Category Archives: NonFiction

Writeliving Interview – Ellen Bass

Ellen Bass Photo

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 ReviewNew 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

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New Letters – Attitude

Cock Fight Spine Set.indd

Attitude is the theme for the fall 2012 issue of New Letters. From cover to cover, we are presented with a mix of hard-hitting poetry, fiction and essays, artwork from Leonard Koenig and William Wind McKim, and an interview by Anis Shivani with one of our most talented and underrated authors Don Lee.

Favorites in this issue was the story A Kind of Tender Infinity by Wendell Mayo, that captured a time and place in the American imagination with a marriage proposal during the race to the moon, and poetry by Albert Goldbarth, William Trowbridge, Peter Balakian and Carolyne Wright. These writers don’t pull any punches as they hold up a mirror to the America we know and thought we knew.

I read the entire issue cover to cover in a single sitting, and recommend you get some Attitude as well.

Martin Ott

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Misplaced Person: Ira Sukrungruang

Ira Sukrungruang

I’m happy to present the second in our series of interviews about being a misplaced writer. Ira Sukrungruang writes about place, and all that means, with humor, passion, and disarming beauty. If he were an ancient god, he’d have three heads–one for nonfiction, one for fiction, and one for poetry, all of which Ira writes. I believe that god is called Unfair.

David Schuman

1) Where do you come from, originally?

I’m a Chicagoan. But if I were in Chicago I’d have to say a Southsider, and I’d have to do it with a sneer and say it with a voice that comes deep from the gut. I might even have to throw in a swear or two just to prove the point. I might have to call you Sally because everyone’s a Sally, which is to say the Chicago I grew up in is a working class Chicago, a concrete and steel Chicago, a Chicago that does not know political correctness.

If you asked my mother, however, she would tell you I come from Thailand. That Thailand was in my blood, no matter what country I was born in. She would say being born does not indicate who you are. Being born is a moment, and a moment is not genetic make-up, does not account for my ancestry, and all the ghosts that has followed her to this country, and the ghost she left for me when she retired and returned to Thailand in 2004.

2) What geographical area would you say defines you as a person and maybe also as a writer? This can be a specific place (New York, Cleveland) or a geographical element (mountains, prairies, ocean). How has this place or element defined your work, if it all?

I’m trying to understand this as an immigrant son and writer. For the longest time, the city defined me, like how the city defined my immigrant family. We felt safe in the city, despite what crimes the TV news reported each evening, despite the gangs, and racism we experienced in the early 80s. The city was about the crowd. There was comfort in a crowd. In a crowd, we could see what dangers were coming towards us. In a crowd, we could blend because in a city there were other immigrants like us, feeling the same way. There were so many hiding places in a city. Our family vacations were always to ultra touristy cities with a lot of artificial sounds. Those sounds were so much more comforting than the sounds of birds or the silence of nature.

Now, however, I’m beginning to see the country as something not to fear. I married a poet, after all, who is in love with the prairie. This has forced me to confront my fears of landscape. And these fears are about trust. My immigrant family never trusted America. Being in the country forces you bond with the land in ways a city never requires. To live in the country, to make a home in the country, there must be a love for the land, but what is also underneath the land. It is also a love of space and solitude. To love a city is to love the assault to the senses that a city represents. Is to love pace. Is to love the music of artificiality.

And then there is the Motherland, Thailand, and stories I have grown up with about Thailand, and vacations to Thailand.Thailand is both mythical and real. Thailand is like the temples that dot the countryside, something otherworldly, some jeweled fantasy land, among the modern high rises of Bangkok, or the rice fields of the central plains.

These three dynamics are what’s in play when I write, whether it be fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. It is a topic I constantly come back to.

3) Describe where you are now–describe a few things you’ve learned about this new place that have surprised/frightened/frustrated you?

I’m in Tampa, FL, now. There’s something wild about Florida. I love when I walk and lizards scurry away from my steps. There is something Jurassic Park about it. I love the birds. I can’t get over them. To see sandhill cranes chillin’ in the medians of busy streets or ospreys nesting on electric poles or pelicans and great blue herons waiting for fishermen scraps. I’m astonished by how the color green seeks to devour everything in the summer. Florida is the south, but a different kind of south. South with a latin beat. South that is diverse in culture. South filled with Northerners. It’s pretty awesome really.

4) How has your current location filtered into your work or your writing life?

I was at literary panel my graduate students were doing at a Florida writers conference, and one of the panelists said something like, we write about the places we’ve been at the place we are. I think this is true. Much of my writing is about Chicago, central Illinois, Thailand, upstate New York. I don’t think I will stop writing about those places. But I’ve noticed that small parts of the natural world in Florida has made into my writing. It’s like the cute little geckos here. They come in without you noticing and leave. Subconsciously, Florida is invading, like a vine that wants devour a house. I think Florida is so different from the other places I’ve been that it will naturally become part of my literary landscape. As a writer, we catalogue the details of setting, and the details of that setting becomes part our lexicon.

About the Author

Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoir Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy and the coeditor of two anthologies on the topic of obesity: What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. His poetry collection, In Thailand It Is Night, was awarded the Anita Claire Schraf Award, and forthcoming from University of Tampa Press. He is the recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, an Arts and Letters Fellowship, and the Emerging Writer Fellowship. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Post Road, The Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. He is one of the founding editors of Sweet: A Literary Confection (sweetlit.com), and teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida and the low-residency MFA program at City University in Hong Kong. For more information about him, please visit: www.sukrungruang.com.

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