Faculty Profile: Mary Jo Bang
As students, we easily get so wrapped up in our lives here at Washington University that we forget that there is life beyond the Danforth Campus. We also forget that our professors have lives of their own.
For professor Mary Jo Bang, director of the Creative Writing Program at Washington University, life outside the classroom includes five published books, countless awards, five educational degrees and one heartbreaking tragedy.
In 2008, Bang was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry for her most recently released work, “Elegy,” a collection of 64 poems that was published in October 2007 by Graywolf Press. Although she was honored to receive the award, the win was bittersweet for Bang; “Elegy” concentrates on Bang’s thoughts and feelings surrounding the tragic death of her son, Michael Van Hook.
Van Hook died in the summer of 2004 from an accidental prescription overdose. Following his death, Bang decided to use her writing as a way of continuing a lost conversation with her son, as a way of expressing all the things she wanted to say but were impossible to put into words.
She determined that she would write these poems for exactly one year, and then she would stop—she would put them away and never go back to them. “I decided I could never write about it again,” she said. “Otherwise it would become too central to my life. It would keep going on. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to stop it.”
She intended the poems to be a distraction from her sorrow; they offer no hope, no consolation and no solution. Audiences and editors responded positively to the poems of “Elegy,” which Bang did not understand at first. Trying to make sense of their receptiveness, Bang said, “We have a desire for poems to mirror our deepest feelings. These poems are of a state of unrequited longing, which probably echoes some longing or loss others may have experienced.”
Grief, after all, is one of the most isolating feelings a person can experience. Through reading “Elegy,” readers will not discover solutions to their emotions or to Bang’s grief, but they will find company in it. They can find solace in her honesty.
After that one year, Bang immediately began writing something else. This collection of poems, “The Bride of E,” will be released Sept. 29. These poems explore a contrast between high and low culture. She wrote each of them through the lens of an invented character, rather than through her own eyes and her own emotions.
“I tend to reject the notion that poems should somehow reveal something about the poet’s life,” she said. In “The Bride of E,” Bang returns to a style she is much more comfortable and familiar with—these poems are lighter and more humorous, with a less elegiac tone. Bang will read from this collection to the Wash. U. community at an open reading in November.
Bang grew up in a poor household in Ferguson, Mo. “It was somewhat limiting,” she said of her childhood. So Bang immersed herself in library books. “I always loved reading,” she said.
She graduated summa cum laude in 1971 with a sociology degree from Northwestern University. In 1975, she received her master’s degree in sociology, also from Northwestern. Before completing her undergraduate years, Bang married, gave birth to a son and divorced.
Through college, Bang was deeply concerned with the Vietnam War and social justice issues. After completing her master’s degree, she moved to Philadelphia, where she did antiwar work with a Quaker group for several years, before returning to Missouri.
Back in Missouri, Bang enrolled in a physician assistant degree program through Saint Louis University so that she could pursue a career in medicine. Bang remarried in 1978, and she and her husband moved back to Evanston, where she enrolled in a night class at Northwestern for creative writing. This is where Bang discovered her love of writing. Though the class was a fiction writing class, which, Bang said, “didn’t really come naturally,” she still knew she wanted to pursue writing further.
Bang eventually took on a new passion: photography. She enrolled in photography courses in Chicago and continued to study it even when she and her husband moved to London. She graduated from the Polytechnic of Central London in 1989 with a photography degree. Through that program, Bang became interested in the relationship between texts and images, so she began to write poems in relation to her photographs. “I had never written much poetry before, but it came more naturally and I loved it,” she said.
Bang and her husband divorced and she returned to the United States. She was then accepted to Columbia University’s Master of Fine Arts program, where she received her fifth and final degree. Before she graduated in 1998, Bang published her first book, “Apology for Want,” which received the Bakeless Literary Publication Prize.
Bang continued to write and publish many successful works. Award after award was announced in her name. She published poems in various journals, such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Volt, The New Republic and Best American Poetry.
Bang joined the Washington University community in 2000 and became the director of the Creative Writing Program in 2005. “I am so fortunate to come into poetry so late in life and still be able to publish as much as I have,” she said. “I have a job here that really supports and respects writers. It’s a great department.” Bang loves teaching poetry at the University and admires her talented student writers for their creativity and hard work.
Despite her turbulent life, her many successes and dismal heartbreaks, Bang can still sit serenely in her small, comfortable office in Duncker Hall. “I love writing, but I also love teaching,” she said quietly.