Bloom: Your work and life history—secretary, graduate studies in sociology, community organizer, physician assistant, photographer, and more—make you out as a Jill of All Trades. Looking back, how do you view all those paths and experiences? Do you see them as some sort of coherent whole, or more as “diversions” along the path to poetry?
Mary Jo Bang: I think few lives have an inherent causal logic where—if you look back—each activity appears to be the natural and inevitable outcome of the one that preceded it. Some of the activities you’ve listed represent the desire to find an occupation that would allow me some financial security. I was also trying to escape a life of boredom, and to have more options than the traditional stay-at-home marriage-and-motherhood my working-class parents had told me I was slated for. Other activities were a way to make sense of the larger world, and to have perhaps some small impact on it. Those varied motives, and countless others, are what collectively brought me here, to this moment, where part of my life involves writing poetry. I would never think that anything I ever did was a diversion from some otherwise pre-ordained straight line connecting long-ago and right-now. One is only ever the sum of the brain’s genetic hardwiring, the historical moment, and the impact of one’s environment. Time moves forward so at each new moment, there’s a new mix of those elements. How can one “divert” from that.
Bloom: And do you feel you’ve “arrived” at a kind of home-place in poetry, or are you still journeying as much as ever? It’s interesting to note that you are now back in your home state of Missouri after years of being away.
MJB: As you can perhaps see from my answer to the last question, I’m more of a pragmatist than a romantic. In the realm of poetry, I sometimes feel like “Star Trek”’s Mr. Spock, analytical to the point of being reductionist. I returned to St. Louis thirteen years ago when I was offered a teaching job at Washington University. If I’d been offered a job in another city, I wouldn’t be here. In terms of a figurative arrival, I find writing to be a deeply satisfying activity. It allows me to invent games I can play anywhere and anytime. And that prevents boredom—a state I find corrosive. Of course I have to invent ever more difficult games, since I already know the solutions to the ones I just played.
Bloom: It seems like when you’ve become interested in something, you’ve chosen to go to school to study it. Can you tell us about that inclination toward formal study?
MJB: I suppose it has to do with trying to achieve a level of comfort in the face of an enormous body of knowledge. I’m a perfectionist and I become frustrated when I can’t do something well or don’t know enough to understand something. Because of that, I often feel compelled to apprentice myself to a field of study until I achieve some level of mastery. If we want to understand more about that impulse, we have to call in Freud to talk about perfectionism, or get a neuroscientist to do some kind of brain mapping that might explain it.
Bloom: Your first collection of poetry was published when you were 50 years old. For how long had you been working on those poems?
MJB: I’d been writing poems sporadically for 10 years, but most of the poems in that collection were written after I began the MFA program at Columbia in 1993. There is only one poem included in that volume that was written prior to 1993.
Bloom: Can you tell us about your path to publication?
MJB: I think it’s a very common story. For years I indefatigably sent out poems to magazines and had occasional acceptances. Once I had enough poems for a manuscript, I indefatigably sent the manuscript out to contests and one day I won. That manuscript, which was chosen by for the 1996 Bakeless Prize, was published in 1997 as Apology for Want.
Bloom: How unusual—or not—is it for a poet (these days and/or in other eras) to begin her published career later in life?
MJB: I can’t speak about the past but I think it’s very unusual today. I was extremely fortunate in that I was able to go to an MFA program where I was introduced to new ideas about how to read and how to write. I had the good fortune to be accepted into the program, and once accepted, I was amazingly fortunate that someone made it financially possible for me to attend.
Bloom: Do you feel out of sync in any way? Are there advantages? What about in regards to your experience as an MFA student at Columbia?
MJB: I didn’t feel out of sync at Columbia because I was able to find friends there who seemed blind to the fact that I was twice their age. You might say my characterologic immaturity was finally an asset. The advantage in going to the program so late was that by then I had developed a pattern of discipline when it came to learning. I knew what could be gained by committing oneself in a very serious way. I used those years as an immersion program in poetry, the way one would commit to an immersion program in a second language. I felt I had no time to waste.
Bloom: How and when did literature become central to your self and life?
MJB: I think it was around age nine that I discovered that by reading I could make the non-book world fade away. It was the best escape ever. I tried after that to live in the world of books as much as I could.
Bloom: Of all the jobs you’ve had, how does your current post as teacher of poetry compare? Is it a path you’d recommend to young poets who are trying to figure out how to make a livelihood as a poet?
MJB: Teaching poetry is a wonderful job, the best job I’ve ever had. It has time to write built into it. And it allows me to continue to learn more about poetry. I would, of course, recommend it as one possible way for a writer to make a living, but I don’t think it’s the only way. And I don’t think everyone would be a good a teacher.
Bloom: Bloom contributing writer Kat Laskowski wrote, about your work: “Her books are often developed around central organizing principles. Louise in Love is a set of persona poems loosely based on ’20s film star Louise Brooks. The Eye Like a Strange Balloon is a type of ekphrastic “History of Art According to Bang.” Elegy, her most heart-wrenching and immediate collection, was written in the year following her son’s death. And The Bride of E is an abecedarian meditation on existence.” Is this a conscious part of your process on the front end, or do you tend to write a poem at a time and then see what you have when you have enough for a collection? Or both?
MJB: Each book is different. When I wrote the first poem of what would eventually become the collection titled Louise in Love, I didn’t know there would be a second Louise poem, or a third. And even when I had twenty-one poems that featured Louise (an invented character who only looks like Louise Brooks and who only coincidentally shares some of Brooks personality traits) I envisioned those poems as occupying a section of a larger book, not standing on their own. I kept periodically writing the Louise poems and at some point I had enough for a stand-alone collection. The Eye Like a Strange Balloon began as something different from what it became. Initially, there was a speaker trapped in a museum who could only escape briefly by inhabiting one of the paintings on the wall. That effort (thankfully) morphed into ekphrastic responses to works of art. Elegy was the result of a year spent trying to distract myself from crushing grief by writing poems. The grief was so consuming there was no other available subject for the poems. The Bride of E began when I wrote a poem called “C is for Cher”; once I did that, it occurred to me that I could use the device of “A is for,” “B is for,” etcetera and feature a pop culture figure at the center of each poem as a way to break from the tonal bleakness of Elegy. In the end, however, bleakness crept back in and the pop figures dropped out.
Bloom: Do you consider yourself an “elliptical poet” as some have deemed you?
MJB: I think my poems satisfy some of the premises of that category, but not others. Stephen Burt set up the terms of the category in 1998 in a short article for the British literary journal Poetry Review. In general, it was meant to describe a recent tendency of some poets to use disjunctive strategies in the service of what Burt called “traditional lyric goals.” He noted some very specific strategies, some of which I don’t practice. And while my work often relies on disjunction, I’m not sure it’s always in the service of traditional lyric goals. I guess I’d want further definition of “traditional” and “lyric” and “goals.” I imagine what I’m saying is that I resist general categories because although they are very handy for mapping a varied landscape, they ultimately create some debased composite that doesn’t really represent any of the individual members of the group.
Bloom: How aware are you of the reader—or “a” reader—as you are writing, and as you are preparing a collection for publication?
MJB: I want to engage a (the) reader so I periodically check in with the reader I am to ask whether I’d like to read this poem if I hadn’t written it. If the answer is no, I know I’m not finished.
Bloom: Translation is such a fascinating endeavor; especially, I think, in poetry. There is of course a long tradition of poet-translators—Galway Kinnell and Robert Bly translating Rilke, Jane Kenyon translating Anna Akhmatova, Richard Howard translating too many to name here. Tell us about your process of finding your own style and method of translation as you entered into your Dante project—especially given that you do not speak or read Italian.
MJB: The style of the Inferno translation grew out of my desire to lower the tone of the poem, which is often quite elevated in translation, to something that sounded like spoken English. I felt the elevation sometimes alienated readers and made the poem unnecessarily difficult to read. It also undermined the poem’s drama and pathos. The style was further influenced by my decision to forgo terza rima, a rhyme scheme that is near-impossible to maintain in English for the duration of a book-length poem, and instead lightly infuse the text with a contemporary form of poetic music based on alliteration, assonance and slant and internal rhyme. The method I used was to rely on a number of existing translations (4–12 for any given word)—plus several volumes of commentary, and a bilingual unabridged dictionary—to translate the poem, tercet by tercet, into contemporary-sounding English, while remaining rigorously faithful to the original, in the narrative sense. Whatever happened in the original stanza had to happen within the confines of the translated stanza.
Bloom: Did you seek out or discover any models of translation?
MJB: I was influenced by all of the traditional translations I relied on. I also took permission from Ciaran Carson’s unconventional translation. He continuously varies the tonal register of the poem, from moments of great elevation to street slang. And I took permission from other Dante revival projects, like that of the rap group the Eternal Kool. And later yet, I took more permission from the existence of a Dante video game that takes rather terrible license with the poem by turning Dante into a hyper-muscular action hero trying to reach his true love, Beatrice. That made my translation seem very traditional, and utterly faithful to the original.
Bloom: The Eye Like a Strange Balloon consists entirely of ekphrastic poems. Tell us how your visual interests/background as a photographer influence/converge with your poetry. Is moving between the visual and the textual also a kind of translation? How is it similar to/different from text-to-text translation?
MJB: That’s an interesting question, whether ekphrasis is a form of translation. I suppose one could think of it that way—but that would make translation a “reaction” to reading the original. I see ekphrasis as a provocation. While looking at a work of art, I track my associative thoughts. I keep switching back and forth between looking, reacting, and recording. One does that with translation too—you look at the original text, think of English words, and then record a word choice. What is left out, however, is the tracking of all the words you thought about using, but ultimately rejected as being less than perfect. The ekphrastic poem isn’t always a complete tracking of every thought but I think it’s more inclusive of intermediate steps than translation is.
Bloom: Is there a question no one has ever asked you in an interview that you’d like to ask, and answer, here?
MJB: No, I’ve always been surprised by every interview question I’ve ever been asked. And I always feel hard-pressed to invent a Spock-like logical answer to every question, even to those for which no logical answer is possible.
Click here to read Kat Laskowski’s feature on Mary Jo Bang.
Author photo by Nina Subin