A Bit Contrived
features interviews with authors who exist about books that don't, with covers designed by people who do.
Please note: Acting Like Something Concrete does not exist, nor will it ever (probably)—it's been improvised during the course of the interview. If you really want to read it, do yourself a favor and check out Mary Jo's most recent poetry collection, The Last Two Seconds.
Release no. X:
Acting Like Something Concrete by Mary Jo Bang
Mary Jo Bang keeps a tight schedule, and so she asked me to catch her at the end of her ‘physicality practice’. It was a bit foreboding, and almost knowingly vague, but Mary Jo’s a poet, and thus has licenses to both. We met at a dance studio, and when I got to the room, she was wearing all black, and a director’s hat. There were twenty-six others there, each in a one piece, each a different color. ‘That’s it everyone!’ Mary Jo shouted upon seeing me there. Without vocalization, everyone emptied the room. Mary Jo pulled over two chairs and we conducted the interview in the middle of the room. Below are excerpts.
As only the best interviews do, I'm going to start off with a quote from Maya Angelou: "What is a fear of living? It's being preeminently afraid of dying. It is not doing what you came here to do, out of timidity and spinelessness. The antidote is to take full responsibility for yourself – for the time you take up and the space you occupy." In The Last Two Seconds, you made the time we take up your subject, and now, with Acting Like Something Concrete, you've turned your full attention to the issue of the space we occupy. Quarks, elbow room, the interstellar—no manifestation of space escapes your eye in ALSC. I believe Antwan Jacobsen at The Washington Post put it best: "Bang catches the one forgotten piece in our digital age—the loss of a concept of the physical—and stretches it, morphs it, holds it up to the light for everyone to see." Giselle Cason at Publishers Weekly concluded that you "know the only way to truly explore the limitless and the abstract is through the limited and the tangible." In many ways ALSC feels like a continuation of The Last Two Seconds, but in others it feels like it could be its predecessor. When, and how, did the idea come to you?
Thank you for your careful reading, Andrew. We poets know that most readers either lack the reading strategies, or the patience, or the time, to read poems with attention to all the various layers of meaning. You clearly have done that with ALSC. Space has always interested me. The space launch of 1969 was a big moment. As my family sat around the television, with tin horns and streamers that my mother had thoughtfully held back from that the New Year's celebration, in anticipation of just this moment, I realized that earth and my life on it was about to be changed forever. You could say that the idea was born then.
Isn't that why readers read interviews? So they can still talk about the book without having, you know, read it? As a poet, have you ever considered that instead of writing a book of poems you should just write what that book of poems was going to be about? Too many times I've had a friend show me a New Yorker cartoon he doesn't get, only to have to explain to him it's a poem (might be best to [a] label them and [b] just say what they mean).
It's odd to me that the impetus for the book was the '69 launch, given that event feels so foreign to the world of ALSC—one where we've taken advantage of space, lost the meaning of relativity, where space matters insofar we're talking kilobytes. Perhaps the launch was a source of nostalgia, a source to reach back to, a vantage point? Or perhaps I'm just I'm grabbing at straws with butterhands?
Think about, Andrew, because you are clearly thinking like a poet here, what is a straw but a cylinder full of space? Until, of course, one draws up a gulp of milk shake or Coca Cola into it. And you and I both know that straw can also mean those bales of cattle feed that one can still see if you drive out into the countryside in certain states. But regardless of which kind of straw you are clutching at, the answer is yes. Nostalgia is a starting point for every poem. Poetry textbooks will tell you that's the best way to begin. However, I have also read avant-garde poets and I know that after reaching back to find the right cloying event, you have to wring all possible emotion from it. I do that by writing backwards. I translate my thoughts into language and then, using a mirror, I flip the letters. That at least gives me a new starting point. In terms of why not just write a précis for each poem, a few words that might summarize what the poem would have been about, had you written a poem, well, some poets do that but I find that doesn't take up enough time. And as you know from the poems in The Last Two Seconds, I hate to have time on my hands. That is worse then having butter on them.
You saying that you put thoughts to language and then literally flip the letters is one of those things I couldn't have thought of myself, but upon learning it, feel like a total rube for not having reached the conclusion myself. Isn't it so obvious? Isn't poet the latin word word for po (language) and et (somersault)?
How else have you physically distorted, transposed and molested language for the sake of your art? Or is that like a bit like asking a magician is secret, or asking a farmer with which hand does he milk?
The etymology of the word poet doesn't literally have anything to do with the word somersault but lyrically-speaking, it has a lot to do with it. Poet, as it derives from the Greek and Latin, means maker and we make a somersault. In fact, I'm glad you brought this up because it allows me to mention that in the title of the new book, the C in Concrete is meant to represent someone in the midst of making a somersault. The person has been caught in the act, as it were, of trying, and ultimately failing, to make a complete circle. And it's through that gap in the O, where the poems, and the poet, become part of the cosmos.
What a hypersurreal take on language, de-abstracting the curvatures of our letters to redenote physicality. I must ask: when you write, do you see each letter as a little person doing some sort of fun gymnastics position? Talk about layering textual meaning...
Let's just say I use every tool in my tool box. Sometimes, yes, I might see letters moving on the page and I might track their movements but I don't get trapped in one mode of thinking. Poetry requires a certain plasticity of thinking. Words on a page create associations in the brain of the poet, and later on, associations in the brain of the reader. A poet is an operative, a clever manipulator, who offers the reader multiple opportunities to think the thoughts they want to think. Going back to Concrete . . . did you see a concrete block? And did you see it landing in a cartoon on the Road Runner's head? If so, yay! That's just what I had in mind. But if not, I'm fine with that too.
I think I know what you're talking about, if we're talking about the last poem. Wasn't sure if I was seeing that or a set of three Victorian women seated on a park bench discussing the upcoming mayoral election. Have you ever considered actually just substituting the letters with fingerpainting? Could be a better way to transmit your mental image, but I guess that's kind of against the ethos of layers of interpretation yada yada.
Oh, definitely. I've thought many times about fingerpainting my thoughts. But that gets into the issue of audience. Most people already have a collection of fingerpaintings—those they did as children, or those done by their children, or things that look like fingerpaintings but aren't. It's hard enough finding people interested in reading a poem. And then, yes, as you say, it would create serious problems for scholars who are eager to nail down the particulars of a line of poetry and later link it to a biographical moment in the poet's life.
Fingerpainting does, unfortunately, leave less of an open-ended trail of breadcrumbs for your future autobiographers. We're nearly out of time, so I'm going to ask you one last question, and I'm hoping this will work as summation in some way. I think where poetry loses some its audience is where the reader doesn't know how to actually take a tangible lesson away, so they can pass it along to their friends at the bar later ("as Updike would say, never get married" or "as Woolf would say, novels fail at portraying the human condition" or "as DeLillo would say, everyone you know is a political terrorist; money doesn't exist"). So: what is the sound bite we should harvest from Acting Like Something Concrete and, moreover, Mary Jo Bang?
Andrew, you just keep asking one brilliant question after another! Indeed, what might you use at the bar this evening as evidence of having read this book of poems? What gem, the glow of which could guide the drinkers home at night if all the streetlights go out at once? Well, you might say, as Mary Jo Bang says in Acting Like Something Concrete, isn't life just like a loaf of bread? A collection of sameness that one never gets tired of, and which if you don't eat it fast enough will get stale and grow mold.
I will never eat a sandwich the same, nor will I live life the same. Up to this point I was just a boy, proud enough of my physicality to ignore the swishing of time inside, when, in fact, I was merely acting like something concrete. Thank you for your time, Ms. Bang, and your words.
Image credit: Patricia Martineau.
Cover by Mark Abrams. Mark Abrams is a book cover designer at Vintage Books, paperback wing of Knopf, at the House of Penguin & Random. He lives in a neighborhood in Brooklyn with his wife and four-year son, who—speaking of imaginary things—has one thousand brothers (and one sister), including Am, Ice Cream, Poppin, Eeema, and Orange.