Ocean Vuong

Hailed by BuzzFeed Books as one of “32 Essential Asian American Writers,” Ocean Vuong is a biographer of violence, dislocation, and an immigrant, queer America that carries trauma from other lands, still breathing. Vuong’s debut collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon, 2016), was named by the New York Times as a Top 10 Book of 2016, and garnered a slew of honors: a Whiting Award, a Thom Gunn Award, the Lambda Literary Prize, finalist for Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award.

Vuong’s poems are whispered prayers of the body that seek a pathway out of trauma in intimacy. He was described by The New York Times as a poet who “captures specific moments in time with both photographic clarity and a sense of the evanescence of all earthly things,” whose work possesses “a tensile precision reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s work, combined with a Gerard Manley Hopkins-like appreciation for the sound and rhythms of words. Vuong was born on a rice farm outside Saigon, and spent a year in a refugee camp in the Philippines before moving, at age two, to Hartford, CT. He was influenced by the Vietnamese oral poetic tradition he grew up with, and calls the ear “his first instrument,” as he internalized the stories and poems his family “carries… inside their bodies.” Reading his poems, writes Daniel Wenger of the New Yorker is like “watching a fish move” through the “currents of English with muscled intuition.”

The poems in Vuong’s blazing debut are searingly metaphysical in their treatment of time, the body, and identity, at once uncovering and resurfacing histories that are interwoven with the present. His Whiting Award citation notes how the poems “unflinchingly face the legacies of violence and cultural displacement but… also assume a position of wonder before the world.” Speaking to the way Vuong’s personal archaeological work with identity moves beyond one body and speaks to the seemingly private anxieties we share, Li-Young Lee describes the collection as “a gift. . .a perfume…crushed and rendered of his heart and soul.”

In addition to the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Fellowship, Vuong is the recipient of fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the Lannan Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation. His poems have been featured in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, New Republic, The Village Voice, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. He has also published two chapbooks, Burnings (2010) and No (2013). He was also selected by Foreign Policy magazine as a one of 2016’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers, alongside Hillary Clinton, Ban Ki-Moon and Warsan Shire. Vuong holds an MFA from New York University, and in 2016 left New York for the Northampton area. This fall he became an Assistant Professor in the MFA Program at UMass Amherst.

Poetry Center Reading:

Spring 2018

Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong

After Frank O’Hara / After Roger Reeves

Ocean, don’t be afraid.
The end of the road is so far ahead
it is already behind us.
Don’t worry. Your father is only your father
until one of you forgets. Like how the spine
won’t remember its wings
no matter how many times our knees
kiss the pavement. Ocean,
are you listening? The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever
your mother’s shadow falls.
Here’s the house with childhood
whittled down to a single red tripwire.
Don’t worry. Just call it horizon
& you’ll never reach it.
Here’s today. Jump. I promise it’s not
a lifeboat. Here’s the man
whose arms are wide enough to gather
your leaving. & here the moment,
just after the lights go out, when you can still see
the faint torch between his legs.
How you use it again & again
to find your own hands.
You asked for a second chance
& are given a mouth to empty into.
Don’t be afraid, the gunfire
is only the sound of people
trying to live a little longer. Ocean. Ocean,
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world. Here’s
the room with everyone in it.
Your dead friends passing
through you like wind
through a wind chime. Here’s a desk
with the gimp leg & a brick
to make it last. Yes, here’s a room
so warm & blood-close,
I swear, you will wake—
& mistake these walls
for skin.

From NIGHT SKY WITH EXIT WOUNDS (Copper Canyon Press, 2016)

Because It’s Summer

you ride your bike to the park bruised
with 9pm the maples draped with plastic bags
shredded from days the cornfield
freshly razed & you’ve lied
about where you’re going you’re supposed
to be out with a woman you can’t find
a name for but he’s waiting
in the baseball field behind the dugout
flecked with newports torn condoms
he’s waiting with sticky palms & mint
on his breath a cheap haircut
& his sister’s levis
stench of piss rising from wet grass
it’s june after all & you’re young
until september he looks different
from his picture but it doesn’t matter
because you kissed your mother
on the cheek before coming
this far because the fly’s dark slit is enough
to speak through the zipper a thin scream
where you plant your mouth
to hear the sound of birds
hitting water snap of elastic
waistbands four hands quickening
into dozens: a swarm of want you wear
like a bridal veil but you don’t
deserve it: the boy
& his loneliness the boy who finds you
beautiful only because you’re not
a mirror because you don’t have
enough faces to abandon you’ve come
this far to be no one & it’s june
until morning you’re young until a pop song
plays in a dead kid’s room water spilling in
from every corner of summer & you want
to tell him it’s okay that the night is also a grave
we climb out of but he’s already fixing
his collar the cornfield a cruelty steaming
with manure you smear your neck with
lipstick you dress with shaky hands
you say thank you thank you thank you
because you haven’t learned the purpose
of forgive me because that’s what you say
when a stranger steps out of summer
& offers you another hour to live.

From NIGHT SKY WITH EXIT WOUNDS (Copper Canyon Press, 2016)

 

12 Gauge

after Newtown, CT

I don’t know the name of the white mare
swaying in early light, her mane tinged blue

with rain, but my mouth has found
the warmest vein beneath

her jaw—and so what
if my bones were hammered

into the shape of a man’s
regret. I’m only here to increase

the silence, despite music. And it’s hard
to pray with just one word

in the chamber—but I try. Like you,
I try, willing as the hand that holds me.

Like you, I thought I heard the thunder
of a world coming to its end.

It was only the sound of hooves
running nowhere.

First published by the Paris-American, 2013


Alumnae on the Cusp: MARNEY RATHBUN ’16, MEREDITH NNOKA ’14 & ABE LOUISE YOUNG ’99

Tuesday, February 20, 2018
7:30 pm, Alumnae House Conference Hall

MEREDITH NNOKA’s chapbook, A Hunger Called Music (C&R Press, 2016) is a verse history of Black music, from work songs to Motown-era Soul. Her poems have been featured in HEArt Online, Mandala Journal, Riding Light, and elsewhere. At Smith, Nnoka majored in Africana Studies and English and was a Poetry Concentrator. Originally from outside of Washington, D.C., she spent a year teaching English in France and is currently doing graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

MARNEY RATHBUN’s chapbook, I call my father by his name, was a winner of the 2016 Jubilat Makes A Chapbook competition. Her work can be seen in Reservoir Literary Journal and (b)OINK magazine. Rathbun majored in Africana Studies at Smith and was a Poetry Concentrator. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at New York University. 

ABE LOUISE YOUNG, one of the very first interns at the Poetry Center, is the author of two chapbooks, Ammonite (2008) and Heaven to Me (2016). Her poems and essays have appeared in Witness, Verse Daily, Narrative Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, and The Nation. Born in New Orleans, she holds an MA from Northwestern University and an MFA from the James Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin. She has led writing workshops in more than thirty states and worked on a wide variety of story-based social change projects.

Supported by the Program for the Study of Women & Gender


ELLEN DORÉ WATSON

Tuesday, March 6, 2018
7:30pm, Alumnae House Conference Hall

ELLEN DORE WATSON’s Dogged Hearts was pronounced “wild and delirious” by Gerald Stern. This reading celebrates the release of her fifth book, pray me stay eager. Praising Watson’s “drumming heart and hard-driving mind,” Alicia Ostriker declared that the language in this new collection “leaps, dives, soars, ricochets, lurches and reels, fusing the stubbornly instantaneous and the transcendent eternal.” Publishers Weekly notes: “Towards the end of her poem ‘Hermitage’ Watson writes, ‘This is not strictly a story’—and she’s right, it isn’t. These poems are musical meditations on what cannot be narrated, but must be prayed or sung.” Recipient of awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the NEA, Watson is also a noted translator, with over a dozen books from Brazilian Portuguese, including the poetry of Adélia Prado. In addition to poetry writing at Smith, Watson’s teaching includes the Colrain Manuscript Conference, the Drew University Low-Residency MFA program in Poetry and Translation, and a generative writing workshop in Northampton. She also serves as Poetry and Translation editor of The Massachusetts Review. While this marks her 19th and final year as director of the Poetry Center, she will stay on at Smith for several years as the Conkling Visiting Poet.  


OCEAN VUONG

Tuesday, March 27, 2018
7:30pm, Alumnae House Conference Hall

Born on a rice farm near Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, OCEAN VUONG came with family to live in Hartford as a toddler, and before turning thirty was hailed by BuzzFeed Books as one of “32 Essential Asian American Writers.” His blazing debut collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, has garnered a slew of honors, including a Whiting Award, the citation for which praises how these poems “unflinchingly face the legacies of violence and cultural displacement but…also assume a position of wonder before the world.” His poems are whispered prayers of the body that seek a pathway out of trauma through intimacy. Daniel Wenger writes in the New Yorker that reading his work is like “watching a fish move” through the “currents of English with muscled intuition.” As described by The New York Times, Vuong is a poet who “captures specific moments in time with both photographic clarity and a sense of the evanescence of all earthly things,” at once uncovering and resurfacing histories that are interwoven with the present. His poems have been featured in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, New Republic, and The Village Voice. Vuong was selected by Foreign Policy magazine as one of 2016’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers, alongside Hillary Clinton and Ban Ki-Moon. He holds an MFA from NYU, and recently joined the faculty of the MFA Program at UMass Amherst. 

Supported by the Lewis Global Studies Center


Five College POETRYFEST

Tuesday, April 3, 2018
7:30pm, Alumnae House Conference Hall

The 16th Annual Reading in celebration of poetry at Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts, featuring two students from each institution: Jonah Davis and Avery Farmer (Amherst); Lazuli Liu and Corrie Owens-Beauchesne (Hampshire); Bennett Sambrook and Becca Mullen (Mt. Holyoke); Janelle Tan and Savannah Tilley (Smith); Stacey Cusson and Cressida Richards (UMass)

Supported by Five Colleges, Inc.


MARIE HOWE and the High School Prize Winners

Tuesday, April 10, 2018
7:30pm, Weinstein Auditorium, Wright Hall

MARIE HOWE sees her work as an act of confession, conversation, prayer. She says simply, “Poetry is telling something to someone.” In the words of Stanley Kunitz, Howe’s “telling” is “luminous, intense, and eloquent, rooted in an abundant inner life.” Her work glows with light and lightness that bear heavy questions of existence. Alicia Ostriker considers her “among our most gifted poets of trauma and healing.” Part of the urgency and importance of Howe’s poetry stems from its rootedness in real life. Her latest book, Magdalene, transforms driving, watching television and cleaning kitchen counters into prayer and meditation on mortality. As Mary Magdalene becomes every woman, our contemporary anguish is set on surprisingly common ground with divine and metaphysical preoccupations. As Nick Flynn puts it, Howe “has always come as close as any poet since Rilke to touching eternity, simply by stretching out her hand and believing that something exists beyond her grasp, beyond her knowing.” Her bravery in laying bare the music of her own pain is part of its resonance. Howe served as the New York Poet Laureate from 2012-2014, and is the recipient of many distinguished awards, including fellowships from the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, the Academy of American Poets, and the Guggenheim Foundation. She teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and New York University. 

Supported by the Department of English Language & Literatures

 


FAVORITE POEM PROJECT READING

Tuesday, April 24, 2018
7:30 pm, Weinstein Auditorium, Wright Hall

The common thread that brings all of us together on Tuesday nights is simple: We. Love. Poems. We have favorite poems that we carry with us throughout our lives, poems to help us celebrate, grieve, and make sense of the world we share. Where do you, our audience, come in? We want to hear your favorites! Started by Robert Pinsky after he was named Poet Laureate in 1997, Favorite Poem Project readings have taken place across the U.S., giving communities a chance to share and hear the poems that enrich our lives. 

We are in search of readers for our Favorite Poem Project reading on April 24, 2018!

What’s your favorite poem—and why?

Send us a favorite poem and a few sentences about why it has special meaning for you!

Submissions open: February 15 – March 30. 
A dozen readers from across our audience will be chosen to read their favorite poem at Weinstein Auditorium at this celebration that draws our outstanding 20th season to a close; 
Readers will be chosen by early April.

Submit Here!


Marie Howe

Marie Howe sees her work as an act of confession, conversation, prayer. She says simply, “Poetry is telling something to someone.” According to the distinguished poet Stanley Kunitz, Howe’s “telling” is “luminous, intense, and eloquent, rooted in an abundant inner life.” Her work glows with light and lightness that bear heavy questions of existence. Alicia Ostriker considers her “among our most gifted poets of trauma and healing.”

Part of the urgency and importance of Howe’s poetry stems from its rootedness in real life. Her latest book, Magdalene, transforms driving, watching television and cleaning kitchen counters into prayer and meditation on mortality. As Mary Magdalene becomes every woman, our contemporary anguish is set on surprisingly common ground with divine and metaphysical preoccupations. As Nick Flynn puts it, Howe “has always come as close as any poet since Rilke to touching eternity, simply by stretching out her hand and believing that something exists beyond her grasp, beyond her knowing.”

Howe maintains that poetry “has the quality of a spell.” It is “incantatory,… as its roots can never wholly be pulled out from sacred ground.” Her language does not simply carry the unsayable—it seems to ask what it ought to do with the pain. Just ten minutes into her 1987 residence at the MacDowell Colony, Howe received a call from her brother John telling her that her mother had had a heart attack. Two years later, John died of AIDS, and What the Living Do is in large part an elegy to him, and was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the five best poetry collections published in 1997. Howe went on to co-edit In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic.

Howe’s poetry is intensely intimate, and her bravery in laying bare the music of her own pain is part of its resonance. She received the 2015 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, and served as the New York Poet Laureate from 2012-2014. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, AGNI, Ploughshares, Harvard Review, The American Poetry Review, among others. Kunitz selected Howe for a Lavan Younger Poets Prize from the American Academy of Poets, and poet and novelist Margaret Atwood named Howe’s first collection, The Good Thief, for the National Poetry Series. Recipient of fellowships from the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College and the Guggenheim Foundation, Howe teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and New York University.

Poetry Center Reading:

Spring 2004
(with Marie Ponsot)
Spring 2018 (with the High School Prize Winners)

How Many Times

No matter how many times I try I can’t stop my father
from walking into my sister’s room

and I can’t see any better, leaning from here to look
in his eyes. It’s dark in the hall

and everyone’s sleeping. This is the past
where everything is perfect already and nothing changes,

where the water glass falls to the bathroom floor
and bounces once before breaking.

Nothing. Not the small sound my sister makes, turning
over, not the thump of the dog’s tail

when he opens one eye to see him stumbling back to bed
still drunk, a little bewildered.

This is exactly as I knew it would be.
And if I whisper her name, hissing a warning,

I’ve been doing that for years now, and still the dog
startles and growls until he sees

it’s our father, and still the door opens, and she
makes that small oh turning over.

From THE GOOD THIEF (Persea Books, 1988)

Watching Television

I didn’t want to look at the huge white egg the mother spider dragged
along behind her, attached to her abdomen, held off the ground,

bigger than her own head-
and inside it: hundreds of baby spiders feeding off the nest,

and in what seemed like the next minute,
spinning their own webs quickly and crazily,

bumping into each other’s and breaking them, then mending
and moving over, and soon they got it right:

each in his or her own circle and running around it.
And then they slept,

each in the center of a glistening thing: a red dot in ether.

Last night the moon was as big as a house at the end of the street,
a white frame house, and rising,

and I thought of a room it was shining in, right then,
a room I might live in and can’t imagine yet.

And this morning, I thought of a place on the ocean where no one is,
no boat, no fish jumping,

just sunlight gleaming on the water, humps of water that hardly break.

I have argued bitterly with the man I love, and for two days
we haven’t spoken.

We argued about one thing, but it really was another.
I keep finding myself standing by the front windows looking out at the street

and the walk that leads to the front door of this building,
white, unbroken by footprints.

Anything I’ve ever tried to keep by force I’ve lost.

From WHAT THE LIVING DO (W.W. Norton, 1998)

The Last Time

The last time we had dinner together in a restaurant
with white tablecloths, he leaned forward

and took my two hands in his hands and said,
I’m going to die soon. I want you to know that.

And I said, I think I do know.
And he said, What surprises me is that you don’t.

And I said, I do. And he said, What?
And I said, Know that you’re going to die.

And he said, No, I mean know that you are.

From WHAT THE LIVING DO (W.W. Norton, 1998)


Abe Louise Young ’99

Abe Louise Young, ’99, was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. A Sophia Smith Scholar in Poetry and a dynamic presencehere on campus, Young was involved in the founding of the Poetry Center and served as assistant to its first director, Elizabeth Alexander. 

After leaving Smith, Young earned an M.A. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, taught writing at Loyola University in Chicago, and went on to complete an MFA at the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James Michener Fellow. She has published poems, essays, and reviews in many journals and anthologies. A gifted poet herself, Young is two-time winner of the Academy of American Poets Anne Bradstreet prize, as well as runner-up in the Ellen LaForge memorial Poetry Competition, and was awarded the Nell Altizer Prize in Poetry from Hawaii Review. She is author of a poetry two chapbooks, Ammonite (2008) and Heaven to Me (2016). Her poems and essays have appeared in Witness, Verse Daily, Narrative Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, and The Nation. Among her prizes are the 2017 Vilcek Prize from the Bellevue Literary Review for “Poem for a Friend Getting Lighter and Lighter,” selected by Kazim Ali and a Grolier Poetry Prize.

A self-described social change artist, Young has conducted writing workshops with diverse constituencies in more than 30 states, including residents of public housing and gifted high school students, and has won enthusiastic reviews for innovative teaching on the college level.

She has worked on a wide variety of story-based social change projects, including Jailhouse Stories: Voices of Pre-Trial Detention in Texas; Queer Youth Advice for Educators: How to Protect Your LGBTQ Students (Next Generation Press); and she created and directed Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History Project. Young has also worked as an oral history consultant for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Danish-American Dialogue for Human Rights, interviewing Holocaust rescuers whose stories were contributed to the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

Currently, Young serves as Executive Director of Education and Training at Texas CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children) and Co-Director of Prizer Arts & Letters, a center for socially engaged arts and literature in Austin, where she makes her home. During her 2018 visit to Smith, Young will also mount an interactive exhibit, Poet to Poet: A Friendship in Letters, in the Campus Center’s Nolen Art Lounge. This installation of intimate letters between Young and Alan Shefsky showcases outrageous verbal play, naked honesty and the process of two people becoming life-long confidants using words and art, in the 3,000 letters and ephemera they exchanged until Shefsky’s death from brain cancer in 2014. The exhibit also includes a wall of letter-writing prompts and stationary supplies and envelopes that invite visitors to write letters themselves.

Poetry Center Reading:

Fall 2007

Spring 2018

First sex

I am eleven in Gulfport, Mississippi, buried in sand.
Two girls squat & build a hill over my body, talk

without looking at me. I anticipate every handful
of sand before it drops. Joy twists my face

and I squint to conceal it. I feel like a glass
of frothy milk drained empty by a straw.

The sky rolls slow & a pelican flies over. The sound
of its brown wings flapping is like girls walking

in new stockings, thighs chafing.
My heart pounds in its dark cave. Sand falls,

soft rain. Tiny mites & broken shell
pad the length of my limbs. I feel my vulva:

hot, anchoring, my body being built here:
my pelvic bone, my thighs with their columns of muscle,

my almost-breasts, my collarbone, my hair spread out
in a fan behind my head, my feet ticklish, hands

pressed to my sides. Under the attention of girls,
their fingers grasping & measuring handfuls,

bringing heat to me. I surrender. I am an altar.
At the center, I lie in their touch entire. I lie there

until I forget, fall asleep, wake up alone with dry lips,
sunburnt face, the loud beat of ebbing waves.

I lie there in hunger and shame for ten years until
I rest under the weight of another female body

whose volume equals mine, whose bones float & balance
at the axis of my pelvis, whose breasts flatten against me,

whose skin radiates heat, who touches my toes
with roughened feet, who runs fingers over my ribs,

along my legs with a fine salty grain. I float
on the voices of girls, the sky filling my lungs; I float

touched & isolate until they are done, until they are
done, & want to do someone else.

Arrival

At twelve, I became an astronaut
reaching out with huge gloved hands
and red tunnel vision toward the moon.
The completely full moon, the whole moon
with no end in sight, round abandoned moon,
voluminous milky moon, powder keg, blind crater,
volcano, jumping with cows moon, moon without flag;
I was hungry for the whole cold, distant, unreliable moon, my
lost, longed-for, luscious, silk-lined moon, my unattainable,
faithful, private moon, moon without man, tidal, hovering,
mercurial, tender, trusted moon, menstrual, dream dial
moon; I lumbered toward it night after night in the puffy
white suit, hearing the roar of my own secret heavy
breathing, my eyes smarting, embarrassed and
failing until suddenly, floating, pulsing, unable 
to rest or breathe or land, in one movement
I reached out and found it:
a live breast in my hand.

From HEAVEN TO ME (Headmistress Press, 2016)

Make Us, Katrina

ppppppppppppSeptember 1, 2005

Earth yanks me to her mouth
O plantation-cracked patch     your oaks flip moss like long wigs

my city bleeds at the sacrum of the state
anxious panic          Lake Pontchartrain:         our flood is full

dirt can drink     remove our rocks and shelters
mud mother, hold us in your nest      a bed of stares, of useless keys

floating swampgrass     muskrat nest     plastics factory      pitcher plants
miles of spilled oil in the center of Chalmette

winds begin and clamor     forty thousand voices
the water the water

add essential oils to the river      cedar      longleaf pine       blackstar
add your hair to the history                hide

police suicide         hotel ants eat alphabet
whose ways are set?       haiku hep      rage hands ghostly, an identity

grow hurricanes inside a country with a gastric lock and key
Keep out rescue vehicles           Big Daddy

bodies swell in the gutter    blue light from a church window
falls on hands            Monique’s babies float downtown on a box spring

Carl saves a dog snagged on the barbed wire fence just
below the waterline on Broad        Anonymous drowning in jail cells

A black lab tries to feed Joe’s family on the roof
drags a deer from the floodwaters, hoof in jaws

Earth, please give me your metabolism to stratify time
give us our levees       and absorb our crimes

our Mississippi is a honey colored curve     an embryo      a bend
liquid quiet radiating crystals at the core

mother ocean was here        she gave her grief a name
superdome a crushed monument        lost chambered nautilus

curled inward       opening like a trumpet
and the drums begin       and the tambourines and trumpets

City in a handbag, centuries lost in a locket       land ammonite
do not do nothing with your boxes of mud    leaves    ovaries

lifetimes braided in place    see the bricks and remember which slave
families made them     pre-emancipation aprons

demolished homes and sodden wool       reconstitute the tribes
petroleum-sodden      cranes and golden nutria      black crows and

bottle caps     impatient, merciless, tender City    sit on the side
of the river      feed the wanderers brass keys

New Orleans is spread out over America in pockets of memory
everyone paddled    but        great-grandmother fell

please make us believe     change is half-possible

From AMMONITE (Magnolia Press Collective, 2008)