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Poet Mary Szybist Explores The Mysteries Of Faith

OPB | March 7, 2013 7:15 a.m. | Updated: March 18, 2014 9:18 a.m.

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Update, March 18, 2014: Mary Szybist won the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry for “Incarnadine” at the 2014 Oregon Book Awards.

Update, November 21, 2013: Portland poet Mary Szybist won a National Book Award for Poetry for “Incarnadine.” Szybist, who teaches at Lewis & Clark College, was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2004 for her book “Granted.”

Mary Szybist went to church in her youth, but spent much of her time as a young adult trying to move away from her religious tradition. It wasn’t until she took a trip to Italy seven years ago that she began to appreciate some of the ideas of the church she was raised in.

In Italian art museums, she began to fall in love with Christian imagery, and in particular the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, where the angel Gabriel told Mary she would conceive Jesus Christ. Szybist says, 

“The annunciation appeals to me in part because it’s a vision of an encounter, where a human actually perceives something unlike herself. I find the whole vision of trying to perceive something ‘other’ moving, because it’s very hard to do.”

Her new book of poems Incarnadine builds on the image of the annunciation, reimagining the biblical scene with modern takes that blend the sacred with the secular. Her poems draw inspiration, among other things, from a CPR manual, stories from the news and two girls putting a puzzle together. Szybist (pronounced “she-bist”) told Think Out Loud‘s Dave Miller that the story of the annunciation provides her a frame to explore themes of transformation.  

“I certainly long to be changed, I certainly long to be transformed, and that is what this annunciation scene is all about. The desire to re-see and re-perceive — which is how I’m using this scene to re-see other scenes — trying to find a way toward all kinds of different transformations.”

Szybist said her focus on going back to religious icons and exploring spiritual themes is a loaded topic in today’s society and is “not what contemporary poets are supposed to do.”

“Part of my interest is going back and recovering traditions that I think have been discarded – sometimes too easily discarded – but nevertheless have engendered a lot of imagination and a lot of art and [I’m] trying to recover them in ways that feel like renewals rather than simple retreats.”

Listen to Think Out Loud’s full conversation with Mary Szybist.

Correction - March 29, 2013: Mary Szybist’s quote was corrected to remove a typographical error. It was changed from “not what contemporary poets are not supposed to do” to “not what contemporary poets are supposed to do.”

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