CONGRATULATIONS Mary Szybist, WINNER of the 2013 National Book Award for Poetry
Mary Szybist is an Associate Professor of English at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon and the author of two poetry collections: Granted, published in 2003, and Incarnadine, which was awarded the 2013 National Book Award on November 20. Shortly before the Awards Ceremony, Szybist spoke with the poet Shara Lessley for the National Book Foundation’s compilation of 2013 Finalists interviews.
Shara Lessley: Incarnadine wrestles with the tension between spiritual alienation and astonishment. Do you agree with Emily Dickinson’s description of faith as a “fine invention”? What has the imagination to do with matters spiritual?
Mary Szybist: I am inclined to agree with Dickinson on all matters, but I don’t think all faiths are equally fine or equally inventive. There is a difference, for example, between faith in a very particular conception or idea (i.e., faith in knowing) and faith in the reality of factors we can’t know or understand. Simone Weil tells us, “We know by means of our intelligence that what the intelligence does not comprehend is more real than what it does comprehend.” That is a statement of a kind of faith that resonates with me, but it is not one that conjures the imagination’s “fine inventions.” That is where poetry enters. Doesn’t any relationship to or conception of the spiritual depend on imagination?
The scene to which Incarnadine continually returns—the Annunciation—has long been a site of “fine invention,” especially in the hands of artists like Simone Martini and Sandro Botticelli; it portrays a human encountering something not human; it suggests that it is possible for us to perceive and communicate with something or someone not like us. That is part of what I find most moving about the scene: how it plays out the faith, the belief that that can happen—and can change us.
SL: Last month, Yale University Press released an anthology called Before the Door of God. Which elements of traditional devotional poetry do you borrow for Incarnadine? Are there lyric strategies you worked deliberately to avoid?
MS: Yes, I am seeking to extend some of the traditions of devotional poetry to more secular mediations. I am particularly thinking of the complex situation of faith in seventeenth-century metaphysical poems and the heterogeneity of images and ideas that enable them—disjunctions that pull us out of the ordinary. I have come to think of the “space” these poems occupy as similar to what art historian Georges Didi-Huberman calls “annunciatory space,” noting that painters such as Fra Angelico portray the Annunciation by means of displacement and disproportion: the space is at once interior and exterior, indoor and outdoor, open and closed. Didi-Huberman proposes that this “paradoxical realm of equivocation and dissemblance” is in part an attempt “to draw the gaze beyond the eye, the visible beyond itself, into the terrible or admirable regions of the imaginary… “
What artists like Fra Angelico realized in paint, I wished to realize in words. By creating disjunctions that swerve between the carnal and the sacred, the mythic and the quotidian, I aim to create spaces receptive to heterogeneity and difference.
SL: Part of Incarnadine’s accomplishment is its restlessness—the collection not only grapples with formal structures (the villanelle, terza rima, an abecedarian, loose sonnets, and hymns), but also plays with visual components, temporal organization, lyric prose, erasure, etc. ‘It Is Pretty to Think’ is a diagramed sentence. How much do you experiment with form throughout the drafting process?
MS: I experiment a lot. Sometimes I allow poems to work toward their form; sometimes I begin with form to provide what Lyn Hejinian describes as an intentional “field of inquiry” in which to improvise. For me, to write a poem is to experiment with form, or experiment with how different limitations provoke different kinds of language, different imaginations.
SL: “How (Not) to Speak of God’ is featured as a mural on the portico of a building at the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design. The radial structure—its visual content—is crucial, in that it invites multiple readings of the poem’s modifying phrases. How do you know when a particular structure best suits the subject?
MS: I discover it largely through trial and error. I try to take risks, and I try not to reject them too quickly. I allow myself to sit with them and their possibilities and to try new slants on them. Eventually, something catches. Once it does, I try to lean on the form; I try to let it lead; I try to let it instruct me and take me where I did not know how to go on my own. My best hope as a poet is that my forms can be wiser than I am.
SL: Incarnadine depicts the Annunciation in many forms: as lupine and an endangered species of blue butterfly; in kitchens and fields; in excerpted lines from The Starr Report and Lolita. I’m curious about how you came to locate the Virgin Mother in so many unlikely places. Were there other versions of the Annunciation that didn’t make the final cut?
MS: The poem that most haunted me while writing the book is W. B. Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan.” By emphasizing the terror of the event, the brutal indifference and power of the god, he suggested something about the character of the era that unfolded from it. It is with a nod to Yeats’s strange vision of history and his idea that every two thousand years the world’s temperament changes as the result of an encounter between human and divine that I am reflecting on the kinds of encounters happening around us. What counts as the sacred now? What kinds of encounters are we witnessing? And what are those encounters engendering? By offering a multitude of Annunciation possibilities, I wish to unsettle and, to some extent, take leave of the old story, even as I try to find new uses for it.
Yes, there were many other versions of the Annunciation that did not make the cut. One of the last drafts I worked on involved a violent scene (I witnessed it through YouTube) at an Egyptian protest rally. It was widely reported that policemen were targeting female protesters to arrest and humiliate by performing “virginity tests.” A young woman is attacked by policemen who rip open her abaya (or perhaps more accurately, kick open her abaya once she had fallen) and fully expose her torso, bare except for a blue bra. The book is called Incarnadine, but the color that dominates the collection is blue. I thought of this in light of what Carl Sagan says of earth’s blue color in Pale Blue Dot: “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.”
SL: “Why wouldn’t such sweetness / be for them?,” you write of the angel-birds in “Annunciation as Right Whale with Kelp Gulls,” “For they outnumber her. // For she is tender, pockmarked, full // of openness…” Here, Mary is less revered than Leda-like, assaulted. Incarnadine depicts other acts of violence. Can you talk about how godlessness and the ungodly figure in the collection?
MS: To my mind, the word “incarnadine” itself is suggestive of violence. I think of Shakespeare’s Macbeth after he kills the king asking, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red.” (II, ii, 57-60)
As that scene reminds us, not all encounters and transformations are welcome ones. Mary’s famous “Be it done unto me according to your will” (as recounted in the Gospel of Luke) sounds a note of acquiescence to the spiritual other. On one hand that can be understood as receptive openness, but isn’t there also danger in the kind of acquiescence Mary models? And isn’t there great danger in the way the iconic Mary models a female ideal—an impossible female ideal of being both virgin and mother? She embodies obedience and a moral “purity” linked to her sexual virginity. These ideas and ideals—especially because they are linked to religious ideals—have done unspeakable harm; in their name much violence has been done, and continues to be done, to women.
The violence of the gulls, in my mind, corresponds to this. On another level, I actually mean for some of my poems to behave as the gulls: to tear apart and consume that terrible ideal of the Virgin Mother. Other poems seek to unseat that ideal by replacing it with alternative versions of Mary. I love the paintings that do not simply represent Mary’s response to the angel as placid acceptance but rather portray Mary’s confusion and even terror in the moment and suggest that it is combined with the ambiguities of bodily desire—eros of various kinds. It is the more complex and ambiguous possibilities in this encounter that interested me from the start.
SL: The Mary of Granted and Incarnadine is (among other things) luminous, fragile, inhabited, haunted, exiled, improbable. What can we expect of her in your next book?
MS: I lost my mother to breast cancer in August; in response, I am turning to poems as a means to become more inhabited, more haunted. I am trying to work out a new relationship to grief. At this moment, a consciousness capable of that feels not only improbable but impossible. Still, in the spirit of my mother, I think of Lewis Carroll’s Alice:
"There’s no use trying," she said. "One can’t believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven’t had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Shara Lessley is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. A recent resident of the Middle East, Shara is the 2014 Mary Wood Fellow at Washington College.