The Life of a Poet: Mary Jo Bang


>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington DC.>>First I should just say
that, directly outside, if you’ve been here for the last
two hours, there’s like a lot of ambulance and police activity. So, there may be continued
sirens that you will hear. That’s just part of the
Hill Center experience. Anyway, welcome to the
[Inaudible] Life of a Poet where we are celebrating
the work of Mary Jo Bang. The Life of a Poet is one of our just most precious
programs here at Hill Center. It is the partnership of the Library
of Congress, the Washington Post, and it’s a real treasure
in this city. And, I could not, we
could not do this without Rob Casper and Ron Charles. Ron, as I’m sure you all know,
has contributed book credit but he is also the editor of
the Washington Post Book World and is our moderator and is just
is exceptional at what he does. And, Rob Casper actually
makes the program possible. He [inaudible] curates the series. Rob is the, to make sure I get this
absolutely right, Head of the Poetry and Literature Center of
the Library of Congress. And, I’m going to let him
introduce [inaudible]. [ Applause ]>>Rob Casper: Hey everybody. Can you hear me? Thanks for coming out. We’re thrilled to have Mary Jo here. And, [inaudible], hopefully stays
throughout the conversation. Thanks to Mary Ann
and to the Hill Center for making this very possible. I also want to say thanks to
the host who is Ron Charles. This is actually the 12th
program in this series. And, I’m thrilled to see Ron
become more and more of a champion and expert in, whether he
believes it or not, our poetry. Before I talk about tonight’s
event and introduce Mary Jo, let me say a little bit about
the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. We are home to the Poet Laureate
Consultant in Poetry and we put on programs of this
throughout the year. We mostly do that at the
library just down the street. And, if you want to
come [inaudible]. Okay. If you want to check out those
programs, you can go to our website, www.loc.gov/poetry
and find out more. We also handed out surveys for you. We do surveys at all our
programs to get a sense of how successful our programs
our, to get suggestions of how to do more programs, and to find out
where you heard about this program. So, if you wouldn’t mind filling it
out, you can leave it on your chair, you can hand it to me, you
can give it to the gods and we’ll find it and [inaudible]. Here we go. Now, I’d like to introduce Mary
Jo Bang [inaudible] our 2016 spring season. Mary Jo’s the author of
seven poetry collections, most recently the Last Two Seconds. Her others include Elegy which received the 2007
National Critics Circle Award and was the 2008 New York Times
Notable Book and Apology for Want, awarded the 1996 Bakeless Prize and the 1998 Great Lakes Colleges
Association New Writer’s Award. In 2010, Mary Jo also published
a translation of Dante’s Inferno which is a notable book about
American Library Association. She’s received the Hodder
Fellowship from Princeton University and Berlin Prize Fellowship from the
American Academy of Berlin as well as Fellowships from Guggenheim
and Bellagio Foundations. So, Poetry Coeditor at the
Boston Review from 1995 to 2005, Mary Jo is a professor of
English at Washington University in Saint Louis, actually, where
Ron Charles did his graduate work. On a personal note, I have far too
many stories to tell about Mary Jo to fit into my introduction. So, let me stick with the beginning. Fifteen years ago, when
I moved to Brooklyn, I fell in with my then
girlfriend’s social circle of poets. [Inaudible] for the Midwest though,
and my sweetheart described her as a friend who had a
heavy, brainy, playful and profound conversationalist,
a conversation that would be as far reaching in such a
standing as I can imagine. I did, eventually, meet Mary Jo and
have just such a back and forth. But, I did not imagine
then that it would continue with brief interruptions
of time and space and with her singular slant
take on just about everything so gloriously informed
by her thinking. What I think now of Mary Jo’s
work, I think in these terms and include the quote gorgeous
phrasing in matters that leaps, unquote, what the Washington
Post described, in their large Best New Poetry Books
review of the Last Two Seconds. I’m so grateful that we have
the next hour plus to listen in while my friend and
confidant gets the chance to experience the magic of
this ongoing conversation. Please join me in welcoming
Ron Charles and Mary Jo Bang. [ Applause ]>>Ron Charles: I’m
so glad you’re here. Thank you very much for coming.>>Mary Jo Bang: Thank you
for inviting me and thanks to the Hill Center, to Mary Ann and to my friend Rob whose
introduction was extremely kind.>>Ron Charles: You
didn’t start your life as a poet, your professional life. You started as a physician’s
assistant.>>Mary Jo Bang: I
started as a baby. [ Laughter ]>>Ron Charles: It’s going
to be one of those hours!>>Mary Jo Bang: But yes. In fact, I did graduate
work in sociology. I then trained in the
order of these things.>>Ron Charles: Yeah but you
worked as a photographer. So, I knew that.>>Mary Jo Bang: That’s right.>>Ron Charles: But, it was
the physician’s assistant that caught me off guard. I started to think
what did that teach you about looking, about listening?>>Mary Jo Bang: Well, try
looking at a microscope slide.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: That teaches
you, or Grey’s Anatomy. I mean, I think that a lot of
people have asked me that question about how did these various
occupations inform poetry. But, I think it more has to do
with the things that drew me, the subjects to which I was drawn. So, I’m drawn to things where
there’s a kind of exactitude. And so, photography is one of those
things, particularly in the old days when you had to set the, you know
the aperture or shutter speed and you [inaudible] what
kind of film you had and then you would
go to the dark room. And then, you would
time the exposure and how long you would keep
it in that chemical bath. And, all these things, I obviously
have a compulsive personality, and that served me well. And the same was true of medicine. You have to be, to be
a good practitioner, it pays obsessively
attentive to [inaudible].>>Ron Charles: In one
of your poems you write, called Open Heart Surgery, I watched
while one man’s heart filled the hand of another. I noted the inviolate pulsing,
envied the sheer tenacity. You feel that. You saw that yourself?>>Mary Jo Bang: I did. For a while, as a PA, I assisted
a group of open heart surgeons. And, I didn’t, I wasn’t the surgical
assistant, but, I’d go into the OR when they were doing
the procedure and I would give them
updates on the clinic schedule or whatever was upcoming
and I was an observer. And, indeed, there was
a heart in the hand.>>Ron Charles: It’s
something hardly anyone sees.>>Mary Jo Bang: Exactly and more
than I ever dreamed of seeing. But, there was, and it kept beating. So yes, it becomes a
metaphor for tenacity. But, there’s the literal
and there’s the figurative. And, it works both ways.>>Ron Charles: When did you start
to conceive of yourself as a poet?>>Mary Jo Bang: Maybe tomorrow.>>Ron Charles: Two
Seconds from now?>>Mary Jo Bang: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Yeah.>>Mary Jo Bang: The
Last Two Seconds.>>Ron Charles: Was this a career
your parents would have suggest or?>>Mary Jo Bang: No.>>Ron Charles: Thought of for you?>>Mary Jo Bang: No, no. In fact, my mother
made me take typing.>>Ron Charles: That
has been handy though.>>Mary Jo Bang: It has indeed. But, it was because she wanted me to be a secretary instead
of a waitress.>>Ron Charles: Ambitious.>>Mary Jo Bang: Yes. She was. And, I’m really glad
that I took that typing class.>>Ron Charles: In
one of your poems, you write I’ve been a
coward most of my life. And then another one, if only the
terror of the next step were not so absorbing, we might see more. What do fear and perception have to
do with each other and with poetry? There’s a lot of terror
and fear in your poems.>>Mary Jo Bang: Yes, there is. I think that has to do with being
human being and not a poet per say. But, when one becomes a poet the
page becomes a place where you play out your preoccupations
and your obsessions. And so, those subjects find you, you don’t necessarily go
looking for those subjects. But, within that social space of
the page, you are talking to others who might, in fact, experience
the world the same way, and those become your readers. So, that’s how it has to do
with poetry is through talking.>>Ron Charles: And confessing
your own cowardliness.>>Mary Jo Bang: Yeah, yeah.>>Ron Charles: Finds a
response in all of us.>>Mary Jo Bang: Exactly.>>Ron Charles: Yes. What did draw you to photography? You wrote in one-line image
is invincible, defies gravity, gets away with the breathless ajar,
image is invincible, defies gravity, gets away with the
breathless life of ajar. What did, what excited
you about photography?>>Mary Jo Bang: That’s
a hard question. I think looking has been a part of
my life from the very beginning. I grew up in very modest
circumstances, what you call working class, and I
didn’t have a lot of stimulation. We didn’t have books in our
house, we didn’t have paintings. We had television of course. But, when I’d go outside, I would
see things and I was charmed, I think, by say the leaves or
the different colors of leaves. And, I followed my older sister,
who’s older by three years, around. And, that opened up a world to me because she could go
further than I could go. And, I think that I was
entranced by everything I saw. And, I would see little flowers,
clovers, all those kinds of things. And, I think it was a relief
from both interior working and a very boring kind of
interior life inside the house.>>Ron Charles: Agreed
upon, so High Art. This is from your, we’ll talk
about what this books about later.>>Mary Jo Bang: And you
know there’s a movie right.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: Called High Art. So that this movie, this poem’s
in dialogue with this film. High art, there’s a city
outside the mind, another inside, a mind full of something
becoming because, a face too small for this red mouth look how the line
isn’t a street anymore but a track. Like that. The graveled shroud of a train. I’m not usually like this. A linkable Like arrives
without its What. Parks the car. I remember the camera,
The clear click. The clean cutting off
of the instant. Good-bye, good-bye. The slide in the sleeve. This opening eye. Wanting to take everything
in, sequence after sequence. The framed now that never ends
ending; the blue suit pulled from a pool of aqua dreaming. Not knowing why aside from theory. Sexual, sexual configurations
of glamour. What is the scene? What is the cover? The frozen waiting
for focus and drive. Look, look, look. Art is what looking takes you to. A red mouth opening to
say, Don’t look away. I’m not usually like this. The camera sliding by
with its aperture open. Form, repetition, constructs,
content, it happens. Here is the needle that
speeds the plot to the ambush. It happens. The Whole Truth shading desire. Atmospherics predominating
over drama. Chiaroscuro focused on
a point of desperation. The recurrent dream of a
catalog of surprise revelations. Having makes wanting continue a
darkness both familiar and strange. What have you got there? A translation of a
story of a dream world. The sequence of events exist. Here one; here two;
here buckle; here shoe. Now let there be sound. Now let there be light. Once there was this now. [ Applause ]>>Ron Charles: And I love the way
this phone talks about the camera. I remember the camera, the
click, the clean cutting off of the instant, goodbye, goodbye. Talk about that. What are you saying goodbye to?>>Mary Jo Bang: You know, [inaudible] talks about
the frozen moment. And, I think that there is
both a kind of tragedy in that because we freeze the
moment and then it’s over. But, there’s also this continuation
of it because we have it and we think we can hold onto it.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: And, there is
a kind of consolation in that. But, it also goes back and forth,
so, seesaw between the tragic and the re-embracing [inaudible]. So, I think that, if you know this
film, which is about a drug addict and about a woman who wants to
be a photographer and a woman who was a photographer and
so that there’s all of this and there’s a lot of sexual
desire going on between all of these characters, that the
powerful kind of bedrock behind all of that is desire and how
seeing both triggers the desire, satisfies desire, but, it’s
an intimate part of it. So, and of course, desire,
at it’s worse, is addiction. And so, there’s an extremity,
when you think about addiction. But, desire is kind of
the positive part of that, is we start out wanting something
and we end up needing it.>>Ron Charles: Yes, yes. Talking about another poem, this
is called A Screen Door Slams. [ Background noise ]>>Mary Jo Bang: This is in
my first book, I should say. A screen door slams. We leave my brother’s red toy
tractor parked on the scorched lawn, climb the hill, peer through
the brush at the forbidden: railroad tracks and hobo jungle. We lose sight of the ravine,
the fat black snake that falls to the bottom of every yard. It’s Friday night fish-fry
at the Fire Department. Grown-ups drink beer
from tiny metal buckets. My sister pulls a tin
fish from a metal washtub. Off to one side, a girl
with Down’s Syndrome, six years old, lists
in a wheelchair. The mother’s gay hair is drawn away
from her tight, misfortuned face. She bends over the daughter, murmuring into a lap of
robe, wiping a drool. Rolling head, slack jaw, protruding
tongue, an immaculate blue dress, pristine collar edged
with a row of white lace. Don’t stare, my mother says. And I the same age, air tinged
with the scent of fish and Crisco, press my face into the
ironed-cotton smell of my mother’s skirt,
whisper, I wasn’t.>>Ron Charles: Yes you were.>>Mary Jo Bang: Obviously.>>Ron Charles: Yes. You were so looking. Everything in that poem is so alive.>>Mary Jo Bang: Well,
and it’s also desired. I want that dress that
that little girl has on.>>Ron Charles: All the
colors of the poem explode.>>Mary Jo Bang: Yes. I want that pristine white collar. And, you know, the
difference between her and me is it’s [inaudible] and
I would probably have on rags, because I’m the little,
you know, poor little girl. So, it’s all about
looking as a poem designer.>>Ron Charles: Yes. In one of your poems, you say,
can replication ever be pure? Can’t replication ever be pure?>>Mary Jo Bang: Well, no, we go
to [inaudible], this is not a pipe, you know, and the painting
of the pipe, where, underneath it in French is written
the translation, this is not a pipe. And, it’s playing with the
idea that this is not a pipe because it’s a representation
of a pipe. But, of course, when
we look at a picture of a pipe, we think that’s a pipe. So, there’s all kinds
of layers in that. And so, yeah, the replication is
never pure because it can’t be, there’s only this moment
and then the moment’s gone.>>Ron Charles: This is one of the tensions your poems
constantly play with.>>Mary Jo Bang: It’s true.>>Ron Charles: The
Renunciation of Dreams and Such, another poem from your first book.>>Mary Jo Bang: Renunciation
of Dreams and Such. The night you wandered in
the wrong direction and woke up among strand bedfellows odd
man out in houndstooth blazer and khaki pants, you called me
for advice but I had none to give. That night I dreamed: a
shower, a rat, an idle knife. There is no sense subjecting
dreams to light: the truth is they live underwater and even there give only a
passing glimpse of what we need. Last night I dreamed of
macaroons, those small delectables. I tried one but found it overmuch,
returned it to its silver plate where a rim of tortured dogwood, branch and unfelled bloom,
held the cakes in place. I once loved a man who
studied the quiet splendor of cut glass tinted pink with
rose, amber with Grand Marnier. In those days, I didn’t dream. Not even the night a
hurricane unsuckeled trees and laid them side by side. January that year began and
ended as a wave of gray intensity that converted the world
to ice and froze water where it hid behind the wall. In the realm of hard, cold and done
for, it’s best to rely on nothing but touch and temperature in
a system where zero stands for the treason of warmth. [ Applause ]>>Ron Charles: As I
was preparing for this, I thought these people are never
going to go follow these poems because they’re too
difficult, they’re not going to be able to understand them. But, the way you read them,
they really come alive.>>Mary Jo Bang: Well thank you.>>Ron Charles: You’re a
superb reader of your own work. The poem is a by saying it’s best
to rely on nothing but touch. You don’t believe that.>>Mary Jo Bang: Obviously,
everything’s a metaphor. So, to rely on touch
and temperature, you could say why you
touched something to see if it’s warm or cold.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: And you
could say that’s a metaphor for a relationship. You touch the other person and find
whether they’re warm or cold to you.>>Ron Charles: You’re much more
visual and tactile in your poems. Don’t you think?>>Mary Jo Bang: Well, I
don’t know how tactile I am. I know I’m very visual.>>Ron Charles: Okay. Your second book Louise
in Love, it’s remarkable, if I recall a novella in
lyrics, people struggle trying to describe this book because
there’s nothing like this. It’s about a silent film star.>>Mary Jo Bang: Well no. It’s about a character named Louise.>>Ron Charles: Okay.>>Mary Jo Bang: And she happens
to look like Louise Brooks.>>Ron Charles: Okay.>>Mary Jo Bang: The
silent film star.>>Ron Charles: Who’s on the cover.>>Mary Jo Bang: That’s right. And she shares some
biographical details.>>Ron Charles. Okay, okay I’ll go along with that. And, how’d this book come about?>>Mary Jo Bang: Well, it came
about because there was a new, I was living in New York
and it was the early 90s. And there was this
brand new coffee shop that everybody was talking about. And, it was adorable. And, it had these little
tables and little chairs. And, as soon as it
open, I went there. And, my intent was to
sit there and write. It was called Starbucks.>>Ron Charles: Did you buy
stock in this little store?>>Mary Jo Bang: Unfortunately, not. But, sitting there at a table,
there were two empty chairs and there was the chair
in which I was sitting. And, I had this idea to
create imaginary friends. And I did. And, one was named Louise and one
was a man named Ham, which was short for Hamilton, and he was British. And then, I thought
okay then, who am I? and, I couldn’t decide. I might be another man and we’d
be buying for Louise’s attention. I might be another woman and I
might be buying for Ham’s attention or for Louise’s attention. And, I thought, well, why don’t
we just settle that I’m the other. And there’s always that
sense, in a relationship, that there is an other even
if the other is the blood. So, I then had a character sitting
in my chair called the other. And, all these people talked to each
other and I made a poem out of it. And, it was so much fun, the
next day I came back again and wrote two more poems. And then, I showed them to a friend. And, the friend said, those are fun
let’s, you know, keep having fun. And, I said would you like to
know what Louise looks like? And, I held up a shoebox in which
I kept different [inaudible] from the years when
I lived in London. And, I knew what this woman
looked like, and it was that card. And so, I went to the
shoebox and got this. And, I looked at the back because
I didn’t know who the woman was. And, and it said Louise Brooks. And, I had already named
my character Louise. And so, I thought,
this is Louise Brooks. And, I thought I think
she’s a film star, no I think she’s a writer,
no film star, no writer. So, the next day I went to
the library and, of course, she was a silent film star who wrote
a book called Lulu in Hollywood. And so, I took out her
biography and Lulu in Hollywood and I aligned them for details, and.>>Ron Charles: That is surprising. So, it really was you
backed into this.>>Mary Jo Bang: Yes. So, she’s, Louise is her
own person but she probably, and I wanted to experiment with creating a character
the way that novelists do.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: And
this allowed me to do it. And, I wanted the character
to be not me. So, she’s not me in
many dramatic ways. She’s an alcoholic, she’s
promiscuous, she, you know, is kind of devil may care.>>Ron Charles: Lives
decades earlier.>>Mary Jo Bang: Well no
because my didn’t, so.>>Ron Charles: When
does this take place.>>Mary Jo Bang: Well,
anytime in the United Nations.>>Ron Charles: Okay.>>Mary Jo Bang: But,
I became jealous because I couldn’t get in the poems. So, I had to invent somebody else and it’s her sister
and her name’s Lidia. And so then, I could
put my own personality into Lidia’s personality.>>Ron Charles: That’s fascinating. That’s a great introduction. This is, we can only read a couple
of these so I just picked two that spoke to me on this slide here.>>Mary Jo Bang: Well, I’ll
just add something, that, while I was writing some of
these, I was taking a course, I had a fellowship at Princeton. And, I all I had to do
was live in Princeton. But I needed some structure
in my life. So, I sat in on a course
that was being offered on late romantic poets. And so, there is a line in here. No, I’m sorry this is not the
one, I thought this was going to have a line in here from Keats. But, it doesn’t. Instead the line in here
is from Mrs. Dalloway. Sorry. That Was All,
Louise Said, Except For. The dalliance of spring-boards, the lingering impression
of an off-black blouse. Facts, said Ham, too
often confide an edifice with no hint of what hides behind. They had just come from
seeing the clairvoyant. She told them that
like Clint Eastwood, Louise had been born on an eclipse. Since her moon was in
Sagittarius, she could live in a foreign country
if ever she chose. In the cafe, the service was slow;
the waitress had taken up smoking and a bald man was asking for more. Across the street, a building
stood facing its final demise. A mud-spattered window in
a double-hung door was all that divided outside from in. to Louise, the conversation
seemed all too familiar. I feel, she said to the
other, like a sheet grown soft with the deadweight
of difficult sleep. She turned her head,
she was like a poplar, she was like a river,
she was like a hyacinth. What you are, said Ham, is beauty. Empty she said. No inbreath, no eyeblink. So, you see, Clint Eastwood
was proof [inaudible].>>Ron Charles: Definitely
more contemporary.>>Mary Jo Bang: And
then you wanted me –>>Ron Charles: I did,
there’s another one.>>Mary Jo Bang: Okay. This one’s hard, I just
have to see where it goes. Okay. Etched, Tetched, Touched. It was perhaps Hollandish. A tinted print of functional
waterway tearing a town apart. Aproned ladies and
ladies in breeches. A dog baited by a strip of bacon. Louise didn’t care for such scenes. Static antics, she said. Sterile takes on quotidian twilight. Give me rapture and
bliss, she told Ham. Hieronymus Bosch and Mister S.
Dali, her sister Lydia claimed to have seen the latter her
second summer in Montmartre. The epiphany of Yves Tanguy
walking a panther seaside in Cannes. Such sights call up the
shades, Louise said. Only they know how to last. Meaning, forever. All else shifts the way the print
has now tilted with no one near. Ham crossed the carpet to right it. Of course, Louise too could be a
pretty picture: a woman riveted to earth in raiments right for
the season, hilarity on her face, the boat balanced behind her. From another angle, a perilous
island of plenty volcanic, tigers hidden in treetops, leopards
masking the faces of mountains, an irresistible silence on the
edge of ruin, warm at the wrist.>>Ron Charles: What fascinated
me about that poem, was, you got her looking
at all these images and then becoming conscious
of herself as an image. And how.>>Mary Jo Bang: How does that work?>>Ron Charles: Yeah, how
mysterious that is because we.>>Mary Jo Bang: Well it is. And, it’s third person. So, I think that the
person commenting, Louise too could be
a pretty picture, is the omniscient narrator
judging Louise by her behavior. I thought that Louise
would describe herself as being on the edge of a ruin. She doesn’t have a
lot of self-awareness. So, she gets into a
ruin without knowing.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Did you ever
write any short stories?>>Mary Jo Bang: Well,
that’s how I began, wanting to be a fiction writer.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: And, I
couldn’t quite manage it. Every time I would write a
story and I have a writing group and I would submit the story and people would point
out the shortcomings. And I immediately saw them but I
didn’t know how to correct them. That was all, I had written,
that was the all the inspiration and I couldn’t revisit it. But, when I began to write poems,
someone could point out something that might not be working and I
would have six or seven other ideas. And, I’d just have to
decide between one of them.>>Ron Charles: That makes
no sense to me at all.>>Mary Jo Bang: No, nor to
me, it’s a great illustration. So, this is my term, my revisiting, the idea can I learn something
now from my character.>>Ron Charles: Can
you write narrative; can you write a story of sorts?>>Mary Jo Bang: Right, right. Just, I didn’t try the
narrative, just the characters.>>Ron Charles: Yeah.>>Mary Jo Bang: And then yeah.>>Ron Charles: There’s
a story though. These are moments, but they pile up.>>Mary Jo Bang: Right. If you have a character
around long enough.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: It coheres.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: To an extent. But that’s why it’s a first
novel instead of poems.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Mary Jo Bang: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: You wrote
a book called the Eye Like a Strange Balloon.>>Mary Jo Bang: I did.>>Ron Charles: I can’t say that.>>Mary Jo Bang: It’ll [inaudible].>>Ron Charles: Yes. It’s a collection of poems inspired
by paintings, films and photographs. How would you describe
that book’s dependence on those films, photos,
and photographs?>>Mary Jo Bang: Right. Well, the artwork acts as a trigger. And, for the most part, the speaker
then is in whatever scene is there. So, if there’s a day at the beach,
[inaudible] day at the beach, which is not in there, but you
would, the speaker then would be at the beach and would
speak out of that setting.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: So they
became stage settings. But, sometimes they were abstract. And then, I would look at
them the way you look at a cow and see a lion or giraffe.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Mary Jo Bang: I would
use those particulars to suggest a narrative instead
of having full blown stage scene.>>Ron Charles: Some of them are
quite famous others I thought were pure.>>Mary Jo Bang: That’s right.>>Ron Charles: None of
them appears in the book.>>Mary Jo Bang: No. That would be very expensive.>>Ron Charles: Yes. Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: Plus, it
would limit the reading.>>Ron Charles: Now tell
me about that, why that?>>Mary Jo Bang: Well because
then it, you’d look at the.>>Ron Charles: If you were
able to look, why can’t we?>>Mary Jo Bang: Well, you can. And, most of them are online.>>Ron Charles: Yeah.>>Mary Jo Bang: So, or, all of
them, I’m sure, are in catalogs or they’re films you could see. But, the, I didn’t want
people to look at the painting and say what I don’t
see that, because, of course, they wouldn’t see that. Only I see that. But, that, it’s just a trigger.>>Ron Charles: Okay. Here’s one called the Bridge.>>Mary Jo Bang: The
Bridge or Ophelia. She should have brought a book to
read, a trim volume, a novella, a stack of stunned swallows
pressed into paragraphs on nifty rice-paper pages. Instead, she was left watching
a man feed a silver coin to an open-mouthed meter. She had ordered pasta
with pesto and waited. There had been pee smell
in the subway apse, ankle straps on a pair
of patent pumps. On that particular Tuesday, she couldn’t take her eyes
off the wonderful wool in the window opposite a
bleached blue so light it might as well not be blue but
for picking up a whisp of a slant sky hue and holding it. Someone had been unkind last night. Someone had said, get
thee and Get thee. Clearly she had mistaken
fire for some galling ember. Will he ever come again? No never. Rue for you, rue for me. The small street ended in a
cul-de-sac beneath the bridge. Above, the noise of
some ecstatic blastment, a battalion of Comemycoach
and Goodnightladies. This mixed with the softish,
silken swish of an overhead fan. In a rotting wooden box, Parma
violets grew heavy in scent. Hey nonny no. a group of fresh-faced
acolytes from the Convent of the Sacred Heart passed
in front of the glass. A faint breeze, a rippling, shadow. Her eye caught the corner of the
Queen’s orchid cape as it swept by. A fountain threw its
dilly drops of water down. Will he never come again? Yes, never. Against that backscrape of
sound and the hue of illusion of the vegetable glass of nature and
of lush grass, the hair of graves, and of some hinted
and heaven-weft scent, dressed in black taffeta,
the daffodil waited. [ Applause ]>>Ron Charles: Now, what’s
the difference for the reader who knows the Victor
Burgin photograph and the reader who doesn’t?>>Mary Jo Bang: I don’t think that, in that case it matters
because we have Ophelia. And so, we have all of
those views of Ophelia lying in the water holding
her little violets. And, even if we don’t have
that image, we have the play.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: And so, the
bridge or Ophelia and we have some of the language of Ophelia, and so,
and we have that sense of get thee to a nunnery and we
have this rejection, the speaker’s been rejected.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Mary Jo Bang: By someone
who will not come back.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: And
Ophelia won’t come back. And so, there’s this layering of the
beloved being told to get thee away.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Mary Jo Bang: The beloved
being gone and the compilation between being told to
go away and going away. So, it’s a language
game as all poems do. And the game privilege of having
a language which creates sound and the, it exploits
the ability of language to mean more than one thing.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: And so, I double
exploit that sometimes in my work.>>Ron Charles: Yes. All poems are connected
to other art forms and other poems and
other images but.>>Mary Jo Bang: Well there’s that.>>Ron Charles: This poem is more
easier to make those lines, I guess.>>Mary Jo Bang: Yes. If that’s the level, we want to
stay at of making those connections.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Mary Jo Bang: But there’s
something else going on that goes on in the play as well
which is subjectivity. And, there is [inaudible]. And so, that’s there for anyone
who’s never seen the play.>>Ron Charles: Yes. I do think it’s much
richer if you know the play.>>Mary Jo Bang: Indeed.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: And
it’s meant to be yeah.>>Ron Charles: And if you know,
you can’t see this of course, but, this is the [inaudible] it’s
the Golden Gate Bridge, Ophelia, you know, what does
it remind you of, Ophelia’s who’s beloved
is there, dead. And then you’ve got, you know, Alfred Hitchcock’s
Vertigo also going on. I mean all kinds of things
are going on in this poem. Let’s do another one that’s even
more abstract, Mickey Mouse. Minnie, not Mickey. Minnie Mouse.>>Mary Jo Bang: Minnie Mouse. But would you love me just as
much if I had nothing at all? Sure, Minnie more than ever. Of course, love is a
malleable matter of culture. And a wife is a wife. And what about number eight? Do you too see the world as formal
decisions, technique and touch? The frenetic as typical of lines
formed quote with sticks or the end of the paintbrush suggesting
the primacy of the drawn or painted
mark unquote. If you do, we’ll still be friends. Theory reduces all
that to a sentence. A picture is little more than its
parts plus the marriage of time to its nothing, less now. I’m trying to think past the
edge of my own rickrack slip. On the hill are three trees. Let’s pretend it’s a picture
illustrating the notion that beauty is a bridge
trembling under today. The insane questions
that one cannot solve. The sleuthounds bark,
horns fanfare the familiar. The herald announces
the weather is rainy, a drizzle conceals the castle. A cut ribbon divides the beginning
from some already ever after. I’m after proof that I am more
than what can be dismantled into small bits of ideas,
then pressed and rebuilt as the essence of innocence. Now, I have to tell you. I’ve never read this out loud. And the reason is that I do
think it’s very challenging when you can’t see it on the page. So, if I were in the performance
of my work, I usually pick things that have more of a through line. This has many concerns here,
there’s concerns about innocence and Minnie Mouse as a signifier of
innocence, has to do with museums and wall plaques which is
where that quote comes from and all kinds of other things.>>Ron Charles: Yeah. It’s an amazing poem. And it’s not, it’s, back up here,
it’s inspired by De Kooning.>>Mary Jo Bang: Yes, it’s a De
Kooning’s painting of Minnie Mouse.>>Ron Charles: De Kooning’s
painting of Minnie Mouse.>>Mary Jo Bang: Actually, I saw, at the national gallery,
here at Washington DC.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: On a
trip to Washington DC. So, it’s odd that I’m
reading that here.>>Ron Charles: So, De Kooning’s
impression of Walt Disney’s drawing of Minnie Mouse and his layering
of tremendous transformations.>>Mary Jo Bang: Well, and his
whole thing about women as well, this man thing [inaudible].>>Ron Charles: De Kooning now.>>Mary Jo Bang: Yeah De Kooning.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: And reducing
women to only some of their parts.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: Which are
the genitals [inaudible].>>Ron Charles: Right, the violent.>>Mary Jo Bang: Dismantling.>>Ron Charles: Dismantling. And then Disney, of course, does his
own violence to women and his own.>>Mary Jo Bang: Yes. Yes. You should see those
early cartoons Steamboat Willy and how poor Minnie is treated.>>Ron Charles: Or the mother’s
always killed off, all that. And then, and then this
passage from a catalogue from the Milwaukee Art Museum. There are many things in here that any particular reader
would be hard-pressed to know listening to this poem.>>Mary Jo Bang: Right. Yes.>>Ron Charles: Defend yourself.>>Mary Jo Bang: Well,
again, there are lots of things for lots of people.>>Ron Charles: Yep.>>Mary Jo Bang: And
some people will be drawn to interpret the comments
another way.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: Some about
Mickey Mouse, some about art, some about the relationship
of the theory to the real. Some are drawn to a
speaker who doesn’t exist on reducing an argument to a single
linear statement and breaking it up over line breaks but is eager
to do some of the work knowing that they will, perhaps, come
to different conclusions.>>Ron Charles: And
that it’ll pay off.>>Mary Jo Bang: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Because
there’s so much there.>>Mary Jo Bang: Yeah,
hopefully it will. And if not, you’re not
the reader for that poem. That’s, and I don’t
mind that as well. I’m really very, I’m a pluralist,
I’m, there are many kinds of poetry.>>Ron Charles: You wrote a
book called the Bride of E which is a [inaudible] special
concedes the poems follow along the alphabet.>>Mary Jo Bang: That’s right.>>Ron Charles: How did,
this is a, what is it?>>Mary Jo Bang: Opposite
[inaudible].>>Ron Charles: Thank you for
not making me try to say that. That, of course, [inaudible]
of poems was that constraining or freeing or how did
you relate to that?>>Mary Jo Bang: It is very freeing
because there’s, I don’t remember who first said it, but, someone
used the [inaudible] staring at the blank page. And, it’s really accurate
because you sit there and what are you going to write. So the alphabet I could write
some poems and think okay which letters haven’t
I written down. And then, I would think, okay,
Q, let me think about that.>>Ron Charles: Q, that’s
what you thought of was Q?>>Mary Jo Bang: No,
I mean that’s a point. At one point I had to think Q
and what words would come to me. And one of them was quit. And then, I’d go off on [inaudible]
which is what the poem is. But, it’s started because
I was looking at an article in People Magazine while I
was in the dentist office. And it was about Cher.>>Ron Charles: This is in the book?>>Mary Jo Bang: Yes.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: And so, I
wrote a poem C is for Cher. And then, after that, I started
thinking, okay, what’s B for? And what’s D for then? And that’s what gave me this idea. And then, when I exhausted,
I thought, well, you know, I can’t have a book with
only 26 letters, poems in it. So then, what will I do? And then, some of my friends said
well why don’t you do the numbers? No, I don’t think so. So then, I did alliterative titles
using each letter and played with that until I had enough
poems to publish the book.>>Ron Charles: That’s fascinating. N as in Nevermore. I think you already attached
the reference to another poem.>>Mary Jo Bang: N as in Never More. The Raven is stuck
now into the shape of a principle taxadermic moment. The snapshot shows it as it
falls in the line of staring down from the door frame and onto
what we are and all but defeated. To define is to make
material so says the raven. Below it is the eerie highway known
as the ever death ravaged by war and wars and enigmatic attacks by
a rocket who struck the hardest and blended into an incendiary pole. One way to see the birds
to look at them as a frame and a violence mixing its
message with the cold war of constant utterance, quote
the raven, give me more. Mis means mistakes as
shall mean catastrophe. The arm, the line that
points to the start, a bar or six at the
window and dying again. And, on the small screen, the bird
turns back into the lining operatic into the story of key elements
accident and defined with an ending that ties up the plot rather nicely. Although outside the box
there’s mockery spilling over on the unwitting wish to
be and to be and to be better. And over that, lush
layer of poppy shellac. Only when I’m posing do I feel
real, this from the invisible crowd, this from the death’s head,
this from a bird looking down on the square where a
woman is brushing back her hair. Her name is Lenore Nevermore. [ Applause ]>>Ron Charles: Only when
I’m posing do I feel real.>>Mary Jo Bang: That was taken from
some actress on a late night show.>>Ron Charles: Yeah?>>Mary Jo Bang: Yeah. I don’t remember who, but I used it.>>Ron Charles: Because
it’s an irony that occurs throughout your work.>>Mary Jo Bang: Right.>>Ron Charles: Having to do
with photograph, capturing but at the same time rendering
artificial what’s being imagined.>>Mary Jo Bang: Well also
because the speaker is a construct.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: And I
come to understand that. That, I’m able to [inaudible]
the truth and fill in a constant and stand
on stage set. And so, I realize paintings give me
a stage set sometimes or a character so I can keep going out
on stages for [inaudible] or for [inaudible] I can
hide behind a letter.>>Ron Charles: Read another one? In the Present and Probable Future.>>Mary Jo Bang: This
is a hard one too. You’re picking my hardest poems.>>Ron Charles: I want you
to listen to the questions, the questions that are
asked in this poem.>>Mary Jo Bang: This
was actually published. This poem was written
because I was asked, by the New York times,
to write a poem. So, we followed the election in 2008
not knowing who would be president. And, they were going to,
they asked seven poets. And, they were going publish
them the day before the election. And then, at some point, they
decided they would wait until, because they had so much election
coverage, they couldn’t devote, this was going to be
on opinion page. So, the day after the election in
2008, the opinion page was filled with seven poems and
this was one of them. In the Present and Probable Future. Here we are viewing the land:
waves of grave and grain. That slight tremor? A house settling. A violent past walking through. And over there, the burning deck. The political machine. The inanimate come to life. The conventional flag wave. Cormorants on pitched
roofs watch the ship of state mandate folded twice over. Many ingenious lovely
things are gone. This turbulence. This coming one-two march
through a landscape. The dark relative against the
brilliance of the last act of some staged production. The cast bows. A tape player click, click, clicks. Some kind of clock. A unit of measurement. We wish ourselves back on the boat. Wish for the answer to the
question: When should we walk out of the theater into the night? When should we accept that life
is only an exaggerated form of special pleading,
romanticized beyond saying into moon, stone, flock and trees. What in the picture
would you get rid of? The land that stretches
back to prehistoric times? Myriad islands? Icecaps and etcetera? The atmosphere? The human body? All of the above? All but the latter? You’d like to keep human as an
aspect of the formula but rid it of its grappling ambition
to destroy? Good luck with that. What does it mean to
have a point of view? What does it mean to have
a notable achievement? To succeed in representing the
nuances of a determinate activity? Listen: however, events turn out,
if we want to we can continue to see the moon as an outburst
of lyric, a vision of John Keats and his friends, but still
we have the battle to fight. How many more days will be there? The unperceptive will be busy
believing in magic: crop circles, the unmanipulated image,
definitions that defy definition. Others will take at face value
the less favorable consequences of both cynicism and
commercialization. The latter will say the flock
is simply an assemblage, an obsessive presence
looking down on the building where someone sits
predicting the landslide rate. Long after we are gone
we can say we were here. We were working, wittingly or
not, towards the eventual erosion of places ground down
and fought over, especially in the literal sense
exploitation and industrial damage. Nothing is lost. If anything, we gain experience. There will be that unsullied
moment, down to the last detail, when the acquired interview
and other quaint signs of demise will speak to
us, will speak about us to the flood and the fire. [ Applause ]>>Ron Charles: When
should we accept that life is only an exaggerated
form of special pleading?>>Mary Jo Bang: I don’t
think we can ever accept that.>>Ron Charles: What does it
mean to have a point of view? What does it mean to have a
notable achievement to succeed in representing nuances
of a determined activity? The poem is full of these really
great provocative questions that makes it so, you just want
to go back and read it again. Listen: however, events turn out,
if we want to we can continue to see the moon as an outburst
of lyric, a vision of John Keats.>>Mary Jo Bang: And his friends.>>Ron Charles: And his friends. Yes, the lit poem turns back on
romantic poetry itself, on romance and the way it represents
them it’s real.>>Mary Jo Bang: Well thank you.>>Ron Charles: Let’s take
a break let’s just stand up, turn around, sit back down. Can we talk about your son?>>Mary Jo Bang: We can
talk about the book.>>Ron Charles: Your son was
37 when he died in New York?>>Mary Jo Bang: Yes.>>Ron Charles: How did that happen?>>Mary Jo Bang: We can
talk about the book.>>Ron Charles: The book
is a response to his death.>>Mary Jo Bang: The speaker
in the book has suffered a loss and something I know a lot about.>>Ron Charles: I appreciate your
willingness to go through this.>>Mary Jo Bang: Okay.>>Ron Charles: Could
you read the first poem?>>Mary Jo Bang: Okay. A Sonata for Four Hands. Causes and consequences line
up, Ready for the next dawn with its blight of glass bulbs. In the welled nothingness
of definitely, there is another Sad sobbing day. Someone has seen you and
says you were just fine, hours before you weren’t. I say Come Back and you
do Not do what I want. The train unrolls its track
and sends its sound forward. The siren unrolls its sound
and sends itself Forward. The first day of the
last goes forward as the last summer you’ll see. The dirge is all wrong
for the season. Death remains Wedded to mystery. How Does the heart stop? On what Moment’s turning? Which tick? And why? Only where Is settled. Behind an address. Some block Building. Some barricade brick That
hides bracketed hours Until the doom door
opens and my I sees. Police seal peeled back. Everything as you left it. On and over and under. Why are you not where you belong? A black hat on a hook says nothing. Ashes mirror ashes in
a mirroring window. And now how Do we resolve
this predicament? The body becomes the
art of identity. A face in a photograph. The bas relief Around
the morgue door. You, singularly you. And gone Invisible. [ Applause ]>>Ron Charles: And
before we talk about them, another one toward the center of a
book Intractable and Irreversible.>>Mary Jo Bang: Intractable,
and Irreversible. The overcast sky, the, I’m sorry. The overcast cast of the
sky is the secondary drama. On the screen at the
back of the mind. Far from the vigilant eye,
A dictionary definition of death is written Over the
grid of a calendar sequence. Death is the date when
the output is over. An irreversible heartbeat hiatus
That goes by the name of no more. At home in his ash box,
he was going nowhere Else. He was living with her now
In a land of low clouds Where weather was the
only possible change. The clouds see nothing. The clouds are nothing
but ice changes and water. Water changes and morning’s
cold sets in motion The proximate,
the visible, day. There will be no more of time and time’s corruption
For the ash in the box. The love of her life. She notices how quiet
he is in there. Out here, she talks, I
talk but always to a mirror Where a face looks out like a
clock that says night Is coming and then it comes like
a coat of silted black. Thank you, she says,
as she slips into bed. One more alarm silenced. One more Closet door closed. One more Shoe sole set to the
floor of checkered linoleum. The castle is quiet,
the castle is snug. A dream bell begins to toll, to tell of the intolerable
end that keeps going on. [ Applause ]>>Ron Charles: These
poems give voice to what you call the
hair tearing grief of the mother whose child has been
swept away by the needle broom of her own mindless errors. That does not seem fair to blame.>>Mary Jo Bang: The mother?>>Ron Charles: The mother.>>Mary Jo Bang: Well, the speaker in these poems, has
that point of view. So, I don’t think we can convince
her that she shouldn’t feel that way because feelings just are.>>Ron Charles: Right. Right.>>Mary Jo Bang: And, it is
the nature of grief, I think, that it’s unchanging
and unchangeable. So, I think that the, this book
which has meant a lot to a lot of people, I’ve been told, is
probably gives voice to things that are very difficult
to give voice to and that politest prevents
us from somehow going to talk about the extremity. And there are poets like Dickinson, after great pain a
formal feeling comes. And there it just sits ceremonious. I think that the reason she’s so
timeless is that she has given voice to those things that
are very difficult to talk to each other about. And so, in some ways
the poet’s very lucky because she can write
these things down and then trigger them [inaudible]. And then, the other
people can read them and she has time to
be interrogated by — [ Laughter ] But, we don’t ask Dickinson,
what did you mean? Who died? And that’s how I want
these poems to be in the world is that they exist because
they give voice to a state of subjectivity that is extreme.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: And that many
people have lost someone to death.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: And,
the circumstances of the death don’t matter. The grief echoes similarly. I find death absolutely
unfathomable.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: That
someone can be.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: And
then stop being, it’s, I will never get my
mind around that.>>Ron Charles: Yes. How did you decide? You said in your poem
you’re going to condense to seven stanzas a particular world.>>Mary Jo Bang: I, actually
that poem’s from, again, an interview I read with
a film director who said that you can create a whole
world in seven scenes. And so, the translation of
that would be seven stances.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Mary Jo Bang: And
so, as you can see from what I’m telling you I’m
getting something from a wall plaque in a museum, I’m getting something
from late night TV, I’m just, I always have my antenna
out for appropriating life because when I put that in the poems
I’m hoping the poems will give voice to something that feels freedom.>>Ron Charles: They definitely do. You describe the problems
in one part as a transient distraction
of ink on cloth. Nothing more can be said
about that, it’s so profound. The decision to write these
poems, to me, seems to state from the decision to publish them.>>Mary Jo Bang: Yes.>>Ron Charles: Could you
talk about that decision?>>Mary Jo Bang: I can. I wrote the poems and I, they
were a way of distracting myself from that grief which
was a dangerous form of grief and needed distraction. And, it was interesting
after a while because I would critique
what I was doing and say you should not be writing
these poems because you are, you know, you are exploiting
your own tragedy for making art. And then, I would think to
myself, well, not really. I’m playing that old word
game that I know how to play. And, by playing that game, just like playing solitaire,
I’m distracting myself. But then, I would write something
and sit back and read it. And, what I had written was so
sad because it was my [inaudible] that that would take
me back into it. And then, to get out of
it I would write again. And then, I would distract
myself by deciding where to break the
line or what word to.>>Ron Charles: The
technical aspect.>>Mary Jo Bang: The
technical aspects. I couldn’t be bothered with
titles, that was too much. And so, they’re, almost all of
them, at least the early ones, were one word titles which
then later I would go back and try to do something with. And, at some point, I realized,
oh my goodness, people, poets have been doing this forever.>>Ron Charles: It’s
the oldest form. Isn’t it?>>Mary Jo Bang: It’s
called an Elegy. And then, suddenly I realized
that’s what I was writing elegies. And I began to think about
what an elegy is and one, it reconjures the beloved
so that the beloved is back and there’s a consolation in
that until you realize that no, this is not the real beloved
and I mean that’s painful again. It also is a way to
memorialize the phenomena. And, but most importantly I realized
it was that distraction from grief. And so, then, I started
writing a poem which is Elegy which
I know read apart.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: As a way to
think through what I was doing. And, I never intended
to publish poems. But, after you’ve written
a number of books, editors will sometimes approach
you and ask you for poems. And so, I would write that
that I didn’t have any and that what I was writing now
wasn’t anything they would want to publish. And, they would insist that
they would like to see it. And, if it was someone I knew,
I would send a few poems. And, I was quite surprised that
not only did they want those but sometimes they’d ask for more. And, I’d never had that experience. And, I thought how could these
poems mean something to someone else because they’re so personal? They, it perplexed me. But, when people received
them then they were talking about how much they meant to them. And so, it wasn’t until a
few years later, I think, I totally understood what the book
means to people or how they read it because it was just confusing. It would be, I don’t know I
can’t find a metaphor for.>>Ron Charles: Emotionally
confusing.>>Mary Jo Bang: Yeah. To say it, I love that poem.>>Ron Charles: Yeah. That is odd. Isn’t it?>>Mary Jo Bang: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: I was think
as I read this the poem, the book was quite
celebrated, you won a big prize. That must have been just disoriented
for you to be celebrated, to receive praise, to
go to awards ceremonies about this horrible event.>>Mary Jo Bang: Well, the last
thing was, that I began to feel, excuse me, I began to feel
like we were doing it together, my son and I, and this was a
way to continue being together. And, I knew how [inaudible] was
with me as a poet, he kept my books on his desk and would loan
them to his coworkers. And he always celebrated
whatever prizes I had. And so, I knew he’d be very
proud that we were doing this.>>Ron Charles: And in another
poem you write, now she is sickened by the essence of recollection.>>Mary Jo Bang: Essence of what?>>Ron Charles: Recollection. Now she is sickened by the
essence of recollection. In another you write memory is
deeply not alive, it is a mock up and this renders it hateful. This is the language you used to
talk about this strange both healing and agonizing process of elegy.>>Mary Jo Bang: Right.>>Ron Charles: There’s these
always desperately haunting sad images here. You write in one poem,
it’s as if the windows of night have been sewn to her eyes. Then there’s this shocking
element of surprise that runs through the poem. In the vacancy the
world went on revolving. How could life go on
when this has happened? I’m sorry. He still looked like
he was, but he wasn’t.>>Mary Jo Bang: Right.>>Ron Charles: How
can I be and you not? You’re constantly surprised
again and again.>>Mary Jo Bang: Well, I think that, I think that [inaudible]
something about writing poetry. And, I think that, because I was
honest about my feelings and I think that it forever, it somehow
made me more confident in terms of putting subject
to the inner poem. And, I think that that’s been
very useful to me in sessions, not useful in terms of getting
the fame for doing that, but useful in terms of
satisfying my own desire, realizing my ambition
toward a particular poem. So that, I’m allowing
myself to be more earnest. I’m still wearing a costume, but, the actress can speak
a little more directly. So, I think, that’s, when you asked
me to read some of these poems that enact the complexity
of my thoughts.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Mary Jo Bang: I think
I’ve found, since then, ways to be a little more
direct about the subjectivity.>>Ron Charles: Would you read
the poem you mentioned the Rule of Elegy?>>Mary Jo Bang: Yes. I just want to add, because, my fear
has always been that I didn’t want to be reductive about
complicated things. So, I think I tried to
complicate the language in order to communicate complicated thoughts. But, I think that there are other
ways or I think I’ve achieved ways of talking about complicated
thoughts with a little more direction. And, I think that the
gravity I was wanting in the poems is more apparent
in the more recent work, like the Last Two Seconds.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: Most recent work. And, the book coming after that
which has already been finished. The Role of the Elegy. The role of the elegy
is to put a death mask on tragedy, A drape on the mirror. To bow to the cultural Debate over
the anesthetization of sorrow, Of loss, of the unbearable
Afterimage of the once material. To look for an imagined
Consolidation of grief So we can all be finished Once
and for all and genuinely shut up The cabinet of genuine
particulars. Instead there’s the endless refrain
One hears replayed repeatedly Through the just ajar door: Some
terrible mistake has been made. What is elegy but the
attempt to rebreathe life into what the gone one once
was Before he grew to enormity. Come on stage and be yourself,
the elegist says to the dead. Show them Now after the fact
What you were meant to be: The performer of a live song. A shoe. Now bow. What is left but this:
The compulsion to tell. The transient distraction
of ink on cloth One scrubbed and scrubbed but couldn’t make less. Not then, not soon. Each day, a new caption on the cartoon Ending
that simply cannot be. One hears repeatedly,
the role of elegy is. [ Applause ]>>Ron Charles: What’s so
remarkable about that poem is that it’s an elegy
and it deconstructs and elegy at the same moment. It critiques it in a very aggressive
way, sometimes in a very bitter way as though you’re enacting an elegy
and realizing how inadequate it is. Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: And voice,
giving voice to the suspicion of why one is doing this and how
one is using the particulars. The anxiety over doing that.>>Ron Charles: Yes. In one of your earliest poems
you wrote loss is now what you live with. This is years, years ago. Does it get easier?>>Mary Jo Bang: Never.>>Ron Charles: Okay.>>Mary Jo Bang: No I think, I mean, wisdom is the advantage
of aging, right. So, it’s like.>>Ron Charles: Yeah.>>Mary Jo Bang: So, it’s
like, and I think it’s true. I think that one, having thought
about things one’s whole live, one’s able to find
ways to conceptualize like struggle, grief,
all those things. And, I think that’s
useful to the self. Yeah.>>Ron Charles: There’s a poem
in here called Gone that begins with the lines the ordeal
comes to its periodic end, which usually means
the ahead is again.>>Mary Jo Bang: That was one
of the last poems in the Elegy because I gave myself a year. I, realized that there
were then poets who, they felt like they made a commodity
of a tragedy that they experienced. And, I often felt that it’s
hard to maintain, as a reader, my interest in their exploration of that personal tragedy
past a certain point. But, to them, they
clearly have age in them.>>Ron Charles: And so,
I felt that I didn’t want to create six more books
about this particular death. I didn’t think it was
good for poetry. I didn’t think it was good for me. And so, I gave myself a year. And I decided that at the end of
that year, I would never write about this subject again. Now, of course, I write
about my feelings about.>>Ron Charles: Okay.>>Mary Jo Bang: This.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Mary Jo Bang: This
particular [inaudible]. But, I don’t pronounce it as such. And so, at the end of the year,
I think I was also rather stunned by the fact that there had been
no resolution to those feelings. That, we think of a year as being
a long time, and, in some settings, it’s not at all long,
it’s an eye blink. And so, I realized that I had
given myself arbitrarily a year because a year’s a
quantity it’s a measurement.>>Ron Charles: Yeah.>>Mary Jo Bang: But, at the end
of that year, nothing had changed. And so, there was that
sense of that, it just continuous
[inaudible] or the speaker.>>Ron Charles: Yes. To end with a poem
from your latest book. Will you choose, you
choose, because I’ve used up, I’ve used up too much of our time.>>Mary Jo Bang: Okay.>>Ron Charles: You
don’t have to pick one on Mark although I like those. I like many of them.>>Mary Jo Bang: Okay. Well I’ll do this one
and you did choose it. A Structure of Repeating Units. A lamp is a great gift, I think. The brass tack ouch of a hand
to a hot bulb takes you straight to the top of the threshold
of feeling. A small plastic object held to
the cheek is also quite nice. I love poly socks,
dishtowels with rick-rack, a surfboard anointed
with one aqua stripe. Idle want seems to dog me along
a long cord that’s plugged into the boot in the mouth
of the near recent past. The plastic, we both know,
is nothing but a patchwork of particles, a mash-up of atoms,
petroleum before or after its oil but still, it means so much more. Something finer than fine. Like pearls bred from
time and insouciance. Or something like that. I turn out the light,
lock the door, lie down, brush my hair from my forehead,
and listen for the cinematographer to say to the dark, just wait
and the world will come back. The terror I have, I keep hidden.>>Ron Charles: Good stuff. [ Applause ] I love the way that poem creates
metaphors and turns things into metaphors and makes us
realize that things are metaphors.>>Mary Jo Bang: Yes.>>Ron Charles: Things are plastic. You’ve been extremely
generous and brilliant tonight. I’m so glad you came. Thank you very, very much.>>Mary Jo Bang: Thank
you Ron Charles.>>Ron Charles: Thank all of you. [ Applause ]>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc.gov.

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