Poet Mary Jo Bang will present a reading at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 21, in the Freeman Auditorium of the Woldenburg Art Center on Tulane University’s campus. The event is free and open to the public.
Bang is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including Elegy (2007), which won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. Her latest book is a new translation of Dante’s Inferno (2012), in which she takes bold liberties with the text and re-imagines the classic to often-terrifying results. Bang has received numerous honors and awards for her work, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Bellagio Foundation, and a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. Her poems have been included in multiple editions of The Best American Poetry. She is a professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
New Orleans-based author and Room 220 friend Zachary Lazar interviewed Bang last year for BOMB magazine about her Inferno translation:
Zachary Lazar Your translation is the first one I’ve ever read that actually scares me. You write in your introduction: “What’s the text equivalent of death metal music?” This seems to me a perfect justification of your approach: as time passes, and especially as technology evolves, we don’t get “better” at evoking terror but we do develop new styles that strike us with a new power. Because of this change in styles we can become numb to the old. Music, in the strict sense as well as the poetic sense, changes—it has to change. And not acknowledging this is basically reactionary, no?
Mary Jo Bang Given that language is multivalent, I wonder whether this version of Dante feels scarier to you because today’s language inevitably has today’s fears encoded in it, especially when we talk about bad behavior and its consequences. When we read language that’s been patterned today to sound like it did in the past, the risk is that we’ll read the text as if it only refers to that past moment, and that past moment’s terrors.
Also, by ironing out the syntax, the narrative arc of the Inferno is easier to follow. There’s more of a sense of drama. We’re better able to suspend our disbelief and identify with the characters, especially with the character called Dante whose quest for self-knowledge and salvation presents him with archetypal stand-ins for every possible kind of selfishness and evil.
Of course some people feel quite territorial about the poetry of the past and have a strong negative reaction to seeing it altered. Appropriation literature, which you could argue translation is, inevitably alters a text, and if someone is highly invested in the original, there’s no pleasure in examining the terms of an author’s or a translator’s tampering. The fact is, the original still exists. As a reader you can always go back to that.
Read the full interview at BOMB.