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Interview by Joni Wallace
Mary Jo Bang's books of poetry include Elegy (Graywolf Press, 2007), which received the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and was listed as a New York Times 2008 Notable Book, and The Bride of E (Graywolf Press, 2009). She was the poetry co-editor at Boston Review from 1995-2005, and has been the recipient of the Alice Fay Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. She is a professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. Her translation of Dante's Inferno, with illustrations by Henrik Drescher, will be published by Graywolf Press in July, 2012.
Joni Wallace's poetry collection, Blinking Ephemeral Valentine (Four Way Books, 2011), was selected by Mary Jo Bang for the 2009 Levis Prize.
JW: The character driven poems of Louise in Love, the ekphrastic poems of The Eye Like a Strange Balloon and the abcedarian poems of Bride of E strike me similarly as enactments of a disembodied consciousness: the workings of the mind set out for view on a series of revolving stages. Multiple interruptions take place - ticks and tocks, ringing phones (an effect I love), nursery rhyme chatter, trains, literary texts. Mickey, Minnie, Alice, Freud, Cher and others make appearances, influence poetic outcomes. For me your poems function both as glittering spectacles and intimate conversations, all ultimately engaging the experience of what it means to be human now. How do you see yourself, the poet, in relation to your work? Conductor, actor, set designer, alchemist, beautiful fly on the velvet backdrop?
MJB: I think these three cover it: conductor, actor, set designer. Although for conductor, I'd substitute "director," given that there's not always music but there is always someone in charge. I suppose there also has to be a dramatist. Since I'm alone inside my head, I have to do everything. I have to write the play and play all the parts. I have to design the set and choose the props. And until I find an audience, I have to play that role too. Which is a bit like a fly on the wall but not really. (Presumably the fly didn't buy a ticket to watch a play unfold in front of it.) Because of all these varied roles, I stay very busy within the confines of the poem. Regarding alchemy, I've never thought of myself as an alchemist because my frame of reference rarely goes back past the 1930's and alchemy is over long before then.
JW: Would you talk a little about the process of writing Bride of E? What went on in the Mary Jo Bang art-making laboratory during its creation? What do you see as its main concerns?
MJB: The Bride of E kept shifting its focus as I wrote the poems in it. The first poem I wrote was "C Is For Cher" and I imagined that poem as a way to make a hard and fast break with the bleak landscape of Elegy. Time was static in the year in which I wrote the poems of Elegy. The stage was small and the backdrop rarely changed. With "C Is for Cher," I set out to design a radically new stage set (one that was new relative to the set on which the speaker of the Elegy poems had been performing). And for the new poem, I cast Cher because she is very invested in persona. I put her in some faux Las Vegas and had her wear her Cleopatra outfit and sing a very Cher song. And after the show I had her go to dinner and order Washington oysters and a vodka drink called a Vladimir. I took the particulars of the oysters and the drink from an article about Cher I'd read while I was waiting in a doctor's office. I don't remember which magazine, or which doctor's office, I only remember the article said she'd had Washington oysters and drank a Vladimir. That was enough for me. Based on that, I could get in character. Late in the poem Mickey Mouse shows up as the cultural ambassador of the enraptured world (the world that is enraptured by spectacles of all sorts). Of course Mickey is also an icon of American imperialism so he goes to the gift shop. Which is, of course, where one is likely to find Mickey Mouse--he's there on a tee-shirt, or a greeting card, or a key chain. That's how the poems began but from there, they went many other places. I allowed myself to move around, to visit various sites. The alphabet seemed to provide that sort of latitude since one takes language with you wherever you go. In terms of the book's "main concerns," they all fall under the umbrella of the E of the title, which is Existence. The poems keep approaching and retreating from the vexing question of how we make sense of our chaotic inner lives.
JW: "C Is For Cher" is a good example of your exquisite mirror-play with the problems of perception and time. Cher sings "If I could turn back time," Mickey presents the mother-of-pearl opera glasses and then the poem tells us the "present" is over. The poem ends with the gesture of Cher looking through those spectacles toward what lies in front of her, yet the discovery is "forward-thinking thought." Your treatment of time in Elegy feels palpably different - time suspended entirely. And I feel an almost stoppered quality for time in the poems of The Eye. Do you view time as an aesthetic concern in your work?
MJB: A concern with time is often present in the poems but it is usually hinged to many other concerns: how the brain works, how one constructs a self, how one contends with existential aloneness. Aesthetically, I feel like I'm always trying to lessen the terrible weight of these questions--through humor, or irony, or narrative disjunction, or allusion.
JW: I read your books in reverse order (with the exception of Elegy, which I read first), and I'm struck by the numerous connections between each and the conversation emerging between them. I'm very intrigued by the wolf, a voice appearing in "Catastrophe Theory II" (The Eye Like a Strange Balloon) "MY, what little sense you make, said the wolf/to Mary Jo," and also in "April is Ending" (from Elegy), "The commenting wolf/(My what little sense you make, Dearie) is silent now." I hear the wolf in other books as well - for example in "K As In F Blank Blank K" (Bride of E). Would you comment on the wolf and your relationship with the wolf?
MJB: There is an ongoing conversation across books, and sometimes within a book, and the reason is simple: There is one continuous mind generating the text. At some point it began to seem disingenuous to pretend that each new poem was written by someone who hadn't written all of the other poems. I suppose it breaks the illusion of the fourth wall--that delicate imagined partition that divides writer from reader--but I don't mind that. Many others before me have broken that wall. In terms of the wolf, he's a counselor in my poems. Like real wolves, he counsels caution. When he goes silent, there's danger.
JW: Your poems by design and dimension lend themselves well to illumination through other artistic genres. I'm thinking in particular of a choreographed series of your "Catastrophe Theory" poems performed by Somanaut Dance. If you could collaborate with another artist, any one working between the 1930's and future-land, who would it be, what genre, and why?
MJB: At the moment I'm working with Ken Botnick, a book artist. He's arranging the text of my poem "The Circus Watcher" on the front edge of a stack of books, one line per book. Using letterpress, he has printed one line of the poem per book in a way that the line continuously falls off the pages; it's only when the book is closed, that you can read the line. The books will then be stacked and bound together to create the readable poem. What he's done is to move the text off the page and onto the edge. That design toys with our expectations about where text belongs and how we read books. It's been exciting to work with him. I think there would be any number of collaborations with all sorts of visual artists that would be exciting.
JW: You've said you recognize in yourself a recent desire to represent your own cultural moment in your poems. Did this desire also manifest in your recent work translating Dante's Inferno?
MJB: Putting the Inferno into idiomatic spoken English and weaving in literary and cultural references that come up to and include this moment does essentially collapse the seven hundred years between Dante's writing of the poem and the here-and-now, but I don't think that was part of the initial impulse. I think in large part, the initial impulse came from wanting to interrogate the idea of translation. Should today's translation of a medieval text sound like today's English, or should it sound like the imagined English of an earlier era--an English that to the contemporary ear sounds elevated and archaic? I wanted to see what would happen if the text sounded like today's English. I felt that since Dante chose to write his poem in his own Tuscan dialect, instead of in literary Latin, one could make a strong argument for setting the tone lower than it has sometimes been set in past translations.
After I made that decision, I realized that in today's English, some of the images would fail to communicate the way they had in the past. For instance, we no longer use signal fires to send messages across distances; we don't express the notion of "fast" with the simile "faster than an arrow"--at the very least, if we want to invoke weaponry, we might say "faster than a speeding bullet"--a phrase we've inherited from popular culture. When I looked for contemporary equivalents for those two moments in the poem, signal fires became Klieg searchlights and the arrow became an Ultimate Aero, a high-speed production car. We can't reproduce Dante's original text in English, whether we use the English of the past, with its Thee and Thou, or today's English. The challenge is to make something similar. That's what each new translation does. Even the original has changed because a reader today, even one who can read the medieval Tuscan Italian, can't read it as if the past seven hundred years had never happened.
I was brought back to the Inferno in 2006, after having first read it in 1995, by encountering a found poem by Caroline Bergvall called "Via (48 Dante Variations)." Her poem is a compilation of forty-seven translations of the first tercet of the Inferno, with the name of the translator and date of publication appended to the end of each. It made me think about how much latitude translators have allowed themselves, since each translation is different. That's when I began to wonder how much latitude one could take and still have the poem remain Dante's Inferno. And since I love that poem, I wanted it to remain the original, only translated into a new language--one that had no archaisms or syntactical arrangements that gestured to the poem's medieval past. I thought the poem in that form might be easier for contemporary readers to read and enjoy.
JW: What are you working on now?
MJB: I'm working on seeing the Inferno through the various stages of production. It's been a complicated process, and continues to be. The notes are fairly elaborate and I've had to get permission to use some of the material, all of which has been very time consuming. For several years now, except for teaching, the translation has taken all of my time and most of my creative energy. I've written a few poems during that period but far fewer than usual. I'm looking forward to writing more. And to seeing how the ones I have written might talk back and forth to one another. In the off moments, I think about that. I'm always asking myself, What's worth saying? And what's the best way to say it?