Ellen Bass’s newest collection, Indigo, was published by Copper Canyon Press in April 2020. Her other poetry books include Like a Beggar, The Human Line, and Mules of Love. Her poems appear frequently in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, and many other journals. Among her awards are Fellowships from the NEA, the California Arts Council, three Pushcart Prizes, The Lambda Literary Award, The Pablo Neruda Prize, The Larry Levis Prize and the New Letters Prize. She coedited the first major anthology of women’s poetry, No More Masks!, and her nonfiction books include the groundbreaking 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. A Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Bass founded poetry workshops at Salinas Valley State Prison and the Santa Cruz, California jails, and teaches in the MFA writing program at Pacific University.
Dora Malech: Our books of poetry are entering the world in a pandemic unprecedented in our lifetimes. What other events—personal or historical—shaped the writing of your book, and how does the current moment make you read or think about your own book differently?
Ellen Bass: I wrote much of this book during a challenging personal time. My wife was ill and, as I always do, I turned to poetry as a way to be more deeply rooted in my life, rather than resist it. I tried to write from my own experience, rather than speak for her. So that thread runs through the book. I also address and grapple with other concerns and there are quite a few odes or praise poems in there as well.
About the current moment, I honestly don’t feel that I have absorbed it yet. I admire writers who can speak out meaningfully in the midst of this huge crisis, but I am not really one of them. Or at least not yet. But Indigo grapples with pain and worry, fear and hope, illness and healing, so these things are here in our pandemic, as they are at every other time. As my grandmother used to say, “Nobody gets cheated from trouble.” And the choice always is how we respond to it.
DM: Right now it seems as if people are turning to poems more than ever. What single poem from your book—or what theme or quality that runs through the book—would you most like to offer readers in this moment? Why?
EB: Yes, the desire for poetry–the need for poetry–is stronger than ever. People turn to people in times of suffering and chaos. Poetry helps us to deepen our awareness of our lives and the lives of others, to increase our capacity for compassion, for the myriad inflections of joy and the muscles required to carry pain with as much grace as we can muster. It helps us to be more present and, when we are present, we are less afraid.
The last poem in Indigo, “Any Common Desolation,” is, unfortunately, turning out to be more generally relevant than I’d anticipated.
DM: What do you miss most about, or what has felt like the biggest loss of, not being able to share the book in person, through travel and doing readings, and are there ways you are finding to counteract that loss?
EB: My book’s official publication date was April 7, so I assumed that my carefully constructed book tour was wrecked. Of course I was disappointed, though with people suffering and dying, I couldn’t think of that as a disaster. As it turned out, the virtual world has offered more ways to share poetry with a wider audience than I could ever have anticipated. Instead of being wiped out, opportunities were amplified.
My biggest disappointment though, is not being able to go to New York and be with my mentor, Florence Howe. Florence was my teacher in college and we went on to co-edit No More Masks!, the first major anthology by women, published by Doubleday in 1973. Florence is also co-founder of The Feminist Press, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year–the longest-running women’s press in the world. She is 91 and, like everyone who loves someone who’s old, it’s hard not to be able to see them.
DM: What’s a question you would want to be asked about your new book, and how would you answer it?
EB: I think the questions I enjoy most are about the craft of making poems. So I’d like to be asked any questions that center on how I made a particular poem. Since I’m creating the question here, I’ll focus on “Ode to Zeke.”
When my old dog, Zeke, was close to death, Natalie Diaz taught a workshop to some of my students in my living room. She gave a talk about deconstruction and hyperbole. She gave the group a few minutes to write and I looked at Zeke who was sleeping on the floor in front of me. Instead of seeing him as a big black dog, I practiced deconstructing him. The first few lines came immediately:
O breathing drum, I cask of dark
waters, O decaying star, my
barking heart, my breaking brother…
Once I got those lines, the perspective and the rhythm of the poem, its music, was established and I could just stay in that vein, continuing with that exactitude. Later on in the poem, I write:
…I have said
your fur is black, but you are
silvered, rimed with frost.
That process of deconstruction gave me the poem.
DM: Regarding Indigo more specifically, I am in awe of the way this book balances past, present and future—fully inhabiting memory, savoring the sensory, and confronting mortality. Can you talk about how you navigate (orchestrate?) time in your poetry? Do you find different challenges or rewards in looking back, around, or forward?
EB: Thank you. Time is such an interesting aspect of poetry. There is so much possibility to travel back and forth in time in a poem. A number of poems in this book look back to my childhood and especially to my mother and father and to my childhood, growing up in a tiny town in South Jersey. When I was in my thirties, I thought I’d written just about everything there was for me to write about my childhood, but with every passing decade (I turn 73 this year), I find there is a deeper and deeper well. I love going back to those times in poetry. My parents owned and worked in a small liquor store and we lived in an apartment over the store. The store was our hearth. At the time it seemed to me the least exotic childhood possible. But now every detail is interesting to me. I could write about that liquor store forever! And my parents become more interesting to me with every year as well. There are a number of dead people (and animals) in this book. Poetry is a way to remember them and honor them and keep them alive.
I also move forward in the book, imagining my own death. Anyone can die anytime. We know that. But when you’re young, you might die soon and when you’re old, you’re going to die soon. What “soon” means is different to different people. I say, “I may only, if I’m very lucky, have twenty more years left.” My wife says, “I can’t believe I may still have twenty more years left!” So mortality feels increasingly real. If I do live another decade or two, I’m sure that the way I think about it now will seem very theoretical compared to how it will feel then, but it sure feels closer than it did. And I think I’m trying to come to an acceptance of that. Poetry is how I work to surrender to reality.
And, of course, the only power we have over mortality is to be alive while we’re alive. Not to sleepwalk through our lives. Poetry is my way of paying attention. And appreciating. Saying thank you.
DM: You consistently render specificity and physicality so lusciously. Embodiment through attention to sensory detail feels like one of your primary techniques, but it also takes on thematic resonance in the title poem and throughout the collection. Your book is a master class in how and why specificity matters. Is this an element of writing that comes “naturally” to you (and if so, what are the elements that you more consciously work at), or are there aspects of your writing process that help push you toward it?
EB: Sensory detail is the way a poem conveys emotion, so I’m always working for that. And I think it is one of the aspects that I gravitate toward somewhat naturally. I tend to be detail oriented in my vision in general. My mother told a story about me as a child. We were walking along downtown, looking in store windows decorated for Christmas and I pointed out an ant crawling along the floor. The other element that is more natural to me is metaphor. Even when I’m not trying to write a poem, I think metaphorically. Not that I don’t have to work hard at both of these to make poems!
I think sound and music are the aspects of a poem that I’ve had to work very consciously at. And compression. Chekhov said talent is the ability to distinguish the essential from the inessential. That’s been a slow process for me.
DM: In your poem “Failure,” you describe “the land of failure” as “a country / I would visit so often / it would begin to feel like home.” I’m taken by that statement, and the poignant apologies of the poem “Pearls” as well. What is your relationship with the confessional as a literary lineage or mode? Do you feel its influence or permission shaping this book in particular, or are there other modes or influences that feel more relevant to you?
EB: Because I started writing poetry when the word “confessional” was used derogatorily against poets like Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, I still can’t use that word. Also, a poem isn’t a confession. No one cares what I did or didn’t do. I use elements of my life not because the reader wants to know about me, but because they are the elements I have. As I tell my students, “No one cares about you.” The reader cares about their experience of the poem. Is the poem a window through which they can see and feel more of themselves or more of the world? Does the poem expand their understanding? Does it change them? And that’s what I’m trying to do when I write a poem. I’m trying to explore, investigate my life. Trying to deepen my understanding—and appreciation—of this human experience.
Find Ellen Bass’s Indigo here.