Main Image

An Interview with Arthur Sze

(Arthur Sze’s ninth book of poetry, Compass Rose (Copper Canyon, 2014), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A new collection, Sight Lines, will be published by Copper Canyon in February 2019. His poem "Dawn Redwood" is included in the Harvard Advocate's upcoming Cell issue.)

EE— First of all — thank you so much for taking the time to meet! We at the Advocate are huge fans of your work and incredibly excited to be publishing “Dawn Redwood” in Cell.

In reading your poems, something that’s really struck me is their sort of contemplative traveling energy — reading them we transit through their images, say, from a landscape into the cells of a tree into the cosmic scale of stars. Are your poems driven by memory, by research, by invention — what would you say is the driving thread connecting the images of your poems?

AS— That’s one of the mysteries of art, and I’m not sure I can be the best articulator of it! But I can say that my work has to do with braiding, and with exploring what’s happening in different spaces, allowing the imagination to jump or move, in a way that isn’t linear but still convergent, so that the disparate worlds going on are braiding different narratives or lines of exploration, influencing and affecting each other. So the process of creation is very different from that of a narrative poem, where you might have a more linear sort of causality running through — I’m more interested in a kind of simultaneity. It’s an intuitive process, developing those lines of memory; I like to think that memory and desire make up the axis that runs through my work.

EE— At the Advocate, when we are publishing poems, we often find ourselves arguing about the importance of aesthetic beauty versus the ideas of a poem. I see your work drawing imagistic threads and thoughts very elegantly into the reader’s sight and then leaving them there for us to connect — do you think it’s productive for a reader to try to track down capital-I Ideas in one of your poems, to press it for what it’s really saying? How should we be thinking about it once we have read it?

AS— I think it’s an endless question. It’s a question of priority, and whether you can prioritize the elegance of language, or the idea or urgency behind the poem; I’m most interested in the tension between the two. Unlike a math equation where there’s a correct answer, in poetry it has more to do with reconciling those forces which can appear to be antithetical; if a poem’s successful, it resolves them in an interesting way. So I think I want that urgency first, and I also want that elegance of language, and elegance of language in itself isn’t enough, but urgency that’s just a sort of raw spouting isn’t satisfactory either. So the process of creating a poem is to strike a kind of balance, and I don’t think it’s fixed. I want to propose that these forces move through the poem, and they need to balance each other for the poem to be successful.

EE— In workshop Jorie Graham tells us that if we sit down knowing what we want to write about, and get up having written that exact poem, we are doing it wrong — that a poem has to change and respond to itself as it’s written. As a poet, do you find this to be the case? Or do you ever end up writing exactly what you intended to?

AS— I’m in agreement with Jorie about this. I’ll phrase it a little differently — if I as a poet know what I’m going to write about, and I have the end in mind or in sight, I can do that, but in my experience those don’t turn out to be very satisfactory poems. And part of the difficulty, I think, is that there isn’t enough room for discovery. So I like the idea that you might set out with that intention in mind knowing that you can jettison it, that it’s just the thing to get you started. But if you are just writing the poem you have in mind and you complete it, it’s very hard to have a deep sense of surprise, and to honor the process of discovery which is so important to a poem. One of the things I like about Jorie’s poetry is its sense of the mind in the process of discovery. Then it’s very clear that the process is integral to the product, to the end poem, because the poem is tracking the movement of the imagination and the movement of the mind in a way that couldn’t be foreseen.

I do want to say that sometimes you can write a poem with a kind of emotional pressure behind it. I’m thinking of “Dawn Redwood” — I didn’t know what the poem would be about, but C.D. Wright was a very good friend of mine. We’d known each other for I think about thirty years. So her death was a great shock and loss and surprise when I heard about it. I knew I wanted to write something about her, but I didn’t know what shape it would take. And then when I started to think in terms of memory, I remembered the next-to-last time I saw her, when we walked through a cemetery — and that’s in the poem. So I just wanted to give a general idea of the approach: instead of saying “I know what the poem is going to be about,” and writing it out, which isn’t very satisfying, you can take an emotional pressure and say “I know I’m going to write something about, vaguely, this person or situation or feeling of loss”, and then see what happens. And for me, fragments, phrases, images, snippets of speech, those are like the sparks or seeds for the poem.

EE— Absolutely — just as memory and desire make up the connecting thread! I want to ask just a little more about the poem “Dawn Redwood”, and in particular about that lovely difficult last line, “the scratched words return to their sleeves”. Some of us thought it was talking about a vinyl record, some of us thought it was about words carved into slowly-healing tree bark…

AS— I love poems that are rich in ambiguity, and I think both of those readings are fine, in terms of the last line —although they’re different, that doesn’t mean you have to select one reading over another. It’s from a poem of C.D.’s called “Floating Trees”, and that’s always interested me, the idea of a tree that can float, and of course the dawn redwood is one of the earliest trees. I like the idea of a vinyl record slipped back into its casing, but I also thought of it like this: the words and the language that she’s written somehow change after she’s died, that the speaker of the poem somehow gets the sense that in the poems she’s written, “the words return to their sleeves”…they’ve returned to some sort of hiding or resting position, waiting to come out again. It’s not as though they’ve been lost, but they’re going through some sort of dormancy, a sense of being aside somehow in a space.

EE— Wow—we hadn’t thought of that, but it makes perfect sense!

AS— I’m going to quote a Misty School poet Gu Cheng — he once told me, “Arthur, sometimes the poem needs to be a little smarter than the poet writing it.” And I’ve always liked that comment, because again, it has to do with a sense of discovery and immersion, of discovering something in the process of writing it that one couldn’t have foreseen, and to me that’s one of the thrills of writing —“oh, why didn’t I see that” or “why didn’t I experience that”, but I couldn’t have done that until I started writing. You have to stay open, to resist knowing where you’re going too soon. I think too often young poets want to get to what the end is, or what appears to be in sight, but actually over time you learn to resist that; resisting it allows the opportunity for unforeseen things to come into the poem, and those are so important. So, for me, I can talk process — I had four or five different lines of C.D. Wright’s that were in that position of the poem’s last thought — and I had a phrase that was something like “I made do with things that came my way”, which was from another poem of hers, “The Box This Comes In”. But that didn’t feel right, and I had another line, and that didn’t feel right, so I was just thumbing through her different books, and that phrase leapt out at me. So I thought: I don’t quite understand it, but it’s rich in implications, it’s got a kind of mystery, and again, I liked the sense of concealment and revelation, and it just felt right to make that the end of the poem.

EE— You mentioned the process of young poets—what advice would you give a young poet starting out?

AS— The most important thing is to keep writing! To not stop writing. Years and years ago I sat in on a workshop with Lilly Hellman, the playwright, she had a class at Berkeley — and I could never write fiction, but was interested in what she had to say, so I sat in on the classes. And I remember sitting in her office one day, and she said to me, “Arthur, I don’t know a damn thing about poetry, but I can give you one piece of advice: write, write, write. Don’t stop writing.” Because if you stop for even six months, it’s like losing the muscles and the control of language that you need to master. That’s my first piece of advice.

My other one is to not think too much about what the current trends are, about what’s popular, what’s in vogue. Particularly in graduate school, you can see younger poets pick up the style of the poet they’re studying with, which is not their actual style; it’s just the stage at which they’ve learnt someone else’s style. I think the important thing is Rilke’s advice, which is to go back deep into yourself and ask: is this work sprung from necessity? Because that’s really crucial, that sense of language coming from a really powerful, deep place inside of you. And to know that it’s going to be years of struggle.

EE— So when are you satisfied with something you’ve written, and when should we be satisfied with something we’ve put on the page?

AS— Again, it’s an endless question. Valery said that he never finished a poem — he just abandoned them. My own process is much slower now than when I was your age. When I was a student at Berkeley I’d finish a poem and say to myself, “It’s done, I can send it out!” But now I finish a poem and I say, “I have no idea if it’s any good or not,” and I need to put it aside for a couple of months and see what happens. Then I’ll come back and look at it, and realize that a line is wrong or a phrase is wrong or I need to change something. When I was young I was maybe too hurried to say something was done and move on to the next thing — but that’s an illusion. Over time I’ve learnt not to trust that judgment; to err on the side of not doing anything, which is very difficult. So this is the perspective of sitting on something and not acting—that resting period is also a part of the gestation process, and you can make more changes to the poem, and put it away, let it rest, get back to it…ultimately I do get to a position where I feel that, if I keep working on the poem, I’m going to make it worse — I can feel that it’s getting away from me. I often feel that I tend to write beyond where the final poem is, which I can’t see. I put in phrases and realize, instinctively, that they are damaging or weakening the poem, or getting too far from the essential impulse—and then I’ll put it aside and backtrack, so my other advice is to save your drafts, so you can go back and trace the turns you’ve made.

EE— Right!

AS— And at times I’ve thought a poem was done and showed it to one or two trusted readers, and end up saying to myself “Why didn’t I see this?” And in that case I also say to myself — well, I could have kept it in the drawer for another three months, but that amount of time wouldn’t have mattered — I wouldn’t have seen it, but the moment someone did, I could see right away what needed work. So it’s not just putting something aside for an amount of time, either—that’s no guarantee that you’ll come back and make the work better.

EE— Also — I myself study Chinese classical poetry, and I recall reading that you translate classical Chinese poetry in addition to your own poems! I was wondering whether you find that your own work draws from the Chinese classics as well. As a reader I almost see a similar treatment of the nature-image — these elegant discrete images paralleling each other — in your work and, for instance, the landscape poems of Wang Wei.

AS— I think it’s both an intentional and intuitive process. I can say that in earlier days I turned to translation as a means of learning my craft — I didn’t go to graduate school. When I was at UC Berkeley I immersed myself in Tang Dynasty poetry. My early translations came out of wanting to translate, but also wanting to explore language and selfishly think about what I could learn from them as poets. But I was also dissatisfied with the translations available in English at the time, and thought I might as well try my own. At the time I saw the poets as models to learn from — but today, Tang poetry seems claustrophobic to me. How many times can you read a Li Bai poem, and have moonlight, and wine, and rivers, and the constriction of vocabulary…that constriction can create a sort of power, but it can also be limiting. So in my own evolution I worked with the Tang Dynasty poets, but I also wanted to look at poets of other eras — Tao Qian, and Wen Yiduo in the the twentieth century. I particularly liked working with Wen Yiduo because he knew that classical tradition, but he broke it apart. He was writing in vernacular, of course. And his nine-character line really interests me. It has a kind of architectural decorum but also there’s a kind of rhythmical loosening that happens that interests me.

So I know Chinese poetry well, I’ve drawn from it, but I’ve also wanted to break from it as well. I got to the stage where the sources that I haven’t translated have become more important to me: the Zhuangzi, the Daoist text, or Qu Yuan’s Tianwen, the “Questions Regarding Heaven”. Or even the Yi Ching. And those aren’t works I think I could translate — I wouldn’t be happy with what I came up with. But today those are works that are more inspirational to me than the Tang poems. But the Tang poems were really valuable as a stage. And — can I tell a parable?

EE— Please do!

AS— When I taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts I used to tell my students a story that has to do with Japanese tea ceremonies. A merchant wants to impress Rikyu — the man who coalesced all the key elements of the tea ceremony — with his good taste, so he spends a small fortune buying a tea bowl. He asks Rikyu to do a tea ceremony with it, and so he does, and at the end the merchant says, “Well, how was it?” He’s hoping that Rikyu will compliment him on his good taste, but instead Rikyu says, “It was okay, I wasn’t that interested.” And the moment Rikyu leaves, the merchant takes that bowl and he throws it on the floor and shatters it, he’s so pissed that it didn’t have the effect that he wanted—I like to think of that bowl as a metaphor for a poem. Now, his friend is aghast, and gathers up the shards, and glues them together, and puts it on a shelf. And years later Rikyu comes back and picks up this bowl and says “This is the most fantastic tea bowl I’ve seen. Who made it?” Well, if you think of who made it: there’s the original potter; there’s the merchant who buys it, who tries to impress Rikyu, who throws and breaks it apart; Rikyu is a part of the creation of the new pot, since his lack of interest in the first one led to that breaking-apart; and then the friend who glues it back together is also a maker. And the new bowl, irregular and poorly shaped, is beyond the control of any one individual, but all of those steps were necessary to create that really great tea bowl.

So I like to think of that as a metaphor for how, when you’re a young poet, that bowl is the conception of a poem that you’re striving for. And maybe having the whole poem in mind, knowing just what you’re striving for: that’s the first bowl. And you shouldn’t necessarily negate that; you might want to pursue it, and you might want to experiment with breaking it apart. Breaking it apart might be flipping the ends and the beginnings, changing the form of the poem, putting it into one-line stanzas, taking apart phrases and reassembling them, and asking yourself what is the beginning and what’s the ending. Then the final poem can have shards of the original intention and vision, but it’s quite different.

EE— That’s a really useful way of thinking of it! I was wondering, also: Chinese poetry in particular is a tremendously deep cultural heritage that the modern English-language reader doesn’t have much access to. What starting point would you recommend to the English-language reader?

AS— Do you know François Cheng’s Chinese Poetic Writing? I like to send American readers there first; I think it’s recently been reissued. He’s Chinese, born in Shanghai but grew up in Paris, and he’s very influenced by semiotics, systems of language and signs. The first half of the book is a series of essays that combine discussion of Chinese poetry with Chinese painting and music, and his reading of the space inside of some Chinese characters is revelatory. The essays are so provocative — they open a lot of windows for an American reader to see into.

EE— Right! It seems to me that when talking about English poetry we talk a lot about ambiguity and implication and the sort of hidden valences that echo in a word or line without being fully stated. I’ve always wondered how to address that in Chinese poems.

AS— Right. Translation’s an impossible task. But one of the fun things is navigating the different choices one has to make. I think François Cheng is really great at looking at the space in the characters. So there’s a poem by Liu Changqing and it says: “芳草閉閑門”, or “Fragrant grasses block the idle gate”. And he shows that “閉閑門”, “block the idle gate”, has the door radical, “門”, three times. The first one contains the character “才”, “talents”, and the next has “木”, “tree”, and then there’s nothing in the third one. And his reading is: the third one with nothing in that empty space is really saying empty yourself, or let go of your attachment to your own talents, and your attachment to material things. And so when the speaker wants to step from the door to meet his Zen teacher, he has to physically cross the threshold, but he also has to empty himself of these material attachments. I mean—how can you translate that?

EE— You can’t!

AS— You can’t. So that’s why his essays, I think, are really valuable; because they give a glimpse of the different layers of a poem, that, for an English reader, can be mindboggling.

EE— I’ll have to look that up! I have just two more quick questions: could you tell us what you’re going to read here at Harvard later, and could you tell us what you are working on right now?

AS— I’m going to read a selection from three different books later this afternoon: a good selection from Compass Rose; I’m going to read the title poem of my previous book, The Ginkgo Light, and then I’m going to read new poems. So I may actually change as I go this afternoon — but I’m thinking roughly half of my reading will be new work. I’ve recently completed a new book called Sightlines, and that’ll come out in early 2019 from Copper Canyon. That book has an unusual structure to it: it has six dimensional lines that run through the text. So instead of section dividers, there’s a poem, and then there’s a one-line poem and it’s all white space. And then other poems, and another one-liner, and so on. And those one-liners are on the one hand like one-line haiku, or like flash; they also disrupt the motion of the poem-to-poem movement, and they create a tension but also a non-sequitur of disorientation. So, you know, I’m not going to be the most popular poet in terms of book sales, but it interests me how much disorientation or suspension one can have before there’s a kind of convergence or revelation. So in this new book the six one-liners that appear to have little to do with the poems going on around them, other than disrupt the flow and introduce a different kind of dimensionality: all of those six lines come back in the next-to-last poem, which is called “Sightlines”. And it couldn’t be the last poem — but it needed to be the next-to-last poem, so that there is this convergence. Then there’s a long poem that ends the book that I’ll probably read this afternoon.

So that’s what I’ve just finished, and I’m still fine-tuning phrases here and there; it’s still too early for me to think about what the next book’s going to be like, but I have written a few poems that have come to me as well.