On March 7, poet and essayist Ocean Vuong gave a reading in the Katie Murphy Amphitheatre at FIT. His debut collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, won a Whiting Award, among other prizes, and was named by book reviewer Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times as one of the ten best books of 2016.
“I feel in many senses among kin,” Vuong said before reading five poems from his book. “Like fashion, poetry is the attempt to express oneself through problem-solving. Clothing I think of as the articulation of the self. The fabric is speaking in conjunction with the body.”
“Seventh Circle of Earth,” a reference to the circle of Dante’s Inferno in which the Sodomites burn, is a poem told from the perspective of a Dallas gay couple burned to death in 2011. (“Speak— / until your voice is nothing / but the crackle / of charred // bones.”) Vuong explained that “Seventh Circle of Earth” is written entirely in footnotes—the verses are blank—to acknowledge the erasure of the voices of the two men, but that “one does not need to be whole in order to have a life worthy of art and literature.”
Vuong was born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in 1988 and immigrated to the United States in 1990. His parents’ education was cut off by the Vietnam War, and he was the first in his immediate family who learned to read. He talked about how liberating it was to find his voice through language, and the importance of telling the stories of those who cannot tell their own.
“I see the cost of what silence can do, and how much effort there is to silence us,” he said. “The need to articulate becomes stronger than the fear.”
The event was organized by Amy Lemmon, professor and chair of English and Communication Studies in the School of Liberal Arts.