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Ocean Vuong's Brief But Spectacular take on grief and language


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Judy Woodruff: "Time Is a Mother" is Ocean Vuong's second collection of poems being released today. A winner of major literary prizes and a MacArthur fellowship, Vuong searches for life among the aftershocks of his mother's death.

Here, he shares his Brief But Spectacular take on reclaiming language for joy.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Ocean Vuong, Poet: When my mother passed in 2019, my whole life kind of contracted into two days.

And what I mean by that is that, when a loved one dies, you experience your life in just two days, today, when they are no longer here, and yesterday, the immense, vast yesterday, when they were here.

And so my life as I see it now is demarcated by one line, the yesterday, when my mother was with me, and now, when she is not.

I think you realize that, when you lose your mother, no matter how old you are, you are suddenly a child. You feel like an orphan. And so I went back to the blank page, which is the only safe space for me. It's the only space I have control over. And I guess I learned that by just putting one word after another.

The beauty is that we are all going to lose our parents. And, in this sense, death is the truest thing we have, because it is the one thing that we are all heading towards. And when language can lift the veil, we can see each other.

My mother never really understood my vocation and my work. She couldn't read. It perplexed her. Why would all these folks come to hear your sad poems, you know?


OCEAN VUONG: And -- but when she came to my readings, she started to see how my language landed in other people's bodies. And after a while, she started to position her seat to look at the audience.

And then she came to me one day and said: "I get it. People's faces change when they are listening to your lectures, to words."

My mother taught me that you can look at something and people and scenarios endlessly and still find something new. Just because you have seen it does not mean you have known it.

And so the vocation of the artist is to look at something with the faith that whatever you are seeing will keep giving meaning to you. And I think that patient looking was what she really gifted me, and it has to do with her sense of wonder.

We think of terms like refugee, immigrant, but more survivor. And we rarely think of wonder and awe. But I think, when it comes to families and being raised by folks who are survivors, they keep wonder and awe closest to their chests.

And I learned so much from my mother's joy in response to the world and the life she lived. And I think that informs my artistic practice.

My name is Ocean Vuong, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on reclaiming language to center wonder and joy.

Judy Woodruff: So moving.

And on our Web site, you can see our 2016 interview with Ocean Vuong, when he released his debut volume of poetry, "Night Sky With Exit Wounds." It pays tribute to his family's oral tradition and connection to the Vietnam War.

All that and more is at

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