In 2022, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Arthur Sze discusses his curatorial approach and his own creative work.
Poets.org: Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A, hosted by the Academy of American Poets. I’m Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy, and I’m here today with Arthur Sze. Arthur is the author of The Glass Constellations: New and Collected Poems and Sight Lines. Arthur, welcome and thank you for joining me today.
Arthur Sze: Thank you.
Poets.org: All right. So let’s jump right into it. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day?
Sze: I started by considering poets who are also translators. And it seems to me it’s a particularly rich period right now in American poetry, when so many poets are also practicing translators. And I was interested in considering how translation work might influence their own poetry, whether it would be overt or in subtle influences.
And, in this month’s group of poets, there are poets who translate from ancient Chinese, modern Chinese, ancient Greek, Spanish, French, and Muskogee. So that’s a quite wide and interesting range. I also wanted to include some poets who had never had the opportunity to be included in Poem-a-Day before. And I also wanted to reach out to poets with just very distinctive styles. It seems to me one of the great things about American poetry right now is its energy and diversity, and in many ways, I was looking to curate or to search for many different kinds of poems.
Poets.org: Now, some of our readers may know that you are a poet who has translated poetry from Chinese, particularly for your book Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese, published by Copper Canyon Press. Can you talk a bit about how your own work in translation has influenced your poetic style?
Sze: My work in translation has been really important to my own work as a poet. I didn’t go to graduate school and I oftentimes feel like I learned my craft through translating ancient Chinese poems. It wasn’t something I planned, but I just loved these ancient poems and, in translating them, I feel like I learned my craft because I got to think about how these poems were constructed.
And, over time, I discovered that when I finished a book of my own poetry, I oftentimes felt exhausted and wasn’t sure what to do next. And that was a really fruitful time to turn to translation and to look at someone else’s work and sort of dive into their worldview and their vision and world. And so, poets from other time periods in China came to me, and over time, those translations gave me many ideas for my own poetry.
Poets.org: Interesting. If you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at Poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?
Sze: I would direct readers to the poem “Prayer” by Jorie Graham. And it’s a short poem; it’s a marvelous poem that begins with observing a stream of minnows. And I love how it moves from the visible to the invisible world; how, in its syntax, it enacts a swaying and large, deep, generous vision of life. And she gets to say really large, fundamentally powerful things that are harnessed, that come by surprise through looking again at this stream of minnows. And I find it a marvelous poem, so I want to send readers to that.
Poets.org: Yes. And that poem is part of our permanent archive on Poets.org. Arthur, who are you reading right now?
Sze: I’m enjoying reading Adrian Matejka’s new book, Somebody Else Sold the World, and it’s easy to point to musicality and improvisation as signature strengths of his. But I’m also interested in reading through the poems, thinking about the architecture and how certain patterns repeat. The opening section, called “Sung Entropy,” is such a marvelous way to open a book, the idea of singing and chaos and disorder and sort of confronting the shambles for a time to make some song or order or poetry out of it. It’s really lovely.
Poets.org: Some of our listeners and readers may know that Adrian Matejka was recently made poetry editor at Poetry magazine this year. Arthur, what are you working on now in your writing, teaching, or publishing life?
Sze: Well, I just completed a sequel to my book of translations of Chinese poetry. The Silk Dragon came out in 2001, so that’s over twenty years ago. And that book ended with commune poems from China in the 1950s. And I’ve always been dissatisfied with how that book ended. And over the last twenty years, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to meet many leading poets in China, Taiwan, and other countries. And, over time, I’ve translated their poems.
So I’ve included fourteen new contemporary poems by these poets. And I’ve also added three classical Chinese poems. So, that book, The Silk Dragon II: Translations of Chinese Poetry, will be published by Copper Canyon in the spring of 2024. And I’m also working steadily on completing a new book of poetry.
Poets.org: Sounds wonderful. I’d like to talk a bit more, if we can, about your work in Chinese diasporic poetry, with translation of Chinese diasporic poetry. Scholars, such as Benzi Zhang and Shelly Chan, have written about the Chinese diaspora as being less nation-centered and monolithic as is often perceived, and instead, you know, multivalent, polyglot, and offering room for cultural differences. Would you agree with this view, and might that explain why your first collection of translations felt incomplete when you stopped at those commune poems from the 1950s?
Sze: Yes, I agree with that. Just in terms of personal background, my parents were immigrants from China. I grew up in New York City and I spoke Mandarin Chinese. So I’ve always felt this kind of East and West, the pull of ancient Chinese culture, though I’m writing in English.
And I think the situation for Chinese poetry in [the] Chinese diaspora is a complex one because of the history of the political situation all through the twentieth century. So there are wonderful poets writing in Taiwan; there are poets who chose to leave China because of the political situation who live in Germany or the United States or elsewhere now. And so, there’s the very loose conversation happening between these poets, and I would say the poets are extremely international.
And I like the word “multivalent” that you used because it seems to me the Chinese poetry situation right now is very fluid. The poets are very aware of poetry in other languages and other cultures. It isn’t ethnocentric. Many of the contemporary poets are influenced—highly influenced—by Western poetry, Russian poetry, American poetry, for sure. So it’s a grab bag. It’s a very unusual but wonderful situation.
Poets.org: That sounds great. Thank you so much, Arthur for participating in this conversation with me.
Sze: You’re welcome. My pleasure.