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A Talk with MARY JO BANG

: When you say that the broken line is a traditional one, can you more specifically point to poets of that tradition whose work has influenced you, or with whom you feel a kinship?

MJB: It's such a mishmash. And not all of them break their lines. Kafka, Hopkins, Stein, Beckett, Joyce, Plath, Emily D, Virginia Woolf, Henry Green, Berryman, Freud. You see the problem, don't you?

: Can you talk about just one of the poets in that tradition? Let’s take one of these writers: What do you find interesting in his or her sense of how a line works, how it transmits feeling and information?

MJB: Take Hopkins’ poem, “Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves,” for example. (Which begins, “Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, ‘vaulty, voluminous, stupendous/ Evening strains to be time’s vast, ‘womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.”) Naturally the emphatic alliteration and rhyme and strong stresses account for a lot, but his line is another element in creating the overall effect. In the sonnet, the strange and continual enjambment creates the sense of an almost manic push of speech that indicates a degree of intensity over and above what poetry usually reveals. It’s noticeable. It’s distinct. It tells us something about a state of mind without using direct speech.

SS: What about lines in prose poetry? How do those work?

: In Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, the line refuses to stop and start. Instead the fragments within the lines do the work. The small prose blocks composed of fragments create a sonic momentum that suggests that the reader is not supposed to stop but to keep on.

The line is an element. It’s like a sentence that doesn’t obey the rules. Think about the long lines of “Leaves of Grass,” or Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and how differently those poems would read if they were in short lines. The expansive properties, the largess, would be annihilated: both the oracular quality of the Whitman, and the sense of a rant in Ginsberg. For myself, I usually write short lines and I think of the break as a place where something comes to an end before it goes on again on the next line. That something varies from line to line and from poem to poem. I think Dickinson understood that, and used it. And used the em-dash within the poem to the same effect. To replicate the mind in the act of grappling with language.

SS: Were there experiences with art or language when you were young that you see now as having changed the trajectory of your life? Or is that storybook question?

MJB: There were events, especially having to do with art. My grandmother — a chubby, rather benign, white-haired woman who padded around in a loose dress and house-slippers — was married to a very gentle man from Poland who worked as a carpenter and house painter. When he wasn't working, he made art. He painted on pieces of Masonite. If he wasn't painting, he made drawings on small pads of paper. The paintings — usually oil, but sometimes pastels or watercolors — were rather conventional landscapes, though extremely well done. The drawings, however, were cubist. I didn't know that word then, and he never referred to them as that, but that's what they were. They fascinated me. He fascinated me: his accent, his humor, the fact of making art, of sitting on a stool before an easel, of having a wooden pallet on which there were colors. The smell of linseed oil. The little brushes.

The family story was that he'd been born into some aristocracy in Poland. As a young man he'd come into his inheritance and taken it and gone to Paris, where he'd squandered it. He somehow got on a ship to America, and later met my grandmother and married her. That romantic narrative was my favorite family story. It was always told in a hushed, almost religious, tone that implied some sort of tragedy, the squandering, but also respect: Here he was, painting his marvelous pictures. I adored him. I knew no one like him. The other men in my family were truck-drivers or bus drivers or factory workers. The women were wives who stayed at home. In my eyes he was exotic. Heroic. He died when I was eight.

SS: Anyone else steer you towards new art?

: In high school I had a friend who came from a very cultured family. Her mother was a librarian and there were New Yorker magazines stacked on her bedside table, art on the walls. I went to the St. Louis Art Museum with her and as we walked through rooms, she talked about the art in a way that fascinated me. She explained what the artist was trying to do. And why he or she did what they did. It had never occurred to me that there might be those sorts of complicated intentions behind art. I had naively assumed that each artist acted alone and I judged a painting by whether it pleased me. Good art was what pleased me. I was confused by someone like Mondrian, for example. I couldn't understand why someone would paint like that. What was the point? Now I began to comprehend that there could be cultural motivations for individual artistic decisions. I began to read about art and I took an art history class in high school. I initially majored in art history in college but later changed, during the tumultuous Sixties, to sociology.

SS: I find it interesting that two incredibly different people showed you new ways of thinking as an artist, or living as one. Are there people who, in your adult life, have also instigated these large shifts in how you see the process of making art?

MJB: When I first began to study photography at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, my instructor Kenneth Josephson was very influential. I was taken by the way he called attention to the various layers of reality: the real and the idealized real. One of his best-known images is a photograph of an outstretched arm with a hand holding a postcard of a ship at the horizon line where a body of real water meets a real blank sky. … Traditionally photography allows us to forget the photographer's hand, but of course it's there. Photography is a form of manipulation. The frozen moment is an illusion. He changed my way of thinking about art. In some ways that was the beginning of a particular sensitivity that continues to this day. It took me a while to understand that text could do the same thing; once I did understand it, it changed what I wrote.

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