Poet Mary Jo Bang wins National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry

Poet Mary Jo Bang, professor of English and director of The Writing Program, both in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, has won the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry.

Bang was recognized for “Elegy,” a book of 64 poems that chronicles the year following the death of her son. Published in October 2007 by Graywolf Press, “Elegy” is her fifth book of verse.

The National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced March 6 at a ceremony in New York City.

Mary Jo Bang

Bang said she was “surprised” to learn that her book had been chosen from among five “very impressive” finalists. “I was touched to be honored by people who read widely and take writing seriously,” she said.

“My family thinks I’m a star. I remind them that if I am, it’s in a very small sky. I mean, it is poetry!” Bang said.

Calling the award a “bittersweet honor,” Bang said that poets write elegies for many reasons. “They distract one from grief for a moment here or there. They are failed attempts to keep the loved one alive a little longer. For me,” she said, “it was especially a way of continuing a conversation that had been going on with my son for 37 years and had been suddenly interrupted. The poems were a way of talking to him.”

The book has been well received. According to Publishers Weekly, “Elegy” is a “powerful fifth collection…. Bang interrogates the elegiac form and demands of it more than it can give, frustrated, over and over again, with memory, which falls pitifully short of life.”

Said University of Houston poet Nick Flynn, “These poems are astonishing — here is fierce, controlled abandon, here is one of our finest poets utterly in the moment, yet the moment is unbearable. ‘There is no waking from death,’ Bang writes, and yet each of these poems is fully alive.”

Bang’s first book, “Apology for Want” (1997), was awarded the 1996 Bakeless Prize and the 1998 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. It also was cited as one of the National Book Critics Circle’s Notable Books in 1997.

Both her second collection, “Louise in Love” (2001), and “Elegies” won the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award for a manuscript-in-progress.

Her other books are “The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of Swans” (2001), chosen by poet and essayist Mark Strand for the University of Georgia’s Contemporary Poetry Series, and “The Eye Like a Strange Balloon” (2004).

Bang’s poetry has appeared in journals such as The Paris Review, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Volt, Fence, Denver Quarterly and anthologies such as “Best American Poetry” (2001, 2004 and 2007).

Bang was poetry co-editor at the Boston Review from 1995 to 2005. She is the recipient of a “Discovery”/The Nation Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University and a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation.

Born in Waynesville, Mo., Bang grew up in north St. Louis, Mo., and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology from Northwestern University. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in photography from the Polytechnic of Central London and a master’s in creative writing from Columbia University.

Bang joined WUSTL in 2000. She became director of The Writing Program in 2005.

Founded in 1974, the National Book Critics Circle is a non-profit organization consisting of nearly 700 book reviewers who honor quality writing and communicate with one another about common concerns.

Editor’s note: Bang is a resident of St. Louis, Mo. (63108).