Workshop alumna receives National Book Award for poetry

Published: December 8 2013 | 7:03 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 12:36 am in
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Mary Szybist, alumna of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, received the 2013 National Book Award for poetry for her most recent collection, “Incarnadine.”

Szybist accepted the award during a Nov. 20 ceremony in Manhattan, N.Y.

Through the lens of an iconic moment — the Annunciation of an unsettling angel to a bodily young woman — Szybist describes the confusion and even terror of moments in which our longing for the spiritual may also be a longing for what is most fundamentally alien to us. In a world where we are so often asked to choose sides, to believe or not believe, to embrace or reject, “Incarnadine” offers lyrical and brilliantly inventive alternatives.

Szybist earned degrees from the University of Virginia and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow. Her first collection of poetry, “Granted,” was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2009, she won a Witter Bynner Fellowship. According to judge Kay Ryan, Syzbist’s “lovely musical touch is light and exact enough to catch the weight and grind of love. This is a hard paradox to master as she does.”

Szybist is recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review and Denver Quarterly and was featured in Best American Poetry (2008). She is an associate professor of English at Lewis & Clark in Portland, Ore.

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A portion of an interview with Szybist by Shara Lessley, author of “Two-Headed Nightingale” and 2014 Mary Wood Fellow at Washington College, as published by the National Book Foundation, follows:

Q: “Incarnadine” wrestles with the tension between spiritual alienation and astonishment. Do you agree with Dickinson’s description of faith as a “fine invention?” What has the imagination to do with matters spiritual?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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 17th-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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: “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?

A: 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.

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