interview with Ellen Bass
What is the name of the piece that you have in Grabbed?
"Because What We Do Does Not Die"
What was the inspiration for your piece? What compelled you to write it?
Actually, this anthology inspired me to write this poem. I'd written about this experience previously in prose, in the introduction to the anthology I co-edited, I Never Told Anyone: Women Writing About Child Sexual Abuse and also in the book I co-wrote, The Courage to Heal: A Guidebook for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. I didn't think I had more to say, but thinking about this anthology, I realized that I could explore in poetry the experience of my mother's protection and how that continues to stay with me, even after her death.
Can you speak to the evolution of writing your piece? How long did it take you to write this piece, including revision?
This is always an interesting question to try to answer because there isn't only one way to approach the time. If we count from when I wrote about the first experience in prose, which is when I began to find words to shape it, it took me about forty years. If you count from when I tried to write this as a poem it took about nine or ten months. The first draft didn't take long, but it took time to cut away the excess and find the essence of the poem.
As a writer, do you feel obliged to share difficult experiences?
Yes, absolutely! I believe it's both my privilege and my responsibility to use my skills and my sensibility to make whatever contribution I'm capable of.
What do you feel the impact of the #MeToo movement has been on your work, if any?
Because I was writing about sexual abuse, working to bring this subject into general awareness and to provide support for survivors since 1974, I am gratified to see how the #MeToo movement is another important step in that journey.
What would you say to another writer who has been uncomfortable or silent about their experience? How can they begin to share their experiences?
I think it's very important, first, for each of us to respect our own vulnerabilities and boundaries. I don't believe that anyone should feel that they must fulfill anyone else's expectations that they share their experiences publicly. This is a very personal decision and not to be taken lightly. That said, it is freeing--and an important part of the healing process--to break the silence. Writing is a powerful way to do that. But that doesn't mean you have to publish what you write. The first step could be just to share with a trusted person. And then, to assess what's right for you each step of the way. As Zora Neale Hurston said, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.”
How can a publication such as Grabbed help to empower or heal readers?
Grabbed is part of a powerful lineage of survivors telling their stories. Reading Grabbed will tell you the three most essential messages: that you're not alone, you're not to blame, and that healing is possible.
Ellen Bass’s most recent book, Indigo, was published by Copper Canyon Press (2020). Among her previous books are Like a Beggar (2014), The Human Line (2007), and Mules of Love (2002). She co-edited the first major anthology of women’s poetry, No More Masks! (1973). Among her honors are three Pushcart Prizes, The Lambda Literary Award, The Pablo Neruda Prize, Larry Levis Prize, New Letters Prize, and Fellowships from the NEA and the California Arts Council. Her poetry appears frequently in The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review, and many other journals. Bass is also coauthor of the groundbreaking The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (1988, 2008), I Never Told Anyone: Writing By Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (HarperCollins, 1983), Beginning to Heal: A First Book for Men and Women Who Were Sexually Abused as Children (2003) and Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth and Their Allies (1996). A Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Bass founded poetry workshops at Salinas Valley State Prison and at the Santa Cruz County jails, and she teaches in the low-residency MFA program in writing at Pacific University. www.ellenbass.com
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