In the months following the 2016 presidential election, poet Ellen Bass could not write—or, more precisely, she could not write what she wanted to write.
“I didn’t want the poems that I could write,” says the former Santa Cruz County Poet Laureate from her home office on the Westside of Santa Cruz. “I wanted a poem that could address where we were in the world. Those poems weren’t coming.”
Contemplating the tectonic plates of the socio-political world had always been part of Bass’s toolbox as a poet. But, post-election, her muse had other ideas. Her muse wanted the personal over the political. “It just seemed pointless in that moment to write about something small, and yet impossible to write about the world situation.”
Perhaps in her younger days, she would have forced the issue, brought her muse to heel. But, at 72, the older and wiser Ellen Bass—now not only a seasoned teacher and workshop leader with a devoted local following, but also a widely admired and nationally recognized poet—has learned a thing or three about how poetry works.
“A poem isn’t an essay,” she says. “A poem isn’t an intelligent communication that is giving information to people that they might need. We want those things, and it’s crucial that we’re writing about those things.”
But a poem has a different role to play, Bass says. “A poem has to be an exploration. It has to be a discovery. You have to look at something closely enough that you can find your way to something that you didn’t know before. [Critic and journalist] Vivian Gornick says, ‘Our job isn’t to answer the questions, but to deepen them.’ So, you have to deepen the question. And that’s a tall order, because they’re already deep. So when the muse lets me write a poem, I just say yes. I don’t say, ‘I would prefer a different poem, thank you.’”
From that artistic reckoning came Indigo (Copper Canyon Press), Bass’s first volume of new poetry in six years, just released this month. If not for a certain world-changing virus stealing the limelight, this would be an Ellen Bass moment. In 2019, she was honored as the Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year, and her new book enhances her position as one of California’s most prominent poetic voices. She is also a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and has published widely in many of the forums that make a poet’s career, including The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Locally, she was just chosen by GT readers as the area’s best poet in the Best of Santa Cruz County balloting.
In keeping with a world in which “social distancing” and “shelter-in-place” are now part of the common vocabulary, Indigo is a very intimate, interior collection. Bass plumbs the material of domesticity to find moments of everyday transcendence. These poems echo with an up-close familiarity. The poet talks about her parents, her adult children, her ex-husband. She mentions her wife by name. We even get a shout-out to her egg-laying chickens, Marilyn and Estelle.
Bass says that much of her poetry is autobiographical, but not purely so. “There are ways in which the ‘I’ of a poem is never exactly the ‘I’ who is talking to you now,” she says. “And I think of that ‘I’ as a person who is standing to the front and just to the right of me. I’m just a little bit behind her and off to the side. In some ways, she’s truer than the ‘I’ who lives my life, and in some ways, not so. But we know each other very well.”
Michael Wiegers is the executive editor at Copper Canyon Press and has worked as editor for three Bass books, including Indigo. “It’s a book that has more of a looking back across her life than some of her previous work,” he says. “It’s also looking at aging, growing into marriage and love. It probably is more interior. Her work is always outwardly focused, but she does allow some space for herself in this book to a slightly greater degree.”
Born and raised in New Jersey and educated in Boston, Bass has been a part of the Santa Cruz poetry scene for more than 45 years. She sees her literary life in three broad segments. The first segment was her experiences as a poet and teacher in the 1970s and ’80s, the second when she broadened her writer’s palette by authoring non-fiction titles, including a book for LGBTQ youth and the bestselling The Courage to Heal. In her third act, she returned to poetry, breaking through a creative ceiling to reach new heights in her career and power of expression.
Improbably, Bass’s journey began in an apartment above a downtown liquor store that her parents owned and operated in a New Jersey town called Pleasantville, just a few miles west of Atlantic City. In that sense, her life path has taken her from one Boardwalk town to another.
“Growing up, and when I was a young adult, that seemed like one of the most boring possible, least exotic childhoods in the world,” she says. “But the older I get, the more interesting it is to me. There’s something about including details from the store, from my parents, from Pleasantville that draws me like a magnet to want to write about it again and again.”
She showed up in Santa Cruz County in 1974, in her mid-twenties, after earning a master’s degree in creative writing from Boston University. She arrived with a man whom she later married. He had come to California for work, and the two of them went searching for a place to live. They found Boulder Creek.
“We were way down a dirt road, the end of a dead-end, bordered on two sides by the creek on an acre of redwoods. I was in heaven. We bought a chainsaw. I chainsawed wood, and I even learned how to sharpen that chainsaw.”
Experienced in leading poetry workshops in Boston, she decided to do something similar in the remote reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains. She made up some flyers, offering to teach poetry for $5 a week. “I had to pace up and down my living room for half an hour getting up the courage to take those flyers around,” she remembers.
That first workshop attracted a dozen people who drove from as far away as Santa Cruz to Boulder Creek. “(After that), we had poetry readings in bars in Boulder Creek, with the cash register clanging, drunk people heckling. We just had readings all over the place.”
From those beginnings rose a tradition over the decades that has touched hundreds of people. Even as she has risen to become Santa Cruz’s most high-profile contribution to the poetry world since the heyday of the late Adrienne Rich, Bass has continued to lead workshops, not only to help writers find their voice, but to make it sharper and more resonant. She even brings her workshops into the Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad and Santa Cruz County jails.
Current Santa Cruz County Poet Laureate Danusha Laméris is one of those Ellen Bass acolytes. She first came across a flyer for a Bass-led, women-only workshop while in her mid-twenties, and was an active participant in the workshop for seven years. The workshops, Laméris says, are not about personal catharsis through poetry.
“It’s a really rich experience to be in a group like that where you’re sharing through writing really intimate things,” Laméris says. “And yet no one is weighing in on your life, or giving you advice. There’s really strict rules about that.”
Instead, Bass focuses on the poem, finds it flaws, works to get her students to understand the importance of honing their craft.
“People sign up for the workshop,” Laméris says, “and they’re feeling great. They’re writing whatever comes to them naturally. And then, they inevitably hit a stage some weeks or months in, where they encounter craft. And maybe for a while they’re not feeling so great, because they realize it’s a steeper hill to climb than you thought. And Ellen’s good at carrying people through that part to what comes next, which is having some degree of mastery or proficiency.”
Bass often tells her students that poetry isn’t about confession for its own sake. “The point isn’t to tell you about my life,” she says. “You don’t really care about my life, and I tell my students no one really cares about your life—even less in poetry than memoir, where you might want to find out what happens. You always write a poem so that readers will hopefully see themselves reflected in the poem and it will mean something to them in their lives.”
“Ellen is really a technician,” Laméris says. “She has a clear, clean mind. She breaks down aspects of craft in a very precise, very replicable way. She not only gives you feedback, she shows you the toolbox and teaches you how to use the tools. I think it’s surprising to people not intimate in the world of poetry how technical it is.”
For the past couple of decades, Bass has drawn from her own experience as a poet to teach the secrets of craft. In the late 1990s, she had reached a plateau when it came to her own poetry—though she says it was only clear in retrospect.
“This sounds ridiculous, but I didn’t understand that I wasn’t learning. I didn’t know how to teach myself. I ascribed to the philosophy that if you just keep writing, you’ll write better. That’s not true. You have to study. You have to look at a poem and pull it apart, see what the poet did. I had the experience of writing in circles, essentially. All of my poems had the same strengths and the same weaknesses, over and over again. I knew I wasn’t improving. I didn’t know what to do.”
Bass’s reincarnation as a poet came about thanks largely to fellow poet Dorianne Laux (Bass and Laux are both faculty at Pacific University in Oregon). “She taught me everything I know,” Bass says of Laux, the author of 10 books of poetry and the winner of several prominent awards for her poetry. “I owe her everything.”
Armed with her new insights into the mechanics of poetry, Bass ascended to another dimension in her own work. She has won a number of awards, including the Pushcart Prize three times. She began her relationship with Copper Canyon Press with 2007’s The Human Line and followed that up with Like a Beggar in 2014. She got the attention of Paul Muldoon, the poetry editor at The New Yorker, who has published 10 of her poems. She was also singled out for praise on The New Yorker podcast by former U.S. Poet Laureate and prominent California poet Philip Levine in 2013. “One of my students emailed me,” she remembers, “and said, ‘Listen to this.’ I thought she had the technical skills to do some kind of fake thing for me. I thought it was a practical joke.”
Copper Canyon’s Michael Wiegers says that Bass is keenly aware of her evolution as a poet and is not interested in turning back. “I once told her, ‘Hey, how about two of those old books of yours that are out of print? Maybe we should reissue those.’ And she was, ‘Oh god, no.’ She told me that occasionally someone will come up to her with one of her old books and they’re really excited. And she just points out to them that she was once a bad poet and that she’s learned how to be a better one. That kind of self-awareness is a big encouragement to her students.”
With its focus on Bass’s inner life, the new volume Indigo feels almost like a secret shared. Her deceased parents come to life in the book in a way that surprises her. “I remember in my thirties thinking, ‘Well, I’ve already written everything there is to write about my childhood and my parents.’ But now I have this continually deepening appreciation in who my parents were. It’s something that I never would have imagined before my parents died that, even now, I could still have the opportunity to have a relationship with them. They are still giving me things.”
As for her own family, she said that because of the intimate nature of the poems, they have “refusal rights” on what she shares with the world.
“For the most part, I really try not to think about anyone else ever reading it,” she says. “Anything I’m willing to write about, I can’t think about who might read it, how they might feel, whether it’s publishable. If I start thinking about that stuff, I’m lost. I don’t think about making a useful moral statement, or teaching anybody anything, or trying to make a good impact on the world. I just think about making that poem the best I can make it. If it’s useful to somebody, I am gratified. But I’m my own first reader, and I’m trying to grapple with something, trying to dig deeper than I ever have before. I try to make that poem for me.”
‘Indigo’: A Poem From Ellen Bass’ New Book
Michael Wiegers, who edited Ellen Bass’s latest book of poetry, ‘Indigo,’ pointed to the book’s title poem as an example of the humanity in her poetry. “The way she looks at her ex-husband in comparison to the tattooed guy, there’s a certain mournfulness there. You see her calling him to account. But you don’t see her shaming him. You see a compassion there. He’s had his own suffering.”
By Ellen Bass
As I’m walking on West Cliff Drive, a man runs
toward me pushing one of those jogging strollers
with shock absorbers so the baby can keep sleeping,
which this baby is. I can just get a glimpse
of its almost translucent eyelids. The father is young,
a jungle of indigo and carnelian tattooed
from knuckle to jaw, leafy vines and blossoms,
saints and symbols. Thick wooden plugs pierce
his lobes and his sunglasses testify
to the radiance haloed around him. I’m so jealous.
As I often am. It’s kind of an obsession.
I want him to have been my child’s father.
I want to have married a man who wanted
to be in a body, who wanted to live in it so much
that he marked it up like a book, underlining,
highlighting, writing in the margins, I was here.
Not like my dead ex-husband, who was always
fighting against the flesh, who sat for hours
on his zafu chanting om and then went out
and broke his hand punching the car.
I imagine that when this galloping man gets home
he’s going to want to have sex with his wife,
who slept in late, and then he’ll eat
barbecued ribs and let the baby teethe on a bone
while he drinks a dark beer. I can’t stop
wishing my daughter had had a father like that.
I can’t stop wishing I’d had that life. Oh, I know
it’s a miracle to have a life. Any life at all.
It took eight years for my parents to conceive me.
First there was the war and then just waiting.
And my mother’s bones so narrow, she had to be slit
and I airlifted. That anyone is born,
each precarious success from sperm and egg
to zygote, embryo, infant, is a wonder.
And here I am, alive.
Almost seventy years and nothing has killed me.
Not the car I totaled running a stop sign
or the spirochete that screwed into my blood.
Not the tree that fell in the forest exactly
where I was standing—my best friend shoving me
backward so I fell on my ass as it crashed.
And I gave birth to a child.
So she didn’t get a father who’d sling her
onto his shoulder. And so much else she didn’t get.
I’ve cried most of my life over that.
And now there’s everything that we can’t talk about.
We love—but cannot take
too much of each other.
Yet she is the one who, when I asked her to kill me
if I no longer had my mind—
we were on our way into Ross,
shopping for dresses. That’s something
she likes and they all look adorable on her—
she’s the only one
who didn’t hesitate or refuse
or waver or flinch.
As we strode across the parking lot
she said, OK, but when’s the cutoff?
That’s what I need to know.
Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission.
ABOUT THE COVER PORTRAIT
Spokane-based photographer Dean Davis shot the photo on this week’s cover for his exhibit ‘Pictures of Poets.’ See his work and contact him at deandavis.com.