Mary Jo Bangis a poet's poet, one whose books regularly make year-end best-of lists. Her latest book of poetry is called The Last Two Seconds, and it couldn't be farther from the stereotypical pretty nature poetry. The collection is full of a sense of impending environmental collapse: natural disaster, extinction, climate change, and cataclysmic violence. "There's this sense of menace today --- this could be the last two seconds," Bang tells Kurt Andersen. "We walk around with that anxiety."
The book's title is also connected to Bang's sense of her own mortality. "Once you get into your 60s you know you have x amount of time, and you can't solve for x," she says. But the theme of time's passing was unintentional on her part. "I think that all poets have preoccupations and obsessions, and even without trying, those preoccupations make their way into the poems," Bang says. "I didn't begin trying to talk about time, but when I collected the poems that I had written and I looked at them, I was shocked to find that was a major preoccupation."
Bang also recently produced a new translation of Dante's Inferno --- a feat she accomplished without knowing Italian. She worked from previous translations, she explains, comparing the work of other scholarly translators to get an idea of the literal meaning of the original. "I could see what was going on; I could see the liberties that each of these translators had taken," she says. "That gave me permission to come up with my own way of saying it, but it established the borders."
Bang also updated Dante's hell to include figures such as Hitler, the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, and South Park's Eric Cartman, who is condemned for the sin of gluttony. "Dante wrote the Inferno in the vernacular. He wanted everyone to be able to read it. I wanted to do the equivalent," she explains. Bang teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, and she says her students appreciate the contemporary references. "They tell me things like, 'I always wanted to read this and I tried several times and I couldn't.' That's exactly the person for whom I wrote this, because I was one of those people, too."
Bonus Track: Mary Jo Bang reads "The Blank of Reason Produces Blank: After Goya"
Bonus Track: Mary Jo Bang reads "An Autopsy of an Era"