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Incarnadine: An interview with Mary Szybist

July 02, 2014

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    Photo credit: Joni Kabana

by Sara Balsom B.A. ’14

I know you spent time looking at annunciation scenes as research for your book and I’m curious, what drew you to the annunciation, and also, during your research, were there certain elements of the annunciation that were more essential than others?

Part of what attracted me to the scene was the sense of encounter and the sense of two very different beings able to perceive and interact with one another and be transformed. But I also love, in the paintings, the enforced space between the figures—the subject of the paintings often is the space between them; rather than the central human subject or the central physical subject, the subject really is distance. So that, in some ways, was the most important aspect for me – not just any space or distance, but a very charged distance that in some ways both separates and connects.

When reading the book I found myself wondering, to what extent is “Mary” in the poems an autobiographical Mary, and to what extent is she a re-imagined archetypal Mary?

Right, and that’s part of the play. And sometimes it’s very clear which it is. Obviously I can’t speak for this mythological Mary but—I do. So it’s a kind of an imagined ventriloquism. I’m imagining—so of course I’m projecting myself in some way. And then there’s the poems which are definitively from the point of view of a contemporary woman, but even when I have a poem as direct as “Updates on Mary” which announces itself as an autobiography, I don’t think it’s as simple as that.

Yeah, I got the sense while reading that poem that it was also a sort of update on [the archetypal] Mary.

That’s right. So I’m playing. I don’t think any poems are strict autobiography. They’re always an imagining.

Following that line of thought, do you like to think of your collection as a re-imagining of the Annunciation?

Yes, but many re-imaginings. I love “Leda and the Swan” by William Butler Yeats, which so powerfully re-imagines another annunciation scene, but I didn’t want to offer just one new vision of the Christian annunciation scene. I’m not trying to convince readers to understand that scene in one new and particular way. Blake declared “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.” I thought about that a lot while writing this book. I’m very sympathetic to that idea—that unless one really re-imagines these inherited ways of thinking, one is going to be in them. But I also don’t quite subscribe to the idea that one has to make a new mythology in order to escape an old one. One can unravel the old system through different kinds of re-imaginings; I don’t think they have to add up to a consistent vision that would constitute a new “system.” I never thought, “I’m kicking out that mythology, so here’s this new one where the woman is on top and Joseph is relegated to a lower position.” I’m not sure that I even wanted the poems to perform an “unraveling.” Perhaps I just wanted a loosening that would allow a wider range of possibilities.

And it seems like it’s also a way to interrogate or to look into trauma and tragedy in a modern world.

Yes.

If someone said to me “I’m doing a re-imaginging, a modernization of the annunciation,” what would come to mind is maybe somebody sitting in a doctor’s office and hearing “Oh, you’re pregnant,” [both laugh], and that’s not what this is, so I was curious, what, to you, makes something an annunciation? What is the presence that had to be there for it to be in the collection?

There was no essential ingredient. It really could echo it in any number of ways. That’s part of the permission I gave myself. It could have a visual correspondence, a thematic correspondence… I really wanted to play fast and loose if I was going to have so many repetitions of something so central. I needed to keep the possibilities wide. 

A version of this article originally appeared in Wordsworth, the English department newsletter.

English Department