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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.

YA Wednesday: 2014 Teen Choice Finalists

Voting has opened up for the 2014 Teen Choice Award and the finalists are a handful of the best books from last year.  You have until May 12th to vote, but why wait?  The winner will be announced on May 14 at a big gala event during Children's Book Week.

Here are the finalists:

2014TeenChoiceCollage500H

Vote for your favorite

 

2014 Newbery Honor Winner: Kevin Henkes on "The Year of Billy Miller"

YrBillyMiller300I'm fascinated by watching illustrators draw, and award-winning author/illustrator Kevin Henkes graciously agreed to have a chat about The Year of Billy Miller (one of our Best Children's Books of 2013) AND draw one his most beloved characters, Lilly (Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, among others) on camera when we met up at Book Expo America.  

When I say that Henkes is an award-winning author, I don't mean it lightly--he's won the Caldecott Medal for Kitten's First Full Moon, a Caldecott Honor for Owen, a Newbery Honor for his middle grade novel, Olive's Ocean, and this year he took home two awards: a Newbery Honor for his latest book, The Year of Billy Miller and a Geisel Honor for Penny and Her Marble, the third book in his new beginning reader series.  Henkes is truly a jewel of the children's book world, and a delightful, down-to-earth guy who was really fun to meet and talk to.  We chatted about how he decides which format to write next, where the story for Billy Miller came from in his own life, and about the fact that he's never had a main character that was a dog.  You can watch him draw in the first video below, and the second is our conversation before and after.

 

 

 

YA Wednesday: 2014 Printz Award Winners

The Printz award is always exciting because there are no lists of nominated titles or finalists--it's anyone's guess and sometimes the outcome is not what I expected (I'm thinking of last year's omission of The Fault in Our Stars).  For 2014, there were four honor books alongside winner Midwinterblood, including our own pick for the best YA book of 2013, Eleanor & Park.   Here are all five recipients of this year's Michael L. Printz award and honors--consider it a great way to choose your next book.

  • Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick - Winner!: Seven intertwined stories told through time, Midwinterblood has been compared to Cloud Atlas but it also carries a dark edge of horror mixed in with love and fate. Highly praised by critics and readers alike, this is a novel that grabs on with both hands.
  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell - Honor: 2013 was the year of Rainbow Rowell as far as I'm concerned.  Now I really want to go back and read her adult novel, AttachmentsEleanor & Park is contemporary fiction at its best and this story of family, coming-of-age, and first love tattooed itself on my memory and heart.
  • The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal - Honor: In this debut novel, detailed descriptions evoke the daily life and political atmosphere of the royal court during the European Renaissance.  Two young women laboring in the court--a seamstress and a mute nursemaid--become entwined with mad Queen Isabel and a struggle of power and greed.
  • Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner - Honor: Brutal, allegorical, and original, Maggot Moon is set in a nightmarish alternate 1956 under a ruthless totalitarian government.  Our narrator is a teenage boy with his own set of problems, who uncovers a global hoax that, if exposed, could destroy the regime under which he's been suffering.  Short chapters that pack a punch.
  • Navigating Early by Claire Vanderpool - Honor:   Vanderpool won a Newbery Medal for Moon Over Manifest in 2011 and she's a masterful storyteller.  Navigating Early, set at the end of WWII, follows two boys on an epic journey along the Appalachian Trail.  There, they encounter pirates, a mythic bear, hardship, and finally forgiveness.

NavEarly160 MaggotMoon160 KingdomWounds160 EleanorPark160 Midwinterblood160

2013 Philip K. Dick Award Nominees Announced

The nominees for the 2013 Philip K. Dick Award -- presented annually for distinguished science fiction published in paperback original format -- were announced this morning. The 2013 judge panel -- led by chair Elizabeth Bear and including Siobhan Carroll, Michael Kandel, Jamil Nasir, and Timothy Sullivan -- selected the following works for the final ballot:

The winner will be announced April 19 during Norwescon in Seattle, Wa.


2013 National Book Award Winners Announced

Good-Lord-Bird-CoverThe Amazon Books editors are thrilled to be in New York for the National Book Awards. The after-party calls, so we'll tell you about our favorite moments tomorrow.

Tonight, we salute the magnificent work of this year's winners.

Winner--Literarian Award: Dr. Maya Angelou

Winner--Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters: E. L. Doctorow

Fiction Winner: James McBride for The Good Lord Bird

Nonfiction Winner: George Packer for The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Young People's Literature Winner: Cynthia Kadohata for The Thing About Luck

Poetry Winner: Mary Szybist for Incarnadine

See this year's full longlist and finalists.

Newbery Medal Winners Applegate and Gantos: Read or Rot!

Ivan180 NorveltNowhere180At the beginning of the year, Katherine Applegate won the 2013 Newbery Medal for her beautiful book about courage and kindness, The One and Only Ivan Her predecessor was the incomparable Jack Gantos, who won the Medal in 2012 for Dead End in Norvelt, the funny and heartwarming story of one strange summer in the life of a boy named...Jack Gantos. 

In the Q&A below, Applegate checked in with Gantos to find out about memorable school visits, where he keeps his Newbery Medal, and his newest book--the sequel to his Newbery winner and a September best book of the month pick--From Norvelt to Nowhere.

Katherine Applegate: Your alter-ego Jackie Gantos is back! Of all his hysterical new antics in From Norvelt to Nowhere, which scene did you have the most fun writing?

Jack Gantos: That’s a tough question. There are so many good scenes. There is the harpoon scene, and the pistol escapade, and the over imbibing, the creepy bathroom stall scene ... I’ll settle on the scene where Miss Volker is using the sandwich bread to wipe the unending tears from her guilty crying while the soggy bread balls roll down her face like they were little white garden snails. That scene sinks into chaos for Jack.

KA: In the new book, Jack and Miss Volker visit some odd historical sites on their wild road trip, including a real ghost town. Is Rugby, Tennessee, still abandoned?

JG: Rugby is a great old town started by Thomas Hughes, who had written Tom Brown's School Days. He traveled from England and began the town which was built on socialist/utopic principles. The town was a perfect fit for Miss Volker’s childhood back story, and it had been abandoned for many years. But it has had a bit of a revival. The fabulous library has always been intact, though it was boarded up for many decades. The town’s origins parallel the origins of Norvelt.

KA: Is there a memorable, silly, or just plain embarrassing question you recall being asked at a school visit? 

JG:  After a Rotten Ralph presentation a baby faced first grader stood up and with a very sincere voice asked me what had happened to the real cat that inspired Rotten Ralph. The boy seemed very troubled. I replied as sincerely as possible, “Well, he lived a wonderful life for many, many years until finally ... he expired.”

He shifted from foot to foot and thought about that last word. Finally he asked, “What does expired mean?”

I paused. Time was passing. The other kids were getting restless so I got to the point. “It means he died,” I said.

He thought about that, then asked, “Well, did you stuff him?”

“I should have,” I replied while thinking, dang, I really should have. But it was too late for that. 

KA: When you autograph books, you often write “Read or Rot!” Why?

JG: Oh, it’s just a fun little motto that basically boils down to Read books or your brain will Rot. I usually draw a skull and write READ OR ROT! in blood red ink across the forehead. Kids like it.

KA:  Writing pre-Newbery.  Writing post-Newbery.  Any difference?

JG: There are differences but they are all very shadowy. There are no statements to be made about the differences. There are only questions. I honestly don’t spend a lot of time pondering this as I’ll probably invent a problem where none exists.

KA: Where do you keep your Medal? 

JG: In the freezer. When I have guests over for dinner and make individual butter pats for each plate I use the medal to imprint the butter. This way the conversation starts off about me.

YA Wednesday: NBA Finalists in Young People's Literature

Of the 10 nominees for the National Book Award in Young People's Literature (now there's a mouthful...) the five finalists were announced this morning.  The shortlist includes a great mix of titles, including a couple of our recent YA favorites, Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel, Boxers & Saints and October Best of the Month pick, Meg Rosoff's Picture Me Gone.  Both of these authors won awards for their first books: Gene Luen Yang was a National Book Award finalist for American Born Chinese, which didn't take home the NBA, but did win the Printz Award; Rosoff's first novel, How I Live Now, won the Printz Award along with awards in the UK and Germany.  In fact, nearly all of the finalists on this year's list are already award-winning authors, though none of them have won the NBA before.  The winner of the 2013 National Book Award in Young People's Literature will be announced on November 20 in a gala ceremony in New York.  Which one of the finalists would you pick to win?

     Luck150 TrueBlue150 BoxersSaints150 PictureMe150 FarFarAway150

 

 

 

 

 

 

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal

Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt

The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata

If you want to see the NBA finalists in Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry you can see them here.

National Book Award 2013 Finalists Announced

Flamethrowers

This morning, the National Book Foundation revealed the finalists in the Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People's Literature categories for this year's National Book Awards. Among the finalists are Jhumpa Lahiri for The Lowland (our September Best of the Month spotlight pick!), whom Sara Nelson interviewed just last week, and Gene Luen Yang, whom I spoke with about his comic Boxers & Saints the week before that.

Here's the full list of finalists:

Fiction

Nonfiction

Poetry

Young People's Literature

The National Book Foundation has also compiled excerpts from the finalists called The Contenders, all available as free Kindle books.

The winners in each category will be announced in just over a month at the National Book Award Ceremony and Benefit Dinner in New York on November 20.

Man Booker Prize Goes to "The Luminaries"

41Adtc6kT7LShe’s young, she’s talented, and she just won the Booker. 28-year-old Eleanor Catton started writing her doorstop of a novel, The Luminaries, when she was 25 years old. She must have had an idea she was good:  she’d already written one book, The Rehearsal, which received critical praise, and in 2008 she was awarded a fellowship to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

But to go on to win the Booker, the UK’s preeminent book award, is quite a feat. She beat out a who’s who of authors to get the award: Jhumpa Lahiri, Colm Toibin, Ruth Ozeki, even Jim Crace (who, Philip Roth-style, had announced his retirement from writing earlier in the year).

The Luminaries, which was an Amazon Best of the Month selection in Literature & Fiction, is part historical fiction, part mystery, and a whole lot of good writing. The story takes place in New Zealand in 1866. Walter Moody, just-arrived to find his fortune, fairly quickly discovers himself among twelve important men of the community who are trying to solve a recent crime. As Lucy Scholes put it in a Guardian review from last month (and let’s face it, she nailed it), the book is “a tale of adultery, theft, conspiracy, trafficking, blackmail and murder set against the backdrop of the gold rush, opium dens, seances and tarot cards -– but The Luminaries is a dazzling feat of a novel, the golden nugget in this year's Man Booker longlist, a pastiche quite unlike anything I've ever come across, so graceful is its plotting and structure.”

As I read this book, I kept going back to Scholes' review in my mind, to its accurate description of the novel and to her almost-prediction that it should win. Would the Man Booker Committee agree with her?

Now we have our answer.

Congratulations to Eleanor Catton. We can't wait to see what you do next.

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