Line / Break is back with Ellen Bass! Ellen joins host Laura Buccieri to talk about poems housing themselves inside you for later, leaning into obsessions, and how living in Santa Cruz made space for her groundbreaking book The Courage to Heal.ARVE Error: src mismatch
src in org: https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/86h8U3DlzMk?feature=oembed&wmode=opaque
src in mod: https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/86h8U3DlzMk?wmode=opaque
src gen org: https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/86h8U3DlzMk
Our guest next week is 92Y Discovery Prize-winner Monica Sok. Stay tuned!
Line / Break is a new interview series from Copper Canyon Press that goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. We’re hungry to see poets on screen talking shop, answering questions, and taking us behind the scenes of how they do what they do. So we’re giving them a call, and bringing those conversations to you. New episodes, hosted by Director of Publicity Laura Buccieri, launch on Fridays this spring.
Laura (00:01): Hey, everyone. I’m Laura Buccieri, the Director of Publicity at Copper Canyon Press, and you’re watching our new interview series, Line / Break, which goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. I’ve always had the dream of seeing more poets represented on screen talking shop, answering questions, and kind of taking us behind the scenes of how they do what they do. And working with these poets at the press has really inspired me and challenged me. And it’s just been a lot of fun. So in the series, I kind of want to bring you that spirit to you wherever you might be. So in each season we will be bringing you episodes from different Copper Canyon poets. In this episode, we are speaking with the amazing Ellen Bass. Ellen, thank you so much for being here. How’s your day going? Is it going all right?
Ellen (00:57): My day’s going all right. I’m [crosstalk 00:01:00] that’s a good start.
Laura (01:03): Solid.
Ellen (01:06): And I’m so happy to be talking with you, Laura.
Laura (01:08): Oh, well, I just appreciate you being here and, you know, I would love if possible to have you introduce yourself, maybe name, pronouns, where you live, most recent book you published, anything else you want to throw in, if you’d like.
Ellen (01:28): Great. My name is Ellen Bass. My pronouns are she and her. I live in Santa Cruz, California. It is a California blue sky day and I can see out my window. We’ve got in the neighbor’s yard, a big maple that’s still in the process of turning leaves and the garden is put to sleep. It has its cover crop growing. And my most recent book is Indigo.
Laura (02:06): Yes. I love that. It’s such a beautiful book. It talks so much about actually, so much in that is nature and is like your surroundings in Santa Cruz. So I loved hearing you kind of list what you see cause it’s like, it’s almost like being in one of your poems.
Ellen (02:26): Yes. Yeah, I know. Right outside my door is a datura plant and I have to stop myself because pretty much every time I write, I want to describe the same plant over and over. And like, no, Ellen, got to pick out something else once in a while.
Laura (02:46): I would read that book. Poetry is obsession. And that sounds like, you know, the obsession of your quarantine, I guess.
Ellen (02:56): Yes. Yes. Actually, I’m going to be teaching this series of talks in the spring and one week is going to be on obsessions and Kwame Dawes who has talked about obsessions so brilliantly is going to pop in and we’re going to talk about obsessions some. So it is. It’s a wonderful thing for any writer to have an obsession.
Laura (03:23): Truly. I know. It’s interesting cause like I kind of define obsession as just like constant curiosity. Right? And so it’s really cool to have that, to be able to make yourself curious about the same thing over and over and over and over again. I think that’s a, it’s truly a talent to be honest. So that’s my way of saying you’re quite talented and I can’t wait to have your obsession book someday about this tree, this plant. When it comes kind of to poetry, I feel like everything can be tracked back to that first moment of kind of like inspiration that, first moment that one kind of sees themselves represented in a word or a phrase or a song or a rhyme or anything like that, so I wanted to open with a question about like similar but different in terms of beginnings. So can you tell me about the first time you saw yourself represented or the first time you felt seen or identified with a poem, a song, a book, a film, or anything similar or was there even a moment like that?
Ellen (04:42): This is such an interesting question. And I don’t know that I saw myself represented. I mean, maybe I was, but I didn’t… When I look back and I think about, okay, a movie or a book, and I’m thinking now about when I first started to really get interested in poetry, which was reading poetry, not writing it in the beginning, when I was just very like a young teenager, an adolescent, I loved reading poetry and I loved almost all poetry that ever came across my way. And I don’t know, I really don’t know, why I responded that way at all, but I did. I loved it. I like to learn poems by heart. I, I like to, I type them out on little index cards [crosstalk 00:05:49].
Laura (05:48): Oh my god. Why? To carry them with you?
Ellen (05:51): I didn’t carry them.
Laura (05:53): Why are we typing them out on index cards?
Ellen (05:55): I don’t know. No one ever asked me why. I guess I just wanted to have them in a way, a good way to have them. And I have a brother who’s eight years older than me, so he would bring home books and I would read some from what he had. You know, so I was reading at a level that I couldn’t really understand. I mean, I could read the words, but I really didn’t understand a lot of what I was reading, but I don’t, I grew up, I was, my father was born in Russia. My mother was born in Philadelphia, but her parents came from Lithuania. We were, we lived in a tiny town outside of Atlantic City called Pleasantville, New Jersey in an apartment over the liquor store that they worked in. And nowadays you could probably find almost any demographic in a young adult book, but I’m 73 and there weren’t young adult books like that.
Ellen (07:20): So I didn’t see myself in novels. I didn’t see myself in poems. I didn’t see myself in films. And even besides the demographics, I don’t think, I mean, I saw, idealize like who I, like I would see Breakfast at Tiffany’s and wish that I was gorgeous like Audrey Hepburn, but I wasn’t. I was just me. So that’s not seeing myself. That’s seeing a fantasy. And I think the only place where I really identified was in popular love songs and because I was very in love with whatever boy I was with at that time. And so like in 1960, say like, I would have been 13, is that right? Yeah. I would have been 13.
Ellen (08:24): So, you know, songs like “And They Called it Puppy Love” just because we’re 17 and you know, the theme from A Summer Place. And I was in love with Earl Freeman who I almost married. I was very in love with him and it was just kind of fluky that we didn’t wind up getting married, but, so that’s how I saw myself as a lovestruck teenager. And…
Laura (08:55): I love that. I love that. I love that that’s where you saw yourself and that’s where you gravitated towards.
Ellen (09:04): Yeah. And then the poems that I would read, I didn’t see anything of myself in them. I don’t know why they reached me given my life experience. I was very sheltered really. And you know, I remember reading like Omar Khayyam: “The moving Finger writes and, having writ, moves on nor all your piety nor wit, what is it, shall lure it back to cancel half a line, or your tears, nor all your tears wash out a word of it.”
Laura (09:44): Oh. That’s great.
Ellen (09:47): I mean, it’s in me. Just like “Mary had a Little Lamb.” Now I mean, I hadn’t lived long enough to have any regrets. Now, I mean, some people at 13 have had a very challenging life and they might have a lot of regrets, but I didn’t. I mean, everything was going along okay for me. And you know, so why this got under my skin about the moving finger writes and having writ, and it feels like it was pressing it. It was like, you’re going to need this later on because, you’re going to have terrible regrets.
Ellen (10:28): And you’re going to really give like you would give anything to go back and do certain things over. And then this poem is just going to be inside you, but it’s like, you don’t need it now, but you might as well learn it because this is going to be your life lesson. I mean, it’s really, as I started to talk about it’s really, I mean, I’ve talked about it a little bit before, but never quite this much. And not quite connecting some of it quite as much because you’re probably too young to remember this, but there was a time, some decades back where it was very popular to know what season you were for what colors you should wear. And so people would say like, I’m a winter, or I’m a spring, you know, I’m a fall.
Laura (11:15): Oh gosh.
Ellen (11:16): We’re probably going back like 30, 40 years or something now. And like a fall would be fall colors and winter wear like jewel tones, you know.
Laura (11:27): Like ice. Yeah.
Ellen (11:28): It’s things like that. And I always used to joke that like I was a regret, that it was like, that was my color. And [crosstalk 00:11:47] where was Omar Khayyam right there when I was 13.
Laura (11:51): Oh my gosh, do you, I love that thought of the poem finding you and how like lodging into you for later. I wonder how much of that is happening now. Like how many of the poems I’m reading or you’re reading are latching into us for later.
Ellen (12:12): I think it’s so interesting how, and also, when I think about, I mean, what was I responding? I must’ve been responding to the most essential parts of poetry, not their content, not what they were about. Or their subject matter.
Laura (12:30): Language maybe?
Ellen (12:32): Right. Language. Exactly. But using language in these imagistic and metaphorical ways and rhythm and sound and all the things that poems were from the very, very beginning of time. Incantations. Yeah. Yes. And so the fact that the content might not have spoken to me, like when I was in high school and we were studying poetry, most of the other kids in my class were not interested in the poems we were studying. This is, again, way back. We weren’t studying [crosstalk 00:13:19] Yeah. Right. Right. This is, you know, you’re going way back. But I loved it. I loved every one of them. And it didn’t matter if it was about some pastoral scene in some country I had never been to talking about things that really weren’t of concern to me at the moment. I just loved the language and the music.
Laura (13:44): Well, it’s magic. Right?
Ellen (13:46): Magic. Yeah.
Laura (13:49): It’s like when a kid is drawn, like a two year is drawn to, I don’t know, a Whitney Houston song or something like that. It’s like, they probably don’t know what the song is about, but they can feel the rhythm. They can feel the emotion. They can feel that, you know, so I get that. I do. I get that. Yeah. I don’t know. That’s fascinating though. Do you have any of those note cards with the poems on it? Do you have any of those?
Ellen (14:22): You know, I probably have them in a box somewhere and my brother taught me to type so that I could type his papers and cause he was in college and that way I could type his papers and I was thrilled to learn how to type, because I just felt so grown up. And so I just typed as much as I could. I still love to type.
Laura (14:59): I was taught to type and I’m still terrible at it and I’m still super slow, but that’s okay. It’s my cross to bear.
Ellen (15:11): You have other strengths.
Laura (15:11): So thank you. You’re too kind. So I’m curious, you know, was there kind of a moment, you talk about reading poems at age 13 or something like that, but was there a moment that you’re like, “Hey, maybe I’m like that? Maybe I’m a poet.” Maybe I’m, you know, like maybe poetry is something that I could do or produce, or was poetry just kind of something that you kind of kept coming back to?
Ellen (15:41): Just the teeniest bit when I was around that age. I wrote a few poems and they were, you know, out of angst, and also out of awe. You know I mean, I guess, those are the poles.
Laura (15:58): Right.
Ellen (16:03): But I didn’t do that very often. You know, it was just a few. I remember a couple from that period, a couple from when I was in high school, and then I didn’t try and write poetry again until I was in college. And that’s when I really got bitten by the bug.
Laura (16:22): Wow. So when you were drawn to it in college, was it the type of thing where you’re like, “wow, this is it like, I love it. It’s like this is how [crosstalk 00:16:33]”
Ellen (16:33): … loved it. Yes, I really loved it. And I had a teacher whose name was Sarah deFord and she taught a class called Versification and we weren’t supposed to try and make, well we could if we were talented enough, but we didn’t have to write, and I wasn’t, we didn’t have to write good poems. We just had to write them correctly. We had to write in all these different forms and we had to write sonnets and villanelles and we had to write in different meters. And if they were a good poem, that was fine. But the main thing was to write in that form accurately. And it was really great. It was like playing scales. It was just where you got this muscle memory in your body of what does iambic pentameter sound like? What does it feel like to write it? You know, what does it feel like to make these rhymes? And we’d have to do all these different rhyme schemes and all of that. And it was like a puzzle and I was hooked. I loved it.
Laura (17:50): You loved the puzzle. I love that.
Ellen (17:52): I loved it. I just absolutely loved it. And that’s when I started really writing a lot and you know, the idea of being a poet wasn’t like it is today. You know, it wasn’t like a career path. I mean, no one thought they were going to, I mean, I shouldn’t say no one, but I mean almost no one, you know, thought they were, “Oh, okay. I will be a poet.” It was just, I loved doing this and I did it a lot. And then I decided that I would go to grad school for poetry and see if I could, I was so naive. I knew I was going to learn, but even more, I was going to just see if I could kind of get the discipline going. Is this something I wanted to just do with my days as much as I could. And I thought that would just give me a chance to see if I wanted to do it and…
Laura (19:12): And you did.
Ellen (19:12): I did. Yeah. I wanted to do it and I wanted to do it. And then I just thought okay, well, I’m just going to get whatever jobs work out in order to pay my rent and buy food and just save as much of my time as I could for writing. Yeah. And not try and do like a career in something.
Laura (19:41): Yeah.
Ellen (19:42): Just try and write as much as I could.
Laura (19:45): And here you are, a poet.
Ellen (19:47): Yeah. That’s what I’m still doing. Just as much as I can.
Laura (19:51): I know. My god. I love that. I’m curious though. So I feel like a lot of people think you have to, they’re like, “okay, I’m going to be a writer, so I’m going to move to New York.” So I’m going to live…. Like, I feel like so many people think you have to live in New York or somehow be associated with the city in order to be a writer in some way. So I’m curious you’re an extremely successful poet and you’re living in Santa Cruz, California, and I’m curious how is that? How is it to be a poet in Santa Cruz, California? How is it to be a poet not living in a major city, let’s say? Like what is that like?
Ellen (20:37): Well, I think it’s had its ups and down… You know, its pluses and minuses. I think on the minus side, that I was not… When I moved to Santa Cruz in 1974. And although there are, always have been poets in Santa Cruz, they’re not in the kind of density that they are in New York.
Laura (21:08): Sure.
Ellen (21:10): And so I was mostly separated, you know, to a great extent, separated from the poets who could have taught me the most. And so my development was very sluggish, very slow. I’m not one of those poets who just comes out of the gate really good. You know, we’re seeing those poets and…
Laura (21:44): We are. No. I know.
Ellen (21:45): … testing them, but we’re really seeing them now. I was a really slow learner. And so I just, I was, because I was sort of in a kind of backwater, and it didn’t occur to me to really try to connect with the poets who were here. I mean, I made some feeble attempts, but mostly I was teaching freelance, and so I was in groups with people who couldn’t write any better than me. And so I was, I just call it wandering in the wilderness. I was just kind of circling under the mistaken belief that if you just keep writing, you’ll get better. And that was something that was popular at that time.
Laura (22:34): Interesting. Okay. Okay.
Ellen (22:36): And, you know, and it left out the important element of study. And so, I mean, I was reading a lot, but I wasn’t studying. And so I think that had I been in a more metropolitan area, especially New York, it would have just become more apparent. And I would have had some of those relationships sooner where I was learning more. And also where I could see that I wasn’t doing very well, that I wasn’t progressing, but there is also an upside to it. And the upside is that nobody knew what I was doing. And so I didn’t have anybody saying you can or can’t, you should or shouldn’t, you know, I was very, I mean, I don’t mean to make Santa Cruz sound like it’s off map, the flat earth map, but it is a small town on the other side of the country.
Ellen (23:52): And so, although it wasn’t very good for my poetry, it did make the cauldron within which I started to work with survivors of child sexual abuse, and then went on to co-write with Laura Davis who lived in San Francisco, The Courage to Heal. And had we been in New York, no, that would not have happened because we needed a certain kind of isolation to have that much chutzpah to just take that on, and say we’re doing it. And I think that if I had been in an academic setting, had I been teaching at a university, if I had been with people much more sophisticated than I am, that this wouldn’t have had the protection of being unknown, relatively unknown, for that to develop. So, you know, there’s ups and there’s downs for everything.
Laura (25:12): Of course. Of course. Yeah. I mean [crosstalk 00:25:14]
Ellen (25:14): And it never occurred to me to move. I mean, nowadays, you know, a poet who wants to teach in a university as a way to both share poetry and also to have the kind of work that allows them to keep writing poems is for the most part willing to move to do that.
Laura (25:35): Yeah.
Ellen (25:36): Now that never occurred to me, that moving.
Laura (25:40): I love that.
Ellen (25:41): It never occurred. I mean, it was like, I mean, if could have taught at UCSE or something like that, of course, I would have jumped at the opportunity, but, no, I wasn’t going to move. This is where I landed. And it was where I was going to make my home. And so I never really thought about going somewhere else. That’s a very long answer about that living.
Laura (26:10): No. No. I was interested. I really, really, I mean, so I associate, I mean, your poems are so Santa Cruz based, in my opinion. They’re so like, you know, I mean there are many things, but there they are, like I said at the beginning, they like the banana slugs and the nature out there. And I just, I don’t know. I guess, I mean, I’m from Northern California, so maybe it’s me longing for a little bit of home, but I also just think there’s something about nature that especially in the pandemic is becoming so addictive and fascinating. And I’m more and more drawn to it. So when I read your work, I’m like, Oh, this is fantastic. You know, it’s so rooted and it’s so rooted in nature. And I think that’s Santa Cruz. Right? I mean, that must come from where you are. You know?
Ellen (27:03): Definitely. Definitely. Yes. I mean, in the last year is when I’ve been traveling more and been in New York more. It’s only been maybe in the last, Oh less than 10 years that I’ve had this feeling of, Oh, how wonderful it would be to live in New York and just have this. There’s so many people, poets especially, who I wish I lived closer to, and events that I wish I could be at. And there’s so much rich, rich poetry culture as well as other culture that, but until recently it never really even really pulled me.
Laura (27:56): Well, come visit. But when this whole thing is over, but you know, stay near the water.
Ellen (28:01): I’m not moving.
Laura (28:03): Stay near the water is my advice.
Ellen (28:07): … and for sure in the pandemic. I am so glad to be not in a big city. I’m really, really glad to be. But yes, I can’t wait to be back in New York.
Laura (28:17): Yeah. I mean, you can’t move cause you have so many books. How would you move all the books? This is the question.
Ellen (28:23): Impossible.
Laura (28:25): Impossible task. Impossible task. Well, I wondered if we could end with perhaps you reading a poem. It could be from your collection, somebody else’s collection, anything you want to throw out into the ether, I will take.
Ellen (28:42): Yes. I would love to. I’d like to read a poem by Marvin Bell. As many of you know, Marvin died this year and he is a great poet. And if you don’t know his work, there are many wonderful books from Copper Canyon that you should read. And this is a beautiful poem called
We need some pines to assuage the darkness
when it blankets the mind,
We need a silvery stream that banks as smoothly
as a plane’s wing, and a worn bed of
needles to pad the rumble that fills the mind,
and a blur or two have a wild thing
that sees and is not seen. We need these things
between appointments, after work,
and, if we keep them, then someone someday,
lying down after a walk
and supper, with the fire hole wet down,
the whole night sky set at a particular
time, without numbers or hours, will cause
a little sound of thanks- a zipper or a snap-
to close round the moment and the thought
of whatever good we did.
Laura (30:07): Oh, Ellen. That was perfect.
Ellen (30:10): That’s such a beautiful poem.
Laura (30:12): Oh gosh. Well thank you, Ellen. Thank you for bringing Marvin to us. Thank you for being such a great guest.
Ellen (30:23): Thank you, Laura. It was wonderful to talk to you.
Laura (30:26): So wonderful to speak with you and thank you, everybody, for watching. We will be back soon with another episode and I hope you all stay well in the meantime. So thank you.
Ellen (30:38): Take care.