In times of crisis, I find myself turning to poetry for the solace of pure, uncut emotion. In the following email interview, poet Ellen Bass — one of our best — discusses her new collection, Indigo (paperback, Kindle).
Photo Credit: Irene Young
To start, is there a theme to the poems in Indigo?
Several strands run through the book. There are poems that grapple with mortality: my mother-in-law’s decline, my dog’s decline, killing a gopher, my own aging, the holocaust, a pork chop that was once a pig, bone china that came from an animal’s bones, etc. And also my wife was ill for an extended time, and there’s a thread of my experience of both the illness and the healing running through the book. And there’s also a celebration of eros: love, sexuality, food, the sweetness of life, even the resuscitation of a lizard.
So did you set out to write poems around these themes or did you realize they were naturally emerging as you were putting this book together?
I rarely set out to write about a theme. I am grateful for any poem that is willing to allow me to write it and say yes to anything the muse is willing to give me access to. My subjects choose me. I was aware, of course, that there were numerous poems that grappled with illness and healing, but there are themes I wasn’t aware of until I put the book together — like how many animals are there.
Since you didn’t start out with a theme, how did you decide what poems to include?
There are themes, as I’ve said, but I decided what poems to include mainly on the basis of which of my poems I thought were the strongest. And I tried not to repeat myself. There were a few poems that I eliminated because it seemed that other, stronger poems handled that material better.
Now, like in other books of yours I’ve read, the poems in Indigo are free verse. What is it about free verse that you either really like or just feel works for what you’d like to express?
I, like most contemporary poets, rarely write in strictly received forms. So we call it free verse. But I defer to T.S. Eliot to clarify: “Vers libre does not exist…. And as the so-called vers libre which is good is anything but ‘free,’ it can better be defended under some other label.” Eliot says that in poetry that isn’t written in a received form is in constant vacillation between adherence to, and departure from, rhyme and regular meter. “It is this contrast between fixity and flux…which is the very life of verse…the division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.”
Are there any writers who had an influence on any of the poems in Indigo but not on any of your previous poems or your style as a whole?
I think most of my influences began before writing Indigo. I have been strongly influenced by my mentors, Anne Sexton and Dorianne Laux. Other important influences are Mark Doty, Toi Derricotte, Frank X. Gaspar, Jericho Brown. I could go on and on. And there are a couple references to Keats in this book. He was definitely on my mind. I try to be influenced as much as possible.
What about non-literary influences; were any of the poems in Indigo influenced by any music or visual art or maybe a movie or TV show you watched?
Yes, my poem “Because” was made possible by watching the TV series This Is Us. One of the characters, after working too hard, had a breakdown in which he went temporarily blind. I’d never seen that portrayed before, and it opened the door for me to write about what happened the night I gave birth.
And “Photograph: Jews Probably Arriving at the Lodz Ghetto, circa 1941-1942″ is obviously in response to that image and is part of a project, New Voices: Contemporary Writers Respond To The Holocaust.
Some poets workshop their poems by performing them at open mics and poetry readings. Is this something you do as well?
Well, I do read at readings and I can often hear what needs work by doing that. Not only how the audience responds, but also (and even more) how it feels to me to read it. I teach at Pacific University’s MFA in Writing program and at each residency I try to read all new poems. So I’m usually reading them before they’re completely finished and they usually go through a good bit of work before they wind up in a book.
For many years you worked with people who were victims of sexual abuse as children and, with Laura Davis, co-wrote the books Beginning to Heal: A First Book For Men And Women Who Were Sexually Abused As Children and The Courage To Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors Of Child Sexual Abuse. I assume, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that you’ve written poems that were influenced by this work before. Are there any such poems in Indigo?
I’ve actually written very few poems about this experience. There aren’t any in Indigo. I recently wrote one that I hope winds up being a keeper and I hope to write more, but it’s been difficult to find my way into making poetry of that experience. It’s challenging because I don’t want to appropriate the experience of the women and men I worked with, but instead to talk about my own experience as witness and support person. That’s something I want to do and I’ll be working on it.
Most of the poems in Indigo have previously appeared in such publications as The New Yorker and The American Poetry Review. Are the versions in Indigo the same as in those magazines and journals?
A number of the poems in Indigo have been revised since their first publication. I don’t think I’ve made any changes to the poems in The New Yorker though. Both Paul Muldoon [The New Yorker‘s former poetry editor] and Kevin Young [The New Yorker‘s current poetry editor] are such sharp readers that they’ve always chosen poems that were my personal best and finished. I haven’t changed many that were in American Poetry Review either. Only one: “The Kitchen Counter” where I lopped off the last half of the poem on the excellent advice of Marie Howe.
Finally, if someone enjoys Indigo, and it’s the first poetry book of yours they’ve read, which of your others would you suggest they read next and why that one?
I’d suggest Like A Beggar, the book just before Indigo. I think it’s interesting to read a poet’s work backwards — so you can watch their development in reverse.