Mary Jo Bang is a poet whose formal tricks don’t imprison meaning in a cage of structure, but rather act as a funnel through which emotion and prickle-your-skin honesty gush forth with surprising velocity. In Elegy, the collection that won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award, she responds to the untimely death of her son in a way that is somehow both raw and measured. And that’s the thing about Bang, she manages to continually combine states and forms and attitudes that seem incongruous. Her poems often respond to art, from pop celebrities to classic literature, from Cher to Beckett.
This amalgamation of high and low is reflected in her own biography. Bang has no less than five degrees— a B.A. and M.A. in Sociology from Northwestern University, a B.A. in photography from the Polytechnic of Central London, training as a Physician Assistant at St. Louis University, and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Columbia University— and she has worked in a wide range of fields: commercial photographer, research assistant to a geneticist, welfare caseworker, sweatshop garmet worker, writer, and teacher of poetry, just to name a few.
Bang has published six books of poems to date, including The Eye Like a Strange Balloon, Louise in Love, The Bride of E, and Elegy. Her translation of Dante’s Inferno, with illustrations by Henrik Drescher, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2012. She has been awarded a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University and a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation. She has taught at Yale University, The New School, the University of Montana, Columbia University, and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and now teaches in the English Department at Washington University in St. Louis.
Do you remember the first thing you read that stirred the writer’s desire in you?
I don’t remember how old I was or what I was reading— The Boxcar Children, The Borrowers, Dickinson’s poems, or e.e. Cummings’s— but it was certainly long before college when I read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Nabokov’s Lolita. All of those readerly moments blend together as one long immersion in that state of suspended animation, suspended disbelief, desperate escape from the deadly boredom of one same day after another.
I don’t know when reading slid over into wanting to be a writer. There was the love of the story, the love of the poem, then, rather seamlessly, the wanting to write the story, write the poem. If that desire is strong enough, and persistent enough, you do whatever you have to do to teach yourself how to cross over from being a reader to being a reader who is a writer. For me, the crossing over took a very long time and there were many interruptions but the desire never lessened. But I first had to learn how to learn.
How did you learn how to learn?
I did that by learning other things: I went to school and got a B.A and an M.A. in sociology; then I went back to school and trained to be a Physician Assistant; then I studied photography, first at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and later at the Polytechnic of Central London, where I did B.A. in fine art photography. It was only after having done those things that I could apply that method of learning to learning to how to write.
So, how did you go about becoming a “writer?” Did you keep journals?
I did keep journals in high school. The writing was bland and solipsistic. I destroyed them later because they didn’t meet my expectations for good writing. For a long time the desire to write and knowing how to write well remained two separate things. I recognized good writing when I saw it but I didn’t know how to create it.
The same was true of photography. It took me a long time to make the photographs I saw in my mind. I first had to learn how to operate a camera. Then I had to learn how to operate a better camera. I had to learn darkroom technique so I could correct my mistakes, or compensate when reality refused to behave the way I wanted it to. I had to learn how to use natural light and then I had to learn how to use artificial light. Then I had to learn how translate those different types of light into exposures. I had to learn how to make shadow into art and things and people into objects and portraits. I had to learn about composition, about the history of photography, about semiotics, about signs and signifiers, about Roland Barthes’s ideas of punctum and studium. It took me years. I could see myself getting closer and closer.
Over time, what was on the film and the photographic paper more and more resembled what I’d imagined when I looked into the view finder. And I saw how, if you steadily worked at something, what you don’t know gradually erodes and what you do know slowly grows and at some point you’ve gained a degree of mastery. What you know becomes what you are. You know photography and you are a photographer. You know writing and you are a writer
I love that idea of slow mastery. When, then, was the first time you were published? Do you remember what that felt like?
I don’t know that it was the very first, but one of my first poetry publications was at Oxford Poetry in 1989. I was living in London so I was mainly sending to British journals. I knew nothing about how to go about being published so I bought a book, the British equivalent of Poet’s Market, a guide for the rank beginner that lists all the magazines with their addresses and gives a thumbnail sketch of each.
Oxford Poetry had a very prestigious literary history. And in general Oxford felt like some pedigree-required poetry Camelot. I didn’t imagine being allowed enter, even via a poem. The publication therefore felt like a tiny beknighting.
You went to get your M.F.A. at Columbia. Why get an M.F.A.?
When I moved back from London in 1990, I worked as a photographer for a while. Commercial photography, however, is quite different from fine art photography and I wasn’t at all happy with the photographs I was making. I didn’t want to return to medicine so I began to think about how else I might earn a living. A friend suggested that I should teach creative writing since I’d published a few poems by then. I began by teaching adults in a non-degree program and found that I enjoyed doing that more than anything else I’d ever done. That’s when I decided to get an M.F.A.
What was your M.F.A. experience like?
Attending the writing program at Columbia was a very positive experience. I spent a lot of time talking to people about poetry and reading poetry and writing poetry and thinking about poetry. It was the perfect place to cultivate an obsession that has lasted until the present.
While you were at Columbia, you and the poet Timothy Donnelly, who was also a student in the poetry program at the time, became co-poetry editors of the Boston Review. Was that your first editorial experience? As writers, and especially in grad school, there is a great deal of anxiety about submitting work, the response of editors— all that. What was it like to be on the other side of the table? Do you have an early, fond memory or fun story from your work at the Boston Review?
Before I began at Boston Review I had been a co-editor at two other magazines—Columbia Poetry Review, at Columbia College in Chicago, and Columbia Magazine, at Columbia University. I have many fond memories of the Boston Review experience. They all hinge on working with Timothy Donnelly, who is a very funny man. And some of the funniest memories have to do with famous poets. Those stories are better left untold.
In terms of sending out my own work, by the time I arrived at Columbia in 1993, I had been doing that for a while. And I was used to getting back slips of paper that said “no thanks” and “not these.” I discovered early on that the sting from the sharp smack of that “no” faded pretty quickly. Plus, along with the rejections there would sometimes be a few words of praise scrawled at the bottom of the boilerplate. And then there were also those occasional very happy-making acceptances.
What was the living like for you—Where did you live in your salad days?
I have lived many places. I grew up in Cool Valley, Missouri—a semi-rural, diminishing pastureland outside St. Louis that was developed during my childhood into a ranch-house-and-carport suburb for workers at a MacDonald Aircraft manufacturing plant. I left after high school and have since lived in: Iowa City, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Evanston, London, and New York (and briefly in Missoula, Montana and Princeton, New Jersey). And now I live in St. Louis. If by salad days you mean Cleopatra’s immature “green in judgment, cold in blood,” that covers a lot of territory, geographic and otherwise.
Go for the Cleopatra version. The kinds of jobs you had, where you lived— the whole shebang.
I grew up working class. In the years before college, I worked ironing men’s shirts, sheets, and pillowcases; I babysat; I bussed tables in a cafeteria; I modeled clothes on Saturdays in a department store tearoom. After I quit school the first time, I married briefly, had a child, and divorced before my son was a year old. I worked as a medical assistant to a dermatologist and later on as a research assistant to a geneticist.
In 1968, I moved to Evanston and worked as a secretary in the Office for International Students at Northwestern and completed my undergraduate degree there. When I was a graduate student, also at Northwestern, I worked as a research assistant to a sociologist and as a TA in English lit. When I finished my Masters degree in 1972, I moved to Philadelphia and lived with a group of Quakers who were doing antiwar work and community organizing. After the war ended, I worked as a secretarial temp, then as a caseworker for the welfare system, then as a secretary to a pediatric hematologist, and for one mind-numbing day, as a sweatshop garment worker insetting sleeves into men’s white shirts. After that, I became a physician assistant and I worked first in internal medicine and then in gynecology.
I married again, moved to England with my then-husband, and did a degree in photography. When I returned to the States, I worked briefly as a free-lance photographer for design studios and ad agencies and later taught creative writing in an adult education setting, then English comp and humanities for the visual artist at Columbia College in Chicago. I left there to do my M.F.A. at Columbia.
I began writing in 1980 when I was living in Chicago and working in medicine—writing short stories and poems. I began publishing when I was living in London in the mid-80’s. However it was only when I moved to New York in 1993 that I began to think that I might actually be a writer. But yes, all that time, from the beginning, that was what I wanted to do.
How do you look back on all that?
I look back on every minute I lived in New York City with unadulterated fondness. I had dreamed of living there at least since I was fourteen. Not only was it intensely intellectually and artistically exciting, but my life was structured around writing and learning to write. Everything I did felt as if it were an intricate part of that.
Is there any advice or knowledge that you feel would have liked to tell Mary Jo of that earlier time?
I think Mary Jo has always had to learn every lesson the hard way, through experience, so I don’t know that any advice might have helped her.
Was having an artistic community important to you when you were just starting out— did you have many friends who were writers or artists?
At Columbia, and afterward when I continued to live in NYC, everyone I knew was a writer. Knowing other writers made it possible for me to imagine my way forward. I was surprised at how welcoming writers were, at least poets. There was a ready assumption that you were one of them, or at least that some day soon you would be one of them, so why not just join in now. I hadn’t expected that. I was a bit dazzled, but I think being dazzled is part of the salad days. Or at least it should be.
Can you recall early challenges you faced, writerly or otherwise?
Yes, I can recall countless early challenges I faced, both writerly and otherwise.
Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
The question makes me think of the beginning of Charles Olsen’s “Maximus, To Himself”: “I have had to learn the simplest things/last. Which made for difficulties.” That’s enough said.
Well, have you ever felt like giving up? What kept you going?
Psychologists say that intermittent positive reinforcement is the most effective way to ingrain any kind of behavior. So those occasional poem acceptances I mentioned probably did a lot to keep me going. I saw that by merely continuing—submitting poems, entering contests, applying for fellowships, for residencies, whatever—sometimes out of the great silence into which those things were sent, there might come back a small yes.
I’m also by nature very persistent so I think for me the question has never been about giving up but finding time to take on new things so I would keep growing as a writer. I think there’s a risk of getting stuck with what brings early success and I never wanted that to happen. Part of the pleasure I take in making art is to try things at which I will very likely fail. Hopefully, those failures will push me toward something new. I’ve been trying for a while now to write something that isn’t poetry, but I’m having to go through that same process of learning to write all over again—and there are so few hours in the day. I don’t know how some people manage to be so productive. Some people seem almost magically productive.
What about early triumphs?
Over time I’ve accomplished many things. Very early on there was managing to sit on a chair and not fall over, then there was walking, and later, talking. And much later there was earning a living and sorting out how to live according to some ever-developing moral code. And there was being a single parent and getting an education. And later yet, figuring out a way to make art. What I’m saying is that everything, before it becomes easy, is a triumph. And some things never become easy—and in that case, simply continuing to do them is a triumph.
What are you work habits like now? Have they changed over time? Any quirky musts you have to have in order to be productive?
Teaching takes a tremendous amount of time so writing often has to wait—until summer, or until vacations, or until I can steal a few minutes out of an otherwise full day dedicated to class preparation and faculty meetings and office hours. I mainly work in my study at home. And most often at a computer, which is a change. I used to write longhand while sitting on a chair and then go to the computer. Now, I often begin with the computer and only later, in the revision stage, pick up a pen or a pencil. I have no “quirky musts”—I feel lucky if I’ve found time. It would be a disaster to further complicate that.
You translate from German, right? I translate from Swedish and find that the work feeds my own writing as it makes me incredibly attuned to the power, meaning, and resonance of every single word choice. Do you have a similar experience with translation?
I don’t translate from German. I’ve been translated into German. I actually wish I knew German and I intend to begin studying it soon. Years ago, I translated some things from French and I’ve just finished a translation of Dante’s Inferno from Italian—however, in the case of the Inferno, I primarily relied on existing translations.
But what you say about translation sensitizing you to the subtle dynamics of every word is quite true. I took several translation workshops when I was doing my M.F.A. and those classes forever changed my relationship to both translation and to language in general. I love that you can ever so slightly titrate a shift in meaning or tone by changing a single word. That fascinates me.
You are now a teacher yourself in an M.F.A. program. How do teaching and writing work in interplay for you?
I think teaching makes me smarter, not only about poetry but also about many other subjects. I read things I wouldn’t otherwise read. Plus, I have to leave my house to teach; without that, my reclusive tendencies might turn me into an Emily Dickinson who only speaks to the world from behind a barely-open door.
What do you look for in the poets you teach today?
I don’t necessarily look for anything specific. Sometimes a writing sample will suggest someone is using language in an interesting way, or that they have a rich imagination. I can’t reduce those notions to example because each case is different. I’m most interested in whether someone has a history of self-discipline. Industriousness can compensate for a lot. And industry plus imagination is a very promising combination.
Any advice for young writers?
My advice is really quite basic: It’s to read, but to read more than just poetry. I think everyone should read a daily newspaper. I think being a poet doesn’t exempt you from being a good citizen and you can’t be a good citizen if you don’t know what’s happening in the world you live in. And I think newspapers rid you of naïveté, which is important. Naïve poetry is boring at best, and often quite muddled.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Mark Schäfer