In late February 2018, poet Mary Syzbist joined Yale students and faculty to give a reading in Sterling Library as a part of the Institute of Sacred Music’s Literature and Spirituality series. Syzbist is an acclaimed poet, whose book, Incarnadine, won the National Book Award in 2013.
The next morning, Syzbist sat down with Sally Hansen and Kathleen Kilcup from LETTERS Journal for a more intimate conversation about her work and matters literary and spiritual. A blue scarf wrapped loosely around her shoulders, she spoke softly and thoughtfully of teaching, iconoclasm, and the challenge posed by public acclaim.
Letters: Could you tell us a little bit about how your work has changed since Incarnadine?
Mary: I don’t know that I can. [Laughs] I think it’s been a struggle since Incarnadine to find a new way to write a poem. A lot of what I have been writing in various ways are elegies, but I don’t feel like I have a book of elegies in me. So I’m trying to find a way past the elegies towards something else. So I don’t think I can really answer yet. Most of my attempts at poems since Incarnadine slip like sand through my fingers. I’ll have beginnings, and I just can’t quite make them.
Letters: Do you have a sense of why?
Mary: It’s partly a mystery. There’s been a sense of bewilderment. I think there’s also maybe some terror of having received some positive response to Incarnadine. It’s a very strange thing to feel that one’s book might be read. One of the things about poetry is that you assume no one will ever read it. It feels like an intensely private space. I mean how many poems have been published in the world that have barely been absorbed by readers? Many, many, most. That’s one of the great things about it—it’s maybe the only real genre that is not part of the commercial marketplace. That’s a pretty huge beauty. That, you know, you’re not writing with those concerns in mind. I think there are fiction writers who struggle with this, trying to write the books they need to write versus thinking about what’s going to reach readers, what readers will be willing to invest in. The beautiful thing about poetry is it’s free of those concerns. But it’s been a little bewildering to get some positive response and put into my mind somebody might read this.
Letters: It’s a more public art…
Mary: Yeah, so I think I’m a little stunned by that. I’m making my way back into the quiet spaces.
Letters: I love your poem, “Close Reading.” It’s a poem that raises a question: What are the stakes are for you in writing poetry?
Mary: Is what is at stake the soul? Right, that trying to read, trying not to simply get one’s lens back. Trying to go beyond what one already knows or understands. Yeah, I would say the stakes are trying to get beyond the bubble of one’s own understanding. That the poem has to break you open to learn something you didn’t already know. To learn something that you didn’t know how to articulate. You know sometimes for me there’s a terror. We talk a lot about poetry wanting to be the thing that says what is hard to say. You say the thing that has been impossible to say. Sometimes for me there’s the terror of what if there is nothing to say? I have a line in one of the poems in Incarnadine, the figure of Gabriel talking to Mary saying, “There were so many things I wanted to tell you. Or rather, I wanted there to be things I wanted to tell you.” Right? That sort of longing to have the words that are going to make a connection. That are going to be the revelation of truth.
Letters: How do you teach students to read poetry?
Mary: I think our temptation is always to look for validation. That here’s what I already know I believe and here is how the poem supports me, seeing what I want to see, hearing what I want to hear. I try to teach my students to observe the poem standing in the way of that rush toward affirmation. What is it doing that resists? To engage in the struggle without the poem resists easy sense making.
I think it’s natural when we read to want to love things we can relate to. We say that a lot, “Oh I totally relate to this, I get it. This names something I maybe didn’t know how to name.” I think that’s beautiful and important, but I think in some ways the more exciting part is a poem that gives you access to something you haven’t already experienced. Towards strangeness, towards what you don’t recognize. It actually lets you into an experience of something that is unfamiliar to you. So, yes, I try to teach my students to struggle with how the poem resists what you want to make of it and to instead let the poem make something of you.
Letters: That reminds me of what you said last night about viewing yourself as an iconoclast, breaking the language of symbols and their pre-established meaning, resisting that.
Mary: I think it’s interesting to think about that in terms of reading poetry. It’s harder for me to quite immediately think of that in terms of reading. I think what you say is probably very true, the same way that I don’t want to simply absorb the preformatted ways of thinking as I write, open up space. I think doing the same thing as a reader makes a lot of sense. Again, it’s the difference between the simple absorption, absorbing what’s already been made for me, and actually getting into interpreting.
Letters: Some poets talk about “receiving” forms or being a “channel” for something. Do you ever feel that forms are leading you into something new in the same way that a reader might be confronted by a poem?
Mary: Oh totally. I mean the form as guide, the form as forcing me toward what I wouldn’t naturally do. I’m not a huge believer in “first thought, best thought.” I think that, at least for me, maybe other people have different experiences, but for me, the first thing I think is often the most conventional thing, the thing that I’m most programmed to think or say. Somebody told me, I don’t know if it’s true, that James Tate had a practice of after writing every line he would make himself put the pen down and consider not just what would flow next, not what I think of first coming after that line, but what really comes next? What’s the most both surprising and inevitable thing that comes to mind? I’ve tried that sometimes and I think it’s an interesting practice because I think often the most natural thing, the most automatic, is the most boring. It’s really just my programming. We have to work to get beyond that.
Letters: Both what you were describing in terms of reading, being willing to be broken open to new experience, and also in writing, being broken open to a less conventional way of thinking, would require not just intelligence but some kind of courage.
Mary: That’s why the technologies of poetry are helpful, right? Because if it’s just the individual slashing out on one’s own, I don’t want that. Poetry can be courageous and right and beyond my imagination. What can be amazing about form (And there are plenty of awful form poems, right?), but if you can use the form to get you beyond yourself and have it hold you, right? What comes next…Something has to come next that does this, so it forces you beyond something that would naturally come next and yet it gives you a space to be held. It makes it less scary to enter. Because well, “oh, I have to use a ‘z’.” I don’t know what comes with a ‘z.’ It forces me beyond what I would have naturally put there. There’s a kind of arrival, there’s a space that’s already made there to enter. It’s not just slashing out new territory.
Letters: I can’t help but be reminded of the structures of the church operating in a somewhat similar way, as forms that hold and push people at the same time. You’ve talked about how at the end of highschool your active prayer life came to an end and poetry came to sort of take its place. Is that still true for you today?
Mary: ‘I don’t know’ is the honest answer. I feel very suspicious of even making a parallel. I don’t think poetry is a kind of replacement or stand in for religion. I think they do very different kinds of work and have very different sets of possibilities. I’m suspicious of saying one took the place of the other and yet, there’s still something true about it in my experience at least. An artistic practice is an act one does ritually where one finds meaning. That is largely the experience of religious practice, too, but they’re not the same thing. And writing poetry doesn’t have an avenue within itself for taking you back to the world in the same way that being in practice with others, right? Being in a space literally with other bodies in community. It’s nothing like that. There’s something in that in the sense that I feel there’s great company in poetry. I feel like there are all the dead poets one is in company and in conversation with…it’s deeply in conversation and in community and I enter this space. But it’s not the same thing as entering a physical space with other bodies and voices and flesh beings.
Letters: You return to the idea of contemplation often in your writing. Contemplation, as you’ve expressed, lingers in the space between affirmation and negation—a kind of empty, charged space. What does that mean for you, to be “contemplating” in between affirmation and negation?
Mary: I think part of poetry for me is training in a kind of, being willing to tolerate ambiguity. Which I think is actually not easy in the sense that…When I say it’s not affirmation and negation it doesn’t mean that those have to be guarded against, right? There can be all kind of no’s and yeses in something, but it means that it doesn’t have the agenda of getting to an end, right? It doesn’t have the agenda of saying, ok, I’m going to figure this out and arrive at…You know, whose side are you on? This side or this side? So much of our world is making those decisions and choosing sides and being willing to linger in a space that doesn’t and being willing to be in longing, right. Not just looking toward the satisfactions of satisfying longing.
Letters: Would you describe yourself as infatuated with longing?
Mary: Although, that’s a lovely idea, I don’t know that’s even my aspiration. That maybe feels something beyond me. But to inhabit it. To not need everything solved and maybe to give up this fantasy that it can be solved. Because coming to a moment of clarity or satisfaction or even getting one’s hunger met one day does not mean you give up the next day and have it solved and satisfied. Being too caught up in the chase of believing that you can get there, that you can get to knowledge, that you can get to understanding. That then you get to rest. And I don’t think it means that I have to be in love with restlessness. It just means I have to face the reality of restlessness…
Letters: That’s a great distinction.
Mary: …and not have the fantasy of, ok, as soon as I figure it out then I’ll get to rest and life with start there, right? Which I think is sometimes what I’m seduced into. Ok, as soon as I figure this out, as soon as I get this chore off my list and get this accomplished, then my life will start and then I will sort of rest into that. The constance of reorientation, that life is in the disorientation. Life is in the restlessness. It isn’t just around the bend once this gets figured out.
Letters: I love the way you describe inhabiting of longing. But longing points somewhere, right? Where does the longing of your work point now?
Mary: I don’t know. I mean I think that mostly we don’t understand our own longing. We think often, oh here is what I am longing for, I can tell you what will satisfy this longing. If only I have this, this particular longing will be satisfied. And I think we often don’t know ourselves that well. Sometimes we know ourselves, but at the same time we radically don’t know ourselves. I mean, we’re so brilliant at deceiving ourselves and convincing ourselves that we understand ourselves, understand our longings, understand what we’re longing for. Mostly we don’t. So I think that’s part of being willing to inhabit the unknowing. That belief that I know what it is that will satisfy my longing. So I don’t know.
Letters: Do you have advice for fledgling writers?
Mary: One thing that was helpful to me was giving up this idea of sort of discovering your voice. Because that metaphor I think suggests that your voice already is some essential thing and you only sort of have to go on a hunt to find it. There’s something very disempowering about that. Whereas thinking about our capacity to create our voices and to constantly recreate them, I think, gives one a little more room. That we can, we have the gift of quite long legacies in poetry and all of the arts, that there are so many people to lead on, right. We create our voices out of the voices we love largely, both in literature and in the people and voices around us. Having permission to think about creating a voice based on love, right. The family members and the voices around you growing up, the poets you love, that you’re taking a little something from those and making something new each time. It’s not the same voice each time. Every new poem is an experiment with a new voice that you are making. I find that a much more helpful orientation to think in terms of voices and remaking and making rather than finding.