Mary Jo Bang’s brief residency began with a reading on Wednesday, March 13th.
She read mostly from The Bride of E (Graywolf Press. 2009) and also read a canto from her most recent work, a creative translation of Dante’s Inferno (Graywolf Press, 2012). Juxtaposing high- and low-culture, in the spirit of the original, the updated references are as varied as Plath and Eliot to South Park and The Addams Family. Her voice is especially powerful when reading this poem, incantatory and grave – lending seriousness to the project that could potentially seem gimmicky.
Bang speaks of poetry as a game. Poems are satisfying for the author to create, but they are also a form of intimacy with the reader. “We’re social animals,” she pointed out, “We banded together early on.” She continued, “How are you means tell me a story.” Bride of E (Graywolf Press, 2009) is a stylistically playful work. To produce her best work, Bang gives herself restrictions. The book, structured as an abecedarius, contains poems of erasure (“A Equals All of a Sudden”) and ekphrasis (“N as in Nevermore”).
It’s also very funny. The first poem in the book “ABC Plus E: Cosmic Aloneness Is the Bride of Existence” addresses existential concerns, while mocking the pretension of young existentialists. Post-adolescent dreamers who morphed on the dance floor / That night into naughty boys, echoing the girls’ questions / Of “how shall we live,” “what shall we do,” / Words without end, without weight.
She is reluctant to bring autobiography into her work, preferring to focus on inventive forms. During the last event, a public conversation with Mark Wunderlich and Stephen Shapiro, she addressed one of her earlier books Elegy (Graywolf Press, 2007) a year’s worth of poems written in the aftermath of the sudden death of her adult son. She spoke about the difficulty of the project, and how it was a departure from her usual style.
Bang is drawn to masks and personas. She spoke of wearing the mask of the translator; speaking through Dante Alighieri, the poet reveals herself in translation choices, thoughneatly eluding the reader’s question about autobiography.
Process is endlessly fascinating for her. One of the most exciting moments of the reading was when she read from her new, unpublished work. Limiting herself to fifty pages of Mrs. Dalloway from which to sculpt a poem, the original text is almost unrecognizable. Having excised all names, and obscured the narrative, Virginia Woolf haunts the poem, as Bang captures the atmosphere of the novel. She boldly engages with classic texts, which can be considered controversial. When asked about these two erasure poems Bang said she did fifty pages of Mrs. Dalloway, which was fun, and then jumped into the next fifty “because it wasn’t yet lunch time.”