Poetry from The Silk Dragon translated by Arthur Sze in this issue.
Arthur's poetry in an earlier issue.
Books at bn.com by Arthur Sze
Visit our other interviews with:
An E-view with Arthur Sze
By Rebecca Seiferle
%%%%%I first met Arthur Sze when we read together in a benefit reading for Amigos Bravos, an environmental group in Taos, New Mexico. At that time, he was well-known in New Mexico as a distinctive and compelling presence in the poetry of the region. He was co-publisher, with John Brandi, of Tooth of Time books, an esteemed teacher at the Institute for American Indian Arts, and the author of several noteworthy poetry collections. Since then, he has quietly and by virtue of the quality of his work become a poet of national renown. His selected poems, The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998 (Copper Canyon Press 1998), was a finalist for the 1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.
%%%%%Arthur Sze has been called one "of our best poets" by Charles Simic, and his poetry is esteemed by writers who inhabit a broad band of the poetical spectrum. His work has always been marked by a refinement of object and imagery. Rich in allusions, his poetry evinces a preference for Asian juxtaposition rather than Western rhetoric. In reading his work, while there is a sense of a distinctive voice, the quality of voice strikes the reader as a quality of mind, the subtle movements of a particular intelligence, rather than as oratorical.
%%%%% With the publication of The Silk Dragon, Sze makes his debut as an equally exceptional translator. The Silk Dragon includes translations that are the fruit of thirty years of reading the originals, considering their qualities and translating them into English. Rather than a complete anthology of Chinese poetry, the translations follow the trajectory of Sze's interests in Chinese literature, from the classic T'ang masters, Wang Wei, Li Po and Tu Fu to important contemporary poets such as Wen I-to and Yen Chen. Sze's introduction provides insight not only into the process of translation but the process of writing poetry altogether. The silk dragon, the title for the collection, is Sze's metaphor for poetry, and as Michelle Yeh notes in Sze's moving collection of Chinese poetry. . . each poem is a miniature silk dragon, lustrous and magical in its beauty.
* * * * * * * *
Arthur Sze was born in New York City in 1950 and is a second-generation Chinese American. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of California at Berkeley and is the author of seven books of poetry: The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese (Copper Canyon Press, 2001), The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970-1998 (Copper Canyon, 1998), Archipelago (Copper Canyon, 1995), River River (Lost Road, 1987), Dazzled (Floating Island, 1982), Two Ravens (1976; revised edition, Tooth of Time, 1984), The Willow Wind (1972; revised edition, Tooth of Time, 1981). His poems have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies and have been translated into Chinese, Italian, and Turkish. He has conducted residences at Brown University, Bard College, Naropa Institute, and is a recipient of an Asian American Literary Award, a Balcones Poetry Prize, a Lila WallaceReader's Digest Writer's Award, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, an American Book Award, a Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, three Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry Fellowships, two National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships, a George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation Fellowship, a New Mexico Arts Division Interdisciplinary Grand, and the Eisner Prize, University of California at Berkely. He lives in Pojoaque, New Mexico, with his wife, Carol Moldaw, and is a Professor of Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
Seiferle: In your very interesting introduction to The Silk Dragon you write that translation of Chinese poems into English has always been a source of inspiration for my own evolution as a poet. Do you feel that the process of translation has been a kind of poetic apprenticeship where you've learned your own craft or has it been more akin to wrestling with an angel, aspiring to what your own work is not yet? Perhaps both?
Sze: In the beginning, I turned to translation as a kind of poetic apprenticeship. In 1971, while a student at the University of California at Berkeley, I was searching for my own voice and poetics. The T'ang dynasty masters Li Po, Tu Fu, Wang Weioffered me very distinct voices and challenges. I wanted to translate them in order to honor their accomplishment but also to experience the poems from the inside out. By writing out their poems, character by character, stroke by stroke, I was able to engage with the poems on a deeper level and better understand their process of creation.
Later on, in 1982, I was searching for ways to extend a lyric beyond 25 lines, and Wen I-to came to mind. I read his poems carefully and felt that he extended the lyric, in a poem such as Miracle, with great emotional power. And I thought his juxtapositionswhich brought the grittiness of twentieth century China into tension with the more traditional T'ang dynasty lyrical imageswere stunning. In the case of Wen I-to, I translated his work because I felt it would help me discern a new stage for my own writing. So the process of translation has been wrestling with an angel as well as poetic apprenticeship.
Seiferle: I first began reading Vallejo in the Spanish nearly twenty years before I seriously undertook translating him. Did you spend a similar period of time, when you read the poems in Chinese, 'lived' with them in a sense, before you undertook the actual process of translation?
Sze: When I read Li Po, Tu Fu, Wang Wei, I knew immediately that I wanted to translate their poems. I didn't live with their work for a long time, but I was deeply excited by it. I think I experienced that shock of recognition that comes when one reads and experiences great poetry. At that time, however, I read and was baffled by such poets as Li Shang-yin and Li Ho. It took me over twenty years to come to appreciate their poetry. In the early 1990s, I came back to Li Shang-yin and Li Ho and was amazed at their work. Li Shang-yin's untitled poems struck me as charged with longing; they impressed me as some of the great love poems in classical Chinese. And in the case of Li Ho: his obsessions with time and mortality, his hallucinatory use of colors, his need to gallop on horseback each morning for visionary fragments of poems to come to himall of this struck me as hallmarks of a peculiarly modern poet. In these cases, there was an enormous brewing time before I connected deeply with the work.
Seiferle: How do you choose the poems or do they choose you? Are you drawn by particular lines, the personality of the poet, or more amorphous qualities, such as the atmosphere or feeling which the poem conveys?
Sze: Sometimes I choose the poems, and sometimes they seize me. In the case of Wang Wei, I loved the sharp images, the paradoxes, and intensity of his chueh-chu (quatrains). I read many of them and sifted through to select the ones that most interested me. In 1975, when a friend recommended Wen I-to to me, I didn't know where to start and happened to find his second collection, Dead Water. The poems in that collection stunned me. I knew that someday I would want to translate some of them, but, again, it took me many years to feel ready.
Seiferle In your introduction, you say that your own writing of Chinese is awkward and rudimentary, yet it's in the process of drawing the characters that you come to sense the inner motion of the poem in a way that I cannot by just reading the characters on the page. Is this perhaps one way in which you begin to lay claim to the translation, making the poem your own, by writing it in your own hand? Do you write your own poems longhand and is sensing the inner motion of each poem essential to that process?
Sze: In writing the poem out in my own handwriting, I am trying to make the poem my own, but that is only a beginning. I need to make an aside on Chinese linguistics. The Chinese language employs 214 radicals or root elements to the language. You learn to write words, or characters, stroke by stroke, in a particular order and direction. The Chinese language is also generated through juxtaposition. For instance, the character bright is written by writing the character sun and then the character moon. In many ways, juxtaposition becomes a form of metaphor, with the equal sign omitted. To write the character grief, one writes autumn at the top and heart/mind below. The character autumn has two parts: tree tip and fire (autumn=tree/s+fire). Grief=autumn placed next to, in, heart/mind. Because of the complexity of juxtapositions that might generate a single character, and because a poet might pursue radical connections between characters, I need to write out each Chinese poem stroke by stroke. It helps me physically experience the vision, tension, architecture, rhythm and even silences to the poem.
Seiferle: You describe how you look up each Chinese character in a dictionary and create word clusters, possibilities of meaning in English. I wonder if this method of translation has effected the writing of your own poetry. Do you go to the dictionary for your own work, do you lay out fields upon the page, clusters of meaning?
Sze: I never start my own poems by using a dictionary, but I sometimes find it helpful in the process of creation. For instance, I wrote a poem in nine sections, Quipu, that was recently published in Conjunctions. Quipu is the Quechua word for knot, and it turns out the Incas used bundles of string, or quipus, to record all sorts of critical information: how many potatoes were stored in bins in the mountainside, or the population of Cuzco, or historical information, or even poems. A quipu had a main string and then subsidiary strings that were dyed different colors, and different knots were used to encode the information. When I was writing my poem, I looked up the simple word, as, in the dictionary, and wrote out all of its possible meanings. I didn't force myself to use all of them, but I consciously used many of them. The varied meanings enabled me to layer and charge the poem in an unusual way. The word as appears so innocuous, but each time it's used, it has a knotting effect. So here is a concrete example of how using a dictionary in translation work has fed my own poetry.
. Seiferle: You have translated a wide range of poets from the great T'ang masters to contemporary poets. Could we follow the trajectory of your own work by following the chronology in which you have translated these various poets?
Sze: I think it's dangerous to attempt a direct correlation between what a poet translates and their own work. I think that I've absorbed and learned from all of the poets I've translated: over time, to name just a few, I've been drawn to the clarity of T'ao Ch'ien's lines, to the subtlety of Ma Chih-yuan's lyrics, to the oblique exactitude of Li Shang-yin
Seiferle: Do you primarily translate between books or after finishing a book or before just beginning a new body of work? Or do you translate always or perhaps simultaneously working on a particular group of translations while working on poems that share the same problems or preoccupations?
Sze: I've translated poems, essentially, in three periods: 1971-72, 1982-83, 1995-96. In 1982-83 and 1995-96, I did translation work after completing a book. Doing translations helped me reenergize and consider what to work on next. In 1982, the Wen I-to helped me envision how to broaden and deepen a poem. That translation work helped me look forward. However, in 1995, the Li Ho, Pa-ta-shan-jen, and Li Shang-yin poems that were transformational and challengingwere done almost in hindsight.
Seiferle: You note that you have included only those translations which you consider finished. How do you know when a translation is finished? What conveys that feeling of satisfaction?
Sze: A translation will nag at me if it is unfinished. I will read or reread it and recognize that some essential element is clumsy or inadequate or missing. I'll put it aside, brood on it, and come back when I can write with intensity and clarity. There are some translations that I abandon: I've done my best but I'm dissatisfied. Those translations I'm happy to toss. Others, over time, feel more and more alive. I think it's the same with poems.
Seiferle: Are you at work now upon other translations? Your later translations have been Li Ho and Li Shang-Yin, both as you describe extremely challenging and condensed and writing a poetry full of allusions. Is this the direction in which your interest still tends?
Sze: I'm not working on any translations at the moment. However, I am reading a lot of Taiwanese poetry and am going to co-edit a feature on contemporary Taiwanese poetry, with Michelle Yeh, for Manoa. I'll be going to Taiwan in the fall to read at the international poetry festival.
In terms of my own poetry, I'm interested in writing sequences that braid together lyric, dramatic, and narrative strands. There are moments that are disorienting and challenging, but they are part of the process of re-envisioning the world.
Some of my new sequences begin with elegy and end with ode; this is nothing new; the structure is as old as poetry itself, but the particular path or journey is very contemporary.