The Poem is an Exploration: Ellen Bass Interviewed by Wallace Ludel

On the life experiences that smooth our edges, writing into the unknown, and the brutality of love.

Cover of Indigo by Ellen Bass

I first read an Ellen Bass poem nearly a decade ago, studying with the luminary poet Marie Howe, who showed our class “What Did I Love,” a poem of Bass’s that had just run in the New Yorker. “What did I love about killing the chickens?” it begins, before continuing, “Let me start / with the drive to the farm / as darkness was sinking back into the earth.” In a digression towards the poem’s end, the speaker mentions tactilely learning the chickens’ bodies the way a traveler might explore a foreign city, entering church after church. “In every one the same figures of the Madonna, Christ on the Cross, / which I’d always thought was gore / until Marie said to her it was tender, / the most tender image.” I later learned that the Marie who had shown me the poem was the same Marie mentioned within it. “What Did I Love” brought me to Bass’s writing, and her work became a compass to me in the ensuing years.

We spoke in late April, during the stay-at-home order and on the occasion of Bass’s latest book, Indigo (Copper Canyon Press). The poems in Indigo flow in ways that only Bass’s can—stopping the world with their movements, both rapturous in their celebration and exultant in their heartbreak. There’s a saying that happiness can only be found where there is denial of nothing, and Bass’s poems look plainly at the world. The grace in watching as the cartography of your aging body follows the patterns you once saw in your parents, the finely-honed joy of being a wife, a mother, a lover, or a cook in a land where only contradiction and beauty hold dominion.

—Wallace Ludel 


Wallace Ludel What has it been like to launch a book during this time of social distancing? 

Ellen Bass My first thought was disappointment that my book tour was going to be wrecked, and I actually would have been on my way to New York today—but it turns out that poetry is like a weed, and it’s going to find its way through any crack. I have been busier than I’ve ever been with so many virtual events. People are hungry for poetry now. During hard times, people turn to poetry. Any time there is a crisis or great sorrow, poetry helps us bear the unbearable. It helps us talk about things for which there aren’t words without being reductive. One of the things that poetry does is to bear witness to the world as it is. 

All art is holding this tension between elegy and ode, between our sorrows, despairs, and sufferings, and the praise, wonder, and awe that we feel. W.H. Auden said that “every poem is rooted in imaginative awe.” My little disappointment in my book tour has turned out to be an opportunity to reach more people—not that I wouldn’t rather be on a plane to New York right now. I would.

WL Galway Kinnell said, “The secret title of every good poem might be ‘Tenderness’.” It’s a different entry point but I think awe and tenderness are very related, specifically in your work. And when we bear the unbearable, our concept of selfhood is altered, and poetry helps us mourn that shift.

EB For me, that’s so related to the essence of poetry—when you write a poem that succeeds, you are not the same person after writing it that you were before. Sometimes this transformation is subtle, and sometimes it’s big. A lot of it is involved with bearing the unbearable. It changes you and creates a slightly different you. You keep twitches of who you are, but something essential changes and we are enlarged. When we talk about being enlarged and transformed and enriched, it can sound like it’s all good, but of course you have to be brought to your knees for that. I think of those life experiences as throwing me down hard, over and over, enough that my edges are smoothed.

WL Like sea glass.   

EB Exactly, and it’s not a pretty process, but that’s what life does. If we don’t just resist it, life impacts us. It’s tenderizing, like you said. It’s a reminder of how easy it is, even in conversation, to forget that the other person might be tender too, and to respond that way. We had a death in our family at the very beginning of the quarantine—it wasn’t a COVID death—so there’s been a lot of tenderness for us, and that’s profoundly affected our experience of the quarantine. It makes me acutely aware that everyone is having a shared experience in some ways, and, in other ways, a very individual and unique experience. 

WL Yes, here I am in a very tranquil setting while unimaginable figures of death rise around me, there’s a lot of dissonance.  

EB Dissonance is another key element in strong poems. The poem is capable of holding paradox and contradiction, and that tension is what makes poems exciting and complex, like life really is. Often there’s an oversimplification in everyday conversation, but the poem tries to hold the complexities.

WL Without passing any kind of value judgement over which is better, the light or the dark. 

EB Exactly. I interviewed the great poet Frank Gaspar some years ago, and I asked him about the ways in which suffering and praise are interwoven in his poems. He said, “the despair and praise are not so much a call and a deliberated a response, but the rising of two wings that beat together.” I always think of those wings. 

WL This and what you said before about the poem changing the poet, makes me feel that your work serves as a means for you to make sense of the world.

EB Making meaning out of chaos is what all art is trying to do in some way—to take the mess of this un-reconstructed life and find patterns. It’s like when you take a photo, you frame it in a certain way and you look from a certain angle with a certain lighting. Sometimes I look at a wonderful photograph of something simple like a leaf or some stuff on a table, and it’s composed in a way that has so much grace and interest. You realize that you would’ve just walked by that leaf or table and not really seen it. The poem is an exploration. I’m asking myself, what is this all about, whatever the thing is that I’m looking at—whether it’s a small thing that piqued my interest, or something that’s a big part of my life’s journey. I’m looking at it and trying to discover something that I didn’t know before.

WL That reminds me of when Edward Weston went on a trip to Mexico City to take pictures and noticed that the home he was staying in had the most amazing toilet, so he spent the whole time just photographing the toilet.

EB Yes. I did a residency at the Andrews Experimental Forest in southern Oregon. Everything is on such a large scale, with trees that go 250 feet into the sky. Trees that are 300, 500, even 700 years old. I wound up writing about a small fungus—“Fungus on Fallen Alder at Lookout Creek.” I tend to have an interest in small things. My wife is an entomologist, so living with her has intensified that bent. When there’s an insect that looks like a speck, she always runs to get the hand lens to see what’s really going on. Suddenly we see that there’s this absolutely amazing construction—thorax, abdomen, legs, antennae, eyes. Maybe it’s chewing or washing its face. It’s extraordinary.

Portrait of Ellen Bass by Irene Young

Photo of Ellen Bass by Irene Young.

WL One of your superpowers is the way you pace certain poems, which is exemplified in that habit of looking at the little bug through the magnifying lens. It creates a defamilarization that coexists with total accuracy. When you look at the bug under the magnification, it becomes a totally different bug, and yet it’s unquestionably the same bug, in fact, it’s more accurately itself than ever. The opening poem of Indigo“Sous-Chef”—is all about this tactility. It’s also in “What Did I Love”, “Ode to the Pork Chop” and many others.

EB I’m always trying to live more in the physical world, because I have a natural tendency to not be in my body. I spend a lot of time writing, reading, and sitting in my office—my wife will come in and she’ll say “You have to come outside, even just for five minutes.” Or she’ll bring me a peach or a strawberry. She lives in the physical world, her hands are in the dirt a lot of her life. I don’t think it’s an accident that I wanted to live with her, because I am so in my mind—and my heart—and part of the physicality in my poems is a longing to live more rooted in the physical world. Not to miss it.

WL It’s sort of alchemical. You combine the physical world with this yearning, and the two create a third entity.

EB That’s the exciting part—the leap into what I didn’t know would happen. One thing I always tell my students is, the camera is not bolted to the ground, you can move it in and move it out, and when you move it, you slow down the pacing. If I’m writing about someone walking towards me, if I start to describe that person, to some extent I stop their motion.

One exciting thing about writing a poem is the associations that come. In “Ode to the Pork Chop”, my favorite part is going to Macy’s, where my wife asked the sales clerk what kind of bones the bone china was made from, and the clerk confessed she had no idea. It is defamiliarization, as you were saying, because that’s not the most common thing that happens when you go to buy some dishes. When I wrote the first line of the poem, I definitely wasn’t thinking about the china, or Macy’s, but when I can get in that associative groove, the poem gets interesting for me, because then one thing rolls into the next. We’re with the pork chop and then on the white bone china, then at Macy’s, then my wife is asking this question which is both logical and bizarre, then we can move into reflection. “Though surely they were crushed / from sorrowful creatures. Everything you do will cause / harm, so I start forgiving myself now.” It flowed into that almost like a waterfall.

WL And I assume you had no idea it’d go there when you sat down to write the poem?

EB Absolutely not. I just knew I wanted to write about the pork chop, because it was the best pork chop I’d ever eaten. It was from a pig that friends had raised, so we were connected to the origins of this meat. For years I had almost no food in my poems, and I’d been asking and asking for food to come into them, and finally it started to enter, and now it’s in there a lot, and I’m so grateful. Food is related to desire, which is something that fuels my poetry.   

WLWhen you’re letting the poem dictate where it goes, do you find yourself going to the same places again and again?

EB If we go back to “Sous-Chef,” this poem started to go to an overly familiar place towards the end. It started to become more overtly a love poem, and I kept looking at it and thinking that I’d been writing a lot of love poems, and that’s not what this poem really wants to be. It’s like when you get in a habit that isn’t really authentic. 

Both my wife and my son are really good cooks, and my son was living with us at the time, and this poem came out of being a sous-chef for both of them, so it didn’t want to go into a love poem completely focused on my wife, even though there’s clearly some of that in there—lines like “the syrup / will linger on my fingers like your scent” are clearly my wife—but I didn’t want it to end up there. In the relationship between me and the poem, I was letting the poem down. I had to listen more deeply to what the poem wanted, and then it was more satisfied. I’m the servant to the poem.

WL It’s like that old phrase: “the mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.” 

EB Oh yes, isn’t that right, isn’t that right …    

WL How have the love poems affected your marriage or other relationships in your life?

EB I’m fortunate in that my wife knew me as a poet from the very beginning. We’ve been living together for thirty-eight years, and we were friends for almost a decade before that. When we met I had already published my first book, so she came into this with her eyes open. I feel lucky because I don’t know how easy it would be to spring this on someone. And having been friends for so long, there were certain things we knew about each other and we knew those things weren’t going to change. It was a good starting place for us. She’s very generous with me and I don’t think there’s ever been a poem that I thought was worthy to go out into the world that she asked me not to publish. I know it’s not the most comfortable thing for her, but her generosity prevails. My children have been extremely generous in this regard as well.

WL What’s it been like to write about aging? 

EB The older I get, the more interested I have become in my parents’ lives. I grew up in an apartment over the liquor store that my parents owned and worked in, and when I was a young adult it seemed like the most boring environment to have grown up in, but now it has a fascination for me. It’s interesting because it’s mine.

When I was in my twenties or thirties, I thought that I’d already written all there was to write about my parents and the liquor store, and that there was nothing more to say. Of course, I was very naive. The more I write about it, the deeper I can see into it. And everything in the world is like that—if you’re a scientist, the more you study something the more interesting it becomes, and I feel that my childhood and my parents are like that.

Aging is also quite interesting to me, because it’s what I’m doing—if I weren’t aging, I doubt I’d be so interested. For people in good health, you go along for quite a long time without a real awareness of the aging process, but now I’m more acutely confronted with mortality. We all know that we’re going to die, and when you’re young, you could die at any moment, but when you’re older you definitely are going to die within a certain amount of time. The experience of life not being endless makes aging and death more present. And there’s a certain functional pressure—I said to a young colleague of mine recently, “I probably at best only have fifteen more Aprils.” That doesn’t seem very long to me. And I don’t want to miss out on any of them. As I get older, there’s a greater urgency to pay attention, and that’s what I’m trying to do in my poems—both to pay attention so that I can make the poem, but also to pay attention in the world and in my life so I don’t miss out on the experience of being alive. That’s what the poems are trying to help me do, and that’s why I write them. 

WL That kind of brings us back to everything—whether it’s studying the bug under the magnifying lens, or studying the pork chop, or studying the liquor store, and the way these things may fill your life with gratitude or your marriage with love.   

EB Paying attention and gratitude are holding hands, really. So many people have talked and written about paying attention as a spiritual practice, and I feel that’s absolutely true, regardless of what it is we’re paying attention to. If you’re truly paying attention, you can’t help but feel gratitude, and I don’t mean to make it sound too sweet—sometimes you’re paying attention to something that’s devastating, whether it’s a personal loss, the perils of our Earth, or the stunning levels of greed and cruelty that we see—and there I keep coming back to the bird that Frank Gaspar talked about and the ways in which the despair and praise are like the rising of two wings that beat together. 

It’s important when we talk about gratitude not to sugar it up, and to always be aware of that other wing. I found this note from Camus the other day, who of course we don’t think of as the most cheerful soul, and he said, “the misery and greatness of this world: it offers no truth but only objects for love.” And there it is, what else is there for us to do? When you’re writing a poem, that’s what you’re doing, you’re trying to draw on that love that’s beyond love. In my poem “Marriage” I try to talk about that, I say, “this visceral / bloody union that is love, / but beyond love. The way you to yourself are past charm and delight.” It’s that brutal, brutal love.

Indigo is available for purchase here.

Wallace Ludel is an artist and writer. His art writing and poetry have appeared in Artforum, BOMB, Narrative, Triangle House Review, and elsewhere. He recently received his MFA from New York University, where he also taught creative writing. He is the editor of art writing at Triangle House Review.

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