Arthur Sze’s latest book of poetry is Compass Rose (Copper Canyon, 2014), and Pig’s Heaven Inn, bilingual selected poems, was published in Beijing (Intellectual Property Publishing House, 2014). He received the 2013 Jackson Poetry Prize and is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. His poem “Sight Lines” from the May/June 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review can be found here.
What was your original impetus for writing “Sight Lines”? Did you begin with a line or phrase? With an image? With the poem’s overarching animating impulse?
Lisa Russ Spaar contacted me and said she was going to assemble an anthology of poems relating to Thomas Jefferson and Monticello. I wasn’t sure I could write a poem clearly linked to Jefferson, but I also liked the challenge. My first draft consisted of these two lines:
Jefferson’s chasm between word and deed,
Nowhere is there a whitening cloud that dissolves this world’s mystery,
As I looked at the lines, I thought about how I had an earlier poem in one-line stanzas, “Comet Hyakutake,” where I picked up a word or words from the first line and used them in the second line. The third line picked up a word or words from the second line, and so on . . . I liked how the repetitions in that poem resonated, evolved, and deepened as the poem progressed, and I decided to try to use that structure and write a “fraternal twin.” Over a week, I wrote sets of lines without knowing where the poem was going. There were certainly lines with images, and the rhythmical impulse was important.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
My writing process is much slower than when I first started out. I find it’s better to not know too soon where a poem might be going, and, as I extend and deepen that process of uncertainty, I find that I often discover images and phrases that are like seeds. As the poem gestates, I try not to rush it but to explore and deepen the process.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
For the last eighteen years, my wife and I lived in Jacona, New Mexico, about twenty miles north of Santa Fe. We recently moved into town, but my habit of walking across fields, along the Pojoaque River, up the arroyos, and into the Barrancas has made the landscape and light of northern New Mexico a strong influence on my writing.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
The best piece of writing advice I received was simply, “Keep writing, and don’t ever stop for six months or a year.”
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m just writing poems and don’t know where they are going, but the recent sequence I most like is “Water Calligraphy.” In China, there’s a recent phenomenon where old men (there must be women too) go into public parks at sunrise with a bucket of water and a jerry-rigged foam brush. They write characters—lines from ancient poems, poems of their own—in water on the slate walkways. The characters are dark and wet, but then they evaporate in the sunlight. People gather around these calligraphers and read the poem, and then the poem disappears. The calligraphers don’t care that their names are not attached to the work. The daily poems become an ode to transience, and my new sequence is grounded in this phenomenon.