David Naimon: Today’s episode is made possible by Northwestern University Press and their new award-winning release, The History of Intimacy by Poet Gabeba Baderoon. The History of Intimacy is a tender tangled account of the heady days in South Africa following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. This award-winning poetry collection portrays the innovative forms of music, kinship, and even self in “the new intricate country” we understood was impossible. Listeners receive a 20% discount on The History of Intimacy or any other title with promo code pod20. This offer is available at nupress.northwestern.edu. Today’s episode is also brought to you by award-winning Poet Morgan Parker’s Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night, which Tracy K. Smith calls, “Hilarious and hard-hitting.” Featuring an introduction from Danez Smith, “The debut collection from award-winning poet Morgan Parker demonstrates why she’s become one of the most beloved writers working today. Her command of language is on full display. Parker bobs and weaves between humor and pathos, grief and anxiety, Gwendolyn Brooks and Jay-Z, the New York School and reality television.” Says Eileen Myles, “There are piles of masterpieces here.” Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night is out on July 13th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Today’s conversation with Arthur Sze about his career spanning collection, The Glass Constellation, is rightfully one that ranges widely; from quarks and quantum entanglement to mushrooms and lichen, from the poetic image in Chinese and Japanese poetry to various techniques from divination to translation as a means of breaking out of one’s own established comfort zone into new ways of writing. I mention this because if you subscribe to the bonus audio, I encourage you to listen to Arthur’s contribution after the main conversation because Arthur has used the act of translating Chinese poetry in a really fascinating way. In four different periods during his 50 years of writing poetry, when he felt like he wanted to break out of the way, he wrote but didn’t know how. He would choose a different group of Chinese Poets to translate, to inhabit the imaginations and syntax of these poets as a way to usher in a new era within his own writing. We talk about this at length in the main conversation, but in the bonus audio archive, he chooses five of these translations: two from Tang Dynasty poets, one from a Chinese modernist poet, and two from contemporary Chinese poets to read for us. What’s remarkable about listening to him, take us on this chronological journey through these translations, is that you can feel the echo of his own journey as a poet, the ways he has changed through time with his own writing as he moves from one era of Chinese poetry translation to the next. As many of you know, the bonus audio is only one of many potential things you can get by becoming a listener-supporter of the show. There are collectibles from Forrest Gander, Ursula K. Le Guin, Nikky Finney, and Rikki Ducornet. There’s becoming a Tin House early reader receiving books months before they’re available to the general public and many other things. There’s also the sense of community, brainstorming new guests to invite together, and getting the emails with references, and resources with each episode. These are all meant to entice people to consider becoming a listener-supporter but I also hope the conversations themselves, whether they’ve helped your own artistic practice, or simply been moving or thought provoking, might also in and of themselves make you pause and consider supporting this quixotic endeavor. As long time listeners know, I closed my job of 22 years back in October because of the pandemic and leapt into this full time, hoping to be caught by you as I made a leap into an uncertain future. And I have been, and it feels miraculous, honestly. Thinking of today’s conversation with Arthur Sze about both quantum entanglement and the entanglement of subterranean mycelial networks that allow all sorts of communication and sharing, I think of all the ways we are now entangled. I’m here because of you. I’m literally here because of you. Back then, when this all happened in October, between 1% and 2% of listeners were supporters. Now, it is between 3% and 4%. Can you join us and help support Between The Covers get to 5%? Again, there are lots of potential perks, swag, and content. You can find it all at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. And there’s also today’s conversation with the remarkable Arthur Sze.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is poet and translator Arthur Sze. Sze was an undergraduate student at MIT pursuing a career in the sciences, but after taking a poetry workshop with Denise Levertov, he ultimately transferred to UC Berkeley where he studied poetry, classical Chinese, and started translating classical Chinese poetry. For most of his adult life, however, Arthur Sze has lived in New Mexico where he was the first poet laureate of Santa Fe. Arthur Sze is also Professor Emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts where he taught for nearly a quarter century, and where he was instrumental in the school’s development of an undergraduate program in Creative Writing. Arthur Sze is the author of 11 books of poetry. These include the Pulitzer Prize finalist, Compass Rose, the winner of the PEN Southwest Book Award, The Ginkgo Light, the winner of the Asian American Literary Award, The Redshifting Web, the winner of the American Book Award, Archipelago, and most recently, Sight Lines, winner of the National Book Award in Poetry. Arthur Sze has also published a book of Chinese poetry translations, the Silk Dragon, winner of the Western States Book Award and was the editor of Chinese Writers on Writing. His many honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and Landon Literary Award among many others. In 2012, he was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poet. He’s here today on Between The Covers to discuss his latest and most monumental publication to date, The Glass Constellation, which collects 50 years of Arthur Sze’s poetry, as well as 26 new poems. The Kyoto Journal Review says of The Glass Constellation, “In the case of poet Arthur Sze, ‘master’ is no misnomer… Sze as poet has been continually searching for new ways of making poetry alive, to make way for the breathing infrastructure of the poem in all its fragility and rigor. As a result of his dynamic poetic efforts, the map of human consciousness will have grown more detailed.” The Chicago Review of Books adds, “Arthur Sze’s exquisite complexities—his work is often at the nexus of modernism and spiritual contemplation—are intellectual and compassionate, and altogether unforgettable. He is a verbal architect, employing sharp and memorable connections to craft wildly exciting yet fully grounded experimental works through the frictions and contradictions of language, ideas and imagery.” Finally, the Library Journal says in its starred review, “If any living American poet merits the attention proper to a career retrospective, it is National Book Award–winning Sze. A monumental collection from a poet whose lasting importance should now be recognized; The Glass Constellation is essential for dedicated readers of contemporary American poetry.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Arthur Sze.
Arthur Sze: Thank you for inviting me to be here.
DN: First, I just want to say congratulations, this is such an amazing book.
AS: Thanks. It’s fun for me to look back and see every four to six years that I published the book, then the journey over 50 years is humbling, exciting, and thrilling to be able to put all the poems together.
DN: Even though your poetry, your collected works over the past half century have been something I’ve been immersing myself in for six to nine months in anticipation of today, I’m nevertheless a late comer to your work, but perhaps it’s fitting, given just how many incredible native poets have been students of yours, from Sherwin Bitsui to Dg Okpik to Orlando White, that I first came across your poetry when four or five years ago, I opened Layli Long Soldier’s book, Whereas, and saw the epigraph attributed to you, which says, “No word has any special hierarchy over any other.” A saying that she says she wrote down as a student of yours in a class on deep image. I wanted to start here as it feels like one potential entryway into your lifelong poetic project. What does it mean to approach language in a non-hierarchical way to you and why do so?
AS: Thank you for this wonderful question. As a preface, let me just say that Sherwin Bitsui, Dg Okpik, Orlando White, Layli Long Soldier, they were all students of mine at the Institute of American Indian Arts. I created a foundational class when I was the chair of the creative writing program called The Poetic Image. In that class, I walked students through classical Chinese poems, character by character and they made translations into English, and into their native languages. One of the things I found I had to do as a teacher with native students was disassemble their preconceptions or ideas of what a poem is supposed to be because they would oftentimes come into a class, maybe like many high school students thinking, “Oh, a poem has to have a metrical pattern. It has to have a rhyming pattern.” They had all sorts of preconceptions. As part of dismantling that and to open up the arena to consider what a poem can be, I found myself looking very simply at keywords where I noticed there was a tendency to maybe prioritize or hierarchically prioritize, say sun, moon, river, horse, sunset, certain stock Native-American images that might fit in traditional poems, but we’re really pretty much cliches or stereotypes for Native-American poetry today. One of the things I did was try and say, for instance, the word quark could be just as valid in a poem as moon, or the word as, something very innocuous, which has many different meanings, or the word set, which has the most meanings of any word in the English language, that these words that are often overlooked could be just as powerful and could have effects just as poetic as the traditional tropes out of nature. That was the very first step of dismantling preconceptions of what a poem could be and opening up the arena. Layli told me, she wrote it down in the poetic image class, that the idea that one word is no more valuable than another was really important to her. Of course, she ran with that beautifully in her book, Whereas.
DN: I like that you mentioned the word as because you elevate the word “as”. You repeat the word “as” in your collection Quipu I think, perhaps making it a more important word than we normally consider it. I was wondering if insisting on a non-hierarchical approach to language is something more natural to a language like Chinese versus English, like where the word heart and the word autumn, when put together, create the word sorrow, so sorrow being an autumn in the heart. But at the same time, we could see heart, autumn, and sorrow perhaps having an equal status whereas in English, I’m thinking pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions all automatically become subordinate to nouns and verbs. I wondered if this was part of the appeal for you, for instance, when you elevate the word “as”, to take a quality from a language that uses ideograms or that might have a more apparently pictorial component and try to bring that wholeness and equality into English, or to trouble English or to strange English?
AS: Absolutely. If I pick up your understanding of the character sorrow in Chinese, which has “autumn” above, “heart/mind” below, and autumn having plant on the left and fire on the right. I’m fascinated by language. The Chinese language in particular, I find it endlessly fascinating because in, say creating the character for sorrow, it doesn’t necessarily prioritize heart or mind over autumn. I’m drawing on a scientific background, to me, it’s creating fields of energy or fields of magnetism, attraction, and repulsion. It makes absolute sense once you see autumn in the heart/mind for that to be sorrow but it doesn’t prioritize one over the other. I find those combinations in Chinese characters endlessly fascinating. At its simplest level, the character “bright” is composed of sun on the left and moon on the right. If I wasn’t told that meant bright, if someone just wrote sun and moon, I could easily think, “Oh well, that’s the word for eclipse or that’s the word for brilliance.” How is it that out of a hundred different possibilities, people agreed that the meaning was bright? I find that endlessly fascinating and mysterious. With English, sometimes I like to look etymologically inside of words. For instance, the word complexity, “plex” means to braid and “com” means with or together. Complexity is to braid with or together. But clearly, the braiding has a priority, precedence, or hierarchical value over the with or together. For me, the Chinese, one of the mysteries is the way the radicals work, again, they’re like fields of magnetic energy and you can feel attraction, and repulsion. The repulsion, the tension can be just as interesting and powerful as the attraction. There’s that sense of maybe, intuitively, I drew on that background. I grew up speaking Chinese before I spoke English in New York City. I wasn’t intellectually or consciously thinking of an agenda saying, “Okay, I’m going to write poems that don’t have a hierarchy.” I think it just naturally happened. You can also say Taoism is a factor too; this idea of letting go of non-attachment, of not trying to hold on, and prioritize something is more valuable than another. I can say that working with poems in English, I did get to a certain stage where I wanted to take words that I thought many English readers would take for granted, like the word “as”, which in the title poem of my book Quipu, and the eponymous name Quipu for the title poem, uses the word “as” repeatedly but as the word is repeated, it brings in a different dictionary definition, a different denotation. I see it as a form of layering and creating a resonance, and a field of interaction. I don’t expect the American reader to get that right away and say, “Oh, look at what Arthur is doing.” I want these subtleties to be there and, in some ways, be mysteries that pull the reader back so that the more a reader reads my poems, the more they see in them.
DN: Similar to Layli Long Soldier, the Cherokee Poet Santee Frazier also took your poetic image class. He has theorized in an article that more than one generation of Institute of American Indian Arts graduates can trace their ability to construct what he calls potent word pictures to their exposure to ancient Chinese and Japanese poetry through this class. It’s a class, as you mentioned, where you put up a poem—say from a poet from the Tang dynasty—show the students several different English translations, walk them through the poem character by character, then have them make translations in English and their own native languages, and ultimately have them write poems of their own under this field that you’ve created of influence and encounter. But I was wondering if when both Long Soldier and Frazier talk about this attention to image and how important it has been for the poetry graduates at IAIA, if you could talk about image in and of itself but also, whether an attention to image is somehow related to this non-hierarchical approach.
AS: Classical Chinese poetry allows to foreground imagery. That’s the one thing that pulled me immediately, that attracted me immediately to ancient Chinese poetry; the potency and power of the images. The verbs are present tense and the images almost felt like present tense like these poems written over a thousand years ago could be happening today. I think you could argue that the image in classical Chinese poetry also becomes interestingly a vehicle for emotion. I’m thinking of a Buddhist poet, Wang Wei, who for instance, in a famous poem Deer Park, the ending image is sunlight shining on a piece of green moss. It’s really hard to convey in English the ecstatic thrill and sensational quality that image has at the end of the poem. On the one hand, it’s ultimate transience and paradoxically, it also is revelatory of a kind of permanence. I think that foregrounding of the poetic image has been crucial for my own poetry and poetics but it’s part of the key to the vitality of ancient Chinese poetry, that immediacy, the power of making someone really slow down and look carefully, and see in that revelation of attention when everything is focused and concentrated, these are really potent poetic vehicles to have.
DN: You’ve said in one interview that if you’re unsure what to do next as a poet, it is great to translate someone else’s work. That to step into another imaginative world helps you figure out a next move. The way you walked your students in your poetic image class through multiple translations and ultimately, having them arrive at their own poem, seems in a way as a gesture to mimic your own journey. I’m thinking that in the ‘70s, one way you found your way into studying poetry and to studying Chinese was by translating Tang dynasty poets at the time. But what is most interesting to me is that in your introduction to your book of translations, Silk Dragon, you say translations continued to periodically play a significant role in your evolution as a poet. In 1983, after your third book, some 12 years after you were translating Tang dynasty poets, you translated a different group of Chinese poets that you felt would help open up further possibilities to you in your writing. Then you did this again in 1996 with a third different group of Chinese poets to push yourself as a poet to new places. Given that we’re stepping back and looking at the arc of your life as a poet so far, that The Glass Constellation gives us this opportunity to do so—and in you, assembling it, have had the opportunity to look at your body of work so far—I wondered if you could talk about the ways your poetry has shifted through the decades but also the ways that these three eras of translation facilitated that, why you chose the translations you chose to help you reach beyond where you were at the time into something new and unknown?
AS: Thank you. These are fabulous questions. I’m going to give you a long response.
DN: I hope so. I would love a long response.
AS: In the beginning, when I was a student at UC Berkeley, I created my own major in poetry. Josephine Miles, who was a university professor, was my mentor and she let me take whatever I wanted because when I arrived, I went into her office and I said, “I’m never going to graduate. I have these science credits. I want to study classical Chinese. I want to take Blake. I don’t fit anywhere.” She said, “Just take what you want.” She would go through not only my poems but my translations. In those two years I was at UC Berkeley, I was studying conversational Mandarin every day. I was working with a graduate student from Taiwan who, like I was later to do with native students, wrote out the Chinese characters for me from classical Chinese poems. He would look up references and allusions. He loved those poems. He was just willing to do it. I owe a lot of my training of classical Chinese poetry to [Tsai Meishi 0:26:06.4], who is this grad student. In that first stage, I was consciously looking at the Tang dynasty masters, Li Bo, Du Fu, Wang Wei. I was consciously writing out the characters to each of their poems, character by character, stroke by stroke to try and step inside of the imaginative mind that was creating them so that as I was writing the characters in my own awkward handwriting, it was a way for me to personalize the language but also to think about, “Oh, how did this character come next and why this one?” To me, it was really foundational for my own early development in my own poems in English. If you look at The Glass Constellation, in the first book, there’s a poem named Li Bo and in the second book, there’s a poem named Wang Wei. Those are two short poems in English but with styles or allusions to the particular Chinese poets that are mentioned there. But in that early stage, I was really just trying to learn my craft to think about how I can create a really strong tight poem. In many ways, my metaphor image for that period is like a piece of ceramic wear, a beautiful pot. When I was at UC Berkeley in the ‘70 to ’72, there was this image of The Well Wrought Urn, that a poem could be like this beautiful artifact, the beautiful pot that had been fired and came out of the kiln. That was helpful for me for my first couple of books. After my third book Dazzled, I’ve started to feel constrained by that conception of a poem. That it was something intense, well made but, say written within 15 or 20 lines and complete in itself. I started to chafe and work against those kinds of restrictions, and that included vocabulary, which is, to come back to Layli, using every word in English language because Tang dynasty poetry uses or relies on moonlight, wine, river, plum blossoms, peach blossoms, birds, endlessly and it can become suffocating and extremely restricting. I like to say then at the second stage—if I’m going to delineate stages of my journey—I had to break that urn apart. I had to throw it down and smash it. I’d love to tell this story out of Japanese tea ceremony. In Japanese tea ceremony, Sen Rikyū who is a coalescer of all the aesthetics of tea supposedly goes into a village and a merchant, who spent a fortune to buy this tea bowl to impress Rikyū, invites him and at the end, asks Rikyū how did he enjoy it and Rikyū says, “Oh, it’s okay.” He puts the bowl back on the shelf and leaves. The merchant is furious. He spent a fortune buying this bowl to impress Rikyū whom he wanted to say, “Oh, you have such fantastic aesthetic taste or you’re so cultivated.” In the legend, the merchant smashes, throws the table down on the ground and it breaks apart, and the servant comes and glues the shards back together. Years later, Rikyū comes to the village and he sees this disheveled irregular bowl and he picks it off the shelf and he says, “This is the best tea bowl I’ve ever seen, who made it?” I love that story because when I think about it, there’s the original potter who makes the tea bowl, there’s the merchant who, in a fit of anger, smashes it—that’s part of the remaking—there’s the servant—so there’s a whole class issue who is horrified and glues back as best he can the shards—and ultimately, there’s also Rikyū because he picks it off the shelf and says, “This is the kind of bowl I most value.” That tea story is important to me because in many ways, starting with River River and particularly with my fifth book, Archipelago, I was taking my conception of the well-made poem and really breaking it apart. For me, the sensation of allowing more emotion into the poem, of bringing more of the world into the poem, of letting go in that sense of losing control of breaking something apart and what happens happens, there’s that element of chance but I love that there’s emotion propelling the force, and maybe the force behind the language. In my second stage, when I turned to translating Chinese poetry, I was consciously looking at poets who could help me write a different kind of poem. Wen Yiduo whose dates are 1899-1946 was really important to me. He was a Chinese modernist who knew the classical tradition but who shattered it, who wrote a poem called Dead Water, which is taken as an image of China in the 1920s, which is full of turmoil, warfare, colonial oppression, all sorts of really difficult times. Wen Yiduo is creating his own forms. He created a nine-character line where the silence, the caesura, shifts inside of the line unlike classical Chinese where the silences are regulated and predetermined. When I translated Wen Yiduo, I was so excited to think about how he was taking traditional Chinese form and breaking it apart or remaking it, basically saying that may have been fine for 700 commoner but it’s not adequate, it’s not sufficient, it can’t meet the needs for the challenges of today. Translating Wen Yiduo, some of his poems are quite long, like Miracle, it really opened things up for me and made me think a lot more about voice, about fragmentation, and emotional pressure behind the language, and you can see that in Archipelago. Then in my third stage of translation, I came back to what are called the Hermetic tongue poets, Li He and Li Shangyin. Li He, some people think of him as a surrealist before his time. He supposedly had to ride a horse or a donkey every morning, then phrases of poems would come to him on horseback or donkeyback and he would write the phrases in ink, and throw them into a saddlebag. He would go home and look at the phrases, then piece them together into a poem. That’s his legendary story.
DN: I love that.
AS: Li Shangyin, on the other hand, wrote these very veiled love poems but full of nuance and innuendo, and maybe difficult. With the issue of difficulty, I like to say, I’m not writing poems to be difficult. I’m writing the poems I feel that I need to write. I feel that’s the case with Li Shangyin. He’s not writing to be difficult but he’s writing out of this intense yearning and he’s finding that the veiled language he uses is what most satisfies that impulse. When I translated those two poets and also Bada Shanren—I wanted to do some poets that I thought a lot of Americans wouldn’t know—he’s better known as a painter. He stopped speaking for 13 years. He only painted and wrote poetry. He wrote the poems in his paintings, so they have a drastic quality. I was consciously choosing poets that I thought were at the fringe of what was at the edge of the classical tradition that were expanding, playing with, or innovating in interesting ways. That continued to feed me through my next set of books really, The Ginkgo Light, Compass Rose, Sight Lines. There’s actually a fourth phase of Chinese translation, which you didn’t mention, which I was just thinking about because starting in 2007, I started to go to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China for International Poetry Festivals. As part of those festivals, the poets would get together and as part of cultural exchange, we would translate each other’s poetry. For instance, Xi Chuan, whose English is really, really good, translated four of my poems into Chinese. I remember working on one poem of his with the dictionary and asking him questions. But I was very happy with the prose poem that I translated of his. But I have about a dozen translations of contemporary poets from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Yang Lian who left China and lives in Berlin, Germany now. That set of translations, I’m not sure what the influence is doing those on me. Modern Chinese is a whole different language from classical Chinese, but Xi Chuan’s prose poems, Yang Lian’s drawing on the tradition and transforming it, I think they do have an influence on my most recent work as well.
DN: I love listening to you describe this interplay between translations in your own poetry over the course of decades. It’s just amazing. But before we talk further, this seems like a good place to hear some poetry too. I picked out four poems—two early poems and two early middle poems—The Taoist Painter and Juniper Fires, then Parallax and The Unnamable River.
AS: Sure. Very different poems.
DN: If you’re okay with me choosing.
AS: Yeah, I love that. I love that. Often, poets will go on a reading tour or whatever, and I find out they’re reading the same poems again and again, and again. This is a lot of fun for me because I feel like you’re delving in and choosing ones that I might not choose. Let me start with The Taoist Painter.
[Arthur Sze reads a poem called The Taoist Painter]
[Arthur Sze reads a poem called Juniper Fires]
Parallax, so just as a preface, that opens with two words in the Hopi language, I think it was Auden who said, “A poet is, above all else, passionate about language.” I love learning words or phrases from other languages. It helps me also reflect on what English does or doesn’t do. Kwakwha and Askwali is the poem world revealer, a male and female way of saying thank you.
[Arthur Sze reads a poem called Parallax]
Then the last poem to River River, The Unnamable River.
[Arthur Sze reads a poem called The Unnamable River]
DN: We’ve been listening to Arthur Sze read from The Glass Constellation, new and collected poems from Copper Canyon Press. That last poem gives me goosebumps. I want to take a line from the Unnamable River where you say, “Who can step out of his body to compare the two? Who can step out of his life and feel the milky way flow out of his hands?” I wanted to take that as a segue into questions about the self in relationship to poetry. Because your poems, even when they have an I and a You in them, often also have a feeling of having a bird’s eye view or a God’s eye view. For me, it feels like there’s a de-centering of the self, of a certain aspect of the self, or the placing of the self in a much smaller way within a larger cosmos. I’m thinking of the first chapter of Ursula Le Guin’s idiosyncratic translation of the Tao Te Ching that goes, “So the unwanting soul sees what’s hidden, and the ever-wanting soul sees only what it wants.” I was hoping you could talk to us about how you see yourself orienting to self-hood, both as a poet when creating poetry but also the self within the poem itself.
AS: Thanks. This is an endlessly challenging and rewarding, ultimately, task I think. I’m not sure I can give you a very good answer but I will try. I would like to start with the idea of Chinese landscape painting where the sense of itself is very small. For me, when I was starting to write in 1968, 1970, the confessional school was very big, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and there seemed to be so much mining of the self. To me, it felt melodramatic, maybe a bit overwhelming, intense and powerful certainly, but ultimately, also a bit tedious. I felt like there was a lot of wallowing of the self. Frankly, just growing up as a Chinese-American in New York City with the Chinese culture in my background, I see a landscape painting where there are gigantic mountains and these waterfalls, and way in the corner, if you look really carefully, there’s the little path and a tiny microscopic man basically approaching a bridge. There’s a sense of man being very small in the large scale of things. I do think I carry that sense, that Asian sense of a self being small in a landscape. Wang Wei often dissolves the self into a landscape and that interests me. But there’s this idea that the self is part of this larger cosmos but isn’t necessarily the main primary focus. But working and writing in English over time, I feel like my sense of self, the eye in the poem has gotten more relaxed, more varied, and it’s looser. I think in my earlier poems, Dana Levin said it was more like an eye looking like a camera lens or something looking out at the world. She didn’t have the sense of what she calls a spotlet singer being the center of the drama of the poem. I like to use an “I” and locate the “I” but I also think the “I” is not coherent or uniform. Like if we look inside of ourselves, we see so many different aspects to who we are from one day to another or even within an hour. The self is complex. I feel like maybe, in that one of the self, there are many parts or many aspects of oneself. The use of the “I” can become de-centering when that sense of self becomes less certain, less defined. Sometimes, when I use a “You” in a poem, the “You” can be a reader, it could be another person but sometimes, I also feel like I’m engaging with an aspect of myself, like the “You” becomes a form of self-interrogation, like “You see”. What happens if it’s “I see” versus the “You see”? But the “You” is actually an aspect of oneself. I feel like psychologically, it gets very nebulous. Here’s where I say I don’t necessarily have a very good answer, but I think I’m interested in tracking an “I” that is mutable, that isn’t one unity that is unchanging. There’s a sense, maybe in a Walt Whitman poem, where “I” is very strong, all-seeing, and unified. Maybe it’s also the way our world is today, we face so many different kinds of challenges internally and externally. I think it’s very hard to have that sense of a unified self today. There’s more of a sense of an “I” that’s intentioned with itself or aspects intentioned with itself. In using the “I”, it’s like the way I was saying you could use the word “as” and each time you use it, it brings in a different meaning or different possibility. I think in writing poems with the first person singular “I”, in a way I’m doing that, I feel like the “I” is maybe slightly different from poem to poem and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a way of layering and honoring the sense of fluidity we have about our selfhood.
DN: If we take that into praxis, you’ve talked elsewhere about how you like to write early in the morning when you’re half awake and also, that you like to create an overabundance of drafts without knowing where you’re going in the generative stage and only later to go back, and look for the language within everything that you’ve created that you want to use. Are these techniques of putting to the side the more controlling aspects of self, say an ego that wants to organize or disappear the other aspects of self by being half awake and producing beyond your controlling mind?
AS: Absolutely. I’m making an anecdote here, then I’m coming back. There’s a really well-known calligrapher in the Bay Area, Kazuaki Tanahashi—who probably wouldn’t even remember me—we had dinner once in Santa Fe but it was an extremely important dinner for me because he actually got out his brush and paper, and we did such things that I’ve never done before, like two-minded calligraphy where two people hold the same brush and try, and create the same stroke. One person is writing it upside down and one person is writing it right side up. When I held that brush and I started to move, he wouldn’t let me move and it’s like, “Oh, wait a minute, what’s going on?” That sense of tension, stillness, and motion happening was revelatory to me. I remember asking him, “When do you do your best work?” He said, “I do it when I’m exhausted, when I lose my sense of control.” That’s always interested me, that maybe you could do it early in the day or late in the day. Early in the day, for me, is best when I’m not fully awake, I’m still in a dream state. Absolutely, on the one hand, as a poet, I am shaping the language. I am ultimately going to choose what words in what order syntactically or going to string together to create the poem. But if I know what the poem is about too soon—and this is just personal experience—in my 20s, I would say, “Oh, I’m going to write a poem about this.” I would write it but then a week later, I’d look and I’d say, “It’s not that interesting.” I had it all conceived and there wasn’t a lot of discovery or surprise. Over time, I began to realize that if I slowed down the process, if I wasn’t in such a hurry—I guess here’s a social critique too—if I wasn’t in such a hurry, maybe I could discover things I wouldn’t otherwise find. I started to just say, “Okay, I’m not going to worry about whether this is the poem or not. I’m just going to write phrases. I’m going to listen to the sound, the rhythm, the spell, and the incantation.” Working at dawn for me is a really magical time because I like to start before dawn. I’m writing in the dark, then as dawn comes on, branches of trees, fences, things emerge out of the darkness and for me, that’s like this metaphor of language coming up. It’s such a rich time for me if I just trust, again, the sound, the rhythm, the fragments of images that come to me. I can find over time, as they extend themselves, the structure of a poem will reveal itself. That’s a totally different way of writing a poem where you think, “Oh, okay, here’s where I’m headed. This is where it’s going.” You learn to stop and think. It’s like that tension with Kazuaki, maybe the unconscious holding you back saying, “Wait a minute, don’t be in such a quick state of mind to write that character. I’m going to make you struggle a little bit here.” To even get that first stroke on the page, that was thrilling for me to experience. I’m transferring it to my poetic process, that sense of gestating a little more of being comfortable with just sitting there in the darkness for a while and not having any words come out, and not knowing what’s going to happen. Those are really rich times for discovery for me. But ultimately, there is that tension between playing with the language and the musicality, then thinking about what is the structure, is there a poem here? Ultimately, I have to feel like there’s some inner necessity that is pushing the language into its shape. I don’t want the poem to ever feel like, “Oh well, this is just contrived or this is just thought out and preconceived.” I want the poem to really have, in subtle ways, a kind of enactment of discovery. Like with the Parallax poem, I was fascinated by those two words, the male and female “thank you”, but I didn’t know where it was going to go or that it would circle back but I had the opening, then I had to go very slowly and allow a big mess to happen for me to discover all the things that could happen in the world and for the poem to then come back and say, “Thank you.”
DN: I’m glad also that you mentioned Dana Levin’s writing about you because it’s one of my favorite pieces of deep thought on your work, the essay that she wrote in Agni about The Ginkgo Light. I’m just going to read a couple things because I think it also highlights in a different way some of the things you’ve already said but also, I just want to hear your thoughts on the parts that I pulled out. She says, “Being the natural child of Sylvia Plath and William Blake (with an incurable weakness for on-page dramatics), I was not a natural reader for the work of Arthur Sze, as I first encountered it in the mid 1990s. I was attracted to arias; there seemed to be no spot-lit singer in Sze’s poems, certainly not the operatic kind, singing out of passion. The ‘I’ of an Arthur Sze poem was most often an eye: poems I read felt nearly documentary in nature.” Then she continues speaking, now about the time right after 9/11 and she says, “Most people were in death-shock, stunned by threat; as I listened to Arthur read ‘Earthshine’ I realized the crucial gift his poems offered: immersion, in the ‘shit-smear hair-sway leaf-gold ooze’ of endlessly proliferating life. It was a gift presented without heat, without manipulation of the heart, in keeping with the essential nature of its record: the isness of the is. This is a motto of dispassion that in the face of destruction becomes heartbreaking, even heroic. Sze stood at the lectern in the public library and invoked particulars against the debris.” Do you see yourself in this description of you? Is this a moment of another artist seeing or illuminating something, either that you didn’t know about your effect or something you were aspiring toward as a poet?
AS: I think Dana’s response and reading of my work caught me by surprise but in nice ways I think. As I said, I never thought of mining the self or making the self the spotlit singer. That felt somehow melodramatic or too egotistical to me, maybe coming again from an Asian background. I think one of the things I developed to extend that sense of self or create a different operatic quality is actually through poetic sequences through sections of poems where there might be an “I”, a “You”, a “He”. There are different characters, different people that come and go, then this multiplicity. Ultimately, I guess I would hope that the sequence becomes a kind of a mini opera but not necessarily of the self, maybe more an opera of life itself. I remember Dana coming to the reading at the public library and she came up to me afterwards. She did seem like she had seen my work in a way she hadn’t previously recognized before. That sense of invoking particulars against the destruction, I wouldn’t have articulated it that way but I feel like it’s apropos. There’s a sense of my wanting to be very sharp, clear, descriptive, and precise. In that precision, it’s working against the chaos and destruction happening around us. To me, it also says something about the commitment and value of poetry that we commit to words having meaning, having this clarity and intensity. It came by surprise, but once she said it, I felt like I myself wouldn’t have articulated my work in that way but I was grateful that she saw it in that context.
DN: To connect back to the words that so intrigued Layli Long Soldier, Dana Levin says something similar—not about words, not being above or below each other but about experience—she says, “Sze sacrifices no depth of feeling in emphasizing what I can only call an equalizing view of human experience. In The Ginkgo Light, poems display no hierarchies, no valuations of better than/worse than.” I wondered if, in light of this, you could talk about the title of your collected works, both what The Glass Constellation is referring to and why you chose it to represent your life’s work to date ultimately?
AS: Thank you. Let me start with the title The Glass Constellation, which comes out of my image out of ancient Hindu philosophy, which is called Indra’s net, which is this idea that if you think this gigantic net or web of the world and at each intersection, there’s a hanging jewel where some event has happened, Indra’s net is this idea of interrelations, interdependency, and lack of hierarchy. I’d like to transform it and think of it as an immense chandelier. If you think of all the pieces of hanging glass, suspended glass and you shine a light beam into this immense chandelier, each hanging jewel, each hanging piece of glass absorbs and reflects the light of every other. In terms of a vision of the world, it promotes an interdependency but also, this sense of where you can’t necessarily see a causal connection, you have to trust or accept this notion that things are connected in ways you can’t easily see or anticipate. Of course, contemporary physics will confirm that in say the butterfly effect where a butterfly flapping its wings off the coast of the Yucatán causes a tsunami off the coast of Japan. There’s this idea that every little thing affects every other thing. For me, The Glass Constellation was an appropriate image for our collected poems because even though it’s a life journey and I see that I’m doing some things early on that I would do differently or can do better or whatever, they’re all interrelated, and each one has its necessary place. I’m not trying to prioritize and say, “Oh well.” Like Archipelago, that’s the crowning achievement I’m trying to say. These are all poems in 10 books including new poems and they’re all part of this large constellation, this large body of work where if a reader looks and pays attentions, you will not only see certain points of connection, reflection, and refraction but you’ll see a kind of interdependency and larger vision that emerges without any didactic sense of “here’s the stages of a journey” or whatever. It’s part of an organic growing whole. For me, The Glass Constellation made sense. As a tidal thinking, it was one large body of work. It’s the last poem to Sight Lines. In that particular book, Sight Lines comes together in the title poem. If I ended the book there, the book would have too much of a closure, like these one-liners that appear throughout the book, all reappear in the title poem. When I was working on The glass Constellation as a poem, I felt like I needed one poem that was going to expand beyond this idea of all these lines coming together to create a sense of a much larger infinite vision of space, time, and experience. I like the idea that The Glass Constellation was named after a poem late in the book and a poem that was long that was six or seven pages. Then to come back to Dana’s idea. Yes, in The Ginkgo Light, I was specifically tracking the history of the ginkgo leaf as a living fossil, as its biology, what’s called dichotomous venation that each vein splits into two, splits into two, and into two that creates the fan shape and you can never go backwards. There’s the sense of Hiroshima that’s also in that book. But there’s a sense of wanting to take something very small, like a ginkgo leaf, and finding that it could have as much value as one could see, say the atom bomb at Hiroshima, for the ginkgo tree to flower after the atomic blast. When I discovered that, it took my breath away. There’s a sense of urgency behind the language but there’s also a sense that the very small might look small but who am I to say that’s irrelevant? That maybe, that has the butterfly effect that has part of the tip of an iceberg or is part of something much larger that we can’t immediately see.
DN: Also, the way you describe The Glass Constellation poem collecting one-liners from the collection that precedes it makes me also think of holographic film. Like if you were to cut any piece of a holographic film, let’s say of a chess board, no matter how small or how marginal that piece you cut, you shine a laser through it and it can recreate the entire image. I don’t know if that’s connected. Because it’s not interdependence, it’s also, weirdly, the fragment being the whole at the same time.
AS: Yeah, that poetic thinking runs very much through my book in Comet Hyakutake. “And to the writer of fragments, each fragment is a whole” is the last line of that poem. I’m endlessly fascinated by the part in the whole. I love what you just did there about finding the whole in the part.
DN: Yes. When I was talking to Jorie Graham, I talked about the panel that you and Forrest Gander were invited to be on. You were the two poets on a panel otherwise among climate scientists. These climate scientists wanted specifically for you and Forrest to be there as poets. Forrest sent me a question to ask you today that feels very much a kindred question that I wanted to ask you. I think they complement each other well, so I’m going to ask both of our questions together as an omnibus question. For me, I noticed that climate change is not usually a head-on explicit topic in your poetry but I wonder if you consider this glass constellation model where not only is the human not placed at the center of the cosmos—or by extension at the center of your poems—but where your poems create space for otherness to be active in them. Other scales of time, other vantage points, and your poems do this without necessarily justifying the presence of the non-human by making it “meaningful” to us. I wonder if you see this enacting of The Glass Constellation, not just as an eco-poetics but enacting a different way of being than the one our species is currently enacting, perhaps the process and the mode being a suggestion of a different way we could be. Here is Forrest’s more evocative but related question to you, “Arthur, in one short sequence in The Glass Constellation called Entanglement, you reference, sometimes by their noted absence, turkeys, great blue herons, black bears, rattlesnakes, fire ants, shark’s teeth, apple spruce and willow trees, dogs, salmon, and pheasants. Attentiveness to the so-called natural world is nothing new in your work. Long before people began to talk about eco poetry, your poems insistently integrated the human and the non-human world, is such insistence part of an ethical perspective? Does your poetry have a role to play in considering our environmental crisis?
AS: Where do I start? [laughter] Those are two long intricate wonderful questions. I think I’ll start with Forrest because it’s on my mind. I would say I hope so, I mean the whole issue of climate change, like it or not, is huge and it affects all of us. I want to say that I feel like long before there was a movement called eco poetry, I was doing certain things that were ecological by nature. I was letting things be themselves in the poems and Forrest points to all these natural phenomena, the black bear, the salmon, the spruce. Those are all keenly attentive details and they are part of this larger world view. I don’t ever want to feel like I, as a poet, am trying to be preachy, didactic, or tell a reader like, “This is what you should do,” or “You should be thinking about this.” I think the evolution of my work has been one where just being sharply attentive and observant to nature, like it or not, climate change is hugely there. It’s not there as a political agenda or ecological agenda but I do think my poetry presents a kind of ethics and ecological point of view where the relationship between humans and nature, between the self and the natural world are possibly re-envisioned or at least the potential to re-envision what that relationship can be is there. I’ll give a number of examples. You can track mushroom hunting through the poems in The Glass Constellation. I was just thinking earlier this week how, 30 years ago, when I first learned to hunt mushrooms, I could go up to the Santa Fe Ski Basin in August and there would be hundreds of different kinds of mushrooms. There would be lactarius deliciosus, these gigantic latex mushrooms that would be huge. I think they died in a drought a number of years ago. They never appear. I haven’t seen them in over 15 years, not a single one. Then they were enormous. They came out in these immense flowerings. Just tracking the mushrooms that appear in my poems, there’s a huge diversity, then it shrinks down to a handful. In some ways, I was just thinking, that’s reflective of what’s happening ecologically at the Ski Basin and in the natural world. With years of prolonged drought, I think species have just died. But I’m not trying to foreground it or make it a polemical thing. In The String Diamond, there’s a catalog of endangered species and they’re just listed by name without any commentary. I wanted just the sound and the articulation of that to be effective as a litany of loss or potential loss and I’ll connect it to the human world now. In The Ginkgo Light, there’s a poem at the center called Spectral Line. At the Institute of American Indian Arts, I didn’t write about the institute when I taught there for 22 years but I tried to not write about any of the students because I felt like it was too close to home. But once I left, I felt like, “Okay, I’ve stepped out of it, I’m going to give myself permission to look back and write something about that.” Section Five is a long list of Native American tribes. What I did was in the early draft, I thought of native students I had felt privileged and honored to work with and teach. I wrote their names down. I wrote the names of 30 students, then I thought, “That’s too particular, that’s too personal. That’s not what I am going to do with that.” Then at graduation at the Institute of American Indian Arts, they did a roll call where they named the tribe of each graduating student, then I was like, “That’s it. If I substitute the names of the tribes for each individual student, a reader doesn’t know that behind each tribe is an actual student.” But there’s a roll call of tribes and those tribes are also endangered. Some of the Pueblos in New Mexico have only 90 people left in the village. That’s a roll call that is just as powerful as the endangered species roll call. I see that I’m working with the human and the natural in ways that endlessly, or to use The Glass Constellation, they’re reflecting and refracting against each other but I’m not trying to make any polemical thing in many ways. I’m trying to say if you just pay attention and look at the natural world today, these things are happening. Like it or not, the effects of global warming, of climate change, are here, like it or not, everywhere. If you look carefully, you’re going to find them. I think with the use of white spaces that I’m using a lot in my recent poems and in that sequence force mentioned Entanglement, there’s this idea of action at a distance in quantum physics, the idea that two things don’t actually have to touch to affect each other, which is also back to Indra’s net.
DN: I think Einstein called that “Spooky action at a distance.”
AS: Yes, yes. I love that spooky because it’s like, “What’s going on here?” I like that sense of bafflement. I think that can be really rich and helpful. I do feel like there is definitely a kind of ethics and ecological way of experiencing, and being in the world that’s at the heart of my work. But I feel like I evolved into it. I feel like I did that before there was an ego poetic movement. My allegiance, certainly eco-poetry is important to me but I see myself as a poet. That’s a very important arena that I’m working on.
DN: Yeah. You accidentally anticipated my next question because when I was thinking of Forrest bringing up this poem Entanglement, I was thinking about the recurring motifs in your work, and you have many—the sky, astronomy physics, radiation, the land and landscape, native and Chinese cultures, and cosmologies—but I don’t think anything appears more frequently than mushrooms, which is what Entanglement made me think of as if there were subterranean mycorrhizal connections from your poems decades ago connecting all the way through to your poems now. It made me wonder if the reason mushrooms were ever present is simple; that you love mushrooms and you love to hunt for mushrooms, or if in a similar way to Forrest saying that long before there was a thing called eco poetry, you were practicing it, that perhaps long before the current widespread engagement with the wonders of mushrooms—both by artists and scientists with mushrooms now offering a new way of conceiving of identity and self, of inter-species cooperation, communication, and interdependence—if you yourself were finding meaning and metaphor in mushrooms. I wanted to know if entanglements, which is something used a lot in books written about mushrooms by mushroom scientists and foragers now, do you see The Glass Constellation as another meaning-making framing of your poetry?
AS: I do. I want to personalize it and say that again, this came very slowly over time. Years ago, my son picked up a mushroom on a lawn and I was like, “Don’t eat that.” I didn’t know anything about mushrooms, I was just like the alarm father saying, “Wait a minute, you don’t know what you have there, you could die from it.” Then a few months later, my son and I saw that at Santa Fe Community College, a local mycologist, Bill Isaacs, was teaching a mushroom identification class and I thought, “This would be great bonding for father and son. We’ll go out and hunt mushrooms. This will be fun and we could learn something.” My son loved the idea. He was really into it, so we signed up and every Saturday for eight weeks in the summer, we joined this group and we would go out into the mountains of Northern New Mexico, and hunt for an hour. We’d bring back everything we found and we’d lay them out on park benches, and tables and Bill would say, “Oh, you’re going to die from this one.” He was the head of the New Mexico Poison Control, so it wasn’t just learning the choice edibles, it was learning this whole arena of new knowledge. Then it fascinated me to see the early, middle, and late stages of the mushroom. It also fascinated me that I couldn’t identify any of them by looking in a field guide. I didn’t know what to look for. In the rocky mountains, there are different varieties, there are all these special nuances and Bill would say, “Well, why didn’t you dig out the bottom below the surface because we need that information?” I was like, “Well, I didn’t know how to do that. I just cut it off at the ground.” He’s like, “You missed crucial stuff.” It was like this whole learning of a new ecology, a new field that I loved going out into nature every Saturday and Sunday. We did it for like six summers. Again, it wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m going to learn mushrooms and that’s going to be like this metaphor for language.” It was just a wonderful thing to do with my son. I got really excited by it. Of course, the edible ones are delicious. It was a lot of fun and it was also a challenge. I began to really like going into an environment and knowing, for instance, if I go to the Santa Fe Ski Basin, and I’m at ten thousand feet where ponderosa pine is too low, I’m not even going to find any of the boletes and chanterelles, the really choice edibles. I’ve got to get higher up into the spruce and fir. I loved learning breeding a landscape, like even before looking at a mushroom, I had to look at the vegetation and what wildflowers were blooming. It was a way for me to really experience nature in a kind of detail I had never done before, then to be hunting the mushrooms, collecting them, and also scattering them in these baskets. It just became a whole new field of learning. Then ultimately, I began to think I love this idea that the mycelium is below the surface. It’s like the subconscious, then when the mushroom fruits pops up above ground, maybe that’s like this spontaneous outpouring of a poem or whatever. You can be too logical or whatever. [laughs]
DN: I love that.
AS: But I liked the idea that there was a sense of mystery, surprise, and discovery. I’ll end by saying at one point in Sight Lines, there’s a poem called Lichen Song. There’s the Poet G. C. Waldrep who wrote to me and sent me this big book called the North American Field Guide to Lichens and he said, “Arthur, you’ve been doing marvelous things about mushrooms, but maybe it’s time to put a pause on that, what about lichens?” I’ve never thought of lichens, it’s like, “Oh my God, that’s a whole arena, I don’t know anything about it.”
DN: Speaking of Forrest, his whole new book is about lichens.
AS: I know, it’s all about lichens.
AS: That’s beyond me. The lichens get too technical. [laughter] It did inspire me to write a poem called Lichen Song in the voice of lichen.
DN: That’s a perfect segue because I was hoping we could hear Mushroom Hunting in the Jemez Mountains from your collection Archipelago, then maybe, I don’t know if we’d call it a companion to Lichen Song, but Salt Song from your last collection Sight Lines.
[Arthur Sze reads a poem called Mushroom Hunting in the Jemez Mountains]
[Arthur Sze reads a poem called Salt Song]
DN: We’ve been listening to Arthur Sze read from his new and collected poems, The Glass Constellation from Copper Canyon Press. Part of why I wanted you to read Salt Song is because it’s told from the perspective of salt, like Lichen Song is told from the perspective of lichen. But really the main reason I wanted to read it was because of Luci Tapahonso’s response to it. Tapahonso is the first poet laureate of Navajo Nation. I first learned about her poetry through my conversation with the poet Jake Skeets. Your conversation with Tapahonso about The Glass Constellation was probably my favorite one. She loved this poem, Salt Song. She had you read it and talked about how it reminded her of a Diné ritual. The Diné belief that babies aren’t considered to be fully in this world until they have laughed. When they laugh, there’s a ceremony that involves putting salt in the baby’s hand to welcome them to the world. The whole conversation felt like an example to me of mushroom-like entanglement or the interdependence of Indra’s net or The Glass Constellation because none of what she describes is in the poem explicitly, but the poem seems to invite these hidden connections to be made. You then talked about how you wondered if this impulse of trying to speak from the voice of salt came from your Chinese heritage but you also talked about the things you did and didn’t use because they felt too human for a salt to be used in composing a poem. Earlier, when we were talking about the poem that Forrest Gander pulled out, you said that you let the black bear be itself, but of course, it’s happening in human language. What I’d be interested in knowing is if you could talk about how you tried to get out of the way of salt expressing itself but also the way salt has to accommodate it’s human readership in human language.
AS: Salt is such a potent symbol. I didn’t know the story that Luci told about how babies were brought into the world and Diné culture need that salt. That’s such a wonderful, powerful story and moment of recognition. I was aware of how Zuni and Hopi have these salt trails where they go and they collect salt. It’s this very sacred journey. I was thinking about how fundamental salt is needed to live, for life to exist. I think some of the things I wanted to avoid were references like salting away something or the way we might use that image in other ways. I wanted this very archetypal deep sense of journey that the salt was speaking out of this ancient voice, coming forward, and talking to a human being saying, “I’m just not the salt and the salt shaker that you serve, throw on ribeye steak or something. I want you to really see who I am, what I am, where I come from, and what is happening when you take salt into your body and we are joined.” For me, there was an element of mythic power that was my primary focus. I wanted to exclude what I saw as more peripheral, tangential, or superficial ways of looking at salt.
DN: Did you feel like punctuation, which is notably absent, would have been too much of a human intervention?
AS: Yes, absolutely. Actually, I wrote it out in lines, I believe, early on with punctuation. I felt like this poem and the Lichen Song, they both for me have a kind of urgency behind them. The lichen is telling the person, “You’re in such a hurry,” or “You’re going to walk away from me. I’m stuck on the ceiling here but there’s a lot I’ve seen that you should really think about.” The same with the salt saying, “Wait a minute, you really need to pay attention here.” The poem in lines didn’t feel right to me. I had to think about, “Well, what would be a form that would be appropriate?” I felt like it’s almost like a run-on sentence, like the lichen and the salt have this urgency, they need breathing spaces but the punctuation is too mechanical or too human artifice. It needed to be more like this voice, breath, or pressure that only stopped to gather itself to make the next statement or assertion or say, “Look at this.” When I hit on that form in prose, then had those spaces, it felt like that was the right form.
DN: I want to turn to another aspect of your writing and another way you relinquish control or invite factors into your writing beyond your control, and that’s the role of divination of tea leaf readings in the I Ching. I know that the beginning of The Glass Constellation isn’t chronological but I believe if I’m correct, the first poem we encounter called Before Completion is your first poem using the I Ching as part of its making. I was hoping maybe you would talk to us generally speaking about the appeal of the I Ching as a poet, then dial down a little into the particulars of how you might use it to make a poem or as some part of the process of making a poem.
AS: These are fantastic questions, thank you. Yes, Before Completion, the first poem in The Glass Constellation is in six sections and it’s designed to mimic the six lines of a hexagram of the I Ching. To personalize it, I had never used the I Ching in my life before 1993 or 1994. I got a call early one morning, Naomi Shabib Nye in San Antonio Texas called me and she said, “I believe you were a friend of this Misty Poet Gu Cheng, he killed his wife and hanged himself in New Zealand. I felt like I needed to tell you this news.” It was early in the morning, I was, again, speaking of being half awake, I was stunned by it and I thought, “Oh, I had met Gu Cheng in 1985 in Beijing. We’d become friends.” I was so stunned by that, I thought, “What do I do with this?” There’s such a strong emotional shock. Then I thought maybe I’ll throw the coins with the I Ching and see what gets generated, and see if that helps me reflect on the situation. I threw Before Completion and I had this idea of someone maybe who dies before they complete their life’s work. The I Ching, it’s based on yin and yang for those who don’t know the system, it’s based on solid and broken lines, male and female lines, odd and even numbers. You throw three coins six times to create this pattern, so there’s this element of chance and you can say, “Oh, you’re relinquishing control.” On the other hand, you might say you’re opening yourself up to something larger and discovering a pattern that’s there. I like the I Ching because ultimately, it actually puts the human responsibility back on yourself. I find that as I do it, it says like, “Perseverance furthers,” or “The superior man would do this.” Then I asked myself, “Am I really the superior man? Maybe I’m an inferior person, I’m the frail, flawed person but this is what I’m supposed to do.” But it’s a way of mirroring back and thinking about how each moment is unique but also part of a continuum, part of something larger. For Before Completion, I looked at the pattern of lines and I thought for each solid line, I’ll write a section in a block, like a stanza and for each broken line in the hexagram, I would write a fractured, a fragmented line. I eventually played with it. It doesn’t exactly fit the hexagram but it’s what got me started. Then that led me to other experiences. My wife, Carol Moldaw, is a poet. She did the I Ching in New York City and she had a bunch of yarrow sticks. I’d never done the yarrow stick method before. I’d never done it with someone else before. We did the I Ching together using the divination process of yarrow sticks where you’re physically holding these stalks, which are irregular and setting them aside in groups. That was a very different experience of doing the I Ching where it’s extended and much more meditative. Then doing it with someone, I thought was really wonderful. It wasn’t just the solitary self but this back and forth conversation about an issue at hand. I found myself wanting to use the I Ching at certain points where I felt like, “What can I learn from this?” It’s not like I Ching ever says, “Do this.” It’s more like the oracle throws back things and says, “These are things to consider.” I always consider that introduction to the Wilhelm translation by Carl Jung really important because Jung talks about synchronicity and this idea of a causal meaningful connection. You can’t say that this event causes that event but you see this event happen and that event happen, and in your mind, there’s some connection. You can’t prove they’re causally connected but there’s some kind of meaningful connection. Again, it’s back to Indra’s Net in this sense that we can see part but maybe not the totality of things. That became really important for me as a method. I’ll add and say that sometimes, when I’m at a certain stage in my own writing and I’ll lay out poems on the floor, and think what are its strengths, what are its weaknesses, what are repeating phrases, what could I be thinking about doing that I’m not doing, sometimes, I will use the coin method and throw the I Ching and say, “What am I not seeing here? What should I be thinking about?” It’s just for me a way of reflecting and extending the boundaries of consciousness. Finally, let me say like John Cage and Jackson Mac Low, you’d found the I Ching extremely helpful because for Cage, it was a way to take the ego out of the process of decision making, if rolling the dice, that determined the sequence of say notes that were being played in a particular musical composition, he created it but it incorporates the element of chance. Jackson Mac Low loved the idea of de-centering the ego and not having that ego in charge of everything. Throwing the I Ching allowed him to create these, what he called global poems where the poem was like this mesh of words on a page and you chose your own path through but then it was non-linear and it incorporated chance in a way that I think was humbling and fruitful.
DN: You’re one step ahead of me on many questions actually because I was going to mention this Donald Justice lecture on silence and John Cage that I was listening to where he mentions the line, “Chance is always tinged by the conception of fate.” You’ve answered that, that it seems like you are in that group in the sense that it’s less about randomness and more about meaning making or meaning revelation through the process.
AS: Absolutely, yes.
DN: Another way we can look or another way you look at these interconnections is explicitly through quantum physics and Chaos theory. Murray Gell-Mann, the physicist who coined the term “quark”, named the title of one of his books The Quark and the Jaguar after your poetry. To me, the language of quantum physics often sounds evocative and even spiritual, like Gell-Mann’s term The Eightfold Way, which is a method of grouping quarks that helped explain and predict the presence of certain subatomic particles. There’s even the notion of quantum entanglement that suggests that the quantum state of any particle or group of particles can’t be described independently of the state of the others, even when these particles are separated by a large distance. Quantum entanglement, on the macro level, both makes me think of mushrooms and also of the Buddhist and ecological notions of interdependence. But I’m curious if you could talk a little bit more about this aspect of your work, if it’s the language, the specific trove of vocabulary of physics or what the physics itself is uncovering, or probably I’m guessing both, that feels important to draw into your poetry and into your poetics?
AS: Both. I’m going to personalize my response again. I hope this is fun to do because I don’t always get the chance.
DN: Yeah. I love that you’re grounding this in lived experience.
AS: Someone asked me once, how do I draw from physics, weaving, and mushroom hunting, I said, “It’s not out of a book. It’s a lived experience.” I suppose my background as a science dropout at MIT was helpful. But for 10 years, I worked as a poet in the schools in New Mexico from 1973 to 1983 all over the state and one of the women who worked for the state arts council, Helene Slansky, used to have the poets over for these dinner parties. It turns out her husband, Richard Slansky was a theoretical physicist. He became the director of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory. I met two renowned physicists through Richard Slansky, Murray Gell-Mann and the other one is George Zweig, who also thought of the quark particle but couldn’t figure out a name for it. Murray, having a flair for the name, called it the quark and ended up with a nobel prize, there’s the vagaries of scientific discovery. But one thing that happened in those dinners was that a lot of the poets can talk to the scientists. They would split up into these two very different groups in the living room and I ended up talking to Murray and George because I had that scientific vocabulary but I feel like this very fascinating, exciting, mystical experience of string theory quantum physics. I remember Dick Slansky talking about how string theory needed to be in 10 dimensions and I was like, “What the hell is that?” But I just loved the way it was constantly expanding my mind. Murray, I turned out to discover that he was an amazing linguist. He knew 10 languages fluently and he would recite the history of the word ketchup to me, I remember, from Malay to Hong Kong to Canton to London. He was like a walking encyclopedia. At one point, I asked Murray, “I wanted to use the Middle English and Old English spellings of the word black but I didn’t know how to say them.” I wondered if Murray knows and he was like, “Arthur, of course, I know. They’re homonyms. They’re pronounced exactly the same but they’re spelled differently.” He was an amazing resource. On the one hand, the language of physics was helpful and important to me. I was also at that stage in the ‘80s working on River River, Archipelago where I was breaking away from that model of classical Chinese poetry. For me, it was certainly at that stage, I felt like, “Oh, I know the language of science. I can use it. I should be using it. Why not use magnetism, quark, or electron in a poem as much as the moon or river or diamond?” I was consciously thinking I want more and more of the world to enter my poems. That’s been a lifelong process and struggle I think. The early poems are nice but they’re self-contained. They have a beauty of language but they are self-contained. Part of it was how to put more of the world in, so the actual vocabulary of science I saw is a kind of weapon almost, is a kind of arsenal or almost like the way you could have anti-poetic elements enter a poem and charge the poem. I thought consciously, if you had an electron or quark, moon, and diamond in the same poem, what kind of tension would there be between those worlds? But also, as I got to know those scientists, I made a distinction between the technological people at Los Alamos who were busy assembling stuff and in the worst case scenario, assembling bombs. But the scientists seemed to me to have this utter small sense of ego, like they were still this thrill of excitement, discovery, and wonder and really not knowing. Murray was amazing and fanatical for that because his reach was so varied. Actually, he said to me at one point, “The problem with young physicists was their base of knowledge was too narrow. It was only like physics.” He knew anthropology, he knew languages. He called me one day, I was reading this poem aloud from River River and it has the phrase the quark and the jaguar, and the quark is simplicity, the jaguar is complexity, and he said, “I have the ideas but Arthur, you’re the poet, you have the images.” [laughter] I’ve never forgotten that he said, “I cannot come up with the images. I got the ideas, can I use your image as the title for my book on complexity and complex adaptive systems?” I said, “Sure, it’d be an honor.” That’s how that came about. But then that idea of thinking of ten dimensions or these dimensions we have very little inkling about, I tried to interpret them poetically to think about how I can use that as a poet, how can I expand the poem again. Like this last poem, Entanglement, that Forrest has been referring to, is my return after many years, quantum physics. I don’t want to get too technical but there are two sections in one line stanzas. To me, that was new. I’ve done a section in one-line stanzas where there’s a line and silence and a line and silence. But having them back-to-back felt new to me because I felt like this was really taking that view of not recognizing how they all connect or don’t connect, and trusting that they might somehow connect but allowing each one to be a microcosm, and part of the macrocosm too, to suspend them. Then to bring in John Cage again who says, “It’s not only sound but silence has duration, too,” I’ve always thought of that, he said, “As a composer, remember your silences have to be demarcated, the duration of silences.” For me, in those one-line stanzas, there’s the sense of silence and sound floating or struggling against each other. The long answer is yes, the vocabulary was very important to me. The discussions about the creative process were mind-blowing. I’ll give you another anecdote. George Zweig, who’s really a terrific physicist, told me over one of those dinners, I asked him, “When were you most creative?” I was stunned by his answer and he said, “I was most creative when I was standing in line at the grocery store,” this is like in Newton or something, “I saw a butcher pull a roll of this shiny paper and tear it off, and wrap a t-bone steak in it.” George Zweig said, “I always write on this eight and a half by eleven yellow pad and I tear the sheet, then I start over but somehow, just that slightest pause interval breaks my interruption, my creative process.” When he saw that butcher tear the piece of white paper off and wrapped the steak, he said, “I’m not buying a steak but I need to buy that whole roll of white paper you have.” [laughter] George told me he went home and he wrote all of his breakthrough equations on that one roll, and he was never able to repeat it. I love this kind of apocryphal story. [laughter] This is like a creative process, “How do you step into these? How do you create these amazing finds?” He said he just rolled and rolled, and rolled, and he just kept writing and writing, and he made all of his breakthrough equations on that.
DN: That’s incredible. I love that story. I was also just thinking, even if you didn’t have a background in physics and even if you hadn’t met these amazing physicists in these conversations, being from New Mexico and being attentive to New Mexico, the land of New Mexico, the history of New Mexico is also the history of nuclear physics, that to be aware would also potentially, like I’m thinking of Juliana Spahr in Ecopoetics, like is it ecopoetic to write a poem about a tree or is it more ecopoetic to write a poem about the bulldozer that’s about to knock over the tree? That your engagement with radiation is being attentive to things that maybe other people, when they’re writing landscape poetry in New Mexico, might even unwittingly be erasing from what they’re seeing.
AS: No, I think that’s true. I think being attentive is really the key. I would say a priori, one isn’t better than the other in terms of writing a poem about a tree or the bulldozer. They could both be powerful poems. You can’t say beforehand which is going to be better than another. I guess I would say they both need to be written. [laughter] But in terms of attention, I think there’s also for me the horror of what Los Alamos represents. On the one hand, there are these marvelous conversations about discovery and what you might call pure science with these physicists. But yes, like it or not, Los Alamos is the birthplace of the atom bomb. I’ll never forget again, taking my son to the Los Alamos museum, the Bradbury Museum. He was in elementary school and they had all these gadgets set up. It’s fun for the kids to press these buttons and see lights go on. But one day, I was horrified to see in this museum that they had certain exhibits set up where if you press a button, suddenly, you might not have been aware of it but there were lights embedded in the floor. They would flash across the floor and they would show what it was like to be at ground zero or at the point of ignition for an atom bomb. Of course, I was thinking, “Yeah, but it’s totally divorced from the destruction of everything around it. You’re made to see this beauty of light flashing across the floor almost instantaneously.” I wrote this prose poem, which was again very rare for me called The Los Alamos Museum where I felt like the language of science was so specific but so very cold and dehumanizing because it was masking the sense of how everything would be obliterated at the place of an atom bomb. The exhibit in this museum didn’t address that at all, instead it was glorifying technology or this superior consciousness or, “Look at what we can do.” The horror of that created a very different poem out of science for me.
DN: Yeah. One of the things that’s interesting about Murray Gell-Mann is that he’s known for focusing on the smallest of individual subatomic particles, but he was also interested in systems and unifying principles. He set up the first center for the study of complex systems in Santa Fe. Unlike so much of contemporary science, that by believing the truth is found through controlling all the variables and reducing things to their simplest components in a controlled setting and often loses sight of the big picture, of systems, and of lived embodied entanglements, even this example in the museum is losing sight of the big picture I think, Gell-Mann seemed interested in both the particle and the system. I wanted to ask you about that because you’re interested, not just in notions of scale, what we can see through a telescope, what we can see through a microscope. You’ve used the Chinese dragon as a metaphor for the mind in this way, that in Chinese cosmology, the dragon could shrink itself to the size of a silkworm or fill all the space between heaven and earth, or the line in one of your poems that goes, “He glances up at Cassiopeia arcing toward the north-northwest, wonders if mosquito eggs in the pond are about to hatch.” You not only see the imagination as endlessly branching, like you’ve mentioned, with this branching connecting poetry and ecology, and the unique branching pattern of the ginkgo leaf becoming a metaphor for the imagination, but on top of all of that, you have this ongoing engagement, as we’ve touched on earlier, with the relationship of the parts to the whole or the particle to the system perhaps, the question of the connections between the wholeness of parts in and of themselves and how the whole is made of parts. For instance, your collection Archipelago, each island in an archipelago is a discrete thing on its own, yet is participating, or at least we see it as participating in something larger, even if we can’t see the connections between the islands under the water. In your collection Quipu, Quipus are a peruvian mathematical and linguistic system that uses patterns of knots that are made along a string. Again, we have these discrete things that either serve a purpose in math or in language but they’re all connected into something larger. I think we could even say that in your uncollected poems about the Acequia in New Mexico where many families are collectively responsible for the upkeep of the Acequia, the ditch of water, and they participate in a responsive system among the families, and between the families and the status of the water in the ditch with regards to who draws water when, how much water, that you could see this as part of a whole and parts inquiry. But I didn’t know if you see these things as connected. Do you see the Quipu, the Archipelago and the Acequia, the fragment and the whole, the individual and the species, the species and the environment, are these all different manifestations at different points in your life about this question of, I don’t know if it’s the holographic nature of reality or The Glass Constellation nature of reality?
AS: Yes, I think so. I think they’re related in the sense that I’m not necessarily looking for or hoping for an answer because they’re one of my central obsessions. Like it or not, I have to write through them or right against them and with them. In Archipelago, the title poem draws its energy from Ryōan-ji, this temple in Kyoto, Japan where 15 stones are set in a sea of raked gravel and three of the four sides have walls, so you can only walk back and forth along one side. As you look, you can see 12, 13, 14, you can never see all 15 stones at once. They’re positioned, they’re designed in this particular way in these clusters and I found that exciting, mind-blowing, and wonderful. It became the structure for that whole book where each poem could have its own configuration. But below the surface, like the mycelium, they would be connected. Yes, I see it as an ongoing project but rather than mere repetition, I hope it’s like this idea of homeric return. I’ve mentioned in some interviews that Robert Fitzgerald said that when phrases are repeated in Homer, they’re not mirror repetitions but there are layerings there. They oftentimes have a slightly different angle or they create a different nuance or resonance. Each time the repeat comes, it enriches, it reinforces, it insists, and it grows in strength and power. I feel like one of my key concerns is the relationship between the part and the whole. That’s cosmological. You could say, even a religious sense of not being able to see the totality of things and not being able to transcend too, of not having that being able to transcend and see, look down and see the totality. But at different stages, there’s that sense of, I’m quoting Wallace Stevens, “Of trying to find what will suffice,” the poem in search of what will suffice. They’re like provisional responses along the way. Does that make sense?
DN: That makes a lot of sense. As we near the end of our time together, I wanted to return to Native cultures and language and connect us back to the very beginning with Layli Long Soldier on you. There’s some writing by Simon Ortiz called Song/Poetry and Language— Expression and Perception that came out in ‘77 from Navajo Community College Press. It isn’t about non-hierarchical language per se but it does seem to be about the fragment and the whole. I was just curious about your thoughts about it. I’m going to piece together a couple things that he said, somewhat paraphrased also. He begins the piece by saying, “Song at the very beginning was experience. There was no division between experience and expression.” Then later he says, “Recently, I was talking with a friend who’s enrolled in a Navajo language course. She is Navajo, but she does not know how to speak Navajo. She made a comment about not being able easily to learn Navajo as a course of instruction. She said, ‘I can’t seem to hear the parts of it,’ referring to inflections and nuances of spoken sentences and words. I referred to a remark I made some time before. ‘The way that language is spoken at home is with a sense of completeness. That is, when a word is spoken, it is spoken as a complete word. There are no separate parts or elements to it.’ For example, when my father has said a word and I ask him, ‘What does that word break down to? I mean, breaking it down to the syllables of sound or phrases of sound, what do each of these parts mean?’ And he has looked at me with an exasperated—slightly pained—expression on his face, wondering what I mean. And he tells me, ‘It doesn’t break down into anything.’ The word he has said is complete.”
AS: It’s wonderful. [laughter]
DN: I didn’t know if that sparked anything for you. It was very evocative for me. I think I encountered that looking at Layli’s response from your class. I don’t know if it was a piece of writing that you had given to your students or whether it was something that she encountered and linked, but do you feel a push back against that or do you feel a sense of recognition in that, or both?
AS: I think I feel more recognition than pushback in that. In a way, I’m extrapolating, I’m making the poem like the word too. I think it was Rilke who said that all the discussions about poems end up as misunderstandings, or whatever. [laughter] The poems have this fundamental experience and yes, they’re composed of words. We use language and experiences conveyed through that language. You could break a poem apart into these words or whatever but ultimately, there’s still that sense of the word is complete, the poem is complete. You could parse the poem into these parts but in a way, I guess there is this impulse to want to let the poem be in that unity of experience.
DN: I wonder if that brings us back to the image in a way too because we’re more prone to have an image seem like a unity of experience than a word.
AS: Yeah. Or I was going to revise and say multiplicity of experience. [laughter] Yeah, absolutely. The way that images move in Chinese poetry to me is mysterious and powerful, and in the strongest poems, not always but in the poems that feel really powerful, it’s like this is the perfect image at the perfect time. That sense of inner and outer illumination, and it exists almost really beyond words, it’s like, “This is it.”
DN: Before we hear some final poems, I thought we could look forward to the horizon for you as a poet. It is obvious that you’re still pushing the boundaries of foreman expression if we look at the arc of what we’ve collected so far. If we look at just the last seven years, your collection Compass Rose, your National Book Award winning Sight Lines, and the many uncollected poems that you’ve collected here as The White Orchard, we see the appearance of the use of dashes at the end of lines. We see words that are legible but struck through. In your most recent poems, particularly Acequia del Llano, we see you engaging with classical forms again, the haiku and the haibun but interrupting them in ways that make something entirely new. I’d love to hear about any of these, but even more, I’d love to hear what you feel you’re reaching toward, what unexplored edge are you wanting to go over next, poetically speaking?
AS: I hope with luck, I can keep going. I’d like to start by focusing on the Acequia del Llano poem because that’s a poem that came out of COVID really with the rupture and social interactions with people going into their private interior lives. One of the things that has kept me going is the work of the Acequia. Last year, I was actually president of the Acequia del Llano. This year, I’m off the board. But I love the idea that we are all working communally, there are like 17 families now. The Audubon Nature Conservancy at the top of Acequia is one of the non-profits, and the city of Santa Fe is the other one. We all have to work together with water rights. I won’t go into elaborate detail about all the technical aspects but everyone who has land on Acequia has a certain day and time when they can draw water off. It affects everyone else, so there is this communal system. Back in the depression, people would pass bones to each other down the Acequia to use flavor soup or whatever people shared the resources they had. But in terms of my poetry, I wanted to write a poem with a different kind of form. I turned to the haibun, which is prose with haiku, prose and haiku in terms of say, what Basho wrote. But one of the innovations I did and why I’m taking all time is I like this poem because I did a lot of things I wouldn’t expect myself to do and I figure breeders wouldn’t expect me to do. The haiku sections are actually counted syllabically, 5-7-5 syllables. There’s prose of 5-7-5 haiku prose, then instead of another haiku, syllabically are counted 2-7 syllable lines. You can take the 5-7-5 syllable and connect it to the 7-7 syllable. There are four sections but you create a tanka, which means short song in Japanese. Inside of each section, there are two high bands. There’s the prose, haiku prose, and a two-liner but there’s also a haiku and there’s also a tanka. There are poems inside of poems, inside of poems. This idea of a microcosm and layering, and how they refract against each other was a lot of fun for me to work with. It includes a whole ecological thing about endangered species that exist in this micro climate. Toward the end, I slept in the Ganges River because I had this wonderful revelation—again, it’s coming out of personal experience—here I am drawing water off of the Acequia two times a week and we have maybe, say a hundred yards of land along the water but the Acequia goes from Nichols Reservoir, which feeds the City of Santa Fe. The water that doesn’t get used in the Acequia drops into the Santa Fe River and the Santa Fe River goes to the Rio Grande and the Rio Grande is like, I don’t know, a thousand eight hundred miles long. Suddenly, this part is part of this gigantic hole. I love that sense of feeling like this mini little thing isn’t so insignificant because you start putting the pieces together and this huge water system waterway. I couldn’t resist layering the Ganges River and this idea of laying prayer candles out on the water. There’s a lot of destabilizing of the narrative. But I was excited because I was writing a poem in a form I’d never tried before during COVID. It’s very nature based. But there’s also a sense of communion at the last haiku. The last two-seven line syllables are getting a cactus spine here. I draw a translucent cactus spine out of your hand. There’s a connection between an “I” and a “You” connected in this landscape, and a sense of intimacy too that’s available on a small scale that isn’t available on the large scale. I feel like in this section of new poems, I’m doing things I’ve never done before. Again, the long answer to your question is how do I continue, I have a sequence that I’ve written called Spring View. That’s in nine sections very early on during COVID but I included the chemical equation for photosynthesis into the poem and I thought, “This is ridiculous, so anti-poetic.” Then I thought, “I like this.” Because in a way, that’s the equation of all life without photosynthesis, without converting sun energy into chemical energy into plant energy. There would be no life on this planet. I thought it’s fun to, again, here’s my science background of thinking something that appears so unpoetic and putting that right directly into a poem, I thought that’s something I’ve never done before. I don’t want to say too much but I have a lot of ideas in mind. I’m not trying to like being you for the sake of being you. I guess I want to say that I feel like at each stage, when I’ve put a book together, I’m not saying, “Oh, it’s five years, it’s time for me to put a book together.” I think it took me seven or eight years to put Quipu together because I had this structure I wanted to work on and I didn’t want to rush it. At certain moments, I feel like, “This is right. I’m putting this book together. It coalesces the vision and energy.” What happens next, I have ideas but again, yes, I’m just giving you clues.
DN: I love that. You pick any point in The Glass Constellation. We can see you reaching beyond yourself.
AS: Thank you.
DN: Let’s end with two of the newer poems. I was thinking Pyrocumulus, which also references the ditch, then end with Transpirations.
AS: Just for fun, let me reference Pyrocumulus and say that I could not have written this poem without the panel I did with Forrest Gander and the two climate scientists at San Jose State University because one of the climate scientists was researching fire in the time of climate change. One of the things that really struck me in conversation with him was when he said to me, “Well, intense fires create their own micro climates, their own weathers.” I was like, “Oh, I’d never thought of that. That was exciting.”
[Arthur Sze reads a poem called Pyrocumulus]
[Arthur Sze reads a poem called Transpirations]
The last poem, the book Transpirations.
DN: It’s been such an honor to spend all this time with you today, Arthur. Thank you for being on the show.
AS: Thank you so much for inviting me.
DN: We were talking today to Arthur Sze about his new and collected poems from Copper Canyon Press, The Glass Constellation. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full strength makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. For the bonus audio archive, Arthur Sze adds the reading of five of his poetry translations that track his evolution as a poet himself. Two from the Tang dynasty. One, a Chinese modernist poem, and two longer contemporary Chinese poems. This joins bonus audio from Jorie Graham, Forrest Gander, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Ted Chiang, Layli Long Soldier, Richard Powers, and many others. You can find out more about subscribing to the bonus audio and the other potential benefits of becoming a listener-supporter at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team, Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Yashwina Canter in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.