Arthur Sze, Poet

Photo: Gloria Graham

Arthur Sze was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2012. He was born in New York City and educated at the University of California, Berkeley. Sze is the author of eight books of poetry, including The Ginkgo Light (2009), Quipu (2005), The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998 (1998), and Archipelago (1995).  He is also renowned as a translator of Chinese poetry, and released The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese (2001). Most recently, Sze edited the highly acclaimed anthology Chinese Writers on Writing (2010). Among his many awards are a Lannan Literary Award, an American Book Award, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award, and a Western States Book Award for Translation. From 1984 to 2006, Sze taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where he is Professor Emeritus. He lives in New Mexico with his wife, the poet Carol Moldaw, and their daughter.

Our two Poetry Editors spoke with Sze by phone.

Janice Ko Luo/José Hernandez Diaz: Can you describe a typical day in the life of Arthur Sze? In particular, what is your writing process? 

Arthur Sze: I’m not sure that I have a typical day, but it really works around my daughter who just started seventh grade. Ideally, if I can get up really early and write for an hour, sometimes on the weekends it’s longer, but during the school week if I can get an hour, then I can go back to work in my study for an hour, hour and a half, so basically I piece my writing time together. Then in the afternoon, if I can get an hour, that’s pretty great too. In terms of the actual writing process, my best work is first thing in the morning, and I basically do best when I don’t know where I’m going. If I make a mess of things, if I lose my way in order to find it, that’s better. If I think I know where the writing is heading, that’s usually a bad sign because I’m too much in control or there isn’t room for discovery.

JKL/JHD: What are you working on now?

AS:  I just completed a new manuscript of poems called Compass Rose and Copper Canyon is going to publish it in May or June of 2014. I’m excited about that manuscript. It’s five years of writing and the whole book ends on a colon, and there’s a blank page at the end. I’m excited about that. There’s a lot of directionality and searching through the manuscript, through the poems, of orienting in the world. There’s a lot of travel. And there’s a poem that has thirty one-line stanzas that is its own poem, but I broke it into unnamed sections, so there’s one line and two lines and then three and four, five and seven and nine…and so that poem is a through-line that runs through the book. The last poem in that manuscript is called “The Unfolding Center” and incidentally that just appeared in the latest issue of Kenyon Review. That’s the poem that ends on a colon, but I wrote that long poem in collaboration with Susan York, a visual artist here in Santa Fe.

Susan has created twenty-two large abstract drawings that go with my eleven poems and we’re in the process of looking for exhibits. We want to travel the show and have a book published that would include the poems with high-resolution images of the drawings. The drawings are about two feet wide by two and a half feet high, and the Santa Fe Art Institute wants to first exhibit the collaboration.  That will be in the fall of 2013. That’s something I’m working on, and then I’m also working on some new poems. I don’t know where those are going, but I’m just glad that some short new poems are coming to me.

JKL/JHD: And when you say that you don’t know where these poems are going, do you have these images for the poems in your head, or do you base them on life experiences that you jot down? How do you go about coming up with images and juxtapositions? 

…it’s a mystery where poems come from. Sometimes it’s a musical phrase…Sometimes it’s something I overhear, or something I see.  It could be images.

AS: I would say both suggestions that you mention – that there are images or things from daily life. I mean it’s a mystery where poems come from. Sometimes it’s a musical phrase…Just to give you examples from the past, I overheard something at the post office and I thought someday that is going to enter a poem, and it took many years to happen, but it did. Sometimes it’s something I overhear, or something I see.  It could be images. It could be almost like a dream state where phrases come to me, so it’s hard to predict. I don’t have one particular source. I like to use the metaphor of seeds. You can have lots of ideas and some of them, if you nurture them, grow and evolve and develop into really interesting poems and others don’t. And it’s hard to know when it’s going to happen.

JKL/JHD: What is your editing process? 

AS: My editing process tends toward growing the poem and letting it reveal itself, to not, again, know too soon where the poem is going or what it’s about. I often have a lot of non-narrative fragments, suspended images and phrases on a page and they grow. It’s kind of a big mess, but eventually I start to sift them down and start to go through and think about how one may connect to another. A lot of it is very instinctive. I want to feel that on the one hand there is a kind of spontaneity and excitement of discovery, but I also want to feel that there is a kind of underlying rigor, that the images or sequencing isn’t arbitrary, that each word needs to be where it is and that each line and image needs to be where it is. There’s an underlying rigor that is making things happen in their particular way.  In terms of editing, I will frequently play with ends and beginnings and subvert them or I’ll try to open up spaces between lines that I have written. If I have fragments, I will sometimes cut out sections and remove them so that they’re not just on a computer screen but I’m tactilely moving them around on a desktop, or if I have sections in a sequence I might lay them out on the floor and put white pages, blank pages, in between and ask myself–can something go between these? Or what would happen if I wrote something in between? So it’s an organic process.

JKL/JHD: You mention that in your poetry you try to capture spontaneity and discipline at the same time. Can you tell us if you are trying to mimic something in nature, or the reasoning behind those aesthetic choices? 

If I know the structure too soon, then I’m imposing it, and that’s usually a disaster for me, because there isn’t enough creative room.

AS: I’m not sure if it’s something in nature–it might be. I think a lot of it has to do with figuring out some kind of structure that’s growing organically and in that sense it follows the laws of nature. If I know the structure too soon, then I’m imposing it, and that’s usually a disaster for me, because there isn’t enough creative room. There is a kind of natural order to how things progress in a poem, particularly in longer sequences. I’m looking for some kind of structural through-line. It could be from astronomy. It could be, as an example from nature, how a persimmon ripens.

JKL/JHD: Would you say that your poetry transcends the different schools of thought in poetry?  We think you are accessible both to academic poets and the poets who are outside academia, because of the two elements you speak of–spontaneity and rigor.

AS: I personally dislike poetic labels. Calling someone a Beat poet or someone a language poet, I find that unhelpful. At this point, I think of what Adrienne Rich said “you can’t think of it as American poetry, but American poetries,” because there are so many different styles that are all part of American poetry, and I like that. I also have poems that have lots of layers, so on the one hand, I think the immediacy of my images and my surprising juxtapositions can appeal to a wide audience, but for someone who is a college student or a working poet, there are lots of layers in my work. So those can be appreciated in a way that maybe a high school student might not immediately see or recognize or respond to, but I do hope ultimately all poetry engages viscerally. I think it was Eliot who said that “a poem communicates before it is understood,” and I like that idea that you might not get all of the poem at once, but if the poem is good, you’re going to get some kind of gut response quickly.

JKL/JHD: As you know, Antioch University is a school geared towards social justice. Can you give us some advice on how to write about social or political issues effectively in poetry?  Maybe not overtly, but can you give us your take on this?

AS: My own opinion is to follow Emily Dickinson and think, “tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”  I think sometimes if one is trying to make an overtly political poem, it boomerangs. It comes back at you, because ultimately I think poetry is about liberation. It’s about imaginative freedom, deep emotional experience, and it’s a liberating force. As such, it needs to resist all forms of coercion. If one has a political agenda to address inside of a poem, it’s not that it’s a bad thing, but I think for that to be effective as a poem, you oftentimes have to approach the truth from an oblique or unexpected angle. You don’t want the poem to become propagandistic or a piece of political indoctrination. You want people to be moved by the true spirit of what’s at stake and then say–oh, this is a terrible injustice.

In my own experience, I rarely write prose poems, but I have a prose poem called “The Los Alamos Museum” in The Redshifting Web. It was written in prose after visiting the museum in Los Alamos that displays replicas of the atom bombs. Lots of high school students, junior high school students, Ph.D.s and adults go through this museum. They see in high-tech format how you can design a nuclear warhead, and it looks like a really interesting, exciting scientific challenge to figure it out.  But what it really denies is the cost of humanity. You don’t see the photographs of devastation from those two atom bombs. You don’t see that in designing this nuclear warhead. Instead you have a computer module that makes it resemble a computer game. It removes the impact of how powerful and charged nuclear weapons are part of the problems of our nuclear age. In the museum, they even had lights on the floor and if you pressed a button, the whole floor lit up in a fast arc of light to show you how quickly the light would zoom out from point zero, from where the atom bomb was detonated. And of course, I’m looking at my son and he’s fascinated by the lights and I’m thinking–well, you know, everything would be obliterated.

I went home and thought that if I wrote something didactic, it wasn’t going to be very interesting or moving, so I decided to make the poem very clinical, to use lots of specific details from that museum and because I have a science background and scientific vocabulary at my disposal, I could write it clinically but I could also show how dehumanizing it is too. I thought, I never write in prose but this should be a prose poem. The poem needed an objective presentation, although the subtext is of course, extremely emotional.

JKL/JHD: It seems like you’re saying that form plays a big role in presenting political issues. We also read an interview about how you list and catalogue things as a way of preserving the names of Native American tribes that are disappearing. Can you talk a little more about form?

AS: Let me just back up to the issue of catalogues and tie it into politics.  In a sequence called “The String Diamond” [in The Redshifting Web], I think it’s section three, there’s a list of thirty endangered species, and there’s no commentary before or after, so it’s just a list and it starts “Deltoid spurge,/red wolf,/ocelot,/green-blossom pearly mussel…” I found that list on a National Geographic map where they had one of these foldouts listing 500 endangered species; and I loved the sounds to the plants and the creatures. I started to play with them and orchestrate them. So there’s no commentary about why are these things, items, being listed. But if you see or begin to see that there’s a through-line running through this list of the many, then the list can be read as intensely political. These are all species vanishing off the face of the earth, but I never say that overtly. I’m just articulating pure sound and naming and to carry that over to the Institute of American Indian Arts, I taught there for twenty-two years, and when I left, I wanted to write a poem that in some way reflected on my experience there, but also honored the many students that I had the privilege and honor of working with.

I worked with students from over 200 tribes, so I listed the names of students who after twenty-two years stood out in my memory. I first had their names and then I thought, that’s too literal. I replaced the personal names with the names of tribes.

I worked with students from over 200 tribes, so I listed the names of students who after twenty-two years stood out in my memory. I first had their names and then I thought, that’s too literal. I replaced the personal names with the names of tribes. When I did that, I got really excited. I thought, this is like a roll call of Native tribes coming forward, and I remembered they used to do that at graduation. When a student got up and received their diploma, they would also name the tribe, so that centerpiece, that bare list is in the center of “Spectral Line” [in The Ginkgo Light]. It’s a poem in nine sections and section five lists the catalogue. That’s the beginning of the poem, though it is formally located at the center. As I developed the sequence, I frequently considered how, in astronomy, spectral lines form a unique signature of bands of light. With the Institute as my source of energy, I braided narrative sections with non-narrative sections to try to enact an experience of its unique signature, from the profane to the sacred, which was exemplified in its formal diversity.

JKL/JHD: Can you tell us some of the students you worked with at the Institute of American Indian Arts?

AS: As an aside, I want to say that sometimes when I was teaching I would ask myself what a successful day or successful event would be. I often thought there would be a student who wouldn’t say a word for months and then suddenly would start speaking. I felt like that was a huge success that that student got to the point where he or she trusted me or trusted the environment, where they would start sharing and articulating their thoughts and experiences with literature. That was a huge success. In terms of particular former students, I would name Sherwin Bitsui, Orlando White, DG Okpik, Allison Hedge Coke, James Stevens, Eddie Chuculate, Layli Long Soldier, Santee Frazier and Jennifer Foerster. I recently went back to the Institute for a residency, and they said that my former students have now published twenty books, which is pretty great for an undergraduate BFA program.

There are two more writers I would like to add to a list of emerging Native writers, Joan Kane and Natalie Diaz. I’ve never met Joan, and I didn’t know her work before judging the AWP Donald Hall Poetry Prize, but I picked her manuscript, Hyperboreal, and the University of Pittsburgh Press will publish it next year. She’s Inupiaq from Alaska and I thought her work was very very wonderful.

JKL/JHD: You recently edited the book Chinese Writers on Writing. Can you recommend some contemporary or emerging Chinese poets to read?

AS: Among the contemporary or emerging Chinese poets, and I’m thinking of China right now, and not say – Taiwan, two poets that people will probably know, who were part of the Misty School are Bei Dao and Yang Lian. I think they’re both doing good work. I think some of the post-Misty poets that interest me include Xi Chuan, Zhai Yongming who wrote an important feminist manifesto back in 1985 that’s included in Chinese Writers on Writing for the first time, Zang Di, Wang Xiaoni, Yu Jian, and Yi Sha.  I want to mention that Zephyr Press and the Chinese University of Hong Kong have a new series of bilingual poetry books. The poems are printed in Chinese and then English translation. There’s a set of ten in the works. Four have come out. I think Ron Padgett and Wang Ping translated the Yu Jian book, and Andrea Lingenfelter translated the Zhai Yongming book. Two other really good poets that are in that series are Ouyang Jianghe and Han Dong. There’s also another translation series that Jonathan Stalling at the University of Oklahoma Press is initiating and that first book just came out. It’s Winter Sun by Shi Zhi, translated by Jonathan.

JKL/JHD: How do Chinese poets feel about the American influence on their poetry? Has American poetry influenced Chinese poetry?

AS: Yes, not just American poetry, but Western poetry has been a gigantic influence on modern Chinese poetry. For the Misty School Poets, I personally knew Gu Cheng who died tragically in New Zealand, and he told me that when he was growing up, his generation just could not wait to read the latest waves of translations of American poetry. It included Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Snyder, Ginsberg…They just were soaking up American and European poetry. It was just tidal wave after tidal wave. That’s where they drew their inspiration.

The post Misty poet I mentioned, Xi Chuan, is a pen name and most of these poets use pen names. Xi Chuan means Western River and he said for his formative years, he did nothing but read Western poetry, American poetry, European poetry, and it was only in the last decade or so that he said to himself, I need to learn Chinese poetry. I need to learn the Chinese tradition. He teaches at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, and as a way to learn that classical tradition, he started, instead of Western poetry, teaching classical Chinese poetry to his students. I mention this because there’s now a big movement for contemporary Chinese poets to reclaim their heritage and tradition. Years ago, they were so clearly wanting to rupture and break from the past, but it’s now a time when they feel confident that they can absorb from the tradition and not be trapped by it. It’s a very exciting situation.

JKL/JHD: Do you feel the next generation of Chinese students have knowledge of Classical Chinese poetry? It seems like the younger generation is living in such a capitalistic Internet culture there now.

AS: That’s a really interesting question. Poetry in China has moved to the margin in the way that American poets would say is the case in America. Because of this marginalization, and because classical Chinese poetry is written in old-style characters and has such a spare syntax, whereas contemporary Chinese is written in simplified characters and has a radically different syntax, I believe the emerging generation of Chinese students feels that classical Chinese poetry is at a great remove from them and that their knowledge of it is limited.

In 1985, I remember having tea with the Chinese Writer’s Association, and the head of Poetry Monthly was lamenting that their readership had dropped to 1.5 million, and I was like 1.5 million–Chinese numbers are always huge–but still, that’s a lot of people reading poetry. For those Misty School poets, their manuscripts had a circulation of maybe 10,000, but the reading audience for poetry today is small. Poetry doesn’t sell in the way that it used to. It doesn’t have the large audience that it used to and, as you say, there’s such a capitalistic Internet culture there now. Nevertheless, poetry is still taken extremely seriously by the party, by the government, but it clearly does not have the clout in readership that it once had.

JKL/JHD: Do you think it is partly because of the government’s censorship and people being scared of writing, of the consequences of writing, say, political poetry?

Chinese poets have told me that the most difficult thing is not government censorship, it’s self-censorship, what happens when you start writing a phrase and you think–oh, that’s not going to be allowed in the publication. Once you start self-censoring, then that’s a disaster.

AS: It’s a really interesting issue. Chinese poets have told me that the most difficult thing is not government censorship, it’s self-censorship, what happens when you start writing a phrase and you think–oh, that’s not going to be allowed in the publication. Once you start self-censoring, then that’s a disaster. But there are all sorts of ways that those Chinese poets have figured out different kinds of solutions. I know one poet, for instance, who lives in Shanghai part of the year and in New York City part of the year. In New York City he’s writing whatever he wants and then he takes it back to China to see what he can get published there. What he can’t get published, he might publish in New York City, Hong Kong or Taipei. A lot of poetry websites come and go quickly on the Internet, so poems get posted and then they quickly disappear. It’s a complicated but really interesting situation, and I can’t give you an easy answer here.

JKL/JHD: How has Eastern poetry influenced your poetry?  We are assuming that you travel a lot to China, and Asia in general – has that influenced your poetry?

AS: It has. When I was a student at Berkeley, I created my own major in poetry. I wasn’t a formal English major and one of the things I wanted to do was to be able to read Li Bai, Tu Fu, Wang Wei, Li Shang-yin, the great Tang Dynasty poets in the original. Then I tried my hand at translating them for several reasons – one was I thought I could learn my own craft that way, but I did also experience the poems at a much deeper level in translation by thinking about how those poems were put together. And how could I, even though I knew it was an impossible task, how could I make some kind of attempt to translate them into English? In terms of my own evolution as a poet, the ancient Chinese poetry came first, and then it’s interested me that over time I’ve reached out to poets from other time periods. When I edited Chinese Writers on Writing, it was really a reading of modern Chinese literature (poetry and fiction), and so I had moved from the very ancient all the way up to the contemporary.

In terms of my travel to Asia, I’ve read at international poetry festivals in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The Yellow Mountain Poetry Festival in China asked English language poets to translate poems by contemporary Chinese poets into English, and vice versa. So there was a lot of cultural exchange. In traveling to these festivals, I’ve had important conversations with many poets—I’ve translated poems by Yang Lian, Xi Chuan, Yan Li, Chen Li, and Yang Mu into English—and these experiences have influenced my poetry in oblique ways.

JKL/JHD: Do you do a lot of research, because we know you write a lot about nature and science? Do these things just stick in your head, because you have a science background? 

AS: I think I probably do less research than many people would guess. A lot of the information comes from first-hand personal conversations. Santa Fe is a very small town, but there are lots of really interesting people here. In the 1990’s, I used to have dinner with two amazing physicists, Murray Gell-Mann, who won the Nobel Prize for the quark and George Zweig, who also discovered that particle. I would come to dinner-the wife was an arts administrator, and her husband was a physicist—and  I would converse with the physicists. Murray would talk about Complexity Theory, while George Zweig would talk about fundamental particles, so a lot of that information that found itself into my poetry was not from researching on the Internet. It was from actual conversation with people here in town, who were working on those endeavors.

To give another example, I learned my mycology by mushroom hunting with my son for five summers with a renowned expert, Bill Isaacs. In July and August, we would go up into the mountains above Santa Fe, as part of Bill’s class; we would collect every mushroom we could find and lay them out on picnic tables. Bill would go through and identify all of them. I tried but couldn’t really learn the mushrooms by looking in a field guide. So again, the images of mushrooms that are in my poetry came from intimate hands-on experience.

JKL/JHD: Can you give us an example of one of your recent poems?

AS: Yes. This is a poem from my new manuscript Compass Rose that appeared in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day Series.

Comet Hyakutake

Comet Hyakutake’s tail stretches for 360 million miles—

in 1996, we saw Hyakutake through binoculars—

the ion tail contains the time we saw bats emerge out of a cavern at dusk—

in the cavern, we first heard stalactites dripping—

first silence, then reverberating sound—

our touch reverberates and makes a blossoming track—

a comet’s nucleus emits X-rays and leaves tracks—

two thousand miles away, you box up books and, in two days, will step through the
invisible rays of an airport scanner—

we write on invisible pages in an invisible book with invisible ink—

in nature’s infinite book, we read a few pages—

in the sky, we read the ion tracks from the orchard—

the apple orchard where blossoms unfold, where we unfold—

budding, the child who writes, “the puzzle comes to life”—

elated, puzzled, shocked, dismayed, confident, loving: minutes to an hour—

a minute, a pinhole lens through which light passes—

Comet Hyakutake will not pass earth for another 100,000 years—

no matter, ardor is here—

and to the writer of fragments, each fragment is a whole—