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with Mary Jo Bang

The last thing that made you smile

The solar eclipse—near-total where I was standing at 1:18 p.m. on August 21, 2017—wasn’t the last thing that made me smile but it did make me smile in a way that felt different from the smile I often put on my face. This is not to say that my reflexive smiles are not sincere, they are, but they’re often so automatic I don’t even feel them.


—Hello. (Smile.)
—Hello (Smile).
—How are you? (Smile.)
—Fine, how are you (Smile).

See? You don’t even know who is who. Nor do I.

On August 21, 2017, I was standing with a crowd of some 30 strangers on the corner of a city park across from my apartment. We were all wearing our special eclipse glasses, all staring up like time-frozen bug-eyed locusts in varying degrees of wordless wonder while the moon crossed in front of the sun. First the sun became a bright-yellow-crescent-shape that went on slimming until it was nothing but a mirror-image shiny-black disc, flared at the edge. The light around us (I took off my glasses and looked) seemed like a cinematic day-for-night simulation. I smiled, at no one in particular and for no apparent reason except the odd light made me happy: the defamiliarization, the instant newness, the ancient lineage of the experience. Looking back up, glasses on, the crescent had flipped left to right. Later (by seconds? by minutes?), the air was back to being what it had been, a yellow-tinged-lightning-white daylight. The day-in-day-out moon was obviously still in the sky but was nowhere to be seen.

A secret

A game of secrets. Match the following people with the secret quotes that follow: A. Claude McKay; B. Diane Arbus; C. Joseph Conrad; D. Virginia Woolf; E. Sylvia Plath; F. James Joyce.

Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants, willing to be dethroned.

A secret! A secret!
How superior.
You are blue and huge, a traffic policeman,
Holding up one palm—

And suddenly some secret spring’s released,
And unawares a riddle is revealed,
And I can read like large, black-lettered print,
What seemed before a thing forever sealed.

I was constantly watching myself, my secret self, as dependent on my actions as my own personality, sleeping in that bed, behind that door which faced me as I sat at the head of the table. It was very much like being mad, only it was worse because one was aware of it.

Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.

A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.

The last thing you wrote

Not the last thing I wrote but the last book I wrote is A Doll for Throwing (Graywolf Press, August 15, 2017). The book takes as its title a loose translation of the German Wurfpuppe [Throw Doll, Throwing Doll, Doll for Throwing] designed by Alma Siedoff-Buscher in the Bauhaus weaving workshop in 1924. All of the poems in the book are responses to Bauhaus photographs, ephemera, and people who were important to the German Bauhaus school and design movement (especially Lucia Moholy and other women who studied and worked there). The school, which had three iterations in three different places, Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin, lasted from 1919 until 1933, at which time it was labeled anti-Nazi, Communist, and ‘cosmopolitan’ by the Nazis and shuttered. The poems also respond to disturbing echoes between 1933 and this moment in the U.S.

Your favourite city

My favorite city is Paris and New York. Or New York and Paris. How I say that depends on where I’m standing. I also like Denver, Colorado and Los Angeles, California. And London.

What you’d place in a time capsule

I would place an Obama campaign button (from the 2008 election) in a time capsule. This because I have two, so I would be willing to part with one for the sake of time and history. And if I were allowed to place more than one thing, I would add an Obama action figure. And a Michelle Obama action figure. And maybe a Freud action figure too. And Zora Neal Hurston and Emily Dickinson finger puppets.*

“On your finger, she’s a puppet; on your fridge, she’s a magnet! Approx. 4″ tall.”
(ad copy from online The Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild.)

Mary Jo Bang is the author of eight collections of poems and a translation of Dante’s Inferno, with illustrations by Henrik Drescher. Her most recent book, A Doll for Throwing (August, 2017), was listed by Ms. Magazine as one of “6 Poetry and Prose Collections Feminists Should Read This Summer.” She teaches creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis.