Ellen Bass is a writer I admire and continued proof that California yields some of our best poets (yes, I’m West Coast biased). Ellen is able to write about her life in a way that transcends confessional poetry and draws on themes of family and community. Her work is compassionate and passionate, and spiced with humor and insight into what makes us tick. Please enjoy this window into her creative process.
– Martin Ott
Who has been a major influence on your writing?
My first major influence was Florence Howe, my teacher at Goucher College, with whom I later co-edited No More Masks!, the first major anthology of poetry by women, published by Doubleday in 1973. Florence’s generous mentorship opened the doors of poetry to me and changed my life forever.
I was immensely fortunate to study with Anne Sexton when she taught in Boston University’s MA in Creative Writing Program. Without her encouragement I don’t think I would have had the confidence to try to make a life of poetry.
My third mentor, the brilliant poet Dorianne Laux, taught me just about everything I know about the craft. I owe her an immense debt of gratitude that I can never repay, but can only hope to pass on.
Can you give us insight into your creative process?
I wish I had a creative process that I could describe, but every poem seems to have its own process and what worked for one poem rarely works for the next. I try anything and everything! Sometimes I think about a subject for a long time before I see a way to nudge my thoughts or feelings toward a poem. Sometimes I write many not-so-good poems grappling with the same theme before one succeeds. Sometimes I imitate a poem I admire. Sometimes I just start writing without any idea where it might lead. Sometimes I hear a writing suggestion that piques my interest and I decide to try it. Sometimes a poem seems almost to just offer itself up whole. Usually I’m grappling with an experience, an event, a feeling, a thought that I want to explore. Often I make lists of words that I find in some way interesting or that catch my eye and I try to include them in a poem. I think all poets fall somewhere on a bell curve from logical thinking to wild thinking. I think I fall toward the logical thinking and so I’m always trying to do things that will loosen up that rational impulse and allow more strangeness into my poems.
What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice and subject matter?
Paradoxically, I think that often the best way to find your own voice and subject matter is to study the poems you most admire. Examine them, take them apart, see what makes them tick, imitate them. That will help to train your ear, your eye, and your sensibility. It will teach you how broad the range of voice and subject and approach can be and then when you write you’ll have widened the scope of what’s possible. Beyond that, each of us has our own unique life experience within which copious matter is packed. Sometimes it’s a question of opening ourselves to the subjects that we didn’t recognize as worthy of poems. And then I’d add, Be brave.
How has teaching impacted your own writing?
I love teaching. Besides the obvious privilege of diving into poetry with people who are also excited about it, teaching also gives me a place to feel competent, something I never feel writing poems. I never sit down to write a poem thinking, I can do this! But although there’s always more to learn about teaching, I feel basically capable in that arena. It’s a wonderful respite from doubt and the many failures that writing poetry consists of.
What are you currently working on?
I never have a “poetry project.” I just pray for the next poem—and do my part by sitting down and trying.
How has writing both non-fiction and poetry books influenced each genre?
Well, writing non-fiction has taken me away from poetry. I simply am not capable of doing both at the same time. After spending six or eight hours writing non-fiction, the last thing my brain wants to do is arrange more words. So I’ve given up non-fiction—at least non-fiction books. Not only was non-fiction not good for my poetry, but I think my poetry was also not helpful for the non-fiction I wrote. Had I been a creative non-fiction writer, it would have been different, but my non-fiction books are what I think of as “functional non-fiction.” They’re not there to please aesthetically, but to give people information that they may need—in some situations desperately need. So it was important not to have writing that called any attention to itself. I had to strip down my overly “literary” style. We wanted the writing to be invisible so it didn’t get in the way of its usefulness.
Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?
Yes! So much gets me excited. I’ve been reading Jericho Brown, Natalie Diaz, Patricia Smith, Kwame Dawes, Mark Doty, Tony Hoagland—I could go on and on! I also just finished the “Edith Trilogy” by the Australian writer Frank Moorehouse which is the story of one woman’s life braided with the story of The League of Nations. Each book is the size of the Bible and I was so sad when they came to an end.
Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?
I’m not sure I’ve encountered anything I would call true adversity. I’ve always just tried to do what I wanted to do—in life as well as in writing. Sometimes that hasn’t been the wisest path, but it seems to be the one I’ve chosen. It’s hard to know what the best choices will be so I believe one’s deepest desires and passions are as good a compass as any. I’m a ridiculously optimistic person and although I also am a worrier, the hope that it would work out tended to trump the worries so I kept plodding forward. I’m also a very practical person so I knew from the beginning I’d have to put food on the table along with writing and I accepted that.
Actually, as I think about it, it’s the other way around. It’s writing that has helped me overcome adversity!
What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?
Hmmm. So many of my quirks have been included in my poetry. But I don’t think I’ve revealed one of my special talents—I’m quite good at finding lost things—which also requires some of the same qualities that are necessary for poetry—perseverance, strategy, patience, intuition, perfectionism, a willingness to not overlook the obvious—and of course luck.
About the Author:
Ellen Bass’s poetry includes Like a Beggar (Copper Canyon Press, 2014), The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), and Mules of Love (BOA, 2002). She co-edited (with Florence Howe) the groundbreaking No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women (Doubleday, 1973. Her non-fiction books include The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (HarperCollins, 1988, 2008), which has been translated into twelve languages, and Free Your Mind: The Book for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Youth (HarperCollins, 1996). Her work has frequently been published in The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review and many other journals. Among her awards for poetry are two Pushcart Prizes, Lambda Literary Award, Elliston Book Award, Pablo Neruda Prize from Nimrod/Hardman, Larry Levis Prize from Missouri Review, New Letters Prize, and a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA and teaches in the MFA writing program at Pacific University. www.ellenbass.com