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Well-Traveled Path: An Interview with Arthur Sze

When I first had the idea of asking Arthur Sze to talk about his time teaching and directing the creative writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), I was hesitant. He rarely goes beyond the brief facts when discussing the IAIA in interviews or readings. Yet I knew there was a story to be told. I knew the road to building an academic program is demanding, and I know how exhausting it is to work within tribal institutions as that generally entails dealing with federal agencies and numerous other regulatory constraints. I wanted to know how this little-known, poorly-funded, former Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school continues to rise and produce some of the best Indigenous writers in the United States. Where did its lifeblood come from? After he agreed to the interview, he revealed that he had been asked several times to do interviews about the IAIA but refused. To my honor, he said he waited for a Native person to make that request.

Arthur and his poetry are known throughout the world. His poetry reflects a teaching approach I remember as a poetry student of his during my time at the IAIA from 1992 to 1995. He carries a gentle excitement of language within him, and when you are ready, he is eager to offer instruction and encouragement. Just as luminescent as his imagery, able to travel from microscopic to galactic, he worked to teach Native American students writing at a time when other institutions were adding to the stereotype that Indians can’t write. Arthur’s teaching, directing, and leadership worked against those barriers, a three-strand braid that remains a legacy at the IAIA.

Esther Belin: I am so happy that we have a chance to talk about the IAIA. Thank you for allowing me to have this exclusive interview! When you came out to the Southwest, what were the steps that eventually landed you a job at the Institute of American Indian Arts? I’m interested to hear about how year one turned into year twenty-two. What held you to stay with and develop the creative writing program at the IAIA?

Arthur Sze: I moved to Santa Fe in 1972 and worked in the New Mexico Poetry-in-the-Schools program from 1973 to 1983. During that decade, I worked as a visiting poet in public schools all over the state and particularly enjoyed working with Native students. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Phil Foss, the director of the creative writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, periodically invited me to visit his poetry workshop, where I read my poems and responded to student writing. In the spring of 1984, there was a faculty opening, and, along with enthusiastic support from the students, Phil wanted to hire me. At that time, the Institute was part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and I met with the president, Jon Wade. Jon said that there were two major obstacles to bringing me on board. First, the Institute had a hiring policy with preference for Native American applicants, and, second, I did not have a graduate degree, but Jon maneuvered through the BIA bureaucracy and created a position called “Permanent Intermittent.” This position did not guarantee, from semester to semester, any classes or benefits. I applied, was hired, and joined Phil Foss and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge as the third creative writing faculty member. Little did I know that five years later I would become the head of the program.

From 1984 to 2006 I taught at the IAIA and can divide my time there into two segments. From 1984 to 1989, Phil was the director of the program and taught all the poetry workshops. I taught other courses in the curriculum, including Linguistics, Playwriting I, and English Composition II. I had to be creative in my approach, because I had little formal training in those areas. Those years were marked by continual erosion of funding under the BIA, poor management, and low morale. The 1988–89 academic year was the nadir where, after years of budget cuts, the Institute had less than a hundred students and teetered on the brink of extinction. Yet, 1988 was also the year that Congress created a new mandate for the college and pulled the Institute out of the BIA. In the spring of 1989, disgusted by lack of institutional support, Phil resigned. At graduation, I was the only faculty member left in the creative writing program. Although it was a very dark time, I also had a vision of what that two-year, junior college Associate of Arts degree program could be.

I talked to the administration and became the new director. Over the following years, I rebuilt the program by hiring faculty, rewriting the curriculum, building a strong visiting writers component, and overseeing the arduous path of expanding the Associate of Arts degree into a full-fledged, four-year Bachelor of Fine Arts undergraduate degree program. During those difficult, transitional years, I never wavered in my commitment to working with Native students of all ages, from eighteen to eighty, and from so many tribes across the United States. From my very first visits to the IAIA, I recognized that the students were remarkably talented and had enormous potential. I was excited at the opportunity to teach at the IAIA, and though I used a lot of my energy as a teacher, I also learned a lot, and that exchange was enriching and kept me committed. By 2005, when I was traveling a lot for my own poetry, it no longer seemed fair to the students to be in class one week and on the road the next. The creative writing faculty at that time included Jon Davis and Evelina Zuni Lucero. In August, I submitted a resignation letter to the dean, Ann Filemyr, and told her I wanted to give the Institute a year to do a proper search for a replacement. Ann responded by saying that I had done so much for the students and the creative writing program that she wouldn’t let me leave like that. She petitioned the Board that I be recognized as a professor emeritus, and I left the IAIA with that title in May 2006.

EB: You hit on several significant qualities about the IAIA, most notably that it originated as an Indian boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That history is often unknown and misunderstood. BIA-funded programs generally receive poor oversight and funding with regular staff turnover. I was a student at the IAIA in the aftermath of BIA control so I felt the impact of that dark time. I know the frustration from a student level but just hearing your side of the story, I have so much gratitude for you. I need to tell you that the energy you spent and the struggle you endured was worth it for the students. Today, the creative writing program is solid because of your vision. I am a little weepy thinking about how difficult a time it was for you. So thank you. Now let’s back up. If you divide your time at the IAIA into two segments, is there anything important in the years from 1984 to 1989 that helped set up the program’s later fruition?

AS: During that period, Phil Foss, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and I worked well together. After years of publishing student anthologies, Phil was excited about starting an international literary journal, Tyuonyi, and Mei-mei and I were two of its contributing editors. Tyuonyi is a Keres word that is the name of the great kiva at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. It means “the meeting place.” Phil envisioned the literary journal as a meeting place for diverse poetries and poetics. In working on the literary journal, Phil and I clarified our own poetics. He also applied successfully to the National Endowment for the Arts for Writers-in-Residence grants. Those funds enabled visiting writers to support the creative writing program through one-week residencies. Some of the poets who came included Ray A. Young Bear, Nathaniel Mackey, and Anne Waldman. After her residency, Anne found financial support at Naropa University to create a scholarship for one IAIA creative writing major to attend the Summer Writing Program each summer. Mei-mei was also involved in selecting poets who read at the local Center for Contemporary Arts, and she helped arrange visits by Barbara Guest, Ann Lauterbach, and Michael Palmer, among others. In many ways, those years were crucial seed time. Although I was not consciously thinking about how I could expand and deepen what was there, I knew the program so well that, later, I was able to quickly expand on what was present in nascent form.

EB: Those are giant steps forward to build up a small writing program. Tell me more about the kinds of specific things you did to build the program. How did you expand the visiting writers program?

AS: After I became director of the creative writing program in 1989, I encountered an arduous, zigzag building process. For the 1989–90 academic year, I had only two months to find and hire someone to take the open faculty position. I reached out and hired Jim Sagel, a fiction writer and poet who taught part-time at the University of New Mexico in Los Alamos. He only taught for one year at the IAIA, and then I hired Jon Davis the following year. Together we started to build the creative writing program. Over those years, I drew on my experience from 1984 to 1989 to build a strong visiting writers program, where some writers made a single class visit, while other writers came for a one-week residency that included a reading, two class visits, and hours and hours of individual conferences mentoring creative writing majors. I selected poets who were generous with their time and willing to work very hard at giving feedback to student writing. With support from the Lannan Foundation, the visiting writers component grew and, in my opinion, became instrumental to the IAIA creative writing program’s success. Some of the poets who came for one-week residencies included Joy Harjo, Leslie Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Sherman Alexie. Other poets who came for individual class visits included N. Scott Momaday, Linda Hogan, Simon Ortiz, Gerald Vizenor, Duane Niatum, Quincy Troupe, Robert Creeley, Marilyn Chin, and Charles Simic. Jay Wright, John Yau, C.D. Wright, Forrest Gander, and many others came for one-week residencies and worked tirelessly day after day doing individual conferences with students. I envisioned these conferences as an opportunity for mentorship, and I believed they were also opportunities for each creative writing student to receive feedback on their budding poetry. The IAIA was a two-year college then, and Gerald, who was teaching at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was a liaison when two students, Irvin Morris and RoseMary Diaz, were accepted and transferred in as juniors at UCSC. At one point Simon Ortiz surprised me by making a significant personal donation to support the visiting writers series, and this component flourished and generated intense excitement among the students. When Lannan Foundation invited me to curate the first year of a Readings & Conversations series at SITE Santa Fe, I brought those writers to my classes. Derek Walcott visited my poetry workshop and loved the students. After his visit, Derek shared two important insights: first, in his experience, anthologies of American literature tended to start with Anne Bradstreet, but he believed that those anthologies needed to start with a generous selection of Native American poetry and shift the canon; second, Derek said to me that because the path of a poet was arduous, he always thought there was someone behind the poet who affirmed that poetry was worth doing. For him it was his mother; for me, it was Josephine Miles, when I was a student at the University of California, Berkeley. In many ways, I tried to be that person for beginning poets at the IAIA and pass that gift along.

EB: It’s a remarkable group of poets that you brought to the IAIA. I don’t know of many undergraduate programs in the country where creative writing students would have an opportunity to meet with and work with such poets. You mentioned Derek Walcott’s insight about the program. I wonder what other insights you received from poets about the uniqueness of this program.

AS: All of the visiting poets were impressed by the diversity and depth of life experience the Native students had. I remember Jay Wright said he needed more time than I had allotted to respond to the complexity of the students’ work, and he worked tirelessly. John Yau said he thought the students were very talented, and that it was wonderful they were not self-conscious and did not know how good their poetry was.

EB: I think that is still true that there is an untapped reservoir of  Indigenous writing and stories. I want to focus now on your teaching experience there. What was your approach, then, to teaching poetry at a Native American (Indian boarding) school?

AS: My approach to teaching at the Institute was to respect students for who they were, to gain their trust, and to inspire them to discover what they could do with language. In the early, precarious days, classes were small, ranging from four to nine students, and I was able to focus on each student. The students had raw, amazing life experiences—some very dark and tragic, some very joyful—and they were able to draw on this depth of experience when they wrote. They frequently did not have the mechanics of writing down, but I prioritized creative exploration in language. In 1989, when I took over the poetry workshop, I realized very quickly that if I told students to just write and bring in poems each week, the results were very disappointing. So I experimented with different approaches. I tried to affirm the importance of approaching poetry with a Native perspective or “spin.” I asked students to use, when needed, words from their Native language that were untranslatable into English. I invited students to consider how Native syntax or lack of verb tense could become strengths and not weaknesses to their writing. I emphasized that writing poetry couldn’t be taught, but that I could share with them a series of writing prompts that could help them evolve and grow. I also asked many students to put aside their preconception of what a poem might be and to just write with the recognition that words were powerful, that urgency in language mattered.

EB: Yes, I loved the approach of your poetry workshops. The coerced education methods of the BIA were so traumatic. It makes sense that Indian students needed to reconcile their relationship to higher education and figure out how writing could be part of that healing process. I still think about the work that came out of those poetry workshops, those stories. Looking back, you were using a trauma-informed practice before it even had a name. I appreciated that approach very much because as Indian people, we carry intergenerational trauma from federal Indian policies which manifests in many different ways. I wonder how the legacy of the school (in art, fashion, theater, creative writing) influenced your approach or development of the creative writing program?

AS: Because the Institute had an essential emphasis on the arts and on Native culture, I decided to build the curriculum with that in mind, and I took unexpected approaches. In the beginning, when I had to teach Linguistics, I had to transform that course and make it my own. I developed the class using classical Chinese poetry as the core. For the first six weeks, I introduced students, character by character, to a poem by an ancient Chinese poet. I used poems by Zhang Ji, Li Bai, Wang Wei, Du Fu, Han Shan, and Li He. I not only wrote out each Chinese character but also clusters of words in English under each character. In each class I talked about sound, rhythm, image, and the essentials of poetry. I showed students how the 214 radicals or root elements to the language moved from simplicity toward complexity, how Chinese characters embodied juxtaposition, and how a few Chinese characters even incorporated metaphor through juxtaposition. I shared different translations in English of the same Chinese poem, so that students could see variations and also have the original poem with a skeletal translation at hand. The students were excited and began thinking about how the Chinese language connected or didn’t connect to their own Native languages, and the class became foundational in furthering their creative process and evolution as poets.

When it came to the larger picture of developing a four-year curriculum, I added in a text/image class, where a creative writing student worked with a student in another discipline or themselves worked in a second genre so that poetry and photography, or poetry and printmaking, for instance, would work hand in hand. And as I developed the BFA degree program, I reversed the normal literature sequencing. Instead of starting literature with a historical perspective by starting with, say, Shakespeare, and then moving forward in time, I did the opposite. I made students start with contemporary literature—contemporary poetry, contemporary fiction, contemporary plays—because I knew that Native students needed, first and foremost, to connect to literary works through intense, immediate experience. After that initial excitement took hold, students were then willing to go back in time and learn from and draw on the tradition. Another important aspect was to foreground Native American literature and make that class foundational and required. And I need to add that I did not do this in isolation. It was a huge group effort. When Kathryn Tijerina became president of the IAIA after the institute separated from the BIA, and funding was greatly enhanced, I was able to hire many new faculty. At one point, the creative writing faculty included Gloria Bird, William S. Yellow Robe Jr., Elizabeth Woody, Barney Bush, Jon Davis, and Julie Shigekuni.

EB: The emphasis on Native American and contemporary literature makes sense. What are some of the unique experiences about teaching at a tribal college?

AS: During my twenty-two years of teaching at the IAIA, I probably worked with students from two hundred tribes across the United States. In the beginning, it was very disheartening to see a student from one tribe speak or act belligerently toward a student from another tribe. In those days I especially had to act with deep attention and cultural sensitivity. Over time Native students started to work together and support each other, and their cultural differences became a source of creative energy.

Some of my most exciting teaching experiences happened by surprise in the classroom. I remember one day James Thomas Stevens came into class and said that he thought one of the great mysteries to art was the disparity between “intention” and “effect.” Another time I remember Allison Adelle Hedge Coke wrote a poem in Lakota that ended with a line in English, “I knew him well.” When I pointed this out, Allison said, “That’s interesting. In Lakota I was enacting a farewell ceremony, and when the ceremony was completed, I switched into English without realizing it.” When Sherwin Bitsui transferred from a community college in Arizona to the IAIA, he showed me some of his poems and said that his teachers in Arizona were baffled by his work. I took one look and realized that he was describing an out-of-balance world, and I encouraged him to run with it. And there were also unforgettable, painful episodes. I remember one student who shot himself and returned to class after recovering in the hospital. When I asked him what happened, he described a self-loathing where “I had to shoot someone or shoot myself.” I mention this latter incident, because it would be easy to glorify Native cultural differences and gloss over difficulties. The IAIA was not a normative college! My experience of working with students at the IAIA was often gritty, and moments of success were hard earned. While an astonishing number of creative writing students have gone on to publish books and are doing well as poets, it’s important to recognize that sometimes an unforgettable moment was when a student who had been silent for over two months of class—I was very patient and figured he would start talking when he was ready—suddenly started talking and wouldn’t stop.

EB: One of the many reasons I encourage students to attend the IAIA is because of the opportunity to work through those gritty moments with writing. I find that we share similar experiences in regard to moments of knowing and learning from the students. When I went to the IAIA, it was the first time the majority of my classmates were Native, which created a safe space for me to grow as a writer. For people who are unaware of the Native American experience and the colliding effects of federal policies, the intensity can be overwhelming. It is not a small order to teach in a tribal college. How did your time at the IAIA influence your writing?

AS: My time at the IAIA was formative for my own writing as well as for my students. Teaching Native students who had such a range and depth of experience helped me explore and expand my own range as a poet. When I encouraged students to draw on their Native cultures, I dug deep into my own Chinese literary culture. In turning the Linguistics class into the Poetic Image class, I deepened my experience of Chinese poetry by teaching it each year and asking myself what I could write that drew on but was not bound by that tradition. In that class, I also turned to classic Japanese poetry in English translation and used examples of tanka, haiku, haibun, and renku. It took many years, but I have utilized all of those forms in my own poetry.

In addition, specific poems were inspired by students. While teaching there, I tried not to write about any of the students, but, after I left in 2006, I decided to write a long sequence inspired by the IAIA. One of the writing prompts I gave beginning students was to pick a term from an astronomy glossary and use that word or phrase as the title and guiding principle to a poem. I thought of the IAIA as a field of energy, as a star, and as each star in the night sky has its own unique signature of light, I wrote a sequence, in nine sections, “Spectral Line.” At the center of that poem, I wrote out a catalog of Native tribes. Each year, at the IAIA graduation, it was customary to say the name of each graduating student and then name their tribe. I thought of students I had had the privilege to work with and, instead of listing their literal names, I substituted the names of their tribes so that the catalog became a roll call. The central section became a spine to the sequence. So my time at the IAIA inspired specific poems as well as the evolution of my own poetics.

EB: What are some interesting notables about Indigenous approaches to poetics?

AS: There are many notables. The key is for young poets to personalize language and make it their own. In exploring Indigenous approaches to poetry, I believe some fertile areas include the destabilization of norms, where nouns can become verbs, or where sound, rhythm, and syntax are influenced by a Native perspective and subtext. There are overt possibilities in structure, where a poem harnesses naming or enacts a ceremony. These are important approaches that enrich all of contemporary American poetry.

EB: When I look at graduates of the creative writing program, I’m interested in the fact that there are so many and that their writing does not sound the same. Do you have any thoughts about this?

AS: To the best of my knowledge, there are fourteen of my former students from the IAIA who have each gone on to publish one or more books of poetry. It’s important to point out that this is an undergraduate BFA, not a graduate MFA, program. (The IAIA developed an MFA program in 2013.) If I list everyone’s names, including, of course, you, I come up with: Crisosto Apache, Tacey Atsitty, Esther Belin, Sherwin Bitsui, Laura Da', RoseMary Diaz, Santee Frazier, Jennifer Elise Foerster, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Layli Long Soldier, dg nanouk okpik, Sara Ortiz, James Thomas Stevens, and Orlando White. If we include published fiction writers, we need to add Eddie Chuculate and Irvin Morris. If we include playwriting/theater, we need to add Terry Gomez, Cathy Tagnak Rexford, and Kirsten Wilson. Finally, if we include journalism, we need to add Tristan Ahtone. Oftentimes graduates of a particular creative writing program sound like a writer they studied with, but I am particularly heartened by the fact that these writers do not sound like me. They sound like themselves. And, as I’ve said, this success was a group effort. In addition to the other creative writing faculty, all of the visiting writers made contributions that enabled this blossoming to happen. I am glad to have contributed to this success.

Originally Published: July 1st, 2022

A Diné (Navajo) multimedia artist and writer, Esther Belin grew up in Los Angeles, California. She is a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts and the University of California, Berkeley. Her first book of poetry, From the Belly of My Beauty (1999), won the American Book Award from...

Arthur Sze was born in New York City in 1950, and educated at the University of California-Berkeley. Known for his difficult, meticulous poems, Sze’s work has been described as the “intersection of Taoist contemplation, Zen rock gardens and postmodern experimentation” by the critic John Tritica. The poet Dana Levin described...

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