die overnight and their parents were so ashamed that they wouldn’t even hold wakes for them because they were deemed junkies. And meanwhile, we didn’t know that Purdue Pharma was literally killing us. What I found out was that the whole epidemic started with language or lack thereof. Purdue told their pharmaceutical marketers that doctors ask, ‘Is this addiction resistant?,’ instead of saying yes, which would be a lie, they were taught to say ‘uh-huh.’ [Edmund laughs] They say, ‘Is this resistant to addiction?’ ‘Uh-huh.’ ‘All right.’ ‘Well, we’ll send you a crate.’
Edmund: You know, I especially loved ‘Dear T,’ because in that poem, you really take death and language and alternate them with each other. Throughout the Bible, there are words that are about writing, about language, about ink, about paper, and then there’s so much about death. The two seem like great themes in your work.
Ocean: Absolutely. I think what we do, both you and I and others, is expensive on the soul—we’re trying to make something out of nothing. Even when we make fiction, we have to use memory: How do I describe a room? Well, let me see: What rooms have I been in? How do I salvage the rooms that I’ve been in to create a composition of one? And to remember is to forsake the present. You literally cost the present. Creating supplants the present. I wanted to make felt that act of taking what’s from the past and charging it with the perennial haunting that we live in. That’s a material cost that we endure. It’s not the hardest thing. It’s not coal mining or war, but I think there is a spiritual expense that happens when we sit in a room. I joke to my students that the image of me writing looks mostly like this [mimes staring into the sky; Edmund laughs]. Just frozen and my head is elsewhere. I’m no longer here.
Edmund: Flaubert said he spent a lot of time on the couch daydreaming, and he called it his ‘marinade.’ And I do an awful lot of that too. Trying to think up the next part of the plot.
Ocean: Yeah. And it’s more efficient [to marinade] rather than writing another draft before you know what’s going on. You realize that the mind can bring up an idea and cross it out much quicker.
Edmund: You always read these Paris Review interviews where people talk about writing for eight hours a day. Nobody alive ever wrote eight hours a day.
Ocean: It’s torture. I hate it. I hate writing, for the record. I think any writer that says they love it is lying.
Edmund: I think that’s true. One of your lines is, ‘Ben said you can do anything in a poem.’ And I think that you do everything in your poems. They’re all so varied and your strategies are so different.
Ocean: It’s restlessness, you know. I think, as a writer both of fiction and of poems, you look at the same themes from a different angle, the way you look at a sculpture. And everyone told me when I wrote my first book, ‘You wrote about Vietnam and immigration and queerness. Now what?’ As if I should just write about Mars afterwards. And I said, ‘Who’s to say that a book exhausts our obsessions?’ I look at your life and your work and you’ve been writing the same themes, but every book is so distinct, so different, so rich. Proust has already proven that. But I think the market and the corporate idea of a book tells us that this is it, this is the statement. And I wanted to keep wrestling my way out of that grip, if you will. I’m very stubborn in my disobedience.
Edmund: I think Trevor is one of your great characters. He’s so hot. He’s so sexy. He’s so tragic. He’s so fabulous. I love him.
Ocean: I kind of wanted him to have the frame of the traditional, recognizable, stereotypical American, rough-and-tumble agrarian icon. But I wanted to imbue him with a complexity. He has a quest for beauty, and I think that’s what I saw in these boys of my youth, and Trevor is a sort of Frankenstein of all of them. And despite their anxiety around displaying constant strength and conquest, they had aesthetics. I think that’s something that the narrow frames of masculinity have limited and, in a way, divested boys and men from the ability to appreciate beauty. And you’re right, Edmund, I think gay men have really rescued that.
“So much of boyhood, particularly teenagehood, is a perennial spring-ness—you’re expected to launch forth. And the problem with launching forth in 21st-century America is that often you launch right into death; either economic, spiritual, or pharmaceutical.”
Edmund: One more theory that I have about gays and fiction—it doesn’t apply to your generation so much, but it certainly did to mine—is that when you’re working in an office, you’re 22, it’s 1962, Stonewall’s still many years away, but you [of course still] want to talk about your life. You just have to code it. Your 6’2” blond boyfriend has to be a 5’2” blond girl, and the hard part is you have to remember all of your lies. My own theory about Proust is that lying was the foundation of his art—turning all the boys into girls, and remembering the lies.
Ocean: That’s what I feel of Wallace Stevens. And I might be in the minority, but when I look at his work—and then the autobiographical anecdotes, the very little that we have—of his wife being kind of exiled to the other wing of their Hartford apartment, and then his obsession with this Cuban man in Miami that he keeps writing to…
Edmund: Ramon Fernandez.
Ocean: Yeah. Yeah.
Edmund: In one poem, he even has a footnote saying, ‘I am not talking about the French fascist critic Ramon Fernandez, I’m talking about my own friend.’ I knew Fernandez’s son, and you’d be surprised how many fascists are still on the ground in Paris. I interviewed one guy for my Genet book who had a huge portrait of Hitler on his grand piano…
Ocean: Wow. I’m not surprised
Edmund: I was there to get the story. I didn’t criticize him.
Ocean: I wouldn’t either. I would probably just get my job done. That’s what I love about this anecdote of Joan Didion. She says she became such a good writer because, when she walks into an elevator, she disappears—she’s so small. I must have been 19 when I read that. And I thought, Now this is a superpower; to be small as a writer is to kind of disappear. Because I’ve always been sort of disappearing. But now I can disappear and watch people as they are. It coincided with what my mother told me. She said that the best thing to do is pretend to know nothing, and people will show you their hand.
Edmund: Well, thank God you’re not doing that today. You have such beautiful lines in these poems, like, ‘There is sunlight here, golden enough to take to the bank.’
Ocean: Harold Bloom, the critic, said that one of the markers of successful literary works is an inherent strangeness. And that surprised me for Bloom, because he’s often so conservative and canonical. But I think he’s absolutely right there, when he understood that what makes something indelible across time is its inherent strangeness and its obliqueness. I think that is what queerness is to me. It’s the unknown. I’m in this generation that was the last to grow up without this thing, this iPhone, and so much of my childhood was within the unknown, this analog world. And I think that making queerness more known is both very beautiful, and it works when we are represented and our rights are acknowledged in that way. And on the other hand, I don’t want our secrets to be fully exposed.
Edmund: I came out in the ’50s and I had a much older lover who was a heroin addict and a brilliant poet. And he would get mad at me for writing about gay life. He said, ‘Don’t let them know about it.’ My whole life has been built on making other people know about it, but I see the need for secrecy. I bet you admire James Schuyler, don’t you?
Ocean: Absolutely. Reading Schuyler, particularly his elegy to Frank O’Hara, showed me how patient you could be with the world around you—that the poem didn’t have to cover a ground like Whitman, who is about encompassing and collecting. And Schuyler gave me permission to be who I was most comfortable as, which is somebody staying at home. He just makes everything so crystalline, but there’s also plastic bags, there’s oatmeal and oranges. There’s his bad knees. For me, the best moments of a poem are the DNA of a selfhood pressed down in language. We have our distinct thumbprints, you and I, but how do we express the thumbprint of a personhood? Language does that. I think Schuyler showed me that it was okay to put all of myself into the work. But to be honest, I didn’t feel that until this collection. I didn’t feel like all of myself was in the other work.
Did you have that moment at all in your career where, when you got to a book, you said, ‘This is the book where I see all of myself in?’
Edmund: I have a book, Hotel de Dream, that’s about Stephen Crane, but I felt it was the most passionate book and the most formal, and that I’d never got that before or after.
Ocean: Wow. It’s so good to hear. I didn’t expect it to happen with the third book, but I think a lot of it has to do with my mother dying, because I always prided myself on being a very stubborn writer. I learned all the rules. Eliot said [something like], ‘Learn the tradition and then break it.’ So I was a very astute student. I learned the forms and then I broke them meaningfully, not just to be cool. But when she died, I realized that I had so many insecurities in my world I was trying to just keep on having a career to benefit and to nurture her and take care of her. After her death, I felt either there’s no point to all this, because everything I did was for her, or [that] I can finally write whatever I want and just follow pleasure as a North Star. I didn’t realize that was happening until she passed. And I thought, Oh my God, here I am, I’m having so much fun in my work. I felt so guilty, because the subject was so mournful, but I was able to just put all of myself into it, including my humor. My first concern feeling all this pleasure and joy in this writing is that this is it, this is the plateau—I’ve plateaued after three books, it’s all downhill from here. So, I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.
Grooming Takahashi Ashizawa. Photo Assistant Brandon English. Lighting Assistant Grayson Gunner. Production Assistant Michael Costain. Stylist Assistant Billy Kiessling. Tailor Victoria Yee Howe. Production Ms4 Production. Creative Advisors theCollectiveShift. Post Production Chroma Center. Special thanks to Kyle Dacuyan and The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church.