Mary Szybist Joni Kabana

Mary Szybist’s poems like religion for nonbelievers

Shortly after winning the 2013 National Book Award for her second collection of poems, Incarnadine, Portland’s Mary Szybist told the Paris Review that she started writing poetry when she was young, after losing her ability to pray.

“I was devastated by it,” she said. “I missed being able to say words in my head that I believed could be heard by a being, a consciousness outside me. That is when I turned to poetry.”

Szybist was raised Catholic, and Incarnadine focuses on the Annunciation, approaching it through many forms and perspectives in an attempt, as she said in that interview, “to take the iconography of the Annunciation out of the realm of symbol, where its meaning is predetermined, and into the realm of contemplation — a realm with room for doubt, investigation, imagination, play.” The National Book Award judges called it “a religious book for nonbelievers.”

Asked if she has come to think of poetry as more or less like prayer, she responded by email:

“While I still don’t think these are interchangeable terms, I feel increasingly open to what both poetry and prayer can be. Can a poem be a poem without traditional markers of poetry such as line, meter and rhyme? I think so. Can a prayer be a prayer without faith or belief? Maybe. I think so. After all, aren’t most personal prayers pitched against faith? Why would I need to speak to God if I believe God already knows what is in my heart?

“I’m not sure most prayer is primarily an expression of faith. If prayer is sometimes about trying to connect to presences beyond the self by giving voice to desires, struggles and bewilderments, poems are sometimes about that too.”

Szybist is in residence at UC Berkeley this semester, teaching a course called Verse as the Holloway Lecturer in Poetry and Poetics. She said she began the workshop with counsel from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “People wish to be settled: only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

“Poetry seems to me to be the place where things are allowed to be as complicated as they actually are,” Szybist said. She excels at making the complex seem simple without reducing either its complexity or its allure.

The following are the closing lines from “Happy Ideas,” a poem in Incarnadine inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s statement “I had the happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a stool and watch it turn.”

I had the happy idea that what I do not understand is more real than what I do,

and then the happier idea to buckle myself

into two blue velvet shoes.

I had the happy idea to polish the reflecting glass and say

hello to my own blue soul. Hello, blue soul. Hello.

It was my happiest idea.


Holloway Reading Series: Mary Szybist: 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22. Free,UC Berkeley, Hearst Field Annex, Room D37 (off Bancroft Way), Berkeley.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Joni Kabana

Other book events

Apogee Press presents readings by three of its authors, Pattie McCarthy (“Quiet Book”), Denise Newman (“Wild Goods”) and Laura Walker (“Story”). 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22, Moe’s Books, 2476 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley, free.

Snack Bar Collective releases issue 2, “Gross,” with readings by contributing authors Amy Berkowitz, Tom Comitta,Carrie Hunter, Claire Moshenberg, Matthew Monte, George Pfau and Sable Sullivan. 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22, Alley Cat Books, 3036 24th St., S.F., free.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez reads from his novel “Reputations.” 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23, Green Apple Books on the Park, 1231 Ninth Ave., S.F., free.

Local poets and artists pay homage to poet and art writer Bill Berkson with readings, stories and farewells. 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24,McRoskey Mattress Co., 1687 Market St., S.F., free.

Tom Comitta returns from Los Angeles to read from his novel “The City of Nature” as part of the closing of his residency at Little Paper Planes. 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24, Minnesota Street Projects, 1275 Minnesota St., S.F., free.