A Conversation With Mary Jo Bang – Chicago Review of Books

Mary Jo Bang’s acclaimed translation of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno starts with this unforgettable verse: “Stopped mid-motion in the middle / Of what we call our life, I looked up and saw no sky—Only / a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig. I was lost.” As I am “mid-motion in the middle” of my own life, and often more lost than found, I found much to savor in Bang’s eighth poetry collection, A Film in Which I Play Everyone. Cinematic, circular and cumulative, the expansive themes include the nature of identity, intimacy, time, metaphysics and our nearly-ruined environment, all rendered in Bang’s elegant, worldly and captivating style. If Inferno and Purgatorio provide a guidebook through death accompanied by the poet Virgil, this collection offers its own distinctive map for our lives now, in these dark woods, by one of our great contemporary poets. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mandana Chaffa

Connections in this collection range from David Bowie to Nick Flynn, from Emily Dickinson to Olympe de Gouges, from Lewis Carroll to James Joyce. Yet even with these varied influences, these poems have a distinct individual, an “I” that’s foregrounded. It also reflects another major theme: perspective. We don’t typically look at the extras in a movie, or minor images on a canvas, or even all the people we come into contact with, in our day-to-day; even as we are always the star of our personal life performance, we are mostly unnoticed and unnamed everywhere else. I’m interested in how this first-person—which is at times a role the narrator is playing—contains so many entities, a result that is both thrilling and destabilizing.

Mary Jo Bang

It’s true, we walk through the world unseen but as we do—while we don’t notice everything—we take in a lot. We’re human CCTV cameras, sending whatever our senses register (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch) to a central storage unit, our brain! Just like CCTV footage, if the need arises (think police procedurals), a recording can be examined later. Where the CCTV analogy breaks down is that memories get corrupted. Plus, the brain is selective in terms of how long it stores our perceptions. We may not even realize something is in the memory bank until an associational trigger brings it forward. Those “characters” you listed, they’re all in my memory bank. Each was cued as I was writing and I either put it in a poem, or else mentioned it later in the notes.

Mandana Chaffa

Speaking of perspective, there’s such a visual nature to these poems, ranging from the cinematic to telescopic, from wide-angle lens to microscope, from the external to the inner life. This viewpoint is both exhilarating and freeing, and you tether readers with the line and word. Two related questions: would you talk about your experiences of video and photography, and what’s your approach to anchoring the poem—and the reader—even as the poem is in perpetual motion?

Mary Jo Bang

A still photograph represents something seen and then frozen in time as a single-moment-image. I suppose a video could be thought of as a series of frozen moments that include movement. Once any image is reproduced, it represents differently depending on who is looking at it. The photographer/videographer knows what was in the scene but not selected, or what else may have been in the original but got removed in the editing stage. The viewer who is not the photographer will take any image, or series of images, and create a context that makes sense to them. 

I think the lyric poem does something similar. The poet sets a scene and then the reader comes along and makes of it what she will, based on her own experiences. In terms of drawing the reader in and holding her there, you’re right, the line plays a role, and word choice clearly does. But so does sound, and so does the element of surprise. I never know where I’m going when I set out to write a poem. The poem becomes a language map of where my thinking takes me. 

“The expansive NOW with its glowing
circle moves into place like a globe 
one can’t actually know 

because it’s always changing. 
Whole countries come and go. 
A secret retreats into its shell.”

From “What I’m covering over”

Mandana Chaffa

I’m especially taken with your poetic approaches to time. You explore the present minutely but it clearly rests within multidimensions—beyond linearity, rather a kind of circularity that suggests both physics and philosophy, mythology and modernity. And more directly: “I’m making sense all the time of all the senseless endings. / A day is as long as the time it takes / for the mind to consider life and death countless times.”

Are endings senseless? Or is it senseless that we try to make sense of time, or control it?

Mary Jo Bang

Those senseless endings are events we can’t really make sense of, although that doesn’t keep us from trying. We make a “sort-of” sense and then we revise it, sometimes obsessively. Deaths often fall into that category. Relationship endings can as well, the death of a connection.

My preoccupation with time may be a function of a hyperawareness of the falsity of the arbitrary boundaries we assign to time: an hour, a day, a year. And especially those softer demarcations: the past, the present, the future. I spend a lot of time traveling back and forth in my mind between the past and the present. Film seems an apt metaphor because the point-of-view character can be in the present and then suddenly—a flashback where we see her in the past, having some critical experience that will later shed light on what she’s doing and saying in the present.  

Mandana Chaffa

In a number of these poems, nature is both escape from the world we’ve created as well as the force that may—and at this writing, I think will—do us all in. Even knowing that these poems were written over the last few years, reading “The Evening is Over Us” is especially—if gently—visceral, a clear-eyed view of our apocalyptic era:

“There should be no anxiety 
in knowing the world will die when we die. 
This is how it is with us—”

the real is wherever we are. 
The days refuse to stay put. Speaking is 
a way of living with the ruin we were given”

You weave so many themes within these two stanzas: societal anxieties and the imminence of disasters, individual and environmental; the inexorability of time; and expression as a form of resistance, though I noticed you used the more open concept of “speaking” which again hints at the cinematic rather than the literary. And whatever we do, the night is over us (and likely, we are over as well).

I keep returning to the first line and the implication that despite our best efforts, we can’t do as we “should.” I also can’t stop thinking: Who determines that “should”? And who has handed us this ruin, if not us?

And what has this ruin made of us? 

Mary Jo Bang

There are many kinds of ruin: the ecological, the social, the familial, the physical, the emotional. I don’t think we are personally responsible for all of them. We play a part in some, sure. I drive a car instead of biking, I use more electricity than I should, and, as much as I try to avoid it, my food often comes packaged in plastic. On the other hand, it’s a very dangerous world, especially for people who identify as women, and for those who are, in whatever way, queer. I’m absolutely certain that the damage we suffer based on that accident of birth or identity is not our doing. And, as women, the little we were able to control in the past, is now being taken away from us. The same for those of us who are queer. 

There’s also the family into which we are born or placed, none of us has any control over that. Nor do we have control over our inherited DNA, the basis of our brain’s hardwiring. And yet we struggle to make sense of who we are in the face of all those ungovernable circumstances. 

In terms of “Our Evening Is Over Us,” that poem title comes from a line in the poem “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. His poem ends with “a rack / Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, ‘ thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd.” In myth, the ancient Sibyl of Cumae wrote her prophesies on leaves but then let the wind mix them up. I think that’s the situation in which most of these poems were written, on that rack where one tries to make sense of what is often dictated by things outside one’s control, knowing all the while that if there is a Sibyl who might help us understand them, she’s not going to! 

Mandana Chaffa 

How does forced silence compare with being or creating with silence, poetically speaking?

Mary Jo Bang

The silence during which creation happens is a somewhat voluntary state. I say somewhat because for most artists, it’s also a form of compulsion. The two sides of the divided self are having a conversation and the corporeal self is making a record of it. Forced silence, on the other hand, is when someone takes away your freedom to speak or act by threatening you with some form of punishment, or even annihilation, if you don’t acquiesce. 

“One way to see it is: the self is infinite 
and circular, like problematic thoughts 
about how mice bred for insomnia 
fall into a deep-dish sleep, but wake 
not long after.”

From “The Fable of a Fabric Woven with Resistance”

Mandana Chaffa

Another compelling theme is your examination of the concentric circles of identity as well as the nuances of the self-versus-identity. I’m most aware of the futility of considering identity a singular, unchanging entity, and perhaps the attendant futility of imagining we know ourselves. It’s the most intimate relationship we have, isn’t it? Who we are with and for ourselves, and yet knowing there’s a kind of internal myopia that we may not even be aware of. Or as one of your titles says so perfectly: “This is What You Are, the Self Says to the Self” or in another poem, how “I knew I could see inside myself / but no one else could. I had no second self.”

How much do considerations of the self, open or perhaps limit, the work of a poet? How much have your perspectives changed as you have done so as well? I can’t stop thinking about this rather arcane question: do we gather more selves the older we get? Do we strip them off, until we’re at the core of our being in this life, now? Or as you write it, much more eloquent that I could ever be: “Blast zone, shock wave, viral progression / until there you are, no longer you / but what you’ve been made into.”

Mary Jo Bang

I think some of us are more consumed with these notions of selfhood than others. When I was younger, and first trying to make sense of consciousness and identity, I read a great deal in psychology. When I began to study medicine, I became interested in what neuroscience had to offer. I was especially fascinated by twin studies as a way of possibly teasing apart the varying contributions of “nature” versus “nurture.” 

I don’t know that we gather more distinct selves over time, but the self is a perpetual work in progress. As we learn about the world, and observe ourselves in many different situations, we hopefully gain insight. We may say or do things that we later regret, but, ideally, those feelings of dismay lead us to act differently in future. Of course, there are those among us whose ego defenses are so ironclad that they narcissistically self-justify their every action and never change.  

Mandana Chaffa

I realize I’ve mentioned circles a lot; is it because I re-read Purgatorio simultaneously with this collection? You’re deservedly well-known for your translations of Dante, and I felt the echoes and exhalations of that immersion within these poems. Would you talk about that, and also, what’s the experience of spending over a decade with one writer’s world and words? How does your notions of the self, reflect in the work of a translator, which requires a subsummation of sorts, a speaking with and speaking through, the text?

Mary Jo Bang

I feel certain that every translator would give a different answer to that question! I have been sure, since the beginning, and that was 2005, that I couldn’t know what it was like to be Dante—Italian, Catholic, medieval, exiled, Florentine, Guelph, father, son, brother, husband—but I know what it is to be a poet. He and I share that. In my Dante translations, I try to be as good a poet in vernacular English as he was in his medieval Tuscan dialect. Many of Dante’s readers learned the Tuscan dialect just so that they could read the poem. I want the poem in English to similarly make contemporary readers curious about what he wrote. 

See Also

I’ve gotten better over time at staying inside the lines that Dante drew but throughout, I’ve tried to be sensitive to how the character Dante speaks because that’s the best way to know someone, that combination of how they speak and what they have to say. Of course, the character Dante is not the same as the poet Dante but, in the Divine Comedy, you might think of the character Dante as a self-portrait, a picture of how the poet Dante sees himself, or at least how he would like to be seen. I think the same is true of my poems, that when taken together, they become a representation of how I think, and of how I see the world and myself in it. 

Mandana Chaffa 

In “Some Identical Sister, One Step Ahead,” you wrote: “You have to be a seer to see. / What you really want is to be a camera, / documenting the height you’re about to fall from”. Is a poet the documentarian or seer? Cassandra who foretells the future? Or resemblant of the Mayleses who were deeply enmeshed in the narrative, but also invisible as they teased apart the peculiar truths of identity and relationships of Grey Gardens?

Mary Jo Bang

The myth varies but in the one I know, Apollo offers Cassandra the power of prophesy in exchange for her virginity. After getting that power, she then refuses to submit. Apollo, furious, isn’t able to retract the gift so instead adds a curse—which is that her prophecies will never be believed. I do think the poet is believed, sometimes too literally! In terms of David and Albert Maysles, who made the 1975 documentary film Grey Gardens, I wonder whether you’re asking about the question of their ethics (enmeshed yet invisible). I really can’t judge that because I don’t know all the particulars. I know they interviewed the Beales on camera, which is a questionable documentary approach. On the other hand, the same complaint was leveled against Claude Lanzmann who made the film Shoah, that he led people into saying and doing what they may not have said or done without his instigation. I’ve seen and been moved by both (very different) films. 

A poet isn’t a documentarian but a fiction writer. She may be using elements drawn from “real life” but what she’s creating is a language game. A game that may be very serious but is still a game. I think Rimbaud’s insistence that the poet has to get to the unknown through a disordering of all the senses might be true. Otherwise, whatever game you create looks a lot like the games that are already out there. For each of us, the means of “disordering” can vary, but once there, once the senses have been pushed out of their socially-acceptable narrow limits, I think it’s helpful to act as a camera, one which oscillates, moving out to see the world (even if it’s a purely imagined world) and then moving in to see the self (even if it’s a purely imagined self). In “Some Identical Sister, One Step Ahead,” the self-as-camera is pointed at the speaker just as she’s about to fall from a great height, perhaps from the top of a Ferris wheel. 

“A revved-up snowplow pushes time across
the prairie, a map of furrows and folds. I stay
facing the past, which, in this case, is a box

where a Cupid bow-and-arrow set reminds me
of the archeologist who dug up a Roman mosaic,
took one look, then covered it over again,
having decided some secrets are better left buried.”

Mandana Chaffa

You offer an expansive and subtle approach to the past, and memory, which aren’t the same thing, of course. Looking toward the past to determine where and how things could have been different seems futile and trying to rewrite it feels as pointless as rewriting a published poem, and yet, these two topics form a rich subject for all kinds of art: visual, literary, performative. 

How do you parse—and dance with—the past and memory, as person, poet and translator?

Mary Jo Bang

I have to say that I’m mostly badgered by my memories. Writing is a way to examine them with a certain degree of remove, to become an archeologist, and then to pattern language as a way to box whatever’s been unearthed. At the same time, I’m also examining language, analyzing how it works to make meaning and to give pleasure, as well as how to best encode what could otherwise be seen as reductive. So, analyzing it and manipulating it.

Mandana Chaffa

The last poem, “Once Upon a Time,” is a terrific, if playful, way to end the collection, with echoes of the ancient method of loci, and Mary Oliver, of observations and repetitions, of inevitable losses and the brevity of life.

“…The deaths past and present 
in ashes, each discrete moment 
a memory palace waiting to be built
alongside a suspended high-wire antenna 
set to receive the unending message: this is 
what is meant by your one and only life.”

Much like your translations of Dante’s epic—as if you were our Virgil, and of course, you are, all poets are—it feels that in a dying world, your focus is on how of living, less than the why of it.

Mary Jo Bang

I didn’t know that Mary Oliver poem “When Women Were Birds”! Looking at it now, I see the first line begins “Once upon a time, when women were birds . . . .” My “once upon a time” is the fairy tale beginning that usually ends, after a hero or heroine triumphs over adversity, with everyone living “happily ever after.” The poem instead ends with the realization that there is no ever-after bliss, but only events as they unfold, some happy-making, some exquisitely painful—that is the given that you were given, which ultimately becomes an ongoing conversation you have, sometimes with others and sometimes with yourself, until you are no more. 

A Film In Which I Play Everyone
Mary Jo Bang
Published by Graywolf Press
September 5, 2023

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