Endlessly Branching: An Interview with Arthur Sze

Andy Fogle | September 2013

Arthur Sze
Arthur Sze


Arthur Sze is the author of The Willow Wind, Two Ravens, Dazzled, River River, Archipelago, The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998, The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese, Quipu, and most recently The Ginkgo Light from Copper Canyon Press. He is also the editor of Chinese Writers on Writing from Trinity University Press. The recipient of many honors, including the 2013 Jackson Poetry Prize, two NEA fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Book Award, a Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, and a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, Sze has taught in Artists-in-Schools, prison-writing workshops, and conducted residences at Brown University, Washington University, the University of Utah, Naropa University, and Mary Baldwin College. He is professor emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where he taught for twenty-two years.

Sze was born in New York City, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of California at Berkeley. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

This interview occurred via e-mail during a period of six months. Correspondence took place in three phases between two different groups of students from Bethlehem Central High School and the interviewer. Other than Sze’s first comment, what follows is not chronological, nor did it have any initial direction other than high school seniors’ actual reactions and curiosity.

A note on one pedagogical development: The initial challenges students faced were mitigated by collaborating on poems that imitated Sze’s structures and phrasings. According to one questionnaire I gave them, these imitations, more than any other activity except for rereading, helped them form a closer, deeper relationship with the poetry. By the end of the unit, their enjoyment of and confidence with the poems had significantly increased, and their overall reaction to the work was clearly positive.

My preference would be to begin with the "physical" elements of language and then develop deeper and multiple readings of poems,... poems are “polysemous,” that poems have many meanings and layers.

Arthur Sze: As a preface, I’d like to say that the students should try not to be too swayed by what I say. Ultimately, they need to read and reread and stay close to their experience of the poems.

Andy Fogle: One of my goals in teaching your book is to expand my students’ concept of what writing is, what literature is. Most of what we read in high school is narrative and not always so challenging in terms of mode or form (some might say that this is as it should be for high school students). Some of my favorite artists are influenced by media other than what they are best known for (Frank O’Hara and painting, Kerouac and jazz), and here you’ve adapted the quipu (a device of cord and colored string used by the Incas to record information) to poetry. What, for you, are the ups and downs of practicing a kind of writing so different from the mainstream?

Sze: I think the poetry in most high school textbooks is quite limited in range, and, in my experience, students are far more capable than those editors acknowledge. As you say, most of the poems are narrative. I’m not opposed to narrative, but, in Quipu, for instance, I’m interested in braiding multiple narratives. My experience of the world is more like a game of Go, where you put a black stone on a crisscrossed board, and it affects a white stone quite far away. I believe our consciousness of the world is much more simultaneous now, and I want poetry to reflect that. Why not use simultaneity as a structure in a poem? Why not enrich the language, syntax, and rhythmical shape of a poem by utilizing structures from weaving or time/space concepts from particle physics? I realize it makes poetry appear more specialized, and I obviously don’t have a huge readership, yet I find people are connecting with my work. It has just taken me much longer to find readers who appreciate what I do.

Bethlehem Central High School (BCHS): During high school, did you ever think that you would be a poet?

Sze: In high school, I never expected that I would become a poet. In junior high school, I hated poetry. It was taught so poorly. I remember cringing at trying to think of what the “hidden” meaning to the albatross was in Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.” In my senior year of high school, I read Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and was moved by it. I couldn’t articulate what it all meant, but certain phrases and images haunted me. That same year, I took a class in contemporary poetry and read poems by Creeley, Snyder, Levertov, Plath, and was excited by their work. Still, I never expected to become a poet.

Fogle: You cringed at one of the classic curses of poetry teaching: the “deep, hidden meaning.” Then you were haunted by phrases and images from Eliot’s poem, though you couldn’t articulate what parts “meant.” A very many students are turned off by literature, especially poetry, and other arts because of the deep hidden meaning myth. Do you think it’s better (or enough) for students and teachers to work more with the “physical” elements of language, more towards appreciation than analysis?

Sze: My preference would be to begin with the “physical” elements of language and then develop deeper and multiple readings of poems, with the understanding that poems are “polysemous,” that poems have many meanings and layers. In that way, I think students can learn to trust and develop their visceral responses as well as their more intellectual ones. Part of my fear in junior high school was an unstated premise that one particular way of seeing was privileged over others, and that one had to come up with that “correct” reading. If students learn that multiple insights and responses are possible, and that they need to articulate and support their views, then that only enhances the experience of a poem. With lots of discussion, it’s possible to lose sight of the initial, visceral impact and response, and I think it’s valuable to come back to that. When I used to teach at the Institute of American Indian Arts, I sometimes thought students got too caught up with critical theory and imposed it on the texts they read. I would then have to remind them that Rilke once asserted that all discussions end up as misunderstandings. It’s important, even crucial, to develop critical insights, but you may have to take creative approaches to accomplish this goal.

Fogle/BCHS: In “Writing Short Stories,” Flannery O’Connor says she prefers “to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with.  They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens.” I can attest that “theme” gets a great deal of emphasis in high school, but O’Connor believes that the “meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it.  […] The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully.” How do you think of meaning? Is your concept different when you’re reading others’ work, rereading or writing your own work?

Sze: I agree that the experience of meaning is inseparable from the experience of a story [poem]. As I said earlier, I believe poems have multiple meanings and layers. The concept is not different when I read others’ works. Years ago, when I first read Yeats’s “Byzantium” and “Sailing to Byzantium,” I had no idea what Byzantium meant, but I was riveted by the experience of the poem. Each time I read and reread it, it was as if another layer revealed itself. Over time, I experienced how “Byzantium” contrasted with the world of flux, “whatever is begotten, born, and dies,” and I liked that “Byzantium” wasn’t simply the “right thread” by which you could rip the poem open. The experience of the poem resists such a single-minded reading, but I also want to adapt Flannery O’Connor’s description of a theme that rips the story open. I like a moment in a poem when suddenly, inexorably, the poem rips wide open—maybe it appears to rip apart, but it also, simultaneously, comes together—and this moment isn’t the theme but a revelatory flash.

BCHS: When you write something, do you hear it in your head first? How much of a role do sound and texture play? Are those “physical” characteristics of language as important as its denotative characteristics?

Sze: Writing for me is an intensely physical experience. When I write, I’m not just hearing words in my head. Instead, even though I may be typing letters on a keyboard, I am physically experiencing the sounds, silences, and rhythms of language as I compose. If I write the word “scissors,” I feel it tactilely on my tongue and throughout my body. If I write a line, “Corpses push up through thawing permafrost,” I feel the configuration of vowel and consonant sounds spread through my body even as I visualize the image. These “physical” characteristics, the sound and textures, musical phrases, are very important, and I don’t think I can separate them from their denotative characteristics.

I am not writing to be difficult; I am writing the poems I have to write. I know my poems have density and make leaps, and often risk initial disorientation.

BCHS: You talk about the rhythm that you feel within poems and how that influences your writing. Have you ever been involved with music?

Sze: I’ve always been interested in music. When I was young, I played the piano for a few years, and then I played the clarinet in the junior high school band, but I was never very good at either instrument.

In 1989, I collaborated with a Chinese composer, Tan Dun, and we created a concert/performance work. I wrote a sequence, “The Silk Road,” and section four of the poem was scored as a mini-performance work, inside of the larger piece, for a soprano and percussionist. There were six performers in the ensemble: Tan Dun, Shizheng Chen, Joan La Barbara, Christopher Shultis, Yao An, and myself. The instrumentation included ancient Chinese ceramic instruments, a classical zither, Peking opera singing, New music singing, wood block percussion, a marimba, and rodotom. Our premiere received very favorable reviews in the local papers, but the quality of the recording was flawed and could never be reproduced. And we all went our separate ways. Tan Dun went on to use section four as a separate solo recital piece, and it was recently performed at Lincoln Center in New York City as part of a retrospective to his work.

BCHS: Have you ever tried to write in a genre other than poetry?

Sze: When I was a student at the University of California at Berkeley, I wrote a short play in verse, “Double Dutch Wind,” but it was pretty bad. I also tried to write a short story, but it was only one and a half pages long, and I decided it was a prose poem. So all of my work has been in poetry.

BCHS: Do you ever write about your childhood or mainly your adult life? How much “fiction” is there in your poetry?

Sze: I have, as a parent, utilized moments in the childhood of my son and daughter, but I have rarely used moments of my own childhood, though, figuratively, it is all there. My adult life is a vehicle in all of the poems, but I don’t want the poems to be confessional or confined to my personal life. As a poet, I like to start with the “real,” but I also want room for the imagination to explore and develop, and if I need to invent things in the process of creation, that’s fine. I want the experiences of the poems to feel “charged” and lived, and they need an authenticity of the imagination that is grounded in reality but not bound by it.

BCHS: Everything you write about seems to be from experience—have you traveled a lot?

Sze: Poetry has taken me all over the world. In the last six years, I’ve had the pleasure of reading my poetry in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Paris, London, Rotterdam, New Delhi, and, most recently, in Medellín, Colombia. My work is now translated into eight languages. In regard to Quipu, I have traveled along the Aegean Coast in Turkey. Nezih Onur, a professor of contemporary American poetry, first contacted my wife, Carol Moldaw, and translated a group of her poems into Turkish. He then offered to translate some of mine as well. Nezih became very excited by our poetry, and offered to drive us down the Aegean Coast. It was an invitation that was impossible to say no to. We flew to Istanbul, met up with Nezih, and traveled by car down the coast as far as Didyma.

Fogle/BCHS: Your work seems to reflect an enormous amount of research, knowledge, and familiarity with so many different disciplines (history, science, philosophy, anthropology). In short, how do you do that? How widely have you read and/or studied?

Sze: I draw on knowledge from a variety of disciplines, but this knowledge is based on personal experience: it isn’t book knowledge. I was at MIT for my first two years of college (my parents hoped I would become a chemical engineer), but if my knowledge of science was restricted to what I learned there, it would never have become that interesting. In the 1980s, in Santa Fe, I became good friends with Richard Slansky, the director of the Theoretical Physics Division at Los Alamos. Richard introduced me to Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel laureate in physics, and my discussions with Murray in the 1980s enriched my understanding of particle physics and complexity theory. I was also married at that time to Ramona Sakiestewa, a Hopi weaver: she spun and dyed her wool, so my knowledge of weaving (you can see the seed for the later Quipu) came from the intimate, personal knowledge of learning how she worked with fiber. My knowledge of anthropology and Japan came through friendship with Donald Rundstrom, a visual anthropologist. And when my son, Micah, was young, we learned how to hunt mushrooms by going with Bill Isaacs, a renowned naturalist, on his weekend forays. More recently, Carol and I have become friends with Dennis and Barbara Tedlock, and I’ve learned a little about cyclical Mayan time and glyphs. Santa Fe is a small town, but there are many creative people here with very different interests and expertise, and I’ve obviously been inspired by it.

BCHS: Did you start writing poems at MIT out of frustration? Was that when you first became interested in poetry, or was it some earlier time?

Sze: When I got to MIT, I was shocked at how everything became numbers. You didn’t take an English lit course, you took 18.01. I think physics was 9.01. I felt alienation and frustration, but I’m forever grateful for that, because it made me ask myself what I really wanted to do. I wrote poems all through my freshman year. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I was accepted into a poetry workshop by Denise Levertov—she had just come to MIT from UC Berkeley—and the class included MIT and Harvard/Radcliffe students.

A confessional poet would write more directly and intensely about the suicide or miscarriage or a traumatic subject matter that some of my poems incorporate, but, frankly, I find the confessional mode too egocentric and sometimes manipulative in its mining of personal experience.

BCHS: How did your parents react to you becoming a poet instead of a chemical engineer?

Sze: My parents thought I was crazy. As immigrants from China, they were very practical and concerned with financial security. They expected me to choose some kind of professional endeavor—scientist, doctor, lawyer. I had a very difficult time with them in my early years, but every few years I had another book published, and, when some national awards and fellowships came my way, they became proud. Years ago, I went back East to visit my father after he had an operation, and, in the hospital, he confided to me that when he was a teenager in China, he dreamed of becoming a poet, but his parents were sending him to America to learn Western science, and they urged him to forget about poetry. I was thunderstruck: it was a moment of revelation and reconciliation. After that, things have always been fine between us.

BCHS: Did your dad ever write any poetry, and if so, have you ever seen any of it? Has he ever commented on specific poems of yours?

Sze: My father has an excellent background in classical Chinese literature, but he never wrote any poems. And he has not responded to specific poems of mine.

BCHS: Would you tell us a bit about the motivation behind “Haircutting”? How did that particular poem come about?

Sze: The impulse behind “Haircutting” was my wife’s miscarriage. I had a son from a previous marriage, but we didn’t have a child together yet.

Fogle/BCHS: One student was struck by how suicide or miscarriage as subjects aren’t as directly addressed as we might expect, but seem to rise for a moment, and then get lost by the next lines—how aware are you that those sorts of real, emotional, intense events can seem hidden from readers?

Sze: A confessional poet would write more directly and intensely about the suicide or miscarriage or a traumatic subject matter that some of my poems incorporate, but, frankly, I find the confessional mode too egocentric and sometimes manipulative in its mining of personal experience. I hope my poems are intense in their own, singular way, and I like Emily Dickinson’s dictum, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”

Fogle: A number of my students—even some of the more receptive ones—have real trouble with your work early on. They tend to remain fairly patient and open, and their responses certainly evolve over time, but how do you react to the level of difficulty that your work can present?

Sze: I am not writing to be difficult; I am writing the poems I have to write. I know my poems have density and make leaps, and often risk initial disorientation. Yet I hope that the poems communicate viscerally before they’re understood, and I hope that a musical phrase, an image, a metaphor might startle a reader enough so that there’s a hunger to go back and reread and experience more. My poems unfold over time. In terms of responses to my work, you can tell your students they are not alone—adults have often come up to me and said that when they first read my work they were baffled. Just last week, a stranger came up to me and said he had a book of mine and almost tossed it, then he heard me read (there’s a recording at UC Berkeley on YouTube, if your students want to hear some of the poems). He went home, reopened my book, and read the poems aloud. He said he has all of my books now and can’t wait to see what I do next.

Fogle/BCHS: Lewis Turco distinguishes poetry from fiction, drama, or essays—which are all the arts of either narrative or a “subject”—as “the art of language itself.” Is poetry, for you, more about “saying” something—as in message, moral, subject matter—or does it come about more through creative play with language? There is, as a backdrop, that myth about the two apprentice poets. The first tells the master, “I have all these things to say” while the second says, “I like to play with language.” The second apprentice, according to the master, will be the poet.

Sze: I dislike the idea one has to choose “A” or “B” when a number of possibilities are available. The problem with the first position is that when you feel you have a big message to deliver, the poem becomes didactic. The “message” is defining and even confining where the poem can go. With the second position, it’s great to play around with language and discover possibilities one never knew about before, but the creative play has to be harnessed to a cogent vision. It’s possible to argue, of course, that in playing around with language, the true themes of the poem emerge from within or out of this play. But how does one, in the process of creation, discern what’s at stake? Sometimes it’s already there. For instance, if one is writing an elegy, the impetus to mourn someone who has died fuels the language, so the first option is there, even though the creative play may enable the elegy to become more surprising and more effective. Also, if one just pursues creative play, it’s possible to repeat oneself endlessly without realizing it. I lean toward creative play, but I hunger for some rigor. In the end, “A” and “B” can be in apposition rather than opposition.

Fogle/BCHS: There is a moment in “Didyma” where the speaker ingests psilocybin mushrooms and then wonders at a cantaloupe. Some native cultures use natural hallucinogens in rituals; some of the Beats (at least early on) and others experimented with drugs specifically for an expansion of consciousness, art, a transcendence (or perhaps closer embracing) of everyday reality. These purposes seem very different from purely recreational use, which might sensationalize more “serious” intentions. Similarly, some folks have the image of an artist—especially one whose art challenges conventions—as a wild, intoxicated heathen. Any thoughts on the perceptions of artists and their art in this way? Can drug use in art/artists unfairly hog the attention of an audience? Or could it actually play an important role?

Sze: I think drug use can indeed unfairly hog the attention of an audience. It’s easy to romanticize the use of drugs as mind-expanding etc., when in fact, all too often, they become a form of escape or entrapment. In a poem in The Redshifting Web (“Shooting Star”), I have an image of “men who saw and saw and refuse to see.” They were psilocybin ingestors who stopped seeing. As an artist, I do think it’s important to try to expand one’s consciousness and conception of what art can be and do, but I believe the miraculous and visionary are always right here, close at hand. Very sparing drug use can play an important role toward expanding or shifting one’s consciousness, but so can simple meditation or intense exercise.

BCHS: What do you want readers to “get” from Quipu?

Sze: I hate to tell readers what to “get” from Quipu or any work of art. I hope that it gives readers a heightened and intensified experience of the world, and that it enables readers to “awaken,” to live more deeply, to experience more keenly, to feel that even as the poems are endlessly branching, so are our lives. But I also want poetry to be pleasure.

BCHS: Was it difficult finding inspiration for writing all of the poems? In terms of subject matter, there is both tragedy (suicide, miscarriage) and wonder and awe at the little things in the world. What inspires you the most?

Sze: I don’t find it difficult at all to find inspiration, but time to write has always been a challenge. I’m teeming with ideas and discoveries—many of which of course don’t pan out—but I find tremendous inspiration in life. And, yes, there can be tragedy, but there is also ecstatic wonder and love.

Writing for me is an intensely physical experience. ...If I write a line, “Corpses push up through thawing permafrost,” I feel the configuration of vowel and consonant sounds...

BCHS: Why did you choose to put part three of “Earthshine” in that group instead of having it be its own poem?

Sze: I don’t think section three makes much sense as a separate poem. The context is crucial. At the end of section two, the speaker learns of a suicide and is, in some way, struggling how to articulate (“say”), grapple with the shock of that news. In terms of the quipu image/metaphor that runs through the book, I envisioned the anaphoric lines as a deliberate form of knotting: taking language and tying it, again and again, with the word “say.” This idea of articulation recurs explicitly in section five but implicitly throughout the poem.

Fogle: When and how did the sequence poems start for you?

Sze: The first sequence I ever wrote was “The Leaves of a Dream Are the Leaves of an Onion.” I wrote the first three sections as separate poems, and I remember that I had a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. I laid out the three poems on the floor and suddenly realized they could be part of something larger. I then wrote sections 4, 5, and 6 with a sequence in mind. It was an exciting discovery.

Fogle: I love and am particularly interested in “Streamers” and “Oolong” from Archipelago. Would you say something about their genesis and evolution?

Sze: I wrote “Streamers” after returning from a month-long trip to Japan, and consciously wanted to work with simultaneity as an open-ended structure. The poems in Archipelago are obsessed with “part” and “whole,” and “Streamers” and “Oolong” are part of it.

In “Streamers,” the streamers that arc across the polar sky are an arc and not a full circle. When the full circle appears at the end of the sequence in the form of the enso, or circle in Zen calligraphy, it can be viewed, from far away, as a period, a moment of finality, or when seen up close, as a circle with emptiness inside of it. Up close, it no longer has closure but is in fact an opening.

In “Oolong,” I was consciously working with aspects of the tea ceremony. Many people know ikebana, flower arrangement, but not so many people are aware of chabana, flower arrangement for a tea ceremony. I was inspired by Henry Mittwer, a monk at Tenryuji temple in Kyoto. Henry visited Santa Fe Indian Market and purchased a series of Acoma pots. He then returned to Japan and made a controversial flower arrangement for the tea ceremony using these contemporary Native American pots. So cross-cultural issues and the idea of contingency were very much on my mind when I worked on “Oolong.”

BCHS: How long does it usually take to write one of your sequences? What is your revision and editing process like?

Sze: My sequences take a long time, and I usually write about one section a month. Sometimes there are sections that don’t make it into the final sequence. “Earthshine” took me seven months to create. My writing process is intuitive, and I usually let the phrases grow and evolve over time. I eventually come to a point where I feel the need to start compressing and singling out what is essential.

BCHS: Do you find yourself writing poems about other lines in other poems? It seems a lot of themes and images carry over from poem to poem. How do you fit all those pieces together (especially in something like “Earthshine”)?

Sze: I don’t consciously set out to “write poems about other lines in other poems,” but sometimes I’m aware that a phrase has repeated and then, rather than suppress it, I try to turn the repeat so that it’s not a mere duplication but, rather, a repeat with a twist, an elegant variation.

My sequences are usually written from the inside out, and, by that, I mean that I never know where the opening is until fairly late in the progression of the poem. In “Earthshine,” I just looked at my drafts and saw that the order of composition of the sections is: #6, #4, #2, #1, #3, #5, #7. I have to say my process of creation is rarely this orderly, but, in this case, I created the block-like sections first and then allowed something different to happen in between.

BCHS: What is writing for you?

Sze: Writing is discovery, and for me, it’s also a gift. I don’t write out “what I know.” Usually if I write a poem and know where it’s going, it turns into a flat poem and isn’t very interesting. On the other hand, sometimes I’ll start writing and shed what I initially think it’s about or where I think it’s going. Instead, in the musical phrases that come to me, I discover seeds or vibrations. Over time, the real poem emerges, and then it’s exciting to discover and nurture it. Ultimately, I believe poetry has a crucial role to play in our lives. We live in such a superficial, consumer-oriented world. Poetry makes us slow down, read and reread, to hear the sounds of words and experience the silences: it enables us to live more fully and helps show us what’s truly important.

Fogle: The sections of many early sequences are uniform (“The Silk Road,” “Six Persimmons”), whereas only one (“Aqueous Gold”) of the eight sequences in your last two books is so—the others are very diverse in terms of form. Is this a conscious evolution?

Sze: No, the shapes to my sequences depend on what’s at stake in the poem. In “The Silk Road,” the image of a journey made me feel that couplets were appropriate. “Six Persimmons” is an ekphrastic poem, and is inspired by the Song dynasty painter, Muqi. In the painting, six persimmons are set against emptiness, but I felt each of the persimmons was at a different stage of ripening. It then became important in that sequence to maintain the same outward form but shift, from the tart to the sweet, in the way that a persimmon internally ripens.

Fogle: One striking feature of your sequences is the list: endangered species in “The String Diamond” from The Redshifting Web, the “because” anaphora in “Didyma” from Quipu, American Indian tribes in “Spectral Line” from The Ginkgo Light, and several others. What is your process of shaping those lists? Is it intuitive, systematic, trial-and-error, or something else?

Sze: My lists are initially very long, and then I winnow them down. In “The String Diamond,” I began with a National Geographic list of all of the endangered species. The Hawaiian names sounded too exotic, so I stripped them away. I eventually settled on the list of thirty endangered species by playing with rhythm and musicality. I was interested in creating a litany of vanishing species, a vocalization that had no narrative or commentary attached to them. I wrote “Spectral Line” during my last year of teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and, at first, I thought of listing the names of a group of Native students that I had been privileged to work with over my twenty-two years of teaching. I realized the names would be too literal, so I substituted the names of tribes for the names of students. I envisioned a roll call, a spectral line that formed the spine to the sequence. The “Didyma” sequence is a love poem, and, at the end, I wanted to suspend causes and effects. Fifteen clauses begin with “because,” and then there’s a gap, a section divider, followed by fifteen “effects.” Let me say, though, that I can describe these intentions, but the effects may be quite different—and it’s important for a poem to not be circumscribed by the intentions of the poet.

Fogle: Twice, in The Ginkgo Light, lettuce is passed over a fence from one neighbor to another, and this strikes me as a key gesture in the book, which seems more regenerative, and an even more communal book than Quipu. In what ways do you perceive the concerns or tones of your books as being different?

Sze: I want each book of poetry to have its own special quality and rigor. In Quipu, I was consciously working with language, turning nouns into verbs, for instance. Having done that, I feel no need to foreground that kind of effect again. In The Ginkgo Light, I worked with many aspects of the ginkgo: from its history—a ginkgo tree not only survived the atomic blast at Hiroshima but actually blossomed a little later—to its biology—its structure of “dichotomous venation,” became a physical manifestation for my feelings of endlessly branching imagination and life.

Fogle: In The Ginkgo Light, two long poems—“Chrysalis” and “The Double Helix”—alternate a pair of couplets with a single line (one long poem in Quipu also has the same form). How have you come to this movement for the longer, nonsequence poems?

Sze: Carol and I were discussing sequences, and she suggested that I look for a different structure, a form that didn’t depend on discrete sections. I decided to break apart the traditional tercet and adapt it. I created a 1-2-2-1-2-2-1 … form of indefinite duration. Because this new form has no section dividers but also incorporates white space, I felt it might be appropriate for a meditative unfolding. I’ve written four poems with this form.

As an artist, I do think it's important to try to expand one’s consciousness and conception of what art can be and do, but I believe the miraculous and visionary are always right here, close at hand.

Fogle: In “The Ginkgo Light,” you write “Sometimes one fingers annihilation / before breaking into bliss.” In “Crisscross,” you mention “the chasm between what I envision and what I do.” In “Spectral Line,” you write “do not entrench boundaries / but work to dissolve them.” If all poets have at least a couple of obsessions, is it fair to say that the notion of thresholds (between inside and outside, opposing emotions, different times, etc.) is one of yours? I wonder if this is at all related to the idea you mention in your book of translations that poetry is a silk dragon.

Sze: One of my obsessions has to do with balancing antinomies: dark and light, interior and exterior, opposing emotions, the finite and infinite and, in that regard, dissolving boundaries—rather than passing across a linear threshold—is a mysterious process and something I’m especially interested in. As a poet, I find language an endlessly rich material to work with, and, among fibers, silk is unsurpassed for its beauty, sensuality, strength, and elasticity; so I proposed that the imagination is a dragon, the poet a silkworm working with language, and, as something mysterious and splendid, poetry is a silk dragon.    

Andy Fogle has five chapbooks of poetry, most recently The Last Apprenticeship (White Knuckle). An article related to this interview, “Playing with Difficult Poetry,” appeared in English Journal last November.



from Quipu



“Fuck you, fuck you,” he repeated as he drove down the dirt road
while tamarisk branches scraped the side of the pickup;

what scrapes in the mind as it dilates to darkness?

Jodido,” he winced and turned up the whites of his eyes;

“What comes from darkness, I strike with darkness”;

who hears a night-blooming cereus
unfold a white blossom by the windowsill?

crackle of flames in the fireplace;

lapping of waves against rocks
as a manta ray flips and feeds on plankton;

the gasp when he glanced down at the obituaries;

the gasp when she unwrapped flecked rice paper to find a letterpress broadside;

spurt of match into gold as he lights white beeswax candles;

she is running her hair between his toes;
he is rubbing her nipples with his palms;

“What comes from brightness, I strike with brightness”;

his ankles creaked as he tiptoed to the bathroom;

waking to a cat chewing on a mouse in the dark.



Hiking up a trail in the Manoa Valley arboretum,
he motions with his hand to stop as he tries
to distinguish whether a red-whiskered or
red-vented bulbul has just landed on a branch.
I spot a macadamia nut on the ground, glance
up into an adjacent tree and am shocked by
two enormous jackfruit suspended from the trunk.
Revelation never comes as a fern uncoiling
a frond in mist; it comes when I trip on a root,
slap a mosquito on my arm. We go on, but stop
when gnats lift into a cloud as we stumble into
a bunch of rose apples rotting on the ground.
Although we continue to a dead end where water
runs down a sheer rock, the mind stops here:
here Amanita muscarias release a cloud of spores
into cool August air; here lovers make
earthshine on a waxing crescent moon; here
the phone rings and I learn of a suicide,
a pinhole grows into an eclipse; here
water drips as I descend into a sloping black lava tube.



Say teeth;
say gnawed his teeth in his sleep;
say each spring he scraped peeling blue paint off the windowsill;
say the ocean flickers;
say a squiggly chalk line screeching down a blackboard opens a black rift;
say on a float house yellow cedar smoke rises in the woodstove;
say burn;
say crumpled white papers ripple then burst into yellow twists of flame;
say parallel lines touch in the infinite;
say peel;
say stoplight screech go green laugh;
say screech, rip, slam, thud, body scrapes, bleeds to bone;
say hyena;
say bobcat stripped of skin;
say a black cricket chirps in a corner of the room;
say hang;
say ox shoulder hangs off hook;
say trimming roses, she slashed her left wrist;
say shit-smear hair-sway leaf-gold ooze;
say crack;
say breaking a wineglass in a white napkin recovers a sliver of original light;
say egg-white eyeball splash;
say rinse;
say bend to earth, find a single stalk budding gold.



He hanged himself with his belt in the bosque
is no longer a whip that reddens and flays the skin.
“Donkey piss,” he once cracked—but who
knows how the light sizzled and burned a hole
that gnawed and gnawed so that the more he
twisted the more he convulsed into a black pitch?
Orange daylilies are blooming along the driveway;
long-stalked delphinium are bending to earth.
A firework explodes in white gold then bursts
into a green shimmer. He leaves teeth marks
on her neck; she groans and shows the whites
of her eyes. When a car rushes by on a wet road,
he hears a laborer throw sand against a tilted screen
and realizes twenty-three years ago he threw
sand against a tilted screen. Now, when he
strokes the tendons of her left wrist, she sighs.
They are now nowhere everywhere none such;
they are not look back time but full moon first light.



She said he said “moon” in his sleep;

when he looked through the pot-bellied telescope,
the light of the full moon made him wince;

he had to gaze into darkness
and then saw from Mare Cognitum to Mare Serenitatis;

the mind aches to see at such distance such definition;

when she heard the barking dog,
she shined a flashlight and spotted a porcupine on the roof;

as you would spotlight a deer;

a snake slides under the redwood boardwalk by the kitchen;

he kisses her shoulders,
rubs the soles of her feet;

the mind aligns such slivers;

say dragonfly, quartz, cattail, tuning fork, wave;
say earthstar bursting into alpine air;
say c2;

say even the sacred barley drink separates if it is not stirred,
and see how, stirred, one can find repose.



Sipping mint tea in the ebbing heat of the day,
I recollect how we stumbled onto a raccoon
squashed between boards leaning against a fence,
tadpoles wriggling at the edge of a pond.
On the living room table, thirty-six peonies
in a vase dry and become crepe-paper light
to touch. Yesterday you watered blue chamisa
along the county road, while I watered desert grass
under the willow. I recollect opening a brown,
humid box and, stunned, lifted a handful
of morels, inhaling the black aroma of earth.
What is it we give each other—gold, shark’s fin—
other than a renewed sense of the miraculous?
Nanao watched a blip on the radar screen; later,
when he saw the flash, he thought Mt. Fuji
had erupted in a burst of light. Sipping mint tea
on the longest day of the year, I sense how
the balance of a life sways, and a petal may tip it.



A steady evening with a first-quarter moon;
numerous craters along the terminator are razor sharp;

I observe the ghostly bluish glow of earthshine
and feel how the moon has no permanent dark side.

A horse neighs by the barbed wire fence;
we trudge into a wet field, carrying, from under the portal,

a bee’s nest in a basket, place it in a nook
of a silver poplar. Will any bees hatch in spring?

I notice thorns on the bare branches of Russian olives;
you spot coyote scat before the V-shaped gate.

We walk to where the Pojoaque and Nambe flow together—
I am amazed at how we blossom into each other.

I hear the occasional drone of cars on highway 285,
hear how the living expire into smoke

and the dead inflame the minds of the living.
When I exhale against a cold window, I see

the ever-shifting line along the terminator;
and, as the shadow cast by the rim of Theophilus

slips across the crater’s floor, I feel light
surge into a honeycomb gold—it all goes and comes at once.


“Earthshine,” from Arthur Sze’s Quipu (2005) appears with permission from Copper Canyon Press.

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