#AWP19 Featured Presenter Q&A with Ellen Bass

AWP | March 2019

Event Title: Love from the Belly of Terror: A Copper Canyon Press Reading
Description: Copper Canyon Press presents a reading from four dynamic poets who are leaders in the literary community: Ellen Bass, Jericho Brown, Deborah Landau, and Javier Zamora. Brown's The Tradition and Landau's Soft Targets are new collections debuting at AWP: See their first public readings from these hot-off-the-press books. Zamora's Unaccompanied continues to make (and critique) headlines, and Bass remains one of the most beloved poets writing today.
Participants: Ellen Bass, Jericho Brown, Deborah Landau, Javier Zamora
Location: Oregon Ballroom 201-202, Oregon Convention Center, Level 2
Date & Time: Friday, March 29, 8:30 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.


If you’ve been to an AWP before, what is your favorite conference memory?
I have many wonderful conference memories, but my favorite has to be meeting Toi Derricotte. It was my first time at AWP. I’d just published a book, Mules of Love, after an almost twenty-year hiatus during which I hadn’t written or published any poems. I’d been working with survivors of child sexual abuse and now was re-entering the world of poetry. I felt like Rip Van Winkle and was terrifically eager to meet poets, but it was also intimidating to enter into the crowd. I would walk around the Bookfair and talk to people and then run back to my hotel room and hide out, regrouping my courage. On the last morning, I was invited to a women poets brunch and I found myself seated next to Toi. We looked at each other and felt an immediate warmth and the stirrings of a sisterly bond. She told me she liked me right away because my glasses were so clean and shiny. I still thank the Muse that I polished the lenses that morning.

What book or books that you’ve read over the last year would you most highly recommend?
Well, this question is a pleasure to think about. I read Jericho Brown’s new book, The Tradition, in manuscript and he’s done it again! Brilliant. Robert Wrigley’s Beautiful Country came out a few years ago, but I read it for the first time this year and am amazed, as I always am, by his vision and virtuosity. I am deeply moved by Tony Hoagland’s Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God. Tony’s one of the poets who I’ve turned to to get me through the night, but this last book is, I think, deeper and more beautiful than ever. I treasure it. And so feel the loss of him in our world. And just to mention a few more: Ordinary Beast, Nicole Sealey’s debut collection, City of Bones: A Testament, Kwame Dawes’ most recent volume, and Only as the Day is Long: New and Selected Poems by Dorianne Laux.

If you could run into any author, contemporary or historical, at #AWP19, who would it be and what would you talk about?
I’d meet, once again, Anne Sexton. Anne was my teacher at Boston University in 1970. Her persona at readings and in public was dramatic, flamboyant, but inside the classroom she was thoughtful, respectful, and seriously centered on her students. Four years later Anne killed herself. And less than a decade after that I began working with survivors of child sexual abuse. We cannot know for certain whether Anne was sexually abused as a child, but we do know that she carried great pain and when she went to a therapist for help, he had sex with her. Anne and I met at a time when she had something essential to offer me. Had it not been for her I might have given up poetry because the male poets who taught at BU at that time whittled my admittedly not-good poems down to toothpicks. Anne encouraged me to expand, to write more, and thereby showed me a path. It was a slow path for me, but one that has given me the great joy of poetry. Perhaps misguidedly—even egotistically—I’ve always felt that if time had been reversed, if I’d met Anne when I was working with trauma survivors, instead of when I was a young poetry student, I could have offered something essential to her.

If you’ve been to Portland before, what places do you recommend that our attendees should visit?
Portland is such a great city. My sisters-in-law live there, and I teach in the MFA in writing program
at Pacific University which has its office in Portland, so I get to enjoy time there frequently. I recommend the Lan Su Chinese Garden, the Portland Japanese Garden, a walk on the waterfront, and, of course, eating as much as possible since Portland has such varied and delicious food.


Ellen BassEllen Bass is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Her books include Like a BeggarThe Human Line, and Mules of Love which won the Lambda Literary Award. Her poems have appeared in hundreds of magazines and journals including the New YorkerAmerican Poetry Review, and the New York Times Magazine. She coedited the anthology No More Masks!, and her nonfiction books include The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. Bass founded poetry workshops at Salinas Valley State Prison and the Santa Cruz, California jails, and teaches in the MFA writing program at Pacific University.
(Photo Credit: Irene Young)

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