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  • Writer's pictureLouisa Willcox

Episode 45 - Ellen Bass

Gary Macfarlane

Ellen Bass is an acclaimed poet who has won many awards, including Pushcart Prizes, the Lamda Literary Award and the Pablo Neruda Prize, to mention a few. Her latest collection of poems, Indigo, was published by Copper Canyon Press this spring and it’s been called an instant classic and I can testify that my own copy is pretty dog-eared. Indigo also includes a gorgeous poem entitled “Grizzly.” Ellen teaches widely, including in the MFA writing program at Pacific University, and she founded poetry workshops at Salinas Valley State Prison and the Santa Cruz California jails.


About the inspiration behind her poem “Grizzly:” I could not stop watching this video over and over of this grizzly bear eating a bison. As I try and describe in the poem, her extreme delicacy -- I mean her claws were so long and she just seemed like somebody handling chopsticks really carefully and precisely. Even though she was pulling this bison apart, she was doing it with no more force than was needed. And because her claws were so strong and so sharp, not a lot of force was needed… And I was just amazed, and I wanted to try and capture it in language. I wanted to admire the bear and just take this photograph, kind of living photograph in words.

I feel very fortunate to have poetry. I think that we all need some way to cope with loss and death and grief, and I think art is one way… In making a poem I have to slow down. And it’s a space, almost like a physical space in which to be with the feelings… It’s a way to hold the feelings at the ideal distance/closeness to be able to be with them but not be overwhelmed by them. And then to be able to investigate them and be curious about them.

…for those of us who are traumatized by what we’re doing to the planet, I think the thing that writing does is it gives us a space to acknowledge to ourselves what we feel. And I think that that is really essential because we can’t every minute of the day be acknowledging how traumatized I think I would say we all are by what we’re doing to this planet… So writing is one place, it’s not the only place, but it’s one place where we can stop and not run away from it, acknowledge it, and maybe explore it.

I think there is a place where it is important to be able to say what our opinions and our judgments are. And then I think it’s also important to go beyond them and to really investigate our own experience, our own feelings, and to investigate the world, the living world that still is here. I think that this is where appreciation and love come in, because I think it’s probably most useful to be guided not only by our fear -- and I will say horror at what is being lost -- I think that our love of what remains and our appreciation of it, and our interaction with it are also really important guides.

Poetry is alive and well. I’m a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and the number of people who have subscribed to receive our Poem a Day has risen dramatically, and the number of readers has just skyrocketed. And the main increase is with young people and people of color… Also, I think is that in difficult times, people turn to poetry. And these are certainly the most difficult times that -- I'm 73, and these are certainly the most difficult times that I’ve ever seen both nationally and for the planet as a whole.


Works by Ellen Bass

Published Works by Ellen Bass: Poetry

Mules of Love, 2002

The Human Line, 2007

Like a Beggar, 2014

Indigo, 2020

Published Works by Ellen Bass: Non-Fiction

I Never Told Anyone: Writings by Women of Child Sexual Abuse, 1991, Co-edited with Louise Thornton, Jude Brister, Grace Hammond, Jean Huntley and Vicki Lamb

The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, 1988, updated 2008, Co-authored with Laura Davis

Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian and Bi-sexual Youth – and Their Allies, 1996, Co-authored with Kate Kaufman

Beginning to Heal: A First Book for Men and Women Who Were Sexually Abused as Children, 2003, Co-authored with Laura Davis


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