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A Talk with MARY JO BANG

SS: Can you talk a little bit more about that change? When did your hand, so to speak, start to appear in your own work? Did the content shift, or only your stance in relation to the content?

MJB: I'm always suspicious of my own after-the-fact explanations of why I did something long ago and why I do something different now. I think I'd prefer to say that my received idea of a poem changed as I read more. I also began to see that one could invent new solutions for the problems a poem presents, and I came to realize that every poem does present problems, not the least of which is that it is a poem!

As a poem, it's always being written against a complicated backdrop of poetic history that includes not only all the poems of the past but everything ever written about poems.

SS: And how did knowing this help you as a poet?

MJB: I began to experiment with using indirection, instead of direction. Fragmentation instead of the pretense of completion. Disjunction instead of a direct linear approach. Openness instead of epiphany. I practiced hiding behind persona, behind paintings, behind poetic history, behind process-based composition. How one does that naturally reveals a self. I'm not one of those who believes the self can ever be dissolved. I think it’s disingenuous to think so. Artistic choices inevitably reveal aspects of the personal self and aspects of the cultural self. Both of which contain, and exceed, the historical moment.

SS: When one is “hiding” behind certain poetic devices, what else can be revealed, if not the self? What is the risk in that?

MJB: The frame of the poem is like the frame of a photograph: What’s within the frame depends on where the camera is aimed. The mask allows poets to exceed the limits of their own personal experience. I think of Beckett and how his characters escape every constraint — sometimes even the constraint of having a body. The speaker can be reduced to a pair of lips.

The risk in the mask is that it can create a sense of remove. The reader may feel toyed with, or may grow fatigued with being spoken to by a ventriloquist's dummy and want the illusion of a “real” person. But of course the “real” speaker is every bit as much a construct as the one in costume and wig.

: How are you “hiding” in the work you are doing now, or are you not?

MJB: I just finished a book where there is no hiding. It’s a book called Elegy and it contains poems written in the year following my son’s death. But even so, they are poems. And in poems one hides behind a pronoun: an I, or a she. One hides behind the restraint of partial narrative. One hides behind the rhetorical surface.

SS: I wonder if, writing out of such a terrible loss, one even has the luxury to think about one’s readers? Or if writing Elegy was a different kind of writing, in that it confronted so many difficult questions?

MJB: I suspect the intended audience for all elegies is the one who has gone. The fact that the gone aren’t able to read only creates more anguish, which then dictates another elegy. It’s the horrible hamster wheel of grief.

SS: It must be difficult releasing a book written with one person in mind out into the world. Was there a point at which you thought you would never share these works?

: In the beginning, I wasn't thinking about a book. In fact, I wasn't thinking at all. I suppose I was trying to give shape to a state of disbelief and horror and regret and a terrible missing. All of those words I've just used, as large as they are, fail, the way the poems ultimately fail, to accurately measure the emotion.

While I was writing the poems, editors of literary journals sometimes asked me for poems and, since I had no other poems, I would give them what I'd written, always with the caveat that these might be tonally different from what they might be expecting and that I wouldn't mind at all if they demurred. But they didn't demur. They took many — or sometimes all — of what I sent them. Over time, I began to think that the poems must mirror something that isn't just mine — my unique and private loss — but something that others have also felt. I find that a bit bewildering but also consoling.

Writing these poems has caused me to think a lot about the role of elegy. I understand firsthand now how the page becomes a space where a conversation continues. The beloved stays in the world for the duration of the writing. Even if the reading afterwards reminds the writer of the exquisitely painful fact that the other is not here, will never again be here. But while writing, he or she is here. And adamantly so. I'm not sure if that makes sense but it happens. In the moment of writing, elegy takes one out of the deep end of sorrow. Away from the danger of drowning.

SS: When you were writing these poems, did you read any elegies or reflect on elegies you had read in the past?

MJB: The only elegy I read while I was writing the poems was Mallarmé’s A Tomb for Anatole, which is about the loss of his young son. But in the back of my mind, I had two other elegiac works. One I read as an adolescent: Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther. The other book was Jacques Roubaud’s Some Thing Black, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop. It’s about the sudden death of his young wife. All of these books gave me a sense of permission. Their existence and the fact that they moved me argued it was allowable to write about something personal and exquisitely painful in a sometimes harshly ironic poetic climate. The thing made — the poem, the book — was a reasonable artifact of the grief, and a way to step out of that state, if only for the moment of writing.

SS: I find it amazing that these books granted you a kind of permission to write about a personal loss, an experience from which so many of the best poems of the past stem.

MJB: I think the writings of others have always given me permission of one sort or another. Permission and anxiety. I’m not even certain what I mean when I use that word permission. Invitation? Provocation? Both, and more.

SS: Do you think it is a problem that the contemporary poetic landscape can feel anti-personal?

MJB: It may feel that way, but I don’t think it is. Every poem reveals something about its author. So the poem that looks anti-personal, although it may omit what we think of as autobiographical fact, still presents the reader with a map of the mind as it navigates language.

SS: What are some of the new projects you're working on?

MJB: These days, I often work on several things at once. At the moment, I'm working on a rather audacious project of translating Dante's Inferno. I'm remaining scrupulously true to the narrative, with its overarching concern with good and evil, or what is perhaps better thought of in our secular society as right and wrong. But I' taking some liberties, here and there. …. I'm also close to finishing a collection of poems, P Is for Plato and Pee-Wee Herman, that locate themselves in high and low cultural figures: "C is for Cher," "B is for Beckett," that sort of thing. And I have a verse-novel called Amnesia that deals with memory.

I also recently inherited over 50 years of daily journals written by my biological father, who died in 2005. He wrote them longhand, then typed them, then revised and re-typed them. They are obsessively and frustratingly trivial — meticulously detailing the time he woke every day (4:38 a.m., 5:16 a.m., etc) — and tediously banal, "I went to the drugstore. I bought Tums." I want to make them into something. I'm just not sure what. And I'm not even sure why. I only saw him a handful of times after he left my mother and my sister and me when I was four. The writing is all about surface, as if there was no inner life whatsoever. I'm intrigued by that. Why would someone write those details? Why wouldn't he at least round the numbers? Why is it important to know, 20 or 30 or 50 years after the fact, that one bought Tums on a particular day? But in one way, it's what all writing is: The compulsion to detail something that happened inside the mind.



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