CLA Faculty Spotlight: Mary Jo Bang discusses her new poetry collection

Mary Jo Bang

The Center for the Literary Arts Faculty Spotlight is a new feature that celebrates the creative practice of WashU faculty. 

For the inaugural edition, CLA postdoctoral fellow Ashley Colley spoke with Professor of English Mary Jo Bang about her new poetry collection, A Film in Which I Play Everyone. The following is an edited version of their conversation.

Bang is the nationally recognized author of eight previous books of poems, including The Last Two Seconds (2015), Elegy (2007), and Apology for Want (1997). She has been the recipient of a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, and a Berlin Prize fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin. 

AC: I wanted to start by talking to you about the book’s reception. It seems to be doing well in the world! You had a wonderful review in the New York Times by Elisa Gabbert. And last week it was named a finalist for a Lambda Award. Congratulations! How are you feeling about the book's reception?

MJB: The New York Times review was a very pleasant surprise, especially since Elisa Gabbert gave a lot of attention to the things I focus on, like the expressive use of sound, and the speaker’s interiority, and her attempts to make sense of the world.

AC: I was taken with the speaker of this collection because it felt like a very different “I” than what I've been seeing in much of contemporary poetry. It’s simultaneously a singular, lyric “I” that remains constant throughout the book, but also seems to be a cast of characters or past lives that are estranged or distant from the speaker. A lot of contemporary poetry, particularly that which revolves around a series of traumatic memories, seems to insist on an absolute “I” that has a firm grasp of itself, almost as a testament to overcoming. I was wondering if you could talk about why it was important to you to create a speaker who is fragmented, whose selfhood is in question. 

MJB: A Doll for Throwing, the book that came before A Film in Which I Play Everyone, is in some ways a precursor to this one. That book is indebted to a photographer who was at the Bauhaus, Lucia Moholy. She took the photographs by which we have come to know the Bauhaus buildings in Dessau and the products that came out of the workshops there. Those poems were all written in justified prose blocks, as a way to gesture to the Bauhaus aesthetic. That change in form caused my writing to change, to become more direct, as if a person was speaking out of a silence. I could see that that straightforwardness was creating a sense of intimacy. 

In A Doll for Throwing, the speaker is a mash-up of Lucia Moholy, of all the women in the Bauhaus, and of myself. I would borrow details from interviews with women who had studied at the Bauhaus, or from Lucia Moholy’s writing, or from something that had been written about her, and add in my own biographical particulars. That gave me a foundation for using multiple sources—reading, visual art, overheard conversation, plus moments from my own life. That had always been my methodology, but now there was a clear center, a situation as it were, that made it seem as if there was a single person speaking across the poems. I think I took that sense of a solitary speaker over to [A Film in Which I Play Everyone]. That “I”—although sometimes it’s a “she”—maintains itself throughout the book, even if the inspirations and allusions in any individual poem come from a number of places. At the same time, however, no one is a single cohesive self. We put on various costumes and play different roles over our lifetimes and even over the course of a day. I wanted to represent that partitioning as well.

AC: You mentioned a photographer inspired the poems in A Doll for Throwing, and you used to be a photographer, right? There are a lot of references to film and to the filmmaker's eye throughout A Film in Which I Play Everyone, but to me, the speaker's eye seemed to be that of a photographer's. The poems’ images are often static and small and either very zoomed in or far away. There are miniature scenes captured by a viewer standing at a distance, and there are also, besides cameras, a lot of windows and other kinds of apertures the speaker is looking through. I was wondering if you could talk about these lenses and why the speaker needs them. 

MJB: Many of these poems were written during the pandemic, so there was the inside, where one remained, and the outside, which one saw through a window. I have a chronic disease, so, all the more, I felt a sense of terror going outside. I stayed inside. I had groceries delivered. I had a very select group of people who were also vigilant in terms of limiting contact with others that I would occasionally see. After a couple of years, your surroundings, no matter how attractive they are, become a bit boring because you see them day after day. The only change is out the window. I would look outside and bring whatever I saw or heard into the poem as a way of enlarging the world of the interior. Otherwise, it's four walls and you. 

There's a poem in the book set in a therapist's office, which is also a very enclosed space. The camera, as it were, goes to the fabric of the therapist's dress. I think I have a habit of looking, a kind of attentiveness to whatever's around me. That’s been true since I was a child. I suspect it came out of both a wariness about my surroundings and a boredom with whatever small world was mine.

AC: I feel like this book is trying to encompass an entire life, which is impressive in a collection that's less than a hundred pages! I also think it's trying to grapple with how we process our lives, how we remember them. Some of the things in this book felt like memories you've been grappling with for a long time. What instigated A Film in Which I Play Everyone

MJB: You write a poem, then another poem, then another, and at some point, you have a lot of poems. You think, oh, maybe this will be a book. I think that's been true for every book I've ever written. 

I wasn't sure the poems in this book belonged together. A poet friend, Joni Wallace, persuaded me that they did. I would send her a group of poems and she would say, “These totally go together. See, there's a train in this one, and there's a train in that one. There's a window in this one, there's a window in that one. There's sky here, there's sky there!” She was so sincere that I was absolutely convinced. I'm grateful to her for making me believe that the poems all belonged together because before that, I didn't see a way to draw a circle around them.

AC: If I had to pick one word to describe this collection, it would be haunted. It feels like there are a lot of ghosts in this book. Not just memories that cycle through, but also a series of female figures. We have Mary, Eve, Ophelia, Daphne. They seem to be haunting the speaker, particularly their stories—the way in which they've been represented through history. I was wondering if you could talk about these women and how their haunting presence might relate to the memories also haunting the speaker in the collection.

MJB: The through-line in terms of those women is whether they've been given equal power and equal voice. The story of Daphne, as you know, is that Apollo wants to have sex with her and he's not taking no for an answer. He chases her and just when he's about to catch her and have his way, she calls out to her father to save her. Her father rescues her by turning her into a tree. I don't know how much better that is because now she can't move. It's as if a woman either submits or is forever embedded in her own obstinacy. That whole idea of not being allowed to say no, of not being respected when you say no, gets paired with the question of what “rescue” looks like. It kept occurring to me that these women could demonstrate that social problem. And I do see it not just as a personal problem, but a social problem. 

AC: You emphasize moments of self-making throughout, particularly in the last poem where you describe each moment of a person's life as “a memory palace waiting to be built.” To me, this ending suggests that the self isn't an absolute so much as something that needs to be self-built out of one's own memories. There seems to be, at the end, a sense of agency that's being claimed?

MJB: A memory palace is a method of remembering which, according to Roman legend, was invented by Simonides of Ceos 2,500 years ago. The strategy, also known as the “method of loci,” actually goes back to hunter-gatherer times and is found in many cultures. The idea is to construct a palace in your mind and put things you want to remember in different rooms. Orators memorized lengthy speeches this way. They would strategically place a word or idea in a specific location inside this mental palace. Say the first idea of the speech is going to be who should be addressed. Okay, “friends, Romans, and countrymen.” That's the sofa in the drawing room. Next to the sofa is the chair, and that might stand for the line, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Because the palace has many rooms, you can remember endless things. 

AC: Oh amazing. So how do you see that coming into the end of the poem?

MJB: This speaker who is, as you’ve suggested, haunted by the past appears to realize that all of these events—the deaths past and present, and sometimes the death of part of herself—make up the house in which one stands in at any given moment. The self and the building are one just as the self and one’s memories are one. That self-soothing is undoubtedly an attempt to silence the ghosts!