Ask a Poet: ARTHUR SZE

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Arthur Sze

Welcome to Ask a Poet, where each week we will present (in no particular order) a Q&A with a poet who will be coming to the Dodge Poetry Festival this October 20-23. Through these blogs, you’ll be able to get to know these poets a bit better in preparation for #DPF16! 

Without further ado, let’s get to know Arthur Sze.


What are you reading?

I am currently reading Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them. This collection presents the poems that Emily Dickinson wrote out by hand and sewed into packets. Everyone in high school reads, or has read, individual poems by her, but it is worth looking at the larger context. When I read the poems in the order in which she bound them, I experience how the short poems interact with each other and create a much larger and more vibrant work.

When did you first discover poetry? What poets made you want to write poetry?

I didn’t discover poetry until rather late. In fact, my first encounters with poetry were very negative: in junior high school, I remember cringing when the teacher asked everyone to look for the hidden symbolism of the albatross in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In high school, I was good at math and science and applied to MIT and was accepted. In my freshman year, bored in a large lecture class, I opened my notebook to a blank page and wrote some phrases down. Later I took those phrases and wrote my first poem. Soon I was writing all of the time. In my sophomore year, I took a poetry workshop with Denise Levertov. She introduced me to the poems of Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder, and Galway Kinnell. Those poets, along with Denise, excited me and made me want to continue.

Tell us about any personal habits, rituals, ceremonies, superstitions that are part of your writing practice.

I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico and have a writing studio with lots of windows. I like to write early in the morning when the night sky transitions into dawn, and I also like to fill a thermos with coffee the evening before (it saves time in the morning!).

When was the moment that you thought, “I can do this,” about poetry?

I don’t think I had a moment where I thought, “I can do this.” Instead, I had a moment when I realized, “I need to do this.” At MIT, when I was writing almost every day, I slowly recognized that my pursuit of math and science came from outside (parental expectation), whereas the poems I was writing came from deep inside me. After my sophomore year, I transferred to the University of California at Berkeley and created a self-directed major in poetry.

How important is accessibility of meaning? Should a reader have to work hard to “solve” the poem?

I believe poems have many layers and meanings and that a reader just needs to be open to discover and appreciate the poem on its own terms. One doesn’t “solve” a poem in the way that one would solve a mathematical equation. Instead, a reader engages with the sound and rhythm, with imagery, and experiences the movement of language in the body before comprehending it in the mind. A good poem can be read and reread with increasing pleasure and insight. It shouldn’t be toil or torment; instead, a poem—simple or complex—earns a reader’s attention by gaining power and resonance with repeated readings. Too much time is spent on the issue of accessibility. Poems want to communicate, but they may require some or enormous effort—and the amount of effort doesn’t correlate with how good a poem is. To circle back to my first response, Emily Dickinson didn’t write poems to be as accessible as possible; she wrote the poems she needed to write. And we, as readers, are lucky she persevered. Some of her poems are of course more “accessible” than others on a first or second reading, but, by developing and not compromising her vision, she created a body of work that enlarges and deepens our experience and understanding of the world.


Arthur Sze is the author of nine books of poetry, including Compass Rose (Copper Canyon Press, 2014); The Ginkgo Light (Copper Canyon Press, 2009); Quipu (Copper Canyon Press, 2005); The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998 (Copper Canyon Press, 1998); and Archipelago (Copper Canyon Press, 1995). He is also a celebrated translator from the Chinese, and released The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese (Copper Canyon Press) in 2001. His honors include an American Book Award, a Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, a Western States
Book Award for Translation, three grants from the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry, and fellowships from the George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2013, he was awarded the Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers magazine. Sze was elected
Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2012. He was the first poet laureate of Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lives.


Stay updated on the 2016 Dodge Poetry Festival as information becomes available!


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