Illustration of Ocean Vuong surrounded by words by Matt Huynh

Art by Matt Huynh/All Rights Reserved

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Dear friends,

More than twenty years ago, I was out for a meal with my friend Kevin. Kevin was my first *actual* gay friend. I’d had other friends who were trying not to be gay, but Kevin was out. 

We went to a restaurant, long closed now, frequented by a lot of gay clientele. The guy who was serving us seemed to imagine we were a couple. He chatted, spoke about what was on the menu that night, flirted deliciously with both of us, and — as we’d say now — sashayed away. I found myself laughing: partly because the waiter was so witty; partly because I was so nervous; partly out of internalized homophobia and some jealousy; partly out of feeling so unnerved at being out in a queer place. 

Kevin looked at me and said, He’s probably got enough shit to deal with without you giving him any more.

I’ve never forgotten it. Full of fear as I was, I was capable of being an agent of fear too. Kind and supportive as Kevin was, he was capable of telling me the truth. His words gave me a life to live into. 

The future is not in our hands, it’s in our mouths, Ocean Vuong says in this week’s re-airing of the conversation between him and Krista, On Being’s last in-person event before lockdown from March of 2020. Ocean Vuong is a poet of extraordinary capacity. His words are as tender as they are true. In this conversation, he speaks about the power of words to make or break a future. He highlights the tendency to use words of violence to praise conquest — you’ve killed it, nailed it; the power of storytelling passed down to him by his mother and aunt and grandmother; and the power of language to encapsulate the atrocities done in war. “No bombs = no family = no me. Yikes,” he wrote, in seven words narrating a line through history. Yikes indeed, he says when Krista quotes those words back to him. 

Language isn’t just what’s spoken. For Ocean Vuong, language can “begin and end in the body. Language is something we carry.” He describes learning how to read the language of the body when his mother commented on the standing ovation he’d gotten from old white people after one of his poetry readings. The next day he watched her in her nail salon, kneeling before old white people. In front of him: language, embodied. What we do, and how we do it, is language, too. 

This week’s episode of This Movie Changed Me has host Lily Percy in conversation with Emily VanDerWerff. They discuss Kay Cannon’s 2018 movie Blockers, a sex comedy, filled with strong language, crude jokes and — obvious to say in a sex comedy — lots of discussion about sex. It’s perhaps a strange movie to consider as one that changed a person’s life, but Emily VanDerWerff’s engagement with it is one that will stay with you, whether you’ve watched the movie or not. 

Blockers  — through its humor and sometimes tenderness — challenges binaries about gendered interactions with sex, about innocence and virginity, about parental relationships with adult children, all through the lens of a sex comedy. As Emily VanDerWerff says: “I think that the sex comedies that last, the ones that people really attach to, are not actually about sex. I think they’re about vulnerability. I think they’re about the intimacy that comes with being vulnerable.” 

In many ways, this conversation circles around art, and both the purpose and impact of art. This kind of movie is a depiction of the slightly quirky but nonetheless relatively idealized ways within which parents and their young adult children can negotiate the reality of sex in all of their lives. There are misunderstandings, mishaps and mistakes, but everything works out in the end. This was not the case either for Lily or Emily and both of them speak about how, when watching the movie, they found themselves thinking about the conversation — or lack of conversation — about sexuality and gender in their own families. Emily is a film and culture critic at Vox, and speaks brilliantly about how the art we create doesn’t have to have an established purpose. But just because art doesn’t require a purpose, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have impact. "How does the art we create, create the world we live in? I used to think, not at all. I increasingly am like, you know what? I came out because I saw a sex comedy at the right time. Anything can happen,” Emily says.

In the experience of language coming at us, in the declaring of necessary language, and even in the imagination of what language could have been for us, we see over and over again in this week’s episodes how, in Ocean Vuong’s words, the future is in our mouths. 

Friends, we wish you well, in all the languages of your lives. 

 

Beir bua, 

Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry Unbound


 


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This Week at The On Being Project


Our Latest Episode


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On Being with Krista Tippett

Ocean Vuong
"A Life Worthy of Our Breath"

The exquisite writer, with wisdom for the world we’ve entered — its heartbreak, its poetry, and its possibilities of both destroying and saving.

Listen on:
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This Movie Changed Me

Emily VanDerWerff
Blockers

How a sex comedy can be a profoundly personal and revelatory experience for our future and past selves.

Listen on:
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Spotify
Our Website

 


Event: Poetry Unbound Plus


Online event image: Poetry Unbound, March-June 2021, A Special

Invitation, a series convened by The On Being Project and Washington

National Cathedral

Last weekend we launched our first in a series of virtual gatherings in partnership with the Washington National Cathedral’s Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Pádraig spoke with Mary Karr about poems from her poetry sequence, “The Less Holy Bible,” from the 2018 collection, Tropic of Squalor. You can watch their conversation on our YouTube channel.

Upcoming “Poetry Unbound Plus” events include conversations with:

David Kinloch on Sunday, April 11, 2021

4:00 - 5:15 pm CST / 5:00 - 6:15 pm EST / 10:00 - 11:15 pm GMT 

Lorna Goodison on Sunday, May 2 , 2021

4:00 - 5:15 pm CST / 5:00 - 6:15 pm EST / 10:00 - 11:15 pm GMT 

Diane Glancy on Sunday, June 6, 2021

4:00 - 5:15 pm CST / 5:00 - 6:15 pm EST / 10:00 - 11:15 pm GMT 

Space is limited to create an intimate virtual gathering. To register, visit tix.cathedral.org and enter “OnBeing” (all one word) in the Special Access Code box below the general search bar, then click the “Add Code” button to access the event registration pages for each gathering. 

If you are unable to attend or register, recordings of all events will be accessible on The On Being Project’s YouTube channel in the days following each live conversation.

 

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