Interview with Arthur Sze
Arthur Sze has published eleven books of poetry, including Sight Lines (2019), which won the National Book Award, and The Glass Constellation: New and Collected Poems (2021). In anticipation of his reading for the Katonah Poetry Series on April 24, 2022 at 4pm EDT, Sze spoke with poet and KPS writer Ann van Buren via Zoom on March 17, 2021.
Ann van Buren: First of all, I adore your work and have for ages. It was a joy to read The Glass Constellation, New and Collected Poems. It brings together poems from 10 collections, including Sight Lines, which won the National Book Award in 2019. I’m wondering, how does it feel to see so much of your work in one volume, and were you surprised to see how consistent your work has been since you first began publishing in the 1970s?
Arthur Sze: Well, I’m going to start with the word consistent. That’s an interesting issue. It’s exciting to see 50 years of my writing assembled in one book—humbling and exciting. But in terms of consistency, I think there are shifts in my work, or certainly an expansion, since I first began.
My early work is clearly modeled on ancient Chinese poetry—the work of poets like Wang Wei (699-759) Li Bai (701-762) and Du Fu (712-770). Those early poems have a kind of concision and precision. They are very compact.
Looking at my work over time, I believe there may be consistency of voice, but I also think there is an extension of range as well as a deepening. I hesitate to use the word “unified” to describe it, but I see it as one expansive body of work.
Ann van Buren: I see what you mean about the way that the form of the poems has changed and expanded. But, the voice and the sensibility of the poems is steady. What is the wellspring of this steady, meditative voice, that has sung to your readers for decades? Where does it come from? Do you have a daily practice such as walks in nature? Is there a community you draw from?
Arthur Sze: I would say all of the possibilities that you just mentioned are contributing factors. My writing practice, which is certainly meditative, is based in working very early in the morning. This had something to do with my years of teaching and raising a child. Early before sunrise was the quiet part of the day. I liked being able to get up and write, and over time it turned into a daily rhythm or ritual. I noticed that when I wasn’t fully awake I was in a dreamtime that was particularly inspiring. By writing before sunrise in the morning, I feel like I catch a wave of sunrise when things emerge out of the darkness. It’s literal, and at the same time it’s also figurative.
The other sources of inspiration you mentioned, such as walking in nature, are definitely factors. I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico which, even though it’s the capital city of New Mexico, is in many ways a village-like city. I can walk out the back door and go right up the hillside to an overlook over the city. It’s not like I have to drive 45 minutes to get to a trailhead. Friends in Southern California need to travel an hour to get to the trailhead. I can just walk out the kitchen door and, in five minutes, I’m on my way.
So that sense of being in nature is very important to me. And it’s very immediate. For example, I’m active with the irrigation system—the acequia—here in New Mexico. The cleaning will begin soon, and water will start running in mid-April. That connection to the land and nature is very important to me, as is the connection to the people in my life.
I taught for 22 years at the Institute of American Indian Arts. The influence of Native culture has also been a big influence on my work. The Institute is a federally-recognized college and there are students from over 150 tribes across the United States. So it’s not as if one group of Native Americans has been an influence. For instance, there are 19 pueblos that live in New Mexico, but I’ve had students who are from Northern Alaska, from Point Barrow as far north as you can go toward the North Pole. Conversations with some of those students have been influential. There are other students who are Diné, who live in Arizona and New Mexico, and their influence is another strong thread running through my work.
Ann van Buren: It’s wonderful that this sensibility is presented in your work. I enjoy that. Are there other populations that you’ve taught?
Arthur Sze: Well, very early on, before I taught at the Institute, I worked for ten years as a young poet in the New Mexico Poetry-in-the-Schools Program. I worked all over the state, including Los Alamos high school, where the parents of students were scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory. I also worked at Jemez Pueblo with the native students from junior high to high school and also in San Jon, a ranching community. At that time I also worked for the Santa Fe Council for the Arts and also did a residency at the New Mexico School for the Deaf where I had a translator for sign language. At first I was like, how am I going to communicate with the students who can’t hear me? If I wanted to read a poem in Chinese, the deaf students would have no idea what the sounds were like, yet the sign translator was able to communicate a glimmering, and it worked out. I also worked at the Penitentiary of New Mexico, after the worst prison riot in New Mexico history, when in 1981, the entire institution was taken over and burned to the ground. Because the main institution was destroyed, I started by working with incarcerated women who were housed in a separate annex across the road. After nine months, I then switched to working once a week with men in prison and at one point I even worked with an inmate on death row. During that time, I also worked for the Alaska State Council for the Arts, also as a poet-in-the-schools. For several weeks, I lived on a rainforest island in Southeast Alaska with salmon fishermen. Everyone lived on float houses that went up and down with the tide—there was a difference of 20 feet, I think, between low and high tides! The school itself was lashed to logs and floated up and down with the tide. And black bear were all over the island. So that was an amazing experience. So from my twenties into my early thirties I worked in a variety of very different situations.
Ann van Buren: Wow. That’s so exciting! All these experiences and diverse people and you haven’t even mentioned your fellow writers. The acknowledgements in your book mentions one of my very favorite poets, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. She is one of several poets you name. I was wondering what the collective process of writing looks like for you. Do you regularly share what you’re writing with other poets, or do you wait until you have a completed manuscript? What does your writing community look like?
Arthur Sze: I’ll back up a second and say that when I worked as a poet-in-the-schools in New Mexico for 10 years, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge also worked as a poet-in-the-schools. And when I started to teach at the Institute of American Indian Arts, she was already a faculty member there, so we have a long history of friendship. In those early years, we oftentimes shared drafts of poems and even drafts of book-length manuscripts with each other. We didn’t share poems when they were in process, but sometimes when the poems got to a stage near completion, it was helpful to have Mei-mei’s comments. And Mei-mei would also show me drafts of her poems, and I would return the favor. We are still good friends.
Also part of my writing community is my wife, Carol Moldaw. She is a poet, and in the beginning I shared drafts with her. But her writing process is much slower than mine. So for instance, when we went to India and came back, I was writing a lot of poems inspired by what I saw, but she felt like it was interrupting her creative process to see what was happening in my poems, since they were common experiences. So that’s been an interesting dance. We had to begin to think about when sharing a draft is helpful and when is it detrimental. At this point, Carol shares drafts of poems with me in early stages, but I tend to wait until I’m much further down the road. And so with Sight Lines there were poems she hadn’t seen until they were in book or manuscript form. But I do share work with her, and I also get support from Jim Moore, a poet I met in Minneapolis years ago.
Ann van Buren: That’s really nice. It’s so important to have people with whom you share your work. Your poems celebrate the natural world but they are also particular to the delights of the body. The poem, “The Names of a Bird,” for example, is playfully skeptical of scientific study as the only way to understand nature. It calls for knowing through the senses, through taste and touch. Can you comment on the ways of knowing the world around us? It seems that, breath, sensation and sensuality are so important but it seems like we’re having a harder time entering those realms these days.
Arthur Sze: Yes, I think it’s important to emphasize the body and how we experience our place in the world. Oftentimes I think—too often—poets are looking just through their eyes. For me, it’s important to use all of the senses—sound, taste, smell, touch. “The Names of a Bird.” Yes. That poem has a particular moment and asks if you know the name of a bird in 10 languages, do you know any more about the bird? Not necessarily. There’s a kind of fun intellectual aspect to a certain kind of knowledge, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you know anything more about the thing itself. Ultimately, that poem finds its fulfillment through the body, through sensuality and our place of being in the world. I think all I can say is I consciously work at that. When I’m walking in nature I’m trying to not just focus on what I’m seeing—a cholla cactus, or a magpie on a branch—I mean, that’s fine, but I’m also literally trying to smell, to in a way taste and touch the whole environment.
Ann van Buren: Well, it seems like you’re tapping into the oneness of what’s going on in the environment, from the very local, specific moment in nature, to what’s happening globally. Your poems offer a mirroring of what’s going on in the body with what’s going on in nature. Do you think that’s an accurate description?
Arthur Sze: I think that’s fair to say and I would add that, although my reach is toward the large—or what I call the macrocosm or the universalities that are there—I really like to approach things very specifically—through the local, and through physicality. For instance, many years ago, for seven or eight years I’ve studied with the head of New Mexico poison control and learned how to hunt wild mushrooms in the alpine regions of New Mexico. It was a wonderful way of using a local, very specific experience—hunting for say chanterelles or boletes or other edible mushrooms—and using that as a vehicle to really connect to the world at large. So I would say that when thinking of the really big, large issues—which for me are more intellectual—I like to get there, but I like to get there through the very specific.
Ann van Buren: I love your poem “Lichen Song” and, likened it to poems by Forrest Gander, Brenda Hillman, Timothy Liu, and many other writers who are discovering the interconnectedness of the mycorrhizal fungi as a springboard for human connectedness. “Mushroom Hunting in the Jemez Mountains” is another example of a poem with that approach. Then there are poems like “La Bajada” that talk about the underground water aquifer. So do you believe that there’s a direct connection between the physicality of our bodies, what’s going on on the planet around us, and our consciousness?
Arthur Sze: Absolutely. I think of the big picture. Climate change and endangered species are huge issues. It’s not just the biology. In my poem, “The String Diamond,” I tie it to specifics. In section three, there’s a catalog, a list of endangered species without any commentary. I see this as a pure vocalization of loss. It’s a naming of 30 species that are, at the time that I wrote it, endangered. It is likely that many of those species are extinct now. So I feel an urgency as a poet to do something as simple as naming and creating a litany of specific species that are on the verge of vanishing off the planet. I do this to make it a larger issue at the same time. For instance, there are languages disappearing—I believe one every 10 minutes—off of the face of the earth. So we can’t just look at a plant species and say, oh, well, it’s only the natural world. The human world is intimately connected to the natural, and when we lose those languages we lose particular ways of thinking of and articulating the connectedness to our human experiences. That sense of a web of interconnection is really important to me. In “Mushroom Hunting,” the mushrooms are revelatory, they are the fruits that come from the inner connections that are below the surface. I like to think of that metaphorically, that we’re all interconnected. Individual poems may in a way be like these mushrooms that are sprouting up at particular places at specific times. Their emergence is being triggered by certain vital and important incidents and experiences that come to fruition. I see being a poet as just one of many endeavors. I don’t see it as a particularly egotistical endeavor. Rather, I see it as a human endeavor and a way of facing very challenging times. Poetry has a vital role to play in this situation.
Ann van Buren: Yes. I noticed that interconnectedness that you’re talking about, the interconnectedness between people, nature, and the poems themselves.
I noted your poems “The Moon is a Diamond” and “Listening to a Broken Radio” They contrast the realities of poverty with news on television and radio that depict a totally different reality, much different from the reality that someone living in the Jemez Pueblo or who is homeless on the streets of Manhattan will ever know. In your poem “The Immediacy of Heat” you also connect disparate places and elements when you associate the magnetic strip on your subway card with the magnetic north. You place the city dweller in the larger context of the planet. I love that image. I’m wondering, you’ve traveled in so many circles, why is it important to you that you keep re-threading the needle that sews together such disparate parts of human society?
Arthur Sze: Well, I think every poet has his or her obsessions. And I would say—I’m being a Taoist here—I’m quoting the Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching, which at one point says to travel far is to return. I see this image of going out in the world then returning and that looping as being archetypical and enriching.
My base is Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’ve lived here almost 50 years, but it’s really important to me to be able to go out into the world and bring things back, so to speak, because we do live on one planet and in one world, or worlds plural, that are, like it or not, in collision. I believe it’s really important to have a greater sense of what’s happening in the world at large. The act of going out and returning becomes then a form of enlarging and deepening one’s experience and vision of the world.
So many of my travels have been important to me in this way. For example, my connection to China. I’m second-generation Chinese American. My parents were immigrants from Beijing. I grew up in New York City, and Garden City, but traveling to China has been really important for me to experience firsthand where my family came from.
I also translate ancient Chinese poetry into English. It’s another thing—this was in the mid-1980s—to physically walk in the streets of Beijing and meet family members and to hear firsthand what they suffered during the Cultural Revolution. When that kind of knowledge becomes personalized, I believe it becomes stronger. So rather than just hearing secondhand about certain incidents that happened in China, those experiences became so immediate that it was as though I’d been there.
On another trip, at the end of September and beginning of October of this year when there was the lull in COVID cases, I was invited to Lithuania to read at a poetry festival. It was my first time in Eastern Europe. To walk in the Capitol city Vilnius and to read my poetry in Druskininkai, near the Belarus border was a wonderful thing. At the same time, as I walked in the busy city streets, I could feel the shadow of the former Soviet Union.
There were names of people who died in the struggle to attain independence, and their names were carved into stones or written on plaques in the main streets and squares. And when I read in Druskininkai near the Belarus border, I heard how refugees from the Middle East were taking one-way flights to Belarus, traveling by bus, and then trying to swim across a river along the border into Lithuania.
Such difficulties and challenges of the world become much more powerful when they’re experienced firsthand. And so if I come back to New Mexico and write a poem about that experience, it’s not something out of a book; it’s personal encounter and knowledge. Before the current tragic war in the Ukraine broke out, I met a Ukrainian poet at this poetry festival, and she was working as an ambulance driver and paramedic for the civil war that was going on with Eastern breakaway provinces. The power of hearing her experiences firsthand is so different than reading about it in a newspaper. So that primary experience is crucial. Each time I travel and come back to New Mexico I appreciate being in Santa Fe, but it’s energizing and vitally important to grow through travel and bring those powerful experiences in the world back home.
Ann van Buren: I know what you’re saying. I taught in China for about a year and also understood the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution by hearing people’s stories firsthand. This was just before Tiananmen happened and we actually left just before, thinking that nothing would ever change there. We were very surprised to read of the protests, even though one of our students who practiced tai chi told us that change was possible, if only we could access the energy. At first he taught us tai chi so that I could warm up. We had no heat. But then he gathered a group of us in a circle and asked us to imagine the energy, to imagine peace. He said that if we do this, it will happen. And it was a very, very, beautiful moment.
Arthur Sze: That’s a wonderful experience. I want to add, that one of the things poetry does is that it dissolves borders. I think there are about 198 countries in the world today, and I’m always amazed at how poetry is a way to communicate across political boundaries, across diverse languages. It really dissolves borders and brings people in vital contact with each other.
Ann van Buren: That’s such a wonderful thing, especially when you’re writing the kind of poetry that you write, which connects people to nature. You remind us that we are all part of the same natural system rather than a political system.
But speaking of the trouble in the world, you often write about the nuclear arms race, or allude to the nuclear arms race. You’ve written about this throughout the years, before we were in the terrible moment that we’re in now. Of course, the fear of nuclear destruction has always been smoldering, but you have been aware of the threat, perhaps because you live in New Mexico. I’m wondering if you’re in touch with any people in Russia or Ukraine, any writers or organizations that are trying to help people who might be in danger right now.
Arthur Sze: I am not specifically in touch with people in Russia though when I was in Vilnius I met an anarchist group of artists. They call themselves Uzupis, which is named for a specific part of the city that literally means me “beyond the river.” When I visited Vilnius, my host, Kerry Keys, introduced me to Tomás Cepaitis, the cultural ambassador of Uzupis. Uzupis has facetiously, and also with a touch of seriousness, declared itself as its own Republic inside of the city. After lunch Tomás invited me to be a cultural ambassador to Uzupis from New Mexico, and I accepted. Uzupis has its own proclamation—much of it is facetious and Dadaist, but the very last item struck me with a lot of power. This was before the invasion of the Ukraine, and it said, Do not surrender. Very simple—but so powerful in terms of the history of Lithuania and Eastern Europe. So although I’m not directly involved with the writers there, it’s very much on my mind because of that trip and having been so close to the places of conflict.
Ann van Buren: I have one more question that will bring us back to your poetry. I’m very curious about the typographical strike-through lines that appear over some words in your book Sight Lines. Why do you use strike-throughs in your text, instead of deleting the words completely? I read that this was relevant to the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Can you explain that?
Arthur Sze: Yes. I came to strike-through lines through a collaboration with a sculptor here in Santa Fe, Susan York. She is a Zen Buddhist, and she does lots of drawing with graphite, which involves layering. She asked if I would collaborate with her, and I spent time in her studio to watch her process. As I saw her add layer and layer of graphite over the same surface, I thought about how the process was incorporated into the final work of art. That collaborative poem, which is called “The Unfolding Center” was the first time I used strike-through lines.
In that poem I tried to use the strike-throughs when different personae, or different voices were under emotional pressure. The strike-throughs happened when a character would—in my imagination—blurt out or say something under pressure and then think oh, that’s not quite right and then they would revise it. And so strike-through lines came to me as a form of showing something was inaccurate and needed to be revised. But I liked that in having a word and then striking through it and then having a word after that which was not struck through, a moment of tension was created. So rather than pretend it didn’t happen, I tried to capture the movement of consciousness and the enactment of that voice revising itself. That carried over into Sight Lines and its opening poem where there’s a man who was tortured during the Cultural Revolution in China who writes calligraphy with water. He writes with a brush on slate and these beautiful characters evaporate and disappear with the sunrise. At one point he says sun, and then moon, which is a complete contrast; but that revision creates a kind of tension, the tension of wanting to get things right.
I came to strike-through lines through the sense of trying to explore voice and the revision of voice and a sense of accuracy and trying to preserve that moment of tension. Then I discovered the French deconstructionists used strike-through lines and they arrived at it from Martin Heidegger, who in a famous letter says there’s a real value to using strike-through lines.
It’s called sous rature in French, which means under erasure. Heidegger asserted: because the words are necessary, they remain legible; because the words are inaccurate, they are struck through. I loved that. It was exactly what I was trying to do. The word is there because it’s necessary. It’s part of that first step or stage. And then it’s struck through, because the speaker recognizes it’s inaccurate, but that tension is kept there visually. Interestingly, I started to do a lot of strike-through lines and I thought, oh, this could totally get out of hand. You could strike out 90% of a poem and then that just becomes kind of gimmicky or whatever. So I’ve found that if I’m very sparing, as a poet, it could have a lot of power to it.
Ann van Buren: It’s another reference to what’s there, but what we don’t see—sort of like the underground networks in nature.
Arthur Sze: Yes, definitely, that’s another way of connecting it.
Ann van Buren: Oh, that’s very beautiful. Well, is there anything else you would like to tell us?
Arthur Sze: I just want to add that I’m really excited to have the opportunity to come to Katonah and read for you. I’ve never been there, but, in my mind I have a sense of a pastoral setting with a long tradition of poetry at the library.
Ann van Buren: Thank you so much. We are all looking forward to hearing your poetry!
Arthur Sze: I’m excited to be able to come and read there soon.
Katonah Poetry Series is happy to host Arthur Sze at the Katonah Village Library on April 24th, at 4PM. This reading will also be broadcast on Zoom. Registration information for both the live and virtual will be posted on this page.