Exclusive: Poet Mary Jo Bang on the 92nd Street Y “Discovery” Poetry Contest


It’s no longer National Poetry Month, but that doesn’t mean we’re willing to abandon the genre. Tonight at the 92Y, the four winners of the 2009 92nd Street Y “Discovery” Poetry Contest — Bridget Lowe; Jynne Dilling Martin; Jeffrey Schultz; and Annabelle Yeeseul Yoo — who were chosen from a pool of over 900 submissions, will read from their work. (The annual award, a collaboration with the Boston Review coordinated by editor Timothy Donnelly, “recognizes and celebrates the achievements of poets who have no yet published a first book.”) To help Flavorpill prep for the evening, past Discovery winner/contest co-judge Mary Jo Bang — whose most recent book, Elegy, earned this rave from the New York Times — hopped on the phone with us to chat about how poetry is taught in schools, why it deserves to be as prolific as pop music, and what this award means for the four lucky recipients.

Flavorpill: Poetry is so overlooked in schools. Do you think there are potential poets out there who don’t even realize it?

Mary Jo Bang: Unfortunately, I think what happens in schools is whenever poetry is taught, it’s often taught like it’s some kind of intellectual burden. That idea that we have to know poetry because it’s important! But a lot of poetry is about play. The whole idea of the formal elements poetry with a schema — like meter, rhyme, or whatever — it’s a very playful kind of thing, and I think that children really respond to that. People who teach young children and teach poetry often talk about how exciting it is to them because they understand the playful aspect of it. I think that it is a pity, the way poetry is framed in education. Particularly education today, which is all about teaching to test. There’s not a lot of room for that kind of experimentation or that kind of indulgence in something that seems on the surface, playful. But in terms of learning to think, learning to develop a certain kind of a facility with language, a respect for language — learning how much one word can mean — there’s a lot of profound wisdom that can be imparted in that way.

FP: There’s a certain point where poetry becomes scary to people. Do you think contests like Discovery help make it more accessible for the public?

MJB: I think there’s no one contest/book/prize that does it. We need to have poetry popping up everywhere, so that’s it more apparent. So that people don’t forget about it, because it so marginalized. We never forget that pop music exists, but I think people do have a tendency not to think about the existence of poetry because it seems like something that’s not for them. They’ve never cracked the code. It takes so little to introduce them to the kind of strategies that would make it so much more rewarding to read poetry. I think that having these things mentioned — whether it’s on the arts pages of in the New York Times or your local paper — helps. Here in St. Louis there’s a small newspaper called the Beacon, a kind off-mainstream newspaper, and they’ve decided to start publishing poems. Something like that just makes me so excited because I think people who would never see a poem will start seeing them. That will enter their consciousness in a new way. So I think that things like prizes are a way to keep an art form in play.

FP: What does it mean for the poets who win the prize?

MJB: It’s a substantial kind of recognition for several reasons. One, three judges have signed off on your work. To get that kind of validation at an early stage, I know for me was extremely important. What was also extremely important was — before I got up to read, someone introduced my work. Outside of a workshop, it was the first time anyone had talked about my work. And the person who introduced me was very smart about poetry — much smarter than my fellow classmates at that point — just because he’d been doing it for a long time. It was Edward Hirsch. And to hear him identify themes in my work, it was really very reassuring. It was like oh my gosh, so my preoccupations and my obsessions are coming through! You know? It was surprising. It was fascinating. It would be as if somebody were describing you and you thought, oh, they’ve never seen me before. How do they know that my hair is that color or that my eyes are that color? That gave me a sense that what I put in poems would be important. People will read something into them, and I’ll have the freedom and the honor of saying something to the world. After that time, I would give myself this little test that I’d call the “So What?” test. So what, you’ve made this poem? You’ve had a good time. What are you saying to the world? If you can get people’s attention — which is so difficult to do in this world of noise — then what do you want to say? I think that introduction at the Discovery reading was key in terms of an early realization that people would be reading for content. That I had a platform here, if I could somehow find a way to speak about important things.

FP: What are you looking for when you’re awarding a prize?

MJB: I’ve been judging a number of prizes lately, and asking myself that very question. One, you don’t know until you see it. But also, I find that I’m looking for something unique. One of the delights for me in reading poetry is to find out how someone takes all the poetry that exists in the world — and that’s a substantial amount now, and more and more everyday — and makes something new. And so, sometimes I’ll find submissions to a contest that are very good but they look very similar to other ones that are very good. And then there will be one that stands out, and there’s nothing else like it. I have to confront that. I have to say to myself, here’s someone who’s not overinfluenced by the reigning fashion. And there are fashions. And those fashions come and go. Right now, one of the fashions is to have a very active rhetorical surface, with a lot of energy, and a kind of depth of whimsy. Allusions to previous poetry and a kind of suspicion of earnestness. There’s a lot of good work that falls into that general category. And then there will be something that somehow takes elements of that, but then adds something — like earnestness — and gets away with it in a really bright, exciting way for me. I find that sometimes now that I’m picking things that I never would have suspected I would pick if you’d asked me what my biases are. But it’s something that stands out in this way. I guess what I’m looking for is something distinctive. Something that is more or less inimitable. And something that has some element of seriousness to it. And again, sometimes absurdity is serious. Like Beckett. The most serious writer I know. So it’s not to say I want a heavy-handed sincerity. But I want some kind of hint that the mind behind the work feels the weight of human experience. Of an experience on them.