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Mary Jo Bang: reading nonfiction and translating Dante

The Poet Mary Jo BangMatt Valentine

The award-winning poet Mary Jo Bang returns to Dante with the second installment in her contemporary-minded translation of “The Divine Comedy.” Bang uses contemporary allusions and cameo appearances of pop icons in her translation of “Purgatorio” to update the 14th-century text as well as demonstrate its timelessness. Bang is the author of eight poetry collections and teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.

BOOKS: What are you reading?

BANG: I’ve read “The Vixen” by Francine Prose, which is set shortly after the Rosenberg execution and involves a press publishing a novel that portrays Ethel Rosenberg as a nymphomaniac. It’s a satire but, at its heart, the novel is about moral dilemmas. I also read Jo Ann Beard’s “Festival Days.” What is interesting about her work is that all her stories hinge on something having gone or going wrong, and how someone responds. I’m also reading Heather Clark’s “Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath.” The level of detail is astonishing.

BOOKS: What have been other recent highlights in your reading?


BANG: Maria Dahvana Headley’s new translation of “Beowulf.” I feel like I’m wearing a sandwich board for it because who would have thought “Beowulf” would be so fun. I’ve bought copies for several people.

BOOKS: Are there other books that you often give as gifts?

BANG: Kathleen Finneran’s memoir “The Tender Land: A Family Love Story.” It’s set in St. Louis, which may be why it felt so resonant for me. I think it’s one of the finest memoirs I’ve ever read.

BOOKS: How would you describe yourself as a reader?

BANG: I read more nonfiction than fiction, and more nonfiction than poetry, if the truth be told. I think that’s because nonfiction, especially biography, is about how one lives in the world.


BOOKS: What are your all-time favorite biographies?

BANG: One is Brenda Wineapple’s “Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein.” It’s about how they became art collectors and what happened to their relationship after Alice B. Toklas came on the scene. It’s a way to get into Stein for people who are mystified by her work. Another is Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce biography. I read that and then finally read “Ulysses.” The biography deconstructed the myth of Joyce, which made it easier to understand his work. James Knowlson does the same for Samuel Beckett with the biography “Damned to Fame.”

BOOKS: Is most of your nonfiction reading biography?

BANG: Not necessarily. Sometimes my translation work leads me to books like “Dante’s Bones: How a Poet Invented Italy” by Guy Raffa. Dantes’s bones disappeared from his sarcophagus in Ravenna, and the book is about the long history of the city of Florence trying to get them moved there.

BOOKS: Who are your favorite poets?

BANG: One of my favorites is Timothy Donnelly, who wrote the collection “The Problem of the Many.” Another recent collection I read was Mark Bibbins’s “13th Balloon,” which is a kind of slant memoir about the death of his lover from AIDS. It’s really affecting. I also love Roger Reeves. He only has one book, “King Me,” but a new one is coming out. He uses traditional form but his subjects are very contemporary.

BOOKS: When did you start reading poetry?


BANG: I grew up in a working-class family where we didn’t read books. I found the library when I was quite young but I didn’t have any guidance. I just judged books by their covers. So I started with Wordsworth and Dickinson. Then one day in high school someone gave me Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind.”

BOOKS: When did you first read Dante?

BANG: When I went to Columbia University for an MFA in poetry I met Timothy Donnelly. We were talking about how there were all these canonical texts we hadn’t read, such as Dante. He said, “Let’s do it.” We each had a different translation. We read the cantos out loud to each other, and then talked about the translation choices. We finished “Purgatorio” and started “Paradisio” but got bored. Now I have the challenge of reading “Paradisio” for the first time as I translate it.

BOOKS: What else will you read this summer?

BANG: I just began that Plath, which is 1,000 pages. That might be the rest of my summer reading.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane” and she can be reached at