(Copper Canyon Press, 2019)
Arthur Sze’s poems are readily-identifiable yet impossible to classify. While he is a second-generation Chinese American with genuine curiosity and sympathy for global cultures and their traditions, Sze is a trenchant participant-observer of the West, its people, and its poetries. There is as much Wallace Stevens in his work as there is, for example, the austere stamp of Taoist verse. Reading a Sze poem can be an intellectual and visceral experience: the mind, nerves, and blood are stimulated in ways that invite chance and inevitability to coexist. As acknowledged below, the poet’s images are crystal clear, his syntax and phrasing direct and accessible; but such carefully-calibrated language also accommodates a dense complex of memory, observation, and speculation. Through it all, an unrelenting forbearance enables Sze to articulate perception and truth responsibly. Seven years ago, I interviewed him to assess his then complete oeuvre. Since then, he has written two more books. The more recent, Sight Lines, demonstrates the same “patience and insistence” we referred to in that original discussion.
As will be evident in the ensuing discussion, Sze is a dynamic writer whose vision and aesthetic evolve as he evolves. Although his poems are still built around vivid, often startling juxtapositions, the nature of those juxtapositions, as well as the intent behind them, has changed. Other innovations involve various experiments with form and print culture that increase ambiguity and, therefore, greater possibilities for interpretation.
According to Sze, these new poems celebrate a continuity of images that, even in light of the most jarring truths, promote human connectivity, as opposed to rupture or “breakage.” In “Adamant” he writes: “Though death might not come like a curare— / dipped dart blown out of a tube or slam / at you like surf breaking over black lava rock, / it will come—it will come—and it unites us.” The following conversation engages those truths and reveals Sze to be more than just a writer of poems. A deeply-concerned citizen of the world, his poems dramatize the conflicts, confusions, triumphs, and joys that occur on this planet—and, in some cases, are the planet.
Tony Leuzzi (Rail): Congratulations on Sight Lines. It’s a remarkable book. In one sense, the poems in it are an obvious extension of your previous work. There is your ongoing attention to global matters, the numerous “heres” and “theres” that seem like points of contrast yet are ultimately interconnected. Your language remains crystal clear, with straightforward syntax and grammar frequently braiding disparate matter into a coherent whole. What is more, the poems continue to feel spacious yet full, a balance achieved through careful arrangement of information with masterful formal control. All of these qualities connect Sight Lines with your earlier books. However, I have noticed significant changes, too. Whereas previously your juxtapositions often were intentionally jarring, in most of the poems from Sight Lines they feel comparatively fluid. This was immediately apparent to me in the opening suite “Water Calligraphy,” where you write in section two, “hours were measured / as water rising then spilling from one kettle into another—”; and in section seven you acknowledge that “emotion curves space.” This fluidity, which I visualize not as jagged lines but as curvatures—what might account for its frequency in the new poems?
Arthur Sze: Thanks for your comments about Sight Lines. I agree that the juxtapositions here are more fluid than in my previous work. I think this fluidity has to do with reaching a stage in life that is keenly aware of mortality and transience; it has to do with wanting to be clear-eyed and accepting, even of difficult matters, and to place more attention on continuity and a search for provisional peace, rather than merely highlighting or amplifying breakage. The passage you quote about hours measured as water rising then spilling comes from seeing a clepsydra at work in China, so the continuity or liquidity of time was literal as well as metaphoric. All of the juxtaposed images in that section are images drawn from China, so there’s a subliminal recognition that the many pieces, however disparate or dissonant, are part of a single world. The phrase “emotion curves space” has to do with arriving at a stage in life where looking back and looking ahead, where time is short, are charged with emotion. Yeats once used the phrase, “simplification through intensity.” In this new work, I have tried to simplify and intensify some of my earlier poetic concerns, and this has, at times, led me to speak more directly.
Rail: While we’re talking about “Water Calligraphy,” I’d like to ask you about section four, where the poem’s location is conspicuously various as opposed to singular and centralized:
Two fawns graze on leaves in a yard—
as we go up the Pearl Tower, I gaze
through smog at freighters along the river.
A thunderstorm gathers: it rains and hails
on two hikers in the Barrancas: the arroyo
becomes a torrent, and they crouch for an hour.
After a pelting storm, you spark into flame
and draw the wax of the world into light—
ostrich and emu eggs in a basket by the door,
the aroma of cumin and pepper in the air.
In my mouth, a blister forms then disappears.
At a teak table, with family and friends,
we eat Dungeness crab, but, as I break
apart shell and claws, I hear a wounded elk
shot in the bosque. Canoers ask and receive
permission to land: they beach a canoe
with a yellow cedar wreath on the bow
then catch a bus to the fairgrounds powwow.
Although numerous geographical locales, contrasting emotional states, and the juxtaposition of various moments in time are common in any number of your individual poems, I usually sense a privileged locale or center that unifies the language through a moment of perception or experience in which other perceptions or experiences come together. In this poem, however, I asked myself, “Where is the center?” It was fascinating to see you writing against hierarchy and avoiding the privileging of one space over another. It seemed, in its subtle way, to comment upon these very concerns made manifest in our culture at this moment.
Sze: I agree with you that this section of the poem is writing against hierarchy and avoiding privileging one space over another, though the spaces have points of interconnection. On the one hand, the writing against hierarchy can be seen as part of a Taoist or Zen practice of non-attachment; also, maybe more surprising, it can also be seen as an extension of Whitman’s fundamental project of democratization and inclusion. And I don’t think the one perspective is in conflict with the other—maybe they are even wedded here. In the section you’ve quoted, one point where different worlds converge occurs when the speaker breaks apart the shell and claws of a Dungeness crab as he sits at a table with family and friends. Instead of an idyllic meal, the speaker finds the act of breakage synchronistically converges with a hunted elk shot in the bosque, and the calm is shaken. Suddenly there’s an issue of predator and prey, consumer and consumed, and where does one situate oneself and how does one act responsibly? A potential resolution is suggested in what happens next. Canoers appear, and though they aren’t explicitly named as Native Americans, the yellow cedar wreath tied to the bow of the canoe and the canoers who go on to a fairgrounds powwow identify them as Native. And when they ask and receive permission to land, they enact a form of respect and responsibility, humility and reciprocal engagement that we can all benefit from. In this way, these actions stand in sharp contrast and obliquely speak to the tensions of competing claims in our culture at this moment.
Rail: One notion that kept returning to me as I read these poems was concurrence. Things that appear or happen simultaneously, either in close contact or across great distances, are relational, often, it appears, inevitably so. Why is this simultaneity so important? What might you be telling us about the world and the ways we live in it?
Sze: We live on a planet where many worlds are woven together or are even in collision. Simultaneity is important for several reasons; first, it provides a structure that is nonlinear and allows for the coexistence of different worlds where one world is not necessarily prioritized over another; second, things can happen in close contact or across great distances, but they require close and even arduous attention to understand how the events may be relational. This requires imagination, insight, and understanding. On a small scale, this is what metaphor does: take two things that don’t appear to go together and bring them together so that the elements are seen and experienced in a new and deeper way. On a larger scale, we need to understand how these different worlds impinge on, affect, and alter our immediate world. The simultaneity of things is so important because things happening very far away that may at first appear unrelated or unconnected can have a profound and dangerous impact on our lives. I can invoke the butterfly effect of physics to say that modern science confirms this connection, where a butterfly flapping its wings off the coast of the Yucatan can eventually cause a tsunami off the coast of Japan. Like it or not, we live on one planet, and the world’s cultures are in constant interaction, drawing from and creating tensions and enrichments with each other. We need to pay close, careful attention to find, not superficial resemblances but deep points of connection. And this work is urgent. What we don’t understand today in a remote part of the planet can arrive (say, in the form of a virus) and threaten us all tomorrow, and our actions here and now have profound effects on the farthest reaches of the planet. I can simply invoke climate change to show how we are all living, affecting, and damaging our planet together.
Rail: In “Traversal” you write: “between two points, we traverse an infinite set // of paths...”. I am reminded of Zeno's paradox about Achilles and the tortoise, where, because the tortoise is given a brief head start, the famed warrior, known for his speed, will never catch up. This paradox is intriguing, even exhilarating, yet horrifying, too: if there is infinite space between two points then there is both unlimited possibility and unbridgeable distance, awe and nightmare. In “Adamant” you write: “you can travel . . . but you can’t change the eventual, adamant body.” Tantalizing potential and inevitable failure coexist in a powerful way. What does the infinite set of paths between two points mean to you?
Sze: It’s interesting that you experience the infinite space between two points with simultaneous awe and nightmare. I view the space between more neutrally. The two points, I think, can be “here” and “there,” and also the point of birth and the point of death. Because the poem is called “Traversal,” I conceived of the two points, on the deeper level, as birth and death, and, in between, each person takes their own path. My intention was to say that each individual moves through life in any number of possible ways, and no one way is necessarily better than another. The effect of what I wrote, that I induced awe and nightmare, interests me. I think there are elements of both in recognizing that it is up to each individual to choose how to live, how to go. And I suppose the disparity between intention and effect here is good: as a writer, I am not trying to confine possible meanings; I am trying to write from my deepest self and discover that the meanings may be manifold and beyond what I intend or see near at hand.
Rail: While I definitely see and understand your conception, I was reacting to how various traversals—be they external or internal—are explained. When, in “Adamant,” you state that efforts at travel cannot alter “the eventual,” the very structure of the language suggests futility or powerlessness. I entirely agree that “each individual moves through life in any number of possible ways”; and I also agree that disparities between intention and effect can be insightful, even fruitful; but the language you use to describe this seems inherently negative insofar as it foregrounds our limitations and failures. To discover “manifold meanings beyond” and traverse spaces between life and death, we must come to terms with being powerless. It seems to me you are suggesting that the acknowledgment of our limitations is an access point to greater perception and understanding, that humility is the precondition to enlightenment.
Sze: That’s a wonderful reading and response to my poem. “Adamant” is mortality-struck, so there is a strong sense of powerlessness in the face of the inevitable. I agree that our limitations become an access point to greater perception and understanding, and, in a way, that’s what the poem enacts when the speaker sees other people, near the end, as “brother” and “sister.” And, yes, a necessary precondition to enlightenment is humility. That humility comes from a deep recognition of powerlessness and acceptance that ultimate things can’t be changed.
Rail: Interspersed throughout Sight Lines are untitled one-line poems punctuated at the beginning and the end of each line with dashes. These moments sometimes feel like interludes between longer musical movements. Other times they feel like hinges between the groupings of poems on each side of them. Perhaps they are preludes? Sometimes I sense these one-line utterances are, though separated by longer poems, connected to one another across the book. What would you call these one-line poems? What are their various functions?
Sze: I like that you see the untitled one-line poems as interludes, hinges, and preludes. They are all three and even more. As interludes, they rhythmically punctuate the movement of poems in the unfolding of the book. As hinges, they provide shifts of attention or direction. Here I would add that juxtaposition is extremely important. The one-liner, “—During the Cultural Revolution, a boy saw his mother shot by a firing squad—” precedes the idyllic calm of the opening to the next poem, “At dawn you dip oars in water, row out / on a lake,” so that the calm of that opening is severely qualified. These one-liners create points of tension and contrast. In addition, they function like a series of non-sequiturs. They come out of nowhere, appear, then disappear, without explanation. A reader is asked to consider how the one-liner may or not have any apparent connection to what has just happened and what is about to happen. The one-liners also function as prelude, because all of the one-liners return in the next-to-last and title poem, “Sight Lines.” In that poem, I hope the reader experiences a revelation that these previous one-liners are not gratuitous and that each one is a sight line that helps show what is at stake in the book.
Rail: Your poems in Sight Lines and elsewhere seem only possible through great discipline. You give extensive attention to the economy and flow of language, rather than spontaneous outpour; similarly, your eye for detail, while often fresh and unexpected, is tempered by what seems meditative detachment. I imagine your work goes through many drafts to ultimately achieve such balance. How distinct are the final versions of your poems from their original drafts? What does the revision process look like for you? Might you offer an illustrative example of what revision looks like for you?
Sze: I go through many drafts in writing a poem, and it is indeed a struggle to achieve the right balance. To give an illustrative example of what my process of creation and revision looks like, I’ve selected a short poem, “Kintsugi.” It went through 60 drafts, though sometimes I go through as many as 100 drafts to complete a poem. The fourth draft looks like this:
he plants spinach and paces along the rows and
surveys his field,
he spots a hummingbird nest in a lilac cleft along
on a trail, she inhales the aroma of blue spruce,
along the way, a head librarian becomes a parking
he holds an eagle feather in his fingertips,
he can’t hear his neighbor’s words because so many
hummingbirds are at feeders on the porch,
in the early morning, he draws characters in water
on slate and watches as the words evaporate,
once women washed out indigo-dyed yarn in this
river, but today germanium and gallium particles are
once they built dikes and extended
In hindsight, I see that I’m freely associating and don’t really know, on any level, where the poem is going or wants to go. Interestingly, the form of one-line stanzas is already there. I wanted a fairly long line and then silence, alternating throughout the poem, so the rhythm was also there early on. When I look at the final version, I see the image of the eagle feather in line 5 becomes “a singer tapped an eagle feather on his shoulders—”. The eighth line is roughly complete at this early stage, though it eventually becomes “women washed indigo-dyed yarn in this river, but today gallium and germanium particles are washed downstream—”. And the last line in draft 4 becomes “once they dynamited dikes to slow advancing troops—”. All the other lines in draft 4 are discarded. The crucial discovery and coalescing metaphor for the poem came in draft 21:
he surveys his lettuces and paces along the rows—
she inhales the aroma of blue spruce—
eagle feather at his fingertips—
once women washed indigo-dyed yarn in this
river, but today gallium and germanium particles
are washed downstream—
once they dynamited dikes to slow advancing
as a child he was tied to the underbelly of a sheep
and escaped marauding soldiers—
an apple blossom opens to five petals—
at dawn, he dips a foam brush into a bucket
of water and writes green green, river bank
grass that evaporates in the sunrise—
as he hikes up a switchback, he remembers
he licks salt then downs a shot of tequila—
from the train window, he saw they were cutting
fruit off the cacti—
darting out of a crevice, a snake attacked a
methane rising from a landfill—
picking psilocybin mushrooms and hearing cow
bells in the mist—
she likes it when he pulls her to him—
flickering candlelight, flickering eyelids—
he reassembles and repairs the shards of a black
bowl with gold lacquer—
red bougainvillea blooming against the glass—
a hummingbird darting from columbine to
With the repair of a broken black bowl with gold lacquer, the image of kintsugi, golden repair, comes onto the page and becomes the central, guiding movement to the poem. In the West, we might try to glue the shards of a broken pot back together and try to disguise, as best we can, that the vessel was ever broken, but in Japanese culture, a broken pot is glued back together with gold-dusted lacquer, and the breakage is highlighted and even honored. In this poem, I began to feel that a unified narrative (bowl) could be broken apart and that silence could be my gold lacquer. With this insight, the revisions of the poem moved steadily forward—adding, deleting, experimenting with the sequencing—always with “kintsugi” in mind.
Rail: One feature of that 21st draft that is markedly different than the fourth is the presence of dashes. It can be a dramatic, even mysterious form of punctuation. Because of this, your heavy use of it throughout this poem, and much of Sight Lines, is intrinsically interesting; but more than this, your use of it is so supple and various that it begins to take on its own life in the poems. In the opening lines of “Dawn Redwood,” perhaps my favorite single poem from the book, the presence of the dash alters what might be ordinarily understood as straightforward phrasing and syntax.
Early morning light: a young red-tailed hawk
glided onto an overhead branch and peered
down at me, but it did not look with your eyes—
a battered and rusted pickup lies in the wash;
Navajo tea buds on the trail—I headed back
and checked, in the boiler room, the traps,
baited with peanut butter—now a gnat
flits against this lit screen: where are you now?
If you had used periods or colons where the dashes are, my understanding of the connections of the phrasing there would be quite different. As it is, I’m wondering how the language on either side of the dash breaks or connects (or breaks and connects) the language on the other side of it. I wonder, too, wherever the dash is the terminal point in a line, if the white space on the other side of it is ultimately the “answer” or “link” to the observation that precedes it. There is so much to think about here, not only because of the lovely flow of images, but because of those dashes. Is this why you so frequently employ this form of punctuation in Sight Lines?
Sze: Yes, in Sight Lines, I am continually experimenting with the possibilities of the dash, and I’m glad you’ve noticed how I switched from commas in the fourth draft of “Kintsugi” to dashes by the 21st. I think I made that shift in the one-line stanzas because the dashes invested more energy into the momentum of the line. Instead of a standard pause, the lines, with dashes, became filmic, or strobe-like images against white space, against silence. As you suggest, the dashes break or connect or break and connect. I can’t always intellectually articulate how each dash functions, but I can say that I was experimenting with small disruptions and leaps, disjunctions and conjunctions, trying to intensify the momentum of the language, using each dash intuitively and musically. As background, I also thought about how Emily Dickinson used dashes in her poems as a rhythmic device and as a form of insistence. I couldn’t in any way and didn’t want in any way to copy her, but her example suggested to me that I could explore, in my own way, different ways of employing dashes. With that in mind, I agree that when a dash occurs at the end of a line, I’m also considering how the white space on the other side of it may serve as a charged space or link that gives room to pivot. “Dawn Redwood” is infused with loss. It was written in memory of C.D. Wright, and some of the silences that are part of grieving occur in the small spaces where the dashes enact shifts of perspective or momentarily creates gaps or pivots of perception. Interestingly, the dashes disappear as a reader moves through the poem (maybe the torque of dashes at the outset subsides into the calmer acceptance represented by commas by the end) and into the final line, which is from C.D.’s poem, “Floating Trees.” I can only say this in hindsight; in the white heat of composition, I can’t see what I’m doing, I’m just following my visceral instincts.
Rail: Many of the poems in the book evoke images that come through senses other than sight. Given this, I was intrigued by the title. Why did you select Sight Lines? Did you write the penultimate title poem first, or did you settle on the book title and then create the poem in response to it?
Sze: The poem “Sight Lines” was written at the request of Lisa Russ Spaar. Lisa contacted me about an anthology she was editing that related, in any way, to Thomas Jefferson and asked if I would write a poem. At first, I thought I can’t write anything “on demand,” but then I decided writing about him and his legacy could be an interesting challenge. Living in Santa Fe, I also thought about how New Mexico was outside of America when Thomas Jefferson lived. I did some research and gave myself the invented formal structure that each line had to pick up a word or words from the previous line (this included the title), and so the structure of the poem was an experiment in repetition and embodied line and circle. I liked how the poem came out, and I thought by taking a bead on America it did something important that I hadn’t done before. In the past, I’ve usually titled my books after long sequences, where the major, title poem is clear. With this short poem, I considered how all the different one-liners were a form (not limited by sight) of sight line. Then, I laid out on the floor all the poems I had written and saw “sight lines” running through so many of the poems: from the evaporating lines of water calligraphy to a single line from C.D. Wright. As I brooded over where to locate this poem, I came upon the idea of running different one-liners, like preludes or non-sequiturs as we’ve discussed, from the title poem throughout the manuscript. So I wrote the penultimate title poem before making that the title to the book. Yet, I felt that the title poem shouldn’t be the final poem. Bringing all of the previous one-liners together in a final poem felt too much like closure. I decided all of the one-liners coming back together in the title poem were like different slant lines in three-dimensional space converging at a single point (the title poem). The urge to let the lines move through that space and back out in a diverse array led me to write the final poem, “The Glass Constellation.”
Rail: And then there is another feature of some portions of “The Glass Constellation” and section five of “Water Calligraphy,” where certain words or phrases are crossed out, an effect that is quite provocative given that one can see (and therefore read) the words behind the thin single line that has supposedly redacted them. Because of this, two texts emerge simultaneously: the unedited and the edited. I initially wondered if the edited version should be privileged over the unedited. But if that were so, why make the original text visible? This dramatizes something else at work. In “The Glass Constellation,” for example, words like “pissed” and “fucking” have been crossed out, as if the voice is censoring itself. Maybe you want the reader to see this attempt at self-censorship? In the fifth section of “Water Calligraphy” there is a place where you write “smile” and follow it up with “frown”—and then you cross out frown, perhaps trying to strike a more precise or appropriate balance in the line, or because you want the reader to read both versions to decide which is more effective. Could you discuss why you do this in these two poems?
Sze: I’d like to give a little background to my use of strike-through lines. I first employed them in a sequence, “The Unfolding Center,” that is the last poem in Compass Rose (2014). That poem was a collaboration with sculptor Susan York, who also lives in Santa Fe; I wrote a sequence of 11 poems that are accompanied by 22 graphite drawings. At an early stage in our collaboration, I was struck by how many layers of graphite Susan made in her abstract drawing, and I liked how the process of drawing was included in the final drawing. I thought about voices in poems and wanted to explore the process of speaking aloud, where the speaker might say something but might regret it or feel that the word or words spoken were not quite accurate. Later, I discovered through a review of Compass Rose by Joel Weishaus that I had employed a technique introduced by the philosopher Martin Heidegger. As Joel explains, the use of strike-through lines is called “under erasure,” or “sous rature.” According to Heidegger, the rationale is: “Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since it is necessary, it remains legible.” So I arrived at the use of strike-through lines through a very different path, but I concur with Heidegger’s idea. Section five of “Water Calligraphy” is in a persona, in the voice of someone in China who was tortured during the Cultural Revolution and who is now an older man who goes to a park at sunrise and writes calligraphy, with water, on slate. When people watch what he does and murmur in response, he says, “I smile, frown / fidget, let go,” I put a strike-through line through “frown” to show he initially registers that disapproval but then strikes through it because it is, as you suggest, not quite precise or accurate. I wanted to register a tension between what he says and how he responds to it. In “The Glass Constellation,” the passage you refer to is in the voice of a man behind on his rent. He is under emotional pressure and the words “pissed” and “fucking” are spoken but then crossed out because he is conflicted with what he has just said. And, yes, it might be seen as a moment of self-censorship or, more accurately, as the delineation of the tension between his erupting emotion and his desire to contain it. As I’ve developed voice-driven sections to poems, I’ve found it helpful to utilize strike-through lines to show more depth and psychological complexity to what is spoken.
Rail: We have already discussed the prevalence of distance and traversals in these poems. We have also discussed the simultaneity of oppositional matter or ideas. These poems also draw attention to how our interaction with matter spurs transformation. In the opening section of “Water Calligraphy” you write, “At the bottom of the teacup, / leaves from the character individual / and, after a sip, the number eight”; in “Doppler Effect,” you state “the more I fingered the clay slab into a bowl / the more misshapen it became”; and in “Courtyard Fire” “as I pull the cord, / spring rips and blooms.” Are you suggesting, among other things, our culpability and responsibility to the word?
Sze: Absolutely. In this new book, I’m exploring culpability and responsibility to language and to the word. In sipping tea, I noticed how tea leaves settling at the bottom of a cup can move and suggest different Chinese characters. Reading tea leaves is of course a form of divination, so there’s also an underlying thematic thread that language is mysterious and miraculous. In “Doppler Effect,” you can think of the clay as raw language and how you can overwork language: the more you try to shape it, the more distorted it becomes. In working with language, we have a responsibility to accuracy and to imaginative truth. I can’t articulate very well the ending to “Courtyard Fire,” which you quote, but the phrasing of that ending has to do with imaginative truth.
Rail: You’ve cited visual art as a point of reference for some of the choices you’ve made while writing these poems. That doesn’t surprise me as there is a palpable interdisciplinary openness to all of your books. But the art form I most relate to these poems is music, specifically intricately-patterned instrumental music with an ongoing relaxation and tension of line, music that reiterates and develops certain figures as the movement and progression of phrases unfurl in aural space. I’m thinking, for example, of “First Snow,” a poem that beautifully balances shifts from terse, almost tense phrases in present observation to lyrical bursts of language promoted by philosophical reflection. These shifts are so calibrated yet intimate, and they remind me of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” Could you talk a bit about your relationship to music and how it influences—if at all—your composition processes?
Sze: My relationship to music is a long one. In elementary and junior high school, I played the piano and then the clarinet, neither with any distinction, but those early years were formative. In 1985, I met the composer Tan Dun, before he became renowned, when he was in China at the Beijing Conservatory of Music. In 1988, when he had moved to New York City, we collaborated on a poetry and music concert work, “The Silk Road,” which premiered at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe on April 1 and 2, 1989. At that time, Tan used a lot of unusual percussive effects, and he also demonstrated a keen interest in Beijing Opera. I wrote my poem in six sections in couplets with his music in mind, thinking that the white spaces between stanzas would give him space to compose music. The collaboration evolved over months, and Tan Dun created, in the fourth section, a concert inside of the concert piece, which has since been performed as a solo piece. We had the text I wrote for section four translated into Chinese. In performance for that section, Joan La Barbara sang the English, Chen Shi-Zheng sang the Chinese text in Beijing Opera style, Chris Shultis, head of the New Mexico Percussion Ensemble, played rototoms, Yao An played the guzheng, or zither, and Tan Dun played several small xun, ancient Chinese ceramic pots set to a pentatonic scale. In the other five sections, I read the lines of my poem in English, and Tan Dun open-endedly choreographed all the musical and vocal lines so that we had to listen to each other during performance to decide when to start and stop. During this collaboration, I thought a lot about tonal shifts, dramatic tension, and ruptures of narrative. I also experienced how important silences were in a live concert. I’ve taken what I learned through this collaboration into my poetry, and, as you say, the musical possibilities of language have come forward in my new work. In writing sequences, say section two of “Water Calligraphy,” I’m keenly aware of the silences between stanzas where I am trying to immerse the reader in a world of charged images. I’m also playing with tonal shifts through careful juxtapositions, and some of these musical effects were learned through my collaborative work with Tan Dun. During the early 1990s, when I was working on my fifth book, Archipelago, I listened to a lot of jazz, in particular, Thelonious Monk. His “displaced” accents—they of course are doing exactly what he wants them to do—were important to me as I worked on the title poem and other sequences in that book. I had a lot of fragmented, dissonant passages, and I can’t say there was a direct correlation, but I listened and listened to Monk’s music and found it inspiring. To jump to Sight Lines, in a poem like “First Snow,” the lines of the poem are arranged in indented shifting clusters of perception, and consciously harnessing the white spaces on the page helped bring out the musicality of the language. So my interest in music has been ongoing and has informed my evolution as a poet.
Rail: I had the privilege of interviewing you seven years ago. In that discussion, I asked you about where you, a Chinese-American with a global consciousness, see yourself in the tradition of American poetry. A lot has happened in our culture and in our poetry since then, so I’m asking you, in our final exchange, to revisit this question. Has your perception of your place in American poetry changed since then?
Sze: When you asked me this question seven years ago, I cited Whitman, Williams, Pound, Stevens and gave supporting reasons why I see myself in that tradition of American poetry. I still see myself in conversation and lineage with those poets, and I’m not sure that my place in American poetry has changed since then. I don’t belong to any “school” of poetry or poetics, though, in the last few years, I have to say that I have strong points of connection to ecopoetry. Long before there was a movement in ecopoetics, I believe my thematic concerns of non-hierarchical webs of interconnection, causality-at-a-distance, and letting things be exactly themselves (in 1996, I wrote a sequence, “The String Diamond,” that includes, in the third section, a catalog of 30 endangered species, without explanation or commentary) are an inherently ecological position. Furthermore, to represent the interdependence of the human and natural worlds, my use of multiple places to create space that is “constantly relocating, moving, unsettling in such a way that place becomes entangled, destabilized, and decentered” (I quote from an essay by Jenny Morse, “The Ecopoetics of Space in Snyder, Merwin, and Sze”) brings my work into close contact with this movement; though, in the end, we, as artists, shouldn’t be concerned about where we fit or don’t fit in. I’d like to close with that wonderful quote by Henry James, “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”