November 16th, 2016; San Diego, California. Award-winning author, educator, and editor of the feminist poetry anthology, No More Masks: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets, Ellen Bass, came to San Diego State University to read a select few poems from her latest and most powerful work yet, Like A Beggar, published in April 2014.
Roughly 100 people attended the event with open ears and welcoming hearts ready to be enlightened and soothed by her words.
Before beginning, Ellen Bass let the audience know that she typically likes to go from light to heavy, referring to the context of her poetry, but stated that this time she’s doing the opposite. She went over a few of her poems, touching on the idea of believing in God, then reading “God’s Grief,” a poem about God seeing our mess down here. Bass introduced her poem “Saturn’s Rings” by mentioning poet and novelist Frank Gaspar and how his poetry inspired her to buy herself a telescope.
Like A Beggar is a seven-year project, which Bass explained were some of her most miserable years that led to depression at one point. Noticing that she wrote quite a few odes, she figured it was because she was at a time in her life when she needed to give praise to things. I found that to be beautiful because typically when someone is depressed, as far as I know, they would not be able to see the bright side of life. But, for her to be at a low point in her life but still remain eager to be grateful for whatever sparkled in her mind was inspiring.
Bass continued on to read us her poem “Ode to Dr. Ladd’s Black Slit Skirt,” a very funny, yet delicately detailed poem about a gorgeous surgeon. It is deeper than just a poem of praise, for it eloquently and innocently transforms the humanistic qualities of beauty into art. Her poetry converts societal norms into worldly acts that define and exude life. For instance, she does not allow sex to be such a taboo in her poetry, such as in “The Morning After”. She stirs in aspects of sorrow and adds a light pinch of sadistic humor in her work.
The next poem she read, “What Did I Love,” is about a time when she first experienced killing a live, farm-raised chicken in an effort to eat sustainable meat. It was amazing how she was able to use such descriptive language to put her audience in her position, so as to make us feel everything she felt at the time.
At the end of the reading, Bass answered questions from the audience about her work and how she produced some of her best lines. Offering the audience some tips and advice for writing poetry, Bass discussed things that help her tap into her creative side. Among these, she mentioned, is experience, and sometimes just a good play on words. Explaining that she is inherently an extremely opinionated person, Bass found, over time, that poetry helped her to be less insufferable. With her gracious attitude and sophisticated perspective on the beauteous little things in life, she rekindled the flame for words, art, and language within the hearts of her audience. Bass told us:
“Poetry has a place, even in this extremity of distress… Every poem asks us to stop and pay attention.”
Poetry most definitely has a place, and that place is in moments of highs and lows, and even in between, as it is an outlet for escape, freedom, and expression. It was quite a treat to be transferred to a place of humanity, tranquility, and intimacy through the work produced by such a successful and iconic poet.