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Poet Arthur Sze at the 2019 Asian American Literature Festival

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This Saturday, August 3rd, the Library of Congress will host the second day of the 2019 Asian American Literature Festival. In anticipation of the Library’s full day of festival programming, Phoebe Coleman of the Library of Congress’s Asian American Association asked poet Arthur Sze—who will deliver an “intimate lecture” on Saturday at 2 PM—a few questions.

Arthur Sze will present an intimate lecture titled “The Streams Streaming Through Us: The Rich Diversity of Asian American Poetry” at the Asian American Literature Festival on Saturday. (Photo credit: Gloria Graham)

The last time you participated in a Library program, you recorded a reading of and commentary on Walt Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry for our online “Poetry of America” series; now you are coming to the Library in person for the Asian American Literature Festival. What is it like to come to the Library for this event? What are you looking forward to?

It is an honor to be coming to the Library of Congress for the second Asian American Literature Festival, and I feel a responsibility to make the best contribution I can. I hope my “intimate lecture” will be memorable: I look forward to celebrating the works of many Asian American poets, some renowned, some unknown. I look forward to all of the conversations at the festival and am excited at how the organizers have envisioned a “community-generated cooperative space for sharing.”

The theme of this year’s Asian American Literature Festival is “Care + Caregiving.” What about this theme is particularly important to you when thinking about Asian American literature?

As a prefatory remark, let me say that I believe the theme of “Care + Caregiving” is an important issue for our country and for the world. In terms of the upcoming Asian American Literature Festival, I believe “Care + Caregiving” is important because we need to take care, be mindful of and support each other. I see some of the goals of the festival as fostering support and enhancing recognition that literature is a gift for everyone, that all poems and stories come together.

Can you give our readers a sneak peek of what to expect during your “intimate lecture” at the festival on Saturday?

My “intimate lecture” is titled “The Streams Streaming Through Us: The Rich Diversity of Asian American Poetry.” It includes excerpts from two letters, translations, and poems by twenty-nine Asian American poets. I also make connections with historical poets from other places and times. I do not privilege one excerpt or style over another: they are all cause for celebration. And the excerpts are strung together through personal narrative.

You’ve written ten books of poetry. What are you interested in investigating in your own work?

I like to think each book of mine has a unique architecture and set of concerns, but I understand that the growing body of my work is one large poem, one large redshifting web.

Many of the issues I explore have to do with connectivity and multiplicity. I like to explore how things that appear unrelated may, below the surface, be intimately connected; I like to open a vast intricate world of simultaneous existences, events, emotions; I believe my work is unified by a preoccupation with transformations that call attention to the inherent instability of language and the self. Most recently, I’ve been concerned with the endangered natural world—my latest book has poems in the voices of lichen and salt—but I’ve tried to treat the subject in a way that is surprising and not didactic.

Is there anything you would like to add in advance of the festival?

I think it’s wonderful that three major organizations, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and the Poetry Foundation, along with some smaller organizations, are all working together. Just as organizations can support each other, people can work together, support each other, promote literature and understanding and find that the offerings of a festival can evolve and enrich all who come.

Asian American Literature Festival. Saturday, August 3, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m in LJ-119, Library of Congress Jefferson Building. Free tickets recommended. Full festival schedule available here. Co-sponsored by the Library of Congress Asian Division and Asian American Association. Presented in partnership with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and the Poetry Foundation. 


  1. Why does great art have to be marketed ethnically? We are all Americans. The Library of Congress serves all of us, as well as the world.
    Literature can be classified nationally, such as American Poetry or French Poetry. Within those two groups you will find nearly every ethnic group and religion.
    If I wanted to market myself ethnically I suppose I would be an Irish-German American writer. But why do we need the ethnic classification? I have been influenced by other cultures. What goes on in my mind is not restricted to my ethnicity. I think that is true of everyone.
    Walt Whitman was influenced by the Bhaghavad Gita. So what ethnicity is his poetry?
    What about someone whose parents came from different races? What ethnicity is that poetry?
    We need to accept each other. We can do that by not putting each other into ethnic categories.

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