Arthur Sze has published ten books of poetry, including Sight Lines (2019); Compass Rose (2014), a Pulitzer Prize finalist; The Ginkgo Light (2009), selected for the PEN Southwest Book Award and the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Book Award; Quipu (2005); The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998 (1998), selected for the Balcones Poetry Prize and the Asian-American Literary Award; and Archipelago (1995), selected for an American Book Award. He has also published one book of Chinese poetry translations, The Silk Dragon (2001), selected for the Western States Book Award. A new letterpress chapbook, Starlight Behind Daylight, will be published by St. Brigid Press in the fall, 2019. Sze is the recipient of many honors, including the Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers, a Lannan Literary Award, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing fellowships, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, and five grants from the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry. His poems have been translated into a dozen languages, including Chinese, Dutch, German, Korean, and Spanish. Sze was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2017 and served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2012 to 2017. He is a professor emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts and was the first poet laureate of Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lives.
Jordan Nakamura: First of all, it is great to be talking with you, and congratulations on your book! This is your tenth collection, quite a milestone! Readers of your previous work might recognize some signature techniques at work in these poems. In particular, I tend to think of your striking imagery that is arranged together in ways that works to disrupt, dislocate, or perhaps hyper-locate the seeing eye of the speaker/reader—maybe even to disrupt the notion of a single individualist perspective. In the first poem, “Water Calligraphy,” you write:
…At the bottom of a teacup,
leaves form the character individual
and, after a sip, the number eight.
That reminds me of the process a reader may have while reading your work: I’m used to the individual perspective in English letters; however, as I move along your poems a multiplicity emerges, but one that could still be coming from a single speaker.
I wanted to ask you about this kind of plurality of voices or perspectives, which is presented beautifully in this book, maybe identified more widely when Compass Rose was published, and perhaps has been a factor in your work all along. What is your impulse behind this? Are there ways of seeing that you find particularly compelling through this kind of polyphony?
Arthur Sze: Thanks for this provocative first question. I think the impulse behind this plurality of voices or perspectives has to do, initially, with destabilizing language. By putting “Water Calligraphy” at the beginning of the book, I’m deliberately using aspects of the Chinese language to take a reader, for a few moments, out of the English language and consider how Chinese uses pictorial elements. In your quote about the tea leaves that form “the character individual” and then “the number eight,” I’m inviting a reader to see how a shift of a tea leaf can, in a single stroke, generate a different word. Eventually, in section 7, I invite a reader to consider how letters in English have a meaningful shape and history behind them (“the letter A was once an inverted cow’s head”). But, at the outset of this poem, I want to use Chinese and English as two language systems that, moving back and forth, show how we see and experience the world in different ways.
In moving beyond this poem to consider larger issues of poetics, I’m not trying to privilege one system over another but, instead, I’m trying to use the contrasts to generate tension and earn the plurality you mention. With plurality and polyphony, a reader can begin to recognize the limits of one’s individual experience and perspective and also sense that it is a part of a larger, simultaneous whole. As part of the process of earning this polyphony, a variety of voices becomes essential. It is not only what each individual sees but how each individual speaks (in this collection I decided to give voice to lichen and salt and not just to other humans) that gives force to the language. And the polyphony, I think, becomes compelling when one recognizes there are so many ways of experiencing the world and one is not necessarily bound by one; instead, each voice and perspective enriches the others.
JN: This book in particular seems to take a keen interest in appealing to all of the senses. It’s striking to see how often you make sure there is something for each way a human can experience things, like in the 7th section of “Water Calligraphy” we read the lines:
A neighbor brings cucumbers and basil;
when you open the bag and inhale, the world
inside is fire in a night courtyard.
Sometimes writers will forget or omit description pertaining to smell or taste for pages on end, but throughout Sight Lines, far more than what can be merely seen is delivered to the reader. Did you make a more conscious effort to sort of “take care” of the whole spectrum of sensory experience? What was your process behind producing poems that are so consistently diverse in sensory description?
AS: I do make a conscious effort to use the whole spectrum of sensory experience, but I try to be flexible and not programmatic. I always think of Blake’s “Five windows light the cavern’d Man,” where the windows are the five senses, because each sense experience is a way to let a form of light in and make the experience immediate and grounded. It’s hard for me to say what my process was behind making poems diverse in sensory description. I can say that I sometimes start with sensory fragments and try to extend them, but there’s a lot of intuitive play in the process.
JN: In this book, I experienced an almost meditative practice in awareness, not only of my bodily means of relating to the world, but also other relations one has across the world that transcends the body’s sensory limitations. Lyrically, there’s an incantatory pattern of visualizing: (“You scan a black locust… you observe mounds ants make…” etc.), which feels a bit like leading a person through an exercise. Being able to read a poem featuring a person slipping on ice and an apple blossom opening, seemingly in the same moment, carries the feeling of a kind of impossible ability to traverse space, time, and lived experience.
I was wondering if you could talk a bit about connection and limitation in your work? Also, if you think there is anything specific your poems themselves are attempting to do?
AS: My poems are often in search of unexpected connections and have an underlying premise that things are often connected in ways we cannot readily see or anticipate. In contemporary physics, one can talk of a butterfly effect, where a butterfly flapping its wings near the Gulf of Mexico causes a tsunami off the coast of Japan. It’s hard to prove such an assertion, and even if there’s no discernable causal connection, the notion of synchronicity—Jung defines it as meaningful acausal connection—comes into play. In addition, I’m fascinated by the relationship between the part and whole, micro and macro, where the part can be a specific poem, a line, a phrase, an image, something specific and finite. These luminous particulars are essential to revealing and making connections to a much larger structure, such as a web. One of my books, The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998, uses the web as a structure to connect individual poems across time. “Redshift” is a term from astrophysics and is an image of the expanding universe, so the time span of twenty-eight years allows the progression of poems to resemble a small but expanding web over time.
In regard to your second question, I think different poems attempt to do different things, and you can see that in the variety of forms, imagery, and syntax. “First Snow,” for example, uses stillness and motion as a structure to explore being and becoming and to arrive at the visionary “starlight behind daylight wherever you gaze.” “Black Center” strikes me as very different, where loss is explored in different manifestations: from Jefferson, in the past, struggling and failing to sequence a set of dinosaur bones to, in the present, the ongoing extinction of living languages on our planet.
JN: You are also pretty faithful to the mediums of poetry and translation. You’ve mentioned before that one of your obsessions is “cultural parallax,” or how things look differently in one culture to those coming from the perspective of another. Is there something about poetry that you find uniquely suited to explore this, and did you shift anything in your approach to exploring that with Sight Lines.
AS: Poetry, for me, is language at its most intense, and I believe its concentrating power is uniquely suited to magnifying the resonance of surprising juxtapositions. In Sight Lines, I was interested in moving beyond the cultural parallax of differences between East and West and exploring a much larger, wider arena where incidents in varying space and time still exert influence or pressure on each other. I’m thinking of the title poem, “Sight Lines,” where, in process, I had forty or fifty one-liners and cut them out and moved them around on a table top and eventually stripped out lines that didn’t have enough force and let the lines settle into their shape. I think, in earlier books, I would have been content with creating a surprising juxtaposition in a single phrase or between a few fragments, but in this new work I gave myself room to expand this approach.
JN: The poems that comprise “Python Skin” are all one long sentence. Section 3 asks, “what if salt or lichen or the erhu spoke?” I like how we get the question unanswered as its own image there, and then later get the poems about Salt and Lichen speaking. This sort of felt as though the title of “Python Skin” inspired the form, which yielded the line, which yielded more poems, which made me wonder, what most often makes you begin a poem, and how much do you think about it “fitting in” to your other work?
AS: First, I just want to confirm the process of discovery that you articulated. I was working on a poem that was triggered by hearing the sound of an erhu in a Hong Kong passageway. The tunnel passage had a resonant and amplifying effect, and as I looked into the erhu and discovered that it relies on vibrating python skin for its sound, it led me to consider, “what if salt or lichen or the erhu spoke?” And so the other poems cascaded out after “Python Skin” was completed. In terms of what often makes me begin a poem, I oftentimes have a vague discomfort and feel some inner pressure. I might begin with an image, a musical phrase, even an idea, or, as I said, “Python Skin” was triggered by sound. It’s hard to generalize.
When I’m writing, I don’t think much about whether the poem fits or doesn’t fit in with my other work. I have to focus on writing and writing with all the concentration and focus that I have. Sometimes, months after completing a group of individual poems or a sequence of poems, I lay them out on the floor and ask myself, where are the repeating patterns? What are the obsessions? Have I stretched myself, risked myself? What’s at stake? Am I doing something I haven’t done before? In the end, I know that I can’t run from certain obsessions and have to write my way through them to discover something new.
JN: The line in “Under A Rising Moon” that reads “An unglazed pot fired and streaked from ash / will always bear the beauty of chance.” This made me think about the inextricable element of serendipity in your project of both synthesis and, as you’ve said, the destabilization of language. What’s the relationship you have with harnessing unpredictability in, let’s say, the “firing” of your own artmaking? Or, how do you attempt to cultivate chance?
AS: It seems to me chance and its role in the making of art is a huge arena. First, when I write, I want to be open to discovering something unforeseen, and the Greek notion of a hermaion is apropos. Hermes was of course the god of thievery, and he unearthed and made off with hidden treasures. I think of the hermaion as a “lucky find,” and that means being open to discovery during the process of creation. Something unearthed or unforeseen can totally transform the process of creation. Second, artists have used chance procedures as a way to circumvent conscious artistic control.
In my early years, I was in contact with Jackson MacLow, who used chance procedures to generate some of his poems. This way of creating texts that were less ego-driven was important to me. Although I don’t compose using chance procedures, in the way that, say, John Cage, did, I will sometimes arrive at a place in writing a sequence where I throw coins and look up the hexagram in the Chinese Book of Changes, the Yi Jing. I’m not looking for a “yes” or “no” answer, but I’m asking, what do I need to know about this poetic nexus or next stage? It’s a way of throwing possibilities back on the imagination. Finally, in the metaphor of the pot, the imagination is what fires the poem. You can have all the elements of a poem but, unfired, the poem lacks vitality. In the end, I attempt to cultivate chance by being open to making a “lucky find,” (it can come from what someone says, something you see, something you research, something you stumble into when you write…) and I also try to cultivate chance by consulting the Yi Jing periodically and seeing what the “image” and “commentaries” and “commentaries to changing lines” bring out in me.
JN: Among the global milieu, it feels like you take a special interest in Asian/Pacific Islander consciousness and imagery. In your poem “Sprang”’s 7th section, “This Is the Writing, the Speaking of the Dream,” you mention Molokai, for example. I wanted to ask what your relationship is with Pacific Islander experience, and what was your process and impulse behind representing so many different places and images culled from various Asian countries, landscapes, and cultures?
AS: I first visited Hawaii in 1985 when I read at the University of Hawaii on Oahu and also at a bookstore on Maui. My friend, Frank Stewart, founded Manoa: A Journal of Pacific Writing a few years later, and I became a frequent contributor, a guest editor, and am now a corresponding editor. I find Hawaii, geographically in the center of the Pacific Ocean, a vital nexus of East and West, of Pacific Islander experience. I need to say that, unlike teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where I developed friendships and taught students from over 200 tribes across the United States, I do not have any profound relationship with Pacific Islanders. I have simply visited friends and hiked on Molokai, Kauai, Oahu, Maui, and the big island of Hawaii, and I have drawn on those experiences in my poems. I don’t think I had a conscious intention to draw on so many different places, but travel (the Dao De Jing says “to travel far is to return”) has had an enormous impact on the evolution of my poetry.
Traveling in Japan in 1990, I saw Japanese culture adapt principles and ideas from China in a radical and breathtaking way, and it enabled me to write the poems in Archipelago, that were inspired by the garden of fifteen stones and raked gravel situated at Ryoanji temple in Kyoto. And after reading at a poetry festival in Delhi in 2008, my wife and daughter and I traveled to Varanasi. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I will never forget seeing corpses going up in flames on the cremation ghat. So I haven’t had any premeditated goal in representing so many different places and cultures in my poetry,
other than to recognize that we live on a planet where the braiding of cultures has been ongoing and is an essential pattern to the rich complexity we live in.
JN: I was curious about the part in “The Far Norway Maples,” wherein you write, “If you inhale and spore this moment, / it tumors your body, but if you exhale it, // you dissolve midnight and noon.”
At some point, this suggested to me a kind of ethic of letting go of some of the moments an artist might feel tempted to hoard, per se. Is this related to your approach to artmaking, and if not, what is your means of helping your writing practice be sustainable and healthy for you?
AS: Your reading of this moment in the poem fascinates me. In the context of the poem, I see the moment when the father figure grabs the architectural maquette the child has dreamed and envisioned and destroys it as a moment of life-changing trauma. I think I intended those lines to mean something like, if you hold onto this moment of destroying someone else’s dreams, it will replicate (in the way that a poisonous mushroom releases spores) and, held inside your body, it will metastasize. There is definitely the idea that releasing and letting go of this negative controlling energy (here’s Blake again) will be liberating and will dissolve time (and space) in unanticipated ways.
I hadn’t considered the passage as a moment an artist might be tempted to hoard, but it could lead to the idea that if one holds something in, the energy will become manifest in another form or way.
In terms of my approach to artmaking, I do think one arrives at a point where one lets go. One has to, and the work of art exists independent of your will. My writing practice is sustainable because I love to write, and it helps ground me, but how healthy is it? The key is to not be consumed by it but to find some kind of centering and ongoing growth. In that way, writing can be healthy and, as Whitman says, “filter and fibre your blood.”
JN: I wanted to ask you about the various words that appear multiple times in the book (bosque, arroyo, red-winged blackbird, peony, etc). Typically I’ve been apprehensive about repeating words in my work, but the way your repeated words show up gives the book a sense of locus and place, I think.
AS: I see the repeating words and phrases in my work as creating, as you say, a sense of locus and place, and they are also a form of insistence and lead to a multiplicity of meanings. If you say “A rose is a rose,” you are asserting an identity, but when you, as Gertrude Stein did, write, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” then you have created a form of insistence. And I like that. There are words that can have a talismanic effect and, if the repeating words have variant meanings, you can layer the poem with these subtle variations and shifts of meaning that deepen and enrich a poem. When I wrote the title poem to my book, Quipu, I used as many of the dictionary definitions of the innocuous word, “as,” that I could. Each repetition wasn’t a mere repetition, it was a form of layering, and the meaning of the word varied with each usage. In Sight Lines, the bosque, arroyo, peony etc. that you mention are a way of returning the vision of the poem back to a singular site, in Santa Fe, so that the poems enact going out into the world and then returning. I also think of a Navajo weaver who uses repetition in visual patterns to create a more powerful, comprehensive visual effect, in such a piece as an “eye dazzler.”
JN: Many readers might be curious about the poems featuring strike-through, or crossed out words. What made you settle on that formal choice for those poems, and how do you read those poems in a live setting?
AS: I first used strike-though lines in Compass Rose. I was collaborating with a visual artist in Santa Fe, Susan York. She made drawings by layering graphite 50 to 60 times over the surface of paper. As she did that work, I thought about process and product and how I wanted a voice in a poem to enact a process of thinking and revising. So the strike-through lines became a way to show how a speaker was thinking aloud and, because the words were not accurate, striking through them. This created moments of tension that fascinated me. Where the speaker in “Water Calligraphy” says the word “sun” then realizes it is a mistake and says the word “moon,” he corrects himself, and there’s a huge cosmic difference in that simple word there.
I need to add that, after I employed strike-throughs (and I always want to be sparing with them), I learned that there’s a phrase in French, Sous Rature, that means “Under Erasure,” that applies to this mode of writing. Martin Heidegger developed these strike-throughs in philosophical discourse and said that “Because the words are necessary, they are included. Because the words are inaccurate, they are struck through.” So I arrived at his result but through a different pathway.
In terms of how to read those strike-throughs in a live setting, I think it’s best to trust the voice and envision the voice as speaking, slowly, deliberately, under internal pressure, and adjusting when he/she discovers a mistake and amends or adjusts it.
JN: I love the way the book ends! Can you talk about the relationship you have with the long poem and perhaps refusing conventional endings?
AS: I like putting a long poem at the end of a book when it heightens intensity and keeps things open-ended or opening out. That motion is true to my experience of the world. In “The Glass Constellation,” which took me nine months to write, the unstated structure is “Indra’s Net.” In East Indian philosophy, Indra’s net says that all things that exist and occur are like pieces of glass hanging in an immense chandelier where light shines and each object reflects and absorbs every other. It’s the unspoken subtext that helped me write the poem. There are so many particulars that come and go, and, in the end, there’s the feeling that each event and object reflects and absorbs every other, so the poem becomes cosmological in scale. In detail, the final act is for the speaker to lift the irrigation gate to let the water in the acequia pass downstream. During the course of the poem, he has dropped the gate so that water backs up and flows into pipes that transport water downhill to the orchard and grasses around the house; and, having done that, it is time to pass the gift of water on to someone else. I think of this as a fresh unconventional ending, because it also ends and opens up the book: the time of reading is the time of watering, and now that time is up.
I like long poems to be ambitious and rigorous and replete with risk—closure, or a conventional ending would be such a disappointment—and I hope this last poem is a fitting end to the book, to all the lines of sight that appear and disappear, resonating emotionally and imaginatively, in time and space.
JN: Thanks so much for this discussion! It’s been a pleasure.
AS: Thank you.