By Andy Fogle
This interview with poet Arthur Sze by Andy Fogle and his students is a companion piece to “Playing with Difficulty: A High School Class on Arthur Sze’s Quipu Offers Ideas for Using Creative Writing to Explore Challenging Literature,”which describes Fogle’s experience teaching Sze’s work to high school seniors. ~editors
Arthur Sze is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Archipelago, The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998, The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese, Quipu, The Ginkgo Light, and most recently Compass Rose from Copper Canyon Press. He is also the editor of Chinese Writers on Writing from Trinity University Press. The recipient of many honors, including two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Book Award, a Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, and the 2013 Jackson Poetry Prize, Sze has taught in artists-in-schools and prison-writing workshops and conducted residencies at Brown University, Washington University, the University of Utah, Naropa University, and Mary Baldwin College. He is professor emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where he taught for twenty-two years. Sze lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his wife, the poet Carol Moldaw, and their daughter.
In the 2009–2010 school year when I was assigned to teach two sections of Contemporary Literature, a semester-long senior elective at Bethlehem Central High School, near Albany, New York, I decided I wanted to do something new with poetry. I’d observed that in neither of the two school districts where I’d worked was a single-author volume of poetry required reading. Students were given anthologies or sometimes photocopies of individual poems, but I had never seen an entire group of students explore a book by an individual poet. I wanted to remedy this, so I talked it over with my supervisor and we decided to order a class set of Arthur Sze’s Quipu.
I also contacted Sze, asking if he would be open to responding to my students’ questions about his work. He agreed and soon after, my class and I began corresponding with him. I would collect students’ questions, discuss them with the class, and occasionally edit them before e-mailing them to Sze. Once he responded, I would copy his answers for more class discussion, which often led to more questions. In all, there were three “rounds” of questions in the first semester, and one in the second (after seeing the correspondence with the previous class). At the end of the school year, Sze and I continued the interview for a while longer.
Other than Sze’s first comment, what follows is not chronological, nor did it have any initial direction other than high school seniors’ actual reactions and curiosity.
Arthur Sze: As a preface, I’d like to say that the students should try not to be too swayed by what I say. Ultimately, they need to read and reread and stay close to their experience of the poem.
Andy Fogle: One of my goals in teaching your book is to expand my students’ concept of what writing is, what literature is. For instance, some of my favorite artists are influenced by media other than what they are best known for (Frank O’Hara and painting, Kerouac and jazz), and here you’ve adapted the quipu—an Incan device made of a main cord and smaller knotted cords used for record keeping and calculation—to poetry. What, for you, are the ups and downs of practicing a kind of writing so different from the mainstream?
Sze: I think the poetry in most high school textbooks is quite limited in range, and, in my experience, students are far more capable than those textbook editors acknowledge. As you say, most of the poems are narrative. I’m not opposed to narrative, but, in Quipu, for instance, I’m interested in braiding multiple narratives. My experience of the world is more like a game of Go, where you put a black stone on a crisscrossed board and it affects a white stone quite far away. I believe our consciousness of the world is much more simultaneous now, and I want poetry to reflect that. Why not use simultaneity as a structure in a poem? Why not enrich the language, syntax, and rhythmical shape of a poem by utilizing structures from weaving or time/space concepts from particle physics? I realize it makes poetry appear more specialized, and I obviously don’t have a huge readership, yet I find people are connecting with my work. It has just taken me much longer to find readers who appreciate what I do.
Class: During high school, did you ever think that you would end up a poet?
Sze: No, I never expected that I would become a poet. In junior high school I hated poetry. It was taught so poorly. I remember cringing at trying to think of what the “hidden” meaning to the albatross was in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In my senior year of high school, I read Eliot’s “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” and was moved by it. I couldn’t articulate what it all meant, but certain phrases and images haunted me. That same year, I took a class in contemporary poetry and read poems by Creeley, Snyder, Levertov, Plath, and was excited by their work. Still, I never expected to become a poet.
Fogle: So many students are turned off to literature, especially poetry, and other arts because of the “deep hidden meaning” myth. Do you think it’s better for students and teachers to work more with the musical, almost “physical” elements of language, more towards appreciation than analysis?
Sze: My preference would be to begin with the “physical” elements of language and then develop deeper and multiple readings of poems, with the understanding that poems are “polysemous,” that poems have many meanings and layers. In that way, I think students can learn to trust and develop their visceral responses as well as their more intellectual ones. Part of my fear in junior high school was an unstated premise that one particular way of seeing was privileged over others and that one had to come up with that “correct” reading. If students learn that multiple insights and responses are possible, and that they need to articulate and support their views, then that only enhances the experience of a poem. With lots of discussion, it’s possible to lose sight of the initial, visceral impact and response, and I think it’s valuable to come back to that. When I used to teach at the Institute of American Indian Arts, I sometimes thought students got too caught up with critical theory and imposed it on the texts they read. I would then have to remind them that Rilke once asserted that all discussions end up as misunderstandings. It’s important, even crucial, to develop critical insights, but you may have to take creative approaches to accomplish this goal.
Fogle: In “Writing Short Stories,” Flannery O’Connor says she prefers to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story:
People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens.
I can attest that “theme” gets a great deal of emphasis in high school, but O’Connor believes that the “meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it.” How do you think of meaning in your work and in others’?
Sze: I agree that the experience of meaning is inseparable from the experience of a story or poem. As I said earlier, I believe poems have multiple meanings and layers. The concept is not different when I read others’ works. Years ago, when I first read Yeats’ “Byzantium” and “Sailing to Byzantium,” I had no idea what Byzantium meant, but I was riveted by the experience of the poem. Each time I read and reread it, it was as if another layer revealed itself. Over time, I experienced how “Byzantium” contrasted with the world of flux, “whatever is begotten, born, and dies,” and I liked that “Byzantium” wasn’t simply the “right thread” by which you could rip the poem open. The experience of the poem resists such a single-minded reading, but I also want to adapt Flannery O’Connor’s description of a theme that rips the story open. I like a moment in a poem when suddenly, inexorably, the poem rips wide open—maybe it appears to rip apart but it also, simultaneously, comes together—and this moment isn’t the theme but a revelatory flash.
Class: When you go to write something, do you hear it in your head first? How much of a role do sound and texture play? Are those “physical” characteristics of language as important as its denotative characteristics?
Sze: Writing for me is an intensely physical experience. When I write, I’m not just hearing words in my head. Instead, even though I may be typing letters at a keyboard, I am physically experiencing the sounds, silences, and rhythms of language as I compose. If I write the word “scissors,” I feel it tactilely on my tongue and throughout my body. If I write a line, “Corpses push up through thawing permafrost,” I feel the configuration of vowel and consonant sounds spread through my body even as I visualize the image. These “physical” characteristics, the sound and textures, musical phrases, are very important, and I don’t think I can separate them from their denotative characteristics.
Class: Do you ever write about your childhood or is your work mainly about your adult life? How much “fiction” is there in your poetry?
Sze: I have, as a parent, utilized moments in the childhood of my son and daughter, but I have rarely used moments of my own childhood, though, figuratively, it is all there. My adult life is a vehicle in all of the poems, but I don’t want the poems to be confessional or confined to my personal life. As a poet, I like to start with the “real,” but I also want room for the imagination to explore and develop, and if I need to invent things in the process of creation, that’s fine. I want the experiences of the poems to feel “charged” and lived, and they need an authenticity of the imagination that is grounded in reality but not bound by it.
Class: Your work seems to reflect an enormous amount of research, knowledge, and familiarity with so many different disciplines (history, science, philosophy, anthropology). In short, how do you do that? How widely have you read and/or studied?
Sze: I draw on knowledge from a variety of disciplines, but this knowledge is based on personal experience: it isn’t book knowledge. I was at MIT for my first two years of college (my parents hoped I would become a chemical engineer), but if my knowledge of science was restricted to what I learned there, it would never have become that interesting. In the 1980s, in Santa Fe, I became good friends with Richard Slansky, the director of the Theoretical Physics Division at Los Alamos. Richard introduced me to Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel laureate in physics, and my discussions with Murray in the 1980s enriched my understanding of particle physics and complexity theory. I was also married at that time to Ramona Sakiestewa, a Hopi weaver: she spun and dyed her wool, so my knowledge of weaving (you can see the seed for the later quipu) came from the intimate, personal knowledge of learning how she worked with fiber. My knowledge of anthropology and Japan came through friendship with Donald Rundstrom, a visual anthropologist. And when my son, Micah, was young, we learned how to hunt mushrooms by going with Bill Isaacs on his weekend forays. More recently, Carol and I have become friends with Dennis and Barbara Tedlock, and I’ve learned a little about cyclical Mayan time and glyphs. Santa Fe is a small town, but there are many creative people here with very different interests and expertise, and I’ve obviously been inspired by it.
Class: Did you start writing poems at MIT out of frustration? Was that when you first became interested in poetry, or was it some earlier time?
Sze: When I got to MIT, I was shocked at how everything became numbers. You didn’t take an English lit course, you took 18.01. I think physics was 9.01. I felt alienation and frustration, but I’m forever grateful for that, because it made me ask myself what I really wanted to do. I wrote poems all through my freshman year. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I was accepted into a poetry workshop by Denise Levertov—she had just come to MIT from UC Berkeley—and the class included MIT and Harvard/Radcliffe students.
Class: How did your parents react to you becoming a poet instead of a chemical engineer?
Sze: My parents thought I was crazy. As immigrants from China, they were very practical and concerned with financial security. They expected me to choose some kind of professional endeavor—scientist, doctor, lawyer. I had a very difficult time with them in my early years, but every few years I had another book published, and, when some national awards and fellowships came my way, they became proud. Years ago, I went back East to visit my father after he had an operation, and, in the hospital, he confided to me that when he was a teenager in China, he dreamed of becoming a poet, but his parents were sending him to America to learn Western science, and they urged him to forget about poetry. I was thunderstruck: it was a moment of revelation and reconciliation. After that, things have always been fine between us.
Fogle: One student was struck by how suicide or miscarriage as subjects aren’t as directly addressed as we might expect in your poems, but seem to rise for a moment, and then get lost by the next lines—how aware of you that those sorts of real, emotional, intense events can seem hidden from readers?
Sze: A confessional poet would revel in the suicide or miscarriage or traumatic subject matter that some of my poems incorporate, but, frankly, I find the confessional mode too egocentric and sometimes manipulative in its mining of personal experience. I hope my poems are intense in their own, singular way, and I like Emily Dickinson’s dictum, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”
Fogle: A number of my students—even some of the more receptive ones—had real trouble with your work early on. They tended to remain fairly patient and open, and their responses certainly evolved over time, but what would you say to them about the level of difficulty that your work can present?
Sze: I am not writing to be difficult; I am writing the poems I have to write. I know my poems have density and make leaps, and often risk initial disorientation. Yet I hope that the poems communicate viscerally before they’re understood, and I hope that a musical phrase, an image, a metaphor might startle a reader enough so that there’s a hunger to go back and reread and experience more. My poems unfold over time.
Fogle: Lewis Turco distinguishes poetry from fiction, drama, or essays—which are all the arts of either narrative or a “subject”—as “the art of language itself.” Is poetry, for you, more about “saying” something—as in message, moral, subject matter—or does it come about more through creative play with language? There is, as a backdrop, that myth about the two apprentice poets. The first tells the master, “I have all these things to say” while the second says, “I like to play with language.” The second apprentice, according to the master, will be the poet.
Sze: I dislike the idea one has to choose “A” or “B” when a number of possibilities are available. The problem with the first position is that when you feel you have a big message to deliver, the poem becomes didactic. The “message” is defining and even confining where the poem can go. With the second position, it’s great to play around with language and discover possibilities one never knew about before, but the creative play has to be harnessed to a cogent vision. It’s possible to argue, of course, that in playing around with language, the true themes of the poem emerge from within or out of this play. But how does one, in the process of creation, discern what’s at stake? Sometimes it’s already there. For instance, if one is writing an elegy, the impetus to mourn someone who has died fuels the language, so the first option is there, even though the creative play may enable the elegy to become more surprising and more effective. Also, if one just pursues creative play, it’s possible to repeat oneself endlessly without realizing it. I lean toward creative play, but I hunger for some rigor. In the end, “A” and “B” can be in apposition rather than opposition.
Class: What do you want readers to “get” from Quipu?
Sze: I hate to tell readers what to “get” from Quipu or any work of art. I hope that it gives readers a heightened and intensified experience of the world and that it enables readers to “awaken,” to live more deeply, to experience more keenly, to feel that even as the poems are endlessly branching, so are our lives. But I also want poetry to be pleasure.
Class: Was it difficult finding inspiration for writing all of the poems? In terms of subject matter, there is both tragedy (suicide, miscarriage) and wonder and awe at the little things in the world. What inspires you the most?
Sze: I don’t find it difficult at all to find inspiration, but time to write has always been a challenge. I’m teeming with ideas and discoveries—many of which of course don’t pan out—but I find tremendous inspiration in life. And, yes, there can be tragedy, but there is also ecstatic wonder and love.
Class: What is writing for you?
Sze: Writing is discovery, for me, and it’s also a gift. I don’t write out “what I know.” Usually if I write a poem and know where it’s going, it turns into a flat poem and isn’t very interesting. On the other hand, sometimes I’ll start writing and shed what I initially think it’s about or where I think it’s going. Instead, in the musical phrases that come to me, I discover seeds or vibrations. Over time, the real poem emerges, and then it’s exciting to discover and nurture it. Ultimately, I believe poetry has a crucial role to play in our lives. We live in such a superficial, consumer-oriented world. Poetry makes us slow down, read and reread, to hear the sounds of words and experience the silences: it enables us to live more fully and helps show us what’s truly important.
Fogle: In “The Ginkgo Light,” you write “Sometimes one fingers annihilation / before breaking into bliss.” In “Crisscross,” you mention “the chasm between what I envision and what I do.” In “Spectral Line,” you write “do not entrench boundaries / but work to dissolve them.” If all poets have at least a couple of obsessions, is it fair to say that the notion of thresholds (between inside and outside, opposing emotions, different times, etc) is one of yours? I wonder if this is at all related to the idea you mention in your book of translations that poetry is a silk dragon.
Sze: One of my obsessions has to do with balancing antinomies: dark and light, interior and exterior, opposing emotions, the finite and infinite and, in that regard, dissolving boundaries—rather than passing across a linear threshold—is a mysterious process and something I’m especially interested in. As a poet, I find language an endlessly rich material to work with, and, among fibers, silk is unsurpassed for its beauty, sensuality, strength, and elasticity; so I proposed that the imagination is a dragon, the poet a silkworm working with language, and, as something mysterious and splendid, poetry is a silk dragon.