FEATURE — Fall 2008

English Professor Mary Jo Bang was awarded the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry for Elegy (Graywolf Press, 2007), a collection she wrote after the death of her son in 2004. A teacher of writing and literature, Bang was director of the University’s Writing Program from 2005 to 2008. (Photo by Joe Angeles)

Turning Life and Death into Poetry

After roles in medicine and photography, Mary Jo Bang reassesses her career and realizes the poetic form. Now an English professor, she speaks to life’s twists and turns, triumphs and tragedies in her award-winning work.

By Mary Ellen Benson

In the late 1960s while working for the foreign student office at Northwestern University, Mary Jo Bang applied to become a full-time degree student. A dean told her that because of her previous grades, “I could never make it at Northwestern.” She ended up being admitted to Northwestern and graduating summa cum laude.

Today, this much-honored poet and self-described “overachiever” has been awarded the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry for her collection Elegy (Graywolf Press, 2007).

Bang, professor of English and former director of the creative writing program, both in Arts & Sciences, not only went on to earn two degrees from Northwestern, but she has pursued numerous interests and picked up additional degrees along the way. Her path from growing up in St. Louis to writing and teaching at Washington University has been filled with many twists and turns.

After high school, she went to the University of Iowa and then transferred to the University of Missouri; she eventually found her way to Chicago and to Northwestern. “I was very concerned about the Vietnam War and issues like social justice, so I majored in sociology,” she says, earning a B.A. and a master’s degree.

Her path then took her to Philadelphia where she worked “with a group of Quakers who were doing anti-war work and community organizing,” she says. “I did that for a few years and then got interested in medicine and enrolled in a program at Saint Louis University.”

There, she completed a physician assistant degree, graduating at the top of her class.

After working at the Washington University HMO, she returned to Evanston, Illinois, to marry a high school friend who had a child the same age as her child from a previous marriage. She worked as a physician assistant in a suburb of Chicago.

A writer emerges

“I had always thought, from the time I was about 9 or 10, that I would be a writer,” Bang says. But with a full-time job, a husband, and two children, “I kept telling myself that I’ll get caught up and then I’ll sit down and write. It never happened.”

She chose to take a writing class at Northwestern through the Program for Women, which offered noncredit courses at night. “I thought, OK, I am clearly an overachiever,” she says. “Just put me in a classroom, and I’ll do the work and see if I can meet the challenge.”

While she loved the class, she says, “I did find it difficult to write prose. When I encountered problems—if the character wasn’t believable or the plot had contradictions—I wasn’t sure how to re-enter the story and go about re-shaping it. So I would just put it aside and write something new.”

On a trip to France, her creative bent took another direction. She bought an instamatic camera and began taking photographs. But because she kept opening the back of the camera, she didn’t recognize the images. “They were not at all what I had seen,” she remembers. “I decided at that moment I was going to take a photography class, and that I was going to learn French.”

Back in Chicago, she took French classes and studied photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, receiving a lot of encouragement from her teachers.

She also began to write poems. When a reader who liked her poems pointed out some problems, “I immediately had ideas about how I could redress those,” she says. “Something about this form seemed open enough that I could re-enter it and shape it differently.”

Text and images

Her next stop was London where her husband had been transferred. She wrote poems, and she found a photography program at the Polytechnic of Central London where she earned a bachelor’s degree.

“The program was deeply indebted to the study of semiotics, and the idea of how you read a photograph and the relationship of image to text,” she recalls. “I would write poems and then create photographs that somehow evoked a similar state of mind, but without duplicating the narrative elements. Or, I would do it in the other direction, make a photograph and then write a poem.”

When they left London, she and her husband separated.

Back in Chicago while teaching English composition at Columbia College, she met Paul Hoover, a poet and editor who championed the work of experimental writers. “Paul was instrumental in introducing me to a lot of interesting poets. I’m still very grateful for that entry into poetry.”

Deciding that she loved teaching and writing, and being committed to the writing of poetry, Bang applied to M.F.A. programs. She chose the program at Columbia University. “I was lucky that I met a group of young poets who were passionate about poetry. For me, particularly as an adult, it was an immersion course.”

During her time at Columbia, her first book, Apology for Want, won the Bread Loaf Bakeless Prize. “Because I was still a student when the book got published, I didn’t think it was fair to turn it in as my thesis,” she says, so she developed new work for her thesis.

She started to teach: at Yale, at the New School, at the West Side Y, and for a semester at the University of Montana. In Montana, she learned she had received the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. “It’s an invitation to live at Princeton and write for a year,” she explains. “No classes, and I got an assistant professor’s salary.”

“I began to write poems as a way of doing many things: one, escaping a state of extreme suffering for a few minutes,” Bang says.

She also learned that she was a finalist for a job at Washington University. She accepted the Hodder Fellowship, and Washington University offered her a position starting the next year.

At Princeton, she took apart her thesis and “finished both halves as separate manuscripts. One is called Louise in Love; these are persona poems that have a kind of cohesiveness. The other became The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of Swans.”

Louise in Love won the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America and was accepted for publication by Grove Press. In a competition, Mark Strand selected the other manuscript for the University of Georgia’s Contemporary Poetry Series. Both books were published in 2001.

A return to St. Louis

Bang joined the Washington University faculty in fall 2000 as an assistant professor.

“When I first came here,” she says, “I spent a lot of time walking in Forest Park, and I realized that the park was the museum of my childhood. That meant the Saint Louis Art Museum was the museum of the museum of my childhood.

“I began to envision what it would be like if someone were trapped in a museum, much like that children’s book where two children get locked in the Met (E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler). I tried to imagine what it would be like for someone to be locked in a museum forever. What if the only possible escape was to enter a painting and have the experience that was represented in the painting, a day at the beach, for example.”

The poems, which became The Eye Like a Strange Balloon (Grove Press, 2004), expanded to include other forms of art, including film, installation art, performance art, and photography. By arranging the poems chronologically, she began to see them as a history of art, “which in my mind also echoed the history of poetry, so that beginning with surrealism, we abandon the idea of representational art. The question is no longer how to make a tree look identical to the tree the eye sees but to try to move out of that to some idea of ‘treeness.’ Or some idea of an emotional landscape that is like a physical landscape.”

For example, in “Three Trees” (Michael Van Hook, oil on canvas, 1998), she writes:

The day is dragged here and there but still
can’t be saved. BAM. Immediately
the next second clicks into the skyscape
apocalypse. In the dust, a celluloid woman
mows a multilayered lawn.
The arch overhead reads, O Art
Still Has Truth Take Refuge. Where? There.
There, there, says someone.

Tragedy and elegy

On June 21, 2004, Bang lost her 37-year-old son, Michael Donner Van Hook, who died from an overdose of prescription drugs. “As I was dealing with the emotional aftermath of that,” she says, “I began to write poems as a way of doing many things: one, escaping a state of extreme suffering for a few minutes.”

In time, the poems became Elegy. The pain is palpable, the language powerful. In the opening poem, “A Sonata for Four Hands,” she writes:

Sad sobbing day. Someone has seen you
And says you were fine
Just hours before you weren’t.

I say Come Back and you do
Not do what I want.
The train unrolls its track and sends its sound

The siren unrolls its sound and sends itself
Forward. The first day of the last goes forward
As the last summer you’ll see.

Bang had given herself a year after her son’s death to write these poems. She says, “I could tell that if I didn’t make myself stop, I would do it for the rest of my life. I worried that the act of writing was continually refreshing the grief.”

A few days after June 21, 2005, she wrote the last poem. She put the manuscript aside, not knowing what to do with it. When magazine editors asked her for poems, she would send some and was surprised when they were accepted. Graywolf Press agreed to publish the collection, which was honored first with the 2005 Alice Fay di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America for a manuscript-in-progress and then with the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Recently an interviewer from Newsweek asked Bang if she would ever consider writing a prose piece about grief. She says, “I couldn’t because what would I say: ‘I feel awful, I feel very awful, I feel very, very awful’?”

She says with a poem you can write it anew every time. “You can capture it in metaphor, in language, in torqued syntax, in shifting pronouns. In the end, of course, it’s the same thing: ‘I feel awful, I feel very awful, I feel very, very awful.’”

Having completed the poems that became Elegy, Bang believed she needed to write something completely different, or her poems would turn out to be elegies, even if she didn’t mean them to be. After writing a poem called “C is for Cher,” she started to write “abcedarian poems that begin with an alphabetical premise.” That book, The Bride of E, will be published by Graywolf Press in fall 2009.

From the beginning, she has loved teaching. At the University, Bang teaches literature and writing to advanced undergraduates and M.F.A. students.

“I think my role is to point out their strengths and to help them find ways to realize their ambitions for the poem—at the same time, to respect that they might have a different aesthetic than I do,” she says. “Given that, what kinds of suggestions can I make to help them open their minds to the possibilities? I enjoy them a great deal, and students respond very well to praise, so that’s the fun part of my job.”

Mary Ellen Benson is assistant vice chancellor and executive director of publications at the University.