We are happy to announce this year’s 2017 Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize will be judged by the author of the best-selling Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong. Winner of the Whiting Award, finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and a New York Times Top 10 Book of 2016, Vuong’s writings have been featured in The Atlantic, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. PN’s associate poetry editor Sarah Bates had the opportunity to pick his brain about poetry, surviving winter, and the state of 2017.
Sarah Bates: Is there something specific you look for in a poem? Or do you look for a poem to surprise you?
Ocean Vuong: There is nothing specific because, for me, a piece of writing is best when it privileges surprise, discovery, and excitement. To expect a singular enactment of any of these values is to limit what might be possible. So I’m open—but I will say that these things are rarely achieved without a strong ear for rhythms, cadences, and sonic pressures in the syntax. A well crafted, tight, musical, and somehow wild sentence helps achieve an idiosyncratic expression, and therefore a “voice.”
SB: What are you reading right now? Is there anything you’ve found yourself coming back to recently for inspiration, or maybe, just to get through winter?
OV: Right now, I’m reading Wendy Xu’s incredible new book Phrasis alongside my revisiting of Dante’s Inferno. Xu’s meditations on political and personal ruptures, enacted through a dissociated tone while employing a sharp and searing gaze, amplifies the effects political oppression has on one’s language—among other things. Likewise, Dante, moving through hell and naming names, performs an unearthing of corrupt systems that seem suddenly contemporary and urgent to how I feel right now as a citizen.
SB: If you had to give 2017 a title so far, what would it be?
OV: Don’t give up.