Poet’s perfect profession

Bang's 'impulse to write' leads to literary honors

Mary Jo Bang has won one of the top literary honors in the country — the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award in poetry — an impressive addition to her numerous other national awards for poetry.

Mary Jo Bang (left) meets with Becca Jensen, a May 2009 MFA in poetry candidate, in her office. “It’s been wonderful having Mary Jo as a reader and critic of my writing for the past two years,” says Jensen, who had Bang as an adviser last year and is in her poetry workshop this year. “She is incredibly supportive and open-minded. I always write with certain voices in my head, readers in my mind … Mary Jo will remain one of those voices for a long time.”

Yet Bang was nearly 48 years old before a career in writing and teaching poetry came into focus and she enrolled in a master of fine arts program at Columbia University in New York.

Up until then, she had a notion that someday she would have the “luxury of time” to be a writer.

Her love of reading and writing started early while growing up in Ferguson, Mo.

“I was an avid reader as a child — books were an escape and a delight,” says Bang, professor of English and former director from 2005-08 of The Writing Program, both in Arts & Sciences.

“I loved entering a story,” says Bang, who recalls her arms aching from carrying heavy loads of books home from the library. “I think there is this very primitive thing about people in terms of loving a story. That’s why we follow stories of people we don’t even know — whether it’s J.Lo or Britney Spears.

“When you love reading, you think, ‘Oh, I would like to do that, I would like to tell a story,’ even before you know whether you have a story to tell — you want to somehow participate in that construction,” she says.

With an “impulse to write” but a need to work, her participation would have to wait. But once she started writing — finding her forte in poetry — the literary community quickly took notice.

And it was through writing that she found some solace from her grief following the June 2004 death of her 37-year-old son, Michael Donner Van Hook.

‘Someday I’ll find time’

In high school, she was on an advanced English literature track; in college, she didn’t take any writing classes.

She married, had her son Michael and divorced before she earned a bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, in 1971 and a master’s degree in 1975, both in sociology from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

It was the height of the antiwar movement, and Bang was deeply concerned about Vietnam and social justice issues.

After graduation, she moved to Philadelphia, doing antiwar work with a Quaker group for a few years before returning to St. Louis to enroll in a physician assistant degree program at Saint Louis University. She graduated at the top of her class and started a career in medicine.

In 1978, she married a high-school friend, who also had a son, and moved back to Evanston, still working as a physician assistant.


Once there was my life and it was a thing
Filled with difficulty but it was mine.
Now Now is a terrible ongoing and some-
Times I consider the alternative. Yes,
The x on the ash box says,
I know what you mean. Somewhere
A sound crackles under the mean
Sky of mid-to-late October. Broke bough of one
Limb. Lambikin, let’s go back
To the beginning. You keep reminding me
That I said I would never leave you to the monster
Whom greed has now brought out from under
His ogre-log. We all fail each other sometime.
See how vague language can pretend to be.
See how exact intention is.

Mary Jo Bang, “ONCE” from Elegy. Copyright 2007 by Mary Jo Bang. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.

Writing was out of the question with a full-time job and two busy boys. But not out of her dreams.

“In the back of my mind, there was this notion that ‘Someday I’ll find time, and I’ll be a writer,'” Bang says. “As you get older … it actually becomes a little odd that you maintain this idea — maybe even a delusion — that it will happen someday.”

Then “someday” came in the mail — a flyer from Northwestern announcing a new program for women, including a class in creative writing. It was in the evening, so her husband could watch the boys.

She so loved the class that she was among a core group of writers who continued to meet for a few years to hone their skills.

While she enjoyed her writing, a vacation in France sparked a new creative interest and eventually a new career.

Failed vacation pictures resulting from inexperience and a new camera prompted her to enroll in photography courses at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

After her husband’s job transfer to England, she continued to study photography at the Polytechnic of Central London, graduating with a bachelor’s degree with distinction in photography in 1989.

“The program was very interested in the relationship of image and text,” she says. “So I began writing poems that somehow played off some photographs I was making, and I would make photographs to play off some text that I was writing. I was going back to writing, but now it was taking the form of poems.”

Some of those poems were published in small journals.

Finding her calling

Back in the United States after three years of creative work, she knew she didn’t want to return to medicine.

Earning a living as a writer seemed unrealistic, so she turned to photography, hoping to find time to write. As with most small businesses, it became all-consuming.

When she didn’t find commercial photography rewarding, Bang turned to teaching creative writing to adults in a continuing education program. She also found her calling.

It led to an instructor position at Columbia College in Chicago, where she taught English composition and creative writing for two years and became committed to writing poetry.

After acceptance to Columbia University’s MFA program, Bang had her first book of poems — “Apology for Want” — written and published before she graduated in 1998 with an MFA in poetry.

She won the 1996 Bakeless Literary Publication Prize for the collection, and the NBCC cited “Apology for Want” as one of the “Notable Books in 1997.”

Thinking it wouldn’t be fair to turn “Apology for Want” in as her thesis after so much attention, she wrote another.

That thesis became her second and third books: “Louise in Love” (2001), winner of the 2000 Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award and an Academy of American Poets Poetry Book Club selection; and “The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of Swans” (2001), which won the 2000 University of Georgia Press Contemporary Poetry Series Competition.

Bang joined WUSTL’s Department of English in 2000 as an assistant professor following a year as a prestigious Hodder Fellow at Princeton University.

Among the courses she teaches are poetry workshops and “The Art of Poetry” (or, as she calls it, “poetry’s greatest hits”).

Her other collections are “The Eye Like a Strange Balloon” (2004) and “Elegy” (2007), for which she won the NBCC Award as well as the 2005 Alice Fay di Castagnola Award.

In addition, “Elegy” was among The New York Times Book Review’s “100 Notable Books of 2008” and was one of Publishers Weekly’s “2007 Best Books of the Year.”

“Elegy” is a collection of 64 poems Bang wrote in the year following her son’s death. One of his paintings, “Firing the Neurons,” is the cover artwork.

Writing the book “took me outside of my grief for a moment,” Bang says. “It has become something that I feel like we did together, and there’s consolation in that. Not just his painting, not just the fact that he was the person to whom the poems were written, but there’s a continued presence that comes out of everything that happened because of that book that means that he is still present.”

Mary Jo Bang

Next book: “The Bride of E,” October 2009 by Graywolf Press

In progress: A translation of the “Inferno” and deciding what to do with 50-plus years of her late father’s daily journals

In print: Poems in nearly 100 magazines and anthologies, including The Paris Review, The New Yorker, The Nation and The Best American Poetry (2001, 2004 and 2007)

Fun facts: Big “South Park” fan; collector of vintage toys, including dolls of comic strip characters Little Lulu, Nancy and Sluggo

Other interests: Viewing contemporary and modernist art; reading nonfiction, memoirs, graphic novels and comic books

Fellow poet Carl Phillips, professor of English and of African and African American studies, both in Arts & Sciences, says of Bang’s work: “Mary Jo is a poet who, from book to book, surprises each time, from a reconsideration of the ecphrastic tradition to questioning the very usefulness of a tradition like elegy, in the wake of very real and immediate loss.

“Her range of subject is exciting: Where will she direct us, this time? What is consistent is how she manages to be at once a highly disciplined poet and yet to trust language itself, its ability to generate — out of recklessness and play — its own meaning,” he says.

As with her writing, she has found success with her teaching.

“Mary Jo’s influence on her students as a mentor, a model and a guide was always powerful and exciting,” says Bang’s former student, Jennifer Kronovet (MFA ’01), editor of American Poet, the journal of the Academy of American Poets.

“She could always see where we might be going in a poem and helped us to hone our words to get there,” Kronovet says. “She sensed what was essential in our own writing and led us to express that so it could be communicated and so it could be art.”

Bang is living her dream of being able to “tell a story.”

“On the one hand, it’s egomaniacal to write down your thoughts,” Bang says. “We all have thoughts — other people don’t go around writing them down much less expect people to buy them. But writers do. They take those thoughts, they craft them, they put them into something that they hope will look slightly dissimilar to everybody else’s and therefore be of additional interest.

“And as a teacher, to get to engage with someone in that attempt to make something … there’s an element of play in it, and so it’s fun!”