A Conversation with Ellen Bass
BY JULIE MURPHY
Ellen Bass’s most recent book, Indigo, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2020. Among her previous books are Like a Beggar (2014), The Human Line (2007), and Mules of Love (2002). With Florence Howe, she co-edited the first major anthology of women’s poetry, No More Masks! (1973). Among her honors are three Pushcart Prizes, The Lambda Literary Award, The Pablo Neruda Prize, Larry Levis Prize, New Letters Prize, and Fellowships from the NEA and the California Arts Council. Her poetry appears frequently in The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review, and many other journals. Bass is also coauthor of the groundbreaking The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (1988, 2008) and Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth and Their Allies (1996). Bass founded poetry workshops at Salinas Valley State Prison and at the Santa Cruz County jails, and she teaches in the low-residency MFA program in writing at Pacific University. She is currently serving as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Julie Murphy: This is your fourth collection of poetry. How are the poems in this collection different from your previous books?
Ellen Bass: This is a hard question for me to answer because I don’t really think in terms of books, as many poets do. I think in terms of individual poems. And, to a great extent, a book, for me, is when I accrue a book-length number of poems and feel like they’re ready to sail into the world. So I could imagine some of these poems in a previous book and some could go in whatever my next book will be. Unlike books with evident themes, this book (and my others, as well) are a record of a certain period of my life and, for the most part, what holds them together is temporal. To quote Galway Kinnell, “To me, poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.”
JM: The opening poem of Indigo, “Sous Chef,” begins in a conversational tone: “I like cutting the cucumber,” then continues “the knife slicing the darkness / into almost-transparent moons, each / with its own rim of night.” The poem continues with descriptions of the speaker cooking that are vibrant and violent. The poem achieves an incredible muscularity with shifts in grammatical mood from the opening declarative sentences to imperatives such as “Tell me what to do.” And “Give me a tomato bright as a parrot. / Give me peaches like burning clouds.” The mood shifts back to the declarative and then into the subjunctive mood with “Let me escape my own insistence.” Towards the end of the poem there is a moment of confession and a move toward the mystical: “I’ve made bad decisions, / so I’m grateful for this yoke / lowered onto my shoulders, potatoes / mounded before me. / With all that’s destroyed, look / how the world still yields a golden pear.” The poem ends with “Somewhere there is hunger. Somewhere, fear. / But here the chopping block is solid. My blade is sharp.” Was there a particular tone you hoped to set with the changes in grammatical mood? This poem encompasses so many themes such as beauty, death, sex, and salvation. Tell us why you chose this poem as the first, and what you hoped your readers would carry with them from this beginning?
EB: The changes in grammatical mood came about almost on their own in this poem. Of course when something seems to come on its own, it’s also the result of many years of reading and writing all kinds of sentences so that when you need one, it’s like reaching for a tool. Like when you need a fork in your own kitchen, you don’t have to think about where the forks are. And, if I can push this quirky metaphor a little further, if you’re going to scramble an egg, you don’t have to consciously decide between a spoon and a fork. This is not to say that I don’t have to work at poems! So much of making a poem for me is consciously working at it. But there are also aspects that just arrive on their own––at least sometimes.
The shift to “Tell me what to do.” is a plea. It’s interesting that the imperative can be both a demand and a request. And maybe a plea is both. I need this. Help me. As I write that, I realize that there’s a paradox here. A sous-chef helps the chef. But this sous-chef is asking for help, asking to be led, directed.
As for it becoming the first poem, I am indebted to Jericho Brown for that. Jericho generously read my manuscript and offered me feedback on many of the poems and also helped me with the order. He told me “Sous-chef” should be first. I was surprised. I’d never thought that poem could begin the book. But when he showed me it was an ars poetica, it snapped into place and I saw that it did, in its own way, lay out the themes of the book. The last two lines (“Somewhere there is hunger. Somewhere, fear. / But here the chopping block is solid. My blade sharp.”) really are how I feel when I’m writing a poem. Whatever else is going on in the world, in my life, in the act of writing I enter a world that Jane Hirshfield calls “the secret happiness of poems, of poets.” In Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, she writes, “No matter how difficult the subject, while writing, a poet is unchained from sadness, and free.”
JM: I agree that the first poem does lay out the themes in Indigo. In “Sous Chef” the relationship is implied, but many of the poems very specifically explore relationships and personal history. In your narrative poems, such as “The Orange-and-White High-Heeled Shoes” or “Failure,” which reach back to adolescent memories, the descriptions and details are so vivid. How did you open the poems up from specific memories to the much larger themes the poems address?
EB: That’s what I’m always hoping will happen when I write a poem. And what I try to be alert to––that moment when the poem starts to veer toward something I didn’t anticipate, didn’t know before I started writing. Many times the poem doesn’t open up or I’m too dense to hear what it might be offering me. But sometimes I’m able to catch it. The two poems you’ve mentioned both took a ridiculously long time to reveal themselves. I first wrote about those shoes in the 1970s! They were just a mention in a long––several single-spaced typed pages––list of all the shoes I could remember. In 2006 I tried to write about shoes again. Again a long, unwieldy attempt I called “My History through Shoes.” Then in 2014 one night as I was going to sleep, I thought about those shoes again and wrote a quick note to myself on a scrap of paper. It said, “mom shoes orange&white wedding she wore heels time why such keen pleasure meaning in remembering holding on time dead here.” In that scribbled note, the turn of the poem is right there: Why is there such keen pleasure in remembering? And then “time dead here” is a rough approximation of the outline of the rest of the poem. The next day when I sat down to write the poem, it went fast. I just had to shape it and work with the diction and sound. It was fun to put “pumpkin” with “pumps,” for example. But the poem pretty much just slid into my hands. When the Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, was asked if enlightenment is something that comes slowly, step by step, or happens suddenly, all at once. She said she believed that “suddenly” is a result of “slowly, step by step.” That’s how it was with this poem.
“Failure,” in comparison, only took fourteen years! This very extended time period isn’t my usual way of composing, thank the stars, but with these two poems it took many tries. And the challenge was what you ask about––how to get the poem to open up. It was like I kept knocking on the door, but it wouldn’t open. Yet that experience of trying to feed my father when he was very ill and my inability to do so continued to interest me and every few years I’d return to that memory. Originally I’d titled the poem “Feeding my Father.” On my last attempt––the one that finally worked––I titled the poem “Failure.” So I pinned the theme down from the very beginning. Maybe so it couldn’t get away! And I tried entering the poem differently, establishing the girl with more specificity and taking longer to do so. It was like I gave myself a running start. And in that draft, when I got to the end, the metaphor of failure just presented itself as “a country / I would visit so often / it would begin to feel like home.” I have sometimes joked that maybe I needed more failures in my life to be able to write this poem. Truly, I thought I’d had enough fourteen years before, but evidently that was just my opinion. The poem wanted more.
JM: I’m so glad you were willing to keep returning to those poems and I really appreciate how dedicated you are to revision. Having just finished taking your online course on the topic, I know you have much wisdom to share. What role did revision play as you put this manuscript together?
EB: I don’t see a clear division between writing and revision. Very very occasionally, a poem comes out almost whole on a first draft. A kind of gift. I think of it as the muse deciding to throw me a bone for all the hours and days and weeks that I write and can’t cobble anything of worth together. But the majority of my poems emerge from extensive writing and rewriting, visioning and revisioning. I agree with Richard Tillinghast who wrote, “Revising is not so much a task as it is a romance.” I think of the first draft as a first date and with each successive draft, I’m getting to know the poem better, it reveals more of itself to me and I learn how to listen to it.
I try to teach my students that the first drafts of a poem are likely to contain temporary language. Diction, syntax, metaphors, etc. that may not stay in the poem. But even awkward or downright ridiculous language in an early draft is nothing to be distressed about. At that stage, you want to stay open to whatever might want to enter the poem and a wide open door lets everything in. If I start censoring too soon, I’ll be keeping something out that the poem might need. I’ve just finished recording a series of what I call Living Room Craft Talks on The Art of Revision. In the talks, I share unpublished drafts of many stellar contemporary poets (such as Jericho Brown, Patricia Smith, Toi Derricotte, Alicia Ostriker, Rick Barot, Marie Howe, Traci Brimhall, Tim Seibles, Frank X. Gaspar, and others), including drafts of my own poems. I like to share the evolution of my own poems because I can show my students just what a mess my early drafts look like. Some of them seem about as promising as a poorly laid out yard sale, with so much junk and clothes heaped on a tarp, and the owner no where to be found even if you did see something you wanted to buy. But step by step, sometimes in a week, sometimes in a few months, sometimes over a period of years, I manage to excavate the poem. And…sometimes not. I have many many more failed and discarded poems than keepers. But I am a firm believer that nothing is wasted. Over the years, I’ve come to see that the time that I devoted to trying to write and rewrite certain poems was teaching me something that I would need in order to write a future poem. For some poems I can trace their genealogy back through a number of not good poems. If I hadn’t been working so hard on those poems that didn’t make it, I wouldn’t have developed ––sometimes very specific––muscles I would need for a future poem. Of course you can’t know at the time what you’re preparing for. So you go on trust, faith. And you do it because you love it. If you don’t love moving words around for hours and hours, this is not the vocation for you! Love of the work is, in my opinion, the only good reason for doing it.
JM: The themes of illness and death are revisited in a number of poems such as “After Long Illness,” “On My Father’s Illness,” “The Long Recovery,” “This Was the Door,” or “Roses.” In these poems you manage to convey so much of a lived experience with engaging details but with little narrative arc. As a reader I am delivered to moments in my own life that resonate deeply. Did you intend to leave out the narrative content when you began these poems?
EB: The very short poem, “On My Father’s Illness,” delivers a moment that has always been vivid for me. Although I’ve written about my father’s illness more explicitly in other poems, in this one I hoped the feeling would reach a reader without me saying more. Good poems usually have some silence within them. As you say, they leave room for the reader to see themselves reflected. Poems that say too much can have a constricting effect, limiting the poem to the writer’s experience.
The other poems you mention all grapple with my experience during a time when my wife was suffering through a long illness. I felt that her story wasn’t mine to tell, but I needed to write about my own life during those years. So I had to find ways to explore my feelings and struggles without appropriating what belonged to her. I’m glad if that spaciousness allows you entrance into your own life. That’s what a poem wants to do––to become meaningful to a reader. As I tell my students, no one cares about what happened to you. They care about what your poem means to them.
JM: The poems in Indigo are so rich with imagery and metaphor. What do you try to achieve through their use? How do you go about placing them in your poems?
EB: Images and metaphors carry emotion. Images reach us through our senses. We respond to them with feeling. It isn’t a coincidence that we use the word “feeling” to mean literally touching something and emotion. Even the word “touching” works both ways. Everything we experience directly about the world, we know through our senses. Most of the images come through description. If I can observe accurately enough, often the image is right there.
Metaphor is at the heart of my poems––and at the center of the way I naturally think. Even in conversation, if I’m trying to get an idea across––or convince someone of something––I instinctively go for metaphor.
The great poet Galway Kinnell wrote a small poem:
Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what I want.
Only that. But that.
As poets, we’re always trying to describe what is. Metaphor helps us do this because much of what we want to say is too complex, too nuanced, too paradoxical to convey directly. We want the reader to have an experience, not just hear about something. And metaphor is one of the fundamental ways we can accomplish that.
Poetry is rooted in metaphor, in which we see the similarity, the oneness, in disparate things. Our society is endlessly classifying, dividing into categories. We’ve become very sophisticated in our ability to differentiate. But in a poem, things which are conventionally, superficially, different can be revealed as being in some essential way, similar. We say, this is like that. And when it’s true, when it’s accurate (when the reader feels that this really is like that), barriers collapse and we get a glimpse into the oneness of the world. Aristotle said that metaphor is what language uses to prove that the world is full of hidden connections. He said that to make good metaphor is “holy labor.”
Many of my metaphors offer themselves to me without my conscious effort. In his essay, “Souls on Ice,” Mark Doty writes, “Our metaphors go on ahead of us, they know before we do.” And this expresses my experience. Though there are times I have to look very deliberately to discover the metaphor a poem needs, more often my strongest metaphors arrive early, even half-hidden in the mess of a first draft.
JM: “Indigo,” the title poem, is such a tour de force! Birth, death, want, regret and gratitude are addressed in the intimate disclosures of the speaker and also in a greater scale that includes all of life. The poem moves between a vivid present moment, the past, and the future and also changes locations from walking on West Cliff Drive to shopping for dresses at Ross. What can you share with us about the making of this poem?
EB: I’d been writing about the life events that this poem reflects on for forty years in one failed poem after another. And then one day, just as the poem says, I was walking on West Cliff Drive and I saw this tattooed man and in a eureka moment the central metaphor of the poem entered me. That he “wanted / to be in a body…wanted to live in it so much / that he marked it up like a book…” When I got home, I grabbed a scrap of paper and wrote very brief notes that made up the outline of the poem. This is a very unusual way for me to work. I don’t outline! But I was given the thread from beginning to end––all the leaps––and I didn’t want to lose it. I had plans to be at a writer’s residency at The Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon a few weeks later, so I waited until then to actually write the poem. I wanted to have enough time to create the language without distractions. When I got there, I wrote the poem in a couple days and after that just did a little fine-tuning. So it was both very, very hard to write and took me forty years, and it was very easy to write and took me two days!
JM: You told us how “Sous Chef” came to be the first poem of the book. How did you go about ordering the rest of the poems?
EB: I usually start to work with the order of a collection before I’ve written all the poems, so I may be ordering and reordering for a year or two. But for this book, I didn’t tackle the arrangement until the eleventh hour. I’m not sure what kept me from it, but evidently I was resistant. When I had only a couple months before the book was due, I was pretty anxious. I knew I wanted the poems about my wife’s illness to thread through the book rather than be clumped together, but other than that, I didn’t have a clear concept. And in general I find arranging a collection difficult. It’s not something I can work on a little here and a little there. I have to keep the whole thing in my mind and that takes me hours at a stretch. I’d feel like I was making progress, only to be dissatisfied. Fortunately, I was able to reach out for help from a few of my poetry friends. Frank Gaspar probably knows these poems as well as his own. And Jericho Brown was an immense help at the end with some individual poems and with the order. He suggested that I try to separate the poems into three strands and weave them together. Other poets also helped make these poems stronger and suggested poems I could cull, especially Toi Derricotte and Marie Howe. I’m grateful to them, as well as others.
JM: I have the privilege of teaching in the poetry workshop in the mental health unit at Salinas Valley State Prison that you began some years ago. You wrote the poem “Bringing Flowers to Salinas Valley State Prison” about a particular experience there. The poem delivers that experience to the reader as well as a felt sense of how it is to be in a room with these writers. What can you share with us about the program and about the making of this poem?
EB: I know how meaningful poetry is to me and I’m continually reminded of how much it matters to other writers and readers, but I don’t think there’s any place where poetry was asked to do more heavy lifting than at Salinas Valley State Prison––and poetry proved up to the challenge. I anticipated that the men in the workshop would be eager to express themselves and be heard, but what I didn’t expect was that they would be equally––if not more––eager to read and talk about the poems I brought in. On the very first day they dove into a discussion of metaphor, diction, syntax. Two men almost got into a heated argument about their different interpretations of a line! Usually when I teach a class, I bring in a poem and I talk a little about it, pointing out certain aspects of the craft that I want us to consider and then opening up the discussion to the group. But these men jumped in the moment I finished reading the poem. They were hungry for the chance to think and articulate, for intellectual stimulation, for real conversation. And when they listened to each other’s poems, they paid deep and respectful attention and responded with understanding and empathy. We know that poetry is a way to see more clearly––ourselves and the world––and nowhere was this more apparent than in these workshops in the prison.
In the poem you refer to, “Bringing Flowers to Salinas Valley State Prison,” I write about a man in the workshop who does something extraordinarily inventive and creative to assert his rights and to save his spirit. I showed him the poem before I published it because I wanted to make sure it was acceptable to him. Reading it, he recognized what it was that he had really done that day. Before the poem, without words to articulate it, he hadn’t registered his triumph. After he read the poem, he smiled and with a kind of amazement, said, “I did that.” Sometimes, poetry can give the self back to the self.