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Literature

TS Eliot prize goes to Vietnam-born US poet for debut collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds

Two years after Hong Kong-born Sarah Howe became first poet to win the prize with debut collection, Ocean Vuong repeats the feat; at a London ceremony, the chairman of judges hails ‘the definitive arrival of a significant voice’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 9:55am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 1:03pm

After becoming the first literate person in his family and a prize-winning poet festooned with awards, Vietnam-born Ocean Vuong has now won perhaps his most prestigious accolade yet for his debut collection: the TS Eliot prize.

Reflecting on the aftermath of war over three generations, the collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, has already landed 29-year-old Vuong the Forward prize for best first collection, as well as the Whiting and the Thom Gunn awards.

I’m always trying to look for words inside words. It’s so beautiful to me that the word laughter is inside slaughter
Ocean Vuong

The book has also been critically acclaimed, with Observer critic Kate Kellaway describing it as “a conduit for a life in which violence and delicacy collide”, and The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani praising Vuong’s “tensile precision reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s work, combined with a Gerard Manley Hopkins-like appreciation for the sound and rhythms of words”.

Vuong is only the second debutant poet to win the TS Eliot prize, two years after Hong Kong-born Sarah Howe became the first, winning for Loop of Jade in 2016.

Ocean Vuong reads from Night Sky With Exit Wounds

Before announcing Vuong as the winner at a ceremony at the Wallace Collection in London on Monday, chair of judges Bill Herbert called Night Sky With Exit Wounds “a compellingly assured debut, the definitive arrival of a significant voice”.

“There is an incredible power in the story of this collection,” said Herbert. “There is a mystery at the heart of the book about generational karma, this migrant figure coming to terms with his relationship with his past, his relationship with his father and his relationship with his sexuality. All of that is borne out in some quite extraordinary imagery. The view of the world from this book is quite stunning.”

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Vuong was selected as the winner by judges Herbert, James Lasdun and Helen Mort from a 10-strong shortlist, which was initially criticised by some for its lack of diversity. Vuong was the only non-white poet listed, in a year when several poets of colour had been nominated for and won other big poetry prizes.

Born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vuong spent a year in a refugee camp as a baby and migrated to America when he was two years old, where he was raised by his mother, grandmother and aunt. Two aspects of Vuong’s life – his sexuality and the absence of his father – recur in his work, with several poems evoking Greek myth to explore the roles of fathers and sons.

“Western mythology is so charged with the father,” he told The Guardian in 2017. “Personally, I’m always asking who’s my father. Like Homer, I felt I’d better make it up.”

Vuong, who now lives in the US state of Massachusetts and works as an assistant professor in the Master of Fine Arts programme for poets and writers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, only gained a taste for poetry in his 20s. He initially put together Night Sky With Exit Wounds for a competition that promised personal rejection to all entrants.

“I said, ‘Oh my, a personal rejection. Maybe that’ll give me some tips and push me back out there with a better idea,’” Vuong has recalled – but he received a publishing deal instead.

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After winning the Forward prize, Vuong told The Guardian that he suspected dyslexia runs in his family, but felt it had positively affected his writing. “I think perhaps the disability helped me a bit, because I write very slowly and see words as objects. I’m always trying to look for words inside words. It’s so beautiful to me that the word laughter is inside slaughter.”

To mark the 25th anniversary of the prize, Vuong received £25,000 (US$34,500) – up from £20,000 last year – and will feature on a special UK postmark issued by Royal Mail.

Vuong joins a prestigious list of previous winners, including Don Paterson, Ted Hughes, Sharon Olds and Carol Ann Duffy, and will also be the first poet inducted into the new TS Eliot prize winners’ archive, which has been established to preserve the voices of winning poets online for posterity.

The prize was founded by the Poetry Book Society in 1993 and is now run by the TS Eliot Foundation.