Ask a Poet: Ellen Bass

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Welcome back to our Ask a Poet blog series! Leading up to the 2018 Dodge Poetry Festival, we will be putting the spotlight on poets you can see at #DPF18, October 18-21. Learn more about a new Festival Poet every Wednesday and Friday, presented in no particular order.

Today, we’re chatting with Academy of American Poets Chancellor Ellen Bass!


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What are you currently reading?
I’m reading many books at once, which is typical for me. One is Secrets of the Snout: The Dog’s Incredible Nose by Frank Rosell and Marc Bekoff. It explains how dogs noses work and how they are capable of finding someone by smell even if that person has just touched a fingertip to a stick for one second. I hope I can write a poem someday that utilizes some of this amazing information. I’m also reading Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast, Robert Wrigley’s Beautiful Country, W. G. Sebold’s The Rings of Saturn and Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mashimo.

If someone sitting next to you on an airplane asked you to describe your poetry, how would you describe it?
I always just say I write poetry that someone might want to read. Usually they laugh.

What books of poetry/poets do you recommend to a new reader of poems?
For new readers of poetry I tend to recommend poems that reach people on a first reading and continue to yield more depth and complexity as you read them again and again. Some poets I’d suggest are Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Mark Doty, Lucille Clifton, Dorianne Laux, Phillip Levine, Toi Derricotte, Jericho Brown. There are so many more I’d include! When I began teaching at Salinas Valley State Prison I felt it was crucial that the first poem I brought in was one that the men would immediately be interested in. I spent hours and hours selecting and then rejecting poems and I finally chose “Sole Custody” by Joseph Millar. It was a perfect choice. I read the poem and before I could even begin talking about it, the men started saying what they appreciated about the poem. Without me saying a word, they jumped right in and did their own close reading, not only connecting with the the speaker of the poem, but admiring the details, the adjectives and verbs, the final metaphor. Two men even began arguing about whether one line of dialogue in the poem was said by the father or the son. It was a question of syntax and I just sat there thinking, wow, they’re arguing about syntax! Right here is the power of poetry!

When did you first discover poetry? What poets made you want to write?
I always loved reading poetry. When I was an adolescent I’d type lines of poems on index cards. Even before I could understand what the poems were saying, I loved the sound of them and I had some kind of intuition that there was something there that I wanted—needed—to live with. We moved to another town when I was eleven and it took me awhile to make friends and when I did, my first friend stole my purse and my second group of friends were mean to me. It was a clique thing that these girls did. I wrote a poem trying to grapple with that, asking god to forgive them. My early poems showed no promise at all, but they helped me get through some hard times. Poetry still helps me get through hard times. When I write a poem, something inside me shifts. I see my experience, personal as it is, as part of the human experience. And I’m more able to accept myself and my life.

Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?
Yes, yes, yes! There is often a voice in my head that says don’t write that. But I tell the voice that it’s mistaken, that the only way to write is to write what wants to be written and we’ll think about whether it’s shared and how it’s shared later. Pretty much the voice listens to me. As for the sharing part, I’m almost always afraid to share what I’ve written. I very much want the poem to communicate to someone else. I want the poem to, in its small way, matter. But I’m old buddies with fear. I have many fears and I don’t expect to overcome them. I know that you can do whatever you want and need to do even while you’re afraid. I went scuba diving once with a friend who is not usually afraid of much. We were both afraid of diving, but I was able to manage my fear and dive and she just couldn’t do it and had to stay on the surface. Afterward I realized that I just had so much more experience with fear than she did. Once you get used to it, fear doesn’t have to stop you. There’ve been many times that I was in front of an audience reading my poems and I couldn’t take a drink of water because my hand would have shook too much, but the fear didn’t affect my reading.

What is something miscellaneous from your life that you would recommend to other people? It could be a person, a habit, an idea, anything that brings you happiness right now that you would like to recommend.
I’ve always tried, to the extent that I’m able, to do what I want to do. It’s sometimes gotten me into trouble, but it’s also allowed me to write poetry and to live the way I want to live. Especially when I talk to young people, I encourage them to follow their deepest desires. You have to pay the rent and put food on the table, so sometimes you must do things you’d rather not do. But to the extent that you’re able, do what you want. I think desire is as good a compass as any.


Ellen Bass was born in Philadelphia and raised in New Jersey. She is the author of eight poetry collections, the most recent of which is Like a Beggar. Her other books include The Human LineMules of Love, and I’m Not Your Laughing Daughter. Bass is the recipient of fellowships from the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the Lambda Literary Award for Poetry, the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and two Pushcart Prizes. She was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2017. She currently teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific University and lives in Santa Cruz, California.

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