An Interview with Mary Jo Bang
Photo: Matt Valentine
Mary Jo Bang has published eight poetry collections, including A Doll for Throwing (2017) and Elegy (2007), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, and new translations of Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio. She teaches at Washington University in Saint Louis.
After her innovative translation of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, award-winning poet Mary Jo Bang continues the epic journey through the Divine Comedy with her latest release, Purgatorio, which is to be available with Graywolf Press in July 2021. Bang’s signature linguistic energy is companioned by rich notes and contemporary allusions of figures such as Usain Bolt and Amy Winehouse. Her towering translation ushers this medieval text across centuries and considers the delicacy of our social fabric as insurrection, protest, and the global pandemic has brought us to a screeching halt. In this interview, Bang and I speak about her process, the terza rima’s union of form and content, and the persistent influence of Dante’s legacy in American poetry.
Natalie Tombasco: After traveling through (and surviving!) the nine gruesome circles of Hell that funnel down toward a three-mouthed Satan in your celebrated translation from 2012 of Dante’s Inferno, we find ourselves among new terrain at the foot of Mount Purgatory. We’ve left behind Hell’s “dead air” and enter the “total glitter fest” of the epic’s second realm. What brought you to the Divine Comedy initially, and what made you want to continue the journey onward?
Mary Jo Bang: I first read Inferno and Purgatorio with a fellow student, the poet Timothy Donnelly, in the mid-90’s when we were MFA students at Columbia. We spent one winter taking turns reading the cantos aloud. Timothy had insisted that we read different translations, which initially seemed odd to me, but, in the event, I saw how fascinating that was—because besides reading Dante’s poem, we were also seeing how different translators were making slightly different poems out of the same original medieval Tuscan Italian. A decade later, I read Caroline Bergvall’s “VIA (48 Dante Variations),” which is a poem that arranges, alphabetically according to the first word, forty-seven published translations of the first three lines of the Inferno, which is, basically, “In the middle of the journey of our life / I found myself in a dark wood / because the right path was lost.” As simple as the Italian is, there were no two translations that were identical. I became curious to see how I might translate those same three lines and then found the attempt so engaging that I spent the next seven years translating all of Inferno. And then, because Purgatorio is simply the next chapter in the story, and I wanted to find out “what happens next,” I spent eight more years translating that book.
NT: Wow, it’s incredible how no two translations are identical, but being at a crossroads in those menacing dark woods remains. How does this transitory state differ from Hell and Heaven perhaps in world-building, character development, or emotional progression?
MJB: In Hell, you leave your hope at the door. There is no progression, only suffering. In Purgatory, you get to bring your hope with you. By spending time considering the damage you’ve done on earth, and being aptly punished for it—with punishments uniquely designed to refresh your sense of a particular offense—you come to appreciate that your selfish behavior was the opposite of what makes it possible to live in harmony with others and to be one with God. After first spending time waiting at the foot of Mount Purgatory, you slowly move up the rungs on the stairway to Heaven, gaining insight as you do, until you reach the Terrestrial Heaven, which is the old, now-abandoned, Eden. You then have to swim two rivers, one that erases your memory of sin, the other that restores your memories of goodness, and you are in Paradise where you become one with the universe.
NT: The mountainous landmass comprises seven terraces that each represent a cardinal sin. Dante sheds a peccato like clothing for every cornice he climbs, feeling lighter. Upon each flight, Dante must evolve, as you put it, “feel the weight of [his] earthly errors.” Can you speak to the purpose of Purgatory as a liminal state and why it isn’t considered as “sexy” as Hell in literature and pop culture? How did Dante evolve personally and poetically at this point of composition?
MJB: The question of how Dante evolved is an interesting one. A close reader, I think, can feel the difference between Inferno and Purgatorio. We might consider that Dante was exiled from Florence in 1302, on pain of death should he return. He begins writing Inferno in 1304 (or 1306), when the pain of that exile, and the fury at those he holds responsible for it, is still fresh. Purgatorio is possibly begun in 1309 and perhaps finished by 1313 or 1314. During all this time, the poet is growing older and, while older doesn’t always mean wiser, I think in Dante’s case, he clearly became more thoughtful in every way. He appears to develop an acute sense of what it means to belong to a community, and it shows in his compassion for the struggling souls in Purgatory who, because of their shortcomings, are alienated from that sense of belonging.
In terms of why there is less cultural interest in Purgatory, perhaps it’s because Hell as a metaphor is more plastic—think of all the ways in which humans suffer—while metaphorically, Purgatory boils down to an excruciatingly long wait!
NT: Along this line of questioning, I’m also wondering about the psychology of exile on artists and figures such as Daedalus, Sappho, Boethius, and Dante—perhaps, how their banishment feeds into their personal narrative and fuels their desire to escape, or transcend, the