Interview with Mary Jo Bang

The below is an excerpt of Andy Kuhn’s interview of Mary Jo Bang. Full interview available in the book, How a Poem Can Happen, or upon special request

AK: Not many poets mention Freud at all in their work, but there are a surprising number of references to him in yours. HD, Hilda Doolittle, was a patient of Freud’s and a poet of note at the time, but many literary artists seem to feel that Freud and his descendants are kryptonite for creativity. Could you say a little about how your encounters with Freud and his works (and/or workers) have influenced your development as a person and a poet?

MJB: Freud has meant a great deal to me. I first opened The Interpretation of Dreams when I was thirteen. That was when the books that were kept in a glass-enclosed room behind the reference counter at the local library became available. You couldn’t take those books home but anyone thirteen or older could sit at a table and read one of them. I looked through the card catalogue and was intrigued by the title of that one and asked for it. I then sat at the table and read it for hours. I found it both fantastical, and fascinating. Over my lifetime, I’ve read most of what Freud wrote, as well as several biographies. I think he’s a very important figure, limited by his historical moment, and by his egotism, but who isn’t. He got some things right and he spoke openly about many things that others were silent about. Especially in the realm of sexuality. I take what I want from him, and leave the rest.

AK: Do you have a clear sense of what you’d like your readers to make of any specific poem? Or is that not a major concern for you, and the question poorly conceived?

MJB: For me, every poem is about consciousness. Primarily mine, but also consciousness as I understand it from what I’ve read and from what I’ve seen in a lifetime of observing others. What the reader is being offered when they read a poem written by me is the movie of my mind, but in flux. The film has to be in flux because the mind is not only multi-layered but also dynamic. If you limit yourself to language to represent a fluid mind—then, of course, the representation will be inexact, abbreviated, and it might sometimes seem chaotic, or at the very least acrobatic.

In order to better represent “what I mean,” in the poem, I try to exploit the sounds inherent in language, as well as the fused layers of meaning that accompany sound (sonically, for instance, tail evokes tale if you put it near the word “fairy”). But no matter what I do with language, I can’t open the cabinet door and allow the reader to see everything that is in that overstuffed Fibber McGee-ish closet that is my mind. That’s the problem, isn’t it? No one can completely know the mind of another.