Poetry News

Reincarnated as a Poet: The Mystery of Ellen Bass

By Harriet Staff

Ellen Bass

At The Rumpus, a piece on the "vanishing" of poet Ellen Bass, who had the pleasure of hearing her own poem chosen by Philip Levine for a 2013 New Yorker podcast. "Bass was so enthused she did not even bother to quibble over Levine referring to her as having been missing from the literary scene. In many ways, the Bass that Levine had known in the 1970s had vanished. In fact, Bass would say, she is still missing."

Bass had been writing poetry since the early 1970s and had enjoyed no small amount of success in the decades since. Her work was widely published, critically acclaimed, and had won several awards. She also was an internationally known bestselling nonfiction writer. But she had only recently succeeded in reaching a personal goal of placing a poem in the New Yorker. When, earlier that year, she had received word from editor Paul Muldoon that “What Did I Love” had been accepted, she celebrated with martinis. That thrill was still fresh.

What happened that she should be "still missing," then? Writer Ellen Brown looks at Bass's past--working with Anne Sexton, anthologizing abuse survivors in the much-acclaimed I Never Told Anyone: Writings by Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, becoming an in-demand speaker at many psychological organizations and universities, including Harvard Medical School--and what became the present, the attempt to return to poetry amid illness:

Her return to a creative life was not a simple matter of putting pen to paper, though. She could not abruptly walk away from the women participating in her workshops. Those relationships needed time to wind down. Matters were further complicated when the False Memory Syndrome Foundation launched an attack on the credibility of sexual abuse survivors who were speaking out against their alleged abusers. A barrage of newspaper articles, magazine stories, and radio and television talk shows stirred up a public debate about the accuracy of survivor memories and their accusations. Bass felt compelled to speak out in defense of her work and the survivors who were being depicted as liars, hysterics, and troublemakers. She spent an intense year giving interviews to major print media outlets and speaking on network television programs such as The Oprah Winfrey Show, Donahue, and Frontline.

By the time the media attention settled down, Bass was in her mid forties and exhausted. She began writing poetry again and did find it a comfort. But, needing to earn a living, she focused her literary energies on non-fiction writing. In the mid-1990s, she co-authored a guide for gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth. Though the book found an appreciative audience, it was not a commercial success. She then tried her hand at writing a novel, a process she found frustrating. “I was bad at it,” she says, explaining her decision to give up after two years. It was then that she decided to reorient her life again. She wanted to return to a life centered around writing and teaching poetry.

The prospect of starting over in the field at almost fifty years old was daunting. Not only was she out of practice—it had been a decade since she’d seriously written any poetry—but she had not been reading much or even interacting with poets. “I wasn’t connected to that world anymore,” she said. And that world had changed dramatically since she had been a student of Anne Sexton and co-editor of an influential anthology of female poets. Thanks in part to an explosion of MFA programs since the 1970s, there was a new cadre of writers at the heart of the scene. Tastes and styles had changed as well, even within the feminist community. While Bass had helped paved the way for what feminist poets had accomplished, she no longer was part of the field’s creative core. She felt like Rip Van Winkle, as if she had been asleep all those years.

Read this fascinating portrait in full here. Photo by Irene Young courtesy of PBS News Hour.

Originally Published: January 13th, 2016