371: “A Sort of Chorus” (Ocean Vuong)

                “And one thing you learn as a poet writing a collection of poems is that every poem is a chance to recalibrate language for yourself […] I wanted every scene to have oscillations. So you have New England vernacular, you have essayistic, journalistic writing on butterflies and opioid facts. And I wanted it all. I didn’t want to blend them or have cohesion or evenness. I wanted all of them to be a sort of chorus sitting together.” -Ocean Vuong, discussing his book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

                This semester I’m working in UIUC’s Writers Workshop, which means I help different graduate and undergrad writers, one-on-one, for fifty minutes at a time. We talk about whatever they’re working on—job applications or dissertations or class assignments. We start at whatever stage they’re at: polishing a final draft or brainstorming or trimming back paragraphs. All that is to say, today I worked with a PhD candidate on an economics article, a masters candidate on a computer science article, an undergraduate putting together a story of their life up till now, and my friend, who I think has stumbled onto the first draft of her PhD dissertation. Six hours of meetings in all, and my mind is humming in a delightful and disorientating way.
                I think the disorientation is wonderful. Maybe it’s necessary. Walking out from my meetings, I started thinking about how my own language can insulate. They can help me follow the paths I’ve laid out, help me draw the lines I’m used to drawing on what I see. I’m not saying that’s wrong. Sometimes it’s quite nice. Then someone sits across from me quoting authors I’ve never heard on matters I’ve never considered, or someone spins around their Turkish laptop for me to type, and the comma isn’t where I’m expecting it to be. Today was tiring, as I expected it to be. I didn’t expect to spend so much time laughing with the writers who came in. We laughed while we tried to explain ourselves to each other, laughed as our understandings creased and bumped. And of course, to only think about these different individual’s disciplines would be to miss the point—I talked to people, each trying out the words they’d learned, each adjusting their language to see what was possible and what they wanted to say. I like when the cohesion pulls apart. There are so many melodies that we can’t sing with just one voice, melodies we can sing with a chorus.

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