Ocean Vuong: What Makes a Poem Gay?

Poet Ocean Vuong joins our ongoing conversation about defining (or redefining) gay poetry.

Despite its simplicity and frankness, your question was a difficult one for me, and perhaps still is. When I first began writing, I guess you can say “seriously”, I told myself I would never be a “Gay” or even an “Asian” poet. I remember searching library databases for books of my favorite authors and finding them listed under subcategories like “Gay Fiction”, “Gay Poetry” etc…. I even found some of these labels on the very back of their books. Needless to say, I was worried. I feared that queer literature, like ethnic literature, was beginning to turn into an exotic commodity sold to straight or old white people looking to be more “cultured”. This of course, was when I was 18 and (more) naïve.

Since then my opinions have changed, and in this moment, I feel it is crucial to have a space where queer and ethnic literature can be discussed. I feel this is where we can address the stereotypes and breakdown the cultural walls in order to not only advance gay literature into a broader readership, but to also challenge the writers within our own Diaspora.

With that said, I am still weary of work being gay for the sake of being gay. Again, as we progress towards more proactive societal change, I feel the idea of sexuality as a commodity must be watched carefully. Nonetheless, a poem is gay when a gay reader can relate to it to some degree. That for me is the bottom line. It is naturally more difficult for those outside of the gay identity to know what is authentic. Therefore it is up to us as gay poets to create work that goes somewhere and does something with sexual identity and not just be mere substitutions of pronouns and sexual organs.

Although this is an important question, I often have to remind myself that the ultimate focus is the poem as a whole. Being a gay writer, I write about the experience I am most intimate with. However, sexuality is a mere vehicle towards the more crude and basic communication of emotion. For example, we can have a poem about gay subjects but those subjects should be employed to explore the more core feelings of love, loss, grief, joy, etc… If we use our gay experience in order to move towards a space where all people regardless of sexuality can identify with, then our work would be successful.
And perhaps we can arrive at a place where we no longer even have to ask this question. Just like how I can read a poem about straight love and be totally submerged and touched in it, I hope straight people can feel the same when reading my own work. Ultimately, I think the matter of sexuality, like all forms of identity, should not overshadow the way a poem affects us as human beings.


5 responses to “Ocean Vuong: What Makes a Poem Gay?

  1. jessiecarty

    two excellent quotes

    :Nonetheless, a poem is gay when a gay reader can relate to it to some degree.

    and Nonetheless, a poem is gay when a gay reader can relate to it to some degree.

  2. as a queer, i find the whole notion of gay lit to be limiting. there’s an assumption there that if it’s not labeled gay then it is by (un)definition straight lit. and of course there’s no such thing as straight lit, it’s just writing. it’s just human beings who write. for me, labels — whether based on sexuality, race, or faith — serve to accentuate “otherness”. and otherness is the root of many evils.

    ocean, you are one of the finest new poets i’ve heard in recent years. knowing that you are a gay poet doesn’t change that for me — either for better or for worse — at all.

    looking forward to hearing more from you at cornelia street!

  3. Pingback: this is a god-damned round up | Metazen

  4. Pingback: A Gay Review « Jessie Carty

  5. Pingback: Home » Archive » Ocean Vuong

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