Arthur Sze ’68 Named National Book Award Finalist

Lawrenceville Alumnus Arthur Sze ’68 was selected as a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award in the poetry category this past Tuesday. His book Sight Lines placed in the top five of approximately 150 poetry book entries.

Lawrenceville Alumnus Arthur Sze ’68 was selected as a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award in the poetry category this past Tuesday. His book Sight Lines placed in the top five of approximately 150 poetry book entries.

According to the National Book Foundation website, Sight Lines “moves through space and time and brings the disparate and divergent into stunning and meaningful focus.”

The National Book Award is widely considered as one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the nation and is given by the National Book Foundation to recognize stellar literary works.

The awards annually recognizes the best Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Translated Literature, and Young People’s Literature. Sze described the award as “the Academy Awards of literature.”

The Foundation assembles a panel of five judges for each category who have expertise in that category. The judges consist of former National Book Award winners, finalists, and judges who are recruited by the National Book Foundation’s Executive Director. Each panel is able to create its own criteria for the National Book Award, and the panel changes every year.

Annually, each panel reads the books submitted to its category over the summer. It then creates a list of 10 entries that is announced in mid-September; this year, Sze’s Sight Lines qualified for a Longlist Poetry title. From there, the panel narrowed the search down to five finalists. The winner for each category is ultimately announced in November.

On his initial sentiments upon hearing that the National Book Foundation nominated his book for the award, Sze said, “While I was excited and pleased, I was also cautious.” He added, “Let’s just see what happens.”

Sze is the author of 10 poetry books and a Professor Emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He has also earned an array of scholarships and awards, including the Lannan Literary Award, the American Book Award, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award, and the Western States Book Award for Translation. One of his previous books, Compass Rose, was one of three finalist works for the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.

Sze wrote the poem entitled “Sight Lines” within the greater book because he was commissioned by the University of Virginia to write a poem about Thomas Jefferson. Reflecting on his work, Sze said, “I was happy with how that poem came out because not only did it allow me to explore Jefferson, but also I learned that sight lines move through space in time. The sight lines don’t tell one narrative but a collage [of narratives].” Sze then decided to have the poem “Sight Lines” as the organizing principle that runs through the poetry book.

Prior to his attending Lawrenceville, Sze did not find himself inclined towards poetry. During his time at the School, he experienced pressure from his parents to study in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. However, during his last semester at Lawrenceville, Sze took a class titled Contemporary American Poetry. On the impact of this course on his career, Sze said, “In some ways, the seeds were planted there.”

His joy for writing poems further developed during his years as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He recalled that during a calculus lecture at MIT, he opened up a blank sheet of paper and began writing as a result of boredom. “I think basically everyone was surprised when I started to write poetry,” Sze said.

After deciding to leave MIT, Sze further pursued his interest in poetry at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB). He created his own major at UCB and majored in poetry.

Sze’s advice to students on improving their poetry writing skills is to “enjoy playing with different languages, sounds, images, and rhythms and feel the excitement of discovery,” Sze said.

The recipients of the National Book Award will be announced on November 20, 2019.

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