Florence poet wins prestigious prize

  • Various editions of “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” a collection of poems by Ocean Vuong that has won multiple literary awards, are shown Nov. 14 in his Florence home. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

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    Various editions of "Night Sky With Exit Wounds," a collection of poems by Ocean Vuong that has won multiple literary awards, are displayed Nov. 14, 2017 in his Florence home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Published: 1/16/2018 11:56:53 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Poet and University of Massachusetts professor Ocean Vuong has won the T.S. Eliot Prize for his debut poetry collection.

Monday’s announcement makes Vuong, of Florence, only the second debut poet to win the prestigious award, which carries with it a 25,000-pound ($34,500) prize. Vuong won for his collection “Night Sky with Exit Wounds,” which has received widespread critical acclaim and has also won the Forward Prize, the Whiting and the Thom Gunn awards.

“‘Night Sky With Exit Wounds’ deals with the aftermath of war and migration over three generations,” judges chairman Bill Herbert, who chose Vuong, said of the winning book. “It is a compellingly assured debut, the definitive arrival of a significant voice.”

Vuong, 29, was born in Saigon, and his family immigrated to the United States as refugees when he was 2 years old. He grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, and although he didn’t learn to read English completely until he was 11, he previously told the Gazette that when he did, “I lost myself in books. It was my escape.”

Vuong, who was in the United Kingdom to receive the prize, was unable to speak with the Gazette. In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday, he was asked about the broad range of influences and references in his book, everything from the Vietnam War to classical literature and modern painting.

“I think that the idea of fragmentation and brokenness often has negative connotations, but I think, myself as an artist, I would be sort of a collagist in that we take broken pieces, we take shards left over from the debris of history, and we can put it together to make something whole and something new,” he said. “And in that sense I think of myself as a junkyard artist.”

After earning a master’s degree in 2016 from New York University, where he also taught creative writing, Vuong and his partner, Peter Bienkowski, moved to Northampton when Vuong accepted a job in the MFA program for poets and writers at UMass.

“I’m so happy to be here,” Vuong said in November. “(The program) is really great, and (the Valley) is a beautiful place not only to live, but now I get a chance to contribute and expand and collaborate in the intellectual culture.”

His intellectual and artistic contributions have earned Vuong international recognition; his book has been translated into Italian, French and Swedish, and soon in Spanish, Czech, Norwegian, German and Portuguese, according to his website. Vuong’s writing has also been featured everywhere from The New Yorker to American Poetry Review, which gave him its Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets.

In winning the T.S. Eliot Prize, Vuong joins impressive company. Previous winners of the award include Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, former MacArthur and Guggenheim fellow Anne Carson and Carol Ann Duffy, who was the first woman, Scot and openly gay poet to be named as Britain’s Poet Laureate.

As for his next chapter, Vuong previously told the Gazette that he’s currently working on a novel.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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