In Myth and Paint: An Interview with Mary Jo Bang

Bang, Mary Jo (Carly Ann Faye) MAIN

by Tiffany Troy

A Film in Which I Play Everyone (Graywolf Press, $17), Mary Jo Bang’s new collection of poems, draws from David Bowie’s fever-dream of directing a film in which he simultaneously plays all the characters. Bang’s vast cast of characters—fictional, mythological, historical—are tasked with the same daily assignment, which is to make sense of a world where one feels like a perpetual outsider. These deeply observed poems explore what it is to find oneself trapped in a role—that of Daphne or Sisyphus, Ophelia or Hamlet—and discover that the only escape is through self-knowledge and imagination.

Mary Jo Bang has published eight previous books of poetry, including A Doll for Throwing (Graywolf Press, 2017), called “a haunting exploration of a past world whose terrors still ring true today” by Ms. Magazine, and Elegy (Graywolf Press, 2009), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award; in the past decade she has also published  acclaimed new translations of Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio that update these classics into a lyrical, twenty-first century idiom. She teaches at Washington University in Saint Louis.

Tiffany Troy: How does the opening poem “From Another Approach” open the door to this collection?

Mary Jo Bang: I think what felt right about letting that poem “open the door” was that it begins in media res. You could say that all poems begin by plunging the reader “into the midst of things,” if “things” equal the poet’s ongoing obsessions and preoccupations. That poem was written in November of 2020 during the first year of the pandemic when my life, like the lives of most people, was freighted with anxiety about what was happening—given the pandemic and, additionally, the socio-political situation in the country and across the world. Shut up inside alone for months, it sometimes felt that the boundaries between the world and the self were becoming even more porous than usual. 

TT: Absolutely. To me that first poem also touches on how the poet’s obsessions and preoccupations find their way into the collection—namely, a keen observation of the “line between the two blues, water // and sky, you and I,” and the feelings beneath what can be captured on film. Would you like to speak about how the title of your book, which is drawn from a statement David Bowie made, shaped your approach?

MJB: I’m not sure how I came across the Bowie quote, but when I read it, I immediately thought, what an apt description of the lyric poem—a film where all the characters are played by the poet. It has to be that way since there’s no one else there, only the poet and the blank piece of paper. Most of us agree that the lyric-I is a construct, but I began to see how everyone else in the poem is a construct as well. That “you” or “her” or “them,” the mother, the sister, David Bowie—they’re all characters in the movie that plays in your head and which you translate into text. The result appears to represent your way of thinking and your way of using language, but no matter how close the details are to your biographical life, within the confines of the poem, there is no “real,” only useful fictions that reveal your attempt to represent some aspect of yourself that may or may not reflect a reader’s experience of being in the world.

TT: Yes, and framing as a construct appears frequently, whether on the level of language or in the poems’ concerns. For instance, in asking “​​Why you are you and I am I,” the lyrical “I” and the addressee, the “you,” are subjects as well as objects. Likewise, the collection examines film culture and social expectations that enforce the performance of gender roles and identities (“toxic masculinity told her stepfather / it was safe to drive across water”). What does your notion of the lyric poem as a stage set do for you as the poet?

MJB: Treating the poem as a vignette or a scene from a movie allowed me to conceptually be in two places at once. I could create a speaker to serve as a character moving around on a set, speaking the lines I’d written for her, and at the same time, stand at a remove and comment on what it must be like to act and speak and think like her. It’s a type of dissociation—but one that mirrors the dissociative experience of being hypervigilant in a world where one often feels alien. And if you identify as a woman, and especially a queer woman, that world is also dangerous.

TT: The duality that you describe is very well done. I also love how the poems allow us to look inside the interiority of a character whose scripted performance may be very different from how the actor actually feels about the role.

MJB: I’m afraid the actor playing the role has no feelings about the role they’ve been assigned. They only do what I tell them to do and say what I tell them to say! Which reminds me of an interview I once read where someone asked Tom Perotta if he could go to lunch with any one of his characters, which one would it be—his answer was that he could go to lunch with any of his characters any time he wished to!

There is no impermeable barrier between the character and the author. The characters in these poems are different from me, the poet, in some ways—I’ve never been turned into a tree, for example, as Daphne was—but in other ways, we share some knowledge, she and I, and that’s why she’s in the poem, and why I’m playing her. Running away from Apollo, who won’t take no for an answer, and near the point of total exhaustion, she appeals to her father, the river god, to save her, and he obliges by turning her into a tree. Personally, I don’t feel like that is the type of help she might have been asking for! In fact, it cruelly makes permanent her perceived rigidity—her refusal to give up her virginity to Apollo—and now she is forced to be forever passive while Apollo gets to worship her leaves and use them to make his laurel wreaths. I don’t see the justice in that! And she’s been silenced, which is simply another way of being held down.

TT: You’ve written and translated several poetry collections. Was your process creating this book different from previous books?

MJB: In terms of process, it’s difficult to compare any two books. Some of my books have had a mechanism that tied the poems together. The Bride of E, for example, is an abecedarian collection where the letters of the alphabet provoked individual poems into being. In The Eye Like a Strange Balloon, each poem is an ekphrastic response to an artwork. In some ways, these poems are a bit like those in Elegy, which deals with grief, and a bit like those in Louise in Love, where I was explicit in my use of fictional characters. The title of this book is the only unequivocal gesture to the notion of fiction but that film (in which I play everyone) could also be a documentary. Or a hybrid docudrama. Or even a mockumentary!

TT: The degree of genre-bending achieved in the collection is reflected in the characters that take center stage: there’s Daphne, of course, in a distinctly mythological space. Then there’s Adam and Eve, Mistress Mary of nursery-rhyme fame, and the still photographer and the movie set doctor. The poems themselves carry further allusions, to Alice in Wonderland, for instance, or to Charles Lamb’s writings, which is another layer of interpretation, in which the real and the fictional blend and coexist. The poem “I Could Have Been Better” has quite a few people in it, from vastly different realms. Could you talk about how the poem is using them?

MJB: There are quite a few people there, I see that now! There’s the I, who’s lamenting her flaws and their consequences, which leads her to those two famous signifiers of error and disastrous aftermath, Adam who’s first, so alphabetically A, and Eve. Eve then morphs into Lucy, the fossil skeleton of a woman found in 1974 in Ethiopia, whose remains are believed to be at least 3 million years old, which is near the beginning of being human. She was found in a river basin area at the foot of the Ethiopian mountains, one of which becomes the steep hill up which Sisyphus, another icon of eternal punishment, is being forced to keep pushing a boulder, which cruelly rolls down the hill as soon as it reaches the top. That takes the speaker to a moment when a policewoman, following the procedure of checking on someone to whom they have just telephoned the news of a death, arrives to ask whether she’s okay. She’s not. The death, a consequence that’s clearly beyond repair, sends the speaker to the “bed [she] was born in,” conceived there by a flawed Adam and Eve. Against the tally of errors and horrific after-effects, the only consolation is that one has loved and was loved.

The poem then takes us to “another country”—an echo of the lines in Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, which were quoted in an earlier poem (Part I of “Four Boxes of Everything”)—

    “The undiscovered country . . .

puzzles the will, / And makes us rather bear
those ills we have / Than fly to others
that we know not of?”

 The ellipses obscure Hamlet’s description of the undiscovered country as the one “from whose bourn / No traveler returns”—i.e., death. The speaker obviously did come back but left some part of herself behind. The woman to whom the speaker wanted to say, “I love you”—but can’t, because love is tied to the death—takes us to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, where the goddess of love, having been born as a fully grown woman, is seen arriving on a half-shell to a shore edged by windblown reeds. Venus holds her long hair over the place where, if she were Eve, a fig leaf would be. While the speaker would like to see “something change,” it can’t. Like Eve’s catastrophe, the speaker’s catastrophe is changeless. Venus won’t change either, because she’s trapped in myth and paint.

TT: The idea of the speaker “tracing each second back / to a biblical beginning” and being all right but only if you “discount” the present recalls Sisyphus’s unending “same daily / assignment” where the disastrous errors and linked punishment gets continually reenacted in the memory. Counting and numbers are recurring motifs not only in this poem but in the collection overall. How did you organize the poems into five sections?

MJB: My students frequently ask me about how to put a manuscript together, and I tell them all the ways that have been suggested to me, beginning with my teacher Lucie Brock-Broido’s advice, which was to first choose how many sections you want, but never more than four. When I asked why that limit, she said, “more than four is just… fussy!” I never questioned her wisdom, but when it came to arranging the poems in this manuscript, I was at a total loss. So, I did what another poet once told me he did, which was to give the manuscript to a poet friend and let them arrange it. I gave this manuscript to Timothy Donnelly, and he came up with the five sections—based, I believe, on the idea of a five-act play, suggested by the presence of Hamlet in the epigraph and in several of the poems. When he returned it to me, I found I had to move some of the poems around and flip the order of two of the sections, but at least I now had what felt like a scaffold. And the five sections felt useful and not at all fussy!

TT: What was it about five sections that felt useful?

MJB: In many of these poems, the speaker is seen in the midst of trying to make sense of the world while, at the same time, questioning how it is that one makes sense. How does the brain work; how does experience, especially formative events that to others may seem trivial, interact with the body and its hardwired brain? And how does all of that get further enmeshed with the social order into which one is tossed at birth? The speaker seems intent on piecing that together—not in the hope of determining causality, that’s not possible—but to somehow escape the weight of the continual rumination and the sense of detachment produced by it. There’s an intensity to that psychological accounting; the section breaks, I hope, provide some relief from that inquisition. And some periodic, if only temporary, resolve.

TT:  I admire that intensity in your work! Section breaks provide a reprieve from the persona’s inquisition, and line breaks achieve that reprieve on a microlevel. For instance, in “How It Will Feel Months from Now,” one of my favorite poems, the sight of the pink sliver of the sky, the sound of the opera singer’s high notes, and the yearning for the sky through time are described with exactitude and formal mastery. I enjoy the music of “The keys keep making the piano be” and the way it morphs into “As long as I have sight, I’ll see” in the following stanza.

Could you speak about the forms you deploy in the collection? Does the poem find its form or vice versa? Most poems in the collection are consistent in line length.

MJB: I use the line to measure out sound—alliteration, assonance, rhyme—and content, which sometimes takes the form of story-telling—this happened, this happened, this / happened. At other times, the content is meant to imitate interior monologue. Over the course of this manuscript, the line began to reflect the speaker’s characteristic speech (and thought) patterns. We all have a way of speaking, an idiolect, that is recognizably our own. It’s also possible that I adapted my line length to Dante’s since I was writing these poems while I was translating Purgatorio.

In terms of form, most of the poems are arranged in stanzas, a convention I find difficult to resist! I find stanzas to be visually satisfying. I do try to be sensitive to poems that don’t want to be broken and that work best as a block form, but they almost have to insist before I give in to that arrangement! There is a certain deliberateness with stanzas, an argument that this is exactly how things should be. It’s of course a fallacy because there are any number of ways the poem can be arranged. The first poems of this manuscript were originally written as 13-line prose blocks, a carry-over from the poems in A Doll for Throwing (Graywolf Press, 2017), which had all been arranged in justified prose blocks to echo the Bauhaus aesthetic, since the poems were in dialogue with that movement and particularly with Lucia Moholy, who photographed the buildings and products that came out of the workshops. With these poems, however, after a while, I began to miss writing in lines, and I went back and re-lineated all of those early poems. For me, a collection finds its own way. It may start out as one thing and end as something totally different. It’s only after I’ve written a number of individual poems that they begin to seem like parts of a whole.

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