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Nine questions for Lamont Poet Arthur Sze

Felix Yeung ’21 sits down with the poet of “deep noticing” to discuss the writing process, the creative impacts of being bilingual, and how writing has changed Sze’s life.

Felix Yeung ‘21
November 15, 2019

Arthur Sze discusses poetry with Exeter students. 

The tradition of Lamont Poets at Exeter is a longstanding one. Since 1983, when Jorge Luis Borges came to Exeter as the inaugural poet, this program has sponsored short on-campus residencies for two poets each year. (See the full list here.) In 2004, the program expanded to include the Lamont Younger Poets Prize, awarded to Exeter preps and lowers for poems of exceptional promise.

Lamont Poet Arthur Sze, known for his 10 books of poetry and translations from classical Chinese, came to campus last week for a visit that included a public reading and an open Q&A session with students. He carved time out of his busy schedule to be interviewed by Felix Yeung ‘21, a recipient of the Lamont Younger Poets Prize. What was slated for a short conversation turned into an hour of deep diving into the poetic process and Sze’s works. Here are lightly edited excerpts.


Many purport that writing is a grueling profession—mentally, physically, even materially, emotionally. What led you into this career path?

I can't say that it was a conscious choice. My parents were immigrants from China, and they wanted me to do something safe and professional like doctor, lawyer, scientist. In high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do, and I applied to MIT. My first semester there, I was bored in the calculus lecture, and I just turned aside, and I opened up a notebook and started writing. The next day, I was writing and writing and writing. Within two weeks, I knew that's what I really wanted to do. … I just thought, I've got to follow my dream.

And, yes, it's grueling. It's challenging. It's difficult. And it's also been infinitely rewarding. It totally changed my life.

How did it change your life?

Well, after my second year I left MIT and I hitchhiked to the University of California at Berkeley.

At the University of California at Berkeley, I wanted to study classical Chinese, and [I] translated some Chinese poetry because I thought that would help me. You can see, there was some change in life from East Coast to West Coast. There was the change of life from studying math and science to suddenly studying ancient Chinese poetry. There's the sense of following the writing, or letting the writing determine what would happen next in my life. In that way, it was really transforming.

Arthur Sze discusses poetry with Felix Yeung.

What about your writing process speaks to who you are as a person, and what kind of impact can we glean from your writing process about who you are?

Do you mean what time of day do I write? Or do I write lots of drafts? Or what my procedures are?

All of it.

Early on, I would tend to think, oh, I'm going to write a poem directed towards this. Then, over time, I would discover that … it wasn't always that exciting if I wrote knowing where the end was, there was less discovery. So my writing process became slower. I started to write without really knowing where I was going, and to learn to somehow trust the poem itself, that the poem would kind of emerge.

I prefer to write first thing in the morning when I'm kind of in a dream state. I'm not quite fully awake. I have a studio with large windows, and if I get up at like 5:30 in the morning, it's totally dark. And then when I see the forms emerge out of the darkness, to me, that's a kind of physical metaphor. The sunrise gives me a kind of impetus. I'm trying to catch that physical wave of the day and to write with that.

Turning to “Sight Lines” [Sze’s poetry collection published in 2019, honored with the National Book Award for poetry], you flip from setting to setting, bringing disparate ideas and spaces into one piece of writing. What is your intention behind this technique, and how do you hope it will impact the reader?

On an intellectual level, I guess I'm trying to destabilize place, rather than a traditional narrative where ... say, Wordsworth, you have a particular location and then that story unfolds, and there's the fairly linear narrative. I think our world today is much more complex, and like it or not, our world is almost instantaneous or simultaneous.

In many ways I invoke the contemporary physics idea, what's called the butterfly effect — a butterfly flapping its wings off the coast of the Yucatan can create a tsunami off the coast of Japan — that things are related in ways we can't necessarily see clearly and consciously in terms of causality but there's this huge web at work.

You often allude to events that are very recent, for example, “a woman detonates when a spam text triggers bombs strapped to her body.” Do you feel that readers need to know the context, or do your descriptions and allusions stand on their own?

I want the reader to just read with their nerves and not worry about what a backstory might be, or what an allusion or reference might be. I just want the reader to experience the language.

Do you think that being bilingual understanding the grammar, the syntax of another language makes you more adept at or more naturally inclined to be creative with the English language?

Absolutely. I love English because there's a precision of language in speaking of time. I will do, I will have done. All of these sort of tense shifts and increments of time are something that English does in a way that ... doesn't really happen in Chinese.

For 22 years, I taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and I would tell the native students to try and put a Native syntax onto the English. See what you can do with your Navajo, how you can change the sense of time or how maybe the subject comes at the end of the sentence. Or you can play with the syntax. But English is an amazing language to play and stretch with.

To segue a little into evaluations of your work, poet Jackson Mac Low said, “The word compassion is much overused, clarity less so, but Arthur Sze is truly poet of clarity and compassion.” To what extent do you identify with this description of your work?

Clarity, I would say, comes out of classical Chinese poetry. To quote a modern American poet, Wallace Stevens says, "I believe in the image." But I think if you look at classical Chinese poets they clearly believe in the image. And they use the clarity of the image to be the emotional vehicle for a poem, so that you don't have to say, I'm sad, I'm angry. The image itself can carry that emotionality through it.

My poems can be difficult. … But line for line, my lines tend to be very clear. I value that precision of language, that clarity of perception.

I think compassion is still overused. So I'm not sure that I would be as sympathetic or feel as much at ease with that characterization of my poetry. Of course, I want to have this experience of feeling a compassion towards existence, and you can think of that as almost a Taoist or Buddhist stance. I'm not particularly either, but it's something I use as a poet. I'm more interested in a sense of acceptance and kind of reverence towards existence, if that makes sense, and that way maybe it overlaps with compassion.

There are not that many writers, poets using climate change in their work. Are you doing this? And why?

Climate change is actually huge in [“Sight Lines”] but I don't ever want it to be like hitting the reader on the head. Emily Dickinson once said, "Tell all the truth but tell it slant."

If you read carefully there are all of these nuances of climate change and endangered planet running through the book. … That's all very urgent to me and that's part of the book.

You say in “Sight Lines,” "Though parallel lines touch the infinite, the infinite is here." Where is here, and what do you mean by that?

I'm thinking on a sort of materialistic, sort of math, science level. In Euclidean space we're taught that parallel lines never touch, but they do touch in the infinite. But can you ever get there? In non-Euclidean space I think things can get all messed up and they might touch. I don't know. It's sort of beyond my math there. But I was thinking about the idea that instead of thinking that the infinite is somewhere far away, that it's actually right here. And one of the things that poetry can make us see and experience is that things we think are really far away, all the possibilities are really right here in front of us.

Felix Yeung, a native of Hong Kong, writes frequently for The Exonian and is an editor for Pendulum, Exeter’s student-edited literary and arts magazine.