One of our six Pushcart nominations, Ocean Vuong’s “Self-Portrait with Exit Wounds,” has won a Pushcart Prize and will be featured in the next Pushcart anthology. The poem first appeared in ASSARACUS ISSUE 08. Congratulations, Ocean!
by Collin Kelley
In the summer of 2010, I had the amazing opportunity to guest lecture at Worcester College at Oxford University in the United Kingdom as part Georgia Tech’s Study Abroad Program. On my off day, I went with fellow teachers Karen Head and Colin Potts to see the Sally Mann exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery in London.
It was a retrospective of Mann’s most famous work: the controversial photographs of her children, the haunted Civil War battlefields and the corpses deteriorating at the “body farm” at the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center in Knoxville. Although I had seen many of the photographs before, something about seeing them in such large scale in the hushed rooms of that gallery revealed something about my own art. It was, literally, like a flashbulb going off in my mind.
Like Mann, I am a Southerner. The people and landscapes of her photography are mine, too. Standing in that gallery 4,000 miles from my home in Atlanta, I realized that the poems I had been writing for the past decade shared startling similarities to these photographs. When I returned to the states and began sifting through the work, I realized that each poem was a photograph – snapshots of my past growing up in the South. There were visits to battlefields, candy cigarettes, a trip to Knoxville, adultery, sex, death and a forgotten name check of Sally Mann on a fateful trip to Helen Keller’s childhood home in Tuscumbia, Alabama.
The poems in Render had been in search of an arc, a sequence, a framework to hang upon for years and they finally found it in an unlikely place. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that two Southerners happened to be in London at the same time, but I don’t believe in coincidences. While I was putting this manuscript together, I learned something else about Mann that most people don’t know – she’s also a poet. For me, that’s synchronicity.
The construction of Render is an homage to Mann – from the cover image taken by Colin Potts (another great bit of synchronicity) to the title poem dedicated to her indelible images. But a love of Mann or photography is not required to gain entry into these poems. If you grew up in the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s, there are references to great movies, music and events that shaped us growing up. Familial discord, sexual experimentation, love lost and found – that’s all here, too.
As Daniel Nathan Terry says in his wonderful blurb for Render: These poems are the photographs we never intend to take but somehow always find, years later, tucked into the shoebox of memory, fully developed in the darkness we so carefully keep.
My hope, as with all my work, is that you will see a bit of yourself in these poems. Go on. Open the box.
Less Fortunate Pirates: Poems from the First Year Without My Father by Bryan Borland is now available everywhere. Click HERE to purchase your SIGNED copy.
We’re pleased to announce the sixth of our six Pushcart Prize nominees: “Self-Portrait with Exit Wounds” by Ocean Vuong from Assaracus Issue 08. Congratulations, Ocean! Click HERE to read “Self-Portrait with Exit Wounds.”
Could you talk about the title?
I wrote that particular poem, the title poem, during a very productive period, one of those exciting times when it seems like new poems are constantly coming on. I remember that the title came first, and I also remember something my friend Ed Skoog said when he read the poem, which was that each line seemed like a great title for a poem. That was quite a compliment, I thought. Anyway, I was very excited about the title of that poem—I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant, but I loved where it took my imagination and the way it presented something paradoxically distasteful and enticing. And isn’t that the way desire sometimes feels?
How long did the book take to write?
My flippant answer is “too long,” but in some ways it’s true. The earliest poem in Butcher’s Sugar probably dates from 1992, and the most recent one is from 2009 or 2010, so about 18 years in all. I worked on it most intensively from about 2000 to 2003 or 2004. Right about then is when I started work on Motion Studies, which came out in 2011, and when I started seriously trying to create the manuscript that would become Butcher’s Sugar.
That’s a long time. Did your vision of the book change in any significant ways while you were working on it?
Yes, in huge ways. Some of the first poems I wrote that ended up in here, like “Queer Studies,” didn’t come out of a specific vision at all, but from exercises I was giving myself while learning to write formal verse. My first efforts in traditional forms felt very mannered to me, because I didn’t have any facility with the craft, and one consequence was that the tone of those poems was a little arch, a little knowing. Another was that, for whatever reason, I began for the first time writing poems that had identifiably gay content. I had written a great deal by then, enough to have most of the manuscript of my first book, but this shift was very unexpected and, in some ways, unsettling. It sounds so strange to say now, but at that time, even though I’d been out sexually since I was a teenager, I really didn’t want to be pegged as a gay poet. I was trying to emulate Stevens and Bishop and other American and European high Modernists, and also trying to avoid any sort of confessional mode, even though I loved Sexton and Plath. It was a lot to work through, personally and aesthetically. I wrote some awful but necessary poems, the effluvia of an artistic late adolescence. Years later, with Motion Studies, I had a sweetly awkward moment when I had to explain to my editor that yes, the male speaker of some of these poems has a husband.
There’s quite a cast of speakers in the book: figures from mythology, a couple of murderers, some nameless but creepy voices like the ones in “The Cheat” and “My Last Boyess.” Is it fair to ask if your personal voice is anywhere in the book?
Yes, that’s fair, and yes, my voice is definitely in the book. At the same time, I’m a little wary of saying this particular poem is “me” and this one isn’t. Much of this book was motivated by a love of the persona poem and dramatic monologue. I love the freedom of not being my autobiographical self in the moment of the poem, and I’m intrigued by the ways a seemingly autobiographical poem is actually a fiction. That’s why writing “Night Lesson: A Writing Assignment” was so much fun, because it gave me the chance to play with all of those registers: I’m myself and a self-referential persona masquerading as myself, and I’m the boy being referred to, and I’m “just a mouth in the dark.” But before I go further with this, may I ask you to clarify something about your question?
OK. Are you asking if my voice is also in the voices of the creeps in the book, the murderers and sexual monsters?
Well, since you’re putting it that way, yes, I am wondering about that.
OK, just wanted to make sure. And my very clear, definitive answer is no. I was drawn to some of those voices out of a desire to expose them, to bare them before the reader for what they are. I think “Eye-Fucking” is in fact a ‘confessional’ poem, and not only because Donald Aldrich—the gay-bashing killer who voices the poem—is confessing his crime, but because I am confessing and trying to come to grips with my horror and sadness. I remember feeling physically ill after I wrote that poem, but also like I’d done something necessary.
Thinking about voice again, I want to ask about style. On the one hand, there’s a range in the book: poems like “Sunday Afternoon” and “Priapic Murmurs in Middle Age” strive for a formal and lexical elegance; “Eye-Fucking” is nearly prose in its rhythm and texture; poems like “Elegy in a Men’s Room” and “Young Soldier Watching Hermes Sleeping after Sex” are blunt and terse. On the other hand, there does seem to be a default lyric register that many of the poems conform to. Maybe I’m making too much of this observation, but does it mean anything to you?
‘A default lyric register’—interesting. Yeah, I think that’s accurate. And yes, I did strive toward a deliberate flatness in some of the poems, which freed me to try out some unusual effects, almost like Sprechstimme. So those were instance in which I couldn’t ask a poem to ‘sing’ in the usual ways that we think of as beautiful. And in the poems that do strive for something more recognizably beautiful—what I think you’re referring to as my default register—I wanted there to be something missing, or something wrong. But maybe I’m the only one who can hear that.
Motion Studies explored ekphrasis, personal narrative, and large historical themes. Butcher’s Sugar seems like a more intimate world, sometimes even a closed one: it opens with “Narcissistic” and includes two poems with “hermetic” in their titles. What will your next book be like?
Well, I’ve been working on two projects, one of which deals with large historical themes and the other one set in a private, nightmare universe, so who knows?
Butcher’s Sugar is available directly from our online store.