February 06, 2009

Podcast: Professor Szybist earns national acclaim for poetry

The winter has been kind to Assistant Professor of English Mary Szybist.

The winter has been kind to Assistant Professor of English Mary Szybist. December brought news of a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA); February began with Poet Laureate Kay Ryan hand-selecting Szybist for one of two Witter Bynner Fellowships in Poetry from the Library of Congress. In just the past few months, her poems have appeared in The Kenyon ReviewTin HousePoetry, and The Iowa Review.

For a poet to achieve as much in an entire career would be remarkable, but for Szybist, who joined the Lewis & Clark faculty in 2004, the recent spate of success only extends the stunning trajectory set by her first book, Granted, which was a finalist for the National Book Circle Critic’s Award in Poetry in 2003.

Szybist’s work on her second book of poems, tentatively titled Incarnadine, will be supported by the NEA fellowship, one of the foremost awards in the literary field, which awards $25,000 to published creative writers of exceptional talent, encouraging the production of new work and allowing writers the time and means to write.

Listen to Szybist read her poem “Knocking or Nothing.” (mp3).


“A grant like this is a boost of adrenaline to the writing process,” said Szybist. “As I’ve worked on my current manuscript for the last few years, I have cycled through periods of faith and doubt, both about the poems and the project as a whole. To have the NEA select my work for this distinction is a great gift of validation, and I am eager to return to my manuscript with a renewed sense of vigor and excitement.”

Szybist will also receive $10,000 from the Library of Congress, made possible by a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation.  The fellowships  are awarded to two poets whose distinctive talents and craftsmanship merit wider recognition. Later this month, Szybist will travel to Washington, D.C. to read her work at the Library as part of the fellowship.

Listen to Szybist read her poem “The Lushness of It” (mp3).


“Mary Szybist’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,” said the Poet Laureate in her announcement of the Library’s Witter Bynner Fellowship.

Szybist’s distinctive poetic voice

Szybist’s colleagues are not at all surprised by her recent achievements. What is now becoming increasingly apparent to the national poetry community has been known at Lewis & Clark for years. Poet Paul Merchant, William Stafford Archivist and Special Collections Associate, said he expects Szybist’s work to continue to win national acclaim.

“Mary’s work in her remarkable debut collection, like that of all original writers, is hard to define simply,” Merchant said. “Her enormous imaginative sympathy allows her to inhabit other beings at their moment of emotional crisis. Then there is her absolute originality, her distinctive voice that speaks without artifice, intimately, conversational 

“It is probably foolish to compare poets with each other, but her successful mix of aphoristic simplicity with profound movement of thought is not common,” Merchant said. “I am reminded of poets at both ends of our shared tradition: of Sappho at its very beginning, and of Emily Dickinson, almost our contemporary.”

Sharing her craft with students

“The thing that seems most astonishing about Mary’s accomplishments is their relation to her work here on campus,” said Assistant Professor of English Will Pritchard. “She is an exceptionally devoted teacher and colleague. To give so much time and attention to one’s students’ poems would seem to leave no time for one’s own writing, but clearly Mary has managed not only to do both parts of the job but to excel at them both.  How lovely, and how extraordinary, that she is being honored at the national level even as she fulfills her local duties with such scrupulous care.”

A finalist for 2008 Teacher of the Year, Szybist shares her passion for poetry with students and colleagues alike, inspiring appreciation for the art in the Lewis & Clark community and beyond.

“I feel fortunate to be working at an institution where artists as illustrious as Mary Szybist enhance our daily lives,” said Rishona Zimring, chair of the Department of English. “These recent awards honor Mary’s achievement as a rising star in the poetry world, but perhaps not all great poets are also great teachers: Mary is a gifted one.  The ways she cultivates the love and the discipline of poetry in students are transformative, and immeasurably enrich our community.”

UPDATE: Szybist’s work was featured on the Jim Lerher News Hour (PBS) website for the week of February 9.