Exclusive Interview: “A Film In Which I Play Everyone” Author Mary Jo Bang


Poets influence other poets. But good poets are influenced by other things as well. Take Mary Jo Bang who, in the following email interview about her new poetry collection, A Film In Which I Play Everyone (paperback, Kindle), cites David Bowie, surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning, and even Back To The Future Part III as having an influence on these poems.

Mary Jo Bang A Film In Which I Play Everyone

Photo Credit: Carly Ann Faye


First off, is there a theme to the poems in A Film In Which I Play Everyone?

If there is a theme, it would be power dynamics. The powers that get exerted on the speaker and her, diametrically-opposed, desire to have power over herself. The poems set up various scenes where that struggle gets played out. If it were a film, it could a biopic of an invented person whose relationship to the speaker is like that of an actor to a role: it is and isn’t her. It’s her plus any number of other elements.

Did you start out with the theme or did it emerge as you put this collection together?

I never know what I’m going to write until I’ve written it. After I’ve written something, I ask myself, “Is it true?” And if it’s not, if I can see holes in the argument, then I revise what I’ve written. I keep doing that, writing / asking / revising, writing / asking / revising. At some point, I must feel that it is true because I stop asking and then it’s a poem.

Where did you get the idea to put together a collection of poems around this theme, and why did you think it was a good theme around which to assemble a book?

Those single poems that grow out of the interrogation I described above, after a while, when put together, they begin to look like a map of my mind, a timeline of my preoccupations: the past, the present, the future, the state of the nation, personal disasters, political upheavals, how difficult it is to be a human being, and why is it that some people want to deny the humanity of others.

Sometimes I use a constraint to write poems, or at least a compositional strategy: titles that mirror the alphabet, for instance, or ekphrasis, writing about art or, actually, about anything you can look at. Or erasure, taking a found text and eliminating all but the few words I want to use. With the poems in this book, there was no constraint unless the pandemic can be thought of as one: being forced to turn inward because your circumstances are reduced. There’s only the inside of your head and the scene outside the window — which does change, but very slowly.

I’m sure there are writers who’ve influenced your style as a whole. But are there any writers who had a big influence on the poems in A Film In Which I Play Everyone, or on specific poems in it, but not the ones in your previous books?

I think Dante had a big influence on these poems, perhaps because I was finishing translating Purgatorio and beginning to translate Paradiso while I was writing them. I was inspired by his earnestness, his audacity, and his clarity. I can’t point to specific poems because it was more of a general sense, more like a challenge — to see what might happen if I were to be more earnest, clear, and resolute.

What other things influenced the poems in A Film in Which I Play Everyone? Any prose novels or writers, movies, paintings…?

Other influences: several deaths, Thomas De Quincey’s 1821 autobiography Confessions Of An English Opium-Eater, poems by the Japanese Surrealist Shuzo Takiguchi, the play Hamlet, the film Gimme Shelter, Roland Barthes’ book Camera Lucida, many paintings, including the one on the cover of the book: Self Portrait (1944) by the surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning. The title poem was, in some ways, an ekphrastic response to it, though one of the several deaths, the film Back To The Future Part III, and a walk to the grocery store got into the mix.

I’m sorry, Back To The Future Part III? I’ll bite: What in the poem A Film In Which I Play Everyone” was influence by Back To The Future Part III?

My son, who died when he was thirty-seven, was an extra in that film. He played one of the students walking up the steps to the school dance. The poem begins in the first person (“In scene two, silence is a sleeve, I’m an arm in it…I’m making sense all the time of all the senseless endings”) but changes at the end to second person. There’s a merger at that point where the speaker is playing both herself and an extra being filmed walking into a school dance (“You’re an extra. That day you were filmed / on the steps walking into the school dance, / the costume you wore was pure you”). The poem ends with the disappearance of everyone. Although memory, that “trick candle,” occasionally brings back the ephemeral:


The set for the scene where everyone disappears

was painted Parisian sky-blue. The air burned


like a curtain on fire. The fire kept going out,

then being relit, a trick candle on a cake made of clouds.


And then what about music? Were any of the poems in A Film In Which I Play Everyone influenced by music? Or is it just the title, which you got from something David Bowie once said?

Bowie’s music is in there. In the poem “Green Earth,” there’s a line from “Hallo Spaceboy”: “Do you like girls or boys.” Beach House, Amy Winehouse, Cowboy Junkies, Lucinda Williams, Dylan.

When I wrote poetry, back in the 1900s, I always read them aloud, both alone and in front of other people, a couple times as part of the writing process. Do you do that as well?

Yes, just as you did long ago, I read my poems aloud and I too occasionally read a new poem in front of an audience only to realize it still needs some work. I don’t have any specific recollections of having that experience with the poems in this book — perhaps because many of them were written during the pandemic when the only audience was me and my imagined friends.

You have been a professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis for many years. Do you think a career in academia, or working with young aspiring poets, may have influenced any of the poems in A Film In Which I Play Everyone?

Yes, since I spend a lot of time teaching, that influences all of my writing. I learn in order to teach my students but they also teach me. One poem, “Hotel Incognito,” actually came out of an assignment I gave the students in a seminar I was teaching on ekphrasis: spend several hours in a place large enough so that you can move around from time to time and have different experiences and observe details that are particular to that place. I did the assignment: I chose a hotel, but didn’t actually go there, which I guess is cheating. I didn’t need to go in person because it’s two blocks away and I’ve been there many times and noticed the details that belong to it. I went there in my mind and it was the same as if I were physically there.

Now, if the earlier books of yours that I’ve read are any indication, the poems in A Film In Which I Play Everyone are free verse, or at least not rigidly structured.

Yes, free verse, but the lines fall into regular meter from time to time, and there is some rhyme, although not in a regular pattern and not necessarily at the end of a line.

With the poems that don’t rhyme, or “fall into regular meter,” why do you feel a lack of a strict structure is the best approach for what you’re trying to say?

Over time, I’ve become aware of how much expressive work sound does in a poem so I’m always experimenting at any given moment with how to best pattern sounds as I translate my thoughts and subjectivity. It’s a bit of a juggling act so you have to be able to, at least I have to be able to, concentrate on the next thought and the next word and I don’t want to be overly constrained with having to count stresses or ding out a rhyme when it’s all I can do to try to make sense of my jumbled interiority.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about A Film In Which I Play Everyone?

For me, the best way to read is to be curious, to see where the poem will take you. I’ve come to think of the lyric poem as a narcissistic mirror: the poet sees herself in it but the reader, when she reads, is looking over the poet’s shoulder, so she sees her own self. Several poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins get gestured to in the book because I thought I glimpsed myself in the mirror Hopkins was looking into when he wrote them.

Mary Jo Bang A Film In Which I Play Everyone

Finally, if someone enjoys A Film In Which I Play Everyone, and it’s the first book of your poems that they’ve read, which of your other ones would you suggest they read next?

That’s an interesting, and a difficult, question. Maybe A Doll For Throwing, only because the poems in that book go about constructing themselves so differently from these. They are all prose poems in small justified boxes that are meant to echo the Bauhaus aesthetic. That book is more or less a long interior monologue where a speaker occupies two times at once: 1920s-30s Germany, which was the Bauhaus era, and the four years that led up to the 2016 Trump election here in the U.S. A Doll For Throwing is also concerned with the difficulty of being a woman artist. Which is also the difficulty of being a woman. Which is also a subject found in some of the poem in A Film In Which I Play Everyone.



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