The Poet as Teacher: An interview with Pushcart-prize winning poet Ellen Bass
Interviewed by Jessica Gigot, February 6, 2012
Many of our poets in the 2012 lineup are also teachers at universities and high schools, balancing the life of writing with the responsibilities of education.
Ellen Bass lives in Santa Cruz, CA, and is a faculty member at Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program in Forest Grove, OR. In the low-residency MFA model, students work independently with a mentor and gather for intensive residency periods twice a year. Bass usually mentors four or five students at a time through this program. In 2011, Pacific University’s program was ranked as one of the top five low-residency MFA programs in the country. Jessica Gigot, one of the Skagit River Poetry Project communication directors, had an opportunity to talk with her about her experiences as a teacher of poetry and her life as a poet.
JG: How long have you been a poetry teacher?
EB: I have taught poetry for a long time, over forty years. Most of my teaching has been in the community and I teach at retreats and conferences nationally and internationally. This is my first time teaching in a university program. In the past I’ve taught mostly alone and it’s really wonderful to be part of a team. I have been teaching for five years at PU.
JG: What do you think about the low-residency model? This seems to be a more common option for MFA programs.
EB: The low-residency model makes it possible for students who have established lives, jobs and family responsibilities, to be able to study poetry deeply. Also, developing poets can choose a school based on who they want to work with, rather than be limited to the schools in their area. Students come to Pacific U because there are poets there who they want to learn from. It’s like an apprenticeship.
Most of our students are serious about wanting to become the best poets they can possibly be. And all of our students become insightful and joyful readers of poetry.
JG: How do you connect with your students?
The residencies are a 10-day immersion, so in addition to workshops, craft talks, readings, and discussion, we also eat meals together and have time to talk informally. Then, over the semester, my students send me their work via email along with letters in which they talk about their process of writing, the poets they’ve been reading, ask questions, discuss issues of craft, and bring up anything else that’s important to them about writing. I send them back critiques of their work and a long letter responding to their interests and concerns, making suggestions and including notes on the craft that I hope will be useful to them. This is an on-going conversation about their work, their reading, and the life of a poet. It’s an intimate and in-depth relationship.
JG: Is it hard to teach poetry?
EB: (Laugh) That is a great question. It is challenging to teach poetry. That challenge is part of why it continues to be interesting. I like working one to one, teaching each person as an individual. Every student has different strengths and weaknesses, and as a teacher my job is to learn how to teach each person.
One of the challenges in teaching poetry is the same as it is in writing poetry—you learn many aspects of the craft, many skills, but the art is in when and how to apply them. Nothing applies all the time. For example, you learn something about how to create a metaphor, but then you can run wild with them and make a marvelous poem or you can clutter up a poem with them. If we could just learn something and do it all the time, it wouldn’t be so hard! But that’s what makes it infinitely challenging both to write and to teach.
Some students have strengths that are apparent from the beginning, but with others they go along on a plateau for a while and then make leaps into territory that I couldn’t have anticipated.
I am a very, very, very slow learner and I didn’t really show much promise early on.
JG: (Laugh) I find that hard to believe.
EB: The learning process for me was slow and arduous. I am particularly skilled in teaching, I think, because of this. Much of what I do was not instinctual, but a learned process, so I really can teach strategies of how to work the poem.
And part of my slow learning was because for many years I suffered from a lack of exposure to good teachers.
JG: Who was your favorite teacher?
EB: My most amazing mentor has been Dorianne Laux. I began working with her in the late nineties after a long time being away from writing poetry. I had been writing non-fiction and I longed to return to poetry, but I was at a stuck place and needed a teacher, the right teacher. People often say, I couldn’t have done it without so and so, and sometimes it’s just a way of expressing appreciation—they really could have done it. But in this case, it’s literally true. My poems started to change really fast after I started working with Dorianne.
The other teacher who was essential to me was Anne Sexton who I studied with when I was getting my MA in Creative Writing at Boston University in 1970 (in those days they didn’t yet call them MFA’s). Anne’s public persona was dramatic, flamboyant, but as a teacher she was very thoughtful and respectful of students and she loved teaching. Anne encouraged me to expand and write more and she plucked me out of the waters of acerbic criticism. Without her, I might have given up right then.
JG: I love the poem “Relax.” Can you tell me where this poem came from?
EB: Of course, I’m mainly talking to myself in the poem. I am not someone who is relaxed. I’m a little high-strung. So I talk to myself and try to cultivate the perspective of this poem. Although I don’t have a formal meditation practice, I try to maintain an informal practice in the moment. The principle of the Buddhist story in this poem is one I’ve been chewing on for a good forty years.
The poem also was inspired by a friend who was in a long depression. When you love someone you want to be patient and not complain that you’re getting tired of their depression, but of course you are getting tired of it. So the poem was an outlet for me. I needed to present my most patient self to her, but in the poem, I could just tell her to relax! That’s one of the best things about poems—they are there for you to say whatever you want!
JG: Is it hard to find a balance between the teaching and writing process?
EB: Yes. I am working on being more selective and devoting more time to writing.
JG: Your most recent book is The Human Line, published by Copper Canyon Press. Can you tell me how these poems came together? There seems to be a strong theme of science and our relationship as humans to our own biology?
EB: All of these poems were written in a five-year period between when my last book (Mules of Love, 2002) was published and when this book was published in 2007. At that time I had a lot of stability in my personal life and I think that gave me the ability to focus outward to the actual world, the science of the world. When I was a young person I thought science was boring. I took a long time to look outside myself at all. Now I’m always thinking about the fact that we are on this planet moving around in this incredibly mind-boggling space with all of these natural laws governing us. There isn’t anywhere that you can look that isn’t interesting scientifically.
My partner is an entomologist and I have some new poems coming up on insects. I don’t feel like I have a lot of control over my subject matter. When the muse gives me something, I just say yes. Chickens are also showing up recently in my poems.
JG: I hope we will get to hear some of these new poems at this year’s festival?
EB: I am looking forward to it.
You can learn more about Ellen Bass at her website: www.ellenbass.com