ROBERT SWARD: Would you say something of the transition you made from your writing and the work you did pre- and post- The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (Harper Collins 1988, 1994), to the almost exclusive involvement with poetry and teaching that followed? [And, by the way, congratulations on your new book, The Human Line, with that terrific blurb by Billy Collins, "Ellen Bass's frighteningly personal poems about sex, love, birth, motherhood, and aging are kept from mere confession by the graces of wit, an observant eye, an empathetic heart, and just the right image deployed at just the right time. The Human Line is full of real stunners." — Billy Collins]
ELLEN BASS: My teaching led directly into my work in the field of healing from trauma. Because my workshops were safe, supportive places to share writing, and because the women's movement had broken the silence about other issues (such as rape and domestic violence), women began sharing their stories of being sexually abused as children almost immediately. I am not a survivor myself and I was stunned both by the horror of what they had endured and also by their strength and resilience. I never intended to work in this field, but the stories of the women were so compelling that it became part of my life's path to bring them into the open.
But after enough years away from poetry, my spirit was hungry to return to it. Poetry is, for me, a way of life as well as an art. It's the way I pay attention, the way I make a shape out of my experience, the way I praise this brief life, the way I mourn, the way I see my experience as part of the human experience. Poetry helps me to accept what I don't want to accept and to be curious about even the most terrible experiences. It's a kind of spiritual practice, a way to pray.
ROBERT: So there’s the teaching, the healing, the writing and... you’re more and more “out there,” available to people, especially now with the Internet... and people able to access you... What is like for you as a poet having a website? http://www.ellenbass.com/
How much interaction do you have with people who contact you via the Net? Are you able to sell books via your website?
ELLEN: I am not fond of technology. It scares me whenever I have to learn something new. But one of my students convinced me it would be helpful for me to have a website and she held my hand through the process. I'm so grateful to her because it is very convenient. I have no idea how many visitors I have. I don't have a counter or whatever those things are called. But people can find me more easily and since I'm primarily self-employed, that's useful. Writers contact me asking about my workshops and classes and sometimes asking for writing-related information. I sometimes can help people connect to the resources they need and I find that satisfying.
I don't actually sell my books myself, but when you click on my books on my website, up comes my book on the website of Bookshop Santa Cruz. That way people can buy my book online and also support our independent bookstores. It is impossible to overestimate the value of our independent bookstores. Books are the repository of our ideas, the articulation of our values, the history of our human emotions, the instigation for creative change. We need committed, independent bookstores that are willing to carry a wide range of books, not only those which are best-sellers. When literature is reduced to what will make a profit, our lives are impoverished. Our independent bookstores make it possible for publishers to continue to print the books which we need and love.
ROBERT: Another thing in their favor is the willingness of independent bookstores to host readings. Poetry readings... And with the success of Mules of Love and The Human Line you’re often on the road. So, what’s it like for you traveling? And I’m thinking now of the workshops you lead in Mallorca, Big Sur, New Mexico...
At one level you're something of a tour guide, or is that unfair? I'm interested in how you integrate the different settings you choose as "background" to your workshops with the writing that goes on once you and your students are there. What are the advantages and disadvantages of leading your writing students to exotic locales?
Realizing, of course, that one writes, generally, yes? from the inside out... one could conduct a successful/productive workshop in a darkened room with no windows, too. Feeding people only bread and water... 40 days in the desert... might that be better for them?
ELLEN: This is a good question. It's true that we don't need beautiful scenery or exotic locales to write. Annie Dillard says that when she has a window in the room she writes in, she turns her desk to face in the opposite direction! But getting away from our daily obligations is a profound experience for a writer. Virginia Woolf wrote about "the angel in the house", the woman (usually a wife, sometimes a sister) who made it possible for so many (male) writers to do their work unimpeded. The "angel" supplied the writer with meals, cleaned up, cared for the children, kept visitors away during writing hours. Most of us (male or female) no longer have an "angel in the house", but when we go away to a writing workshop or a residency, we are provided with this kind of spaciousness. It is nourishing to our spirits to be taken care of this way and it allows us to pour all our energy into writing.
Personally, I'm not much of a tour guide. For one thing, I have a terrible sense of direction and it would be unwise for anyone to put themselves into my hands as a guide! But there are wonderful places to explore in many of the locations where I teach. The writers who attend sometimes do quite a bit of touring, but many of the participants hardly leave. Instead, they use the opportunity to do a tremendous amount of writing, as well as some reading, relaxing, and talking with other writers.
(Excerpt... the complete interview is due to appear soon in Poetry Flash)
Causes Robert Sward Supports
Audubon Society, National Geographic, "Green," the Environment, SPCA...