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Mary Szybist

Teaching Writer, Winner of the 2013 National Book Award in Poetry

Mary Szybist joined the Young Writers residential staff as a teacher and counselor in 1993; she returned in 2003 as a teaching poet. In 2013, her book ‘Incarnadine’ won the National Book Award in Poetry. She is the Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities of English at Lewis & Clark in Portland, Oregon, and is a member of the faculty at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.

Where are you living and what brought you there?

I live in Portland, Oregon with my husband, Jerry Harp, who is also a poet, and our cat Poor Tom.  We moved to Portland to teach at Lewis & Clark College.  As we are poetry teachers, it might be more succinct to say that poetry brought us to Portland.

Where are you working and what do you enjoy about it?

I love the daily adventures of teaching poetry, and YWW taught me a lot about the kind of adventure that poetry could be in the classroom.  Most of all, I love the process by which young writers create their voices.  I think often of Yeats’s lines: The friends that have I do it wrong Whenever I remake a song, Should know what issue is at stake: It is myself that I remake.

What do you find yourself most often reading/listening to lately and why?

I can’t seem to escape an obsession with Yeats; the grandeur of his vision has a hold of me.  I’m also loving Bye-And-Bye, Selected Late Poems by Charles Wright, Jorie Graham’s P L A C E, Jennifer Grotz’s The Needle, On Tact and the Made-up World by Michele Glazer, Useless Landscapes or A Guide for Boys by D. A. Powell, For the Mountain Laurel by John Casteen,  Troubled Tongues by Crystal Williams, Book of Hours by Marianne Boruch, and Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith.

What are you working on right now and what does it represent in the larger body of your artistic accomplishments?

Note: Mary has since won the 2013 National Book Award for Incarnadine, the collection she discusses below.

Right now I’m working on finishing my second book of poems, Incarnadine, which will be published by Graywolf Press this coming February.  “Incarnadine” is a word that comes from the Latin “incarnato,” something made flesh.  The book continues to explore some of the themes that have been central to me: the relationship between physical and spiritual desire and the way both are intertwined with the desire to know and be known.  The presence of the human body is one of my central concerns: its fragility and needs, its transformations, and its distinctive life, even apart from the mind and will.

What are your publications, performances, albums, and/or achievements that seem most important to you at this point in time?

As of this moment, I have just one book in the world—Granted (Alice James Books, 2003)—and it is still a thrill to know that I have written and published a book that has reached at least a few readers. 

How would you characterize the value of your YWW teaching experience in the larger context of who you are as a writer/artist?

I worked at YWW both as a counselor and as teacher.  Both experiences enlarged my world, my artistic practice, and my sense of possibility as few experiences in my life have.  I wish that I had had the opportunity to attend YWW as a student; I know it would have helped me become more open to myself—and to my own “multitudes”—much earlier than I did.     

What’s the best advice you can give a Young Writer (in general or in your specific genre)?

Follow your curiosity.  Also, don’t try to tone down what is authentically strange about you.  Write from that.

Where can we find you online?

Website: http://maryszybist.net/

Submitted May 2012; updated September 2017