Arthur Sze won the National Book Award for Sight Lines (2019), his 10th book of poetry. That was in November. Four months later, all the award-related travel upon which he was about to embark was abruptly canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. He didn’t go to China. He didn’t go to Lithuania. He recently did a Zoom interview with one of Portugal’s leading literary critics, “but it would’ve been so wonderful to go to Portugal,” Sze says.
He spent much of the year editing The Glass Constellation: New and Selected Poems, which comes out Tuesday, April 13, from Copper Canyon Press. On Wednesday, April 14, Sze reads from the collection in a streaming presentation for Collected Works Bookstore, followed by a conversation with Luci Tapahonso, the first poet laureate of the Navajo Nation.
Pasatiempo chatted with Sze about his new book and his pandemic year.
Pasatiempo: Was The Glass Constellation in the works before you received the National Book Award?
Arthur Sze: It came together after. I told my editor that I was working on new poems, but it could be five or six years before I had anything for a new book. He said it was time for a major retrospective so people can see how I got to where I am. I couldn’t envision what the new poems would look like in a book, but I thought as a section in new and collected poems, it would be perfect.
Pasa: The first half of the book weaves through time. You start in 1998 and then head back to your earliest books, published in the 1970s. Why?
A.S.: When I laid it out chronologically, I felt like those early poems had glimmerings of what I do later, but I didn’t feel that good about starting a book with them. I wanted to start with a representation of strong poems, so that’s why it starts with poems from The Redshifting Web, from 1998. And then it goes back chronologically. In those early books, I was just writing poems. I didn’t have a vision of why these poems needed to be in the places they were, how they were in conversation with each other. I felt like Dazzled , my third book, had poems in service of a larger vision. All of the subsequent books have a particular structure.
Pasa: Do you feel like winning the National Book Award has changed expectations of you as a writer? Or your own expectations for yourself, even if you didn’t mean for it to have that effect on you?
A.S.: I don’t think so but, frankly, it’s changed expectations of editors. Requests have suddenly come in from magazines that weren’t particularly interested in me before. In terms of expectations of myself as a writer, no, because it’s the work that keeps me going. An award is great, because it brought me a lot more readers and more attention for my work, but I don’t think I froze up.
Pasa: Has this year been creatively fertile for you?
A.S.: It has. I like to get up and work early in the morning. In that sense, I’m blessed. As a writer, I can still do my work. I can only begin to imagine the loss of not being able to play in a symphony. If anything, the pandemic has pushed me out more into nature, because we can walk on trails or in the hills.
Pasa: What was it like to curate your life in poetry? Did you make any discoveries?
A.S.: I got to choose what I thought was deserving, what had earned its place in a large body of work. That’s humbling. I think what made me feel really good is when I put the section of new poems together, I didn’t feel like I was repeating myself. In the last section, there’s a poem called “Acequia del Llano,” which is about being connected to the acequia on Upper Canyon Road. That’s in a Japanese form brought into English, prose poems with haiku. I’d never done that before, in 50 years. I was really heartened to look at the section of new poems and feel like I’m still pushing myself.
Pasa: Where does the title, The Glass Constellation, come from?
A.S.: In ancient Hinduism, “Indra’s net” is the idea is that everything that happens in the universe, in the cosmos, is like a little piece of glass in a chandelier. There could be larger pieces and smaller pieces, but as light shines into the chandelier, each hanging piece reflects and absorbs the light of every other piece. “The Glass Constellation” is the last poem in Sight Lines. When I was thinking of a title for the book, I thought that all the poems are like these pieces of glass, reflecting and absorbing the light of every other. — J.L.
To read a January 2020 profile of Sze, visit pasatiempomagazine.com and search for “Arthur Sze.
FOR ONLINE ONLY Click here to read a January 2020 profile of Sze.”