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No More Masks!: Advice From A Master Poet

Ellen Bass, best known for "The Courage To Heal," on how to live with open eyes

Ellen Bass is an award-winning poet and teacher whose work I’ve admired since the 1980s, when her bestselling book, The Courage To Heal, helped to open my eyes to the power of writing as a tool for self-realization and –reckoning. Bass did her graduate work at Boston University, where she studied with Anne Sexton, and currently teaches at Pacific University in Oregon (she lives in Santa Cruz). Her most recent book of poetry is Like a Beggar, with previous titles including The Human Line, Mules of Love, an No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women. Bass’s poems have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The American Poetry Review, The New Republic, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and The Sun. Listen to the free podcast here.

Mark Matousek: How did you first come to writing?

Ellen Bass: I was drawn to poetry from a very early age. When I was in junior high school, I used to type out lines of poems on index cards and memorize them. There was a need and I really don’t know where that need came from.

My mother was a storyteller. She was the keeper of the family history, which she repeated in the oral tradition. Many of these stories were morality tales. Some were stories that revealed human nature. Some were funny. Some sad. Many of them demonstrated her mother’s strength and common sense and taught me about our lineage. I loved hearing the same stories over and over. I can see her sitting at the kitchen table, sharpening the fold in a paper napkin with her thumbnail, saying, “Did I ever tell you about…?” She told stories until right before her death. When she couldn’t get to the table anymore, she’d sit on the side of her bed and smooth the sheet with her palm as she talked. So perhaps I can trace my writing back to its roots in her stories.

MM: Why were you attracted to poetry in particular?

EB: There’s a primitive need in all of us to try and understand the basic questions that poetry addresses. Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What is life about? [I realized that] writing is a way to come into more direct contact with reality. It’s easy to be so distracted by what we want and what we don’t want that we can miss what is. Most of us, myself included, are constantly judging what happens to us. We start having opinions right away. Although some of this is necessary, there is great value in trying to apprehend experience itself instead of our ideas about it. This requires openness and curiosity.

MM: It’s mindfulness practice.

EB: Poetry is my religion. It’s how we bear the unbearable. [Otherwise] how do we accept what is not really acceptable to us? How do we say, okay how did you ever think that you would escape from human experience? [It’s about] joining the human race. Because the alternative is not pretty. You don’t want to run around saying no, no, no, no, no all the time. For my new book that’s just come out, I took an epigraph from Rilke where writes, “But those dark, deadly, devastating ways, /how do you bear them, suffer them? /— I praise.” So that is what I’m trying to do. Not in the kind of stupid way. Obviously I’m not saying oh how great [it is that] this bad thing happened to me or to someone that I love. But I am trying to say that I do believe that my task, the poet’s task, is to accept this world as it is in some way and keep being in awe of it. To try and just keep opening my eyes over and over.

MM: So writing is a form of surrender?

EB: Yes. It is. Exactly. To be able to actually touch our experience and come into contact with it rather than just try to push it away is a very deeply moving thing. To actually recognize our experience. When I write about something that is painful, I’m handling it in a way that is different than just feeling it. [I’m] shaping it, in making in into something, into a poem. We’re ordering chaos in a way, connecting more deeply to ourselves and what that experience really means to us. When you write a poem, you get to make meaning out of experience.

We talk about writing as healing (and it is), but I don’t think that it means that you feel a whole lot better [afterward], necessarily. If I write a poem about a devastating experience, I don’t then feel better about it. But I feel at a more … resting place with it. I feel that I’ve said, “Yes, that’s what it is.” Victor Shklovsky said [that an artist’s job is] to make a stone stony. That is the purpose of art. There’s nothing I can do [to change things] a lot of times. In that way, it’s a spiritual path.

MM: What do you mean by making the stone stoney?

EB: In writing a poem, it’s often more powerful to create the stone, the thing we want the reader to experience, rather than instructing the reader how to think about it. We try to make it as accurately as we can, we try to deliver the experience, rather than explaining what we think about it. Rilke wrote that if an artist injects too much of his own feeling into the writing or painting, “one makes it less well, one judges it instead of saying it. One ceases to be impartial, and the very best—love—stays outside the work, is left outside, untranslated.” He said that if a painter (or writer) emphasized his or her own feeling, it created sentimentality: “They’d paint: I love this here, instead of painting, here it is.”

MM: That’s great. I first became aware of your work in the 1980s when you were working with survivors of abuse and trauma. How would you describe the relationship between writing and healing?

EB: In my experience of over forty years of teaching, I have found that writing is a powerful act of healing. In working with survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I used writing as a healing tool and its impact was stunning. Women and men who had been abused were able to share their stories through writing in a way that transformed their experience. I think there are a number of reasons why writing is so effective. One is that when you talk to someone, you are always adjusting what you say, even unconsciously and imperceptibly, to their responses. Whereas in writing, you are talking, first to yourself, without any interference from anyone else’s reaction.

Another reason writing is so powerful is that most of us enter a kind of trance as we write. I would always instruct people to go slowly and include sensory detail—how things looked, smelled, tasted, sounded, felt. To include bits of conversation, the way the light entered a room, the sound of someone doing dishes in another part of the house, the color of a curtain. We experience emotion through our senses and this is the kind of specificity and detail that we don’t normally include in conversation, even when we’re being honest and intimate. So writing makes a spacious place where all this can enter and transport us back through memory. Another reason writing is healing is that this time, when we write our story, we have agency. Creativity gives us a way to transform our experience, to take something that was destructive and to work with it in a way that is life-affirming, that creates, rather than destroys. It's an active, rather than a passive process. And one in which we become makers, creators, rather than objects being acted upon. We also remove the experience to a distance that is just the right distance, it turns out, for healing. We don’t push it away entirely, nor are we overwhelmed by it. It’s a manageable distance at which we can look at it, shape it, and, ultimately, tell ourselves a new story about it. In this new story, we can see ourselves and our world more clearly.

Although I no longer work with survivors of trauma who are using writing as a healing tool, I continue to teach the craft of writing and poetry and all these principles are at work whenever any of us write. We all have a lifetime of experience inside us. When I first began teaching creative writing workshops back in 1974, I used a line from Muriel Rukeyser on the flyers I tacked up on bulletin boards, "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open."

And the French writer Gaston Bachelard said, "What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us."

MM: Can you say something about your writing process?

EB: The poems in my new book, Like a Beggar, were written over a period of seven years. That’s 46 poems which comes out to just under seven poems a year. I write a lot. Writing is my practice. If I’m away from it for too long, I get cranky and my life begins to feel kind of thin. But most of what I write doesn’t make the cut. When I look back, though, I can see that all of what I wrote was necessary. All the poems that never quite made it were a way of teaching myself how to write the poems that did. I can’t usually see this at the time, but with hindsight I can look back and see the line of poems that [were] trying to get at a certain feeling or thought. Or I can see that a structure I worked long and hard on in one failed poem turned out to be the structure I would need for a poem that came years later. Although it’s more satisfying to write a poem that works than one that doesn’t, I’ve come to be more accepting of my process and to appreciate those poems that wind up in the poem cemetery because they were the stepping stones to the poems that lived.

MM: One last question. How would you describe the relationship between poetry and longing?

EB: Oh, there are so many ways to approach this question! Poetry is such an intimate communication. It’s one human speaking to another across time and distance. I think it arises, in part at least, from the longing for connection, the longing to express what is essentially inexpressible, our own unique experience of being alive. Poetry is a kind of bridge over that impossible divide. And then there’s mortality. Billy Collins says the basic message of poetry is: Life is beautiful and we’re going to die. So there is always that bittersweetness, that longing to hold onto what is passing by so quickly. And of course we can’t. But in poetry we do, in a way, stop time. We take that moment and open it up. We see, as Wordsworth said, “into the life of things.” And sometimes that moment lives on in a poem into the centuries.

Some years back when I was going through a particularly tough time, there were poems that made me feel less alone. These poets spoke my feelings to me. They gave shape to my experience. Their existence was proof that people could live through this. And they instructed me as to how to go about it. I think of Tony Hoagland’s poem “Reasons to Survive November,” where he says: “I shove joy like a knife/into my own heart…” I said that line to myself a thousand times, each time convincing myself again that I was going to have to do what this poem told me to, to “force myself toward pleasure.” Lucille Clifton, Langston Hughes, Gerard Manley Hopkins, these were my companions during this time.

There is also a longing of the self for the self, that Deena Metzger writes about in her book, Writing ForYour Life. She says, “As often as we are imprisoned inside ourselves, so often are we actually living in exile outside of the basic conditions of contemporary life is the unfulfilled longing of the self for itself." Poetry gives us a way to inhabit our own lives.

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