Mary Jo Bang is the author of eight books of poems—including A Doll For Throwing, Louise in Love, The Bride of E, The Last Two Seconds, and Elegy, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award—and a translation of Dante’s Inferno, illustrated by Henrik Drescher. She’s been the recipient of a Hodder Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Berlin Prize Fellowship. She teaches creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis.
Kristina Marie Darling: What does the visual aspect of poetry, its engagement with the page as a kind of canvas, make possible for our experience of language? How has your relationship to the page as a visual field metamorphosed since early collections like Louise in Love and Apology for Want?
Mary Jo Bang: I’ll answer the second question first. While I was writing the poems in Apology for Want, I was learning about the stanza—reading poems written in stanzas, by living poets and no longer living poets, and learning about the stanza by dividing the lines I was writing (usually after the fact) into stanzas. I was in an MFA program when most of the poems in Apology were written, so all of those stanza-based poems were written under the dual signs of the workshop and the workshop teacher, primarily Lucie Brock-Broido. They were also written under the influence of a prosody course taught by the poet and prosodist Alfred Corn (The Poem’s Heartbeat), as well as other classes and other teachers. And there was also NYC, with all the readings and classes that were offered at venues like the 92nd Street Y. I immersed myself in all of that.
I also became very good friends with my fellow student, Timothy Donnelly, who arrived at Columbia with an impeccable sense of the line and the stanza. I believe he must have been born with it. I remember he would sometimes push me off my desk chair and reshape one of my recalcitrant poems into the poem it wanted to be. He didn’t change a word, only the line breaks and the appearance on the page. I remain in awe of him, and in his debt for what he taught me. I’m also in awe of what I learned from Lucie Brock-Broido about how the line and subjectivity are intertwined and how that duality gets braided with language.
Between writing Apology and writing Louise in Love, I was reading about poetry, and immersing myself in the work created by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school, their poems and their poetics. I was also reading criticism by Marjorie Perloff, who probably more than anyone taught me how to read a poem in a way that deconstructs the contribution of all of those elements: form, sound, lexicon, image, affective gestures, as well the surrounding historical context and political impact. At some point in reading about why the lyric was no longer viable, I decided that since I loved reading Byron and Keats, I was going to have to remain a lyric poet, whether I wanted to be or not. In Louise in Love, I tried to call into question some of the traditional elements of the lyric, while staying in the lyric mode. Taking to heart Ashbery’s “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name,” which begins
You can’t say it that way any more,”
Bothered about beauty you have to
Come out into the open, into a clearing,
And rest. ...
I decided to rebelliously turn up the fire under the phonic echoes instead of muffling them. At the same time, I also turned the heat up under the idea of self-dramatization (while embedding that drama in a constructed character named Louise). And in many of the poems, I still wrote in lines but I gave up dividing the lines into stanzas. And there was one very small prose poem.
Then, and now, I believe form is my way of curating the affective substrate behind the rhetorical surface. Form measures out all the elements of poetry: sound, lexicon, image, etc. In the lyric poem, one curates those elements in the interest of creating meaning and gesturing to affect. Of course that’s all an abstraction. There is nothing concrete about a poem, except as ink on paper. How the ink is applied to the paper, that can contribute to the experience of encountering the poem. Which takes us to your first question, which is, how do readers experience the poem on the page/canvas. I think how the poet has chosen to organize the text on the page says something about the poet and her intent and her lineage. All poets are trying to keep the reader reading and attentive, which isn’t always easy in poetry. The poet is an illusionist, seducing the reader into believing there is a real person in the room, when there’s not. The truth is, whatever ‘speaking’ the reader hears is all inside the reader’s own head. And the organization of the text on the page furthers or complicates that desire to mesmerize. An overly complicated form can create a sense of remove (as in, this is just too difficult, goodbye!), the prose-poem’s dense block of text can also be challenging in poetry if it goes on too long, whereas it’s the norm in fiction.
For me, personally, the page is a visual field, but it’s also a diorama. My aim is to make the reader see a stage with an automaton on it, a doll so life-like that one momentarily suspends disbelief and thinks the doll they see is their own self in a mirror. Or, if not that, then to convince the reader they are playing a game that is, at least for a moment, as interesting as the reality around them. That gets more and more difficult since we have so many ready-made games available on the computer. Including that ‘game’ of ‘the daily news,’ also known as ‘unfolding history.’ And that ‘game’ called ‘watch while real life outdoes the familiar constructed narratives of television, movies, and computer games’! And for some, the ‘game’ called pornography! And that ‘game’ called Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram, etc. It’s that desire to play games, I think, that is partly driving a lot of today’s formal innovation. The broken line poem might be too comfortable a form to have the impact one desires. And yet, it is sometimes just the form one needs because it is an ideal way of measuring-out doses, or treats.
KMD: Your career is marked by a remarkable breadth and depth of engagement, with accomplishments in many fields in addition to poetry. According to your biography the Poetry Foundation, you studied sociology and photography at prestigious institutions before completing your Master of Fine Arts in Poetry. What have other disciplines opened up within your work? How would you describe the presence of non-literary texts (ie, archival, historical, etc.) in this new folio of poems?
MJB: I also studied and practiced medicine (a long time ago) and am interested in psychology, which I never formally studied but read on my own. Science and medicine, and psychology, are explicitly behind “A Lacework Snake,” but implicitly behind all of the poems in this group. The place where perhaps all of these fields and interests converge is in the fuzzy idea of consciousness, that mishmash of neurochemical electrical impulses and lived experience, plus historical moment, plus genetics, plus-plus-plus. When you have multiple individual consciousnesses, you have a social fabric and the behavior of the individual within the group, which is the domain of sociology. Photography taught me the weight of the detail and often poetry hangs on that weight in the form of image and image is a way of stage-setting the diorama and gesturing to the substrate of affect, the volcano inside the braincase.
Unlike the poems in A Doll for Throwing, which made use of archival Bauhaus materials, there are very few non-literary historical/archival allusions in this group of poems. I believe there is only one poem that has something of that. The poem “The Golden Echo” has a quote from an 1860 history book, The Empire of Russia: From the Remotest Periods to the Present Time by John Stevens Cabot Abbot. I found the book online when I was searching for information about Catherine the Great and appropriated a sentence and the subtitle of that book. I love the idea that ‘the present’ in the title is 1860, while for us, 2018 is the present, but only until the year is over. Since the poem is an elegy, all of these things felt useful, especially the idea of a ‘tzarina’ who can be found nowhere. On the other hand, a ‘tsarina, because she’s an iconic figure of the past, is timeless, and can stand in for anyone else who is ‘gone,’ elegiacally speaking.
The title of that poem comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo,” which is about what we can keep and what we can’t. It’s a very manic poem, even for the densely alliterative Hopkins. It’s also a highly coded poem and infused with both beauty and the decay of death, and I quite love it. It makes use of the word “keep” four times in first (“The Leaden Echo”) part, and uses the past-tense “kept” seven times in the last five lines of the second (“The Golden Echo”) part. In addition to the Hopkins gesture, I put Dickinson’s death-moment/buzzing fly in my poem. And, of course, if you have ‘keep’ and ‘buzzing,’ you have Plath and her poem “The Beekeeper’s Daughter.” The entire poem is an elegy for Lucie Brock-Broido, who in my mind, and in her poems, is connected to all three poets: Hopkins, Dickinson, and Plath. Her long blond hair, her Moscovian fur hat, her high collars and lace cuffs, all made me think of a tsarina.
KMD: Your previous collections, and these gorgeous new pieces, are impressive in that each piece offers a self-contained world, an experience that is complete in and of itself. Yet there is also a unity of voice and sensibility when considering the poems as a whole. What suggestions do you have for writers who struggle to balance the integrity of the individual poem with the unity of the project or the collection?
MJB: I actually worry about ‘gorgeousness’ in my poetry. I worry because sofa art is also gorgeous in a way that can be too soothing, and therefore divorced from the complexity of a lived life. I’m always hoping that whatever indulgence is present in terms of ‘beauty,’ there is also some equal degree of disturbance. In terms of self-contained worlds, the world inside a volcano is self-contained, until it isn’t. Every volcano is part of a larger world—there’s always a Pompei or Herculaneum nearby, as well as a modern Naples.
I don’t have general advice for writers in general. I urge my students to be their inimitable selves on the page, as they are in life. To do that, of course, one has to discover who one is, and then dare to reveal it. One also has to find a way to demonstrate that inimitability in a way that will interest others. I don’t think that interest lies in the ‘stories’ of our lives, but in what someone who has lived a particular life will do with language. What game they will devise that will incidentally reveal something about them as the game’s creator? The details of one’s life can be used, they often want to be used, but they need to be in the service of something larger than themselves. Otherwise, the poem remains a narcissistic mirror, reflecting back only Narcissus, instead of the ghost of Narcissus with an overlay that each reader can mistake as a faded photo (or police sketch) of them.
KMD: At the moment, you are working concurrently on book-length poetry and translation projects. What has translation opened up within your process as a poet?
MJB: The first serious translation project I completed was Dante’s Inferno. The entire book took some six years and during that time, I admit, I wasn’t particularly aware of any effect on my own work. It was only after the fact, when I looked at the poems that I had written during that same period (the poems in The Last Two Seconds), that I realized how much I had absorbed. I think it may have come from Dante himself, not from translation per se—his success in creating a scaffold for his ideas. I had been trying to do that for some time in my own work without completely realizing it. By understanding how he had done it, and translating, which is an act of writing-over, his Medieval Tuscan dialect, I think I gained some new appreciation that entered my own poetic consciousness. I felt I’d been given permission to bring new things into my poems and to make what I brought in more grounded in history. The volcano was still there, but now those cities around it, plus the choking smell of sulfur, the porous rock, the pebble in one’s shoe after the climb up to the top, the heat of the day.
Since finishing the Inferno, I’ve co translated, with Yuki Tanaka, poems in Japanese by Shuzo Takiguchi, a Modernist Surrealist who died in 1979, and German poems by Matthias Göritz, a contemporary poet and novelist, and I’ve been working alone on translating poems by Baudelaire. And I’m currently three-fourths of the way finished translating Purgatorio. All of these translations keep me focused on the dual questions of 1) how can I compel someone to read this poem, and 2) how can I compel myself to read this poem yet again. You might think those are the same question but they are slightly different. I have a selfish interest in reading the poem again and yet if I don’t want to, then something must be done. And once that something is done, I have to ask myself whether someone else will want to read it? And if I think, perhaps not, something else will have to be done.
And of course I bring those two questions back to my own work. I don’t want to be seduced by my own affection for what I have written. I have to put on a different hat (dress, pants, coat, shoes, boots etc) and read it through a lens that isn’t the lens of my own eye. Translation is one way of learning that method of standing outside yourself, editing is another. The editor learns quickly how difficult it is for a poem to convince one to publish it. I read my own poems now with the same resistance I felt when I was an editor all those years ago.
KMD: What advice do you have for emerging writers, who may be in the process of crafting and submitting a first book of poetry?
MJB: I don’t know what to advise, other than what I said before (create something someone will want to read). I do think one ‘fashion’ I’ve seen lately in first books is for students coming out of MFA programs to put together a manuscript that feels like a sampler of all the compositional strategies they tried out during their workshop years. They saw examples in the workshop, and in books by contemporary writers they read (and who may have been invited to campus to read from their work), and then they tried those forms out for themselves. Which is exactly what one should do while in a writing program. But for the reader, it may speak too loudly about where the poet has been for the past two years (in an MFA program) and not about anything else. It’s a demonstration of lineage and a display of virtuosity. And neither of those things is necessarily bad, it’s just that it can feel like a substitute for something more interesting, like a grocery story aisle with all the expected jars of ragù or bottled waters but nothing one hasn’t seen before. This goes back to your first question about forms. When you think of the lyric past and consider a form like the sonnet, what is interesting is how over time different poets took a form that was ubiquitous and made it individual. And those who didn’t, we don’t remember their names. I think it’s difficult to make a sampler of forms that doesn’t trigger resistance to the fact that it’s a sampler of forms and not a document that creates a game that is as fascinating as playing some other game. It’s not impossible to do, I know of some excellent recent books that do it, but it’s difficult. An emerging writer who had such a manuscript might find it interesting to take all those various forms and chose just one and then explore how the content and poetic elements would change if the poems were all reshaped into that one form. That would also give the manuscript a sense of intent, and cohesion, and possibly even gravity.
A Folio of New Poems by Mary Jo Bang
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of thirty books, including Look to Your Left: The Poetics of Spectacle (University of Akron Press, 2020); Je Suis L’Autre: Essays & Interrogations (C&R Press, 2017), which was named one of the “Best Books of 2017” by The Brooklyn Rail; and DARK HORSE: Poems (C&R Press, 2018), which received a starred review in Publishers’ Weekly. Kristina currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Press and Tupelo Quarterly, an opinion columnist at The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a contributing writer at Publishers Weekly.