An Interview with Jim Natal
- Do you remember the first poem you wrote? What prompted it?
My first semester at M.I.T. I sat in a large calculus class and felt increasingly bored by the lecture. I remember flipping to the back of a spiral notebook, and I started writing phrases to a poem. I was excited at what came to me, and, before the end of class, I had a rough draft. On a subliminal level I realized that, although I was capable at math and science, I didn’t want to spend my life in that endeavor. Poetry was a leap into the unknown, and I was prompted to write by an urge to discover something that was truly meaningful to me and not follow family expectation. I wrote that first poem, then a few days later I wrote another poem. Then another. And another. I liked the compression and musicality of poetry. I knew no other form of writing that was so thrilling and compelling.
- Was there a teacher, family member, or other person you encountered when you were young who exposed you to poetry?
Instead of a teacher or someone else who introduced me in an exciting way to poetry, I remember, in junior high school, cringing at the way the English teacher approached Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” She instructed everyone in class to analyze “the albatross” and search for other hidden meanings. So, my first memorable encounter with poetry was tense and negative. In that class, poetry was approached as something that was necessarily difficult, esoteric, and with a correct way to come to terms with its meanings. Later, at a private high school, I had a more sympathetic exposure to poetry. I read poems by Dylan Thomas and Yeats and remember being struck by their rhythms and musicality.
My parents were immigrants from China, and they encouraged me to write only with the understanding that writing well was an important academic and professional skill. Writing creatively was not encouraged at all. My family expectation was that I would pursue something safe and professional: scientist, engineer, doctor, investment banker. Poetry was seen as something wild and risky. Yet, my father had a classical literary education in China that rounded out his career in science in America. I remember looking at and marveling at English translations of Chinese classics in his study—his translations of the I Ching, the Lao-tzu—so my literary seeds were actually planted there.
- Do poets need an MFA (or PhD) for their work to have credibility?
I never attended or graduated from an MFA program, so I clearly don’t believe an MFA is requisite to becoming a poet. Nevertheless, I did take two undergraduate poetry workshops that were crucial to my development.
My sophomore year at M.I.T. I took a poetry workshop with Denise Levertov. Denise was the first poet I met, and her passion for poetry was inspiring. She had just taught at the University of California at Berkeley, and I decided to transfer there. At UC Berkeley I took a poetry workshop with Josephine Miles, and she became instrumental to my development. As my faculty advisor and mentor, Josephine enabled me to create an individual major in poetry. I took Chinese language and literature classes and started to translate Tang dynasty poetry into English. To a significant extent, I learned my craft through translation. I was also lucky in that Josephine believed in me. Every two or three weeks I went to her house on a Saturday afternoon and showed her a batch of new poems. She responded to them with great care and insight, and she also directed my reading. At the end of one session, she recommended Rilke, another time Neruda. It was never part of a class or for class credit—these individual sessions with her were precious and foundational to my growth.
- Must poets win prizes to be considered established? Are prizes a gauge of success?
It would be disingenuous of me to say that prizes do not matter, because I have received many. Sometimes the cash that comes with a prize has given me precious time to write; sometimes it has given me encouragement; sometimes a prize has brought new readers to my poetry, so I am grateful for what I have received. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that writing poems does not depend on that recognition. If I hadn’t received any awards, I would still be writing poetry. As Wallace Stevens once wrote, poetry is a source of pleasure, not of honors. It’s good to keep in mind Emily Dickinson who wrote and wrote, with little recognition throughout her entire life, and whose courageous body of work is a better measure of success than any prize.
- What moves you to poetry? Do you write to be read and published, or for yourself?
I love the intensity and power of language, emotion, and imagination that all come together in poetry. It’s an essential language and as necessary as breathing. It helps me live and grow in the world. Writing poems over many years involves growing and deepening and maturing as a complete human being. Solitary as this practice is, I hope that my poetry, like all poetry, speaks to others and is a gift that awakens and moves others to experience the world in profound, essential ways. And I am trying to make my tiny contribution against oblivion.
- Science and nature inhabit your work and, even when not the focus or theme of a poem, seem an ever-present low-grade hum in the background. How do you, as a poet, integrate the technical and scientific with the natural and organic?
When I first wrote poems, I tried to avoid scientific vocabulary and structures. I was turning away from M.I.T. and the world of science and turning toward nature. But then I realized that art and science are not antithetical, as some people suppose. As paths of inquiry and understanding, poetry and science can inform and inspire each other. Since I have that scientific knowledge and training, I decided that using it in my poetry was a way to develop rigor and clarity in my writing. I suppose I integrate the technical and scientific with the natural and organic because they balance and enrich each other. Like it or not, we live in a complex, challenging world, and the scientific and the natural are endlessly entangled. I never consciously set out to integrate one with the other; maybe I realized they are already endlessly entwined, and one of my themes or obsessions has to do with revealing and even reveling in that complexity.
- How does pan-cultural curiosity and cross-cultural involvement influence your work?
I’d like to quote Theodore Roethke: “I learn by going where I have to go.” In the beginning, I translated classical Chinese poetry because I wanted to draw on my ancestry and felt I had so much to learn from those ancient poems. When I graduated from UC Berkeley, I was adventurous and wanted to go somewhere I had never been before. Josephine Miles suggested Santa Fe and gave me the name of a friend, Stanley Noyes. I hitchhiked into town 49 years ago, with only a backpack and my curiosity. I looked up Stan, and he suggested I apply to the New Mexico Poetry-in-the-Schools program. I did, was accepted, and worked for ten years all over the state: on Indian reservations, in Spanish-speaking communities, with incarcerated juvenile offenders, at the New Mexico School for the Deaf (with the support of a sign translator) and in the Penitentiary of New Mexico, where I even worked with an inmate on Death Row. I was excited to discover a part of America I knew nothing about, and I felt an immediate affinity with Native Americans.
When I wasn’t working in the schools, for several years I also did construction work as a plasterer—how many contemporary American poets have worked with their hands?—and I learned enough Spanish so that I could read Neruda and Lorca. These steps weren’t premeditated, but I wanted to expand my range of experience, and one step led to another. Phil Foss, a poet who taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts, invited me to read my poetry and teach occasional poetry workshops there. I so enjoyed meeting and teaching Native students from tribes across the United States and, eventually, although I did not have a graduate degree, I was hired and became a professor there.
New Mexico is a very multicultural place, and over time, my cross-cultural experiences and connections have deeply informed my poetry. I’ve used specific Hopi words in my poems, and I’ve also drawn on a social ceremonial dance at San Ildefonso Pueblo, but these usages have never felt forced. They entered my poems as part of my personal experience. I’ve always been interested in meeting creative people in other disciplines, and from other cultures. I have always felt I have so much to learn, and my poetry has over time reflected that growth. I don’t write a poem thinking about what I can do to make my poetry unique. Instead, if I dig deep and write with openness and risk, I find that the poem I write will emerge and eventually become what it needs to be.
Arthur Sze is a poet, translator, and editor. His eleventh book of poetry is The Glass Constellation: New and Collected Poems (Copper Canyon, 2021). Previous books include Sight Lines, which won the 2019 National Book Award for Poetry, Compass Rose, and The Ginkgo Light. He has also published The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese. A professor emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts, he lives in Santa Fe.
Jim Natal is the author of three books of lyric poems: Memory and Rain, Talking Back to the Rocks, and In the Bee Trees, as well as two collections written in contemporary haibun form—52 Views: The Haibun Variations and Spare Room. A multi-year Pushcart Prize nominee, literary presenter, and co-founder of indie publishing house Conflux Press, his work has appeared in many journals and anthologies.