Mary Jo Bang

recorded in St. Louis, MO

 

Mary Jo Bang

I’m Mary Jo Bang, I live in St. Louis. I’ve lived in St. Louis for ten years. I came here in 2000 to take a job at Washington University teaching in the creative writing department but I actually grew up in St. Louis, so in some ways I’ve made a circle, and between leaving when I was 16 and coming back ten years ago, I lived in a lot of other places, probably for the longest amount of time in Chicago and New York, but for three years in London and for a couple of years in Philadelphia.  So I moved around a lot, I think, and saw a lot of different places.


The Knox Writers’ House

How do you think moving around, or being, what did Kristin Naca say? There’s a term in Spanish for a poet who roams around, roams the countryside. A vagabond poet. Do you feel like that describes you?


Bang

Maybe in retrospect. I probably didn’t feel like a vagabond at the time. There was always some compelling reason why I went someplace. I went to New York in 1993—I left Chicago and went to New York—to do an MFA at Columbia University and my original idea was that I would come back in two years after I finished that degree and then I ended up staying seven years and not leaving until I came to take this job. And probably had I not taken this job, I’d still be in New York. I became a writer there and my writing community is mainly there and I go back quite a bit—sometimes I go back twice a month, sometimes every two or three months. But, you know, with cyberspace, we’re all in the same city anyway, so it’s kind of easy.


KWH

Maybe you have more perspective on this as someone who’s from here and left—do you think there’s a Midwestern voice or aesthetic?


Bang

No, I don’t think there’s—if there’s a Midwestern aesthetic, I think it’s probably from an earlier time. I think that young poets today are less connected to place. It’s always dangerous to generalize, but my sense is that people go away to MFA programs and then they go back to maybe their home base, but maybe they go someplace and take a job, or they meet someone in the MFA program, they go someplace else, so I think that maybe everybody’s a vagabond these days, and I think that in some ways that eradicates that sense that your primary influences come from a geographical region. Instead, they come from writing programs. So you might come from Galesburg, but if you go to Brown University, you’re going to have a certain influence on your aesthetic, and if you go to Iowa, a different one, and if you go to Columbia, a different one, and NYU, and etc, so I think that MFA programs might have now supplanted any kind of regional influence.


KWH

That’s interesting. Do you think that it becomes so diluted there’s no voice, or do you think that Brown has a voice or that Brown has an East Coast voice?


Bang

Well I wouldn’t say voice, I’d say aesthetic. And when I say aesthetic, I mean that you get introduced to certain strategies for making a poem or for moving language around within a poem. And so the people that your teachers have read and urge you to read might, you know, represent a kind of narrow swath of all of poetry and the swath probably changes in different locations, but there’s also some overlap so that maybe everywhere you go, you might read John Ashbery, for instance. But some places, you’re more likely to read Elizabeth Bishop and less likely if you go to another place. And then I think there’s that continuing education that a poet does when you leave school where you hopefully fill in the gaps of the poets you didn’t read and I think that’s a life long kind of occupation, and preoccupation, so that you discover new poets and you of course get influenced by them along the way, but sometimes it’s later, after you’ve already set in place certain kinds of ideas about, again, how to start a poem, how to end a poem, what goes on in the middle of a poem. But time changes too and so new poets come, you read new things, and I also think that people are more open—and again, as soon as I make a generalization, I worry that I’m generalizing and becoming too large in the statement, but I think that people are eager to see other examples today. And I think that when I look at poets who’ve been writing for, you know, 40 years, their poetry sometimes hasn’t changed during that 40 years. I think that young poets are more susceptible to change because, again, the world is larger for them. And through the internet they’re seeing all kinds of new things and so they might want to try out new things that will cause their own work to mutate in a new direction.


KWH

Do you think it’s always a positive? I guess mutate could not be a positive word, so do you think it’s always a positive to have so much accessible to you all the time, as a writer?


Bang

Oh, I don’t know, I don’t think we get to decide. I do think that some people intentionally narrow the kind of stimuli that they come in contact with. Someone once told me, a student once told me that she had been to some kind of writers’ conference and that a poet had said that she didn’t read the newspaper, that she’d never read a newspaper. And Claudia Rankine was present, she had come to visit one of my classes, and the girl told her, you know, “What do you think of that?” and Claudia said, “Well, I think that that is a way to keep thinking that your own personal tragedies are the most important tragedies in the world.” That if you have to confront larger catastrophes that that might somehow diminish your attachment to your own personal history. And for that poet who writes in that way, that might feel dangerous to her. You know, I happen to think that we are citizens of a world, and as painful as it is for me to confront, every day, these disasters in the world, I feel obliged to do so and I feel like that gets in my work. So I’ve long felt that my own tragedies, however exquisite they feel to me are not nearly as terrible as some other tragedies.


KWH

Yeah, we’ve been trying to, and failing to, come up with an articulate question to ask about this. But I’ve been wondering how poets, because you brought this up, right themselves with the horrors of the world. And maybe if you can say something about that, but that comes from, in Argentina, where this project started, I would ask each poet how they supported themselves because it’s such a different—it’s not academic. They work at a Laundromat, they do their job and write poems so that’s how politics or daily life got addressed, but here there’s such a different way to support yourself as a writer. So I guess, how do you support yourself emotionally in terms of the horrible world or the uncertain world?


Bang

Well I feel like you’ve posed a number of questions, one is: what is the poet’s relationship to that horror, and I think that it changes. I think that, for me for instance, I recently went to Germany and I was in the former GDR. And I’d been to Germany before but never in that area. And I became a little bit overwhelmed by thinking about how—you know, I came of age during the Cold War and that was kind of the psychic landscape that we lived in. And just like you live in this post-9/11 world, there was always this fear that the Russians were going to drop the bombs. And there was also this horrible place called East Germany where the people were locked up and, you know, they were shot in the back as they tried to go over the wall. And I think that being there, I had this kind of empathic connection to the horror of living like that, but then I started thinking at one point, But wait a minute. The reason that East Germany existed was because of the Holocaust. And in fact a lot of those people that I’d been empathically connected to, those imaginary people, were Nazis. And not the young people, by any means, but these other people. And then also, I began to read more and understand that there was a kind of loyalty—not everybody was miserable there, there were people who bought into that Communist ideology, who felt superior to Capitalism, and felt that they were doing something that was progressive, and they were deeply in denial about the shortcomings of that, as true communists always have to be in denial about the shortcomings of communism and true capitalists are in denial about the shortcomings of capitalism. Any zealot has to be single minded. So I came back, and also I went to Berlin one day and there I was confronted with the physicality of, for instance, the Reichstag, and having seen all those pictures of Hitler addressing from the steps of the Reichstag. So I’ve immersed myself this summer, happily [laughs], in that whole period—the Wiemar Republic and how Hitler came to be, but also what I’ve done is to discover the resistance. And I think that growing up—you know, one of the horrors of the Holocaust was why didn’t anybody resist, and how was it that this whole country was so evil that they would buy into this kind of horror and corruption and degradation of the human spirit? And so I’ve been reading about groups—most of them were intellectuals. And I think that sometimes I’ve been confused about the role of the intellectual in civic life, and a poet, as an intellectual, falls into that. But I think that what’s interesting to me about this whole German experience was to see that, in fact, not only did they try, and even though they failed, they allow Germany and the German people now, to redeem themselves. Because they were thought to be traitors at the time and their families were embarrassed afterwards to admit that their family members had done this, but now they’re celebrated and there’s an annual thing, I think it’s called the July 10th or 11th, I forget, but that was the date of the attempted assassination of Hitler and so now there’s this yearly celebration and there’re memorials and people now hold these people up as the highest examples of good. So even though they failed, they allow people, later, to redeem themselves and say, “Yes, somebody did,” and then they can say, “Yes, we did.”


KWH

Yeah.


Bang

So I think that there are all kinds of social roles for groups that seem marginalized and seem like they don’t really work or participate in the social-political fabric of society, but I think we do.


KWH

We as poets and writers.


Bang

Yes. We leave things and we sometimes take stands that come from being thoughtful. And we have access to each other, and we share values that sometimes other people, because of their own self-interests, are not able to see clearly or to act upon. So that’s a very complicated answer to what’s the poet’s role. I think what I really want to say is I don’t think you can keep asking yourself that. Before I went into poetry, I was in medicine and you can measure what I did and say, “Oh, well that was much more of a contribution,” but I’m not sure that’s true, you know, I think we all have lives where we touch other people and we can’t predict that effect that we’re going to have on each other. And I think that to be thoughtful about the life you live and to be generous to others, in the end, something good will come out of that in the short term, which is a lifetime, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a doctor and you’re taking someone’s appendix out or whatever or a poet writing poems, and that it’s not for you to decide how you contribute. You will be a model for something in your life and you should try to be a model for the highest good and if so, you’ll touch people and that good will do something.


KWH

Good answer [laughs].  Wow. What else do we normally ask? You were talking about these erasures.


Bang

Mhm.


KWH

Do you think that working from a project-based mindset like that can—how does that help a writer?


Bang

Well, I don’t know about writers, I only know about me. And I know that part of what attracts me to poetry, to writing, is game playing. And I think that if I didn’t have those games to play, I might have to watch more tv and I think watching television’s a very passive activity and our brain doesn’t do very much so I’m happy to have things where my brain is using a kind of active mode, I think that’s good for brains in terms of staying mentally aware. So, you know, I don’t think we can completely deconstruct who we are, you know, there are these big questions about how much is the hard-wiring, how much is genetics how much is environment. I just know that I can’t not do that.

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