An Interview With Poet Ellen Bass

Henry Stimpson

Although The Human Line, published last month by Copper Canyon Press, is Ellen Bass’s fourth collection of poetry, the sixty-year-old poet says it feels like her second. After all, it's only the second book she’s published since taking a more than ten-year hiatus from writing poetry.

Bass stopped writing poetry in her thirties to concentrate on working with survivors of child sexual abuse and writing books on the topic. She’s considered a pioneer in the field. Her nonfiction book The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (HarperCollins, 1988), which she coauthored with Laura Davis, has sold more than a million copies.

Poetry eventually called her back, however, and Bass rededicated herself to the genre in her forties. Her sixth collection, Mules of Love, was released in 2002 by BOA Editions. She lives in Santa Cruz, California, where she has taught creative writing since 1974.

The Human Line includes moving, strongly felt poems about the death of the poet’s mother and her childhood growing up above her parents’ liquor store in New Jersey, as well as wider-ranging meditations about the human condition.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Bass where she finds the ideas for her poems.

Ellen Bass: Very often a poem comes from something that I’m trying to work out in my own life. Often I’ll write the same poem many times if there's an idea I’m grappling with. I’ll write it over and over in poems that don’t ultimately succeed until finally I have some entry into the poem. "Sad Bitch" is an example of that. That poem was originally mainly about writing. I’ve written many poems about the impossibility of achieving what we want to achieve through poetry. Finally, this poem came along, and then when I took out all the parts about writing, it was a poem about life. But it satisfied for me the need to write about writing. Sometimes when I don’t have a way to enter a poem I’ll read other poets, and then all of a sudden I’ll think, "I have something to say about that." It’s that wonderful way that poets inspire other poets.

P&W: How did your mother’s death affect your writing?

EB: Writing poetry for me was one of the primary ways that I grieved. I found that working with the poems was more natural to me than any other outward rituals or ceremonies around her death. I just thought during that whole period how fortunate I was to be a poet. I don’t know what people do who don’t have a way to sit with their experience in a tangible way.

P&W: Your poetry is pretty plainspoken and direct. Is that by design or is it just the way you write?

EB: I think it’s both. I see the poem as real—there’s a real person on the other end of the poem, the reader. I’m a real person talking to that reader. When I write the poem, I’m first talking to myself. That’s maybe where the real genesis of the directness comes—I’m trying to make this discovery of what I need to say, what I want to say, what is the accurate thing to say. And the more direct I can make that, the more I’m going to understand it for myself. When I think about the reader then reading it, I want the reader to actually understand what I’m communicating. It’s not a theoretical process for me. It doesn’t exist outside of relationship. The elements that I use in the poem, like metaphor or image or a particular language construct, are clearer rather than just decorative. But I can write only how I can write. I do try to keep stretching how I can write. But ultimately it does wind up being a pretty direct voice.

P&W: Do you feel that much of contemporary poetry is too obscure?

EB: I think that if a poem is difficult and requires a lot of work, the way to judge that is: Does it pay off? For example, some of Adrienne Rich’s work is very difficult, but if you spend enough time with it, you’re well rewarded. Whereas with some poetry, no matter how much time I spend with it, I don’t feel that it is continuing to yield to me in deeper and deeper ways. I wouldn’t criticize difficult poetry if indeed the difficulty is essential in order to say what the poet is saying. But my heart is often with poetry that is more accessible—the more you read it, the more you really see in that poem. I think about a poem like Marie Howe’s "What the Living Do." That poem to me is a kind of quintessential poem. I always tell my students to memorize poems, and for some years I wasn’t doing it myself. I thought, I better get on this again. And I thought, what poem would I want to memorize? And that’s the poem that I chose recently. I learned so many things by memorizing it that weren’t apparent to me after having read it many times. It’s a poem that’s deceptively simple. You can get it in a deeply satisfying way on just one hearing. But if you memorize it, you will be able to glean so much more from the poem. Ideally, that is what I would want my poems to be—immediately accessible and yet able to continuously yield more.

P&W: How long were you away from poetry?

EB: In the early ‘80s, I began working more intensively in the field of healing from child sexual abuse. I’ve always taught independently in the community as well as some work in various institutions. In the early ‘70s in my writing workshops women began to share stories about child sexual abuse and writing about it. I think that was because there was a foundation in the culture finally for those stories to begin to be told. I edited, with some of my students, an anthology, I Never Told Anyone, of women’s stories of child sexual abuse. And then in the ‘80s it became apparent that there was an enormous need for support for people who had been abused. And I started doing workshops for survivors of child sexual abuse. Although I’m not a psychologist, I have a lot of background in the field. I had this unusual combination of skills and was trained in how to make a safe and supportive space for people to share their stories. As that happened it was clear there was a huge need. I wound up learning a lot about what was helpful in the healing process for survivors, and that led me to write, with my coauthor Laura Davis, the book The Courage to Heal, which became a very foundational book for survivors. That came out in 1988. The work I did with survivors was deeply gratifying, and while I was doing it I felt there was nothing I’d rather be doing. But after about ten or a dozen years away from my own poetry I really felt soul-starved and needed to return. I extricated myself from that work and began to return to writing. I tried to write a novel for a few years, and that was not a great success! And then I wrote another nonfiction book for gay youth called Free Your Mind.

P&W: How did you finally get back to it?

EB: I realized it was time to return to my first love: poetry. I think it was about ‘93 or ’94 that I reconnected with Dorianne Laux, who I had known briefly earlier, and she became my mentor in poetry and really helped, supported me, taught me, inspired me in so many ways to really approach my poetry in a much different way than I had ever worked with it before. I felt very frustrated because I had written quite a lot when I was young, but I was intensely aware of the problems in my early poems. I never knew how to work with the craft when I was a young adult. Though there were positive aspects of my poems, ultimately I was very dissatisfied with them. This was like a new incarnation for me as a poet. I feel very much like the earlier poetry was a completely different lifetime. For me, Mules of Love feels like my first book. That’s the book I worked on for I guess eight or nine years, just learning, learning, learning—and it was exhilarating to find that I could learn and that I could get on this path, working with the craft very deliberately and very intensely—that I was capable of learning and that I could learn. It was just wonderful. And that process has continued.

P&W: How do you feel about the process now?

EB: I feel like I have started up again fairly late in my life, but fortunately as poets we get to do this pretty much until the end. That’s a great gift. The essence of writing poetry, for me, is really a way to accept what life brings. That’s so hard to do in the living—to really see all that comes to us, both what we want and what we don’t want, in some way as equally valuable. In poetry I feel I get the chance to do that. That’s what’s really the deepest pull.