Years ago, I checked out two of Arthur Sze’s books from the library at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Sze had taught there for many years but was gone by the time of my one school year there as Interim Faculty Secretary. I met him only once there when he came back for a reading/workshop.
In April of this year I attended an author’s event at CNM (Central New Mexico Community College) where I’m now working as part of the web team. Arthur was the keynote reader for the event. After his reading I purchased two of his books, one older and the one most recent, and asked him if would like to do an email interview about them.
Mary McCray: Let’s start with place. Do you live solely in New Mexico? Your poems are filled with classic New Mexican objects such as beans in a basket, mesas, the bosque, (a word I’ve had a hard time placing outside of New Mexico), cranes, juniper smoke, cottonwoods, coyotes, tarantulas, (both books mentioned those fellers), tin roofs, acequias, chiles (Compass Rose), adobes, chamisa, arroyos, chollas, red earth, jalapeno, salt (River River). You also name both known and obscure places including Chimayo, Camel Rock, Jacona, Jemez, the Sangre de Cristos, Tesuque Peak, Pecos (Compass Rose), the Chaco petroglyphs, the Ortiz and Jemez Mountains (River River). Not all New Mexican poets populate their poems with these objects and landmarkings. How do you feel about those places and how they serve your poems? Has living in New Mexico changed your writing in any significant way? Do you identify as a NM poet? As a Northern New Mexico poet?
Arthur Sze: Yes, I live solely in New Mexico. I’ve lived seventeen years in Jacona and twenty-five years in Santa Fe, though I travel a lot. In recent years, I’ve traveled to poetry festivals in China, Taiwan, India, Colombia, England, France, and the Netherlands, but I always come back, and New Mexico is my home ground. The place names are important markers to me—they help define and ground the landscape in my poetry—though I don’t want to be limited by geographic or aesthetic labels. I’m a poet who has a deep connection to New Mexico, but I don’t want to be simply identified as a New Mexico poet or Northern New Mexico poet, just as I wouldn’t want my poetry to be simply categorized as surrealist, cubist, experimental, or ecopoetic.
Mary: I’m interested in Zen Buddhism and have just finished an east/west project, so maybe this is why I sense a wabi sabi sensibility in your descriptions of some of those New Mexican objects, for instance the “desecrated sunflower stalks” in “After a New Moon” from Compass Rose. What is it about the Western and Eastern artifacts and tone that align so well together?
Arthur: Maybe Western and Eastern artifacts and cultural views are like yin and yang. Certainly the tones of East and West aren’t static. I’m glad you sensed wabi in “desiccated sunflower stalks,” since wabi contains a subtle beauty imbued below the surface.
Mary: I really loved the cross-cutting you did between New Mexico places and international locations, weaving together images and spot narratives between two far apart places in one poem. Afghanistan is merged with New Mexico in “The Curvature of Earth” from Compass Rose and in “The Moment of Creation” from River River. These weavings would seem hard to do because New Mexico is a very iconic and specific place. But all places become successfully blurred together in these poems. What inspired you to do this and were there technical challenges?
Arthur: I think this weaving together of places (that leads to a destabilization of place as a single, unified entity) evolved over time. Some of my early poems tend to have a more linear and single-minded narrative, but I hungered over time for a deeper, more resonant experience in language. Because Chinese linguistics and poetics draw so heavily on juxtaposition, I found writing that used surprising juxtapositions more interesting and fulfilling. It led me to create a different kind of poem, where the interactions between different elements were more like tessellation than linear narrative. This evolution occurred organically and naturally.
Mary: I’m always on the lookout for some good Albuquerque verse. Your poem “The Radius of Touch” (Compass Rose) is the first one I’ve seen about experience of taking the Albuquerque tram up the Sandia Mountains and views from there of the volcanoes and where “all lines diverge.” Do you sense a difference in how you write about the northern versus southern parts of New Mexico? Or about Arizona and Hopi?
Arthur: I don’t really distinguish the northern versus southern parts of New Mexico or New Mexico versus Arizona. I’ve written poems located at Moenkopi, on the Hopi reservation, but I’ve also written poems located in Edna Bay, Alaska, and in the Yellow Mountains of China. I do think the cultural and emotional energy of a specific place can inspire and influence the kind of poem that is written there.
Mary: At your reading for CNM months ago you talked about your early background in science. There is a definitely a “science-ness” is these two books, for example discussing Los Alamos and plutonium. But I was struck by all the sky places in Compass Rose, the astronomy and the way you describe the “argentine light” in “After a New Moon” or about the shape of the earth, Mars, satellites (“Curvature of Earth”), “Babylonian astronomers,” supernovas (“Red Breath”), dark matter (“Available Light”), Jupiter (“The Infinity Pool”), “planets bob in the sky” (“The Immediacy of Heat”), the Chandra telescope (“Spectral Hues”), the comet poem. River River takes us into the sky less frequently but there are mentions of quarks and the universe expanding. The titles of the poems in one way sound like classic physics textbook subheadings. But on closer inspection they provide a lingering sense of something more human with bodily sensations of heat or the attributes of breath or light that are less scientific. What makes up your “universe consciousness”? Is there a spiritual component to it? Is there a New Mexican aspect to living in an area of space-industry or in a location remote enough that you can actually see the Milky Way?
Arthur: Art and science are often thought of as antithetical, but I think, on a deep level, all creative endeavors come together. My knowledge of physics isn’t science out of a textbook. In the first two decades that I lived in Santa Fe, I met some of the leading physicists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and at the Santa Fe Institute. My conversations with Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann, George Zweig, and Richard Slansky deepened my understanding. I like that you find “a lingering sense of something more human with bodily sensations of heat or the attributes of breath” in my poetry, because I believe I personalized that knowledge. I’ve only seen a glimmering of the Milky Way once, at Chaco Canyon, but I don’t think that had any direct impact on my poetry. My sense of “universe consciousness” has to do with a Taoist sense of fundamental unity.
Mary: In the Compass Rose poems, many individuals suffer violent accidents of fate. There are burnings, bullets, car accidents made to seem inevitable and, in some cases, beauty results as in the line from “Confetti” where “a car flips/and scatters bright shards of CDs into the grass.” These are usually scary and graphic moments where you place your characters in the cross hairs. You talk about fault lines and the plethora of life’s dangers, human suffering where “a pang lodges” (“Orchid Hour”). In “The Unfolding Center” alone there are car accidents, sharks and volcanoes. In “Horse Face” from River River, a worker slips to his death and you ask us to “feel how difficult it is to / sense the entire danger of a moment.” Another person falls off a cliff, a rat is smashed, someone is stabbed, a botched suicide attempt cured a woman’s asthma (“The Negative”). There’s every violence from a motorcycle accident to stepping on a sea urchin (“The Shooting Star”). And then there are dogs in both books that are perpetrators and victims of violence. You speak of “the quotidian violence of the world” (“Shooting Star”/Compass Rose) and say that “to live at all is to grieve” (“The Silence”/River River). How do accidents and violence work in these poems? Is there a connection to the immediate moment, the torque of fate, or the idea being present? Are these factual or imaginative instances you’ve collected?
Arthur: We live in a world that is seething with tensions, and, though I feel free to invent when needed, I’m surprised at how often the acts of violence are genuine. For instance, I wrote “The Negative” after my first visit to China in 1985, and the sufferings of family relatives, as well as of other people I met through my uncle, were all first-hand accounts from the Cultural Revolution. It’s hard for us to imagine millions of people dying, and yet that’s what happened. In the month that I met relatives who were tortured and survived, the cumulative impact was powerful and profound. Charles Olson talks of a poem as having a high energy discharge, and “The Negative” was that accumulating charge and discharge for me. Similarly, after the worst prison riot in New Mexico history, I conducted poetry workshops at the Penitentiary of New Mexico with women, and then, a year later, with incarcerated men. At one point, I worked with an inmate on Death Row. The incident of “a man in prison is called horse face” came out of a poetry workshop that I conducted there. So these images of violence are not gratuitous or invented: in many ways, they’re powerfully charged moments that won’t go away.
Mary: There are parts of both books that consider the way the mind works. In “After a New Moon” from Compass Rose we see the mind moving and changing: “while the moon, no, the human mind/moves from brightest bright to darkest dark.” You even get a sense of the mind when you read, “Each second, a river/edged with ice shifts course.” In “Curvature of Earth” we see that “the branching/ of memory resembles these interconnected/ waterways.” In River River, “the world shifts as the mind shifts” (“Every Where and Every When”). In “Metastasis” there is “I think, no longer think. When we now speak of shifts in the mind and consciousness, science is showing a biological component to meditation and other mindfulness practices. To what extent do science and spirituality work together when you contemplate how the mind works? Are you influenced by one more than the other, or by personal experience?
Arthur: I’m most influenced by personal experience. Although I don’t formally practice meditation, I’m interested in how the mind shifts, wanders, or struggles to stay fixed. I would expect shifts in the mind to show up biologically, and, increasingly, my poetry is concerned with how these shifts manifest themselves physically.
Mary: There is a rich thisness in these books. The very symbol of the compass depicted as a rose shape on a map speaks to the beautiful orientations of mindfulness or Zen. In “The Unfolding Center” you even talk about “linkages that smoke, linkages that flower.” An “unobtrusive” point leads to revelation, even revolution. An “azure unthinking moment” turns into a moment that explodes (“The Halibut”). As opposed to working in a straight line or working at the edges and seams of things, a lot of your pieces seem to unfold from a center, similar to a flowering. Although in River River you talk about “a spiraling in to the point of origin” (“The Leaves of a Dream Are the Leaves of an Onion”). How do you see the structure of your poems? As working in to something or working outward?
Arthur: I’ve used different structures for short poems, sequences and books, but I believe the path of working inward and working outward are connected.
Mary: There’s also a specific kind of tension in your poems. In “Intimacy of Heat” you talk in terms of strings being tightened. There’s a line in “Curvature of Earth” that I first misread as “a complex vibrating of things.” What it really says is “a complex of vibrating strings.” Although your poems do seem like a vibrating of things! It seems at times you are trying to decipher the real physical/spiritual substance of matter in a combined literal and figurative sense. So the poems feel like they’re reaching for scientific closure but at the same time spiritual openness. I see this in the line from “The Intimacy of Heat,” that reads, “At dusk/our fingertips are edged with light,/the fifty-four bones of our hands/are edged with light.” There’s a particular thisness quality mixed with a surreal kind of “open point.”
You’re not dealing in abstractions but in very specific pains and objects and yet the lists and juxtapositions of multiple characters expand the universe. I guess I’m writing myself into the idea that this is the tension created in the poems: the open/closed, specific/expansive mashup, or wave of these two tensions, similar to “mortality’s/a wave” from “Spectral Hues.” How do you feel about the project of “thisness” as it’s used or needed in poetry and in your own journey as a poet?
Arthur: I take your “thisness” to mean that there’s a specific immediacy to my poetry. That specific immediacy is very important to me, and I think I saw, very early, how the Tang dynasty poetry that I admired, even though it was written over a thousand years ago, had a clarity and immediacy that made the poems enduring. Part of the immediacy comes out of sharp, clear imagery, but another part comes out of Chinese linguistics. In classical Chinese, the verbs are tenseless. When Chang Chi writes in “Mooring at Night by the Maple Bridge”: “moon sinks / crows cry / frost full sky,” the description from 726 CE could be happening today. I like how sensuous and immediate and visually sharp that line is, and I’m interested in finding a way for contemporary poetry to keep that immediacy but be attuned to our more complex, challenging, and contemporary world. I need to add that, at a certain point, I felt like ancient Chinese poetry could no longer help me—the vocabulary, parallelism, and syntax were too restricted—but it was a helpful and necessary stage of my evolution as a poet.
Mary: But then in the title poem “Compass Rose” you say simply, “sometimes a thistle is just/a thistle.” Do we sometimes over think it?
Arthur: Absolutely. Sometimes we need to just see and experience what is right in front of us.
Mary: There are overt Zen references in poems like “The Unfolding Center,” where we find tea leaves in a bowl, a snail unfurling and where “time/courses through the bowl of my hands.” There’s an “unfolding center of emptiness” and the speaker is seen to “tilt on the ongoing tide of my breath.” The last line of Compass Rose ends with “nothing in sight, in all directions:” ending with an open ended colon punctuation which opens the book into unwritten possibilities. In River River you have a Zen garden in one poem. In “The Silence” there’s an empty adobe and you talk about “taking the shape of the container.” I love the meditative quality of the poem “Here.” Has Buddhism been an influence in your work?
Arthur: The Zen notion of satori, of sudden insight and revelation, is important to me. Zen teaches that this moment frequently occurs without warning, that it’s quick, and that it’s irreversible. I’m not a practicing Zen Buddhist, but I like to make use of those possibilities as a poet. In “The Unfolding Center,” I collaborated with a visual artist, Susan York, who is a practicing Buddhist. I asked her questions about her process of creating layered graphite drawings, and her meditative practice of repetition influenced the creation of that poem.
Mary: In “Every Where and Every When” (River River) you say, “Everything is supposed to fit.” In another poem you say, “no single method can describe the world: /therin is the pleasure/of chaos, of leaps in the mind” (“The Leaves of a Dream Are the Leaves of an Onion”). Are these concepts of things fitting versus the pleasure of chaos early struggles or have they continued to be knot points for you?
Arthur: The tension between order and disorder continues to be part of a larger dialectic and contains knotted points for me.
Mary: Things and people are seen very precisely. There’s a precision of seeing in “Feel a drop of water roll/down a pine needle, and glisten/hanging, at the tip” (“Ten Thousand to One”). In “Shooting Star” you talk about “men who saw and saw and refuse to see.” What can you say about looking properly?
Arthur: I think an important role of poetry is to make us see clearly.
Mary: Compass Rose occasionally had these fleeting interludes, scraps of seeing. They almost felt like those interludes in Rap albums. Do you use these often? How do you use them to break up longer pieces in the book?
Arthur: I do not use these interludes often. In early drafts of Compass Rose, I was dissatisfied with the unfolding rhythm of the book. I had the book in sections, and the sections felt too static. One day, when I had the pages laid out on my studio floor, I looked at a poem in thirty-one lines, “Sarangi Music.” Each line of that poem is a one-line stanza, and each line has an image inspired by India. I suddenly realized that, instead of section dividers in the book, I could use these lines as a rhythmical and thematic unfolding. I experimented a long time and eventually found that if the poem appeared in 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, and then 9 lines, with the poems of the book in between, the book had a compelling motion. I hadn’t done this before.
Mary: River River poems seem more traditionally lyrical where poems in Compass Rose work with juxtapositions of fragments and fragmentary images. In the poem “Comet Hyakutake” you say “…to the writer of fragments, each fragment is a whole—“How do these image fragments and sentence fragments reflect your feelings about current culture? Do you feel you manipulate the larger themes that simmer among juxtapositioned images, are the resulting themes products of the reader’s imagination, or is it some negotiation between the two?
Arthur: River River is the first book where I wrote sequences, but none of the poems in that book utilize fragments. The fragmentation starts in Archipelago, which is inspired by the rock garden in Ryoanji, Japan. There, fifteen stones are set in a sea of raked gravel, and one can never see all fifteen stones at the same time. In many ways, I like to envision that rock garden as a metaphor for experience: no one gets to see it all at once. The fragmentation and parataxis that occur in Archipelago, and in subsequent books, reflect many of the disruptions and disjunctions that are an essential part of our world today. The process of creation with these juxtapositions are primarily intuitive: I’m discovering connections and possibilities as I go along—they aren’t predetermined.
Mary: The title poem “Compass Rose” seems almost like a loose crown of sonnets with threaded pieces. The first lines of part 3 match part 8, (“Red-winged blackbirds in the cattail pond”). Part 8 and 9, end to beginning, connect with leaping flames. How did this long poem come together? Was anything preplanned?
Arthur: The title poem “Compass Rose” took me ten months to write. I knew that I wanted each poem in it to have its own integrity—that’s why there are subtitles—and I knew the field of energy I wanted to explore, but I didn’t know how the suite would take shape. I initially wrote twelve sections but cut two of them. The order of composition—#s 3, 7, 8, 1, 2, 9, 10, 5, 6, 4—was not at all linear, so you can see that, in many ways, the poem wrote itself from the inside out.
Mary: There seemed thematic similarities between Compass Rose (2014) and River River (1987). Some themes working in River River appear but are more subdued in Compass Rose and some seem to become larger concerns. Looking back do you see similar themes or evolutions?
Arthur: I do think of my work as one large body of work, and there is a natural progression and evolution to it. Although there are similar themes—I think each writer has his or her obsessions and one has to write through them—I also think there’s an artistic integrity and singular shape to each book. River River foregrounds simultaneity and synchronicity, and it is part of the meaning of that book that it is one continuous flow and that there are no section dividers. Compass Rose is, on one level, about orienting oneself in a marvelously disorienting world, and the book eventually arrives at a center where all things are possible and nothing is imposed. It ends, significantly, on a colon, with only empty space after that last mark of punctuation.
Mary: Your poems populate a world. They are almost Whitmanesque in the amount of diverse people contained inside one poem. Although your tone is completely different as if you are visiting each person with a much more attention and sympathy. How do you feel about the people in your poems?
Arthur: I care deeply about the people in my poems. As I said earlier about the images of violence, they are not gratuitous and, with a few exceptions, (the voice in #8 of “The Unfolding Center” is an invented voice but is based loosely on aspects of the Japanese architect, Tadao Ando), the people are not invented. I want to give each of them full attention, and I have a strong emotional connection to all of them.
Mary: Can you talk about how you create poems? From notes? An outline? Do you do free-association?
Arthur: I tend to free associate from an image or a rhythmical or musical phrase.
Mary: You have long sequence poems, blocks of couplets and tercets, poems without stanzas. You use cross outs. How does the form of a poem take shape?
Arthur: The shape of a poem happens from inside out. I usually make a mess on the page but then discover there’s a certain rhythm or phrase or image that wants to come out more. I like to use couplets for poems that leap a lot: the couplet form helps me see what is essential. Some poems without stanzas have a natural unfolding or progression that has no pauses, so a one-stanza poem becomes an appropriate form. In the cross-out sections to “The Unfolding Center,” I was searching for a way to accurately portray a voice under emotional pressure. As the speaker revised what he said or thought but didn’t say out loud, the strike-through lines, (I prefer to call those passages strike-throughs, rather than cross cuts), became necessary to reveal the voice and mind in motion. The strike-throughs became a form of greater accuracy.
Mary: How do you approach a title?
Arthur: Titles usually come to me late, after the poem is written.
Mary: How do you go about organizing your poems for a collection?
Arthur: Each book has its own artistic integrity. In The Ginkgo Light, I used the biology of the ginkgo leaf, which follows a pattern of dichotomous venation. That means that there is one vein from the tree to the leaf, the vein splits into two, each subsequent vein splits into two, and that accounts for the fan-like shape of the leaf. When I was assembling the book, I asked myself what would be the one vein that was the beginning. When I looked at my sequence, “Spectral Line,” I saw that there was, at the center, a list of Native American tribes. I wrote that poem after I retired from the Institute of American Indian Arts where I taught for twenty-two years. The list of tribes was a roll call, and, behind the list, I thought of a specific Native student I had the privilege to work with during my time there. I suddenly realized that roll call was the first vein from which the ginkgo leaf would split and multiply from. I moved “Spectral Line” to the center of the book and realized that the roll call was now the central vein. The rest of the book fell into place in, roughly, symmetrical parts.
Mary: Who are the writers who had the most influence on your work? Who were your mentors?
Arthur: The writers who I am most in conversation with include my wife, Carol Moldaw, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Jon Davis, Dana Levin, Forrest Gander, CD Wright, Jim Moore, and John Yau. My one mentor was Josephine Miles at the University of California at Berkeley.
Mary: What books are you reading now, poetry and non-poetry?
Arthur: I just finished reading Howell Chickering’s translation of Beowulf, and I’m also browsing in Lichens of North America by Brodo, Sharnoff, and Sharnoff.
Mary: What writing project are you working on now?
Arthur: I’m working on a long new poem, but I have no idea where it’s going—I’ll have to see what happens. I have lots of other short poems written, but it’s too soon to know what the next book will look like.
To Learn More About Arthur Sze
You can find Arthur Sze books on Amazon.com or, if in Santa Fe, at Collected Works Bookstore.
You can also watch some readings:
Color photo credit of Arthur Sze: Gloria Graham.