CONVERSATION BETWEEN ELLEN BASS AND ALAN FOX
Santa Cruz, California, December 26th, 2012
Ellen Bass has published several poetry collections, including Mules of Love (BOA Editions, 2002), a Lambda Literary Award winner; and The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book. She coedited with Florence Howe one of the first anthologies to highlight feminist poetry, the groundbreaking No More Masks! Her nonfiction books include the best-selling 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. She has published poems in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The New Republic, The Sun, Ploughshares, and of course, Rattle. Among her many awards is a Pushcart Prize, the Pablo Neruda Prize, the Larry Levis Prize from Missouri Review, and the New Letters Prize. Bass teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University. Her new collection of poetry, Like a Beggar, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in early 2014. (ellenbass.com)
FOX: Daveen and I just had dinner with a very good mutual friend, Jack Kornfield—
BASS: I haven’t met Jack, but I’d like to.
FOX: You don’t know Jack? Well, he loves your poetry!
BASS: He’s made such an impact with his work and I admire it very much. Someone told me recently that he read one of my poems at a talk or a workshop and I was pleased and flattered.
FOX: Oh, absolutely, you should meet him. Well, we’re with Ellen Bass on the day after Christmas. What I’ll do—we’ll talk and then I’ll have the entire talk transcribed, typed up. I will smooth it out, but I want it to be a conversation.
BASS: I like that; that’s a good word, conversation.
FOX: Yeah, that’s the way I think of it. I studied psychology hoping to get more intimate with people, but the people who are most intimate are poets, period, because your job is to observe keenly and report articulately and accurately, and I find that most compelling. I notice you’ve done workshops since 1974 and, recently, on truth and beauty? What turns you on about teaching?
BASS: I like to make an opportunity for people to accomplish something meaningful, to practice something they’re passionate about. With a safe environment and support and some tools of the craft that students may not have been exposed to before, they can start to work, and I’m always amazed at how hard my students work. Often when people come to my workshops, they love poetry, but don’t really have an idea of how to work at it. Then they start to pay attention to the craft and begin to see how much there is to learn. Sometimes it feels overwhelming. Sometimes they come into class discouraged, saying, “Oh, I used to love to write and it was so easy. Now it’s hard.” And I say, “Okay, that’s good! Now you’ve passed from just spilling words onto the page and you’re aware of what you’re trying to do. You can see what’s possible and you’re trying to achieve that.” Maybe it’s a little like a relationship when you fall in love, but you don’t know that person very well yet.
BASS: And then you see more of who this person is and what it’s like to be together—you’re not naïve anymore. You begin to see what’s really going to be asked of you, that it will be challenging, it won’t all be easy—and you love them anyway. You love them more deeply. My students often go through that process with poetry. Some of them become quite accomplished. The last few years have been especially exciting for me as a teacher, because I’ve got students who are just taking off and writing fine poems and seeing them published in wonderful journals—including Rattle. One of my students, Catherine Freeling, was nominated for the Rattle Poetry Prize this year.
There’s no end to learning more about how to teach. People often come to study with me during times in their life where there’s a big transition or there’s something challenging. That often is what brings us to poetry—on the one hand, poetry is, as you know, not popular. Right? I mean most people would rather go to a movie or read a novel …
BASS: But as we have all observed, in times of crisis, what do people turn to? Poetry. So there’s a paradox—do we love poetry as a culture, or don’t we? After 9/11, what did you see everywhere? Poems, poems, poems. It wasn’t like, “Oh, you’ve got to read this novel” or, “Oh, you’ve got to see this movie.” No, it was, “Read this poem.” Somebody dies and we want a poem. When the most dire things happen, people turn to poetry, and then the rest of the time—except for those of us who love poetry all the time!—the majority of people don’t think so much about it. But my students all think a lot about poetry. And they all become great readers.
BASS: And what is better than sitting around with a bunch of people who want to look at a poem in detail and discover together what’s going on in that poem, and how did the poet do it, and how does it work—like taking apart a machine, you know, what’s happening there? So that’s one of my favorite parts, being with people who are going to get excited about syntax—you know, not the whole world does!
BASS: Sometimes we’re just so passionate in there, and I’ll look up at everybody and we’ll just all be so happy to be with our tribe, excited about poetry. I have one student now who is dealing with a life-threatening illness. She started writing poetry when she was first diagnosed, about six years ago. At that time she joined a group with Sharon Bray who leads writing workshops for people with cancer. And Sharon emailed me and said, “I’ve got one for you. She’s a real poet.” Her name is Ann Emerson and she had never written before. Ann is a remarkable person. She said, “I’m glad that I got cancer, because I’m a lazy person and I never would have done anything otherwise.”
BASS: What a thing to be able to say. And she just started working really hard. Several of her poems were published in American Poetry Review, and they are incredible. She is incredible. She’s just trying to live to get a few more poems—you know, just poem by poem. And I’ve worked with other people who were dying, and very often what they say is not “I want to live to see some more sunsets” or even “I want to live to be with my loved ones longer.” But “I want to live to write more poems. I still have some more poems inside; I want to be able to write them.” And that just gives me chills, that I get to participate with them in that process of doing this thing that so much of the world doesn’t care about, but that we care about immensely. Although we know that in other countries, poetry is revered.
FOX: Yes. I think in the United States, like your observation, when we learn poetry, it’s kind of the junior high teacher who is the expert, and she knows what it is and nobody else can really understand it. And then also I think people have the idea that, if I read a book of poems—I used to have the idea that I should like every poem; if I don’t, then I don’t like poetry. Well, normally in a book I like three or four poems. But I don’t think we’re exposed to it in a way that really invites us in.
BASS: I think many teachers are intimidated by poetry themselves. And it’s difficult, if you are not familiar with contemporary poets, to find the ones who speak to you. If you’re looking for a good novel and you walk into a bookstore, you could look around, scan the back covers, read around a little bit, and you’d have good odds of finding a novel you’d enjoy. It’s harder to do that with poetry. There’s so much poetry that is admired by other poets, but doesn’t interest the general population. That’s why I think it’s great if poets and people who are knowledgeable about poetry give their less-informed friends the gift of poetry, like, “Here is a book I think you would like.”
BASS: When I give someone a book of poetry that I think they will resonate with, people almost always love it. Or I’ll call somebody up and say, “Listen to this; I’m going to read you this poem.” I just did an interview with Frank Gaspar about his new book Late Rapturous. My wife has become very sophisticated about poetry over the years even though she’s not a writer and I read her one of the new poems. Are you familiar with Frank’s poetry?
FOX: No, I’m not.
BASS: It’s really dense on the page. It almost looks like a block of prose. It’s rich and gorgeous and human and vulnerable, but you can’t just skim it, you have to take your time. And I said to Janet, “Just sit there and I’m going to read this to you.” I began to read and she closed her eyes. By the end she was just about in tears. I called up another friend and said, “Let me read this to you.” And I said, “But do you have time?”—you know, “Sit down, don’t be doing the dishes while I’m reading it to you.” She said, “Okay, I’m sitting.” And the same thing. She could hardly breathe. But they would not have found that book on their own.
How did I get on this subject? I’m not sure … oh, the way it’s taught in school. I was very, very fortunate in that in college one of my teachers was Florence Howe. Are you familiar with The Feminist Press?
BASS: The Feminist Press is the oldest women’s press in the country. Florence co-founded the press in 1970. They started out by rescuing “lost” works by writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Charlotte Perkins Gilman and went on to bring out women’s writing from around the world. Florence was my teacher back in college and she started a pilot project where college students taught poetry to students in vocational high school. So we had to look for poems we thought these kids would relate to. We taught Gwendolyn Brooks—“We Real Cool,” and Karl Shapiro’s “Buick.” That was my first experience of, “Okay, you have to select so that your reader is going to be able to relate to this.” Later, Florence invited me to co-edit No More Masks with her, which was one of the first anthologies of women’s poetry. Doubleday published it in 1973. This was the first time a lot of us had access to women’s poetry. And at that time it was actually possible to read just about every poem published by a woman in the 20th century in the U.S.—and I did.
BASS: I lived in Cambridge and I’d go to the Radcliffe Library. I’d take big cardboard boxes and I’d just fill them up. I’d go home and read and put bookmarks at the poems I thought we should consider further and then I’d take them to Kinko’s and photocopy all those poems—Xerox had just been invented. In fact, the first Kinko’s was in Cambridge, and the guy who started Kinko’s worked there—he was the one who photocopied. [Fox laughs] That was how we had no typos. It was Florence’s idea—you know, “If you don’t type, you can’t get typos.” [laughs] So I just collected from all these books then we would go through and go through and go through the poems together. That was kind of my in-depth education. I was in heaven. Florence was my first teacher who taught me how to teach in a way that made it possible for students to have agency and for the classroom or the workshop to be a conversation.
FOX: It sounds like she was empowering students.
BASS: Oh, incredibly. I am so fortunate to have had her as my mentor.
FOX: Well, Wikipedia says you also studied with Anne Sexton.
BASS: I did.
FOX: What was that like?
BASS: A dream come true. Anne Sexton was a wonderful teacher. I am very fortunate to have been her student. You know that she was so flamboyant, so self-centered in many ways, but as a teacher, she was thoughtful, respectful, insightful. She was a great teacher and all her drama was gone in the classroom. We got to have an experience of her that perhaps was not so available in other contexts. I was in the—then it was called MA in creative writing or MA in poetry, what now is called an MFA at Boston University. And the first semester was kind of a disaster for me. My work was not very good, but what my teachers did with it just made it worse. [laughs] All they seemed to know how to do was chop—chop chop chop. I was discouraged and maybe I would have just given up. It seemed so unlikely I could learn anything, but the second semester I was in Anne Sexton’s class and she said, “Oh, no, no, no, no, don’t do these kind of cramped little things; write more, write longer, spread out, say what you have to say.” And it wasn’t that I was getting to be any good, but she gave me a sense of hope: “You do have a voice, you can try to discover it, and you don’t have to constrict yourself in this way that’s just going to strangle you.” She gave me enough confidence to be able to keep going.
FOX: You’re known for your metaphor—when I read your poetry I look at the metaphor and say, “Yes!” Often I will say with other poems by other authors, “Yeah, okay, I can figure it out,” or, “That’s real close, it’s okay,” but yours seem to be just right on. How does that happen?
BASS: Thank you. Well, I know that I think in metaphor as well as write in it. That’s the first thing my mind is always doing, and even if I’m in a conversation, especially if I’m trying to convince somebody of something, I’m always saying, “Well it’s like …” And metaphor is very convincing if you can get it right. It can even convince you of things you don’t really think. Also, for me, part of it came from this intense desire to be understood and then in later years a desire to understand. Finally, you give up on being understood and you realize—speaking for myself—that no one will ever really understand you or anyone else, and that if you can even understand anything yourself, that’s going to be great.
Metaphor is an aspect of poetry that is, I think, spiritual. Our society has become very sophisticated in its ability to discriminate. We can discern differences more and more finely. In metaphor you are doing what might be the opposite; you’re looking for what is similar in disparate things, and when you find it there’s a kind of oneness, a recognition that everything is a part of everything else. In science, we are also discovering how this is like that. I don’t understand much—I love to read science but I’m not smart in that way so I struggle through it because there’s so much in science and in poetry that is similar.
FOX: Really? Say more.
BASS: Well, it’s that awe of reality. When I was college, when I was in school, I thought, “Why would anyone want to study physics?” And now I think, “Oh God, if only I could understand these things better,” because this is the actual world we live in, and that’s what poetry tries to do in its way, to say, “This is the world we live in. This is the world; this is what it is; this is the experience of being on the earth.” And that’s what science tries to do, too, to describe the world. And the Buddhist teachings or meditations say something similar too—you’re trying to have a direct experience with reality. While we’re here for this brief visit to this planet, we want to see what it is that’s going on: “What’s here?”
BASS: And to actually take a look. Maybe we can see this thing, whatever it is, better, if we try to describe it. And one way to describe it is through metaphor. I think it’s Ed Hirsch who said poetry is the most intimate form of communication. When I read that, I thought, well, oh, that’s why I like it so much, because I am an intimacy junkie.
FOX: Yes. Well, Jack Kornfield feels he knows you. So you know, here we are. [all laugh]
BASS: And in a way he does!
FOX: Yes, exactly.
BASS: In a way he knows me better than a lot of people who know me. It is intimate to read or to write a poem, and when a poem is read—even across the centuries, across the continents—the poet and the reader have met. And metaphor is a part of that. I think metaphor is also like a joke, in that you either get it or you don’t get it. If you get it, you respond in a way that’s very immediate. You laugh. You don’t just intellectually appreciate that the joke is a good joke. And with a metaphor you don’t just appreciate—“Oh okay, I see that they’ve put that together and there’s some sense in that”—it does something to you on a more visceral emotional level that you can’t resist.
FOX: There you go using metaphor to explain metaphor! [Bass laughs] That’s good, I like it.
BASS: I love that about metaphor, that it’s so physical and emotional and revealing. Sometimes people will ask, “Well, don’t you feel exposed writing about your life?” But once it’s made into a poem, it’s a thing on its own, and it’s not about me anymore. If it succeeds, it’s about all of us. The poem lives or dies according to how well it describes something that the reader recognizes as part of his or her own experience, the human experience. Also, what am I exposing really? Everything I write about is so common—it’s not a big surprise that people love and get angry and have sex and worry about their children, have joy from their children, do stupid things and feel regret. But what does feel exposed is how my mind works. That’s where I think the risk is. And maybe that’s why people often feel so scared when they share their poetry—because you’re exposing what it’s like to be in your mind. That’s intimate. I think that’s the intimacy of poetry.
FOX: Would it feel different to make your journals public?
BASS: Very! I’d never do that. Also they’re not very interesting. [laughs] I mean, some people write journals that are art in themselves. But mine are just raw materials. It’d be as if somebody had to listen to your thoughts and your fretting all day long, like reality TV.
FOX: Sometimes we get a submission—I often read the bios, because we do bios differently, and a few times I’ve said, “Take the bio. That’s a great poem.” The poem is okay, but the bio is terrific.
BASS: Wow. What fun.
FOX: Absolutely. As we’re talking, I’m remembering, I have one firm rule: If I read a poem and I either laugh or I have tears at the end, it’s in.
BASS: Take it!
BASS: I’ve been thinking recently that one way for me to judge a poem is if it stays with me, if I read it and a day later, a week, a month later if it keeps coming back to me. Even if the poem is flawed, if there’s even a line or an image in that poem that I keep thinking about, then that poem has succeeded.
DAVEEN: How often do you find that happens to you, that it sticks that way?
BASS: Well, it happens fairly often because I try to spend time reading poets that I love. But as teachers, many of us get out of whack, out of balance, because we’re just reading so much student poetry, worthy as it may be, and we don’t have enough time to sink deeply into the poetry that inspires us.
FOX: Well, think of poor Tim and Megan Green, they read—we have 70,000 poems submitted a year.
BASS: Oh my God. Exactly.
FOX: At this point in your life, what’s your truest truth?
BASS: Well, that’s a big question! I think the thing I’m most aware of now is how briefly we’re here. Janet’s mother lives near us in Santa Cruz and she’s 91, and I’m watching the process of being in old, old age, and thinking about how briefly we’re here, how much there is to notice in every minute that I don’t notice, and then being so grateful for the bits that I can catch, that I don’t miss, and how much gets wasted, just sleepwalking. That connects to poetry for me, because poetry is a way for me to wake up and not let it just flow by so fast or with such inattention that I’m missing it. I’m 65, and I’m thinking, if I’m fortunate, I’ll have ten or fifteen years where I can still write poetry—maybe longer, you never know. There are people who go full-strength into their eighties, but you can’t count on it. You can’t count on even tomorrow, of course.
FOX: Well, that depends partly on genetics. My father, who I will drive back to Los Angeles with today, is 98 years old. He is the finest brass instrument teacher in the world bar none. I took him to the University of Arizona a few months ago and he spent twelve hours teaching.
BASS: Oh my God.
FOX: The guy is absurd.
BASS: You made my day! [laughs]
FOX: So don’t …
BASS: So don’t worry, you never know!
FOX: I was thinking as you were talking, “This woman’s a really great poet,” in terms of your outlook. A woman I love very much who committed suicide in 1971 wrote to me and said, “Suppose they gave a life and nobody came.” That I remember. And to me that’s what you’re talking about.
BASS: The older you get, the more you’re aware that we really are mortal. I think about it a lot—time; that we live in time. So that’s a big truth, just plain old mortality. And another big truth is of course the state of the planet. I was reading an article by Charles Mann in Orion this week about the fact that we’re such a successful species, and that all species, if they’re successful enough, up until now, have done themselves in, because that’s the nature of overachievement, of success. Bacteria in a Petri dish will multiply on a curve that goes up up up until it hits the place where it has to collapse. The article went on to say that humans also have more brain plasticity than any other species, and that is where the hope lies: Is it possible that we have enough brain plasticity that we could actually confront this and consciously change our behavior? Mann used some examples of our plasticity that I thought were interesting—the change in the status of women, the change in our thinking about slavery, the overall decrease in violence from the beginning of history.
FOX: Yes, there was a very good book out recently on that.
BASS: If we, as a species, could undergo change of that order, might we also have the capacity to recognize what we must do in order to not kill off all humans and bring down most of the other mammals and animals with us? So that’s another huge question for all of us, poets or not: How will we change to sustain life on the planet.
FOX: I’ve thought for a long time that whether it’s ten years from now or a hundred years from now or ten million years from now, I don’t think human beings will exist. But you’ve got to do it anyway.
BASS: Yes. We’re here. I recently read Orham Pamuk’s Nobel Prize lecture from 1996 and he says that writers are doing the most important work on the planet. I would not have the audacity to say that myself, but I love that he did. He said in order to make changes we first must be able to conceive them.
FOX: Yes. Well, if you took away everything you’ve ever read, who would we be? I agree with you; I feel very strongly we have an absolute obligation to help each other, period, in whatever way we can. I’m 72 and I have been writing a book for twenty years—I finished it last week.
FOX: I feel a sense of … for some reason I say I’m 72, and I’ve got twenty good years—
BASS: Well, we’re on the same wavelength!
FOX: And I need to write now. Now, not ten years from now. Now.
BASS: Wonderful. That’s great.
FOX: When we talked early on, you started talking about insecurity—tell me about that.
BASS: Well, writing is difficult for me. It does not come easily. I think that’s part of what has made me a good teacher. I have to write so many bad poems for every good one; I have to struggle for each one. A few come easily, but most I have to work at. It helps me as a teacher, but I never feel real confidence. I never sit down to write a poem and think, “Oh wow, I can do this.” When I teach, I feel competent. Sometimes I joke with my students that I have to teach or I would have nowhere in my life where I feel competent. [Fox laughs] I never feel confident as a poet. I do feel competent as a non-fiction writer—it takes a long time, takes a lot of work, but I know that if I put in an eight hour day at writing what I call “functional non-fiction,” I will get eight hours worth of writing. Creative non-fiction of course is not straightforward like that either. And as a poet, no. I just know that if I stick with it, eventually I am likely to get another poem. In his book, Walking Light, Stephen Dunn wrote about playing basketball with great ball players and said it’s similar with poets: “The poets who keep writing do so in the face of such greatness; if they were reasonable, they’d stop.” Or as Joe Millar says, “We’re always writing in the shadow of the greats.” So how could I ever feel secure?
FOX: How do you know when a poem is finished?
BASS: Well, I know when a poem is finished, but I don’t always know when a poem is good. [Fox laughs] It’s finished when I’ve made it as good as it can be, and sometimes that’s good enough and sometimes it’s not, but there’s just no more I can do. But many of my better poems are written on the backs of the poems that didn’t do so well. And when I look back I see, “Oh, here’s half a dozen poems that, in hindsight, were trying to do this in some way, were trying to grapple with this in some way, and none of those ever quite came together, but I was working up to this.” Maybe it’s like an artist making sketches toward a painting, only the artist is aware she’s making preliminary sketches and I’m not. Each time I think I’m writing the poem, or I hope I’m writing the poem, but I can see in retrospect that I was working my way up to it.
FOX: I often find that in submissions, sometimes an eight stanza poem has two really good lines, but the rest of it just doesn’t make it, and sometimes we’ll suggest to the poet to kind of build on those. But you need somebody else …
BASS: Yes. And I was very lucky—the amazing poet, Dorianne Laux, has been my mentor for many years. You know her poetry—it’s stunning, stellar. And I was very, very fortunate to find her at a time when I was returning to poetry after a long hiatus. I had been working in the field of trauma and healing for a long time. I had written The Courage toHeal and was working with survivors of child sexual abuse for ten, twelve years, and not writing poetry at all. I wanted—and needed—to return to poetry, but I was just writing in circles. I didn’t know how to work; I didn’t know how to learn. Some people intuitively can teach themselves; they read great poetry, they can see what’s happening, but I couldn’t. I was just hopelessly and horribly stuck. And I wanted to do this more than anything but I didn’t know how. And I was very persistent and persuasive with Dorianne and she finally agreed to mentor me. She worked with me intensively for a few years and it’s one of those “without whom …” There’s no way I would have been able to learn what she taught me on my own. I think a lot about the nature of the teaching relationship—both from the perspective of a teacher and the perspective of a student who so desperately needed a teacher, and the right teacher. When Dorianne first started working with me she would say, “Do this,” or, “Do that,” and I’d think to myself, “Well, how do I know that’s true?” you know, “How do I know that’s what I should do?” But very soon I saw that it really didn’t matter. And that’s what I tell students, if you’re working with a teacher whose poetry you admire, just take their advice. If at the end of a year you’re writing poems you couldn’t have been writing a year ago, that means she’s a good teacher for you. And so very quickly I stopped questioning, and I just did everything she told me to do. Really, she’s taught me everything I know.
FOX: Isn’t that unusual for a well-known poet to take a student on intensively?
BASS: Yes. It was like a tale of going up the mountain to the guru. I sent her a manuscript of poems and she said she’d be willing to work with me but she was too busy, and if I could wait then she’d be glad to read it. So I waited three months and I called her again and she said, “Yes, it’s at the top of the pile, but …” you know, “I’m getting married, and I’m moving,” and all these things. [Fox and Daveen laugh] So I waited three more months. You go up the mountain the third time—it’s mythic, it’s wonderful—now it’s nine months, and I called her up. And this is a little insight into me: I thought about what is the best time of the week to call someone. And I decided it was Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. because you’ve begun the week but you’re not too far into it. It’s morning but it’s not too early. I decided that would be my best bet. I said, “Dorianne, I’m a grown-up, and I can wait as long as need be. All I need to hear from you is ‘A time will come’ and if you tell me ‘A time will come,’ then I’m happy.” And she cracked up of course and said, “Hang up and I’ll start reading, and call me back in half an hour and we’ll just talk about whatever I could read in half an hour.” So I called her back and we talked for a long time. We may have talked for an hour or two hours about what she read in that half hour. And I was a pig in mud. I knew this was what I needed. And we had to hang up eventually, and she said, “Okay call me back next Tuesday at ten.”
BASS: And so I called her back next Tuesday at 10:00 a.m. And of course I had said, “I want to pay you,” you know, “your time is valuable,” etc., etc. So I was trying—I would’ve done anything. I would’ve flown up to Oregon and mopped her floors and cleaned her closets if she wanted me to, because I was hopeless, and I knew what I needed. I had known her a bit before. She had come many years earlier to a weekend workshop that I had facilitated for survivors of child sexual abuse. This was before she had published much, and Laura Davis and I, when we were putting together The Courage to Heal, recognized that she was a terrific poet, and we asked her if we could use some poems, so we had some connection. But in truth I didn’t remember her from that workshop and it was so many years before, but we did have this knowledge of each other. So then I called her back the next week at ten and she said, “I haven’t had a chance to read anything; hang up and call me back in half an hour.” So for probably the first six months I’d call her at 10:00 and we’d hang up and then I’d call her back at 10:30. [all laugh] And it worked great. Eventually it got a little looser, but I talked to her almost every week for a year or two. And then I asked her to come down and teach a workshop for my students and that was the first time I had seen her since way back but her voice was so familiar to me and there she was sitting in the room and all day long I’m looking at her and looking away—I’ve never had this experience with anyone, where the voice was so familiar, I knew the voice so well, and the visual, the physicality, was so foreign. And to get the voice and the person’s visage, to put them together, took all day of back and forth, back and forth. By the next day, it came together: “Okay, this is the same person, they’re integrated now in my mind.” And then over the years we became very good friends and started teaching together, and then I also became good friends with her husband, the wonderful poet Joe Millar, and they became good friends with my wife, Janet.
FOX: Daveen, do you have anything you’d like to inquire of your new favorite poet?
DAVEEN: [laughs] Yeah … I was taking notes, not checking email, just so you know. Sometimes I’ll do that during the interview; I’ll generally take notes for questions, but I found that I was also taking notes for me for later, which I hadn’t done before. The word “resonates” keeps coming back and I think it’s cliché-ish but that is what keeps coming up to my heart when you speak or when your words speak as it were. But a couple technical things: When you were learning poetry when you were growing up and you talked about that for a minute, was that
BASS: Yes. Yes, absolutely. I just loved all poetry, rhyming poetry, too—I think it was something in the magic of it. “Blessings on thee, little man,/ Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan! … Ah! that thou coudst know thy joy,/ Ere it passes, barefoot boy!” John Greenleaf Whittier. It sounds so archaic. What did I find so compelling? But I think I was getting something that was vibrating below the literal meaning of these poems. Because I loved all of the poems; there wasn’t anything I didn’t love. Because there’s something deeper in poetry—poetry is magic. Originally, poets were the priests. The word mattered. Even today in Judaism when the person reading the Torah portion reads aloud, someone stands next to him looking at the text so if he makes an error they correct it, because it can’t go into the air with a mistake, because the sound of the words changes the world. It has an actual impact. And so if the person makes an error—it’s like a spell over a cauldron—the spell won’t work unless it’s correct.
And then you think, “in the beginning was the word”—why the word? Isn’t that wild? Why wasn’t it, “In the beginning was water,” or “In the beginning was …” something more physical, more elemental, but evidently the word was the most powerful to the writers of the Old Testament, and I think whatever that was was what got to me.
When I was a kid, my brother taught me to type so that I could type his papers. [Fox laughs] He was in college. So I had his old typewriter;I would type out lines of poetry that I loved on index cards—Kahlil Gibran: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,/ Moves on: no rall thy Piety nor Wit/ Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,/ Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.” And I look back and think, what in my eleven-year-old experience did this speak to? I had a pretty good childhood. What did I know of regret? Was I prescient? Or was it something deeper than the literal meaning of the words that made me want to type these lines out, to have them, to bring them into my body and know them in my heart?
DAVEEN: Did you talk about it with anybody, a teacher or a friend or …?
BASS: Very little. But I was soon writing poems and I’d send them to my brother who was away at college, so he was my first reader. And he was wonderful. He would give me feedback. He’d write “trite” or “cliché” and I’d go into the dictionary, “What does ‘trite’ mean?” I didn’t even know. And I’d think, “Oh, okay,” and then I’d try to improve that line or image. But no matter what he wrote he would always say, “I just want you to know that whatever I’m criticizing, I could never even do this, so this is great …” He always built me up, telling me he was impressed that I was even writing poems and that he was humbly offering what he could from his somewhat greater years.
DAVEEN: That sounds like it leads into my next question, because several times one of the things that I’ve heard through the session is that you talk about working hard with your writing and your students working hard. But is that depth, is that changing words, is that looking things up in the dictionary—what is working hard for you?
BASS: It’s all of it. It’s on the level of just hammer and nails and saw. Working hard for the metaphor—like I say to my students, “Okay, you’ve got a metaphor there. Maybe it’s not your best metaphor. Why don’t you make a list of twenty metaphors that might describe this.” If I say to myself, “Okay, I need a metaphor here and it’s got to be the exact right metaphor,” I feel like I might as well kill myself. But if I brainstorm 20 metaphors or 40 metaphors that don’t have to be good, I may loosen up my mind enough and then I can look at that list and the right one might be in there. That’s one way of learning how to work. Or rewriting a line over and over until you get the cadence right, until the syntax feels natural. Even ordinary sentences are hard to write gracefully.
DAVEEN: Alan says often that when you read a work it’s a finished product; you can’t expect your first try or maybe even your tenth to be comparable …
BASS: That’s right. And to be willing to sit down and start from that embryonic place of not-knowing each time. Because you get sophisticated enough to be aware that your first lines may not be any good—I see this in my students too after a while—in the beginning you’re writing and you just think it’s so great. [Fox and Daveen laugh] “It sounds so good!” But now I sit down, I start to write and I’m hyper-aware of how bad it sounds, and how do I keep going anyway?
DAVEEN: Several times you’ve said “sounds.” Do you read your work out loud?
BASS: I do. I can also hear it—even if I’m not actually saying it out loud, I’m hearing what it sounds like, and I’m hearing how clumsy and tired it sounds; I’m hearing how the language is not catching. There’s a certain point sometimes where you feel like it catches, and you’re in language in a different way. So part of the challenge for me always is to keep going, to keep going even though it isn’t going so well, to keep going even though it hasn’t caught. I keep thinking of the word catch; it’s almost like sometimes there’s this little catch where—
DAVEEN: It hooks you in.
BASS: Yes, exactly … You start writing and if you’re lucky, you come to a point where the poem starts talking back to you. I have to write a lot when it’s not talking back to me, and for me that’s part of the hard work. And then there is the emotional part—what is the essential truth of this experience? Because there’s so much you could write that is the easier-to-get-to truth. That’s another thing that I try to teach my students. For example, I had a difficult marriage. I was married to somebody who was a difficult person. He was meshugenah, and anyone, even his neighbors, would agree with that. So if I write a poem about how crazy my ex-husband was, that’s like shooting ducks in the bathtub. It’s just too easy. Okay, fine, but where is the story underneath that story?
BASS: Where is the harder story? Where is my complicity? Why did I marry that guy? Why did I stay with him? I already know he’s crazy and so does everybody else who’s ever met him. There’s no poem there; there’s no discovery. And so it’s the hard work of trying to find the discovery. If you write a poem and from beginning to end and it’s what you already knew before you sat down to write, you’re still on the diving board; you haven’t jumped off. And so that’s what I’m always pushing for with my students, and what I’m trying to do for myself. What is the discovery? And sometimes it’s an intellectual or emotional discovery, something I didn’t know before. Sometimes it’s a more subtle discovery in the language itself, how you see it or how you say it. But I’m constantly asking myself and asking my students, “What do you still not understand about this experience? What do you still struggle with?”
Part of the work is emotional. People talk about writing as healing and of course I believe that—I’ve taught that; I’ve championed that. But writing is not only healing. I think you also pay a price to go to that place, and you have to be willing to do that. Some poems just about kill you in the process. But ultimately I do think it’s healing for me, or maybe simply necessary. Gregory Orr writes about it in Poetry as Survival, taking the chaos of our experience and trying to make order of it. Poetry allows us to survive the suffering by shaping it. We become makers, not just victims who are acted upon. And that is part of what makes it bearable. Writing … it’s like the two faces of comedy and tragedy. We write to notice and praise the moments of our lives—that’s prayer. And then we write to make the pain bearable, to be able to hold it as bearable. And what makes it bearable I think is that it’s part of the human condition. There’s a time in suffering where I say to myself, “I don’t want this to be happening to me.” Right? “I don’t want this.”Right?
DAVEEN: Of course.
BASS: But if I can make a poem, then I can see, “Well, of course this is happening; this is part of the human experience,” and although my regular self says, “I don’t want this,” the poet self says, “I am willing to be a human being living a human experience.”
FOX: I glommed on very early to my favorite quote which I live by, which is from Hamlet: “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” To me that’s true. That’s what you’re talking about—you’re using yourself, your experience in service of your communication.
BASS: It’s a willingness to go further than my regular self wants to go. There’s a Buddhist prayer that says, “I am a human being and anything that can happen to human beings can happen to me today and I accept that.” Well, I don’t. [Fox laughs] I recognize that this is true, but I’m not so evolved that I say, “That’s okay.” But it’s this acceptance that is what I try to open to in poetry—in poetry I try to accept whatever has happened in some way. And even if I am railing against it, I accept that railing as part of it.
DAVEEN: Well there’s a difference with past tense as it were—you know, happened, has happened …
BASS: Or what’s happening. I try to accept what’s happening in poetry.
DAVEEN: Right. But I don’t want to accept that I might be hit by a truck today. If it happens then I’ll deal with it—I’m not looking for it.
BASS: No, we’re definitely not looking for it, and if I’m hit by a truck today, I am definitely not evolved enough to say, “Okay, I accept that this happened.” I’m going to fight it; I’m going to suffer; I’m going to resist. It would take me a long time to accept that “what is, is.” But I think that’s what I’m struggling to do in poetry—to accept it all. And if I can make a poem that does that, then it works on me. I made the poem but then the poem works on me and helps me to accept it.
—from Rattle #40, Summer 2013