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Mini-Interview with Ocean Vuong, Judge for Slope Editions’ 17th Annual Book Prize

Slope had the chance to chat with Ocean Vuong, the judge for this year’s book prize, on a small handful of poetry topics we thought might be of interest to potential submitters. Check out Ocean’s answers below, and don't forget to submit to our book prize here.

Slope Editions: What do you consider a "poem"?

Ocean Vuong: Something that complicates the very questions that necessitate the text's creation.

SE: How do you start writing a poem? How do you know when a poem is "done"?

OV: I mostly start a poem in my head, language clanks in there, like a pennies in a can, I suppose--until rhythm and meaning collaborate into something that excites, terrifies, surprises. As for "doneness," I don't really know. I'm not sure I'm actually ever done with anything, let alone a poem. But sometimes I just let things go. Sometimes a poem is "done" not so much because I'm through with it, but because another poem, or scrap of language, has found its way in, saying "Look at me! Look at me! Do you know who I am? I'm you, but better!" Naturally, I drop everything and follow it--often to a dead end or, even more likely, a beautiful starless night of which I'm inside, surviving with emotional intensity while watching Netflix. C'est la guerre.

SE: Who are some writers you draw inspiration from?

OV: Lorca, Rimbaud, Kim Hyesoon, Ben Lerner, Wong May, Cathy Park Hong, Kayo Chingonyi, William Brewer, Natalie Diaz, Grace Paley, Eduardo C. Corral, Sally Wen Mao, Rosemarie Waldrop, Mary Ruefle, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Chen Chen, Jenny Offil, C.D. Wright, Linh Dinh, Etheridge Knight, Angel Nafis, Jean Valentine, Bei Dao, Zachary Schomburg, Morgan Parker, Solmaz Sharif, Rick Barot, Jaques J. Rancourt, Sandra Lim, Jenny Johnson, Wendy Xu. There's a poet named Mark Pajak from the UK whose work I love. His debut, Spitting Distance,  contains poems that work, for me, like little dark hallways you can wander in and lose yourself.

SE: What are you reading right now?

OV: Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America. It's wild. Also, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, which is also wild.

SE: How do you feel about the idea of a poetry book as an art object?

OV: I feel really good about that. That's a nice great thing, when we tend to fabrication and production, too, as art making.