Amy: Your new book of poems is The Ginkgo Light. Many of the poems in the book feel panoramic to me. Diverse speakers cast their eyes over various landscapes, in many different senses of the word. The poems contain geographical landscapes of natural scenery; domestic landscapes that illustrate dynamics between lovers or family members; internal landscapes of varying emotional and cultural perspectives. What do “landscapes” mean to you, for your work? Can you talk a little about how you’ve come to consider such a wide variety of cultures in your poems?
Arthur: In Chinese landscape painting, there is often an enormous mountain with sheer cliffs, a waterfall, mist, gnarled branches of pine trees, rocks, a stream, and, often, in the corner, a tiny human figure. I feel very small in the larger scheme of things, but, I want to say that I’m interested in landscape as a kind of “inscape.” Gerard Manley Hopkins once called “inscape” a kind of revelatory signature that gives each thing its uniqueness. While I’m interested in looking out and exploring connections that form the web of our natural world, I’m also interested in domestic landscapes and emotional, interior landscapes. I’m looking out, but I’m also looking in; and the landscapes inside of oneself are enormous and continually shifting. I need to add that landscape in my poetry is not an abstract, intellectual enterprise. If you have ever visited New Mexico, you are quickly struck by the dazzling light and vast range of panoramic views. From my studio windows, I see a neighbor’s organic farm to the southwest; the Jemez Mountains, with Los Alamos situated on a mesa top, about twenty miles to the west; and the badlands of Pojoaque Pueblo land immediately to the north. I experience this astonishing landscape of northern New Mexico every day, and it’s had a vital impact on my work.
In response to your question of how a wide variety of cultures have found their way into my poems, I need to say that it evolved over time. In the beginning, I wanted to be able to read the great Tang poems in the original Chinese, and, in order to do that, I not only had to learn Chinese characters, but I had to steep myself in Chinese cultural thinking. In 1972, when I moved to Santa Fe, I was exposed to a great variety of cultures and cultural viewpoints I had never encountered before. From 1974-84, I worked in the New Mexico poetry-in-the-schools program and worked on many reservations and in many Spanish-speaking communities. For the next two decades, I taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts and was in daily contact with Native peoples from over 100 tribes. During this time, I also became friends with a visual anthropologist who made a film on Japanese tea ceremony, a particle physicist who worked on string theory, a composer who drew on a wide range of musical rhythms, another anthropologist who translated from Zuni and from the Mayan, and so on. Over time, discussions with people working in different disciplines inspired me. Like it or not, our contemporary world is complex, and different cultural traditions are interacting and influencing each other daily. Cultural parallax and shifts are a part of my world, and they have clearly informed my work.
As a final point, I want to add that personal travel has also been a catalyst. In 1990, my short one-month travel in Japan had enormous impact. In Japan I saw so many things from China that were imaginatively transformed to become part of the Japanese aesthetic that I realized I could, as a poet, also imaginatively draw on different traditions to honor them but also to create something new.
Amy: Some of the longer poems in the book are in numbered sections and feel associative, as if they are mosaics. Several of the sections in the title poem are composed entirely of juxtapositions of seemingly unrelated phrases and images. For example:
A seven-year-old clips magenta lilacs for her mother;
“electrocuted tagging a substation”;
patter of rain on skylight;
manta rays feed along a lit underwater cove;
The semi-colons feel very significant in these sections. These images are separate, as if they are independent clauses, and yet still related enough to be strung together in one sentence. How do you approach putting together these odd combinations of images and phrases?
Arthur: The fragmented sections in my sequences are extremely difficult to compose, and I’m searching to balance “rigor” and “spontaneity.” Although the fragments are associative, they also epistemologically explore notions of causality and connection. I am using semi-colons, because, as you say, the independent clauses feel related, even though it may be difficult to articulate how. When I develop sections with fragments, I’m consciously trying to collage different tonalities, to employ a range of diction, and to introduce moments of stillness and disorientation so that a deeper form of re-envisioning and reorientation can occur. By writing the fragments without thinking of a linear narrative, by thinking of the poem, instead, as a field of energy, I am free to explore “charged moments.”
For the passage you’ve quoted, I worked for a month and had a page of phrases, which I cut out with scissors and physically moved around. I discovered that if I kept all of the phrases in one section, they stopped the momentum of the poem. I then decided to separate the phrases into two groups and suspend linear logic and narrative; but I realized that some fragments had a very clear connection, while others were more baffling. In section 2, a few lines below what you quote, is:
“seducing a patient,
he did not anticipate plummeting into an abyss;”
This fragment is later picked up in section 4 with
“he stressed rational inquiry
then drove south into the woods, put a gun to his head;”
These fragments make sense in terms of cause (“seducing a patient,” …) and ultimate effect (“he … put a gun to his head”), but I chose to separate them in time and space. In the other phrases that you’ve quoted, key thematic elements—an act of giving back, from daughter to mother; the intention to create graffiti art leads to an unforeseen effect, electrocution; transient sounds of the phenomenal world; the continuance and adaptation of species in the natural world where humans have exerted their presence—are introduced which are explored in the larger poem.
Another way to approach these fragments is to think of them as clusters of notes in a larger musical composition. When you listen to Thelonius Monk, there are clusters of sound that first appear “displaced” or out of alignment, but, fragmented as they are, they charge the overall texture of the music and, after several listenings, it is clear they are integral and essential to the piece. I envision my fragmented sections in a similar way.
Amy: I particularly enjoyed the effect of these surprising, and sometimes challenging, juxtapositions of images in your longer poems. I felt like you were tweaking the “lyric” (in the traditional sense). Your lyrics seem to be a combination of extended meditations and short, fragmented hieroglyphics. Would you describe your poems as lyric poems or as something else entirely?
Arthur: I am writing lyric poems and am also consciously trying to enlarge the terrain of the contemporary lyric. In my sequences, I am braiding lyric, dramatic, and narrative elements and harnessing them to a great variety of structures—from a Native American ceremony (“Archipelago”) to the ripening of a persimmon (“Six Persimmons”) to the signature of light from a star (“Spectral Line”)—to create flexible, sustained lyrics. The sequence is the form of our time: cinematic, and fluidly capable of shifting place and time. If I employ fragments to disrupt linear causation and narration, I nevertheless do not abandon narrative. I’m often interested in braiding several narratives together to create a polysemous weave.
Amy: One of the poems in the book is entitled “Qualia”. The word qualia is the plural of quale, which is a property (such as a color) considered apart from the things that have that property. The poem considers terms like “oviparous” and “red”, dissociates them from physical objects in the world, and avers that “no chart can depict how imagination unfolds, endlessly branching.” How does poetry help us cross the border between the physical world and the imagination?
Arthur: I believe that, through language, poetry interfaces between the physical world of the body and the imaginative world of the mind. Reading a poem aloud is an intensely physical act: one intimately experiences the sounds, rhythms, and silences, and the force of language can, to quote Emily Dickinson, take the top of one’s head off. I view the border between the physical world of the body and the imaginative world of the mind as endlessly porous. Although it has been said that poetry makes nothing happen, poetry dissolves boundaries; it not only helps us unify our bodies and minds, it enables us to live more deeply and connect more profoundly with each other and with the world around us.