Poet Laureate Ellen Bass on workshops, the ‘New Yorker’ and the town that feeds her creatively
Like her celebrated workshops, poet Ellen Bass is approachable and inspiring. When we meet, Bass, the town’s current poet laureate, is fresh from giving a poetry workshop. “I’m always just getting back from something,” Bass says, her eyes shining. About workshops, she says, “Each morning for four days I would start with one aspect of poetry. For example the concept of discovery. If there’s no surprise for the writer, there’s no surprise for the reader,” she explains, paraphrasing Robert Frost. “In poetry it’s important that you, the writer, discover something you didn’t know before you started. That way the reader does too. We want to break out of old patterns,” she smiles, embraced by three walls of books, a colorful rug, and an old black dog on the verge of falling asleep.
“Students bring poems they’ve already written for feedback. And they write new ones while they’re at the retreat. The new ones are almost always better,” she confides. “In a four-day immersion you get so much input. It’s like being fed and nourished. Then you’re able to work with that input for a long, long time afterward.”
Raised in New Jersey, Bass always knew she wanted to be a poet. It was in Boulder Creek in the mid-70s that she gave her first poetry workshop. “I remember putting up fliers in all the coffeehouses and bookstores. I was so nervous,” she says. Bass estimates that these days she gives close to 15 workshops a year in California, “a lot at Esalen, also Taos, the East Coast. I used to go to Mallorca every year.” But, like many baby boomers, she finds her priorities changing. “I’m so aware of time.”
Surprisingly, Bass confesses that while she feels “very competent” as a teacher, “writing is never the place where I feel quite confident. Especially with creative fiction—each piece is new. I can easily put in many many hours on a poem without results,” she says.
Poems come to her in many ways. “A line suddenly appears, or in reading other people’s poems. I might have a response to it. Yes,” she says, her face lighting up, “other poetry is a great source for me.”
Then there’s life experience, the daily as well as the extraordinary. “Sharon Olds says she always has her poetry antenna open—so do I. I love it, I love writing poetry,” she says. In the best of worlds Bass would be able to have “maybe two days in a row to think about nothing else.” But administration gets in the way. Preparing to teach, preparing to travel. “Poetry doesn’t attract readers all by itself. It’s like a child—you have to hold its hand and take it out into the world.
“Santa Cruz was an astonishingly fertile place for me,” says Bass, who admits that right now conditions are “shockingly good” for her work. “The confirmation from the world, I get a lot of response from people I don’t know, through email and online,” she says. And then there are those poems published in the New Yorker, “six of them this year,” she grins.
Bass teaches poetry workshops in the Santa Cruz jails and is currently working on a Sept. 20 free poetry reading along the San Lorenzo River, called “Voices of the River.” “I like bringing poetry out to where people are, people who might not go to bookshops or galleries,” says Bass. Poetry, she believes, “helps us join each other, it transcends all differences, gender, race, class, time period—poetry transcends everything.”
Is the world over-populated with mediocre poetry? “Self expression is really OK,” Bass laughs. “And there’s a lot of good work made as self-expression. But it’s not art. It’s just an experience for the author. Art happens when the reader also has an experience.”
No sooner had I left her study than I picked up my mail, in it the latest issue of the New Yorker. And there was one of Ellen Bass’ poems, big as life, exactly like her.
For more information on Ellen Bass and her poetry events, visit ellenbass.com
POETRY MEDIUM Local poet Ellen Bass believes poetry transcends all differences, and becomes art when the reader has an experience, too. PHOTO: CHIP SCHEUER