Most days, Arthur Sze wakes in the dark, his head still filled with images from sleep. In his writing studio, he pours himself a cup of coffee from a thermos that he prepared the night before. He starts scratching words onto paper, not yet sure if it will be a fertile day for poetry. Sometimes, nothing much happens. It’s the discipline that counts, the daily trying and waiting. As he writes, the sun begins to illuminate the view out his window. A fence emerges from shadow. A bird is sitting on a post.
“I feel like I’m catching a physical wave of morning in my writing,” Sze says of his dawn ritual. “In terms of the content, I’m free associating a lot.”
In November, Sze, 69, won the National Book Award for Sight Lines, his 10th book of poetry. Like the poems in his previous books, those in Sight Lines rest on the tensions and connections between images, ideas, or concepts that might not seem to flow together, or are surprising in their juxtapositions.
“Green tips of tulips are rising out of the earth —/you don’t flense a whale or fire at beer cans/in an arroyo but catch the budding/tips of pear branches,” he writes in “Black Center,” before invoking the skeleton of a mastodon that Thomas Jefferson once tried to assemble in the White House. He follows this with the lights of a wildfire and those of a speeding ambulance.
In their award citation, the judges for the National Book Awards said that Sze writes with a quiet mastery, and that Sight Lines “unfurls like ink in water, circulating through meditations on the natural world. … A keen awareness arises of structural, environmental, and social threats in the midst of this expansive beauty.”
This writer of national and international acclaim has been a staple of the Santa Fe poetry community since the 1970s. Sze taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts from 1984 until 2006, chairing the undergraduate creative writing program for the bulk of that time. His books include River River (1987), Archipelago (1995), Quipu (2005), and Compass Rose (2014). He’s often referred to as an experimental or avant-garde writer. He says he’s also been called surrealist, minimalist, cubist, ecstatic, neoclassical, and, lately, an eco-poet — although his focus on the natural world isn’t new.
Sze doesn’t chafe at such labels, nor does he find them especially useful. He writes the poems that come from deep inside of him. While they can be complex and demand multiple readings — as much poetry does — he is not trying to be purposefully cryptic or abstract in the way of someone who might wear “experimental” as a badge.
“Hopefully for a reader, the more you read the more you see,” he says. “The different connections … they don’t come quickly. My poems are written slowly.”
Many of the signature aspects of Sze’s writing are rooted in his study of ancient Chinese poetry and translations of Chinese characters. In this famously complex language, words and images combine to create new words and ideas — a technique Sze echoes in his poems. “Like, if you write the word ‘autumn,’ you write on the left side ‘plant tips,’ and then you juxtapose fire,” he explains. “So, the word ‘autumn’ is a picture: vegetation on fire. And then if you write ‘heart’ or ‘mind’ below — put autumn in the heart — that’s the word ‘sorrow.’ That idea of things co-existing is important in my poetry.”
A young poet in STEM
Sze was born in 1950 in Manhattan, and then raised in Queens and Long Island. He’s the son of Chinese immigrants who came to the United States in the 1930s, during the Japanese occupation of their country. They had intended to go back, Sze says, but the Chinese civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists led them to stay in America. Sze grew up speaking Mandarin and English until he was in the second grade, which is when his school principal told his parents that their son’s English was suffering as a result of trying to speak two languages.
“We would say this is ridiculous today, but my parents panicked,” he says. “All the Chinese sort of stopped. And it was just English in the household, or they would talk in Chinese when they didn’t want me to understand what they were saying.”
His father was a chemical engineer who earned his doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He expected Sze to follow in his footsteps — and Sze tried. He dutifully enrolled at MIT. And then, bored during a freshman calculus lecture at MIT, he opened his notebook and wrote his first lines of poetry.
“A few days later I was writing again. And within like two weeks, I was writing all the time,” he says. “I wonder if, subconsciously, being in that intense math/science environment of MIT made me ask myself if it was really what I wanted to do with my life. It was definitely no.”
He stayed at MIT long enough to take a class with the poet Denise Levertov (1923-1997). She had just taught at the University of California, Berkeley, and her anecdotes from the West Coast inspired Sze to transfer, though the English poet had a lasting influence on his work: “The way she thought of silences as sort of a dancer on stage — stopping and moving and stopping.”
At Berkeley, he found a mentor in the poet and critic Josephine Miles (1911-1985). She critiqued a batch of his poems every few weeks, and he dove into the study of ancient Chinese poetry and language. Though he’d never learned to write Chinese as a child, “The ear-training was already there, so it was very fast,” he recalls. “It wasn’t like an American saying, ‘How do you write this character? How do you say it?’ I already knew how to say it, how to hear it. I was learning how to write it.”
Upon his graduation, when he didn’t feel ready to apply to master’s programs, Miles encouraged him to check out Santa Fe, where, she said, there was a thriving arts community and a young poet could live on a modest budget. He hitchhiked into town during Fiesta Weekend, 1972, with the pack on his back and the cash in his pocket. In those days, there were so few Asian men in town that his cultural identity was sometimes unrecognizable to the locals. A few months after his arrival, a Navajo man on the Plaza asked him what tribe he was from. “I told him I’m Chinese-American and he laughed. Being Asian American in New Mexico is an anomaly, but I felt an immediate affinity with Native American people.”
Today, Sze lives on Canyon Road with his wife, the poet Carol Moldaw, and their college-bound daughter. (He also has a son from a previous marriage.) “Arthur’s poetry reflects his generosity of spirit, the openness with which he approaches life, and his attentiveness to the world around him,” Moldaw says. “It is lyrical and philosophical while retaining a grounded core — much like him.”
Unlike most poets of his stature, Sze never went to graduate school — although, granted, he came of age in the era just before MFA’s were de rigueur for a teaching career in creative writing. He was still in his 20s when he started publishing and attracting critical acclaim.
Sze’s list of achievements includes most of the major awards in the poetry world, including an American Book Award; a Lannan Literary Award for Poetry; three grants from the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry; and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers magazine. Sze was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2017 and served as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2012 to 2017.
Up next for Sze is a limited-edition letterpress chapbook, Starlight Behind Daylight, that includes six poems from Sight Lines and six new poems. Two hundred handset copies on homemade paper are forthcoming in 2020 from St. Brigid Press in Virginia.
Restrictions are going to be shattered
Although Sze retired from full-time teaching in 2006, he still serves in visiting capacities at colleges and universities all over the country. As he talks about his writing and his career, seated in his generously sized studio, it’s easy to see what he’s like in a classroom. He has a relaxed, professorial look about him — lanky, with glasses and shaggy, salt-and-pepper hair. His sentences sometimes come out fragmented, reminiscent of his poetry, and he says things you want to write down and return to later.
In response to a question about where his work fits into the tapestry of contemporary poetry, he says, “Even before the internet, there were so many cultural worlds in interaction with each other, enriching each other, in tension with each other. I find myself drawing from different traditions, and bringing them together. But in a way, our world is already like that.”
As an educator, he has championed cultivating one’s personal point of view and finding ways to explore cultural context through voice and aesthetics. At the Institute of American Indian Arts, he worked with Native writers on breaking free from what they thought was expected of them by the larger literary world. For example, he says, young Navajo poets were entering writing workshops stymied by an assumption that they must write about stereotypical Native American themes — hogans, sunsets, and horses.
“Well, what happens if you’re writing a poem in English but you’re using Diné syntax?” he asked them. “You can use what’s inside of you in ways that are going to be really interesting. Some people might think this isn’t Native American poetry, but in the long run, all those restrictions are going to be shattered and broken apart.”
In 2019, he says, poetry is as open as it’s ever been. A writer doesn’t have to live in New York or publish in New York journals to be taken seriously, as it was in past decades. “There are good poems, astonishing poems, being written by poets all over the country, and they don’t fit a particular school or agenda or style. I like that so many people are doing the poems they need to do rather than following some prevailing trend.”
Letting go is part of the processSze takes inspiration from his travels, his walks along Canyon Road, his hikes in the mountains, his time spent with indigenous communities, and the friendships he has cultivated across many intellectual disciplines. Talking deeply about science, psychology, and geography, or about other art forms, for instance, feeds Sze’s penchant for crossing boundaries between ideas. He does not keep a journal. He jots down lines he wants to remember, but says that were he to record every little thing, he’d cease to observe the present.
Over his nearly 50 years in Santa Fe, Sze has hiked the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with such diverse writers as environmentalist Gary Snyder, cowboy poet Drummond Hadley, and John Brandi, a champion of alternative-press publishing who was one of his first friends in town. They met around 1973, when Brandi was starting Tooth of Time Books. He published two editions of Sze’s book, Two Ravens, in 1976 and 1984. He calls Sze’s work startlingly original, “never clever or contrived, drawing from a deep cultural lineage, coupled with an astute awareness of the modern world.”
Sze also became close with Nobel Laureate physicist Murray Gell-Mann (1929-2019), who made his home in Santa Fe for a time. The title of Gell-Mann’s 1994 book, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex, comes from a line of Sze’s poetry.
Another friend and colleague, the poet Greg Glazner, says that Sze is one of the most original and intelligent poets working today: “His poetry crosses oceans, cultures, and conceptual gulfs, melding radically divergent images together through synchronicity and clear, lyric observation. It’s elegant and cosmic and political at once.”
The first poem in Sight Lines, “Water Calligraphy,” comes from Sze’s travels in China. He says that he would walk into parks in the early morning and see old men with buckets of water and bamboo poles, writing calligraphy on the slate walkways. As the sun came up, the words would disappear. “It’s called dishu — earth calligraphy — but it’s really water calligraphy. Sometimes they are ancient poems and sometimes they are by the calligraphers.” He watched an interview with a calligrapher who was asked why the writing wasn’t preserved, and he said that the letting go is part of the process.
In Sze’s poem, the act of dishu doesn’t appear until the fifth section. Before that, readers are treated to other images from his travels to and from New Mexico. Sometimes they overlap or weave together, inextricably. After dishu, in section six, we come across a peach tree. Is it in the East or the West? Is the zucchini frittata being baked at home or far away? The questions are as important as the answers, which might change with each reading.
Tea leaves in the cup spell above then below —
outside the kitchen window, a spray
of wisteria blossoms in May sunshine.
What unfolds inside us? We sit at a tabletop
that was once a wheel in Thailand; an iron hoop
runs along the rim. On a fireplace mantel,
a flame flickers at the bottom of a metal cup.
As spokes to a hub, a chef cleans blowfish:
turtles beach on white sand: a monk rakes
gravel into scalloped waves in a garden:
moans issue from an alley where men stir
from last night’s binge. If all time converges
as light from stars, all situations reside here.