Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, Nishat Ahmed reads work from Ocean Vuong and discusses immigrant identity, the connection between songwriting and writing poetry, and how it feels to come of age as a poet as part of the mid 00’s Tumblr scene.
Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose Ocean Vuong’s work to read for Lyric Essentials?
Nishat Ahmed: I’ll be honest and say that my tango with poetry wasn’t very book-based until I got into grad school. In fact, I came up in the slam/spoken word scene so a lot of the poets and poetry I loved was consumed and heard in person or via videos. A good chunk of what really got me writing and thinking of poems was also the Tumblr poetry scene in the 2010’s. I’m sure a lot of folks cringe at that slightly but I’ve come to realize that posting all my unedited drafts into the void of Tumblr trained me quite well for the slog of workshop life. All this to say that Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds was the first full collection of poetry I ever read, and it struck me so greatly because I got to sit with a poet through a whole journey, not just a few snippets. I really think it’s one thing to sit with a poet for a few poems and another to sit with them through pages and pages of their work. I imagine it’s the difference between a ten minute chat with the person waiting behind you in line versus getting to know your seatmate on an ocean-crossing flight. Beyond Vuong’s work opening my eyes to the world of the page in a new way, I think it’s also safe to say no one comes back the same after reading this collection. Of course all poetry is daring, but there is a kind of edge the Vuong brings to the page that makes you lean in that extra little bit while you’re reading his work.
EH: Do you have any personal connection to the collection that you selected poems to read from, Night Sky with Exit Wounds?
NA: I think there are two real connections and the first is that despite some of the horrors and traumas occurring in Night Sky, these are poems about love—the absence of it, the glory of it, the pining for it, etc. etc.—and to me that’s the ultimate force in the universe. A lot of the work I write (and enjoy) is dark and hurting but at the core of it, it stems from a desire to explore and glorify devotion.
The second comes directly from his poem “Notebook Fragments” where he writes:
“An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me.”
While the history of my lineage isn’t the exact same, my people are of Bangladesh and that country came into existence as a result of deep violences and horrors, but the country was born nonetheless. I think a lot about those lines and how we children of those countries and those people carry that memory of violence and pain in our language, our culture, and our bodies. Without doubt that’s a big part of what draws me to this book again and again, how it faces these truths and the complicated fallout.
EH: How does the relationship between your identity as a poet and your identity as a musician play into your creative work?
NA: I think they’re just about intertwined! (I do want to note that I only write lyrics and sing in my band, I don’t play any instruments so I wouldn’t call myself a musician, especially so as not to offend talented folks who can indeed play an instrument!) If it weren’t for Fall Out Boy getting me into writing lyrics when I was younger (shoutout to the GOAT), I don’t think I’d be here today. I’m obsessed with sound, from the sounds of crickets and power lines to more specifically the way how sound operates in language and in poems. When I’m not writing poems, I’m writing lyrics; sometimes, I double-dip. What’s cool about getting to write songs with my band is that I am always in the practice of learning how my words work with something backing them and without; furthermore, it’s an extra muscle I get to train in terms of rhyme schemes and meter. But at the end of it all, it comes back to how much I love getting to play with sound. Silence freaks me out; I’m not about it!
EH: Lastly, is there anything you are currently working on that you’d like to share with our readers?
NA: Oh gosh, you’re asking a Gemini to share what they’re working on? Don’t threaten me with
the best a good time!
As aforementioned, I sing and write the words for indie-rock band, Ocean Glass. You can find us on Facebook at facebook.com/oceanglassband or spin our latest full-length on Spotify (we’re also on Apple Music if that’s your jam).
Every Wednesday night at 7:30PM CST I host a live poetry reading on Instagram called “The Weekly B.O.P” (Bits of Poetry) where I share poems I’m feelin’ that week and I have some amazing guests on there! Caroline Earleywine was actually one of my guests earlier this month! You can follow that account on IG via @theweeklybop for GREAT poetic content and conversation!
If what I said earlier about sound intrigued you or maybe you’re interested in figuring out how to ask better questions in and of your poems, I’m teaching two online classes via The Muse Writers Center. The two classes I’m teaching are called “How to ask Questions in Poems” and “Unlocking Sounds in Poetics.” If you’d like to sign up, you can do so here!Okay last one, I promise! I recently had my debut chapbook, Field Guide for End Days come out and I’m really proud of this book. It’s a book all about the end of the world (how fitting now, right?) in some way, shape, or form and if you’d like to purchase it, I have copies for sale! Best way to reach me is by DMing on Twitter or IG — @thenishfish!
Ocean Vuong is a Vietnamese-American poet, editor, and novelist born in Saigon and raised in Hartford, Connecticut. He is best known for his debut book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which was named one of the top ten books of 2019, longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction, a finalist for the 2020 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal in Fiction, the 2019 Aspen Words Literacy Prize, and won the 2019 New England Book Award for Fiction. Vuong’s debut poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds (2014) won the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize. Vuong has also been the recipient of the 2014 Ruth Lilly/Sargent Rosenberg fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and a 2016 Whiting Award. He currently lives in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts and works on faculty in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Join Vuong for a free public lecture presented by the Visiting Arts Program of SAIC on October 5th.
Purchase Vuong’s best selling novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous from Penguin Random House.
Read this interview with Vuong in The Guardian.
Nishat Ahmed is a Bangladeshi-American residing in the Midwest. He’s an Illinois native with a deep love for Fall Out Boy, The Notebook and Chipotle. He received his MFA in poetry from Old Dominion University and currently is the Editor in Chief at UrbanMatter. His work has been published by Sobotka, Words Dance, The Mochila Review, Into the Void, The Academy of American Poets, The Tampa Review, Passages North and has been performed at TEDxUIUC and AWP. His first chapbook, “Field Guide for End Days” is available now from Finishing Line Press, and his second, “Brown Boy” is forthcoming in fall 2020 from Porkbelly Press.
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/