Interview with Ellen Bass

The below is an excerpt of Andy Kuhn’s interview of Ellen Bass. Full interview text is available in the book, How a Poem Can Happen, or upon special request

Andy Kuhn: Has anyone ever used the word “swashbuckling” in connection with your poetry? Would you mind very much if they did?

Ellen Bass: Swashbuckling! This is definitely the first time. I’m sure I’d remember it if they did. But how could I not be delighted to have my poems thought of as daring and heroic and a bit flamboyant!

As for my insistence on joy, the great poet Lucille Clifton said, “I choose joy because I am capable of it, and there are those who are not.” She was no stranger to suffering. She lived through the deaths of two children and her husband, her own cancer and other illnesses. I don’t think that joy is incompatible with seriousness. The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche said, “If you can hold the pain of the world in your heart but never forget the vastness of the great eastern sun, then you can make a proper cup of tea.” And I quote Rilke for the epigraph in my recent book, Like a Beggar: “But those dark, deadly, devastating ways,/how do you bear them, suffer them?/–I praise.”

AK: Few contemporary poets work as consistently as you to connect the personal and the political, the local and the global. In some poems in The Human Line you express fears for the planet in a very direct and intense way. Do you hope to mobilize an activist response, and have you had any experience of success with this if you do? Or is it really more of a cri de coeur over what we have been doing to the planet, and don’t seem to be able to stop doing?

EB: Oh this is a very difficult question. It’s hard for me to imagine that any poem of mine will have an impact on saving our planet. So I think they are, as you say, a cri de coeur. And yet, although I don’t have faith in my poems, I do have faith in Poetry. There are poems that have sustained me in the most painful times and taught me how to live. And I’ll turn again to Orhan Pamuk here: “I believe literature to be the most valuable tool that humanity has found in its quest to understand itself. Societies, tribes, and peoples grow more intelligent, richer, and more advanced as they pay attention to the troubled words of their authors…” So, although I don’t think any of my poems are going to make a substantial contribution to saving our environment or even each other, I do think it’s true that we can’t make changes until we can conceive of those changes, until we can change the way we think. And poetry—and all literature—definitely help us do that. Like so much, it’s a paradox. As Gandhi said, “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”