What I’ve learned over the years is never to refuse a poem because I have a different idea of what I should be writing.
IntroductionEllen Bass is a master of the contemporary love poem, and when I say love, I mean not only romantic love, but a love for everything that is in a life, especially where something mystifying lurks around the object of affection. Bass’s speakers offer us multifaceted worlds in which, without resistance, we are transported into the depths of 21st-century human culture. Her most recent book, Indigo, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2020.
Among her previous books are Like a Beggar, The Human Line, and Mules of Love. With Florence Howe, she co-edited the first major anthology of women’s poetry, No More Masks!, published in 1973. Among her honors are three Pushcart Prizes, the Lambda Literary Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council. Bass is also co-author of The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse and Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth and Their Allies. Bass founded poetry workshops at Salinas Valley State Prison and at the Santa Cruz County jails, and she teaches in the low-residency MFA in Writing at Pacific University. She is currently serving as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and is the recipient of a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship.
Ellen and I began the following conversation in July 2020, at the height of the ongoing pandemic.
Being a Jew of a certain age—I was born in 1947, about two years after the last Jews were liberated from concentration camps—I am tethered to the Holocaust.
Elizabeth Jacobson: On the cover of Indigo is a photograph of an intricately tattooed arm of a man, and just above his bicep, the phrase “Rock Me,” the only words on the otherwise fully adorned arm. This image, and the words “Rock Me,” seem significant as representations of how we might choose to decorate and individuate our lives. What import does the cover image have for you? And I am curious about your thoughts on “Rock Me.” Do you think this phrase is a key to the map of your book as it gives a reader the direction to follow in the landscape of your poems?
Ellen Bass: I looked through hundreds of images of tattoos and tattooed arms, searching for a sleeve and shoulder that resonated with the man I actually did see running on West Cliff Drive. When I came to this one, I fell in love. It was quite a hunt, trying to track down the photographer or Phil Bond, the tattoo artist, since the photo was taken decades ago, but finally I found the artist on Facebook. He lives in England and the tattooed man lives just down the road from him. We sent copies of the book to them and I recently heard from his wife on Twitter. Social media is good for something! In truth, the words “Rock Me” weren’t a big part of my choosing this image. What I was looking for is a mixture that reflected the essence of my description in the poem: “a jungle of indigo and carnelian tattooed / from knuckle to jaw, leafy vines and blossoms, / saints and symbols…” But when I read your question, I got curious and asked his wife what the significance was for him and she told me this:
My husband had a small tattoo from Phil Bond, when we went to America he was working at the Whisky A Go Go one night and decided to get a guitar and “Rock Me” from Gil Montes Tattoo Mania just down from the Whisky. He knew of Gil because at that time the tattoo world was much smaller…. When my husband decided to have the sleeve, Phil said no don’t obliterate it, it is a reminder of the great times that you had in Hollywood. And that basically is the story of “Rock Me.”
I do feel that the tattooed man in “Indigo” would appreciate this photo—and “Rock Me.” But I’ve never thought of it as a map to the book. Do you see it that way? I’d be curious to know how.
Elizabeth Jacobson: What a great anecdote! Thank you for taking the time to investigate where “Rock Me” came from, and yes, I do think it is a kind of secret message about the poems in Indigo. They shake one into the present, generating an atmosphere of excitement much like great music, and at the same time, your poems are solid in the way of dependability. I can rely on your poems for impact as they are earth-quaking with the strength of their honesty and intimacy. And then, at times, I am left shattered.
Recently during a craft talk you said, “People sometimes ask me, ‘Doesn’t it feel exposing to share things from your life in your poems? You share these personal things.’” To me the most personal thing, the thing that feels exposing when I share a poem, is not the content, it’s actually never the content, but the revelation of my mind of how I see. That’s what feels exposing to me and that’s what’s frightening.” In the following section from the title poem “Indigo,” the speaker is describing a young man she has just seen pushing a sleeping baby in a stroller and she is experiencing remorse concerning things in her life:
a jungle of indigo and carnelian tattooed
from knuckle to jaw, leafy vines and blossoms,
saints and symbols. Thick wooden plugs pierce
his lobes and his sunglasses testify
to the radiance haloed around him. I’m so jealous.
As I often am. It’s a kind of obsession.
I want him to have been my child’s father.
I want to have married a man who wanted
to be in a body, who wanted to live in it so much
that he marked it up like a book, underlining,
highlighting, writing in the margins, I was here.
Not like my dead ex-husband, who was always
fighting against the flesh, who sat for hours
on his zafu chanting om and then went out
and broke his hand punching the car.
I know these emotions: regret, jealousy, anger. And in reading the poem, I feel exposed. The intensity of emotion here is such that the mind wants to race away, perhaps deny. But also, scrutinize. What does your mind do when you are writing and confronted with such tender moments? Do you plunge in, or do you take a walk around the neighborhood? How do you excavate these perceptions and transcribe them into poems? And if there is fear, how do you integrate it?
When I feel fear I know I’m onto something meaty. I know I’m entering rich territory.
Ellen Bass: Usually I’m so involved with the making of the poem, trying to describe, trying to be open to what I might discover, that I’m not thinking about what people might find out about me down the line. And I try not to give into the fear of revealing myself to myself. That is the whole idea—to dig in deeply enough to be transformed in the process of writing the poem.
When I feel fear I know I’m onto something meaty. I know I’m entering rich territory. I tell myself to just keep going, no one has to see it. Ever. That’s to be decided later. I tell myself to follow the fear. Fear means I’ve hit a vein and that’s where the gold is.
I wasn’t afraid writing the passage you’ve included here. I’ve lived with the emotions of this poem—anger, regret, guilt, jealousy, disappointment, etc.—for most of my life. As I say, “It’s a kind of obsession.” So, there’s not much left to be afraid of there.
But I was afraid writing so frankly about my daughter later in the poem. And I was afraid when I shared the poem with her. But she responded immediately and told me that she loved the poem. I can’t speak for her, but perhaps she felt seen. I know that I saw her (and felt her rock-solid strength and love) more clearly through writing the poem.
By the way, I love your word “scrutinize.” I think that’s what we do in writing poems. Look really closely. Study. Examine. Dissect.
As for the excavation and transcribing, it took me 40 years to write this poem. Forty years and a week or two. Because these experiences are at the center of my life, I’ve been trying to write about them for decades. But almost everything I wrote failed. It took me a very long time and hundreds of failed poems to be able to distill all that’s in this poem (my dead ex-husband, my daughter, the arc of my own life, the miracle of having a life, etc.), to distill it down to just a few lines.
And the trigger, which I’m grateful for, was this young tattooed father. When I saw him, the metaphor of what his tattoos meant (or what I claimed they meant), came to me immediately and the outline of the poem arrived in minutes. I jotted it down on a scrap of paper. This is an extremely unusual way for me to work. I never outline my poems! But all the leaps and associations just arrived and I caught them. Then I waited a few weeks to try to write the poem. I’d been invited to spend a week in residence at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon and I knew I’d have the open space and time to write the poem there. The Andrews is a spectacular old-growth conifer forest with trees as high as 250 feet, many of them 300, 500 years old. My wife and I had a comfortable cabin and in the mornings she read or hiked while I wrote and in the afternoons we hiked together. The first morning there I wrote the first draft of “Indigo” and the second morning I worked on it some more. Then I revised it a little over the next few weeks. When people ask how long it takes to write a poem, it’s always hard to answer because on one scale, it took 40 years and on another just a couple days. On one scale, it was easy to write. It almost wrote itself. On another scale, it may be the poem that’s been hardest for me to write.
Elizabeth Jacobson: Every poem really is its own entity, coming to life in an individual, atypical way—a time frame being immaterial. For me, this unpredictability is one of the best things about the process of writing poems. The moment in “Indigo,” which you refer to above, is a moment familiar perhaps for many women in their mother/daughter relationships and singes the reader with accuracy.
And I gave birth to a child.
So she didn’t get a father who’d sling her
onto his shoulder. And so much else she didn’t get.
I’ve cried most of my life over that.
And now there’s everything that we can’t talk about.
We love—but cannot take
too much of each other.
The poems in Indigo do often feel like snapshots of your life—high definition, piercing, at times, disquieting. The poem, “Photograph: Jews Probably Arriving to the Lodz Ghetto circa 1941-1942” is an ekphrastic poem from an actual photograph. What is the experience of this poem for you?
Ellen Bass: I was asked to take part in a project called New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust, in which poets and writers were asked to encounter visual artifacts (photos, drawings, etc.) and to write new work in response. I am always apprehensive about my ability to write any specific poem and often when I’ve agreed to such requests, I’ve been disappointed in what I was able to produce. But when I opened the photograph that I was assigned, I felt an immediate opening. I had questions about what was in the picture and I could start by asking those questions. Then, one of the women in the image looked, to me, like my mother in old photographs, so I was able to enter the poem more personally. And, being a Jew of a certain age—I was born in 1947, about two years after the last Jews were liberated from concentration camps—I am tethered to the Holocaust. Although there was, in many families, including my own, an avoidance of talking very much about it right after the war, it still was ever-present.
My grandfather came to America (they always called it “America”) and had planned to bring his wife and children when he saved enough money, but they were killed in a concentration camp. He married my grandmother (who was divorced) late in life and he was the only grandfather I ever knew. He was a kind, quiet man who must have been carrying a terrible burden of grief and guilt.
My dearest friend (best friend since I was 19, that’s 54 years now) was born in a DP Camp (displaced persons) in Austria. Her mother lost her first husband and her entire family in the Holocaust and she spent the war years hiding with a Catholic man who was in love with her and who she married. My friend’s mother was so traumatized that she couldn’t care for her baby. The father and other women in the camp held her, bathed her. My friend was raised Catholic. This was not uncommon as a way to try to protect children should there be another Holocaust. She didn’t find out she was Jewish until she was in her teens.
And of course, it doesn’t take murder for anti-Semitism to make an impact. My father was an excellent student and his dream was to be a doctor. He had the top grades in his high school graduating class and there was one merit scholarship. But he was a Jew and the next best student was not. So, the school factored in the grades for gym class so the gentile student could get the scholarship. My father became a high school teacher, an occupation for which he was totally unsuited and quite soon he and my mother bought and operated a liquor store for the rest of their working life. My father suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis and worked six long days a week every day he wasn’t in the hospital. I think he would have made a very good doctor.
I always thought I wasn’t deeply affected by anti-Semitism, but over the years I’ve come to realize that that has been my stance about many things and is untrue about many things! Although I have never felt the extreme danger and vulnerability that many Jews have faced, there has always been an underlying awareness that there were people who were going to discriminate against us, judge us, exclude us, and, not impossibly, try to kill us. And now there is the rise of the alt-right—something I never thought I’d see and which raises the threat in an undeniable way.
Living with the shadow of anti-Semitism has also shaped my commitment to social justice. And when I came out as a lesbian in the 1980s, I already had some miles on my tires. Which is not to say that homophobia didn’t wreak its own havoc. It did. But I never internalized the hatred and homophobia of the world. I was never ashamed. I never doubted my own self-worth as a human. That much I escaped. I think of the last lines of Lucille Clifton’s poem, “won’t you celebrate with me”:
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
P.S. Last night I was telling my wife about this interview and what I’d said about my grandfather, my best friend, etc., and she said, “Well, how about your father?” And I was struck by how deep my compartmentalization and denial goes. My father was a very small child when he, his older brother, and his mother fled the pogroms in Russia. It was winter and they traveled by night and hid by day. How many nights? How many days? He was too young to walk all the way to the port, so sometimes he walked and sometimes his mother or his brother carried him. One day, when they were hiding in the forest, my father was crying. They heard soldiers approach, boots stomping through the snow. Then the footsteps stopped and turned away. The soldiers could easily have captured or killed them, but they chose not to. Some mothers smothered their babies to save their other children. And my maternal grandparents both escaped pogroms in Lithuania. A common story for Jews of my generation. How could I have forgotten to include this?
Elizabeth Jacobson: Thank you, Ellen, for this poignant response. My family was from Lithuania, as well, on my paternal side, and fled before the war—they were tailors and settled on the Lower East Side and later went to New Jersey. My husband’s parents, who must have been about the same age as yours, were discriminated against as Jews in Pennsylvania. They were not allowed to use certain restrooms and other public areas. His father did become a doctor, was just one of three Jews in a large class, and was discriminated against in medical school. They repeatedly scheduled exams on Jewish holidays.
In her most recent book, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader, Vivian Gornick writes:
By the time it was my turn to lay claim to something that resembled a withheld American birthright, it was not as a Jew but as a woman that life began to feel metaphorical. True enough, Jewish-working-class immigrant had once seemed an identity carved in stone but now, in the 1970s, it clearly was as nothing compared with the unalterable stigma of having been born into the wrong sex.
How did this type of gender discrimination manifest for you in your private life and career during the 1970s?
Ellen Bass: Once again, I tend to have a strong denial mechanism in not recognizing gender discrimination either. And I tend to barrel forward with blinders on. This obviously has its strengths and weaknesses!
But I am pretty sure I experienced discrimination as a young woman in graduate school. From 1969 to 1970 I was at Boston University, studying poetry, and the only teachers who saw any value in me at all were women. The male faculty were dismissive. I was not a good poet and didn’t show a lot of promise, but the feedback and advice I received was limited to cutting out lines of my poems. Delete. Delete. Delete. The result was that my not-very-good poems had any little life they possessed squeezed right out of them. Fortunately, in my second semester I had the great good fortune to study with Anne Sexton. This was her second year at Boston University and she was an excellent teacher––thoughtful, respectful, encouraging. She told me to write more, to expand! She gave me permission to try. Had I not encountered her, I think I may have given up. Looking back, I think the male faculty didn’t know what to do with my fledgling attempts to write about my experience as a young woman in those swiftly changing years.
Once I left graduate school, I worked in a countercultural social service agency where I was part of a women’s consciousness-raising group and I continued to write poetry. Then I moved to California and started teaching poetry freelance in the community, including workshops specifically for women. I probably encountered some gender discrimination, but I can’t remember any of it now. I was sending my poems out for publication and they were being accepted. The University of Massachusetts published my first book in 1974. And Florence Howe and I published the first major anthology of women’s poetry, No More Masks! in 1973 with Doubleday. In the later 70s I wrote poems about the nuclear threat and those appeared in magazines and journals. My environment, my areas of interest, and my choices insulated me from the kind of discrimination so many women endured.
My personal life during this time was a mess in that I was in a very bad marriage. The problems didn’t arise from sexism, but once we had a baby, that exacerbated the situation. My husband didn’t want to share childcare and that was a constant source of friction. He also wanted me to stop working so I could take care of the baby and the house. I didn’t have good sense in those days, but at least I continued to teach and write.
In 1982 I came out as a lesbian and that ushered in another kind of discrimination, but that’s a story for another time!
How do we bear it and still live fully and without diminished appreciation and awe? It’s a practice, of course. And not an easy one.
Elizabeth Jacobson: This is so very interesting, and I would love to hear everything, but as we are limited to space, I would like to ask you another craft question. It usually takes me a long time to complete a poem, and sometimes I have worked on a piece for years, and all it needs is an ending, a last line or two. But I can’t get it. Does this happen to you? And if so, do you have a strategy to get the poem done?
Ellen Bass: I sure wish I did! It sometimes takes me a long time too. Sometimes it just needs, as you say, another line or two, and sometimes it needs its whole engine rebuilt. A few poems in my last book took a really long time. “Failure” took 14 years. I didn’t work on it continually, of course, but every couple years I’d give it another try. The incident continued to interest me and I knew there was more there than I’d been able to bring out in the earlier drafts. Each time I’d take it from the top. Finally, on my last attempt I was able to find a way to begin that established the girl more fully and I think that’s what allowed me to reach the ending too. I sometimes quip that I just needed more failures—and perhaps that’s true.
Elizabeth Jacobson: Returning to Indigo, in your poem, “The Long Recovery,” the speaker asks herself at the end of the poem: “How can I hurl myself deeper / into this life?” How would you, Ellen, answer this question now, a year into the pandemic, a year deeper into the fact of climate change, and considering the recent birth of your first grandchild?
Ellen Bass: Yes, this continues to be the central question for me. Especially when I’m faced with adversity, fear, suffering, death. How do we bear it and still live fully and without diminished appreciation and awe? It’s a practice, of course. And not an easy one. First comes the decision that I want to. And then comes the practice.
I come back again and again to Lucille Clifton’s words: “I choose joy because I am capable of it, and there are those who are not.” This has been for so many of us a challenging, even a devastating year. I’ve lost two loved ones and there have been other, significant losses as well. And yes, we do have a new baby in the family who is five months old. Deep joy. And also, deep concern about the climate crisis and the world that she and the other children and grandchildren will be contending with. Which is why we can’t give up or give in to despair. We can feel it, but we can’t let it paralyze us. I also think often of Gandhi’s words: “Anything you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” And, while I’m on a roll quoting, Marcel Proust: “The purpose of the artist is to draw back the veil that leaves us indifferent before the universe.” So that is what I continue to try to do.
Elizabeth Jacobson: I often sit on a bench above a pond where I wait and watch for poems. Is there a place like this for you, near where you live, that no matter when you visit, something might transport you into a poem?
Ellen Bass: I write mostly in my office which my wife built for me from our garage. It looks out on our garden, fruit trees, bamboo, a big maple in the neighbor’s yard, and right by my window, a datura. I wish I could say that it always transports me into a poem! But it is the foundational scene for me and elements of it frequently turn up in my poems. I also walk by the ocean almost every day and my route, including Woodrow Avenue and West Cliff Drive, make appearances as well.
The place, though, that’s proven to have the best odds for making poems is Esalen in Big Sur, where I have taught for decades. If I did the math of the proportion of days I’ve spent there and the number of poems I’ve written there, it would be the winner! Most of those poems don’t reference Big Sur directly, but the inspiration and nourishment of that environment has been very fertile for me.
The stories of the survivors are theirs to tell. Mine is the story of witness: the gifts, the price, the painful and precious intimacies.
Elizabeth Jacobson: One final question: You just received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Is there a particular project that you are working on to fulfill this honor and/or any other upcoming books in the making?
Ellen Bass: I am grateful to the Guggenheim Foundation for this honor and vote of confidence. My hope is to write a series of poems that bear witness to the suffering and survival of women and men who endured physical, sexual, and mental trauma as children. For about 15 years in the late 70s and into the early 90s I worked with survivors of child sexual abuse. I want to try to explore what it felt like to have the profound privilege of supporting people through such deep pain and the process of healing and I also want to explore the impact I felt coming into such close contact with the worst of what humans are capable of.
As Galway Kinnell famously said, “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.” I was aware, during the years I worked with survivors, that I was on earth at a significant moment. My intention now is to delve deeper into what it was like for me to lead people through that uncharted territory. The stories of the survivors are theirs to tell. Mine is the story of witness: the gifts, the price, the painful and precious intimacies. I want to explore my own heart and mind as I look back on my part in this momentous transformation when survivors of child sexual abuse first broke through the secrecy and shame of centuries. I aspire to make poems from what was one of the most profound experiences of my life.
Of course, as much as I hope to do this, what I am actually capable of doing will depend not only on my intentions, but what the muse grants me. I am at her mercy and what I’ve learned over the years is never to refuse a poem because I have a different idea of what I should be writing. But instead to say thank you to any poem that is willing to come through me.
Connect with Ellen Bass at www.ellenbass.com.
Header photo of Big Sur by Phitha Tanpairoj, courtesy Shutterstock.