Photograph by Irene Young

Ellen Bass joins Kevin Young to read “Quahogs,” by Frank X. Gaspar, and her own poem “Because222eee野鸡网视频2区.” A chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Bass has received the Lambda Literary Award for Poetry, the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and fellowships from the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Below is an automated transcript of this podcast episode.

Kevin Young: Hello. You’re listening to The New Yorker poetry podcast. I’m Kevin Young, poetry editor of The New Yorker magazine. On this program, we invite poets to choose a poem from The New Yorker archive to read and discuss. Then we ask them to read one of their own poems that’s been published in the magazine. My guest today is Ellen Bass, a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She’s received the Lambda Literary Award for Poetry, the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and Fellowships from the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. Welcome, Ellen. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ellen Bass:222eee野鸡网视频2区 Oh, thank you for inviting me. I’m delighted to be here.

Kevin Young: So the poem you decide to read for us is “Quahogs,” by Frank X. Gaspar. Can you tell us why this particular poem caught your attention as you were looking through the archives?

Ellen Bass:222eee野鸡网视频2区 I love this poem for many reasons. One of them is it’s so primal. It’s so visceral. It brings us into one of the most basic human experiences. And I feel like I’m having that experience when I read the poem. And I should say, just in case people aren’t familiar, the title is “Quahogs.” And quahogs, if you don’t know, are large clams.

Kevin Young: Excellent. Let’s hear the poem. This is Ellen Bass’s reading “Quahogs” by Frank X. Gaspar.


Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 So tell me more about this wonderful poem. I was thinking when you were reading it, you know, it’s worthy of note that you really capture, I think, the rolling quality. I mean, it feels like one big breath, but there’s something also for me about poetry in that it’s both a poem of discovery, but also a poem about poetry in some way, about the making of poetry, an ars poetica.

Ellen Bass: I’m so glad that you said that, because the more I was reading this poem and thinking about talking here, that’s exactly on my notes. What I wrote down, “ars poetica.” It does feel exactly like that process of writing a poem, of searching, of describing and describing until you come to something that you didn’t know you were going to come to. Exactly like that. And I love the music of the poem and the sound. And Frank Gaspar is a master of sound and really works through sound and moves the poem forward through sound. And that wonderful repetition, of course, of “it was for,” which is such a strange and wonderful way to start this poem.

Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 Right. Right.

Ellen Bass:222eee野鸡网视频2区 You know, “It was for the wind as much as anything.” What, where? You know, we’re immediately, immediately in the experience and the way that that repetition just drives the poem forward and has that force of moving through the music of the poem I love so much. And I love how primal this poem is. This is something people have been doing for, you know, a thousand years. More. I don’t know how long.

Kevin Young: Millennia!

Ellen Bass:222eee野鸡网视频2区 Millennia. Exactly. And the more I read the poem, the more I think about how it’s a poem without judgment. That there is adversity here and there. They’re cold and they’re hungry. And there’s a we in the poem. I’ll just stop. He’s not doing it alone.

Kevin Young: I want to get to the we in a moment, but keep going.

Ellen Bass: Yeah. So somebody else might think, I love doing this. I hate doing this. But he is beyond judgment in this poem. It’s deeply rooted in the world. And I think that really works with the ars poetica too, because that’s what we’re trying to do in poetry is to get more—or at least what I’m trying to do—get more deeply rooted into the experience, into the world, and see then what we discover. And it made me think of Galway Kinnell’s line, “Whatever what is is is what I want.” And I feel that in this poem that he just wants it all. And that wonderful line. I love that line about the ugly.

Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 That is literally what I’ve underlined here. “Ugly except / they were beautiful.”

Ellen Bass: Yes.

Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 “Their whorls and / purple stains.”

Ellen Bass: Yes.

Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 You know, and that to me is like so much of our experience, which we, you know, poetry—you’re talking a little bit and this poem is a little bit about what poetry is for. And one thing is to talk about that line. You know, often the things that fascinate us, the sublime, rides that line, and poetry is able to, of course, name things that we might otherwise miss or dismiss as worthy of note. So what about this we? I mean, obviously, in some way it’s all of us. But was there a specific we you feel?

Ellen Bass: I mean, it’s probably his family or he and, you know, his cohorts, but it is a communal we. And that feels so primal, too. You know, I can’t imagine that a thousand years ago people didn’t do this together.

Kevin Young: Mm hmm. So often, we don’t experience that because we eat alone or we’re in our little, you know, boxes or houses or places or wherever if we’re fortunate enough to have such. But he is letting you know the labor that goes into achieving what is this kind of brief glory at the end. “Our bodies in all / the customs of weariness.” I mean that’s a great phrase.

Ellen Bass: I know.

Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 “The supper, / succulent of the freezing dark sea come up.”

Ellen Bass: And I love how once they get into the warm kitchen with the steam and the closed stove and the close room that the freezing dark sea is introduced and it’s brought into the warm. And there’s so many of these opposites that are connected. You know, there’s the steam and the beginning of his breath and then, in the end, the steam in the room. And then he repeats that orange fire. You know, first it’s the “sinking orange fire” of the sun going down, and then it’s “the little stove, warming its own orange fire.” So the outside and the inside are so connected in this poem. And the part that really makes me think about poetry is when he says, “Then it / was surgery and force together.”

Kevin Young: Right. That’s a good definition of it.


Ellen Bass:222eee野鸡网视频2区 Yes. Isn’t it?

Kevin Young: Yeah. And I think also hunger. I mean, I think when I was first writing, I thought, oh, if I could ever be, you know, like good enough to write the poems I want to write. But I think that was really good for me because it gave me a sense of hunger. And then now looking back, it wasn’t simply talent that got one there. It’s really that hunger and that drive. And I, you know, sometimes see writers who are very talented and then not so hungry. And I’ll bet on the hungry kid every time who was really eager to find and soak up everything and knows they’re not quite as good. You know that that was all that makes you better, I think.

Ellen Bass:222eee野鸡网视频2区 Well, it’s certainly my experience because I didn’t start out looking all that promising. And I’m seventy-two and it’s, of course, it’s still a journey. It’s not like I’ve arrived somewhere, but I have been able to make poems that satisfy me more than I was able to when I started out at twenty. It’s been a long journey for me and it’s been driven by that hunger and that work. And so I relate to that a lot.

Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 How did that start? I know you had some early teachers that were important.

Ellen Bass: I did. I began writing in college and I had a wonderful mentor who I’m actually visiting with right now as I’m in New York. Florence Howe, who is the co-founder of the Feminist Press, which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, the longest running women’s press in the world.

Kevin Young: Wonderful.

Ellen Bass: And she encouraged me and she did it in a way that I look back on now and I think is absolutely brilliant. I wrote a little essay and what she wrote on it was, “You like to write.”

Kevin Young: What a great way to put it.

Ellen Bass: Oh, my God. Because and actually talking about this poem, beyond judgment—not good. Not bad. She was just—“you like to write” and she saw that hunger in me.

Kevin Young: Yeah. Yeah.

Ellen Bass: And I love that quality of the beyond judgment that’s in this poem. The pure description.

Kevin Young: And who else did you study with?

Ellen Bass: Well, I studied with Anne Sexton at Boston University. The first year that she was teaching, which was 1969 to 1970. And she was also a crucial young teacher for me at that time. I was, again, not showing much promise, but hunger. I wanted it. And my other professors—you have to think back this was quite a while—really didn’t know how to teach the young woman who I was. And also the teaching of the craft wasn’t like it was today. Mostly, I was told, if there was one, this is a good line and, more than that, I was told, take this out, take this out, take this out. So my not very good poems were whittled down to little things that were even less good.

Kevin Young: Less of the bad but less of anything.

Ellen Bass: And whatever breath or little bit of life was in them was just smashed out. And the main thing that I remember Anne saying is, Write more, expand. Just let the largeness come out. Let the expansion come out. And I think if I hadn’t had her, I would have given up.

Kevin Young: That’s incredible. And you know, a longtime New Yorker contributor, someone who, of course, whose work, as you know, I read as a young person myself and was really turned on by, stunned by, you know, turned into some ideas. Oh, you could write poetry that was kind of visceral. Talking about primal with this poem. But Sexton had that kind of ability to be so visceral and blunt, you know, some would critique that. But that’s also her strength, of course.

Ellen Bass: And she so much opened up women’s experience. I mean, Muriel Rukeyser, I think, was the first to start, you know, writing about something like breast feeding and being a lesbian and having children and the domestic life or the body, women’s bodies. But then, you know, when Anne started writing, you know, her poem in celebration of her uterus, I don’t think the word uterus had ever had ever appeared in poetry before.

Kevin Young: Well, I think what’s interesting, to me, around the same time, it’s almost like the development of DNA. You have someone like Lucille Clifton who’s writing in praise of her hips and writing about the body, as a celebratory thing. But Sexton is so, as you said, crucial.

Ellen Bass:222eee野鸡网视频2区 And then she’s the empress of metaphor. And that was the one strength that I had, I naturally think in it. So whenever I’m talking to somebody, I’m always saying, well, it was like, well, it was like, and especially if I’m trying to convince them of something, you know, or and somebody says, you know, I don’t get what you’re saying. I go, oh, yeah, well, it’s like this. And that comes naturally to me. And nobody I don’t think... I mean, Sharon Olds makes the most amazing similes. And so I think, you know, that’s kind of a lineage.

Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 You know, I love that you’re talking about metaphor, because especially in this poem, the metaphors kind of are subtle, in “Quahogs,” where he says, “Like stones.”

Ellen Bass:222eee野鸡网视频2区 Yes, don’t you love that?

Kevin Young: And then they open up, “Opal or pearl or plain rock, ugly except,”—break—“they were beautiful.” And so they are literally transforming because to me, metaphor is about transformation and connection. You know, across time and space, these two seemingly quite different things are really actually not just like each other, but often they’re the same. And here you see the poem go from “stones” to conjuring “opal or pearl or plain rock.” He doesn’t say they’re like those things. Suddenly that’s what they are. And of course, rock is rockier than a stone is. And so that they get kind of uglier, too. You know, it goes from it goes from stones to opal, you know, pretty nice, shiny, luminescent. And then pearl like this thing that the cousin to the quahog has in oysters and, you know, suddenly then they’re back to plain rock.

Ellen Bass: Yes.

Kevin Young: “Ugly, except.”

Ellen Bass:222eee野鸡网视频2区 The one metaphor that he really presents in a traditional metaphoric way—“the tide creeping like a wolf”—I think is really interesting because there’s that, again, primal threat, right? You know?

Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 I’m making a scared face.

Ellen Bass: Little red riding hood. I mean, you know, it’s like the wolf is that thing that we protect ourselves from. And they can eat us!

Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 And if you see one it’s so different, you know, there’s this weird thing that goes in your bones, you know, like you see one you go, wait, that’s not a dog. And you have this weird reaction. You know, we’re talking we’re on the brink of life, meeting death. You know, and that’s what I think he’s conjuring for us.


Ellen Bass: Right. And if we don’t eat, we die.

Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 Yeah. And if the earth eats us. If the wolf or the water..

Ellen Bass: Yeah. We got to get that food before the wolf comes. You know, before the tide comes. And I just love then when he gets to that ending, “It was for the hunger.” It’s not recreational. It’s necessity.

Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 There’s something about it that mirrors the experience. To me, the best poems enact what they’re talking about. They don’t describe.

Ellen Bass:222eee野鸡网视频2区 Absolutely.

Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 Well, let’s talk about your poem, shall we?

Ellen Bass: Yes!

Kevin Young: Now, in the June 24th, 2019 issue of the magazine, The New Yorker published your poem “Because,” which we’ll hear you read shortly. Is there anything you’d like to tell us about it before we hear it, actually?

Ellen Bass: Because we’ve been talking about Frank Gaspar, I’ll just start mentioning that he often tells his students, feed your mind. And I’m sure he means to read great literature, read nonfiction. But, in this poem, what fed my mind was a television show that had no value in that kind of way, but did for me. There was a series, not a great series, called “This Is Us.”

Kevin Young: Still on, I think, “This Is Us.”

Ellen Bass: Is it still on? And in it there’s a character—I actually love this character—who had a mental breakdown, a nervous breakdown and went temporarily blind. And in this poem, as you’ll hear when I read it, that happens. And I had never seen or heard of any other person who had had this experience. And my ex-husband had this experience. And it’s that way in which it’s so important for us to see ourselves named and reflected, our experience named and reflected, before we can quite know what it is. And when I saw that on TV, I went, I can write this poem.

Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 Wonderful. Well, let’s hear it. This is Ellen Bass reading her poem “Because.”


Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 Well talk about enacting! You really are enacting for us this process, the ultimate creation. You know, the ultimate poem, as it were. Tell us more about that. I mean, was that, did “because,” the repetition, come first or?

Ellen Bass: I knew that I would have to do something in this poem so that it didn’t sound like I’m telling you my sad birth story. And it was the because that allowed me to write the poem. And I actually modeled it on Frank Gaspar’s poem. I just loved his, “it was for.” And I couldn’t say “it was for” because he had already done that.

Kevin Young: But “because” is such a phrase people use, you know, like, why did you do that? Because. On its own, it has its own kind of....

Ellen Bass: It has a kind of propulsion that you’re waiting, you know, because this, then that. And I was really worried as I wrote this poem, you know, part of my brain and self was writing the poem. And the other part was going, what are you going to say? You know, what is the “that” going to be that is the “because this then that.” And I didn’t know. And of course, that’s the best place to be in writing a poem. That’s the place that I strive for is to enter into the place where I don’t know anymore and hope that I will discover something. But this was more obvious than in some poems because I was doing this “because” and it’s interesting what you just said really made me think of that, you know, “Why? Because.” Because there’s so many unanswered whys in this poem. You know, why is this woman with this person who’s going to go hysterically blind and then go to sleep on her and then she’s going to have to. And why did she stay all those years? I mean, it’s all these whys that can’t be answered in the poem. But I think I never articulated that to myself until you just said that.

Kevin Young: Aren’t poems tricky that way?

Ellen Bass: Yeah! You find out more about them from the reader always.

Kevin Young: And about one’s self, too, I find, you know, like as you’re saying, there’s a discovery for the poet as well as the reader or listener.

Ellen Bass:222eee野鸡网视频2区 Very much.

Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 And here to me, it happens both at the end—“I lay there with the baby whimpering in my arms”—but also in this stanza a few before. “Now, love and grief would be greater than I ever imagined.” And that way that suddenly the speaker has come into a knowledge, I think there’s something really powerful about that notion that suddenly there’s this future. I think that’s the brilliance of how you’ve set the poem, which is aware of what’s going to be. It’s a poem of looking back and of wisdom, but it also is gentle toward that earlier self that doesn’t know.

Ellen Bass: Yes, not when I was writing the poem, but afterward when I really looked at the poem, it seemed to me that, yes, maybe my birth story is sadder than some people’s birth stories, but everybody is kind of pushed into this other world when they become a parent. And I think that’s the universality of it.

Kevin Young: And tell me more about the way this situates sort of in other of your poems. Other poems of yours, I think, write about this more grown daughter. If we can talk about that. But also, as we were talking with the other poem about the kind of visceral experience of life and death, you know, you make a diaper change into the most dramatic scary thing! Even if you don’t know and haven’t done diapers with safety pins. I mean, you know, “the ducky pins,” great phrase. And you know, the care that the speaker who surely is bewildered and you convey that, but is taking to make sure not to harm this little baby.

Ellen Bass: You know, sometimes people ask you how long it takes you to write a poem. And this poem took me forty years. And I wasn’t working on this poem directly for forty years, but I had written a million poems about my daughter and early life and my ex-husband and all of the complications. And they pretty much all failed because I didn’t have both the perspective and, also, the craft. And somehow they all came together when I watched “This Is Us” and I thought about this use of the repetition of “because” and the other thing that happened that allowed me was I had been listening to recordings of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. And he talked about how our language is so odd that “up” has no meaning unless there’s “down.” These dualities are actually so integrated that you can’t separate them from each other. And that really just hit nerves in me the way that he talked about it. Otherwise, I couldn’t have done anything with this experience. Unless I could get to that love and grief being “rooted together like north and south, / over and under,” and I think that was the discovery of the poem.

Kevin Young: It’s very subtle, though. You know, I think that’s what’s interesting is, to me, the best poems have... It’s like a soup. You know that. And a good cook puts a lot of different stuff in there that, you know—or where I come from, you say they put their foot in it, you know, and then that’s a good thing. It has to have some of the body in it. Were you thinking about that in terms of the body here? Because I do think there’s also a reclamation of that kind of tradition we’re talking about and thinking about things that aren’t always in poems.


Ellen Bass: Yes. I think that when I write, I don’t feel much hesitation ever about putting something in a poem. I think I’m just lucky that way. You know, I never think to myself, Oh, I shouldn’t say, you know, my “huge dark nipples” or something like that. Or, you know, this doesn’t belong in a poem, whatever it might be. And when I was thinking about talking about this poem with Frank’s poem, they’re both so much of the body. And then I was thinking about just they’re both so primal.

Kevin Young: But I think that what’s fascinating here is how much you make poetic out of, you know, perineum, and these parts of speech that we don’t even talk about in daily life. You know, there was, I think, this divide between the daily, the everyday, let’s say, and the poem, which the modern poets tried to collapse. And I think largely did. But here you’re also going into things that we don’t always talk about, even in daily life to ourselves. And I think that’s what’s really powerful about poetry. And especially in this moment, I think you hear poets writing about things that I’ve never seen that in a poem still. I mean, it’s amazing after, you know, millennia.

Ellen Bass:222eee野鸡网视频2区 That’s exciting. And I think I had a lot of permission early on because of all these poets who you’re naming. And maybe because I was on the West Coast, too. And there was an up and a down side to that. You know, the downside was that I wasn’t in as much contact with other poets and the inspiration and stimulation of other poets. I was in Santa Cruz, California. And there were some poets. But it wasn’t like being in New York City. So there was a downside. But I think the up was that I wasn’t really getting the kind of feedback that maybe I might have gotten, critical feedback. That I could kind of do a lot whatever I wanted.

Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 I want to ask you really quick about the California that’s in the poem. You say, “This was California in the seventies.” How important was it to locate us?

Ellen Bass: Well, I think that natural childbirth in California in the seventies was like a religion. And I wanted to birth this baby naturally so much that I couldn’t even take in that it was important for us to get to a hospital before the baby was born. So that’s part of that. And also, maybe some readers might wonder what is this paper bag being baked in an oven for? And that was to sterilize the diapers. And the little sleeper thing that you were going to put on the baby is that you put it in a brown paper bag, you stapled it closed and you baked it in a low heat in the oven to sterilize.

Kevin Young: I’ll bet those staples were fun to deal with. Hot staples from an oven.

Ellen Bass:222eee野鸡网视频2区 Well, they had cooled off by then. No, you baked it in advance.

Kevin Young: Yes, yes. And you didn’t put the baby in there either. But it also is a kind of metaphor, I think. You know, the baking in the oven, it’s almost a cliche, a bun!

Ellen Bass: A bun, right.

Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 But also, I think there’s something about you talking about the rituals that I think is important for the poem and also for the memory. And I think, as you said, the forty-year distance really shows in that way that things that, you know, this isn’t how exactly things are always done. And, you know, I think that’s really important for people to understand that there are cultural things around birth and traditions. But at the same time, you’re getting at the kind of primal and that kind of intermix, I think, is really why the poem feels so specific and so part of you, but also part of this human experience.

Ellen Bass: It’s interesting that you’re talking about time and that distance, because also time was a little bit challenging to handle in the poem. Because I don’t tell things exactly in chronological order, and I had to start with my husband going hysterically blind because, as you said, you know, that kind of sets it up. And then I have to kind of go back and forth. When I first wrote the poem, that line, “because I’m still there on my hands and knees,” originally I wrote it “because she’s still there on her hands and knees,” really looking back at that younger self and making more of a distance. And then I realized that, no, I’m still there.

Kevin Young: That’s a powerful leap. And again, I think it’s important that it’s enacting. And, you know, if you’re reading, you might not have had this experience. Of course, you’ve not had this exact experience, no matter who you are. And I think we’ve all had some version of “because there’d been too many people / and then there was no one. Only.” You know that, here, is childbirth, but I think is about that larger love and grief that is knitted together in so many experiences. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Ellen Bass:222eee野鸡网视频2区 My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

Kevin Young:222eee野鸡网视频2区 “Because,” by Ellen Bass, as well as Frank X. Gaspar’s “Quahogs,” can be found on Frank X. Gaspar’s latest book is “The Poems of Renata Ferreira.” Bass will publish a new collection, “Indigo,” in April.

Outro:222eee野鸡网视频2区 You may subscribe to this podcast, the Fiction Podcast, the Writer’s Voice Podcast and the Politics and More Podcast by searching for The New Yorker in your podcast app. You can hear more poetry read by the authors on and the New Yorker app, available from the App Store or from Google Play. The theme music is “The Corner” by Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah, courtesy of Stretch Music and Rope a Dope. The New Yorker Poetry Podcast is produced by Michele Moses with help from Hannah Aizenman.