An Interview with Mary Jo Bang


Natalie Tombasco

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

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, their physical circumstances through the invention of wings, dream visions, or poetry?


MJB: Exile is agonizing. In a sense, it’s like being a prisoner but instead of being locked in, you’re locked out. Writing as distraction is a way to briefly escape horrendous circumstances, as well as a way to encode complaints about the injustices you’ve suffered. Certainly, that feels true of Inferno.


NT: There are these wonderful lines in Canto XIX: “‘I am, I am,’ she sang, ‘a sweet-sweet-sweet-tea, / Siren, I mislead sailors mid-sea; / They like it when I do-re-mi. Once I began, / O, O, Odysseus! He turned and gawked like a fan.” Ulysses is a recurring character in the Divine Comedy that appears as himself or through nautical imagery. How do you interpret the shared pilgrimage of Dante and Ulysses toward salvation—the metaphorical shipwreck, how the vessels turn to “[lift] its sails” toward home?


MJB: Ulysses is a problematic character in the Divine Comedy. While Dante celebrates his desire for knowledge, he places Ulysses in the circle of Hell for fraudulent counselors, those who convinced others to sin out of their own self-interest. Ulysses, Virgil tells Dante, is in the 8th circle because of the part he played in the ruse of the Trojan Horse, and for helping to steal a statue of Athena that was guarding Troy. Dante invents another story for Ulysses, which is that Ulysses convinced his men to go beyond the Pillars of Hercules, which represent the boundary of the known world, a boundary set by God. As a result, he leads his men to their death and he ends up in Hell. The Sirens, similarly, lead men to change their course and chase after something that is impossible to have. The men end up crashing on the rocks and dying.


NT: I understand that Chaucer had found inspiration from the Divine Comedy when writing The Canterbury Tales, naming him the “wyse poete of Florence.” Glimmers of Dante appear in much of contemporary American poetry such as Amiri Baraka’s The System of Dante’s Hell, Allen Ginsberg’s “Supermarket in California,” and Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette. Can you speak to Dante’s lineage in English poetry and why he has persisted as a wellspring of influence, especially from poets who speak from the periphery and challenge the status quo?


MJB: And we can’t forget Eliot’s The Waste Land! The Comedy is even more recently invoked in Srikanth Reddy’s collection of poems Underworld Lit (2020), and in Eileen Myles’s novel Inferno: A Poet’s Novel (2010), and in John Kinsella’s book of poems Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography (2008)! The ideas in the Divine Comedy are one with our time, whatever “our time” is. It was written in the medieval era but it speaks to human behaviors that, sadly, appear to be unchanging: pride, envy, greed, fraud, rage, etc. It warns us that if we continue to rip apart the social fabric, there will be nothing left and we will, individually, and as a society, suffer to the same degree as the damage we caused. Poets often speak from the margins; most poets know a great deal about being marginalized, which perhaps gives them a clearer picture of the center than those who live there.


NT: Can you describe your process with translation? How does it inform your own poetics?


MJB: Translation has made me even more aware of how much work an individual word can do. It has also made me hyper-aware of the expressive uses of sound. On the surface, poetry is a distilled form of “saying,” but under the surface, there are other figurative levels where the poem opens out and creates new layers of meaning. It’s often a challenge when translating to get all the meanings available in the source language into the new language. If you fail to carry everything over, you reduce the reach of the poem.


My translation process is complicated by the fact that I don’t speak Italian. I have to interrogate every word I translate. I go back to the word’s origins, explore its history, research how Dante used it, read tons of commentary, and multiple other translations. And then I try to capture what I believe Dante intends to say, falling back on the research I’ve done and what I know as a poet.


NT: In a poem concerned with souls and bodies in the afterlife, I’d like to think about form as a kind of embodiment, specifically the formal vigor of terza rima. This interlocking verse has a way of projecting the narrative forward while forcing the reader to glance back to the tercets from which one came. Can you discuss what you believe to be Dante’s intention with terza rima, as well as how you shepherded it into the twenty-first century?


MJB: There’s a great deal of number symbolism in Dante, particularly around the number three since that represents the Trinity. Terza rima is a form of interlocking rhyme where the first and third lines of a three-line stanza rhyme. The next stanza takes the middle non-rhyming line and uses that to create the next first- and third-line rhymes. So, in a sense, the threeness (and yes, that really is a word!) continues to serve as the framework that keeps giving birth (as it were) to a new form of threeness, over and over again.


Because English is a rhyme-poor language, unlike the Romance languages, which have many words with vowel endings, it’s difficult to maintain a pattern like terza rima without finding yourself forced to say things in a way you might not have chosen to in order to create the necessary rhyme. That’s why most translators don’t try to use the terza rima. I decided to use the phonic echoes of contemporary verse, alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme but to keep the three-line stanza, and to capitalize the left margin, which was a convention of English Poetry prior to Modernism.


NT: To my knowledge, you are one of four American women to translate Dante. I’m wondering what you believe is the reason why women have strayed from this epic and what the female perspective brings to the text?


MJB: There may be more than four but certainly not many more. I’m not sure why in the past women weren’t drawn to translate the poem but today more and more women are translating ancient texts. The classicist Emily Wilson was the first woman to translate the entirety of The Odyssey (Norton, 2017) and is now working on The Iliad. The novelist Maria Dahvana Headley recently published a translation of Beowulf (FSG, 2020). I think when women translate, they seem more able to allow language to infuse the characters with personality. It might be that male translators in the past had a more worshipful attitude toward the original authors and focused on word-to-word translation. Or perhaps women are better at intuiting the personalities of the characters and they privilege that over a word-to-word correspondence with the source text. That’s pure conjecture, of course.


NT: What I love about your colloquial rendering on Inferno and Purgatorio is how the intertemporality of references included makes this time-traveling journey prophetic, comedic, and accessible. Alongside figures of medieval Catholicism and Greek mythology such as St. Peter and Phaëton are Gertrude Stein, Talking Heads, Chutes and Ladders, and West Side Story. What were your intentions to mingle contemporary allusions with the original poem?


MJB: It’s easy to dismiss a poem written in the 14th century as a quaint literary artifact and miss the fact that the text is speaking to us just as it spoke to its original readers. Dante used many cultural touchstones of his era to make the landscape recognizable to his readers. If I’ve substituted a few of those touchstones, it is so we can better see ourselves against the allegorical background. I’m also trying to gesture to the fact that the poem was radical in its own time, so radical that many people learned the Tuscan dialect just in order to read it. It’s also a very playful poem and I wanted to capture that aspect of it as well.


NT: Lastly, I’m hoping you can explain some of the overlaps between Dante’s world and ours (plagues, collective grief, political hellscapes, etc.) and perhaps, why we should attempt to scale Mount Purgatory in a not-so-post-pandemic America? Has the last year and a half been a kind of Purgatory, a suspended state of waiting and waiting for transformation?


MJB: Clearly, the pandemic has meant that many of us have endured a state of prolonged waiting—waiting to see friends and family, waiting to be able to go out into the world without being afraid for our lives, waiting for our children to be able to return to school. For some (the jobless, the sick, the grieving, the isolated, those lacking any “safety net”) the waiting has sometimes felt like a form of unearned punishment. But the pandemic is not our fault. What we are responsible for is the increasing withholding of empathy for those outside our small circle of family and friends. That’s where the similarity between Dante’s time and our time lies. The feuding families and corrupt clerics that kept medieval Italy in constant upheaval are identical to the partisan divisions that are fueling political deadlock and resentment in our time. It’s impossible to read Dante and not see how enduring these problems are and how we each contribute to them in some measure. The Comedy gives a blueprint for change that is beyond the confines of Catholic theology and that idea of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Dante’s underlying theme is the question of how we can find ways to live together? The answer is that we have to tap into the fellow-feeling that holds us together. The cost of giving into our petty divisiveness isn’t that we will go to a literal nine-circle Hell or be forced to climb a literal seven-tiered mountain but that we will destroy everything that holds us together and create a hell on earth.

Heading over waters getting better all the time My mind’s little skiff now lifts its sails, Letting go the oh-so-bitter sea behind it.

The next realm, the second I'll sing

Is here where the human spirit gets purified

And made fit for the stairway to Heaven.

Here’s where the kiss of life restores the reign Of poetry—O true-blue Muses, I’m yours— And where Calliope jumps up just long enough

To sing backup with the same bold notes That knocked the poor magpie girls into knowing Their audacity would never be pardoned"

- Canto I, Purgatorio


If you're interested in reading further and gaining some context, The New Yorker posted longer excerpts of Bang's translations of Canto I, IV, VI, and IX alongside a recorded reading and Bang's own notes!

NATALIE TOMBASCO serves as the Interviews Editor of the Southeast Review. Her work can be found in Copper Nickel, Fairy Tale Review, Yalobusha Review, The Rumpus, Southern Indiana Review, Poet Lore, VIDA Review, among others. She has a chapbook titled Collective Inventions with Cutbank Books.