BOMB Retrospective: Revisiting the Six Questions by Mary Jo Bang

Celebrating 40 years with curated selections from the archive.

An image of Mary Jo Bang's name and a swirling "BOMB's 40th Retrospective" image on the side.

Nearly a decade ago, for the 2012 Poets Forum, BOMB collaborated with the Academy of American Poets by featuring their six-question interviews with various writers. Now, in celebration of BOMB’s 40th anniversary, we asked Mary Jo Bang to revisit her responses and reflect on what has changed and stayed the same. What follows are the original interview questions and responses, along with Bang’s reflections on those responses. 


Poets.org How do you know when you’ve finished writing a poem?

Mary Jo Bang For me, the poem is finished when I feel the gestures it makes to the thoughts that went through my mind as I wrote it are sufficient, and when the sound patterning of the language I’ve used for those gestures satisfies me. Form also does some poetic work, so as I write I keep taking the measure of what the form is doing. That includes the appearance of the poem on the page. This can sometimes take a very long time.  

I suppose you could say that I decide the poem is finished when I resign myself to the limits of what can be done with language, sound, and form. I don’t pretend it’s possible to find an exact equivalence between the poem and my mind, because language is never identical to thought; it’s merely language.  

There’s an element of play involved in manipulating this tangential relationship between language and thought. All elements of poetry are play to me and I’m sure part of the sense of resignation comes from the fact that I can tire of these obsessive games I set up for myself. When I reach that point, I abandon the game and invent a new one.” 

Today I would say that I know I’ve finished writing a poem once I’m able to read it without wanting to change it. This means a poem may feel finished at one point and then feel unfinished sometime later. Once it’s published in a book, then I have to live with it, finished or unfinished. I know some poets—like Auden, who famously changed many of his poems when he published them in his Collected Poems—feel a poem can always be changed, but I don’t think I would do that. I might also qualify the use of the word “play” in my original answer (and perhaps also the words “resignation” and “tire”)! The play I spoke about in my earlier answer is primarily a form of language patterning. At some point I feel that a pattern satisfies me and also makes a certain kind of sense. Being resigned and getting tired is shorthand for wanting to play with new language, to see how I might pattern it in order to say something new, or to say the same thing as before but differently.

Poets.orgWhat word are you proud of sneaking into a poem? What word would you never put in a poem?

MJB I wanted to put a culturally taboo word in a poem but my friend Timothy Donnelly said I couldn’t. It was a persona poem in which I was going to have Cleopatra use the word to say that’s how people thought of her. I thought that might be an acceptable usage, but I now see that I’ll never put that word in a poem. I don’t think I’ve sneaked any words into a poem, although you might say I snuck the word table into this sentence: “I thought that might be an acceptable usage, but I now see that I’ll never put that word in a poem.” But I don’t think that’s what you meant.

I’m proud of sneaking the word tor into a poem but the pride must not be very great because I don’t remember which poem I snuck it into. I used it because my friend Timothy Donnelly and I had been talking about how certain words belong to Sylvia Plath, like “tor” in “pour of tor” in “Ariel” (“Stasis in darkness. Then the substanceless blue. Pour of tor and distances”) and that a poet couldn’t use such a word without conjuring Plath, who would then take center stage and knock the poet into the orchestra pit. I wanted to see whether I get away with doing it and not waking Plath from her sleep. I would never put any word I don’t use in a poem. That might seem like circular reasoning but circular reasoning is often logically valid. 

Poets.org What do you see as the role of the poet in today’s culture?

MJB Today, as in any era, there are myriad roles for poets: semiotician, elegist, eulogist, gamer, white noise machine, musician, Sapphist, theorist, father figure, bird watcher, a video projection of a moving mouth—all trapped behind the glass of Wittgenstein’s fly-bottle.

In my earlier answer, which I will still stick with, I alluded to Wittgenstein but didn’t really offer enough of a context. When I said that poets, while playing many roles, were all trapped “behind the glass of Wittgenstein’s fly-bottle,” I was referring to his statement (Philosophical Investigations 309) that his aim in philosophy was to “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” A fly-bottle, or jar, is a trap to capture insects. It’s a glass container with fruit juice or sugar water at the bottom to lure the insect in. It then gets trapped and can’t escape. So, Wittgenstein wants to help us get out of the trap that language keeps us in. I think poets want to do that as well. 

Poets.org  Which poet’s work do you continually go back to?

MJBHopkins. Beckett. Early Eliot. Joyce. Freud. Stein. Sometimes Thomas Hardy’s “The Voice” insists itself into my work. As does Byron’s “So, we’ll go no more a-roving.” I don’t know why. Also Cummings’s “Buffalo Bill’s defunct”—that last line, “and what i want to know is / how do you like your blueeyed boy / Mister Death,” is so crazily confrontational. Or so confrontationally crazy.  

Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs. Plath. Rimbaud. Dickinson. Breton. Barthes. Some of these I don’t so much “go back to” as have in my mind so well that, whether or not I want them to be, they are part of my mind. And some of them aren’t poets in the traditional sense, but I think of them as poets.

Some of those I mentioned are still front and center, especially Beckett. Others have moved into the balcony seats. I still go to Hopkins. I live with Dante now, daily, since I’ve been translating The Divine Comedy for the past fifteen years. And Dante has led me to Virgil (just as Virgil leads Dante to the edge of Heaven but can’t enter himself, since he’s a pagan). I’d add Sappho to my original list. 

Poets.org Are you on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr? How does that fit into your writing life, if at all?

MJBI’m on Facebook. I go there occasionally, and when I do, I see my friends’ children mugging for the camera, or read reviews of my friends’ books, or read their poems, or listen to the music they suggest I listen to, or read the articles they suggest I read, or read the poetry controversies they’re embroiled in. It’s a little like standing next to them in a room while they are talking to other people. Of course, there are a lot of strangers in the room, which cuts down on any sense of intimacy. But then, there are strangers everywhere.

I am still, almost a decade later, only on Facebook. And I still only go there occasionally but when I do, I skim through, only rarely stopping to click on something. Occasionally, however, I see a headline posted by someone that brings me hope. As when I saw this headline from the July 14, 2021, Washington Post: “Maine becomes first state to shift costs of recycling from taxpayers to companies.” That made me very happy. 

Poets.org What are you reading right now? 

MJBI just finished The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days by Mark Edmundson. The book looks at how Freud grappled with what he perceived of as a love of authority, as viewed through the lens of Hitler’s rise to power. I’m now reading Sylvia by Leonard Michaels.

I recently read Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation Beowulf. Translating Dante into contemporary English has made me curious to see how other women are translating ancient texts. I kept hearing about Headley’s translation but nothing prepared me for how exciting it is. She’s brought the work up to and over the edge of this moment while also allowing it to exist in its own era, and its own thematic universe. It’s rather magical.

I also recently read Francine Prose’s new novel, The Vixen. I’d read a number of reviews and several mentioned that it was “about” the Cold War era. When I read the book, I was struck by the fact that while, yes, it was set in the Cold War era, it wasn’t about the Cold War era. It was about the difficulty of adhering to one’s moral principles, as well as how one’s actions impact the larger social fabric—which is exactly what Dante’s works, written seven hundred years earlier, are also concerned with. 

I’ve just finished reading Eileen Myles’s For Now, in the Yale University Press “Why I Write” series. Myles is a Dante trufan and she and I did a bookstore event together for the launch of Purgatorio. They have a remarkable mind and they’re especially astute about writing—the compulsion of it, as well as the obstacles that have to be overcome in order to keep doing it. The way they live their life and how they write about it makes me want to believe that writing poems and translating poetry are worth doing (even if there is no way to measure the effects).

Read Mary Jo Bang’s 2012 interview here.

Create a Radical and Memorable Equivalent: Mary Jo Bang Interviewed by Sylvia Sukop
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