1. What is your personal/aesthetic relationship to the poetic line? That is, how do you understand it, use it, etc.
An understanding of the poetic line is essential to writing poetry. If what you write doesn’t have an inner necessity to be in lines, it can be written out in prose and become a prose poem.
As I write, the process of finding an appropriate line is an integral part of the creative process. There’s a huge difference between whether the lines are long or short, how they vary, where the lines break, where stanzas form etc. In section five of my sequence, “Spectral Line,” I have a catalog of
forty American Indian tribes that represent the tribes of students I worked with at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Because I want a reader to clearly register each tribe before the next one is heard–it’s a kind of a roll call–I’ve written it out in very short end-stopped lines:
If I wrote out the forty tribes in a few long lines, the naming would be much quicker, and the litany would lose much of its power.
In the previous section of “Spectral Line,” I¹ve written a series of fragments, but the lines are long:
she swallowed the white sleeping pills and nearly OD’d;
the spring wind blew the ax off the chopping block;
when confronted with plagiarized lines, he shrugged, ‘I dreamed them’; [no line break]
In this passage, I’m making each long line a microcosm and am interested in juxtaposing different worlds. The one-line stanzas, with white space (silence), emphasize the integrity of each line.
In a poem or passage where a line break works in tension with the syntax,the meaning is often enriched and clarified. For instance, in section 4 to “The Ginkgo Light,” I have two lines:
he stressed rational inquiry
then drove south into the woods, put a gun to his head;
The line break after “inquiry” is important, because it heightens the distinction between what he says and what he does.
Denise Levertov once wrote in an essay, “On the Function of the Line,” that a line break should have the duration of silence roughly equivalent to half a comma. I don’t think it’s possible to calibrate each line break with such a predetermined idea of duration. Nevertheless, I agree with her when she asserts that the line break is one of the essential tools of poetry.
2. Do you find a relationship between words and writing and the human body? Or between your writing and your body?
Yes, writing for me is an intensely physical experience. I may be typing letters at a keyboard, but 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 then 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. A poem often communicates before it’s understood, and it is on this physical plane that a poem communicates, before the intelligence fully understands it.
When I write a poem, I often consciously try to use all of the senses. Because I am very near-sighted, I sometimes think that I place an extra value on visual clarity in a poem. It’s as if the act of writing is a form of seeing.
Emily Dickinson once said that she didn’t know how to define a poem but knew a poem if it “took the top of her head off.” Although she was referring to the effect of a poem on a reader, I would add that that intense, visceral experience exists for a writer in the process of creation.
3. Is there anything you dislike about being a poet?
To be a poet is a great and grueling experience, and I can¹t separate the two. Sometimes I dislike the “sedentary toil,” the long hours and struggle required to write a few good lines, but then I always come back to the magic of poetry.
Arthur Sze’s most recent book of poetry is “The Ginkgo Light.”
Here is a poem from the collection, published by Copper Canyon.
A train passes through the Sonoran Desert
when a sudden sandstorm at night sweeps
through the windows: everyone gags
and curses‹sand, eddying under the dim
ceiling lights, lodges on eyelashes, clothes,
hair. Memory is encounter: each incident,
a bee thrumming in a hive. You catch
the aroma of incense in a courtyard
but fret you have sleepwalked for hours.
Observing grasshopper legs in a nook,
you brood then exult that a bat roosts
under the eave, yet fail to notice
quince fattening on branches, ache
that your insights may be white smoke
to flame. Though you note toothpicks
at a cash register, an elk head with antlers
mounted to the back of a passing trailer,
you are given a penlight but, within
minutes, misplace it. Without premonition,
striding up a cobblestone street,
through a Patzcuaro doorway, you spot
a raised coffin with dissolving tapers
by each corner, and harbor a sting
then tang, wax then honey on the tongue.