Ellen Bass is an award-winning poet, author and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Her poems appear frequently in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, and many other journals. Her poetry books include Indigo, Like a Beggar, The Human Line, and Mules of Love. 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. 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.
From her view as a poet, Ellen addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with insights including:
- There’s growing interest and diversity of poetry enthusiasts, in addition to increased accessibility and connection through our virtual communities now.
- “Poetry is so nourishing, and sustaining, and gives us a chance to grieve, and gives us a chance to celebrate.”
- The best poetry combines the personal with political.
- It’s not what you do when you’re getting to the end of your rope; it’s what you do when you’re AT the end of your rope.
- Poetry is about discovery and the process of being transformed. “Why I think most people write poems is so that at the end, they will not be the same person they were before they wrote the poem.”
Living Room Craft Talks by Ellen Bass
Book: All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
Connect with Ellen Bass
Poetry and all the arts are a way for us to be more rooted in the life that we’re living, not to deny this catastrophic situation we’re facing on so many levels, but also not to give in to despair and to giving up.
Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of the Post Carbon Institute. Today’s guest is Ellen Bass, a poet, an author, a teacher and a leader. It was such an honor to be allowed into her study and into her thought, and to discover that she had also researched me and even read some of my words back to me with appreciation. We were not interviewer and interviewee after a while, we were just standing together and looking out onto the world, two older women of a certain age, and finding words to talk about the very essence of both writing a poem or changing the world, which is that pause, that waiting for clarity to come, for words to drop. As if in a poem or in our activism, we’re always asking what could possibly go right? There’s always a sense of discovery, and the not knowing that precedes the bold action. So it just put a spell on me, honestly. So here’s her official bio.
Ellen Bass’ 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 poetry appears 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. So here’s my conversation with Ellen Bass.
Hi, Ellen Bass and welcome to What Could Possibly Go Right? It’s sponsored by the Post Carbon Institute and their organization focuses on economics, energy, environment and equity. A very practical and policy focused organization, which I love. But with this guest, I’m bringing more of the inner dimension to the conversation, the sort of visionary looking at things from the margins. I’ve suggested to them a fifth E which is empathy, because I think there is an inner dimension to what we’re facing, that has all the potency of what’s happening on the outer. I mean, look at who upstaged everyone at the inauguration: a poet. Poetry gets at particulars of who we are and the small events of our lives, as well as reminding us of, basically, the sweetness and the complexity of existence. I think we as people are going through something. We need the poet voice, to face what we’ve wrought; the climate disruptions, polarization, the legacies of racism and colonialism, the pandemic, the waves of war and environmental refugees. It’s upon us now. I know you’re not only a beautiful poet, but you’re the coauthor of the book, The Courage to Heal. So you’ve actually worked with and studied the traumas that arise from how our society is organized. You have these two eyes on the prize here, the poet’s and the healer’s. So given all of that, everything I’ve just put up, say whatever you want, but here is our question. In the midst of all that seems to be going wrong, what do you, Ellen Bass, see could possibly go right?
Thank you, Vicki. First, I have to say I just love that question. I don’t think we ask it enough. So I am so appreciative that we get a chance to come from that angle, particularly, where you acknowledge so thoroughly how much we are up against. This isn’t some kind of denial or looking away. But in the midst of this, what could possibly go right? I think that holding that balance, actually, makes me think of the Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Let me see if I can get this right. He says that if you can hold all the pain of the world in your heart, and still – this isn’t quite right – and still see the vastness of the Great Eastern Sun, then you can make a proper cup of tea. And I love that, and I think of that so often, of trying to hold these things together. I think that’s what poetry tries to do, is to hold it all in and make a shape of it, so that we can see the beauty as well as the suffering.
I think, in terms of what’s wonderful and not only could possibly be going right, but is going right in the world of poetry, is that more people than ever are – well, maybe I shouldn’t say than ever, but certainly in our lifetimes – are reading poetry in this country and around the world. Poetry has always been very well respected and deeply appreciated in some other countries, whereas it has been extremely esoteric, off to the side, in our country. But in the last few years, and especially in this last year… I am a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and we send out a poem a day, in the Poem-a-Day mailing. We have now 350,000 people who received that poem. We have 10s of millions of people that visit the website Poets.org. This is a big increase, and the last few years have been continuing to increase, but it’s a huge increase. Much of that increase, if not most, is coming from young people, and people of color. We are thrilled with the reach. The poems that are being shared are way, way more diverse than they were even five years ago, let alone ten. So this is very exciting.
Just very personally, during this last year, I began giving a series of craft talks, and I call them Living Room Craft Talks, because I would be less intimidated that way. You know, I didn’t want these to be like TED Talks; nothing against those, but I’m not the kind of person who polishes at quite that level. I like to deeply prepare, and I like to share a lot, but I don’t like to feel if my chickens cluck in the background that I have to then do the whole take over again. I want them to feel comfortable. That has been incredible to be able, I mean, it is the silver lining that people could come and have been coming. I’m doing a new series in the spring. Actually, if people want to know about that, I’d love it if they come to my website.
Yeah, we’ll put it in the show notes for sure.
Yes, that’s great. Come and see what’s up. But it’s been so great because people can come from other countries and because it is virtual, and we don’t have a physical space that we have to think about, I can offer scholarships to anybody who needs them. This is really the first time in my half a century of teaching, that it could be quite that accessible. So it’s very thrilling, you know. People with disabilities who can’t travel, and of course, thinking about the carbon footprint, no cars, no planes. Other than the energy that it takes to be online, that’s pretty much it. It’s been really wonderful, because poetry is so nourishing, and sustaining, and gives us a chance to grieve, and gives us a chance to celebrate. Maybe this year, some of those things that we are celebrating feel very small, compared to the grief and the losses, but they’re still not nothing. So every little bit of beauty and love and connection; those are places where poetry also wants to be and is there for us. It’s been quite sustaining, I think, and also to have kind of a community to share that way with.
Poetry is something that allows us… Marcel Proust said that the purpose of the artist is to draw back the veil, that leaves us indifferent before the universe. I think about that a lot, too. Poetry and all the arts are a way for us to be more rooted in the life that we’re living, not to deny this catastrophic situation we’re facing on so many levels, but also not to give in to despair and to giving up. The other person who I think of all the time is Gandhi, who said, whatever you do is going to be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it. I think of that over and over and over again, because I don’t want to be trying to think, how important is the thing I’m doing? Is it important enough? Will it be useful? I just have to do it and I am a kind of natural born, dyed in the wool, worrier. So I need things that help me. And my motto for a long time, and I’ve taught to my children and we all laugh about it, is my motto is: Work more, worry less. So it’s been great for me to have a lot of work during these times, and not just the last year, but to be able to share poetry, teach poetry, and when the Muse is willing, write poetry.
Wow, there’s a few threads that I’d like to pick up on. One is, it strikes me that, as I said in the beginning we’re embedded in the Post Carbon Institute, which has a online journal Resilience and it has wonderful books, and it’s just really, really standing on that cusp of the actual measurable losses. And then poetry is in a world of immeasurable. I just think that the measurable gets privileged. So in a way the worry that comes from the measurable or the overwhelm that comes from hearing about the worrisome things that shuts us down, actually inhibits us going forward. It’s like the space of poetry is the space of where we reckon with. It breaks through denial, and it’s almost like the purpose of it is to do that; not in an aggressive way, but just naming things. I listened to one of your poems, and I cannot quote it, but it’s basically you name all the things that are going to get lost, including your life. It was really a very, very penetrating list of things that will be lost. I think it’s so valuable that the poets can help us grapple with loss in a way that the loss becomes metabolized and part of us, becomes part of our wisdom, it goes from terror to wisdom. Just listening to you, I think it’s even more important. Our mutual friend, Paulette Perhach, she has a morning writing session that I go to almost every day. I never know what I’m going to do on the page. But a lot of times recently, I’m writing poetry. So I’m interested in what, not just the volume of interest, but what themes are you seeing in the young poets and the diverse poets that are now pouring forward? What do you see through their poetry about what they see about the future, and how they are grappling?
I see a lot of poetry that’s very socially engaged. And the best of it, of which there is a lot, really combines the personal with the political. Way back in the 70s, that’s what we were saying as women, right? The personal and political. I’m seeing that from these young poets a lot, where they’re really connecting their own experiences, the experiences of their families and their loved ones, their own dreams and hopes and disappointments and sufferings, to the greater world. The poems are really aware that they don’t live in isolation, that we live in connection. That’s been really wonderful. I think that we want our poems to give us strength. Just what you’re saying. Things are so bad, that it would be easy to just have despair and give up. But we can’t do that. That’s not a way to live. I mean, we have to live in the way that it makes sense to live, morally and ethically, and to have respect for ourselves, even when things are very, very bad.
I have a friend who is somebody who truly walks the walk. She said one time, it’s not what you do when you’re getting to the end of your rope; it’s what you do when you’re at the end of your rope. I think of that a lot. So, I think that we can have some despair, I mean, but we can’t just get into despair, without a kind of disrespect for ourselves, for others, for the earth, for all of it. I think poetry does sustain us. It gives us a way to hold the grief, the suffering, the rage, the outrage, the times when we have no hope. It gives us a way to hold those things without being completely undone by them, and it holds them at a manageable distance. The poem is shaped. It’s not the amorphous chaos of misery. It has a shape. And that belief that we can make some kind of order out of chaos is a very deep belief of the artist. There’s a book that came out, you probably know it. It’s called All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions for the Climate Crisis by women, essays by women climate leaders. They included poetry, and I think that was such a brilliant thing. I think it shows how smart the whole book is, if they knew to include poetry, because they were talking about just this thing that you’ve brought up, that we have to pay attention to how we feel, as well as what we think and our body of knowledge and data and information. We can’t separate our heart and our spirit from all of that.
Yeah, you bring to mind Judith Schwartz, who’s in that book. She was another person I interviewed. I’ve known her for quite some time, because I really love her perspective on regenerative agriculture, regenerative everything. But you bring to mind, from my first set of interviews in this series, what I noticed was that when I feel, I understand way at a different level what actually is going on. So I’ve come up with this little quip of something I’ve learned, which is, if you can’t feel the world, you can’t heal the world. So much of the praxis is it has an element of pushing away the sorrow that is behind so many people’s dedicated lives of like, No, this is impossible, we can do this. But they don’t bring forward their sorrow because it’s not scientific. The moment several guests went into the feeling realm, something shifted. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work of Deep Adaptation, a whole community of people inspired by mainly Jem Bendell has been really grappling with, Let’s face the science and see what it does to our insides. And I spent a year in grief. I mean, I just grieved the trees and grieved my village and grieved, you know. It was thorough going, as so many of the things I do are. It’s like I’ve come through, and it’s not that I’m not gonna cycle through grief many times again, but there’s something almost like acceptance. It’s like, Okay, so here we are, and we really don’t know how the dominoes are gonna fall. We know that we’ve predicted things in the past, and they’ve never happened. So we’re at the end of our ropes. But that’s the end of the old rope. There’s something we’re going to live into and through and that will be so fresh, I think, that people have to write poetry. There’ll be no other way to do it. It is like, that feeling the world is important. I’m sure there are many, many people who are teaching poetry now as a way for people to deal with their climate grief. Yes? Or do you not know that?
It’s interesting. I don’t know that there are that many people teaching it so specifically focused. That’s a good question. I don’t know.
I think it should happen. You don’t have to be the person to do it. But yeah. So the other thing I noted when you were talking was the word strength. Because I think strength is different from hope. Strength is the how we’re going to go through it. The poetry gives us strength.
It’s interesting because looking on your website, I loved what you said about hope. Hope for change makers is an act of imagination, that is generated daily through not giving into despair and finding joy in the journey. It is moral action without expectation of results. I think that’s just absolutely wonderful. How that connects to poetry for me is that poetry is all about not knowing. If you know what you plan to say in the poem, pretty much what’s the point of writing that poem? It’s all about discovery. It’s all about the process of trying to find out something that you didn’t know before you started. And it’s about the process of being changed and transformed. That is why, that’s a big why, but it is why I write poems, and why I think most people write poems is so that at the end, they will not be the same person they were before they wrote the poem. I can’t say that every poem that I write succeeds at that level, but the ones that are the most significant for me do, and I am not the same person afterward. I think we must transform ourselves, if we are going to be successful in saving as much of this world, this glorious world, this living world as we can. We have to transform ourselves because we are not up to the vision and job, because if we were, we would not have been making the mess we’ve been making. So we have to transform ourselves and there are, I’m sure, many ways to do that. But the way that I practice is through poetry.
I’m really so inspired, because there are so few pathways that can be offered to people that have this degree of open-ended curiosity. It’s almost like, what could possibly go right in the next line of the poem?
Exactly. Right? Anyway, it’s a spirit of discovery. And that is crucial to our survival, whatever that means, whatever we think is surviving. That spirit of discovery. So anyway, I put a cap on time in kindness to the audience. Is there anything else you want to add?
That is a perfect place to end, I think. I just love that you brought that up about the discovery of the next line, what could possibly go right? Because that is what makes it so thrilling and compelling, is to be on that edge of what could possibly go right.
You get it. Thank you so much.
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