“I often tell my students, ‘Be brave.’ In poetry, I think we have to recognize that our experience is not unique to us, no matter how personal it is. That we’re more like other people than unlike them, so whatever we reveal, no matter how frightening, is not going to be utterly foreign to others.”
Ellen Bass teaches poetry and creative writing in Santa Cruz, CA. Ellen Bass’s most recent book of poems, The Human Line, was published by Copper Canyon Press and was named a Notable Book of 2007 by the San Francisco Chronicle. She co-edited (with Florence Howe) the groundbreaking No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women (Doubleday, 1973), has published several previous volumes of poetry, including Mules of Love (BOA, 2002) which won the Lambda Literary Award.
Ellen Bass reading In Which A Deer
Her poems have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies, including The Atlantic Monthly, Ms., The American Poetry Review, The New Republic, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and Field. She was awarded the Elliston Book Award for Poetry from the University of Cincinnati, Nimrod/Hardman’s Pablo Neruda Prize, The Missouri Review’s Larry Levis Award, the Greensboro Poetry Prize, the New Letters Poetry Prize, the Chautauqua Poetry Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and a Fellowship from the California Arts Council.
Ellen, I heard you speak at the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference a few years ago, and I recall you talked of how difficult it is to reveal what matters to us, but how important courage is to a writer. Do you think writing poetry demands more courage and commitment to openness than other kinds of writing?
I think many kinds of writing require courage. I often tell my students, “Be brave.” In poetry, I think we have to recognize that our experience is not unique to us, no matter how personal it is. That we’re more like other people than unlike them, so whatever we reveal, no matter how frightening, is not going to be utterly foreign to others. And a good poem, though it may begin about the poet, must make the leap to be about the reader. I have a dear friend, Dan Gottlieb, who is a psychologist, a quadriplegic, and a true teacher. On his business card, in place of his PhD or other titles, is just the single word, “Human.”
Your poems often measure minute distances between love and pain. Do you believe they are always or almost always linked in real life?
Anne Sexton wrote, “Oh love, the terror.” The more we love, the more we open ourselves to loss. All love, all beauty, is set in time and change. Poets are always writing about this. Matthew Dickman in “Slow Dance,” says it simply, “one of us will die first and the other will suffer.” But of course if we don’t love, that’s a worse kind of suffering. Then we have nothing. So the challenge, as so many disciplines teach us, is to try to open our hearts anyway. Someone once said that a poet is someone who remembers every morning that we’re going to die. To some people that could sound morbid. But to poets it’s a reminder to be present, to be awake, to praise each minute.
Billy Collins said of your 2007 book, The Human Line, “Ellen Bass’s frighteningly personal poems about sex, love, birth, motherhood, and aging are kept from mere confession by the graces of wit, an observant eye, an empathetic heart, and just the right image deployed at just the right time.” Do you see these right images in the natural world, or do they appear to your imagination? Do you begin with images or ideas?
I begin with anything I can. I don’t have a set way of writing. I wish I did because that would make it easier, but I grab hold of anything I can–an idea, an image, a feeling, a line of conversation overheard, a memory. I work a lot from the actual–from what I’ve seen, heard, felt, stumbled across or through, although sometimes my imagination kicks in and that’s always a lot of fun. I take anything I can to get the poem started.
You’ve often written, both in poetry and in nonfiction, about women’s issues, lesbianism, and about child abuse recovery. Do you feel that some of your poems carry a burden of explaining hard issues to people? Are those poems harder to write?
I don’t try to explain issues in my poems, but I do try to grapple with them. And yes, I do find it hard to write poems about some of the issues that are important to me. For example, I worked with survivors of child sexual abuse intensively for over ten years, but I have only a few poems from all that experience. I don’t know why that’s so. I wish I could have written–or could write–more. But my poems seem to have a mind of their own and I’m not in much control over what manages to grow into a poem. I work very hard, but, ultimately, the poems seem like gifts that are granted to me. I can’t demand them or buy them with my effort. I just put in the work and take what is given and say thank you. Of course, I can make requests, but I can’t dictate what arrives.
Do you currently have a favorite poem you’ve written, and if so, does it vary over time?
Yes, my favorites do vary over time. Often my favorite is the newest baby. Sometimes it’s one that’s required the most work and given me the most trouble.
Thank you, Ellen!
Interview by Laura Hoopes