VICTORIA CHANG: I’ve read all of Tracy K. Smith’s books in the past, so I wasn’t sure what kind of new reading experience that I was going to have with her New and Selected. It turns out, though, that reading Smith’s body of work in this way was such an enriching experience. I was able to see where her work started, how it has evolved, and also to discern patterns over a 21-year-long career of writing and publishing. Perhaps a good place to start might be to ask you what your reading experience was like.
DEAN RADER: With Such Color, I did something out of the ordinary: I actually started reading the book at the opening poem! Then, even more bizarrely, I proceeded to read each poem chronologically, one after the other. That might not seem radical, but for me it is. I never read a book of poems linearly. I just sort of dip in here and there. In the case of Smith, I had read her other books out of order. So, I thought I owed it to the “selected poems” project to travel through her poems as she laid them out and see if I could map some sort of evolution (to use your word) of her poems’ terrain.
I do think revisiting her work in this way made me see individual poems and her body of work through a more nuanced lens — her poems become more overtly political for one thing — but I’m eager to hear what patterns you noticed.
VICTORIA: I really love reading books starting at the first poem, in order, as the author wanted me to. I remember that the poet David Baker once asked a table of us who started at the beginning of a book and I was one of those people, but there were plenty of rebel flippers like yourself! I would have taken you as more like me versus a flipper, so this is surprising to me.
Something you and I discuss sometimes is the power of the singular memorable poem (e.g., Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song,” Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas,” or Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” to name a few), and how these poems tend to get anthologized and thus remembered, shared, etc. Then there’s the full-length book that might be memorable, and there are so many that I hesitate to mention even a few: Terrance Hayes’s Lighthead, Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec, Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, etc.
What I find interesting about Smith’s Such Color is that the book gave me a greater appreciation for a more constellated reading experience, that is accretive over time, due to the consistency of Smith’s writing. I was struck by how reliably skilled Smith’s writing is, from the very first book, The Body’s Question (2003). As someone who stumbled into poetry, stumbled around, and currently stumbles, I was impressed by how mature Smith’s first book was in terms of both the thinking and the writing. There’s already so much wisdom too, despite the clearly searching speaker: “We want so much, / When perhaps we live best / In the spaces between loves,” she writes in “A Hunger So Honed.” And again in “Fire Escape Fantasy,” she writes:
This century was not designed to be felt. Still, I test
Like a girl determined to break herself apart.
Success must hurt. Must yield sharp evidence.
I’ll have to lie to get to it.
Smith’s writing and thinking remains at this level throughout the collection and thus there’s a similarity across the collections. I’m not sure if I’m meant to focus on any particular singular poem, but instead, I feel a collective haze of excellence when I’m done reading. There are different themes that change, obviously, like the one you alluded to in terms of how the poems seem to be increasingly political, but the consistency of the writing and the consistency of the quality of the writing is something that I noticed.
Do you think certain kinds of poets (and their body of work) can be perhaps friendlier to the new and selected format? Obviously, there are also new and collecteds and essentials, and various permutations of these kinds of books. And going even higher, what do you think are the purposes of these kinds of collections?
DEAN: Wow, those are good, big questions!
Yes, I think you and I are both intrigued by the canonical contemporary poem; in fact, a few years ago, I wrote about this very topic, but I have come to believe that — despite the fact that Twitter and Instagram have made this an age of the poem — there may actually be more iconic contemporary books than iconic contemporary poems. Lighthead and Citizen are great examples. I would add collections like The Lice, This Branch Will Not Break, The Country Between Us, She Had Some Horses. What stellar books! Life on Mars by Smith may be destined for this list as well.
But back to your questions: yes, I totally agree that there are poets whose work lends itself to a “New and Selected.” I really liked Monument, Natasha Trethewey’s new and selected, as well as Cell Traffic, the new and selected by Heid E. Erdrich. I thought From the New World, the Jorie Graham selected that came out a few years ago, was spectacular. When done well, you can see how a poet’s work evolves across their many collections. However, as you say, there are poets whose books are books (not just an assemblage of poems). For these poets, breaking the books up and shoehorning them into a selected might actually do the poems a disservice. Your last three books, for example, are their best selves as books. I’m not sure much is gained by pulling out a few poems from Barbie Chang or Obit or The Boss — though all are great books. I love those books! By the way, I totally agree with you about Claudia Rankine — I’m not sure a selected poems does her work justice. You need all of Citizen.
And then there are poets for whom a slim selected feels just right. Last year, in these very pages, I posited that the new selected poems of Lucille Clifton might be better than the huge Collected Poems. In the smaller book, her gems shine more brightly — they don’t get lost in the warehouse of her entire oeuvre. Similarly, I’d love a well-curated selected of Charles Wright; Oblivion Banjo is too much of the same.
In the case of Smith, I suspect Such Color will appeal to someone who has read one or two of her poems or who has heard her fine podcast, The Slowdown (the podcast is currently being curated by Ada Limon), and is curious about her work. I also imagine a reader who bought Life on Mars but who is not particularly interested in tracking down or cannot afford to purchase her other books. Speaking of, I went back and looked at each individual book by Smith and compared that to what is provided in Such Color. In my mind, she and Graywolf did an excellent job. The selections from each book are representative of the thematics and formal gestures of the books themselves. My favorite poem by her is “History,” from her second book. That poem is utterly memorable and wonderfully ambitious. But, I’m not sure it is more memorable than Life on Mars. I mean that book is so smart; it coheres in so many ways. Her linking of poetry and astronomy — two endeavors obsessed with the heavens — is genius.
My questions for you are twofold. First, at what point in a career is a selected a good move — for the reader, the poet, and the press? And related, at this point in her career, what do you think Such Color evinces about Smith’s work, its ambitions, its themes, its aesthetics?
VICTORIA: You mention so many great books. I remember reading Jorie Graham’s From the New World cover to cover, and I loved every second of reading that book. She is probably my favorite living poet. And The Lice by Merwin is wonderful. The Wild Iris by Glück is just one of those memorable books. It’s interesting that you mention “History” as your favorite poem. I think mine was “My God, It’s Full of Stars” from Life on Mars, and both of these poems are longer poems in sections. I love the combination of space and the elegy for the speaker’s father, and here’s a snippet:
Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,
That the others have come and gone — a momentary blip —
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding […]
Maybe the dead know, their eyes widening at last,
Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flick on
At twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the horns
Not letting up, the frenzy of being. I want it to be
One notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.
Wide open, so everything floods in at once.
And sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959.
You make great points about all the poets you mention (including me). I think my own work, at least my most recent three books, may not lend themselves as well to a selected, but perhaps a collected, not that I’m presuming anything about my own work at all, but you brought it up! I think putting together a selected would be hard. And while my first two books were more like mixtapes, I’m not sure I want to resurrect those poems in any public way. We will see …
It’s interesting to think about how, in the case of Smith, the consistency of her writing across her life is what I would argue makes her work suited for a selected, and not a collected. With poets that might vary in their writing style more throughout their writing lives, a collected might work better. And then I was talking to our joint editor, Michael Wiegers at Copper Canyon Press, recently about this very topic, and he introduced the idea of an Essential (in the context of Ruth Stone), which might be a good book to bring new readers to a poet who might not be quite as known as in the past.
On your other question about what Such Color might reveal about Smith’s body of work, its ambitions, its themes, and its aesthetics, I think, as I said earlier, her writing seems to stay relatively consistent — colloquial in diction and rhythm, quiet, meditative, very inquisitive (which is what I love about her work and her mind), but what changes are the themes. Such Color seems to get increasingly political, as you mention. I really loved Smith’s first book for its themes of desire, coming of age, travel, and its sensual tone. I think this was my favorite, with Life on Mars being my second favorite. I also think Such Color reveals what a seeing poet Smith is — she is constantly looking outward at others, soaking up the world, observing, processing, querying, thinking.
On your other question, in terms of when to release such books? I think it really depends on the particular poet and that poet’s trajectory in terms of writing and in terms of “career,” and I really dislike using that word in the context of poetry. Let’s also be honest here in that these are not usually decisions a poet gets to make necessarily — it’s the editors, publishers, and frankly, the readers who decide (with their wallets, given that we live in a capitalist economy).
In fact, I’ve been thinking a lot about who gets to do these collected and selected “tomes,” I’ve been calling them, and why. I just did a very cursory search on Amazon for 2021 new and selecteds and I stopped halfway because I don’t think the data would have changed. The numbers are as you’d expect, with the majority of these books, no matter how you splice the data, being published by white men. There was a single collection by a wonderful AAPI poet, Patrick Rosal.
This might be a good time to transition to the other book that we read together, which is Arthur Sze’s The Glass Constellation: New and Collected Poems. Sze’s book is a new and collected, which means it includes entire collections of poems from previous books and some new poems. Do you have thoughts on this format for Sze?
DEAN: That is an interesting question. Reading the Sze collected after the Smith selected is a fascinating experience. Smith’s spans 21 years (more or less, as you mention) while Sze’s covers around 50! That’s amazing. Plus, The Glass Constellation not only contains all the poems from all the books; it also replicates the document design, the aesthetics of each book. Our press (Copper Canyon) has done a great job making it possible to feel the uniqueness of each individual book within the larger tome, as you say.
For me, the Sze collected raises so many profound questions, not the least of which is: what makes a life? Here is a man who has devoted his life to writing and teaching poetry. What is contained in these pages? What is revealed? Having his entire opus lets the reader work our way through Sze’s career, noting even microscopic details, minor as well as major evolutions. In the case of Sze, whose books have been working toward a culmination (in my mind Sight Lines, his most realized project), having everything is pretty cool.
VICTORIA: It’s quite a life and quite a large book. Reading such a book also made me think about the difference between the reading experience of a new and selected, like Smith’s versus a new and collected, like Sze’s. The positive of a new and collected is that one can see entire books reprinted, as you say, the opus. But with new and collecteds, weaker poems have nowhere to hide, and we all have them. Also, if one’s poems are fairly consistent over a career in terms of style and subject matter (arguably, like Sze’s), it can be a little harder to differentiate the poems. I can make a reliable and cogent argument for either, but I think in Sze’s case, I might prefer a new and selected, a slightly more curated shorter book. But I’m also a person that when given too many options, ends up choosing nothing, whether it’s clothing, books, chocolate, etc.
I think it’s hard to pinpoint one Sze poem in the way that one might point to other singular poems that we already discussed earlier. But I could also argue that this is a strength of Sze’s work — his poems are additive, yet dispersed. They are like a spattering of stars versus one North Star. Sze’s poems are anti-hierarchical. They accumulate via a watercolor wash.
You mention Sight Lines and I think that is my favorite book in this collection because of how it remains distinctly Sze while deviating slightly from his typical writing style. The poems in this book feel like a culmination of a lifetime of developing the gorgeous Arthur Sze poem. I think the lines and language feel more skillfully wrought and tighter in their construction. If we’re even allowed to venture into awards, I might contend that what made it win the National Book Award is that occasionally larger themes puncture through, such as environmental and ecological destruction and devastation, and the culpability of humans. There are also some cultural and historical elements such as the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards, as well as one-lined poems throughout, a departure for Sze (at least in this new and collected). It’s a beautiful collection.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on any patterns in Sze’s poems that you may have noticed.
DEAN: A few things leaped out for me in this volume. For one, he really likes long poems with numbered sections — especially numbered sections that do not (at first glance) feel like they belong in the same poem. This speaks to your claim about his poems being additive, or as I might say, he embraces a poetics of accrual. Sze, to his credit, leaves a lot of room for the reader to connect the dots of his oeuvre. I like that.
I also noticed something I can’t remember feeling in much other work: I get the sense Sze wants to teach me something. I learn things. Data. Facts. Geography. Ethnography. That feels unusual in the contemporary American poem. I like that as well.
I was struck by the opening line of the very first poem of Sze’s very first book, The Redshifting Web from 1998. That line does some serious work not only for that collection but for his opus. He writes: “I gaze through a telescope at the Orion Nebula.” That gesture is so interesting to me. Sze, with a background in science, lets us know that the founding articulation, the first position of his poetics is looking outward. His eagerness to direct his gaze at other worlds is wonderful. For example, I don’t know if I can think of a more internationally oriented American poet. His poems are set in a number of different countries, and they draw on a variety of global aesthetic traditions. I always get the sense that Sze is turning his lens outward — toward a different country, a different solar system, a different culture, a different formula.
The really amazing thing about The Glass Constellation is that the book gives you an entire constellation of his teachings. His lessons. But also — and to me this is super important — his queries. To wit:
Who rescues hunters tipped into arctic waters?
but what thins at your fingertips?
When a selenographer / plots the moon’s seas, does he inscribe / a memory that can batter
as well as renew?
I do not know what I am looking at. Koa?
Where is the whir of the helicopter?
The search for escaped convicts in the city?
I planted lupine and nasturtiums [reader note: I had to look this word up] /
In the dark April dirt. Who hears the passing / cars or trucks?
… when a woman / outside a bakery offers to wash // your car windshield, you give her / some cash, and what will suffice?
These questions are all so different from each other, but each represents a typically Sze-esque mode of knowing, of inquiry. I love the balance of statement and question in this book.
VICTORIA: Yes, I too, noticed the numbered sections. And I love your observation of the perspective of Sze’s poems — they are telescopic in scope. And yes, statement and question. In fact, this book is full of questions. I sense that Sze is on a path of discovery not only in each poem, in each book, but also in his entire life. As you say above, the beauty of having a collected is that one can see a life and a body of work more wholly and clearly.
In terms of other observations, I would characterize Sze’s poems as painterly and imagistic and his early poems in this collection feel more legible, while the later poems are still comfortable in their legibility, but perhaps also comfortable with added complexity. If I were to say there’s one main “argument” Sze is making throughout his poems, it is that everything is related, even when it doesn’t seem like things are related. He doesn’t really suture things for us, but he asks the reader to make those connections on our own.
The main pattern I noticed is that the poems are, as my friend wrote to me, “accumulations of deictic gestures.” I had to look up the word “deixis” and when I did, the definition mirrored my notes on Sze’s poems precisely. Deixis means pointing or showing. A deictic expression or phrase points to time, setting, or situation, often using pointers such as “this,” “that,” “these,” “those,” “now,” “then,” and “here.”
Sze’s poems juxtapose disparate things next to one another, one after another, so that things accumulate but it’s not always clear to the reader how. I think possibly, these accumulations within themselves are meant to be the whole gesture — the accumulation itself as itself.
I could pick many poems to illustrate the common move in Sze’s poems, but “Shooting Star” in the book River River, in part two, might be a viable example:
Deprived of sleep, she hallucinated
and, believing she had sold the genetic
research on carp, signed a confession.
Picking psilocybin mushrooms in the mountains
of Veracruz, I hear tin cowbells
in the slow rain, see men wasted on pulque
sitting under palm trees. Is it
so hard to see things as they truly are:
a route marked in red ink on a map,
the shadows of apricot leaves thrown
in wind and sun on a wall?
The poem makes an observation about someone or something else in the first three lines. Then in the fourth line, there’s a shift to the speaker picking mushrooms in Veracruz. We’ve jumped from the third person to the first person, from someone’s sleep-deprived hallucination to mountains in Veracruz, and from carp to mushrooms, cowbells, rain, men under palm trees. Then we shift from the exterior to the interior with a rhetorical question: “Is it / so hard to see things as they truly are,” and then move to a riffing on that thought through disparate imagery. This pattern is repeated quite often in Sze’s poems throughout all of his books in this collection.
Another great example of deictic gesturing is “Quipu” in part two of the collection (note the anaphora of the “here” which points to various things):
Here a red horse leaned over a barbed-wire fence
and uprooted a row of corn; here chile plants
rotted after a thunderstorm; here the force of rain
exposed carrot seeds and washed almost all away;
but here two kinds of eggplants flower in a row …
Related to this, there are also a lot of poems in sections throughout this collection, as we talked about. In some ways, these poems within sections function much like a stanza in a singular poem might, in that the sections in longer poems, and the stanzas in shorter poems are also very deictic.
DEAN: That is so smart. I love your reading of his work through a deictic lens. In fact, it sums everything up so well, it is a wonderful place to end.
Victoria Chang is the author of OBIT, which received the Los Angeles TimesBook Prize, the PEN Voelcker Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Her latest book is Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief. She lives in Los Angeles and is the Program Chair of Antioch’s MFA Program.
Dean Rader has written, edited, or co-edited 11 books. His debut collection of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize and Landscape Portrait Figure Form (2014) was named by The Barnes & Noble Review as a Best Poetry Book.