Poets & Writers

BE BOLD

Ocean Vuong made his literary debut in April 2016 with Night Sky With Exit Wounds, a poetry collection that chronicles a family’s journey as refugees from Vietnam to America, where the poems’ young speaker grows up attuned to the turmoil of his family’s traumas while becoming aware of his sexual identity. Vuong’s meteoric rise in popularity was immediate, and so was the positive critical response to his lyrical voice.

In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani raved about “his ability to capture specific moments in time with both photographic clarity and a sense of the evanescence of all earthly things.” The book’s warm reception was accompanied by a number of prizes and honors from the Whiting Foundation (Whiting Award), the Lannan Foundation (Lannan Literary Fellowship), the T. S. Eliot Foundation (T. S. Eliot Prize), Publishing Triangle (Thom Gunn Award), Forward Arts Foundation (Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection), and others. The New York Times went on to name it one of the top ten books of 2016. All for a first book of poems by a relative newcomer to the literary scene.

Rather than follow it up with another book of poems, however, Vuong shifted gears and turned his attention to a different genre entirely—fiction, in the form of a novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, out in June from Penguin Press. The book centers around the strained relationship between a mother, who struggles with PTSD induced by memories of the Vietnam War and her abusive marriage, and her son, who is contending with his sexuality as he comes of age on the drug-ravaged streets of Hartford, Connecticut. I recently sat down with Vuong to discuss his path from poet to novelist, a story that begins with—as Vuong puts it—“a little gay kid from Hartford, who read in the library with his head down so that people didn’t know he was reading.”

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Peter Kaldheim
Age: Seventy. Residence: Lindenhurst, New York. Book: Idiot Wind (Canongate, August 2019), a memoir of the author’s journey from addiction to recovery while on the road from New York City to Portland, Oregon, and back again. Agent: David McCormick of