An Interview with Arthur Sze

Poet Arthur Sze has published eight volumes of poetry including, most recently, Quipu, in 2005. (To read anArthur_sze article by Sze on the genesis of that book, click here.) He  has won numerous awards from the Lannan Foundation and, the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. His poems have also appeared in numerous magazines. Arthur has a new book, “Quipu,” coming out in 2005.

Sze has taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts for more than a decade. Click on the jump below to read an interview with the IAIA Chronicle, which we are grateful for permission to reprint here. In the interview, Sze talks about his influences in the Chinese and American traditions, and where he sees poetry heading in the future.

Sze will be teaching a works-in-progress course at the 2007 Port Townsend Writer’s Conference for poets, discussing emerging poets’ work extensively in both individual and group workshops. He will also give an ekphrastic assignment to workshop attendees, based on a Joseph Cornell assemblage.

An Interview with Arthur Sze

Dg Nanouk Ogpik: I’ve noticed that your images in your poetry are a mixture of being concrete, metaphysical, and open ended. Can you elaborate on these characteristics of your writing and how you remain true to yourself in expressing from thought/perception to image on the page?

Arthur Sze: I am more interested in a poem like a piece of artwork. In my own experience in the world I find myself constantly being surprised.

A critic once said my work seems to start small and opens up, and then stops. Then instead of shrinking back down the way a normal poem might do for closure, it opens up some more and then pauses and opens up some more, but it keeps opening up to the world. I like that critic’s appraisal of the work because I’m trying to put more and more of the world into the poem.

For the ending I don’t want a reader to feel that was some easy summation or truth but, I want a reader to think for himself/herself what was being given and say, “Oh, that was kind of surprising that the poem ended there. What does that mean? And what effect does that have on a reader?”

I’m suggesting that to be a writer, not just a poet, one has the obligation to write the truest work one can. If you are thinking of the marketplace and how to sell books or sell copies, that is a bad thing to do because as a writer, your obligation is to be true to yourself and be true to your experience of the world. To do that takes a certain amount of authenticity and integrity.

My work may appear to be difficult, and yet I actually am stunned to find there are readers there. My work is difficult and challenging, but I don’t try to be deliberately obscure. There are a number of young poets who are learning the style to be more elliptical or disjunctive, willfully so. That’s not necessarily good. I actually am very oriented toward clarity. If you look line by line in my poems, I want the poem to move very clearly. It may be challenging, but that sense of clarity is very important.

DNO: Who is your favorite writer of all time? Who are you reading?

AS: "The writers of the past challenge me. In Chinese tradition I always lean towards the Tao Poet-Philosophers: Lao-tzu, Chuangtzu, Tian Wen, The Questions Regarding Heaven, [the] I Ching. The structures or the process of divination are important to me. In Western literature, Shakespeare, Dante, and Yeats, who got better and better as he got older.

Then there are some poets I like that were brilliant very young, like Rimbaud who started at age nine to age nineteen. I like the French Symbolists but I can’t say I read them as much now. I look for examples of writers who can keep writing and not repeat themselves. Yeats kept transforming himself and he found a way to keep transforming and recreating himself. His works just kept getting better and better. He’s really important to me. I also like Jon Davis, Mei Mei Berssenbrugge, CD Wright, John Yau, Forrest Gander and Joy Harjo.

DNO: In what direction do you see poetry going? Where are young writers leading?

AS: Poetry is wide open now. There are so many points of view, so many styles. It makes towards diversity, a bit of controversy, which is good. It might be bewildering for a young poet to feel, so I fit in, or do I not fit in? One can look at the different poetry movements of contemporary poetry like Deep Image, Black Mountain, the Beats and the Language Poets. Their resonance is still in the air. There are movements that have been done and are over with like Language Poets. They have been done a long time ago even though people still talk about it.

One of the challenges facing the young poet is how do you decide what your own work is going to be like. What is going to be important in that sense is to read a lot. Find your own voice, and not by trying to run away to write in isolation, but to think about it as a particular challenge one has to confront and absorb. In a way I like to think of these movements as food in metaphor or what these poets try to do as sustenance but you can’t imitate them as a young poet. What you have to do is chew them up and get nourishment and then transform it and make it sustenance for yourself.

So, on the one hand, it is a bit bewildering because there are so many literary magazines and poetry magazines. What one has to do is to look inside and ask, What it is I want to do? What is given to me to do in this time of my life? What it is to be a writer? The writing will speak for itself.

Register for Arthur’s workshop.

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