Saturday, October 8, 2011

Ellen Bass

Ellen Bass's poetry includes The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press) which was named a Notable Book of 2007 by the San Francisco Chronicle and Mules of Love (BOA, 2002) which won the Lambda Literary Award. She co-edited (with Florence Howe) the groundbreaking No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women (Doubleday, 1973). Her work has been published in The Atlantic, The American Poetry Review, The New Republic, The Progressive, The Kenyon Review and many other journals. Among her awards for poetry are a Pushcart Prize, the Elliston Book Award, The Pablo Neruda Prize from Nimrod/Hardman, the Larry Levis Prize from The Missouri Review, and the New Letters Prize. Her nonfiction books include Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth and Their Allies (HarperCollins, 1996), I Never Told Anyone: Writings by Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (HarperCollins, 1983) and The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (HarperCollins, 1988, 2008). She teaches in the low-residency MFA writing program at Pacific University.

Oh flawed species,
who has fashioned spears from saplings,
notched points of flint, sliced
the coral flesh of the salmon,
pounded tapa from the inner bark of the mulberry.

With heavy brains balanced
on slender stalks of spine, we have gazed
through ground glass, listening
for the music still humming
from the violent birth of the universe.

Deeply imperfect species, soaring
into the noon sky like a silver god, bursting
the four-chambered hearts, the humble intestines,
of people we've never shared a cup of tea with, breath
of steam rising between us.

Wondrous species riddled with greed,
steeped in cruelty, still stitching
one life to another with bone needle.
After all these voyages around the sun
we continue to lie down together, swim

in the small oceans of each other's irises,
mothers drunk on the fragrance
of one damp scalp. Strangers break down
the doors of fiery buildings for each other,
siphon blood from their own swollen veins.

Meanwhile, flounder genes have been slipped
into strawberries to keep them from freezing,
a bit of jellyfish glows in rabbits in the dark.
Now we are poised to alter our children.
First, to cure.

Then a fine glass needle to inject
a helix of intelligence. A purified sequence
of perfect pitch. Double-stranded necklace
of permanent beauty. Or maybe just
eliminate sadness.

You get the embryo out
where you can work on it,
make some copies,
tease apart the cells, flick a gene
on or off like a light switch,
pack it all up into an emptied-out egg case.

Life stretches back in a single
history for three and a half billion years,
and change has been glacial.
Hubris, an individual sin, a king's downfall.
Death wiped up the stage after each tragedy.

My heart breaks—can I say this?
Am I an archaic cliché to be broken
open with grief? Who will mourn
Homo sapiens? I can hardly
comprehend the loss of animals I've never seen—

silver trout, leopard frog, Pyrenean ibex—
each flame extinguished darkening the earth.
Now this terribly human species—did we ever imagine?
Can you bear it? Doesn't it
make you crazy? Doesn't it?

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

My partner, Janet, who is an entomologist, came home from work one day and said, "I have one for you." And she told me what she'd heard in the hall, which is the title of the poem.

I was about to go to Maui to teach a writing workshop and I decided to concentrate on the poem there. It was strange to be in such a beautiful place and holed up in my room researching genetic engineering, but I was obsessed.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Many revisions, but over a very short time. The bulk of the work was done intensely in that first week.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was "received" and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I do believe in inspiration and am grateful for it whenever it comes. This poem was absolutely received. I never would have written it without that young woman making her bold comment and Janet bringing it home to me. But it was also a product of sweat and tears. In this case the sweat and tears were due to the subject, as well as the craft. I'd been concerned about these issues before, but delving into them and grappling with the implications in a poem was difficult.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

The form is loose and I didn't consciously use any distinct techniques except for the title which is modeled on those long Chinese titles that Billy Collins writes about in "Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sun Dynasty I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles."

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

Shortly after I wrote the poem, The Kenyon Review had a call for submissions on genetic engineering and I sent it to them and they published it.

How long do you let a poem "sit" before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

This varies very much from poem to poem. If I feel a poem's finished, I might send it off within weeks, but others take years before they go out. And many never get to see the world.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

The science is all fact. The opinions and feelings are mine. There's no fiction in here.

Is this a narrative poem?

Not in the conventional sense. It's an outcry. But of course there is the narrative of human history.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I don't picture a particular audience or reader, but I want my poems to speak clearly to people. I admire poets who are able to write about complex things without being obscure or unintelligible.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

I shared this poem first with my students at the workshop. Then I sent it to my dear friend, Dorianne Laux, who has been my mentor and most trusted reader. I'm fortunate to also have a small group of poets with whom I can regularly share work.

And of course I showed the poem to Janet when I got home and we wound up having a big fight! She innocently wondered whether there might not also be good that came from genetic engineering and I was so overwrought I just cracked. Janet is, though, a sharp reader and helpfully tough on my poems.

What is American about this poem?

Well, I grew up in the 50's watching TV with DuPont's ads, "Better living through chemistry."


  1. I, too, aspire to write poems with the kind of clarity that can be teased out merely with careful reading. Brava for this one--but also, thank you for the harsh emotion. Some of the imagery is stunning: "stitched together with bone needles"! As near perfect word play as you can get. I absolutely love this poem.

  2. Most amusing!

    As long as we give forth better than ourselves, we have lived well. None shall mourn - but some will follow. Onwards!

    And thanks for the poem.

  3. Truly appreciate how you feature different poets on your site and for taking the effort to promote their work, Brian. I believe many will find your selflessness inspiring, as many poets go unheard in this age. Pleasure reading these interviews and the personal touch you instill in this blog.



  5. Didn't Mary Shelley write this poem a few years ago?

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