Interview // Any Life Is a Miracle: a Conversation with Ellen Bass

by Meryl Natchez | Contributing Writer

Ellen Bass lives in the relatively small city of Santa Cruz, two hours south of San Francisco, and from there has forged a career as a full-time poet and teacher without a full-time position at an institution. She teaches at Pacific University’s low residency MFA program and was recently named as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

For many years she has worked diligently in the California prison system, teaching poetry workshops to incarcerated men and women. Copper Canyon Press has published three recent volumes of her poetry, most recently Indigo, which was published in April 2020. (Collaborating with Ellen, Copper Canyon’s Kickstarter program ran an initiative to provide Copper Canyon books to prison poetry workshops.)

Bass has been married and had a daughter with her husband, but has been with her wife, Janet, for over three decades and they have a son together.

I know you grew up and went to school on the East Coast. What was the trajectory that brought you here?

I went to Goucher College in Baltimore, and I lived in Washington DC for a year. Then I moved to Boston, and got an MA from Boston University, which was the equivalent of today’s MFA. I studied with Anne Sexton there. They didn’t really have MFA programs at that time. BU was one of the first to offer an MA in creative writing.

After that I worked in Boston for a couple of years. I was in a relationship with the man I then married. We had a very troubled relationship, and I think essentially we were looking for a geographical fix to our problems. He had work in California, so I came with him. We drove up and down the coast looking for a place that felt right, and landed in Boulder Creek. I loved Boulder Creek. I loved the redwoods. (Note: Boulder Creek is a rural town in the coastal range north of Santa Cruz.) It was an idyllic spot. It was a terrible marriage, but an idyllic spot.

Is that where you had your daughter?

No. I loved and stayed in and around Santa Cruz, but lived in a many different places. We had moved to Aptos by the time I had my daughter. We separated when my daughter was four. Not too long after that, I began my relationship with Janet. We’ve now been married for 37 years. We have a son together who was born in 1987. So they are nine years apart.

Do you feel that you were originally heterosexual and then realized you were a lesbian or did you just specifically fall in love with Janet?

I originally identified as heterosexual. Growing up in high school I was boy crazy. In college, I was just crazy about my friend, Beverly, who I’ve been best friends with for 53 years. I would never have called it falling in love at the time, but looking back, it obviously was.

It’s hard to remember how taboo it was to love another woman at that time.

Yes—I didn’t understand my feelings then. And I went on to get married, and to have multiple, important relationships with men. As my family says (Janet and the children), their refrain is “She loved them all.”

And I did. Really, I did. My son makes fun of me, he can’t keep the names straight, who was who. I didn’t have hundreds of lovers, but I had enough. The sixties and seventies were a time of sexual exploration, when it was all supposed to be good, and I pretty much slept with most of the people that I liked. There was very little that was negative. Most of them were good, and most of the men were wonderful men in their own way. But when I got married, I chose the wrong man, and that was a very difficult, very hurtful relationship.

When I left him, I just was fed up with him and with men in general. A lot of our problems expressed themselves in terms gender roles and sexuality. If we hadn’t had those problems we would have had others, but that’s how our issues played out. I was miserable, essentially, and I didn’t know how to get out.

So how did you get out?

At some point it finally became too much and I left, with my daughter. It was a very troubled time, really the essential tragedy of my life. But I have had to move on from there. I wandered in misery for a lot of years—then I had to make a choice.

But then how is it you chose a female partner?

I don’t know anyone who has spoken about their experience with sexuality quite as I experienced it, but I felt like I was done with the gender roles and I was passionately interested in women’s experiences. I was teaching women’s writing workshops. I was reading Susan Griffin and Adrienne Rich and Mary Daly and Audre Lorde. I felt like I’d tried relationships with men, and although there were many good things about them, none of them ultimately worked out.

I’d been reading books by men my whole life and hearing about what men think my whole life and at that point I was just done. I was interested in women. I was just really interested in women.

I was teaching writing workshops for women. I wanted to hear about women’s experience, and in my writing workshops women were writing about things they had never told anyone. Sexual abuse of course, but also other things that had just had never been on the page before and I felt, “Okay, I’ve spent the first thirty-five years of my life thinking about men, now I think I’m going to try thirty-five thinking about women.”

There are many poems about Janet in Indigo, and some about a long illness.

Yes, it was very hard to write these poems about Janet. I really had to stay close to my own experience. I didn’t want to appropriate what Janet was experiencing. I wanted to be faithful to my what I felt and not exploit or theatricalize what she was going through. It was a very fine line. I felt very tentative every time I had to show her a poem and then as we were looking at the whole manuscript. But she has a very deep generosity towards me and a very deep support for me as a poet. I’m grateful for that.

Yes, and the book is really powerful. I feel that it’s a major step forward for you. But let’s talk about your career for a bit. You wrote several early books of poetry and then there was a period, between 1986 and 2002 that you stopped writing poetry and wrote non-fiction mostly about women and childhood sexual abuse. How did that come about?

There is a lot to say about that, but I’ll try to keep it brief. When I moved to Santa Cruz County in 1974, in one of my first workshops, at the end of the workshop a woman took out a crumpled piece of paper from her jeans pocket and handed it to me. I read it, and I had no idea what she was talking about. It was so obscure that I didn’t understand it. But I knew from the way she gave it to me that it was really important. So I said to her, “It’s really good that you’re writing this. You need to keep writing more.”

At that time, I had never heard of childhood sexual abuse. I just hadn’t known it could happen. In 1974 I’d never experienced any sexual abuse myself, and I didn’t know of anyone who had. It wasn’t in magazines, it wasn’t discussed, and I had no idea that a man would abuse a child. I had heard of rape but I’d never heard of sexual abuse of a child.

Once this first woman told me, it was as though a telegram had been sent to the world that I was now the person you could tell. Suddenly, not just in this group, but in various groups, women started telling me about their experience. It just cascaded, how many women were telling me about how they had been sexually abused as children. And I knew how to listen. I didn’t have formal training as a psychologist, but in Boston I had worked with teens at risk. I had had a great deal of training in how to listen and support them. (My ex-husband had been a protégé of Carl Rogers, and I also learned from him.) Rogers’ theory of listening and working respectfully with clients, of unconditional positive regard, was really helpful to me.

At a certain point, I realized that I just needed to gather these stories together and get them out, and that became the book, I Never Told Anyone: Writings by Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. I had no idea that it would be such an important book, but I knew that I had to work on it.

How did the second book (The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse) come about?

I was doing workshops with women and learning, and pretty soon I was getting calls from all around the country, all around the world from survivors of abuse. At that time, there just wasn’t information available, so people would call and I would spend hours on the phone with them, and Laura Davis came to me and said, “We have to do a book.” We both knew that the book was more important than either of our schedules or conflicts and we just did it.

I’m curious. At this point, you had a successful career, you were doing well. What drove you back to poetry?

I had been trying to write poetry the whole time during those years, but I just couldn’t. I also tried to write a novel. But the non-fiction took up all the creative space. When I wanted to get back to poetry I didn’t know how. Dorianne Laux had been in an early workshop of mine and we’d used some of her poems in the book. I got in touch with her and she took me on. 

What does that mean exactly?

Dorianne let me send her a manuscript that was not very good, and we went over poems week by week. Many of them I worked on for a long time and ultimately discarded. But that whole time I was also writing new poems that were informed by what I was learning, and so the new poems were a lot better than the original poems I’d sent. I still had a lot of work to do, but they were better. I think in Mules of Love (2007) only seven of the poems were from the original manuscript I sent to Dorianne.

I always wanted to write poetry because poetry is really where my heart is. It’s my way of life, and my way of grappling with my experience and my way of paying attention, my way of giving thanks, my way of being outraged—my way of living in the world. It’s a process of finding out things that I don’t already know—an experience of discovery. So I missed it the entire time that I was away from it. When I missed it so much that it was just too much to bear, that’s when I returned to it.

Did you have specific goals in mind for your work?

Yes. To write better poems! I knew my work was not very good. I knew that I had an enormous amount to learn. I wanted to work on the craft of poetry; I felt I didn’t have a grip on any aspect of it. I’ve always wanted to say things that are important to me, from concerns that I think we all should be in conversation about to the small things—wanting to not let a certain moment go by without giving it its small nod.

One of the things I really admire about your work is the specificity and vividness of the imagery. Does that come naturally to you or something you work really hard to achieve?

I think both. A lot of things do come to me in terms of imagery and metaphor. And others I have to work hard for—the music of the poem, the particular diction and syntax, and really getting to the essence of the poem—but metaphor and images often just come to me. I think in terms of metaphor, of analogy even when I’m not writing poems. In conversation, when I’m trying to make a point I’ll say, it’s like this, it’s like this, using one analogy after another. So often the images just feel like gifts. But also their specificity is my practice—my life practice as well as my poetry practice—trying to see things, to pay attention to things, not be sloppy in the way I go through life or the way I think and the way I experience through my senses.

So there’s work and there’s revision. Do you want to talk about the different ways you work on these?

I write in so many different ways. There isn’t just one way that is consistently available for me. Sometimes I do write a first draft that has in it much of most of what the poem is going to need eventually. In that case, the revision becomes fine-tuning in terms of the images, the diction, the music of the poem, and getting rid of everything that doesn’t contribute to the poem. Then there’s really making sure that the poem is sound. That it is integral and does what it needs to do.

In those instances, the initial writing and the revision are somewhat different, but much of the time it doesn’t come out all in a piece, so the writing and the revision just go back and forth. They’re hard to separate. I’m a pretty messy composer.

What does that mean?

Some poems are just a sprawling mess in the beginning and I’m working through it, finding my way, and others are a bit more compact, clearer about where they want to go. I find that it’s best for me not to think of writing and revision as very separate. It’s all really writing. The process of shaping my experience is there in the writing and the revision. Sometimes the revision is just lopping off the last three-quarters of the poem. It’s sort of like Michelangelo’s elephant: just cut away anything that isn’t elephant. But sometimes I need to give it time, to let it sit and wait and see what it is I’ve really got there.

So is revision for you mostly cutting or changing?

No, that’s part of it, but it’s really working harder to find the language that will communicate the feeling. There’s a lot of making sure that the image is the right image, and not just the one that happened to come out first. Really looking at the diction, looking at the syntax. Is that really the right syntax for this poem? Looking at the music, the sound, making sure that I’m as close as I can to having the writing and the music and the meaning reflecting each other. That part is so much fun. 

Poems are teachers; my own poems teach me something I need to know. And for a moment in the writing, I am aware enough to say it but then I have to go back and be reminded. Once I see something, once it’s in the poem and I really focus on it, I never can quite go back to not seeing. In this way, I’ve found that the things I learn in my poems change the how I see the world and myself and my relationships, That’s the fundamental reason I write poetry, to be changed, to be enriched, to be transformed, not to be the same person at the end of the poem that I was at the beginning of the poem.

I’ve noticed that you don’t tend to write in forms. You have a sort of lyric flow that seems natural to you. But you don’t move around in other forms much.

No, not very much and when I do it’s usually light weight. For example, my poem “Because,” about giving birth to my daughter, is a poem I wrote first as a narrative, but I knew it wasn’t working very well. It just sounded like my sad birth story. I knew it needed some kind of form. So I chose the anaphora of repeating “because” at the beginning of lines.

Sometimes the anaphora is used very strictly—starting every line or almost every line. My use is less stringent, but it still sets up an expectation. When I was writing “Because,” the structure made me fairly nervous; using “because,” implies an answer, and I didn’t know what the answer was. But that’s a good place to be when you’re writing a poem. You really aren’t supposed to know where you’re going. And I had very little idea where I was going and felt very uneasy, but just followed along. In the end, I felt I was able to somehow get to where the poem wanted to go.

I think all structures, including the ones that are fairly invisible (of course each poem itself is a structure, but I mean any additional structure within that), gives you a way to talk about something without just saying “this is what happens.”

How do you study your craft? What do you do to study poetry yourself?

I mainly do two things. I read poems that I admire and I study them. I try to see how the poem works, what makes it tick. Sometimes I try to do an imitation. It may not work, may not be strong enough to stand on its own. But I think that we aren’t taught that process nearly enough. Visual artists are taught from the beginning to imitate the masters. But as a poet, while I think there was some lip service given to that, I wasn’t really encouraged to follow through with that practice, When I really started to try to imitate work I admired, I learned a lot.

The other thing is reading about poetry. I read a fair amount of books and essays about poems and I’m always gaining insights and being stimulated and inspired. For my students I recommend The Poet’s Companion by Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio, especially for beginning poets. I think Steven Dobyn’s Best Words, Best Order is essential reading and I love both of Jane Hirshfield’s books, Ten Windows being the most recent, and all of Tony Hoagland’s books of essays, especially Real Sofistikashun. All of these have been valuable to me.

I also find that teaching is a learning experience for me, especially when I have the opportunity to work with poets I admire a lot. At the Pacific University low residency MFA program I love listening to all the craft talks. It’s an absolutely wonderful learning experience for me, and it continues to be, year after year. Also teaching with Marie Howe, and with Jericho Brown this year, I learn so much from all the poets I teach with.

How do you go about assembling a manuscript?

This is a process I find very difficult. Unlike what I’ve heard from many others, I usually don’t try to assemble it until I have a fairly large number of poems. Jericho mentioned to me once that he’s always fitting poems into a manuscript and thinking about their relationship to one another. Whereas I just work piecemeal, and then when I have a stack that’s big enough then I might start to look at which are the strongest ones and which are the weakest ones, but even then, I’m not necessarily starting to figure out an order for the poems.

In this most recent book, Indigo, I didn’t start to try to put these poems together until maybe a month or six weeks before it had to be delivered which is really the latest I’ve ever waited. It’s not the best idea, because it’s a difficult process for me.

I began with the fact that there are certain poems that just have to go before other poems, just as far as the chronology of my life. I mean, my dog had to be alive before he died—that sort of thing. But beyond that it was really quite difficult to figure out where they should go. I began by laying the poems out on a large surface just to try to see how they worked together visually.

I also got help, from Frank Gaspar, and from Jericho who made a suggestion that I make three threads in the poems, and then try to weave them together. The threads he picked out weren’t exactly the threads that I saw, but it helped me quite a bit, so I could see, ok, threads. It became clearer to me after I made those three piles.

The only way I can work on the order of a manuscript is to work on it for long stretches. I need time to gain a sense of the whole, so I just work on it when I have six or seven hours straight that I can work on the manuscript so I could hold the shape of it in my head. I can’t say that I enjoy it. It is a kind of mental marathon for me, but I feel very good about the order of Indigo. I’m grateful to Frank and Jericho for their help on the order.

I got a lot of help from other poets, too, about what should stay in, what should come out. It’s very hard to see that for yourself. Even though they all might say different things, may completely disagree with each other, hearing what they have to say helps me know what I think. It’s sort of like hitting a tuning fork and hearing it vibrate. It’s not that I can just trust one reader most, but that thinking about it for maybe a year, finally it makes me feel that ok, I’ve done my personal best.

Most people who are published poets have a life in academia, but you’ve gone in a different direction, and I wonder about that choice.

When I first started out, it was such a long time ago that there really wasn’t such an open channel to move into academia. There were very few MFA programs and no one was going to be interested in hiring me. I had to make a living so I started doing it through teaching workshops I think I would have wanted to teach at a college or university but I was in Santa Cruz, and UCSC wasn’t going to hire me because I wasn’t a successful enough poet. I didn’t want to be locked into the role of “teaching road warrior” where you have to drive long distances to various community colleges. And I didn’t want to leave Santa Cruz. It never really crossed my mind to leave Santa Cruz for an academic career. By now it feels much too late to have all the time-consuming aspects that career demands. So I think I missed my window of opportunity to do that.

When I interviewed Brenda Hillman, she commented that writing workshops give us access to our spiritual selves, because during our regular work life, we just don’t have time for poetry. Taking the time for a workshop gives you that opportunity for deep regeneration and focus. You lead a lot of workshops, and I wonder if that is how it is for you? Is it too much?

I think that there are a lot of things that I get that are truly positive from teaching. I love to see my students learn. I love to see them get it and get better, because writing means the same thing to them in their lives that my it means to me in my life. I don’t know how I would live without poetry. It saves me on a pretty much daily basis. It took me a lot of years before I could use the word “spiritual” because my ex-husband was on a “spiritual path,” but I think now I can use it without feeling like a fraud or arrogant. I know that that for me and for the great majority of my students, writing is a spiritual path.

The other great thing for me is just what Brenda was expressing: taking the time to really honor and celebrate what is most important to you. What is better than sitting down and talking with a group of people for a few hours and talking about poetry?

The other selfish thing is that I am in a role where I feel competent. I never feel competent writing a poem. When I confront a blank page, I don’t know how it will turn out or whether I’m capable of doing it. I never sit down and write a line or two and think, “Oh, I’ve got this.” So that’s a challenge. I think it would be very hard for me if I didn’t teach at all to be challenged at that level all the time.

Feeling competent doesn’t mean that I don’t think I have things to learn as a teacher, and need to pay attention, but I do feel capable of doing it. I enjoy it. I feel very fortunate and very grateful.

Meryl Natchez’s latest book of poetry, Catwalk, is forthcoming from Longship Press. Previous books include: Jade Suit, and two books of translations: Poems From the Stray Dog Café, and Tadeusz Borowski: Selected Poems. Her work has appeared in Hudson Review, Literary Matters, LA Review of Books, ZYZZYVA, and many others. 

Cover image via Met Museum