Surely you’ve heard tell of Santa Fe poet Arthur Sze? Why, he’s one of the most prolific and appreciated poets of his time with nearly a dozen books under his belt, a slew of accolades and, most recently, a spot as one of the winners of the 2022 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize—an honor celebrating lifetime achievement that comes with a $100,000 gift. In other words, Sze knows words and he knows the human condition. That’s why we thought it would be kind of fun to bug him about his work, his prestigious prize win and what happens now for such a celebrated wordsmith. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What have the last few years been for a creative type such as yourself?
Obviously, because of COVID, the normal social interactions have been disrupted and reconfigured. In my case, it has made me go out into nature more. I’m living on Upper Canyon [Road] and I’m part of the Acequia del Llano Association, a kind of collective where everyone cleans their section of the ditch, so even at a distance, people have been working together. Of course, I can write in my studio at any time, so I’m not as affected by COVID, but it has pushed me out more into nature. I’d been traveling a lot, so staying put made me pay greater attention to what’s right around me, which is really wonderful. But that’s one of the things poetry does—one thing it can do is awaken the reader to miracles that are right at hand. Not traveling across the country doing readings, but just getting up and walking, hunting mushrooms, working with the aceuqia...has made me look inward more deeply and attentively.
With a prize like this that accentuates lifetime achievement, how do you feel it punctuates your career? Is it a semicolon?
I think the semicolon is a nice way of expressing it. On the one hand, I’m grateful to receive the award. It’s coming a year after The Glass Constellation, which is my 11th book and it collects all of my poetry after 50 years of writing. It is wonderful to achieve this, but I also feel, in addition to the excitement, a strong sense of responsibility to continue to evolve, to continue to grow. There’s this sense for me that I can’t ever stand still and say, ‘Look at what I’ve done.’ I want to keep writing and growing and creating. This is great up to now, what can I do next, how can I continue to evolve?
For me, one of the great things is I’m really as excited about writing today as I was 50 years ago when I started out. When I’m writing early in the morning, anything can happen on the blank page. I feel like I’m continually discovering.
Interestingly, most of my best poems in my experience, when I finish them, I feel a sense of exhaustion. I’ll think I’ve done everything I can do and if I keep going, I’m just going to muck it up. I have to let it go. That’s a really good sign. In my early years, I would have elation. Now I know that’s a bad sign, that you’re stepping out of the process too soon…you’re already evaluating. But it’s never perfect, it’s never complete, I let it go. Part of that which is imperfect is what keeps the writer going.
Poetry seems a solitary pursuit. Do you find yourself amped up after gallivanting with a cohort of peers like you did recently at the awarding of the Ruth Lilly Prize?
I mean, writing is solitary, obviously, and [when I was teaching] I used to tell my students it’s the terror of the blank page. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done before—you’re facing a blank page and you have to create from scratch, and there’s a sense of terror to that. It is solitary, and I have to go into the deepest part of myself; I have to think of a poem as language at its most intense and essential and putting the most emotional torque behind the language I can. On the other hand, all artists come together—the painter in the studio, the poet writing, the composer. It’s collaborative work in the sense that we’re trying to make our small contribution to the culture.
When I meet other poets, there is oftentimes a sense of camaraderie. They...know what it’s like working so many arduous hours writing. That can be fun, but...the spark might be just walking in the street and seeing something, witnessing something, hearing something—thinking there’s a musical phrase to that image; an incident I’ve witnessed. Talking with other artists is fun, but I don’t feel like I can’t wait to write off of something like that. My ritual is to make a Thermos of coffee in the evening and to write first thing in the morning—it’s early, 5 to 7, when I’m not fully awake, when I’m still in dreamtime. I can’t be too intellectual, I don’t quite know what’s going on. That’s my most fertile period, and I need to give myself that window every day. Some mornings, nothing will happen, and that’s OK. Others, that two hours has flown by. I’m giving myself that space each morning.