Interview: Mary Jo Bang

The Burlington Book Festival lands in Burlington, Vermont, on October 12 to 14, with an amazing lineup including Mary Jo Bang, Dan Chiasson, Maria Hummel, Mark Leyner, Bethany Morrow, and Sharon Olds. This is the third in a series of four interviews in celebration of the Festival.

Mary Jo Bang is the author of several books of poems, including A Doll for Throwing (Graywolf Press, 2017), The Last Two Seconds (Graywolf Press, 2015), The Bride of E: Poems (Graywolf Press, 2009), and Elegy (Graywolf Press, 2007), which won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and was a 2008 New York Times Notable Book. She teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.

Of A Doll for Throwing, Publisher’s Weekly says, “Bang’s impeccable collection reads as a ‘circular mirror of the social order,’ reflecting the historicity of our current moment with wit, subtlety, and grace.” And The Washington Post writes, “Mary Jo Bang bends and tosses ideas as easily as one would a Wurfpuppe, a flexible doll created by Bauhaus artist Alma Siedhoff-Buscher that always landed with grace when thrown.”

Thank you, Mary Jo, for your wonderful answers to our questions!

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Literary North: Tell us a little bit about your writing process.

Mary Jo Bang: My writing practice changed when computers replaced typewriters. When I began, I kept notebooks or wrote on loose sheets of paper—when the poem felt resolved, I would type it. Now, I usually compose a poem on the computer and print it out when it feels somewhat settled. I then mark changes on that piece of paper and eventually go back to the computer and make more changes. I repeat that cycle for anywhere from minutes to weeks or months. Because it’s far easier to make changes on the computer, compared to retyping a poem from start to finish, I think the process of composing remains fluid for longer.

There is also the fact that when I began writing, I had the luxury of sitting in front of a blank piece of paper for hours or days, never knowing whether it might become something worth saving. I’m busier now and also clearer about what I want to say. I can’t imagine sitting in front of a piece of paper for days. I may not write as often but when I sit down to write, I write (meaning, I type what I write on a keyboard).

LN: What influences have helped shape you into the writer you are today?

MJB: I remain influenced by Samuel Beckett, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sigmund Freud, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Jean Toomer, Gertrude Stein, early Eliot, my friends, my teachers, my students, The New York Times, New York City, the Surrealists, Baudelaire, Dante, Shuzo Takiguchi, every painting I’ve ever seen, my erratic brain, etc.

LN: Your most recent book of poems, A Doll for Throwing, was inspired by the Bauhaus school, and photographer Lucia Moholy. Why did you decide to write about this subject? What inspired you and influenced your writing as you worked towards its completion?

MJB: As always with inspiration, one sees or hears something, or one entertains a thought, and then there’s a next seeing or hearing or thinking. It’s all very messy and unpredictable at the beginning, but, at some point, you begin to shape whatever you’ve taken in by combining it with your pre-existing obsessions and preoccupations. In this case, I saw a rather non-descript photograph by Lucia Moholy in a museum and became curious about her name. I knew of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy—the famous Bauhaus Master-teacher and visual artist—and wondered whether she was related. I learned that she was his first wife and that she had taken most of the iconic photographs of the early Bauhaus buildings and workshop products but that those photographs came to be associated not with her but with Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school and design movement. Her name had been all but erased from history. I felt, as a woman who has worked to establish herself as an artist against some odds (working class background, years of single parenthood), an odd kind of kinship. I eventually immersed myself in the history of the Bauhaus and used that place and era as an imagined stage from which I then wrote about my own experience of being a woman and an artist in the present—as well as my own experience of being a photographer, before I became a poet.

LN: What brings you joy?

MJB: So many things! Right now, translating Dante’s Purgatorio into colloquial English. For me, translation is similar to working an endless crossword puzzle. I never tire of it. If I could, I’d give up sleeping for it, however, whenever my disembodied mind attempts to do that, the body that houses my brain puts its foot down and insists I go to bed.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

MJB: Khadijah Queen’s I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On, a delightfully subversive book of prose poems. She uses a fever-pitch stream-of-consciousness approach to construct brief narratives about growing up in Los Angeles. The poems play with received notions of celebrity, masculinity, femininity, fashion, film, and family (to name a few). The book becomes a ‘joiner’ collage of snapshots, each featuring another glimpse what it’s like to be alive in America in the present! It’s smart and funny and like nothing else you’ll read.

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