A Talk with MARY JO BANG
Highlights from Issue 34: Jazz
Photography by NINA SUBIN
Saturday, March 01, 2008
By Jennifer Kronovet
Mary Jo Bang’s newest book of poems, Elegy, was published last fall by
Stop Smiling: Tell me about the first poem you wrote. Did that experience reflect why and how you write now?
Mary Jo Bang: I wrote it in high school, after JFK was assassinated, and after reading a lot of Ayn Rand. It was probably no more than six lines. I remember the last line was: “The man who stands alone,” which now sounds like it should be followed by a few bars of melodramatic music.
SS: Is there still a Kennedyesque Randian in there somewhere, directing the poems?
MJB: Teen angst morphed into the usual broader cosmic anguish, which flickers here and there behind my poems. Sometimes more, sometimes less. I try to keep it out of the foreground. Or, like a good Modernist, to deflect it through irony.
I'm interested now in the foundations of art — that includes all sorts of issues I wasn't aware of back then. Issues of point of view. Of craft. Of artifice. The provisional aspects of the characters who inhabit poems and act as speakers.
I'm interested in narrative. Not personal narrative, but constructed narrative, as a way to set a scene that says any number of things all at once — the way film does. In a single scene it says, “It's raining; it's dark; there's a car; there's a man under a street lamp. He has a gun.” At the same time it's also speaking to the viewer, saying, “I know what you expect to happen.” Of course, at that point one can choose to meet those expectations, or subvert them for some other end.
SS: I love how in your second book, Louise in Love, you shift the ways in which characters can function in a book. You give us Louise and Lydia and Ham and others, through whom insights and lyric unfold so differently than in a traditional "story."
MJB: In Louise in Love, there was a continuing, though disjunctive, narrative: What didn't get said in one poem could be addressed in another. Narrative could be hinted at here, and further developed there. There's a great deal of freedom in that.
SS: What attracted you to Louise Brooks? A particular movie or a scene in a movie? The trajectory of her life itself?
MJB: You have to remember, the “Louise” in Louise in Love isn’t Louise Brooks. It is true that a photograph of Louise Brooks is on the cover of the book. But it's only because she looks like Louise Brooks, and sometimes acts in a way that Louise Brooks might have acted, which is to say extravagant self-indulgent and willfull. The character “Louise Brooks” stands in as a representation of my character “Louise,” who is, after all, only a “speaker” in the poems. The speaker stands in, at a remove, for something else. Maybe we should call it the poet’s intent. I also had in my mind another character and that is the character of Catherine played by Jeanne Moreau in Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. The film is about a love triangle and the woman at the center is, like Brooks and like my Louise, similarly intelligent, funny, and tragically impulsive.
SS: In your last book, The Eye Like a Strange Balloon, the poems took visual works of art as their starting place. How did this alter or allow for a change in your relationship to narrative?
MJB: In The Eye Like a Strange Balloon, each poem was discrete. I think that's the burden of individual poems. They have to speak while standing on their own. At the same time, readers hear differently. Plus you never know who if anyone is listening.
SS: You write about many works of art in that book, but none more so than the work of Sigmar Polke. Why is that?
MJB: I discovered Polke’s work in a monograph and was very interested in the way he would suggest a narrative by grouping odd elements that appeared as if they came from some larger “story,” but had been taken from here or there within it and were now placed out of order, often against a background that had its own “story” within it. I’m thinking here of Alice in Wonderland, where the “canvas” is formed by pieces of fabric sewn together: one fabric has a repeating pattern of a boy kicking a soccer ball, a second is black with white polka dots and a third, the ground on which Alice stands, is dark blue with white polka dots. Now there’s already a joke there with Polke and polka dots and I like his willingness to be just that silly — to call into question the high seriousness of painting.
SS: Recently you’ve been teaching a course on a different genre: the graphic novel. Could you talk a little bit about the class?
MJB: The course is called "The Graphic Novel and the Cultural Moment." We're looking at these novels from many different perspectives: plot, point of view, the treatment of time, the fourth wall — that invisible boundary between the reader/viewer and the image/text. In many of them there's a lot of intertexuality. There's one by Martin Rowson that takes Eliot's The Waste Land and layers it with elements of a noir detective novel by Raymond Chandler. The story is narrated not by Philip Marlowe, Chandler's protagonist, but by Christopher Marlowe, which of course is the name of the Elizabethan poet/dramatist who was rumored to have been a spy.
In the graphic novel, every frame is, in essence, a visual metaphor for the moment as conceived by the author. Poetry is also like that. But in poetry, the text asks you to imagine for yourself the graphic representation, instead of drawing it for you.
SS: If you were a character in a graphic novel, how would you want to be depicted, in what style, surrounded by what kind of framing?
MJB: I'd be someone who didn't speak very much but who thought a lot. I like the convention of representing thought as small clouds with tiny cloudlets forming a dotted line to the head of the one who is thinking. I'd like Freud to appear in the novel. And Samuel Beckett. I'd like the frame to be pliable so that if a character were seen leaning back in a chair, the line would give and threaten to break. And sometimes it would break, and characters would fall out of the panel and have to find a way back in. They might have to come back in through a door. Which would create an endless loop.
SS: I wish this book existed! Am I going too far if I make a connection between the line of the comic frame and the poem's line? Do you feel that you are pushing against the line — the ruling structural force in a poem — as you write? If so, what would breaking through the line mean?
MJB: Of course I’m very aware of the poetic line, and of trying to make it behave in a particular way, since I do write in broken lines. Which is a very traditional way of composing and arranging a poem. Jenny Boully's The Body might be an example of a work that breaks through the line. It's a book-length poem that is composed entirely of footnotes that appear at the bottom of otherwise blank pages. Or Hejinian’s My Life, which is composed of sentences in blocks with a small window in the upper left corner that contains a phrase. Or Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. And all of Stein.