I read this essay about beloved writer Ellen Bass here on The Rumpus—a terrific essay by Ellen F. Brown—with some dismay. Because, here was a writer I admire (and have admired since twenty years ago), a writer who had appeared on Oprah, and she was described later in life in her major coup as an older writer as “having disappeared.” On a national radio show. Talking about her poem in the freaking New Yorker.
So, if Ellen Bass, terrific poet and major feminist rabble-rouser in the 70s, can disappear, can it happen to us? Is in inevitable, or is there something we can do about it?
There’s a certain amount of press given to younger women writers at their debut, especially if they’re charismatic and attractive. I think Ellen caught a wave of good publicity due to her passionate politics during a time when “feminism” was just starting to be part of the public’s vocabulary. As an undergrad reading poetry anthologies in the nineties, I just loved the No More Masks! anthology, and later, in my twenties, found her writings on adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse very helpful in my personal life. There was never a time in my adult life I didn’t know who Ellen Bass was.
But getting attention for women writers in mid-life or late-life? They tend to “disappear”—even if they never stop writing, attending conferences, holding workshops, giving readings. They just don’t get—here’s the word—the publicity. Some of this is structural—sexism is at least as big a problem in the literary arts as in every other part of society. The work done on highlighting the disparity in publishing between men and women by groups like VIDA illustrate this powerfully. No matter how unfair this is, the effect is still there. They don’t look as pretty, as fresh, as hopeful in their headshots—and the punishment is maybe having a prominent male writer talk about you in a radio piece, praising your work, saying “Where the hell have you gone?” or worse, having no one talk about your work at all.
In the essay, Brown describes Ellen Bass as having stopped writing and submitting poetry for some years mid-life, while running numerous workshops for abuse survivors and others. That must have been very draining but rewarding work—and since I myself took a twelve-year break from writing to earn a living in the tech sector, I understand how these things happen. But the story of her search for mentorship was particularly disturbing. At a time when she had clearly lost confidence in her writing and in her place in the poetry world, how hard was it for her to find someone just to read and give feedback on her manuscript—not for a first book, but a fourth or fifth book! Over twenty years away from her last graduate student day working with Anne Sexton, when she reached out to others to help, they simply said no. Dorianne Laux, being the generous, compassionate poet that she is (she was one of my own mentors while I was at Pacific University as an MFA student) is described as having helped Ellen out—and I didn’t know it, but it was around the same time she was mentoring me! In my last semester at Pacific University’s MFA program in 2006, Ellen Bass visited, and I was just starstruck to have met her—not realizing the struggles she had been going through with her own art.
So, how can the mid-life woman writer attempt not to disappear right before the eyes of prominent male writers, king-makers, editors, judges and juries of prizes and grants? How do we stay seen and heard when perhaps our youthful charms may be diminishing but our art may be improving?
This essay made me think about how much I admired Ellen Bass, but never thought to seek her out, write her a letter, or otherwise let her know about my admiration. I bought her books, yes, but never reviewed them. I think we can all get caught in the trap of worrying about our own writing and our own mentorship and our own career trajectories and not stopping to think about helping others.
This is one reason I’m writing a PR for Poets book for Two Sylvias Press, though I don’t necessarily love writing non-fiction guidebooks and struggle with both the feelings of “not being good enough” to write the book and the feeling that some poets may think I’ve sold out or represent less than ideal things about the poetry world. It’s because I worry that too many writers—particularly women writers, young, mid-life, or older—don’t know or think about the promotion of their own work or the promotion of the work of those they admire. This neglect of women—to promote themselves—may represent the different public lives of Walt Whitman—the ultimate American self-promoter, writing his own book reviews under false names, etc.—and Emily Dickinson, who struggled to get even one of her terrific poems published, abashed by criticism from male mentors while she was alive. Is it wrong of women to wish to have a better public career as a writer, to wish to be, for example, paid for readings, or to have great book sales, or to get published in x or y coveted journal, say, the New York Times? I celebrate with Ellen when her poems are lauded—but think it is such a shame that it took so long for her to be publicly acknowledged after a very promising beginning to her career.
To refuse to disappear at mid-life—I am forty-two as of the writing of this essay—is perhaps the best rebellion a woman poet can make to the literary world and to the world at large. I worry about my natural tendencies to try not to make too much trouble, too much of a fuss. “Oh, I don’t want to bother you, but could you please… blurb my book? Review something I wrote? Publish me in your magazine?”
Go out and make some noise, not only for yourself and your own writing, but on behalf of other women writers. Splash out and mentor someone, review other writers you admire, start a press, work as an editor at a literary magazine. Make yourself un-ignorable. If you and your friends don’t champion each other’s work, if you don’t insist on making yourselves and each other heard, then there’s the possibility that you too will become a disappearing act.