Ocean Vuong Reading List – The New York Times

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I think I often feel alienated from the world and its varied interfaces, while thanks to the linear reliability of the sentence, I know exactly where I am, where I stand. I am more myself reading than I am myself, if that makes sense. I’m the kind of person who arrives early for lunch with two or three books “just in case”. For a long time, while living in New York, I even read while walking. What I considered then as a response to limitation (reading while walking was less stimulating, and therefore less anxiety-provoking) I can say, in retrospect, was a kind of “life hack”.

When I was in community college, a few friends were in punk rock bands and they introduced me to Arthur Rimbaud, who was and of course is very influential to musicians including Patti Smith, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, etc. One day while they were practicing, I picked up a worn copy of his poems from the back pocket and read the poems “The Drunken Boat” and “Phrases” and was just in awe. I thought if a 17-year-old peasant in the 19th century could do something like this, there’s a chance that I too could do something just as propelling, enlightening and courageous.

The next day, I ran to the small college library to consult all his works. Of course, it was organized via the Dewey decimal system, which meant I was immediately in the aisle of French literature. From there I found Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Camus, Barthes, Césaire, Glissant, and from there other parts of Europe as far as Lorca, Vallejo, Rilke, Benjamin, Arendt, Calvino. It was all coincidence via this arbitrary organizing principle, but because of that, my training as a writer started with European writers. I wouldn’t seriously read an American poet until a year or two later, when I found Yusef Komunyakaa on the shelves.

It took me a while to allow myself to engage deeply with Dickinson’s work. I say “allow” because I had this naïve, sophomoric view that because it was taught so often and so widely in elementary schools, the work would already be talked about, exhausted. It turned out to be a seriously mistaken view as soon as I read it. In fact, part of its vast power lies in its ability to use the universal possibility of the natural world – and even abstract objects like a loaded gun, a funeral car – to create powerful metaphorical interfaces from which the architects of syntax complicated philosophical and moral arguments, a perennial mode to the religious revivals of his mid-nineteenth century. Rereading Dickinson in this spirit helped me see the inexhaustible potential of a work when rendered through more nuanced historicizations. It ultimately helped me become a better teacher as well, which launched me into a deeper engagement with literary theory and hermeneutics.

Anne Carson, Quan Barry, Gwendolyn Brooks, Matsuo Basho, James Agee, Annie Dillard, Alejandro Zambra, James Baldwin, Fanny Howe, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, DH Lawrence, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Walker and Herman Melville – who, in the end of this life, wrote more lines of poetry than Whitman and Dickinson combined.


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