Among 11 books over the course of 50 years, Arthur Sze has woven thousands of words together to create poetry.
It’s a journey that continues to evolve for the Santa Fe-based poet.
Over the half-century, Sze has seen the growth of not only his process, but his inspiration.
His work began with a firm directness.
Today, the prose is more nuanced, rounded out and has an exciting rhythm. His process now includes hunkering down in his writing studio just outside of his Santa Fe home.
When he speaks, one can hear the joy emanate from within.
“I’m still excited about writing poems,” says the 72-year-old poet. “There’s a shine and excitement of creating with language. It’s very humbling. When I’m staring at a blank page, I know anything is possible.”
Sze was awarded the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which is given out by the Poetry Foundation in October.
In recognition of Poetry magazine’s 110th anniversary, the Poetry Foundation decided to award 11 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prizes in 2022.
According to the foundation, it is the greatest prize amount that the foundation has ever awarded to a cohort of living poets at one time.
“We’re celebrating 110 years of Poetry magazine this year, and approaching 20 years of the Poetry Foundation in 2023. We wanted to do something special to mark these milestones by honoring an outstanding cohort of writers whose work has brought comfort and inspiration to so many,” said Michelle T. Boone, Poetry Foundation president. “Poetry shows us the way forward, and there is no poetry without the imagination and talent of those behind the pen.”
Honored alongside Sze is Sandra Cisneros, CAConrad, Rita Dove, Nikki Giovanni, Juan Felipe Herrera, Angela Jackson, Haki R. Madhubuti, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez and Patti Smith.
“This came as a total surprise,” Sze says of the award. “I’m excited and grateful because it was recognized for my lifetime achievement.”
Each winner was awarded $100,000.
His most recent book, “The Glass Constellation: New and Collected Poems and Sight Lines,” won a National Book Award for poetry in 2019.
Sze says the book feels like a life journey and he is humbled that he gets to look back at his evolution in poetry.
A creature of habit, he wakes up hours before the sun rises and heads into his writing studio.
“I have a rhythm of writing,” he says. “First thing in the morning, I literally get up and head to the studio. I never know what’s going to happen when I start writing. It’s important to be disciplined. Writing as early as I do, it’s kind of a dream time. I’m starting to wake up for the day and all the thoughts are fresh and new.”
Working with words can be difficult, and sometimes, they just don’t fit.
Sze says he will back up when it happens and put the poetry aside.
“I tell myself that I save drafts,” he says. “I do that because sometimes there’s a phrase or seed in the writing that needs time to grow. If I give it a little bit of time, I can see the direction. You can’t force writing. As a writer, you know when you’re forcing it.”
Sze, who is Chinese American, has found his home in Santa Fe, as he moved to the area after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley.
“I had never been to New Mexico before,” he says. “I got a job as a poet in the schools. I loved being inside the classroom.”
Sze’s influences continue to come from everywhere – mostly his travels.
“I was invited to Lithuania recently and it was my first time in Eastern Europe and I met refugee poets from Belarus and Ukraine,” he says. “This last summer my wife, Carol Moldaw, went to Maui for a project. The only requirement was to write every day. I was influenced by the flora and fauna. It was really powerful for me.”
Sze says he feels responsible to use the prize money well.
“I’ll do some travel to get some more research in,” he says. “The implications are various.”