Like A Beggar: A Conversation with Ellen Bass

Kendall Poe

Over the past two years, I have followed Ellen Bass through her publications in Tin House to the pages of the New Yorker and countless other journals. I was thrilled to have the chance to speak with her over the phone recently, as we discussed a wide range of topics: repetition, heart, invisibility, the god of atheists, the first peach. Speaking in a melodic voice, with an ebullience that would transcend any telephone line, she left me with a line that I have come to again and again as the weeks have gone by: It’s really the poet I turn to and who reminds me that I am not alone in this.”

Kendall Poe: I saw today that you had studied with Anne Sexton.

Ellen Bass: I did. At Boston University. Getting a chance to study with her was life changing. She was an absolutely wonderful teacher. When she gave readings she was flamboyant and dramatic, but as a teacher, she was thoughtful, respectful, supportive—really engaged and interested in her students. She wasn’t flashy.  She was really about teaching and the students. I think she loved teaching. She was just great.

KP: Being a good poet does not necessarily mean being a good teacher. That’s nice to hear about her.

EB: That’s a long time ago. Young women were not encouraged in the same way they are today. Even though Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Muriel Rukeyser and others had broken a lot of ground for women’s writing there was still more attention paid to the young men than to the young women. I had a rough time with some of the other teachers who were committed to revision by deletion. It felt like the only comments I got were, “Take this out.”

My poems weren’t good. There’s no doubt about that. But instead of teaching me how to go deeper and get more precise in ways that would be richer and more evocative—just stronger poetry, it was just, “Cut this, cut this”—until what little life it had was cut out of it. I was very discouraged my first semester. Then the following semester I started to work with Anne and she said, “No. No. Write more. Expand. Extend. Fill it out.” Really, without her I might have given up.

KP: That’s definitely a function of the teacher that I have appreciated—helping you or guiding you to a fuller expression of an idea. When I first started writing I took a few poetry workshops and I read The Poet’s Companion co-authored by Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio.

EB: Such a wonderful book.

KP: And from your most recent collection Like a Beggar—what was the title of the poem?—“Women Walking.” It’s a very endearing portrait of two poetry teachers. Have you thought about writing a guide?

EB: No. Of course everybody thinks about it, but no I am not going to do it. I think that at this point in my life, I am going to just focus on writing poems. And there are so many great guides that already exist.

KP: I had this teacher who emphasized that in poetry there were only morning poets and night poets. One or the other and they could not understand each other. In conferences they would come up to ask one another, “Are you a morning poet or are you a night poet?” Does this theory apply to you?

EB: (Laughter) I am a morning poet, but I want to explore the night more. I think I am missing out too much on that experience. But being a morning person, I don’t feel like I can’t understand the poets of the night. I love them too—maybe even more.

KP: Interviewers often ask about authors’ morning routines, whether it is a fiction writer or a poet, you find that they are very specific about their morning routines. Like, I get up. Floss my teeth in bed, comb my hair to the right.

EB: When I was younger, I had more of a routine. I would try to get to my writing as early as possible in the morning. I think I had more of an appreciation for or a need for structure and regularity. The older I get the less I think about it in that way. Of course you need a certain amount of structure. You need to get your tush in the chair or else you are not going to have anything on the page. But it’s more irregular for me now. It would be wonderful if I had no other responsibilities and I could write every day, and I guess that theoretically I could. Many poets, William Stafford, sat down to write every morning. Look at his productivity. It’s overwhelming. But as time goes on I become a little more accepting of the way it seems to work for me. I don’t like to ever be away from writing for too long, though.

KP: I agree with that belief. I have never been a person to submit to a rigid wake up, two hours of writing, crank out every word I have in my brain and then feel good. I’m done. I don’t want to say that it depends on mood-driven ideas but I think that there has to be the want or the desire.

EB: My favorite time for writing is when I have free hours day after day with open space to write, but it doesn’t always happen that way. A lot of the time I feel like I am not writing very much but then I look and I go, But you did. You wrote a lot during that period. Sometimes I am just sort of sneaking it in. It seems like as a poet I should have a lot more free time then I do. Poets are just so busy these days! It would be understandable if I worked on Wall Street, but here I am, a poet who doesn’t have any time!

KP: There was a question that an interviewer asked Elizabeth Bishop about “poems coming to her like presents.” Like that just happened to her. Some poems come more easily than others. I wonder if that happens to you, or do you work at them all through the revision process that you were talking about?

EB: It’s the whole gamut. Some poems come much more easily than others. On the whole, I think that my strongest poems come more easily—though I also do a lot of revision on them. And I don’t think that they would come at all if I were not working hard on the ones that don’t come easily. I feel like my more successful poems are built on the backs of ones that didn’t make it. That is only obvious in hindsight.

It’s interesting that you mention “Women Walking” because that is probably the poem that has had the least revision of any. Dorianne Laux, her husband Joe Millar, and I were teaching at Esalen. Dorianne had just given a fantastic talk about “The Children of Frank O’Hara.” I went back to my room and I wrote that poem. I’m sure I was channeling Frank O’Hara and Dorianne’s talk. As I was writing this poem I kept cracking myself up. I was just laughing and fooling around without that serious self-consciousness of “I’m writing a poem.” I think I changed just a word here or there. It came out pretty whole.

KP: Is there a place, literal or not, where the poems that don’t make it go?

EB: They go in the poem cemetery. I have a computer file that says “cemetery.”

KP: Do you ever poach certain images or words from the cemetery? Grave digging?

EB: I don’t usually go back. People always tell you, “Save this and you will be able to use all this.” I really don’t go back and use much of what’s in the cemetery, although occasionally yes. Often it’s an image.

KP: I’m curious to know which specific images are reoccurring for you.

EB: There are images that I have tried out in many poems that finally stuck with a certain poem. Many of those are from childhood. My family lived in an apartment on the second floor above a liquor store that they owned and operated in a tiny town in New Jersey. The store was like the hearth of the family. It’s very redolent with imagery for me. I’ve written about it in a lot of poems—not all of them were keepers. In my new book there is a poem about my mother in the last week of her life. I talk about how my mother wrapped packages for holidays: at Christmas and New Years: “In the store she wrapped half-pints of cheap gin with the same care she gave to Chivas Regal. She smoothed the glossy holiday paper, folding the torn edge under, sharpening the crease with her thumbnail, tucking the ends into a humble origami.”

I have such vivid memories of her folding that edge. She did everything with such exactness, but without any fussiness. There is another poem in this book called “The Muse of Work.” I started out writing that poem thinking that what my mother gave me, as a poet, was a work ethic, her perseverance. But my discovery as I wrote was that it wasn’t only that. She also gave me her precision—the same kind of precision that we strive for as poets. To represent the thing exactly.

Another image that has recurred is both my mother and father taking a bottle off the shelf and putting it in the right sized paper bag. There was a size for every bottle.

KP: Different sized paper bags?

EB: Yes. The bags were arranged under the counter and you would reach for the right size, whether it was a pint or a half-pint, fifth or a quart. If somebody bought a number of bottles they would wrap them in newsprint so that the bottles wouldn’t clink against each other and break. Again in “The Muse of Work” there is the line: “She steps out of the walk-in ice box with a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon, bumping the door closed with her hip.” This image of my mother going into the refrigerator (which we called an icebox) and carrying out a case of beer, then closing the door with her hip—that for me is the most iconic image of my mother. If there were one image that I could choose to say “this is my mother,” that would be the one.

KP: Atlantic City is the setting of your poem “How I Became Miss America.” It feels like such an iconic place. Maybe because I have family from that part of New Jersey—it’s biological family that I did not grow up with—they were also connected to beauty pageants and apartments above the stores that they owned.

EB: I remember my grandmother taking me when I was a tiny child to see the Miss America Parade on the boardwalk. You probably know that they would ride down the boardwalk on the back of convertibles. They did that beauty pageant waving as they went. I said, “Oh grandma! She knows so many people!” I thought she was waving to everyone that she knew.

Living near Atlantic City, the pageant was a big event because it brought a lot of money into town. After the pageant, that was the end of the summer. That was the end of the season of making money.

KP: Do you think growing up with that as an example of popularity or a standard of beauty influenced you later?

EB: Oh yes. It was such a strong cultural standard. And because it happened in my backyard, as I say in the poem, I just imagined I could be Miss America. I was a pretty little girl—not exceptionally so—but to me the goal was attainable. I thought that I would grow up and enter the pageant. I could see myself there. My life spans an interesting time in terms of standards of beauty. I’m like somebody who grew up with a horse and buggy and has now lived through all these generations—to jet planes. I have lived a number of lives because when I was in high school and even the beginning of college, that beauty pageant standard was very strong and I was completely into it. I had all of the dyed-to-match shoes to go with my dresses to go to bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs and sweet sixteen parties. I had tons of beauty products. I was a skinny little thing but I had a bathing suit girdle that went under my bathing suit so my stomach would be absolutely flat. The whole thing!

KP: I did not know those existed.

EB: Oh gosh, yes. When we went to prom it was three outfits: You had your going-out-to-dinner outfit, you had your prom dress, and you had your after-prom outfit. In fact, I had all of my clothes on index cards so I could keep track of them and mix and match them. I didn’t have a great deal of money to spend on clothing, so what I had was spent very strategically. (Laughter)

Then in the middle of college—in the 60s—a new era hit. By the time I got out of college I was wearing jeans and flannel shirts and work boots. I had stopped shaving my armpits and legs. Let my hair go frizzy. A combination of hippy and feminism. No makeup. No nothing. It’s just an interesting difference. My young years really bridged from one world to another.

KP: It does seem like very different lives almost. Completely different phases.

EB: Really, I am glad that I got to experience both. I didn’t feel oppressed wanting to dress up. I had fun with it. It was not an imposition to have to wear that bathing suit girdle. I loved it. (Laughter)

KP: I’m so curious. I’m going to research this bathing suit girdle after.

I wanted to ask—because you mentioned the idea of multiple lives and phases you’ve gone through—you took a substantial amount of time off from writing to work with women who had been sexually abused as
children. I don’t know if you want to talk about that but I was just curious how dealing with, working, and helping these victims affected you. I’m sure it did. Can you even articulate that idea?

EB: It’s not that easy but I can try. I never set out to do that work, but I taught writing workshops and often taught women’s writing workshops and the timing was such that in the early ‘70s women started to talk about their experience being sexually abused as children. I was not abused myself, so this was really news to me. I knew nothing about it, but I was deeply struck by what these women had gone through and also deeply impressed with their strength and resilience. I thought people should know about this. It just kind of grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. It wasn’t really a choice. I co-edited an anthology, I Never Told Anyone, of women’s stories. And as I worked on that anthology, I saw that the act of telling their stories had a powerful impact on the women. As editors we were listening to them. They had the experience—some for the first time in their lives—of being heard, believed, validated. They were breaking the silence and it was healing. And I was learning a great deal of what turned out to be the process of healing. I started working with women in workshops, using writing not as creative writing to make a literary work, but as a healing tool. It was an extraordinary privilege. There was so little available to survivors of abuse at that time. It’s hard to grasp the lack if you are not old enough to have lived through that. There were no books, no TV shows, no Oprah.

KP: No resources.

EB: No resources. There was no Internet. Pretty much it was just dead silence. As I was working with people, I learned a great deal about what was helpful and then Laura Davis and I went on to write The Courage to Heal. I spent a good dozen years completely away from poetry. It was deeply, deeply gratifying work—but eventually, as meaningful as it was, I did not feel as though I was tending to my own soul. I was starting to feel kind of thin inside. That I wasn’t feeding my own creative fire. Poetry was my first love and I had to return to it. That was a big shift. It was a bumpy return, because I had been away from it for so long. Eventually I reached out to Dorianne and asked her if she would mentor me. I was really stuck at a certain plateau and I didn’t know how to teach myself to move past it. She was an amazing mentor who taught me so much. That was the start of my return to poetry—I felt like Rip Van Winkle. I have had two poetry lives, two incarnations, that are separated by a lot of years. I am now never going to leave poetry again.

KP: I really get the sense of bravery or an acceptance of the full breadth of self-expression for humans and their relationships in this collection. I am thinking of the wife who neglects her baby to talk on the phone with her lover or the “easy, loose kisses” in your poem “Ordinary Sex.”

EB: In this book, perhaps even more than in my previous ones, I am feeling very much connected to what other people are going through. Some of these poems were written during a particularly difficult period in my life. Something I leaned on at that time was the basic idea that other people feel this too. I grew up in a family, a culture, and an era where the premise was that things were just going to get better and better. That was definitely my mother’s worldview. My life would be better than her life and we would just keep passing on better and better and better. It really did not seem to me that this was an unrealistic way to look at things for a very long time. It sounds ridiculous, but a lot of my life has been coming to terms with the fact that it doesn’t work that way. That was a lovely thought that my mother had but that is just not how the world goes. A lot of my life has been a shakedown toward humility.

KP: To catalog it and deal with it not in the past but as a part of the anthology of your experiences. Cathartic.

EB:  I have definitely been humbled quite a lot. Poetry is such a good medium for coming to terms with expectations and disappointments. That is how we connect with other people. We need that. All of our suffering is not so different from each other’s. The first poem in Like a Beggar, begins: “Relax. Bad things are going to happen.” And it ends with eating a strawberry.

Ellen Bass’s most recent book of poetry, Like a Beggar, has just been published by Copper Canyon Press. Her previous award-winning books of poetry include The Human Line and Mules of Love. Her poems have regularly appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review and many other journals. She co-edited the first major anthology of women’s poetry, No More Masks! and her nonfiction includes the best-selling The Courage to Heal. She teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University.

Kendall Poe has worked for Tin House, The Paris Review, and BOMB Magazine. She is a fiction writer and a poetry enthusiast who spends her free time freelancing about Brooklyn.