National Poetry Month: Q&A with National Book Award Winner Mary Szybist

Mary Szybist
photo by Joni Kabana

I can't think of a better way to kick off National Poetry Month than by conversing with the recent winner of one of poetry's highest honors. Mary Szybist is the author of two books of poetry: the eloquent and musical Granted, and this year's winner of the National Book Award in Poetry (and our Best Poetry Book of the Year), Incarnadine. We're extremely fortunate that Mary was kind enough to take some time away from her position as associate professor of English at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon to answer a few questions on the new book and poetry-at-large.


Aside from its obvious connection to the word "incarnate," the word incarnadine, in a literal sense, refers to a particular shade of red. How did you settle on the title of this book?

Incarnadine swirls around one of the iconic scenes of incarnation, the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary, the scene in which Christians envision God entering into this world, into a body, into time—so that obvious connection is an important one.

The color, however, is important too. "Incarnadine" originally meant pink or flesh-color, but since Shakespeare's famous use of it in Macbeth, it has come to mean blood-red. Incarnadine is especially haunted by the iconic figure of Mary, who is almost always portrayed by painters in blue and red; those are the two dominate colors in this collection. In the notes at the end of the book I include a short passage from Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot explaining why earth appears blue from space: "And why that cerulean color? The blue comes partly from the sea, partly from the sky. While water in a glass is transparent, it absorbs slightly more red light than blue... the red light is absorbed out and what gets reflected back to space is mainly blue." I call the book Incarnadine, but blue is the color most often mentioned and described in the poems. In my mind, both colors are always at play.

If one reads about your work across the web, they'll often come upon the phrase "intimate spaces." How does space into play in poetry and Incarnadine, which speaks often to the Christian scene of The Annunciation and a literal inhabitance of the body?

I am interested in the distance between things: the distance between people, the distance between humans and animals, the distance between our conceptions of what is divine and what is human. Sometimes these distances can be vast but they can also be charged and intimate spaces, like the space between Mary and the angel that painters have often rendered so beautifully. I was grateful to Stan Sanvel Rubin for noting in his recent review in Water-Stone Review that "the subtle grammatical difference between "incarnadine" and "incarnation" opens a slippage in connotation which is more than a trick; it's a gap that Szybist's writing wants to fill. The rift opens further with the doubled referent of the name claimed both by the living poet and the subject of the sacred story." I am writing into the space between things: the distance between Mary and the angel, the distance between the Virgin Mary and the personal Mary who is me.

Do you see the poem itself as a space to be stepped into, and if so, what does that mean for the inhabiter (the reader)?

Yes, in a sense I do envision a poem as such a space. "Stanza" is Italian for "room," but traditionally we don't just talk of poems as rooms: we refer the "body" of a poem. Haven't we all wondered to what extent we would be ourselves were we to inhabit a different body? Though our bodies change, sometimes radically, we do not get to try out other bodies. Poems allow us imaginative play: they allow consciousness--which is articulated through language--to try on different linguistic forms, different linguistic bodies. As the poet John Ashbery has said, "The world does change, in the telling." I think that we do too.

IncarnadineThe narrator of Incarnadine has such a focused attention to images of the Annunciation which occur around her, and one can't help but assume a desire for spiritual understanding in that voice. The Annunciation itself, however, seems to take off from another place: Mary is found, favored, chosen, inhabited, acquiesces. Is the notion of being spiritually discovered important to this book, to you, or to spirituality itself?

I think there is only so much we can do to achieve real understanding of any kind, no matter how much we might desire and work toward it. I think often of Simone Weil's words: "I know by means of my intelligence that what I do not understand is more real than what I do." I don't think this is call for passivity but a call to recognize the reality of what we do not comprehend. I try to write toward points of empathy. This may or may not help make me more open to receiving insight or understanding or grace (perhaps all of which are forms of being "spiritually discovered," as you so wonderfully put it), but I consider it one of my best hopes.

There's always an undeniable musical quality to your poems. Do you find that lyric and music to be an organic part of your writing (as it would seem to the reader) or is it something you actively seek? And is it essential to the poem?

Perhaps both versions are true: it is an organic part; I seek it out. I love Emily Dickinson's response to Higginson when he criticizes her rhymes. She explains: "I thanked you for your justice—but could not drop the Bells whose jingling cooled my Tramp—" In comparing herself to a horse who depends upon the jingling bells to "cool" and ease her heated labor, she suggests that she couldn't move through the difficult journeying of her poems without that music. In this vision, the bells are not an organic part of the horse's tramp (they are separate from the rhythm of the hooves on the road), but the tramp does depend on them: they are not merely decorative additions. This all resonates with me as very true. The music is necessary.

It's likely because of the intimacy present in your poetry that I can't help but feel both Granted and Incarnadine contain a fair amount autobiographical narrative. How important is it that your poems be actively connected to your life and mind, if at all?

My poems are connected to my life and mind, but I think what is active about the connection is this: I do not write to record or map experience; I write out of a desire to enlarge it, to go beyond myself. Although I have in myself the strong desire to be settled, to choose an identity and point of view and rest there, I finally agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson: "People wish to be settled: only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them." I write in an attempt to unsettle myself.

So far, you've published two books of poetry. You spoke to this some in your acceptance speech at the National Book Awards, but do you believe that there are some thoughts only poetry can express? Could you see yourself writing a novel someday?

I am awed by great novelists in part because I don't have the sensibility to conceive of and write a novel. When it comes to writing I would rather, like Emily Dickinson, "dwell in Possibility—," which she unabashedly characterizes as "A fairer House than Prose--/More numerous of Windows—/Superior—for Doors—" I am just as interested in the way that language speaks us as I am in expressing things through language. If I were to make special claims for poetry, they wouldn't have to do with the subjects that poetry best expresses. In my acceptance speech I quoted Paul Connolly who said, "I believe that it is not arguing well but speaking differently that changes a culture. Poetry is the place where speaking differently is most prevalent." A change in language can be a change in perception. As a general rule, it is harder to speak differently when your language must convey information, develop plot, and so on. Often all I ask of a poem is that when it speaks of something, it speaks of it differently.

And the vague question I'm sure you're getting way too often right now - what's next for NBA winning poet Mary Szybist?

I have been trying to write new poems. I have been thinking about the spiritual journeying of Teresa of Avila and the spirit houses that snagged my imagination when I visited Laos, but the real answer to your question is: it will be a surprise for me too.


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