In late December 2013, poet Ellen Bass received an email from a former student that she thought must be a joke. The New Yorker had just launched a podcast in which a writer whose work had been featured in the magazine selects a poem from its archive to read and discuss. The first poet invited to do the choosing was one of Bass’s favorites, Philip Levine, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former poet laureate of the United States. The funny part of the student’s message was that Levine had chosen Bass’s poem “What Did I Love” to feature on the premiere episode.
Bass had been writing poetry since the early 1970s and had enjoyed no small amount of success in the decades since. Her work was widely published, critically acclaimed, and had won several awards. She also was an internationally known bestselling nonfiction writer. But she had only recently succeeded in reaching a personal goal of placing a poem in the New Yorker. When, earlier that year, she had received word from editor Paul Muldoon that “What Did I Love” had been accepted, she celebrated with martinis. That thrill was still fresh. The thought of Levine—one of Bass’s literary idols—now plucking this poem out of the hundreds, maybe thousands, that had appeared in the New Yorker’s distinguished, eighty-eight-year history struck Bass as so improbable as to be hilarious.
Then she listened to the podcast, and the situation quickly morphed from comical to dreamlike. Bass sat spellbound while Levine read her poem and then tossed out phrases such as “exquisitely done” and “precisely viewed” and referred to her as being in dialogue with Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop. When Muldoon, the show’s host, asked Levine to explain why he had chosen Bass to feature on the podcast, Levine responded bluntly in his gritty voice, “I was startled to see Ellen Bass’s name, for one thing. I hadn’t seen any work by her in years.” He mentioned having known of her from decades past but not realizing she was still writing. “I didn’t know what the hell she was doing,” he said. “And then, when I read the poem, I found it so powerful and complex, the feelings that it was able to raise in me, the sense of surgical slaughter and yet tenderness…” Levine concluded by saying he was “truly envious” of “What Did I Love” and “glad that this woman had come back from God knows where to write [it].” He thought Bass had “vanished.”
In a recent conversation about the podcast, Bass described being elated by Levine’s kudos. As she recalled telling her wife, Janet, “I hope this isn’t the last great thing that ever happens to me as a poet, but, if it is, I could die happy.” Bass was so enthused she did not even bother to quibble over Levine referring to her as having been missing from the literary scene. In many ways, the Bass that Levine had known in the 1970s had vanished. In fact, Bass would say, she is still missing.
Growing up in an apartment above her parents’ New Jersey liquor store, Bass was not one of those precocious bards who scribbled verse from the moment she knew her letters. She had appreciated poetry during her high school years, but it did not become a passion until she majored in English at Goucher College, where she studied the form and explored writing it for herself. She found in poetry a means of dealing with life. “I discovered that the very act of creating a poem gives you a kind of agency over your problems that you don’t typically have,” she says. Writing allowed her to “hold” her experiences and decide what she “was going to shape out of them.”
After graduation in 1968, she tried teaching elementary school but found the classroom difficult to manage: she quit at the winter break. Realizing she missed poetry, she enrolled in the creative writing master’s degree program at Boston University to explore whether she had the talent and discipline to pursue poetry seriously. Anne Sexton was on the faculty at the time, and Bass recalls fondly how the poet encouraged her students to write expansively without fear of what critics might say. This approach was markedly different from other teachers, Bass says, who “kept crossing things out of my poems without bothering to teach me how to put something else in.” Emboldened by Sexton’s advice “to write freely, to trust myself,” Bass took to producing frank poems about becoming a woman, falling in love, and exploring her sexuality. Not shying away from physicality or intimacy, she referred to blow jobs as casually in one poem as she did a baseball game in another. Over time, Bass discovered that she did indeed have a facility with words. She placed a few poems in magazines and began to sense that poetry was her calling.
Upon finishing her master’s degree, she further explored this possibility by working with Florence Howe, one of her Goucher professors, on the first-ever anthology of American female poets. As co-editor of that project, Bass had the opportunity to read thousands of poems and interact with nearly every female poet working at the time. By the time No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women was published by Doubleday in 1973, she was completely immersed in the literary world and felt sure it was where she belonged. She had further confirmation when, that same year, The University of Massachusetts Press published a collection of her work. “I was really cooking,” she says of those heady days. “Everything was wonderful.” She laughs now at the recollection of her youthful aspiration to become a poet: “It was like saying that I wanted to be a rock star. Yeah, that would be fun!”
In 1974, Bass moved to Santa Cruz, California, and decided to finance her life as a poet by teaching creative writing. She posted flyers around town to advertise her services and received an enthusiastic response. For the next ten years, Bass published three more poetry collections while running a successful creative writing workshop out of her living room. The literary life more than met her expectations. She was part of a lively community of writers in Santa Cruz and felt good about the poems she was producing. She also enjoyed working with the diverse group of students who signed up for her sessions. “It was all new and wonderful to be in groups of people who were writing and sharing deeply,” she says.
The relationships Bass developed with her students were so profound that they eventually led her away from her own writing. Many of the workshop attendees wrote about having been sexually abused as children. Bass was deeply troubled by the stories they shared and how such a serious social problem was not, at the time, being discussed in the public sphere. In 1983, she decided to co-edit an anthology of essays, poetry, and stories on the theme of childhood sexual abuse as a way of bringing the issue out into the open. She hoped the book would force the world to take notice and protect children from being victimized. “I thought this anthology would stop behavior that had been going on for millennia,” she says, marveling at her naiveté.
Bass also was naïve about the impact the anthology would have on her own life. Abuse survivors from all over the country embraced the anthology, I Never Told Anyone: Writings by Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, and proclaimed that it changed their lives by giving them the courage to speak out. Critics welcomed the book with rave reviews. The New York Times called it “disturbing… haunting… inspiring.” The Los Angles Times hailed it as “[h]arrowing and heartbreaking.” The flood of positive responses overwhelmed Bass. “It was something huge,” she says. “Once I could sort through it, I realized that a channel had been made available to me to help people.”
The anthology had been intended as an educational device, but readers were receiving it on a deeper level. They viewed it as therapeutic. It occurred to Bass that the same thing had been happening in her workshops. Abuse victims signed up because they found expressing themselves a constructive way to ease their suffering. Bass related to this sentiment and decided to restructure her writing workshops into support groups for survivors of sexual abuse. The new workshops were billed as a safe environment for exploring the damage inflicted by childhood sexual abuse and for developing techniques for dealing with it. “It was very much trial and error,” says Bass. “I made suggestions and asked the women to tell me if my ideas were helpful or not.” She then used that information to help future attendees. Little by little, she amassed a body of information about what worked and what did not. Though the workshops made it difficult for her to keep up with her own writing, Bass felt compelled to focus her time on abuse survivors: “It was a basic human response. It was the way any caring person would have responded.”
In late 1980s, Bass decided to partner with Laura Davis, a former creative writing student, to produce a book about what she had learned in the workshops. Again, there was a ready audience. The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, published in 1988, sold over a million copies and was translated into a dozen languages. Victims held Bass up as a beacon of hope—finally, someone was lending them a helping hand. The book also was widely praised by professional counselors for its groundbreaking contributions to the underdeveloped field of abuse studies. For the next two years, Bass was an in-demand speaker and made appearances at many psychological organizations and universities, including Harvard Medical School.
At the height of the excitement, Bass began having health problems that were eventually diagnosed as Lyme disease. With a new appreciation for her mortality, she came to see that her life had become imbalanced. By this point, it had been years since she had seriously written any poetry. Though helping abuse survivors tell their stories was deeply gratifying, she missed how the creative process had given her a way of making sense from the chaos of her own life. “I wanted to be doing what I truly wanted to be doing,” she said. “And what I wanted was to write.”
Her return to a creative life was not a simple matter of putting pen to paper, though. She could not abruptly walk away from the women participating in her workshops. Those relationships needed time to wind down. Matters were further complicated when the False Memory Syndrome Foundation launched an attack on the credibility of sexual abuse survivors who were speaking out against their alleged abusers. A barrage of newspaper articles, magazine stories, and radio and television talk shows stirred up a public debate about the accuracy of survivor memories and their accusations. Bass felt compelled to speak out in defense of her work and the survivors who were being depicted as liars, hysterics, and troublemakers. She spent an intense year giving interviews to major print media outlets and speaking on network television programs such as The Oprah Winfrey Show, Donahue, and Frontline.
By the time the media attention settled down, Bass was in her mid forties and exhausted. She began writing poetry again and did find it a comfort. But, needing to earn a living, she focused her literary energies on non-fiction writing. In the mid-1990s, she co-authored a guide for gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth. Though the book found an appreciative audience, it was not a commercial success. She then tried her hand at writing a novel, a process she found frustrating. “I was bad at it,” she says, explaining her decision to give up after two years. It was then that she decided to reorient her life again. She wanted to return to a life centered around writing and teaching poetry.
The prospect of starting over in the field at almost fifty years old was daunting. Not only was she out of practice—it had been a decade since she’d seriously written any poetry—but she had not been reading much or even interacting with poets. “I wasn’t connected to that world anymore,” she said. And that world had changed dramatically since she had been a student of Anne Sexton and co-editor of an influential anthology of female poets. Thanks in part to an explosion of MFA programs since the 1970s, there was a new cadre of writers at the heart of the scene. Tastes and styles had changed as well, even within the feminist community. While Bass had helped paved the way for what feminist poets had accomplished, she no longer was part of the field’s creative core. She felt like Rip Van Winkle, as if she had been asleep all those years.
Also worrying her were doubts about her talent. She recognized that she had two strengths as a writer: “A conversational, open voice that lets readers know there is a real person behind my poems. And a natural gift for thinking in metaphor and images. That’s in my cellular structure.” But she did not feel especially proud of her technical skills. She suspected that some of her initial success as a poet had to do with her fitting the niche of a young woman speaking frankly and naturally about her life. “There is some merit in my early work, but I think the level of craft was pretty rudimentary,” she says. “There was some kind of promise recognized in it, but it was more promise than fulfillment.” Was that promise still waiting for her after such a long time away?
The early signs were not encouraging. In Bass’s mind, a poem succeeds when it becomes a process of discovery. “A good poem changes me as I’m writing it,” she says. “A very good poem manages to change the reader as well.” When she began working on a new collection, Bass sensed the poems she was producing failed to meet either standard. She tried to be brutally honest in assessing the work but had difficulty identifying what was missing or where she was going off track.
After several years of rewriting, the manuscript still did not progress to Bass’s satisfaction. She felt she was going in circles and could not stop. The idea occurred to her that she needed a mentor to look at the poems objectively and to point out where she was going astray. Bass reached out to a poet whose work she had admired in the 1970s and asked for help. The poet said no. She tried another poet and again was turned down. Though it was discouraging at the time, Bass was not surprised nor did she hold any grudges. “The manuscript wasn’t good enough to take on,” she freely admits. “I had ridiculous blind spots about what I was producing.” Unsure where to turn next, Bass continued to tinker with the poems.
A few more years passed before Bass decided to ask Dorianne Laux, a poet who had attended one of her healing workshops, to serve as her mentor. Bass had been impressed by Laux’s writing and included four of her poems in The Courage to Heal. “I just had a feeling she would be a great mentor,” Bass says. “She felt accessible, and her work was so stellar.” Bass approached Laux and was relieved to receive something other than no for an answer—Laux was too busy to read the manuscript at the time but said she would take a look when her schedule permitted.
Then, three months went by without any word. Bass reached out again. “You’re at the top of the pile,” Laux assured her, promising again to call when her schedule freed up. When another three months passed with no response, Bass strategized her next call. She was getting older and felt that, if she was ever going to improve, she needed to get going. “I would have done anything to work with Dorianne,” she says. “I would’ve flown up to Oregon and mopped her floors and cleaned her closets if she wanted me to.” Bass decided to plead her case again. At ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning, she dialed Laux’s number with the confidence that she had selected exactly the right time to call. Tuesday was the perfect day because it was into the work week but not too far in. Ten o’clock hit the sweet spot because the workday was underway but not too far along. When Laux picked up the phone, Bass said, “Dorianne, I’m a grown-up, and I can wait as long as it takes. All I need from you is ‘A time will come’ and if you tell me ‘A time will come,’ then I’m happy.”
Laux burst out laughing and told Bass to hang up and call back in thirty minutes. They would talk then about whatever Laux was able to read in the half hour. When Bass made the second call, a lengthy conversation ensued. Bass was “happy as a pig in mud” when Laux told her to call back again at the same time next week. At the end of that next call, Laux told her to call again the following week. Bass had her mentor.
For over a year, the two poets spoke every Tuesday morning and then on a sporadic basis for another year. Laux marked up Bass’s poems and offered specific suggestions for how to make them better. Bass describes the process as exhilarating but not always pleasant. Laux would suggest that Bass do or not do something in a poem, and, the mentee did not always understand why. At times, Bass questioned whether the suggestions would really make the poems better. But, she stuck with Laux and did as she was told. She felt she didn’t have any other choice. Gradually, Bass realized that her trust had been well placed. By following Laux’s advice, she felt herself improving as a writer.
Laux also encouraged Bass to read poetry more deeply, to study what techniques worked for other writers and how to put that knowledge to use in her own drafting process. This focus on craft was eye-opening to Bass, whose practice had generally been to write and see what happened. “I had been of the mistaken belief that, if you write enough, you will become a better writer,” she says. By analyzing the work of other poets, Bass came to understand that it was not enough for her to write well or even beautifully about her experiences. “Most of the world doesn’t care how I feel about my life,” she says. “What they care about is their own experience when they are up against something difficult.” Putting her experiences into a broader context, she now saw, was essential to “creating openings for readers to enter her poems and for the poems to enter her readers.”
As her confidence and work improved, Bass made an important discovery. She realized that the struggles she had been experiencing were not a sign of failing talent or that she was too old to progress. Rather, they were part of her natural progression as a poet. “My early work is where I said the easy things, the things about life that were obvious and close to the surface,” she realized. “The longer I kept at it, the deeper I had to dig to say something meaningful to myself and my readers.” She just needed to keep digging.
When her new collection, Mules of Love, was published in 2002, Bass felt she had been reincarnated as a poet, as if this new book—six years in the making and almost two decades after her after her last collection—was her first. That it went on to receive several generous notices and won a Lambda Literary Award gave Bass the courage to keep going. “Here was confirmation that I was capable of improving, that I had finally figured how to write a better poem,” she says. “I wanted to see what I could do next.”
Not that she had it all figured out. The process of producing her next two collections also would prove challenging. On a personal level, she faced several difficult years. In the past, painful experiences would have been fruitful inspiration for new work. This time, however, she did not feel comfortable writing about the events that had occurred because they concerned people other than herself. These were not her stories to tell, at least not directly. “It was a big creative challenge,” she says, “to find a way to handle what was of most concern to me in a way that didn’t include ‘the story.’ ” Also, being in emotional distress over these events, she found it difficult to have perspective and control over the material. She felt she was drowning in it. Bass eventually managed to rise to the surface and came away with a new understanding about her life as a poet. “For me, writing poetry never gets easier,” she says. “That’s unequivocal. It gets harder.”
Now, at almost seventy years of age, Bass has won numerous prestigious prizes, is in demand across the country as a workshop leader, and serves on the faculty of Pacific University’s esteemed low-residency MFA program. She has another collection underway and her attention is directed ahead to whatever challenges life and poetry throw her way next. The past is of little interest to her. It is telling that, when her most recent book came out—the one containing “What Did I Love” so admired by Philip Levine—she dropped from her list of published works the four collections written before she “vanished.” No hard feelings to her younger self, the one Levine used to know, but she is out of the picture. Good poetry is all about change.
In December 2015, Paul Muldoon invited Bass to participate in the New Yorker podcast as a selector. She was asked to choose a poem from the archive as well as one of her own to discuss. For the latter, she chose “Reincarnation,” which had appeared in the magazine earlier that year. Ostensibly about an oyster, it lends itself well to a metapoetic interpretation:
the oyster persists in filtering
seawater and fashioning the daily
irritations into lustre.
In the recorded conversation with Muldoon, Bass was very much like that humble oyster. Fifty years into fashioning her life’s experiences into poems, she spoke of her work in terms of “I’m learning” and “I’m trying.”