Interview by Ayleen Perry
In fall 2017, poet Arthur Sze keynoted the second annual ECO-Poetry, Technology, and Place conference at Southern Utah University. There, undergraduate honors student Ayleen Perry sat down with Arthur to discuss poetry, culture, and the muse-fed craft of image-making.
About Arthur Sze
Arthur Sze is the author of nine books of poetry, including Compass Rose (a Pulitzer Prize finalist), The Ginkgo Light, Quipu, The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998, and Archipelago, all published by Copper Canyon Press. His tenth book of poetry, Sight Lines, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon in early 2019. He is the recipient of many awards, including a Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers, a Lannan Literary Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. He was a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2012 to 2017 and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. A Professor Emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Arthur Sze lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
In the essay “Poetry Unexplained”, Jon Davis discussed the evolution of Arthur Sze’s poetry, writing that, in River River, “Sze was not embodying a preconceived idea, he was exploring a world of things and events that were happening simultaneously, but that were also synchronous—meaningfully, but mysteriously, related. We’re free to discover a scheme, a theory, an explanation, but the poem will also remain itself, just as the world is amenable to various schema but also stubbornly exists beyond any one particular theory. The poems both invite and deflect interpretation. And this combination of interconnectivity, (possibly) causality-at-a-distance, and letting things be exactly themselves is an inherently ecological position, which is why those studying the relatively new field of ecopoetics are exploring Sze’s works.”
Ayleen Perry: Your work has been described as an “intersection of Taoist contemplation, Zen rock gardens, and postmodern experimentation” by critic John Tritica. How do you give yourself permission to tap into different inspirations, or muses, for your writing?
Arthur Sze: I’m not sure it’s about giving permission, really. I find that when I’m writing, I write lots of fragments and lots of phrases. I almost think of them as charged phrases and, though I may not understand them completely, there could be a sharp visual image or rhythm—a musicality to the phrase. I need to spread out and give myself room to discover what’s really there. In letting the poem expand and discover where its terrain is, it goes into a lot of different arenas—and I’m using arenas as equivalent to muses.
John Tritica is talking about a kind of Taoist contemplation that only serves one element, or river, to my work. Sometimes I’ll draw in contemporary science or physics and sometimes I’ll draw in weaving, so how that happens is mysterious. I just know that when I’m writing, I need to allow my imagination room to jump, leap, and make different connections so that different worlds are brought together and different muses are explored.
I don’t always know what’s going to be there in the final poem, so I tend to make more of a mess of things and there may be a lot more connections or muses or worlds that are there at different stages. Then, there’s the refining process. So in terms of giving permission, it’s more like a process of discovery and drawing on different streams of inspiration.
Ayleen Perry: Though you may not know where your poems are going, the imagery is vivid and concrete, as if you’ve had these scenes painted in your head forever. Do you draw inspiration for images by surrounding yourself with nature or from past experiences, or do you simply create them as you craft your poems?
Arthur Sze: I draw inspiration from so many things in life around me. It can be an image from nature, from taking a walk, or from seeing something. I like to write early in the morning when it’s dark and the sunrise is coming and things emerge out of the darkness. So sometimes I’ll see something when I’m writing; that change of light is really helpful for me. But it could also be a snippet of a conversation, like overhearing a phrase. For example, my son, when he was very young, said, “When will it be tomorrow?” He was sitting in the backseat of the car. I was struck by that line, the idea of time and consciousness, and I thought that someday that was going to go in a poem—and it did.
Sometimes travel will be an inspiration, as well. Last summer I was in Havana, Cuba for a week, for an international poetry festival, and the moment I saw a man pushing this huge cart with dangling onions on the street, it was an unforgettable image. I didn’t know what to expect from Cuba. I knew that moment, that image, would find its way into a poem. And it’s not like I see something and think: I’m going to put that in a poem. It might be years later that I see something and then through recollection, through memory, it comes back.
Ayleen Perry: So like snapshots that you take of different things you experience?
Arthur Sze: I think of them as charged moments, or revelatory moments. George Zweig, a contemporary physicist, once said to me, “The great question of 20th century particle physics is, ‘Where does matter end and space begin?’” I’ll never forget that line. Eventually, it found a place in an elegy for Gu Cheng, a Chinese poet who killed himself. Sometimes, the way that I assemble poems has unlikely sources or unlikely juxtapositions, but they have grounding in real experience. They’re not something I get from looking at a book.
Ayleen Perry: In the poem “Fault Lines”, you weave in images that vary widely, such as the temperature of a cup, the color of a Siberian tiger, and the aroma of minty air. How do you manage to contrast imagery and bring a sense of chiaroscuro—that is, the treatment of light and shade—into your poems?
Arthur Sze: I want to begin by talking specifically about the background to “Fault Lines,” and that will probably answer the questions you are posing. For about 20 years, I lived in Jacona, New Mexico, which is north of Santa Fe and in a valley. From my writing studio, I could see the lights of Los Alamos when it was dark, and I’ve always been interested in scientists who work there. There are some scientists who work in physics, for instance, and making interesting discoveries, but of course another aspect to Los Alamos are the technicians who are working in bomb making or nuclear materials. I was thinking of someone very specific who worked with plutonium, and I actually knew his daughter. She was our babysitter, and we used to talk about her father and what he did. She described how he would go to the lab every morning and he would work with plutonium, and of course, he would wear a suit. And as I thought about someone in that position, I tried to think about the danger that’s involved with that and the danger one would potentially be exposed to every day; that sense of imminent danger is always there.
One afternoon I was in a hurry, and I happened to put some water in a small, porcelain teacup and I microwaved it to heat it up. When I pulled it out, I was astonished to see these little beginning fractures, like heat lines. I could see shards around it. And the moment I saw that, it was like the spark to the poem. I had this idea that when the cup is normal temperature, you don’t see any of those fracture lines, but when it is put under stress, suddenly you see all these lines and it’s on the verge of shattering or breaking apart. The heat of the microwave did that.
And I thought of the inside and the outside of a person and how anyone under stress suddenly has fracture lines that start to show. So I started to experiment, thinking of how I could write about someone in this experience, and phrases came to me. Writing is a mysterious process. I think at a certain point, on a gut level, I was just writing phrases. I wasn’t trying to orchestrate it, but I knew I wanted to write about someone who was putting himself in a dangerous situation and arriving at a kind of threshold of stress. And I explored when that might appear, or disappear—and I had this idea that I just projected onto this character. It might be someone who started out in science, who wanted to discover things, but ended up being a technician and was frustrated. He thought he would discover all these great things, but here he is, working with radioactive material to make a living. The phrase, “What have I done? What can I do?” in the poem is this articulation of this kind of frustration and despair. As I worked with a lot of those phrases, I think the idea of being a caged animal, a Siberian tiger, came to me because I’ve always been struck by the motion of the color when a tiger is moving. I also thought of the poem by Rilke on the panther that is trapped in a cage and how its spirit dies inside of him. So this contrast between the inner world and the outer world is something I knew I wanted to explore. But it was the action of taking the cup out of the microwave and heating it to make mint tea that was the trigger. I had this sense of visible fracture lines that don’t quite fracture, and I had this technician doing something that he didn’t really want to do, and then I just played with that and it came together. I can’t intellectually say how I manage that sense of chiaroscuro, but I think that all of those elements were there. And sometimes when I have a lot of fragments, I think of a through line; it’s a theatre term. It’s an invisible thread that strings all of the words together. My through line was that sense of despair running through the poem.
Ayleen Perry: “Sometimes he feels like an astronaut suspended / above Earth twisting on an umbilical cord,” you write in the poem. In these lines the narrator locates himself in a moment. How can writers locate themselves in a moment and translate that onto paper?
Arthur Sze: Charles Simic once said, “The secret wish of a poem is to stop time.” And I think Octavio Paz once changed it and said, “The secret wish of a poem is to transfigure time.” I think one of the things a poem certainly can do is arrest time and make one see something in a way that is unforgettable. In this particular case, in terms of the poem, I had this sensation that the speaker, who was feeling trapped, was feeling like, “What have I done? What can I do?” He’s got to make a living. He’s handling plutonium. There’s a sense of isolation and distance from everyone else, so that image came to me. Sometimes, he feels like an astronaut above earth suspended on an umbilical cord. That image came to me as a way of visualizing that sense of dislocation.
So how can a writer locate himself or herself in a moment? I think when I write these images, I’m looking for charged moments, or what I would call heat moments, in a poem. I used to have students read a poem and I would say, “If you were walking into a room blind, where are the moments of heat?” Where are the moments that are most alive in a poem? And in some ways, that’s a way of helping to locate a moment; that’s really powerful. It’s like you have that sensation, so I think it’s not so much about translating that onto paper, but it’s about discovering those phrases or moments and then recognizing their charge. They have a lot of energy and they earn their way into the poem. As I’m revising, I can use a phrase and see that if it doesn’t have a lot of heat or life to it, it’s not essential, so I strip it away. Then, there’s another phrase or image that has a lot of heat and it earns its way into the poem. I think a lot of that is the process of discovery.
Ayleen Perry: You have a particular way of using “I” in your poetry. The first-person perspective is focused on the exterior, physical world, rather than the interior world. Take the poem “Morning Antlers,” for example: “I kicked and flipped a wing,” and “I see how picking spinach in a field blossoms the picker.” Young writers often get stuck in a box when writing in first person and end up disconnected from the exterior world. What advice do you have for young writers trying to escape that box when using “I” in their poetry?
Arthur Sze: That’s another wonderful question. I personally like to use “I” in a poem, but I think of it as a type of archetypal self. I think of the “I” that I use in my poems also as a vehicle, and in that sense, it connects to Buddhism or Taoism. I think you need a speaker to ground the perspective and voice of the poem, but my “I” isn’t wallowing in a confessional mode. The “I” I like to use is more like an eye, a human eye, looking and observing. I feel like it’s a vehicle in the sense that I want this “I” to be an archetypal “I” where anyone can feel that’s the human experience happening. You don’t need to know the history of that speaker, but it carries an authenticity and weight of experience that is old, as well as very present.
I started writing at a time when confessional poetry was very popular, but I think many of the poets of the time wallowed in their despair and certainly made their personal angst the subject of the poem. Also, they risked a kind of sentimentality, a kind of manipulation of the reader, pulling him or her into this wallowing existential abyss. In a way, there are these two extremes and I think that the young writer needs to discover how the “I” is not necessarily a box. I think of the “I” as alive, rather than a fixed thing. I think the “I” is not a single entity. That’s another way to advise the young writer to conceive of the “I”, just like you might think I am different tomorrow than I am from today or than I was from five years ago. There are different aspects to oneself, like the eye of a fly that can have composite parts, and so there are different ways of looking at the use of the “I”. Rimbaud, the French poet, actually said, “‘I’ is an ‘other.’” He alienated himself from the first person singular and just thought of the “I” as another character on stage. The young poet can try using the “you” or the “she” or “he” or a “we”. I like to experiment with changing the pronouns because that changes the perspective and experience of a poem.
Ayleen Perry: I understand that you believe a poem should grow and reveal itself, not knowing too soon where the poem is going or what it’s about. How can writers learn to “follow their nose” when writing poetry and not go into the writing process married to a preconceived idea?
Arthur Sze: I think that often—I can’t say always because you can always break the rules—but often I would say that if you start writing a poem with a preconceived idea, the tendency is to direct the poem in order to accomplish or fulfill that idea. The problem is that there’s less discovery, there’s less surprise, and ultimately, there’s less urgency to that kind of a poem. Sometimes, an idea can help you get started, and then when you start to write, you discover something that was at the edge of what you thought—and then that’s when the real poem begins. I guess I want to say that while ideas can be good, you shouldn’t be wedded to them. If you stay committed to them, you put a fence around yourself and limit what you can write or discover. But sometimes, the idea can get you started and you discover something that you couldn’t have foreseen that gets something going. I think it was Picasso who said, “It’s good to start with an idea; it always becomes something else in the end.” I think one has to be willing to throw away the idea that helps you get started.
Ayleen Perry: As I write, I find myself pulling from my culture for inspiration. Like a mosaic, all the different pieces of glass are different elements of my Afro-Latina culture that are then held together by plaster. As a Chinese American poet, how do you tuck in elements of your culture into your poetry, and what do you use as your plaster in order for the “mosaic” to come together?
Arthur Sze: I’d like to mention a couple of things. I would say the equivalent of plaster for me is silence—empty space. I like to have a lot of strings of images, or webs of images, without commentary. In many ways, I’m trying to demolish a kind of hierarchy in saying this image is more important than the other. I’m trying to present a lot of images and letting the reader make the connections, or lack of connections. In a poem, there’s a one-line phrase, then silence, then a one-line phrase, then silence. How do those words connect? The reader has to realize that the second line picks up a word from the first line, and the first line picks up a word from the title. What does it mean that each line has some type of thread or connection? Ultimately, this is not about trying to take things and putting them up on a wall and filling it in with plaster. It’s more like the silence is giving it breathing room and giving the reader space to imagine. I think it’s really important that the reader has space to wander inside a poem, that it isn’t an overwhelming amount of information.
As to the different elements of my culture, I grew up speaking Chinese in New York City before I spoke English. Then I studied classical Chinese at the University of California, Berkeley and I could read and translate classical Chinese poems to English. That’s a thread that is very important to me, but I’m writing in English. One of the things I want to do in writing my poems in English is draw from my ancestry, and you can obviously do it from your Afro-Latina culture. For me, as a Chinese-American poet, I’m drawing on the lineage of great classical Chinese poetry and philosophy.
When I look at how Chinese language is constructed, for instance, if you write the character autumn, it’s an image. You write plant, tips, and then you juxtapose it with fire to create the word autumn. You are creating an image. And if you write the character autumn and then you write heart and mind below it, you are putting autumn in the heart and mind and that creates the character sorrow. So there are these juxtapositions happening inside of Chinese characters without commentary that generate meaning.
One of the things I’ve learned from that tradition is to take elements of images and juxtapose them to create potentially metaphoric connections, but I’m not ever making them explicit; it’s for the reader to sense that. Jay Wright, a black poet, draws on West African mythology and ceremony in his poetry. He grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was a baseball player and he’s got a streak of Spanish and Latino culture in him. He’s lived in Mexico and he was once asked, “How do you put these worlds together?” He said, “I don’t. They’re already there. I’m just revealing the weave of the fabric that’s already there.”
In some ways, I feel like that’s the case for me. I’m drawing on these different elements, but I’m not forcing them together. I mean, I grew up speaking Chinese, so I’m going to draw on that. I’ve lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for 45 years. I also taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts for 22 years and worked with students from 250 tribes across the United States. That wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t move to Santa Fe, but having lived there for 45 years, that interaction with Native American cultures was really influential to me.
Also, I’m a science dropout; my father wanted me to be an engineer. He wanted me to be a scientist, like he was, so I started college at MIT, but then I started to write poetry. At first I thought, “I can’t use physics or electrons in a poem. I’m rejecting that.” Then years later, I thought, “I can draw on that experience. I know that world. Why not put electrons in a poem?” There is no inherent poetic vocabulary, so that’s another stream I’m drawing on. But then again, I’m not asking, “How can I use exotic scientific language in a poem?” For years, as a child of immigrants from China, I was pushed to learn math and science because that was considered a safe profession. Although I turned away from that at a certain point, I thought, “I can use that experience.”
So I think a lot of the sources for any poet are already there, and you can nurture them. For instance, if you were to take an interest in weaving, you’d discover that you can meet weavers. You can develop that knowledge and experience, so I don’t want to say this came ready made for me in terms of what I do as a poet. I’ve had to earn over time how to bring in the language of science, or Native culture, or Chinese culture, to the poem—and into how I work.
Ayleen Perry: So writing truly is a process of discovery?
Arthur Sze: Absolutely. The best poems for me occur when it is slightly scary and I don’t know what’s going to happen. For instance, right now, I have just finished several poems inspired by being in Havana, and snippets of conversations with Cuban poets—and I didn’t know that was going to happen. I knew that giving a series of poetry readings in Havana and having intense conversations with Cuban poets and Cuban people would spark something. Also, after completing a few sections of a sequence, I heard about the hurricane and its aftermath. I got emails from a new friend and heard how there was no food, no water, but that they were okay—it’s not like they had a lot to begin with. I just finished this poem in six sections and it’s called, “The Open Water.” I couldn’t have told you what it was going to be about, other than when I came back from Cuba, I felt some sense of urgency. I was really moved by conversations I’d had and by images that I saw. It shaped itself into this poem, which took about five months to write.
Ayleen Perry: What’s next for Arthur Sze?
Arthur Sze: I’m making final revisions to my manuscript, Sight Lines. There are still a few months before it goes into production, so I’m looking not only at the phrasing of the poems but also at the orchestration. And I’m writing new poems. It’s too soon for me to know where they will take me: I just want to stay open to the process of discovery.
Header image by Zibal Media, courtesy Pixabay.