Monday, April 2, 2018

The Split This Rock Interview with Ellen Bass

By M. F. Simone Roberts

This conversation is one in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness 2018.

The festival is three days at the intersection of the imagination and social change: readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, activism, a book fair, and a party. Celebrating Split This Rock’s 10th anniversary! The poets to be featured are among the most significant and artistically vibrant writing and performing today: Elizabeth Acevedo, Kazim Ali, Ellen Bass, Sherwin Bitsui, Kwame Dawes, Camille T. Dungy, Ilya Kaminsky, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Solmaz Sharif, Terisa Siagatonu, Paul Tran, Javier Zamora.

On-site registration is available every day during the festival at the festival hub: National Housing Center, 1201 15th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005. A sliding scale of fees is available for full registration, beginning at $200. Student registration (with ID) is $75. One day passes are $85. Two-day passes are $170. 

Full festival schedule available on the websiteThe Festival Mobile App is Live! Download the free app  for iOS and Android today for easy access to the schedule, session descriptions, presenter bios, and more! Just search your app store for Split This Rock.

Events Open to the Public
  • Nightly Free Poetry Readings: National Housing Center Auditorium.
  • Social Change Bookfair, Saturday, April 21, 10 am-3:30 pm, National Housing Center (Free)
  • Poetry Public Action, Friday, April 20, 8:30-10 am, Location TBA (Free)
  • Open Mics, Thursday, April 19 & Friday, April 20, 10 pm-12 am, Busboys and Poets, 5th & K, Cullen Room, 1025 5th St NW, Washington, DC 20001 ($5 at the door, CASH only)
  • Closing Party, Saturday, April 21, 10 pm-1 am, National Housing Center Auditorium ($10, tickets available soon at Split This Rock's website)

Open mics and the closing party are free to festival registrants.

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Image of Ellen Bass wearing a brown, gray, and white boucle wool sweater. She smiles at the camera. She has short, gray, curly hair, and blue eyes.
Ellen Bass’s poetry includes Like a Beggar, which was nominated for five awards (Copper Canyon Press, 2014), The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), and Mules of Love (BOA, 2002). She co-edited, with Florence Howe, the first major anthology of women’s poetry, No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women (Doubleday, 1973). Her poetry has appeared frequently in The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review, and many other journals. Among her awards are a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Fellowship from the California Arts Council, three Pushcart Prizes, The Lambda Literary Award, The Pablo Neruda Prize, The Larry Levis Prize, and the New Letters Prize. Her nonfiction books include Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth and Their Allies, I Never Told Anyone: Writings by Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, and The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse which has been translated into twelve languages. She is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and teaches in the MFA writing program at Pacific University. Learn more at her website. Photo by Irene Young.

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Simone Roberts (SR): If it’s OK with you, I’d like to begin when you were not publishing poetry. Our culture has made a kind of spiral return to matters of power and sexuality in the #MeToo and #TimesUp moment. I say a spiral because maybe we will see some effective progress.  You first affected my life as a researcher and advocate who appeared on Donahue around issues of childhood sexual abuse. Part of my admiration for you is that this deep, foundational, private-social trauma announced itself from inside of your life as a poet, and you left that vocation for a new assignment. So, my question is this: what was that process like? Did you experience a personal or even spiritual evolution by which one vocation steps aside for another? It’s a big jump from a vocation like poetry, which is relatively anonymous, to one like anti-abuse advocate, which is very public and puts one in the sights of a pretty intense backlash? How did you make that shift?

Ellen Bass (EB): Oh my. I could write a book on that question alone! First, I am also very hopeful that the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements will make lasting progress. I do believe that progress is a spiral and it gives me great hope to see women speaking out about abuse and being taken seriously.

My own process of leaving poetry to become an advocate for survivors of child sexual abuse was unintentional and irresistible. In 1974, I’d been facilitating workshops for women writers, casual workshops in which we sat in a circle on the floor of my living room or someone else’s living room and wrote and shared our writing. I knew nothing about child sexual abuse. I hadn’t been abused as a child. But the time was ripe and one day, after most of the group had left, the first woman pulled a crumpled half sheet of paper out of the pocket of her jeans and showed it to me. It was so abstruse, I couldn’t understand what she was even writing about, but I sensed it was important and I told her to write more and bring it back. That was the beginning.

The great psychologist, Carl Rogers, said that once he worked through an issue in his life it was as if a telegram was sent to all his clients that they could now bring that issue to him. Well, with me it was as if once one woman told me her story, all the survivors in the world were notified that they could now bring their stories to me.

It would be too much to try to go through all the steps that led from there to my leading support groups for survivors and writing The Courage to Heal and training professionals in the mental health field, but little by little I was drawn further into this work. It wasn’t a choice. It was a calling. I was as profoundly moved by the strength and beauty of these women as I was horrified by the trauma they suffered. I had the skills to do this work (although I wasn’t academically trained, I did have a deep background in healing work), I had the skills to write the book (although the book would have remained note cards on my desk without my amazing co-author, Laura Davis), and I had the delusion that I could do this work with and for survivors and still write my own poetry (which I couldn’t).

 The work grew beyond anything I could have imagined, and I was living so deeply inside the psyches of other people that I had to give up a certain access to the personal contemplation that was necessary for me to write poetry. I didn’t want to give it up, but I wasn’t capable of doing both--and I couldn’t not do the healing work. I don’t believe in the concept of destiny, but my own life betrays my opinions!

I didn’t, however, have any idea that I would be the target of a backlash. That wouldn’t have stopped me had I known because I tend to do what I want to do and not think through the consequences—for better and worse. The backlash blindsided me. I never imagined that the progress made in believing and supporting survivors of abuse would be met with opposition (including lawsuits brought against me), even though this was a clear step in upsetting the patriarchy. I can be ridiculously naïve and optimistic.  

I want to say that I’m gratified that seeing me on Donahue was meaningful to you. This was during the years of the intense backlash against survivors of child sexual abuse (around 1990, about two years after the publication of The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, there was a resurgence of not believing survivors, of accusing them of “making it up,” accusing therapists of implanting “false memories,” etc. which was spearheaded by people whose children had been abused in childhood and were now confronting—and sometimes suing—their abusers, as well as by professionals who were profiting by defending these abusers and by some known pedophiles as well). Well, that’s as briefly as I can summarize the basics.

Anyway, during that time I agreed to appear on just about every national TV talk show, hundreds of radio programs, and was interviewed by all the major newspapers and magazines in the country—and a lot of minor ones as well. I had been just about to retire from my work supporting survivors when the backlash hit, but I felt that I owed it to survivors to stand up and speak out on their behalf and so I postponed my return to poetry and put on my flowered dress (so I would look sweet—in recordings I’m always in the same flowered dress), and appeared on these terrible shows in which the abusers and the backlash were treated as more credible than I was.

But that didn’t matter. I knew by then that it wasn’t about winning the debate, convincing the opponent or the talk show host. I would just remind myself that there was a woman somewhere in her bathrobe sitting on her couch who had been abused and was suffering—not only from the abuse and the effects of the abuse, but from this backlash that denied her reality and her pain—and that’s who I was talking to. I wanted her to hear that there was someone who was willing to sit next to these men (and sometimes women) who had done odious things and defend her, and tell the truth.

(SR): I won’t stay on these matters for too long, but we are living in a time when women, femmes, and transwomen are fiercely insisting that they not be coerced or extorted, or menaced, with (cis) men’s sexual demands or violence as an element of our work or social life. I know that the backlash against your work was intense (production of reams of “science” on “false or implanted memory”) and sought to protect men from accusations by gaslighting victims, even juries. It continued well into the 1990s. Today’s Men’s Rights Activists are gearing up with demands for “due process” in situations where court proceedings are not in order – like the protection of workplace environments. Having been here once before, do you have any advice or insight about how we might refute or outwit this round of backlash?

(EB): Well, this is a tougher question, but I do have a couple thoughts. First, I think it’s very important to support each other and not split into factions. Laura and I were fortunate in our fight because there were almost no reputable organizations or professionals who criticized us. Instead, we had tremendous support. It’s an old story that progressive movements can wind up fighting with each other, rather than fighting the true opponents. We don’t have to agree on everything, but there’s power in unity.

Secondly, I would just say be brave. It’s okay to be afraid, but don’t let that stop you from speaking out, standing up for what you believe. Anything that can be done can be done when you’re afraid.

(SR): Poetry! Here we go! Your most recent book, Like a Beggar, is incredibly intense – the balances it strikes are startling. On one hand, the themes include the most life’s desperate moments held together with the most every day. The extreme of a child’s death finds a balance in the quieter, maybe weirder, grief of discovering one has missed knowing something real about one’s mother. On the other hand, both the very earthy experiences of sex and the careful slaughter of chickens get a cosmic, almost sublime treatment. Do you think of poetry, or your poems, as a space for learning, or reflecting on, how to live? Are there poets or poems that help you live?

(EB): Absolutely. That is always the fundamental question—how do we want to live, how can we live, how can we pay attention and not miss the life we have either because we’re on automatic pilot or because it’s not the life we wanted or because of pain, heartbreak, loss. It’s easy to talk about paying attention, staying awake, appreciating everything there is to appreciate, but it’s hard to actually do it. I have an old friend who was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s and he just today wrote to me of his pleasure in going to the dry cleaners with his wife and picking up the clothes in their plastic bags, walking on the street and hearing a phrase from an opera drifting from an open window. That tension between beauty and loss, love and death—that’s the great subject of poetry.

And yes, I write my poems to investigate life and my own experience of life in particular, to explore it, to wrestle with it, to try to listen to what it has to teach me. Often my poems are much wiser than I am. The woman in “Relax” knows to eat that strawberry even as she hangs between one death and another. When I wrote the poem I had a glimpse of that, but I lose sight of it and must be reminded over and over. I don’t write about experiences that feel resolved. I write about what I don’t understand, what I need to grapple with.

For me, poetry makes the unbearable bearable. If I can see my experience as part of the human experience, if I can shape it into something beautiful—or at least as beautiful as I have the skill to make it—then my aperture widens. Poetry is how I pray.

I should add that it’s also how I celebrate. It’s how I express my joy, but also how I fix my joy into a shape that will help me hold onto it just a little while longer, that’ll help that joy to exist a little while longer.

And yes, there are so many poets and poems that help me live. During the hardest times I’ve turned to poetry: Langston Hughes’ “Island” in which sorrow itself becomes what saves us. Lucille Clifton’s “Sorrows” in which the universality of grief becomes so undeniable that I find myself fighting less against my own. Denise Levertov’s “Talking to Grief,” Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do,” Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” Tony Hoagland’s “Reasons to Survive November” in which he says, I shove joy like a knife/ into my own heart over and over. What a teaching! That we can’t just hope for the return of joy. That we have to be that aggressive, that violent in our insistence. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve turned to that one line. I am infinitely grateful to these poets and to these poems. Even if I only studied this very small handful of poems, I think I could learn most of what I need to know.

(SR): So much of this book is about death, or living very near it (which, we always do), and about the desire for life and bright, hard contact. These poems admit to wanting so much more than one may be able to have, like in the line “But her skin, warm as it is, does, after all, keep me out” from “Waiting for Rain.” This wanting the beloved so much as to want to crawl inside her skin, this loving greed, I wonder how it works as an answer to death?

(EB): I didn’t realize that so much in this book is about death, but of course it is. Love and loss, beauty and death. The great themes of poetry. And as I get older—I’m 70 now—death seems right around the corner. Even if I live to 90, that’s only twenty Junes, twenty Septembers, twenty more Passover Seders, and not even twenty more that I’d be capable of hosting in my own home. How many more of those? Five? Ten? Yipes!

This year I’ve been struggling with a back injury that’s upended my normal life and left me wondering what is now over—never to be done again. There’s a hike in Santa Cruz not far from where I live called Skyline to the Sea. You begin in Big Basin Park in the redwoods and it’s downhill twelve miles to the Pacific Ocean. I hiked that trail thirty years ago with my daughter’s girl scout troop and always thought I would do it again, but you have to arrange to have a car at the top and one at the bottom and although it’s only 12 miles by foot, it’s a long drive around by road. So, I never got to it.

Yesterday my wife and I were talking, and we realized, much to my surprise, that we can never do it now. We waited too long. It’s simply never going to be possible for us to hike twelve miles in a day again. We could sleep over, she suggested. But of course, we couldn’t carry sleeping bags, water, etc. Not that there aren’t many manageable hikes I still can take, but I better not be postponing anything I really want to do. Of course, none of us should postpone the things we really want to do, regardless of age, but it becomes so apparent as I age, so glaringly apparent!

So yes, I really do want that “bright, hard contact.”  I have had ample grief in my life, but unless I’m in terrible pain or I don’t have my mind, I want, as Marie Howe writes, more and more and then more of it. My wife jokes that on my gravestone should be written my motto, “Overdo it if you can.” And although it’s often gotten me into trouble, it wouldn’t be bad to be remembered that way.

(SR): One of my favorite poems is “Gate C-22” from The Human Line. Sure, I love it for suspending us in the voluptuous imagery of this unabashed, completely sentimental scene. It pushes all the feeling-buttons. And—this is what I admire as a poet—while the poem admits us all into our vulnerable, bone-deep need for love; it also interlaces kinds of love, and mixes gendered experiences, and the experiences of being different kinds of bodies at different ages – all bursting through this man and this kiss. It’s seamless. As they say among actors, “I couldn’t see the work.” So, about revision, then, craft. What’s your process like for getting a poem to do that kind of cosmic work?

(EB): Thank you for your kind words about this poem. I wish I had a way of making a poem that tended to work for me on a reliable basis, but every poem seems to need its own developmental process. The hardest part of writing this poem was the opening:

At gate C22 in the Portland airport
a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed
a woman arriving from Orange County.

These aren’t the lines that anyone would point to and say, wow, what great lines, but there was information that I needed to include to create the scene and I wrote these opening lines over and over to get them to sound natural and as fluid as I could make them.

Usually I try to write roughly through one whole draft, but with this poem, I felt like I needed to get that opening before I could go on. Looking back, I see that I was also establishing a rhythm, a tone, discovering the DNA of the poem. After I wrote those lines, the rest came unusually easy. Mainly it was just a question of taking out some metaphors that didn’t need to be there. I think in metaphor—both in poetry and in my life—so often in my revisions it’s necessary to weed them out rather than add them in, though I do some of that as well.

More often my poems go through dozens and dozens of revisions. Sometimes I throw out most of what I started with in the early drafts. Some poems take years. A few take many years—ten, twelve years. I don’t work on them steadily over such a long period, but I return to them every so often and knock at their door and hope they’ll answer, but no, they say, you haven’t gotten me yet. And if the heart of the poem is still something that interests me, that keeps reappearing for me, then I work on the poem again. But with “Gate C22,” it wasn’t like that.

I was teaching at Esalen in Big Sur and my daughter and her partner were staying there with me in the same room. Her partner at the time was a big snorer and she woke me up very early in the morning and I couldn’t get back to sleep. So, I got dressed and wrapped the quilt around me and sat down on a bench overlooking the ocean (that’s how the ocean got in there) and wrote the poem.

Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun, was once asked whether enlightenment came suddenly or slowly and she said that in her experience fast was the result of a lot of slow. I find that to be true in my poetry. I work on some poems that take years to come through and I work on some for years only to bury them in the poetry cemetery, but that work prepares me for the poems that come suddenly. The longer I’m at this practice, the more I see that nothing is wasted. In every poem, whether it ultimately succeeds or fails, I’m teaching myself something that I may need for a future poem. Sometimes I can trace a poem’s lineage back through a succession of failed poems. In hindsight I can see exactly what I was practicing to be able to write the successful poem.

As for the older couple, I do have a special fondness for doing my small part to expand our images of romance. This scene (which is taken directly from life) would have been arresting even if the couple was young and beautiful, but it was more marvelous that they weren’t. And yes, as you say, there are a multitude of kinds of love and I’m glad that they made their way into the poem. I should say, though, that I didn’t set out to do that. I didn’t consciously say, hey, I’d like to compare romantic love to a mother gazing at her newborn child. But when I thought about what that man’s face looked like, that’s what it looked like!

(SR): So, this is a question about the politics of representation, especially of other people’s stories. I feel like the moral heart of Like a Beggar is the poem “Bottom Line.” On one hand, yes, throw everything at death! But, there is real misery in Dan’s voice and story. The disability community generally resists this kind of representation, this focus on helplessness and the “redemption” of suicide. I think we’re to read Dan as a figure of profound courage, but he thinks he’s a failure for living, and the poem runs a serious risk of making Dan a spectacle of loss. What do you see as the poem’s work in the book? Is Dan a real person? Is Dan OK with this representation, this telling of his story? Or, is he figural, and how do you hope readers will receive this poem?

(EB): So interesting to hear how you see this book and that you see this poem as “the moral heart.” I never would have thought of it that way. Let me start by saying that Dan is a real person, Dr. Dan Gottlieb. We’ve been friends since he was five and I was four. He’s been living with quadriplegia since he was a young man—with a wife and young daughters. He’s also a psychologist, a radio talk show host, a prolific writer, and has lectured around the world. Dan’s written about many aspects of his life and he’s written about the struggle that is at the center of “Bottom Line.” Really, it’s a found poem.

I consider Dan my teacher. I think a lot of people feel that way about him. He’s the most loving and tender person I’ve ever known. And he’s one of the happiest people I’ve ever known. But he’s also radically honest. And that’s why I trust him. I’m sure there are people who meet tragedy and don’t go through deep depressions, but I don’t think many people bounce back easily. Dan’s struggle was a real struggle and through the years he’s struggled time and again, not only with quadriplegia, but with other serious life events. He’s also got a dry, dry humor that strikes me to the core.

As for how the disability community sees a poem like this, I hope and trust that people with disabilities will recognize this as an authentic moment in someone’s complex life. It’s not a position paper.

(SR): Your poems are deeply intimate. The voice bares itself and your themes are often of the private, familial world. How does the audience function for you in your writing process? If you do look to connect the intimate to the social/communal world, then how do you conjure those resonances, let the witness of the social world and matters of justice into these intimate poems?

(EB): I write the poem, first to explore or investigate something for myself. There’s something that asks me to pay attention. Something hooks me and says, hey, there’s something here. And then I try to describe it, look into it. So, I’m talking, first, to myself. But I don’t want to be talking only to myself. I want my poems to be a meaningful communication with another person. And so, I try to shape the poem in a way that will deliver an experience to the reader.

As for connecting the personal to the political, I have multiple responses. First, I came of age at a time when we said, “the personal is political.” And I continue to believe that. What seems the most personal sometimes becomes very important in the larger world. When that young woman took the crumpled piece of paper out of her pocket and showed it to me, she had no idea and neither did I that writing about her experience of being sexually abused by her father would start a momentum that would have an impact on the lives of millions of people. I believe we are often working in the dark, with no way to assess what will be meaningful beyond our own intimate lives.

That said, I do want to allow the wider world to enter my poems. I want to always invite it in. Sometimes it’s almost just in passing. For example, I wrote a poem about my wife and me in which I’m sitting at the kitchen table and reading to her from the newspaper, “Monsanto is suing Vermont.” I didn’t decide to write a poem about Monsanto, but my wife is an entomologist and she’s worked with farmers to introduce the use of predator insects to control pest insects instead of spraying with toxic chemicals. So, Monsanto is a natural part of our conversation. And I welcomed it in when the poem asked for it to be included.
I wish I could write more poems that directly speak to important social/political/cultural themes. Now and then I’m able to do that, but if I had my choice, I would do it much more often. The problem is that I only have a limited amount of choice in my subject matter. Although I’m the one who puts in the work, the poems have a mind of their own. I have to accept, gratefully, any poem that is willing to have me write it.

(SR): To send us off, then. What books have you read, or films seen, or songs heard that have uplifted you or expanded your sense of possibility recently? If someone in your circle needs courage or to recoup their energy, what do you like to offer them? Or, when you have joy to share, how do you most like to share it other than through your writing?

(EB): Oh, of course there are too many to name, but it is a pleasure to name a few. First, Terrance Hayes’s series, “American Sonnet to My Past and Future Assassin” is not only brilliant but has given me a great sense of possibility. Also, I’m grateful to Alicia Ostriker’s new book, Waiting for the Light, which came at just the right time to help me make my creaky turn back to writing poetry after my injury. There is one film that’s not recent but which continues to haunt me for its beauty and artistry-- Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. And for courage and inspiration I might suggest listening to Dan’s interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

Your last question is the hardest to answer. How to know what I might be doing that brings joy to others? I don’t cook, bake, garden, knit, sew, etc. I just write, read, and teach! I do walk, though. If you want to take a hike with me somewhere beautiful, I’m up for that and I love to share gorgeous places in nature with friends. Especially when they live in big cities amid the concrete and steel. The ocean, the redwoods, Point Lobos, Big Sur!

I also enjoying making people laugh. I like to be teased and I like to tease. I like to laugh at myself. And I’m attracted to people who can laugh at themselves. How to survive without that?

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Additional Links

An Interview With Poet Ellen Bass, by Henry Stimpson (Poets & Writers)

Bass's return to poetry by Ellen F. Brown, "In Plain Sight: The Vanishing of Ellen Bass" (The Rumpus)

Video lecture and reading "Controlled Chaos" on the process, insecurity, and uncertainty of writing (Hugo House)

Two poems with audio “Indigo” and “Failure” (The New Yorker)

Three poems at Peony Moon

Witnesses” by Ellen Bass (The Quarry)

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Image of M. F. Simone Roberts standing in Jackson Square in New Orleans. She wears a gray plaid, linen jacket over a lighter gray tank top. She looks directly at the camera with a slight smile. She has shoulder length, auburn hair in loose curls, and blue eyes.
M. F. Simone Roberts works as managing editor of The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database and Blog This Rock. Roberts is an independent scholar of poetics and feminist phenomenology, poet, editor, and activist. Her poems appear in Revue/Post and Poets Reading the NewsLiterary Nest and soon in other journals. She is co-editor of the anthology Iris Murdoch and the Moral Imagination: Essays and author of the critical monograph A Poetics of Being-Two: Irigaray's Ethics and Post-Symbolist Poetics. She tweets and ‘grams sporadically at @pomored.

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