Assembling the Bones: A Conversation with Arthur Sze

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Arthur Sze is the author of ten collections of poetry, including Compass Rose, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and most recently Sight Lines (2019), which was the recipient of the 2019 National Book Award. Sze’s many honors include a Lannan Literary Award, an American Book Award, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award, and a Western States Book Award for Translation. He has received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Witter Bynner Foundation.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

David Freeman (DF): I wanted to say first of all congratulations on winning the National Book Award for your latest book, Sight Lights. It’s a wonderful collection, and a wonderful addition to an already robust body of work. I wanted to start today with a line from Sight Lines if that’s okay with you. 

In the poem, “Black Center,” you write

Jefferson once tried to assemble a mastodon

skeleton on the white house floor but,
with pieces missing, failed to sequence the bones;

It’s a stunning image and a wonderful line. I think it speaks to the difficulty of sequencing something when you aren’t aware of the complete shape of it. You have several sequences in Sight Lines, including “Water Calligraphy,” which opens the collection and “The Glass Constellation,” which ends it. I wanted to ask you, how do you approach a sequence? In other words, are you aware of the shape of the mastodon when you start it, or is it something you have to discover?

Arthur Sze (AS): It’s something I have to discover. Usually if I know the poem’s shape in advance, the sequence doesn’t work out. I think intuitively. I’ll know a poem is a part of a sequence if I finish writing it and I recognize that its not done, or that it’s really just the beginning of something larger. To use your metaphor, I sense that it’s maybe one of the bones. 

A lot of it is bringing the poem forth over time, and experimenting, and playing with the form. Also, allowing myself time to discover what’s really there. But I know right away, or I know really quickly if it needs to be a longer piece.

I find I can never write the opening section first. I usually find that when I lay out all the sections of the sequence, my first one or two sections are more than halfway into the poem. I find that I’m beginning from fairly late and then expanding out and then discovering the beginning later in the process. After that, the pieces start to move into shape. I extend it. I play with where the end is. That’s a rough sense of how the sequence happens for me.

DF: Sight Lines is a very sequential book, not just in the sequences that appear in it, but in the images that recur throughout the collection. One example is animals appearing in headlights. Early in the book, a coyote appears in the headlights of a car, and a little further in a deer appears in the headlights. Near the end of the collection, the speaker confronts headlights. I wanted to ask you, what is it about this moment of being seen, and the danger of this being seen, that is compelling to you?

AS: I guess I would say that that’s one of the mysteries of art. That sense of being seen. It’s one thing to notice something else, it’s another thing for the speaker to be noticed. I’m interested in that shift of perception, and how that happens. I can say that I’m aware of the repetitions. Often times, like with Sight Lines, I’ll lay out all the poems on the floor, like a big canvas.

DF:  So really like the mastodon.

AS: Exactly. And this is even an aside, but in terms of finding the one liners that run throughout the book, I had white pages in between some poems so I could play with the configuration. That’s where the image of sight lines started to come through as a way to bring the book into focus. 

But that sense of repetition, of seeing, doesn’t just apply to the coyote and the deer. It’s also in the rabbit as a recurring image. The rabbit that, when it’s still is camouflaged, but when it moves it breaks the background and gets seen. That idea of stillness and motion is really important to the book. 

I think those images get worked out intuitively, I don’t sit down and say, okay now I’ll organize, that’s obviously too intellectual, but that sense that being seen is also a way of stopping time, or registering something, and shifting a moment or perception. I don’t want a moment to just come and go, but I want a moment to prolong or deepen. 

DF: It’s interesting that you bring up stopping time. There are so many instances in the book where things are laid out to be happening simultaneously. It’s such a great effect. I think Ashbery described Rimbaud’s poetry as capturing “the simultaneity of life.” How do you handle simultaneity in your poems?

AS: I think one of the issues has to do with the tension between succession and simultaneity. Traditional narrative poems tend to be in that mode of succession, like Wordsworth. But our world is so much more complex and simultaneous now. I think, or I want to propose, for me one of the sources of this tension comes out of linguistics, or out of the way Chinese characters are created and juxtaposed. 

So if, for example, you want to write a word for “autumn” you write the character for “plant-tips” or “tree-tips” and then you juxtapose with the character for “fire.” So the character for “autumn” is then “tree-tips on fire.” Or if you want to write “sorrow” you put the character for “autumn” above the character for “heart or mind,” which I find fascinating. That simultaneous energy is there. If you look at “sorrow” you have “heart and mind,” and you have “autumn,” and you have “plant tips on fire” all happening at once. One isn’t prioritized over the other, which I think is part of the beauty and strength of it. 

I feel like I’m struggling with, or I’m pulling into, the obsession I have with language and how certain characteristics of Chinese characters can create a kind of tension which I’m trying to duplicate in English. For example, section two of “Water Calligraphy,” is a series of images. There’s succession, of course, because you can’t present all the information at once, but there aren’t those linear connections you might find in traditional narrative poetry. Instead, the images are sort of floating. For me, that idea of simultaneity is also about immersion. How can you pull a reader into a world that may be disorienting, but may also have particular richness and rewards.

DF: In Sight Lines, there are these striking images of sudden violence that pop up in certain poems. Sometimes they appear alone on a page. I think of the line of a mother being shot by a firing squad. But sometimes they appear in succession with other images, such as the image of the lawyer attacking his assistant. These moments are sudden to the reader, but there’s something so true about that suddenness, about how that violence emerges from what we might call “the everyday.” How do you approach writing about sudden violence in your work? 

AS: I guess I have a number of things to say about that. I think the violence by itself is a way to destabilize the text or the narrative, or the sense of being lulled into following some kind of thread. That sense of description and charge is important to me. In a larger sense, I want to get a reader to, I like to call it, “read with one’s nerves,” which is where they aren’t just reading intellectually, but they’re reading viscerally. Those moments of violence and disruption are important because they’re like shock waves. But I think they have to be managed in a way that’s earned. 

So, for me it’s not gratuitous violence but it’s a violence that I’ve been brooding over. So the image of the child who watches his mother being executed during the Cultural Revolution, that’s not just a newspaper account. I’m thinking specifically of a friend who is a well-known Peking opera singer. This is his actual story. During the Cultural Revolution his mother was arrested. He was sent to the plaza and saw his mother killed. He was jolted. 

I’ve never forgotten hearing that story and sometimes those things come back to me many years later, but they’re personalized in a way where I don’t feel like I’m just pulling it out a newspaper. It’s an instance where someone told me something that won’t go away and it comes back in a meaningful, important moment.

DF: And there is that sense to the violence that appears in Sight Lines, like it’s something that can’t help but appear. 

AS: Right. Right. 

DF: Sight Lines is your tenth collection. In a lot of discussions or reviews of the book, there’s been a lot of writing about how your style has evolved since the publication of The Willow Wind in 1972. But I wanted to ask you, how has your relationship to your work evolved over time?

AS: I think, early on, the poems tended to come fairly quickly to me. And yes, reviewers have remarked that my first couple of books seemed to be very imagistic, maybe influenced by classical Chinese poetry, but fairly self contained. I would say that, I got to the point where I had to break those models apart. In other words, I had to break the well-made vessel apart and reconfigure it and open things up. My process now is much slower. It’s a cliche to say, you have to lose your way to find it, but I generally have to write lots of fragments or phrases and discover where the real poem is.

Because if I think, “Oh I’m writing about this,” there isn’t that much discovery. I write it and think, “Oh what is this?” [laughter] I’m sure you’ve had that experience. I think, “This is okay, but where’s the real poem and energy and surprise and charge.” And sometimes I’ll think “Oh, it’s over here where I can barely see something.” I need to write and play with the language and trust that the poem is going to appear.

I like to use the image of zen stones, as if somehow the poem is coming up from below the surface and emerging from the imagination. That takes a lot of time, so that’s a very different writing process than what I was doing early on. I make much more of a mess. I discard a lot more. I think, “Water Calligraphy,” for example,  probably took me ten months to write. It’s a different kind of commitment to a poem. 

I think sometimes of Keats who supposedly sat down and wrote “Ode to a Nightingale” in one sitting, which I sometimes can’t believe, [laughter] but I suppose he just sat down one morning and it all flowed out of him. That doesn’t happen for me. Maybe once in a lifetime, but more often, I make a mess with all these phrases and get to the point where I’m thinking, “what the hell is this?” Oftentimes, I do a heat reading, where I look at the phrases and ask myself, what’s most alive, what’s most interesting here, what can I nurture and grow. And that takes time. So my process is much slower now.

DF: One thing I would really love to ask you about is the feature in Sight Lines, where words appear that are crossed out. It’s such an exciting effect. How did you come to that effect? How did you discover that that was even an option?

AS: The first time I did it was in the last poem of my previous book, Compass Rose, called “The Unfolding Center.” It came about by watching my friend, artist Susan York, layer graphite. She was drawing and drawing and drawing and it was getting darker and darker and darker. I asked myself, how could I include some of that process in what becomes the final poem. Once I did that, I discovered that Martin Heidegger once championed struck through words. He said something I’ll always remember. He said, “The reasons for striking through are twofold. Because the word is necessary it remains legible. Because the word is inaccurate it is struck through.” And I thought, that’s exactly what I’m doing. Because I’m keeping a word like “sun” but I’m striking through it and writing “moon.” So the reader can see the speaker revising. But I’m not erasing the sun. It’s still necessary. The speaker thinks, “sun — no, moon.” There’s that tension. But I didn’t want to overdo it. You know once I started to do it I could see myself striking through 70% of the poem but then, what would be the point of that? It needed to be key moments where it created tension and surprise.

In a way it also connects with your idea of violence, because it disrupts the pristine quality of the poem. You might think there’s a narrative you can trust but then suddenly it erupts and the poem says, no, it’s not that. And that’s a sort of linguistic violence, maybe.

DF: And a sort of disruption on its own. It might be related to my next question. You had this interview with the Massachusetts Review in January where you said that if you could do any art other than poetry, you would want to be a painter. Can you talk about what draws you to that medium?

AS: Let me start by personalizing it, and say that my mother was a painter, and a frustrated painter. She started figuratively and then she went into abstract expressionism, with large blotches of color. I think she was never quite satisfied with her painting. So I had that personal contact growing up, of watching someone in the family painting and working with brushes and canvas. I have a keen interest in calligraphy, which combines language and painting, where they get wedded in that kind of way. The juxtaposition of images can be like these flashes of paint. 

DF: On the note of satisfaction, when do you step away from a piece? I know you said that “Water Calligraphy” took about ten months to finish. When do you have the sense that a poem is able to be stepped away from? 

AS: Exhaustion. [laughter] For me, I have a sense that if I keep tinkering with it or revising it, I can feel the poem getting away from me. That for me is the time to step back, and let go, and let it be for a while. I never send poems out right away. In my experience, the best poems are the ones where I have a sense of exhaustion, but also, an instinctive sense that I’ve done all I can do. 

In my twenties, I had this tendency or weakness for my own euphoria. I would finish a poem and say, I’m so excited, I can’t wait to show it to people. Now, I totally distrust that. Because if I have that euphoria, that’s a bad sign. In two weeks, I’m going to look at it and say, where was I, that was a dreadful poem. So my best poems I find myself thinking, I have no idea if this is any good, I don’t want anyone to see this for a while, I need to just let it go for a while. And usually that’s a good thing. [laughter]

DF: Well at the risk of exhaustion, maybe that’s a good place to stop. Thank you so much for speaking with me today.

AS: Thank you.