A Conversation with Mary Szybist

In late February, Mary Szybist 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. The next morning, she sat down with two editors from LETTERS Journal for a more intimate conversation about her work and matters literary and spiritual. A Mary-blue scarf wrapped loosely around her shoulders, she spoke softly and thoughtfully of teaching, iconoclasm, and the challenge posed by public acclaim.

Kate Kilcup: Could you tell us a little bit about how your work has changed since Incarnadine?

Mary Szybist: 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 for my mother, but 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 that I can’t find a way to forge into poems.

KK: Do you have a sense of why?

Mary: There’s been a sense of bewilderment. Losing my mother was like losing a
compass of sorts. Poems, at least the ones I knew how to write, required some forward motion, and I’ve found myself in a time of stillness. I think there’s also some strangeness in having received some positive response to Incarnadine. Mostly, I have written poems assuming they would be read by those near to me—and few others. A poem has always felt like a private space. How many poems have been published in the world that have barely been absorbed by readers? Many, many, most. I’ve been lucky. It is a gift to be read by anyone. Still, it’s a very strange thing to feel that one’s poems might be read.

KK: It’s a more public art.

Mary: Yes. I think I was a little stunned by that. I’m making my way back into the quiet spaces.

Sally Hansen: 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: For me, writing is trying to re-read, trying not to not simply go on seeing through the same lens. 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, impossible to say. But how do we know when that is an answerable or fruitful endeavor? In one of my poems, the figure of Gabriel says to Mary, “There were so many things I wanted to tell you. Or rather, I wanted there to be things I wanted to tell you.” I relate to that. I also have doubt that seems to reach beyond doubt in my own skill or in language’s capacities.

SH: How do you teach students to read poetry?

Mary: I think our temptation is always to look for validation: here’s what I already know I believe and here is how the poem supports me. I try to collaborate with my students to observe the ways a poem might stand in the way of that rush toward affirmation. What is the poem doing that challenges us, that resists easy sense-making? I think it’s natural when we read to want to love things we can relate to, to love a poem because we immediately “get it,” because it articulates so well an experience we recognize. I think that’s beautiful and important, but for me it is even more exciting when a poem gives me access to something I haven’t already experienced, when it takes me towards what I don’t already know how to see and recognize. So, yes, in my classroom we try to stay alert to how poems resist what we want to make of them, alert to their real strangeness.

KK: 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: Well, that is the other side. To say I want to let the poem resist my initial
assumptions about it doesn’t mean I am open to letting the poem make anything it wants of me. I used to search for poets whose vision I totally trusted, voices I could uncritically love and absorb. I don’t look for that anymore. The poet Ann Lauterbach said with elegant succinctness: “Art asks to be interpreted, not just absorbed.” For me, real engagement requires not just heart and vulnerability but the alertness of all my critical faculties—which sometimes alert me to absence, to danger.

SH: 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: Absolutely. Form can be a guide, leading me toward what I wouldn’t naturally do. I’m not a huge believer in “first thought, best thought.” 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 would make himself put the pen down after he wrote each line rather than allow himself to write the line that seemed to naturally flow from it. He would ask: what really comes next? What’s the most surprising and inevitable thing that could follow? That practice makes sense to me, and I have my own versions of it. Often the most automatic next line that occurs to me is
predictable, boring, and false. I have to work to get beyond that.

KK: 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. We can lean on them. There are of course plenty of awful form poems, but when form is used as a device rather than a gimmick, form can be like armor that allows you to go into dark spaces you wouldn’t know how to enter or move through on your own.

KK: 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 high school 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 suspicious of making a parallel. I don’t think poetry is exactly a replacement or stand-in for religion. I think they do different kinds of work and have very different sets of possibilities, but artistic and spiritual practices have things in common, and I have felt that commonality deeply: they are acts done regularly or ritually where one finds meaning. Still, writing is not a practice that puts you into spaces with other living beings in community the way religious celebrations often do. There are all the dead poets one is in conversation with, so there is a company and community I feel when I enter the space of a poem, but it’s not the same thing as entering a physical space with other bodies and voices. But again, to speak very personally, my most powerful experiences of prayer happened when I was alone. I do feel I have channeled some of that energy into poems. And I do regularly attend poetry
readings by other poets, and that has been important to me. I need to think more about whether or not that practice has had a liturgical function for me.

SH: 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, a willingness to tolerate ambiguity. For me that doesn’t mean it has to be neatly located between affirmation and negation; those don’t have to always be guarded against. So often taking a stand for or against something is ethically imperative. There can be all kind of no’s and yeses in a contemplation of something, but contemplation means that I don’t have an agenda of getting to an end. I’m not trying to master an issue through expertise or figure out “the version” I will choose to believe. So much of our world asks us to choose sides. I want to be able to linger in a space that doesn’t, to be willing to be in uncertainty even when I’m longing for something more certain to hang on to.

KK: Would you describe yourself as infatuated with longing?

Mary: I don’t think that’s my aspiration. But I want to be able to tolerate it and even productively inhabit it. I want to give up the fantasy that each day is another opportunity to accumulate moments of clarity that will be neatly added to all my others. Coming to a moment of understanding or satisfaction one day doesn’t mean it lasts into the next day. Having one’s hunger met today does not mean you won’t be hungry tomorrow. I don’t want to get caught up in the chase of believing that I can get to stable knowledge or understanding and rest there. And often, I just want to rest. I don’t think any of this means that I want to be in love with restlessness. It just means I have to face the reality of how things shift . . .

KK: That’s a great distinction.

Mary: . . . and not have the fantasy of, ok, as soon as I figure this or that out, then I’ll get to rest, and my real life will start from there. Sometimes that is what I’m seduced into believing. Okay, 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 rest into a certain framework. But more and more I suspect that there is no honest way out of disorientation and bewilderment. My true life isn’t going to begin just around the bend once this or that gets figured out. Life is in the flailing, the longing.

KK: I love the way you describe inhabiting of longing. But longing points somewhere, right? Where does the longing of your work point now?

Mary: Mostly I don’t understand my own longing. I think often, oh here is what I am longing for, and if only I had it, I would be satisfied. But it turns out that I usually don’t know or understand myself very well. If I am truly brilliant at anything, I think it is self-deception—and I believe I have a lot of human company in that particular talent. I find self-deception (like a conviction that I know what will satisfy me) easier than really inhabiting unknowing.

SH: Do you have advice for fledgling writers?

Mary: It was helpful to give up the idea of discovering my voice. That metaphor suggests that one’s voice is already some essential thing and you have to find or uncover it. That vision seems to me both disempowering and untrue. We create our voices and constantly recreate them, and we have the capacity to radically re-imagine and re-make them. Every new poem is an experiment with a new voice. And as long as we are engaged in that enterprise, we are never alone. We have the gift of all the poems that have come before us. We create our voices from and in dialogue with the voices we love, voices literary and otherwise. Who do you want to sound like, what range of influences do you want to draw from, to sound like yourself? We create voices inspired by love.