The World Anew: Mary Jo Bang and Jennifer K. Dick in Conversation
Jennifer K. Dick: Who are some of your current or past influences, and how have they changed how you see your work in relationship to the people you're reading or things you're thinking about?
Mary Jo Bang: My influences go back a long way, because I think that whomever you read initially becomes your received idea of what a poem is. And because I read on my own—my family didn't read—there wasn't any kind of master plan, any kind of historical overview. I would just go to the library and pick up books off the shelves. We didn't read very much poetry in school—I don't think people really ever have—we read Robert Frost and maybe Whittier, and a few people like that. The poets I initially found on my own, and this was when I was a high school student, were E. E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson, and Wordsworth. It was such an odd mix, and I am really glad that E. E. Cummings existed alongside Wordsworth, because I think that I would have been in danger of having too narrow an idea of what a poem is if I had just read Wordsworth.
And then at some point— in fact, I even remember the day—when I was in high school, some friends of mine and I skipped school and somebody had a car and we drove from St. Louis to the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri—and this shows what good bad girls we were, since we skipped school but went to the University of Missouri!—and we went to the campus bookstore, and a friend of mine bought a book, and when we walked out of the store she handed it to me. It was Lawrence Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind. She said, "It's your half-birthday today," which would have been April 22nd, 1965. And so with that, a new voice got into the mix. A new idea about how poems were being written now. Back then, I was a reader of poetry, but I didn't really write except for those kinds of adolescent poems one writes, the "dark night of the soul" kind of thing. Then I went on and did a lot of different things in terms of career, and they weren't at all related to writing; they had to do with medicine and, later, photography.
Dick: You were also a pre-med student?
Bang: I was a Physician Assistant. I practiced for nine years in gynecology. After that I lived in England and did a B.A. in fine art photography at the Polytechnic of Central London. That's when I really began writing. After that, when I went back to the states in 1990, I didn't want to go back to medicine. I didn't think it was very likely that I could earn a living writing, but I thought I might be able to do something with photography. I began to do freelance photography for advertising agencies and designers in Chicago and found that I didn't like it at all, that commercial photography was a far cry from fine art photography, and I really didn't care for many of the people who were involved in the business side of things. Someone said, "Well, why don't you teach writing?" but I didn't have any credentials: I had a master's and a bachelor's in sociology, I had the degree in photography, and I had the training in medicine. But that person reminded me that in order to teach in adult settings you often didn't have to have degrees, and I thought, yes, people are gardeners and they teach a course on gardening. So I put together a proposal to teach a general creative writing course—general, not specifically in poetry—and it was accepted at the New Trier Extension Program in a suburb of Chicago, where they actually have some very good courses. So I began teaching and I absolutely loved it. I had taught before, in sociology and in medicine, but teaching writing was like nothing I had ever done before. It was very satisfying.But I also realized that in order to teach writing in a way that I could support myself financially, I was going to have to go back to school and get an M.F.A. I was a little reluctant to get yet another degree, but finally I decided I would . . .
Dick: You'd been working for a while at this time, so it must have seemed strange.
Bang: It felt like a backwards step, but one which I'm now really happy I took. I was 47 when I actually went, in 1993, to Columbia for the M.F.A. program.
Dick: So you started working seriously in poetry at that point, or had you started devoting yourself solidly to writing before that?
Bang: I went to England in 1986. I think in the year before I went I had written perhaps three poems. I had taken a course in creative writing in 1980 at Northwestern University. It was a course of all women, and afterward a group of us continued to meet together as a workshop. I had been writing short stories, but I found that when I wrote short stories I didn't know how to solve the problems that were inevitably in a first draft. I would write the story and then discover there were flaws—someone in the workshop would point it out, or I would realize it on my own—but I didn't know how to re-enter the story and come up with a solution. Whatever I had written, that was it. With poems, however, I could somehow entertain multiple possibilities for any problem that the poem created for me, and that felt a lot more comfortable. So I started writing these poems probably because of having written the fiction, and the fact that some of the people in that workshop were writing poems.
When I went to England, I had a lot of time. It was the first time in my adult life I didn't have a job. I couldn't work as a physician's assistant over there because there wasn't a comparable role. A few years earlier, I had begun taking photography courses at The School of the Art Institute in Chicago. When I got to London, I looked around for a place to continue to study photography and found a B.A. program at the Polytechnic of Central London, where, by the way, Ezra Pound once taught briefly! The program was very involved with semiotics theory. We were all reading Barthes, and Victor Burgin was still there (he later went on UC-Santa Cruz), and so a lot of people were using image-text. I resisted the notion of actually putting text into the photograph; I thought that was very reductive, that it made the photograph redundant in some way.
Dick: Why? For you, were they mutually exclusive arts? I ask this because there is a lot of collage being done and a lot of visual influences and gestures in poetry now, so I wonder what it was that made you have that reaction.
Bang: I think that what I was seeing then, the models that I had then, didn't inspire me. I wanted to do something with image and text, but not to actually have the words inside the photograph. So I started writing poems that would somehow cooperate with an image. Sometimes I would make the image and afterward write the poem, and sometimes I would write the poem first and afterward try to make an image that I thought would evoke something similar, but without using any of the same narrative elements. I published a few of those poems in small journals in England and Wales. When I came back to the States, I used photography as a way to make a living, but I continued to write. After I began teaching writing, the idea of doing an M.F.A. seemed a practical necessity, to get the credentials I needed if I were to teach full-time; ultimately, I realized that I also needed it as an artist. I'd been really quite isolated, and I didn't know other poets, and I hadn't read widely in poetry. When I went to Columbia it really was an immersion experience: I had a lot of reading to do, in terms of both the past and contemporary poetry, in order to catch up to where I thought I should be. To where I wanted to be. I had read very little poetry since those immediate influences. Which reminds me that what I am supposed to be talking about are influences, but I guess what I am saying is that in between those early writers there were a lot of various kinds of knowledge—medicine, photography, art (I had actually begun as an art history major when I was an undergraduate)—and all those things got into the mix.
Dick: Did you read novels as well?
Bang: When I was younger I did, but I had pretty much stopped reading novels and mainly read science and a lot of other nonfiction, and biography. So I continued to read, but not necessarily fiction. When I came back to—or came to—poetry, I began to read a lot of novels, as well, and began to reread novels I'd read earlier. I think that novels have influenced my poetry in significant ways, because I am very interested in narrative.
The photographs I made were often narratives as well, I would make photographs that played with various notions of narrative. I had one project where I took photographs that already existed, the photographs from the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s, where you have people like Dorothy Lange and James Agee and Walker Evans going out and taking these so-called documentary photographs that have come to represent the "reality" of a particular era in a well-defined geographical region in America, and I would make changes in them and re-photograph them.
Those FSA photographs are really stories that have an element of invention behind them. The U.S. government literally solicited these photographs from photographers. They sent the photographers out with scripts that are still available in the government archives and they said, "We want photographs to go with these scripts." That's where the Walker Evans photographs in James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men came from. Bad agricultural practices had created the "dustbowl" conditions in the Midwest and the South and had given rise to great poverty. You had tenant farmers who had no money at all and who were working for the rich landowners. They lived in deplorable conditions.
At some point those in the government realized they had to do something about it, but they were concerned because the greatest part of the tax base in this country at the time came from the North, where the industry owners lived. A lot of tax money was going to have to be spent on the South, and they were afraid the northerners were going to make an outcry about this. So they sent people out to document the poverty and systematically release them to newspapers and magazines, so that there would be a kind of sympathy and people wouldn't object to the money being spent there. But what happened was a kind of backlash, because when people saw these images they were outraged that the government had allowed these conditions to develop. They'd always been taught that this kind of poverty was only found in "India" or "China," somewhere far away and very different from here. Children had been told to finish their dinners because people were starving in these distant, exotic places.
When they saw that these conditions had been allowed to exist in their own country, they were somehow offended. Because of that, the government sent out new scripts, and we again have these documents in the archives, instructing the photographers to stop recording evidence of poverty and deprivation, but instead to take photographs of middle class people engaged in leisure time or wholesome activities. The scripts tell them explicitly to "stop taking pictures of poor people, instead this is what we want—we want people sitting by their radios. We want people going in and out of churches. We want people going to the movies." And you can look at this enormous body of photographic images and date the images in terms of their responses to the changing scripts.
So one of the projects I did when I was working on my B.A. in photography in London was to take those images and reenter them and tell a different story in each, an obviously constructed story. The new narrative elements would be in color, so the narratives were layered, one over the other. I would have Mickey Mouse, for instance, running across one of these barren landscapes where you had immigrant workers picking lettuce, and above the scene, John Tenniel's Cheshire cat would be looking down. Which, of course, is also a story of hunger, the cat looking down on the mouse, but told from an ironic perspective. So I've always been interested in taking existing stories and then reinventing them in order to demonstrate that they really are just stories and that, in fact, a story is a way of telling about a particular kind of reality, one which may or may not be represented in the image itself.
Dick: This photographic work reminds me of your new book, The Eye Like a Strange Balloon, where some of these same images layer: Minnie Mouse and a potentially American country landscape with a marriage and three trees, or various myths and other references, like the many from Alice in Wonderland. Do you see in this book parallels to the photographic collage work you did in London?
Bang: I've never thought about it in quite those terms before, but you may be right. In the ekphrastic poems I am taking an existing work of art and rewriting over it. I'm imposing a new narrative on it, one that is partially suggested by the artwork itself and partially by something that comes from within. Sometimes that thing is an autobiographical moment, sometimes it's a larger concern, social or political or intellectual.
Dick: What's interesting is that when you're talking about photographs you're talking about an image that's a stop image, not a whole film. That single image sets up a whole story but doesn't tell the whole story—and it seems to me in your poems that you often do the same thing. You don't tell the whole story, you stack a series of intrigues one atop the other, as in many of the poems in The Eye Like a Strange Balloon and especially in that long poem at the end of Downstream Extremity.
Bang: That's right.
Dick: And there also seems to be the question of witnessing, of feeling good because you see this other, as in "when she sat close to her then did I feel safe," and that's a feeling that you're seeing this other person sit close to another sort of person, and then the "I," or eye, says they feel safe. Seeing the other "her" in some sort of situation is a doubling, possibly of you, or of you that is an "I" as writer or narrator.
Bang: That's exactly right. By distancing itself, the "eye" establishes a degree of remove that allows me as poet, as the "I," to appreciate the world anew, with a degree of objectivity, and to comment back on that world.
Dick: But it also reminds me of how one looks at photos: there is the framing of seeing something, versus the seeing.
Bang: Well, I am very interested in that, what you're mentioning, and I think of it as the point of view. I think there is a certain degree of fatigue with the poetic invention of an I, a pronoun I, a person who is going to tell you exactly what the world looks like, with the underlying assumption that the poet and his or her reader share an identical world, but, in fact, it turns out that the world is a fiction from the point of view of an any written "I" or "you" or "she." It's a fiction because it's selective, and depending on what's selected, that becomes the "story."
Dick: But this "I" in the poem seems also to select multiple possible stories or threats, like that long stanza with the "sore throat" episode, the "rat in the house" episode, all these episodes laden with a possible disaster, the not waking up from the nap, the bees.
Bang: The other element is time. And time is episodic. It's only afterward that there is a story, but in fact the so-called story dissolves when you're living it; it's just what's happening. And somebody else later relates it and gives it some sort of cohesion, gives it a selected point of view. But time is always undermining the story because it's still unreeling.
Dick: Does that relate back to photography? Because photography is sort of a stop-time, a stop-moment, and yet you've spent a lot of time telling me how these photos relate to time and relate to a whole story.
Bang: Yes, the photographic moment is a myth. It's a myth that we can stop time. Yes, we can, but no, we can't, because the image continues to exist, it directs itself forward into the present, and so it really hasn't stopped at all. There's that wonderful book by Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, probably one of my favorite books of all time, where he talks about the two possible reactions one can have to a photograph. One is studium, which is a more intellectual response to a photograph, and the other is punctum, which comes from the Latin "to puncture." Punctum is that pain that a photograph can create and inflict on a viewer. It's sometimes so intense that it's perceived as physical. This is the last book that Barthes wrote, and he wrote it right after the death of his mother, as you probably know; he lived his entire life with his mother and was incredibly close to her. After her death, while going through photographs of her, he comes across one of her at, I believe, age 7. She's in a kind of photographic tableau called "The Winter Garden," where there's a little bridge and this snowy winter scene, and he's decimated by the experience of seeing this image. That's what punctum is, the ability of the photograph to cause actual exquisite physical pain to a person. He goes on in the book to talk about why some photographs have that capability. He postulates that at least some part of the experience lies in the knowledge that, even if someone is present at the moment, the photographic image embodies the notion that they will someday be gone. That knowledge is encapsulated in the moment of stoppage. So there's a lot of ambiguity in what we consider the stopped moment. And I think that's why a lot of poets write about photographs, and unfortunately sometimes I think that it's only to say that it is a stopped moment and that, yes, that person and that thing photographed are gone. But I think what a photograph evokes is psychologically far richer than that.
Dick: This notion of feeling a punctum seems in an odd way what the poems in Strange Balloon get at—a sense of spotting a stopped moment which inevitably will continue, and when it does it goes on to its own demise, to a place of looming danger or tragedy. Is this moment or book an allegory for America, for relationships or life in general, or an allegory for something else? And how do you see these poems in the traditions of ekphrastic poetry: do you think they are trying to do something that's not been done in the form before?
Bang: I feel like you're asking two separate questions, neither of which is particularly easy to answer. I'm going to take the second one first: do I think I'm doing something new? If the author of Ecclesiastes is right and there is nothing new under the sun, then no, I'm not. On the other hand, whatever has been done has never been done by me before, so however similar the poems are to what already exists, they are also uniquely mine. Every poem is a repetition of the word "poem," but it's written in the poet's particular handwriting. The other question is whether the poems are allegorical, and I guess I'd have to say yes. Text, it seems to me, is always allegorical on some level: every word stands for more than its simple self. Some of the allegorical threads that I see in the poems are: death is an indivisible part of every present, violence is shortsighted, men and women tend to see experience differently, and pleasure is fleeting. This isn't to say these things are explicit in the poem. The poems don't aspire to explicitness, only to suggestiveness.
There is also a story in the poems about an historical shift in the way art—both visual art and poetry—represent the world. I've tried to establish a rough timeline that parallels that shift, beginning with the present moment, in which the death of all art is continually being forecasted, and moving backward through the recent history of art to the surrealists, and even before that to Picasso's 1907 "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," a painting Breton described as an "explosion in the laboratory," art always being a laboratory of one kind or another. Odilon Redon, whose charcoal drawing gives the collection its title, is there as a precursor to surrealism. The penultimate poem is based on an architectural fragment from 1 B.C. E., on which is painted an architectural fragment. I included that to suggest that art has always been concerned with the strange relationship between the thing and its representation. The question of the distance between the two becomes explicit with someone like Magritte, who paints a picture of the pipe and adds the text, "This is not a pipe," but it haunts all art. The final poem, "What Moonlight Will Do for Ruins," incorporates both the idea that all is in ruins but that moonlight, which is both a classic Romantic trope and the image of constancy, lends beauty to ruins and, in doing so, makes a kind of art out of them.
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Dick: Do you feel that it is important that readers know which works of art you are writing about in Strange Balloon? That to know both the poem and the artwork makes the piece richer? Is that why you listed the pieces at the back?
Bang: I wouldn't say it was "important" for a reader, but it was obviously important for me. And it does offer another dimension to the poem for those who want to read the poem by the light thrown onto it by the artwork. I think, as a reader, I might be curious to see the relationship, but that's because I'm interested in these pieces of art. The poems have a certain independence, but at the same time each poem writes yet another chapter in the story begun by the artwork. It begins with the artwork but then goes somewhere new. I guess you could say the artwork becomes a single thread from which an entire cloth is then woven, but a cloth that has its own inherent lapses and ellipses, and its own psychological content. I also listed the artworks because it felt imperative to recognize the debt to the artists: I took their titles, after all, and they created those, as well as the works. I felt that required, at the very least, a respectful nod in their direction.
Dick: The book combines two opposing gestures. One is mentioning, or tipping the hat, toward the unnamed and vague, the place of the abstraction, as in "the vaguer terms: something, anywhere, every" in "Cursive Landscape." On the other hand, these poems are so vibrantly visually grounded in myth and pop culture: Prometheus, Minnie Mouse, Alice in Wonderland, Ophelia. How do you see these opposite poles functioning?
Bang: The entire sentence from "Cursive Landscape" states, "We were offended by the vaguer terms: something, anywhere, every. Nothing." I think that expresses the problem of talking about the abstract. That those large lyric themes we were discussing earlier—Love, Death, Memory, Truth, etc.—require particularization to have any real meaning. And for me, visual imagery is a way to try to establish that specificity. Those cultural icons you refer to are also useful because most readers will come with some knowledge about the stories those characters appear in. My hope is that I can take off from that point of shared knowledge and continue my own story, and in doing so, engage in a form of cultural discourse. To some degree, it's a matter of economy. And you are correct when you suggest that there is tension created by the dual presence of these subjective and objective elements, i.e., the abstract and the concrete. I know I'm always trying to find the visual equivalent for a state of mind, Eliot's objective correlative.
Dick: This new book seems very American, especially after Louise in Love . In particular, it dwells in a space of American consumerism, as in the getting of free products or Minnie Mouse's question, "Would you love me if I had nothing at all?" Could you comment on that?
Bang: The two examples you've pointed to do, in fact, allude to real encounters with American culture. In the first case, to an actual ad I read, and in the second, to a found comic book frame. I have recognized, within myself, a more recent desire to represent my own cultural moment in my poems.
Dick: Looking back at these four very different books, I was wondering how you saw the ensemble of your work in an American poetic tradition. Would you be able to classify yourself? And is that sort of classification, so often inquired about by readers, important?
Bang: The short answer is no, and no. By which I mean that I'm not able to classify what I'm doing, nor do I have anxiety about my inability to do so. Clearly I have lyric impulses, but I have many other impulses, as well. I see my poems not so much in terms of how they might be classified, but as a record of my obsessions and preoccupations. I'm obsessed with endings of all types: sleep, death, the story's denouement. I'm obsessed by the notion of time. With the complicated relationship between the past and present. With the role of ironic detachment on contemporary art. With the music of disjunction. With narratives where one story bleeds through another. With the idea of "correctness"—how does one tell a story? And how does one tell a story in a way that captures psychological nuance and multiple layers of meaning?
Dick: I want to end our talk today with a question I was asked recently when applying for a grant. They wanted to know what I thought were the most important issues in the creative process today. In fact, I keep coming up with different answers. What do you think?
Bang: Well, I think it's very hard to distinguish oneself when so many people are creating, so I think that's the first issue. And how one does that it is the question that interests me. I know there are those poets who feel that, in fact, one shouldn't try to distinguish oneself, because that leads to the commodification of your work, meaning you can sell it because people want that particular brand. I don't feel that way. We talked before (though I don't think it's on tape) about my going into the Pompidou Center, where there were all these faux Mondrian paintings that were unmistakable from Mondrian's. Now you can say, again, that that only supports the complaint that a "real" Mondrian painting will garner a million dollars, and it shouldn't, because many people can create something identical, or so similar that it may as well have been painted by Mondrian. And that there is something corrupt about a system that institutionalizes that deification of the so-called "original." But I'm just not engaged by these issues of commodification in poetry: it seems beside the point. There may be cultural consequences, but I'm more interested in the process of making. Nor do I think there can be an answer to the question of creating that's true for everyone: each person has to invent something for herself or himself. Part of the problem is negotiating the relationship between oneself and one's imagination and a reader. How one does that takes all kinds of forms, and that's what's nice about art. It's that new things keep being invented, new relationships, new ways of negotiating the impulse to make something.
This interview excerpt was conducted in Paris in April 2003 and originally published in its entirety in Verse Magazine, November 2005. Appears courtesy of Verse Magazine and Mary Jo Bang.