Interview and photo of Ellen Bass by Robert Sward.
Ellen Bass lives in Santa Cruz, CA where she's written and taught poetry since 1974. Billy Collins says of her recent book, The Human Line: "Ellen Bass's frighteningly personal poems about sex, love, birth, motherhood and ageing are kept from mere confession by the graces of wit, an observant eye, an empathetic heart, and just the right image deployed at just the right time. The Human Line is full of real stunners." Carolyn Kizer says, "There are some lovely poems in The Human Line, poems that live up to the splendid title, with all that it implies of our continuity in grief and joy. There are poems that cut deep into our sense of self and of primal relationships." And from Marie Howe: " Ellen Bass is such a trustworthy guide -- awake to the certainty of death, to the irreconcilable losses, and to the daily imperfect reprieve of love. These are poems of quiet joy and true comfort. I read the book to the end, and then started, from the beginning, again."
Ellen Bass was born in Philadelphia in 1947. She received a BA from Goucher College (1968) and an M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University (1970).
Her most recent book of poetry, The Human Line, was published by Copper Canyon Press (2007), and was named a Notable Book of 2007 by the San Francisco Chronicle. Her previous book, Mules of Love (BOA 2002) won the Lambda Literary Award. Her work has been published in many journals and magazines including The Atlantic Monthly, The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Field, and The Kenyon Review. Garrison Keillor recently read three of her poems on The Writer's Almanac and her poem "Gate C22" was included in Ten Poems to Change Your Life Again and Again.
Among her awards for poetry are two Pushcart Prizes, the Elliston Book Award, The Pablo Neruda Prize from Nimrod/Hardman, the Larry Levis Prize from Missouri Review, the New Letters Prize, the Greensboro Award, the Chautauqua Poetry Prize, and Fellowships from the California Arts Council and the Virginia Center for the Arts.
Ellen co-edited, with Florence Howe, the groundbreaking book, No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women (Doubleday, 1973) and her nonfiction books include Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth—And Their Allies (HarperCollins, 1996), and The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (HarperCollins, 1988, 2008) which has been translated into twelve languages. She teaches in the MFA writing program at Pacific University and at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.
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RS: Santa Cruz... It’s a lively and supportive community, our little town, it’s one that seems to value its writers and artists, but it’s also rather isolated. How did you happen to choose Santa Cruz as a place to live and how does it serve you? And how do you manage to survive?
ELLEN: I didn't imagine, when I first came to Santa Cruz County in 1974 that I'd spend the rest of my life here. I was raised on the east coast and never lived outside a city, but I fell in love with Boulder Creek. I had a house on an acre at the end of a dirt road, bordered on two sides by the San Lorenzo River. I bought a chain saw and I learned to use it--even learned to sharpen it--and loved sawing wood for the fireplace (the only source of heat). I made up a flyer for a poetry workshop and tacked it up in bookstores in Santa Cruz, as well as in the San Lorenzo Valley and fourteen people showed up at my house. One woman's car had gone half way over a drop-off on a narrow road and she simply left it there and walked the rest of the way. Now when I think of so many people making the 45 minute drive on that winding highway 9 to an unknown person's house just on the strength of a Xeroxed flyer, I'm amazed. But that was the start. I've been very fortunate in being able to support myself and my family doing work I love. For many years I worried about job security--what if people stopped coming to the workshops? But after all these years, I've finally realized that I have the most secure job in the world. No one can fire me. No one can downsize the corporation. I get to teach in my living room and I also get to write in gorgeous places like Esalen, Mallorca, Tuscany, and British Columbia, where I teach on a regular basis.
RS: I heard you read recently with Dorianne Laux and Joe Millar. How and when did you happen to meet Dorianne and Joe? What in Dorianne’s work most impressed you?
ELLEN: I first met Dorianne Laux in the 1980's when she came to a workshop I facilitated for survivors of child sexual abuse. These workshops used writing as a healing tool. Dorianne was already writing powerful poetry and when my co-author Laura Davis and I published the first edition of The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, we included two of Dorianne's poems. (Incidentally, we've just revised and updated The Courage to Heal for a twentieth anniversary edition to be published in the fall of 2008 and this one will include further poems by Dorianne, as well as poems by other fine poets).
My work with survivors was deeply gratifying, but eventually I missed writing poetry too much and so I returned to my first vocation. But I wanted and needed to learn more. My poetry was stuck at a plateau. I called Dorianne and asked her if she would be my mentor. She said yes and told me I could send her my poems, but that she was very busy and it would be a few months before she could get to them. I waited three months and called back again. She told me I was at the top of her list, but she still needed to finish some other commitments and I should call her back in three months. So I waited three more months. This is a little like the story of the seeker who goes up the mountain to the guru three times. So by now nine months had passed and on a Tuesday morning at 10 o'clock, I called her again. I said, "Dorianne, I'm a grown-up and I can wait as long as necessary. I just need you to tell me that the time will come. If you tell me that there will be a time when you can work with me, then I'll happily wait as long as it takes." She cracked up laughing and told me to hang up and she'd read for half an hour and then I should call her back and we'd talk about as many of the poems as she'd gotten through.
So I hung up and called her back in half an hour and we began. For some months, I called her every Tuesday at 10 and told her it was time to start reading and then we'd hang up and I'd call back at 10:30. And then, after awhile, I could just call at 10:30 and she'd already have read my poems. She worked with me intensively every week for over a year and then less often for years after that and she's still the person whose judgment I most trust and rely on.
I got to know Joe through my work with Dorianne. Sometimes when I wasn't sure about something Dorianne suggested or when she wasn't sure, she'd ask Joe his opinion. "Ask Joe" became a common expression. Finally meeting Joe in person was a delight. It's impossible not to love him. And over the years, we all became friends. I'd been teaching at Esalen in Big Sur for many years and I invited Dorianne and Joe to teach a week-long poetry workshop with me about four years ago. It was a great success and now we do it every year at the end of the summer. Then Joe and Dorianne spend a few weeks at my house where we do almost nothing except write poems and read them to each other. My partner, Janet, has grown to love Dorianne and Joe as well, so we have a wonderful time together.
RS: As I understand it, you, Dorianne and Joseph connect at least once or twice a month to set yourselves exercises...
ELLEN: Because all three of us have many teaching commitments, we don't have a fixed schedule, but we do love to give ourselves exercises and then share the results with each other. This is something we do every day when we're actually together. The exercises are quite varied, but often they include a list of words that must be worked into the poem as well as other various elements. This was the assignment I gave one day last week. Use the words: savage, drenched, ladder, seaweed, guitar, wine glass, wheel, spider. Also include a smell and the phrase "maybe you'll remember."
This kind of exercise occupies the conscious mind and allows the unconscious to offer up its strangeness.
RS: I imagine you know other poets who share their work together.
ELLEN: Many poets have a person or two with whom they share work right away. I was Anne Sexton's student when she taught in the M.A. writing program at Boston University. She and Maxine Kumin both relate that they read each other their work over the phone on a daily basis.
RS: What was it like to work with Anne Sexton?
ELLEN: In 1969, I entered the Masters in Creative Writing Program at Boston University filled with a passion for poetry. I was twenty-two years old and had begun writing poetry in college. Although my fledgling efforts were not very good, what I encountered that first semester only made things worse. My teachers, who were mostly men, had no interest in the direct, conversational voice of a young woman and no insight into how to help me go deeper, be more courageous, describe more accurately or create more vivid images. All they did was cross out lines, deleting more and more until there was almost nothing left of any of my poems.
I was discouraged, frustrated and angry and might not have had the faith to keep on writing, but by great good fortune, Anne Sexton began teaching at Boston University that year and in the second semester I enrolled in her poetry seminar. At her readings, Anne was dramatic and flamboyant, but in the classroom she was completely focused on the students, a gifted teacher, respectful and encouraging. She urged me to expand, to write more, to stretch out. She breathed life into the process of writing poetry and under her guidance I began to trust that my voice had worth, even though I had a long way to go to develop the skills I needed to make strong poems.
There isn't any QUESTION #6
RS: Would you say something about the transition you made from your writing and the work you did pre- and post- The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (Harper Collins 1988, 1994), to the almost exclusive involvement with poetry and teaching that followed?
ELLEN: My poetry and teaching led directly into my work with survivors of child sexual abuse. Because my workshops were safe, supportive places to share writing, and because the women's movement had broken the silence about other issues (such as rape and domestic violence), women began sharing their stories of being sexually abused as children almost immediately. I am not a survivor myself and I was stunned both by the pain of what they had endured and also by their strength and resilience. I never intended to work in this field, but the stories of the women were so compelling that it became part of my life's path to bring them into the open.
But after enough years away from poetry, my spirit was hungry to return to it. Poetry is, for me, a way of life as well as an art. It's the way I pay attention, the way I make a shape out of my experience, the way I praise this brief life, the way I mourn, the way I see my life as part of the human experience. Poetry helps me to accept what I don't want to accept and to be curious about even the most terrible things. It's a kind of spiritual practice, a way to pray.
RS: So there’s the teaching, the healing, the writing and it seems you’re more and more “out there,” available to people, especially now with the Internet. What is like for you as someone who’s much in demand, a well-known poet, having a website? http://www.ellenbass.com/
Are you able to sell books via your website?
ELLEN: I am not fond of technology. It scares me whenever I have to learn something new. But one of my students convinced me it would be helpful for me to have a website and she held my hand through the process. I have no idea how many visitors I have. I don't have a counter or whatever those things are called. But people can find me more easily and since I'm primarily self-employed, that's useful. Writers contact me asking about my workshops and classes and asking for writing-related information. I sometimes can help people connect to the resources they need and I find that satisfying. About once a month or so I send out a very informal newsletter with information about literary events, contests, calls for submissions and my own workshops. I have a few thousand people on my mailing list and often hear back that people got their first publication from a notice I circulated.
I don't actually sell books myself, but when you click on the book page on my website, you’re connected to Bookshop Santa Cruz’ website.
That way people can buy my book online and also support our independent bookstores. It is impossible to overestimate the value of our independent bookstores. Books are the repository of our ideas, the articulation of our values, the history of our human emotions, the instigation for creative change. We need committed, independent bookstores that are willing to carry a wide range of books, not only those which are best sellers. When literature is reduced to what will make a profit, our lives are impoverished. Our independent bookstores make it possible for publishers to continue to print the books, which we need, and love.
RS: Another thing in their favor is the willingness of independent bookstores to host readings. Poetry readings. And with the success of Mules of Love and The Human Line you’re often on the road. So, what’s it like for you traveling? And I’m thinking now of the workshops you lead in Mallorca, Big Sur, New Mexico...
At one level you're something of a tour guide, or is that unfair? I'm interested in how you integrate the different settings you choose as "background" to your workshops with the writing that goes on once you and your students are there. What are the advantages and disadvantages of leading your writing students to exotic locales?
Realizing, of course, that one writes, generally, yes? from the inside out... one could conduct a successful/productive workshop in a darkened room with no windows, too. Feeding people only bread and water.
ELLEN: This is a good question. It's true that we don't need beautiful scenery or exotic locales to write. Annie Dillard says that when she has a window in the room she writes in, she turns her desk to face in the opposite direction! But getting away from our daily obligations is a profound experience for a writer. Virginia Woolf wrote about "the angel in the house", the woman (usually a wife, sometimes a sister) who made it possible for so many (male) writers to do their work unimpeded. The "angel" supplied the writer with meals, cleaned up, cared for the children, kept visitors away during writing hours. Most of us (male or female) no longer have an "angel in the house", but when we go away to a writing workshop or a residency, we are provided with this kind of spaciousness. It is nourishing to our spirits to be taken care of this way and it allows us to pour all our energy into writing.
Personally, I'm not much of a tour guide. For one thing, I have a terrible sense of direction and it would be unwise for anyone to put themselves into my hands as a guide! But there are wonderful places to explore in many of the locations where I teach. The writers who attend sometimes do quite a bit of touring, but many of the participants hardly leave. Instead, they use the opportunity to do a tremendous amount of writing, as well as some reading, relaxing, and talking with other writers.
RS: Can you keep up with your own writing when you're traveling? I know for myself, I can take notes, do a little "journaling," but find it hard to start a new poem, though I can work (and often do) on poems in progress.
Actually, I do a lot of writing when I teach at retreats. I write along with the participants every day. I take advantage of the pressure to write a new draft every day and by the end I usually have a satisfying stack of drafts.
RS: This might be a good time to ask how you earn your living, how you make ends meet as a full time poet and teacher largely outside the academy.
ELLEN: I have been teaching steadily since 1974. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to make my living doing what I love--sitting around with other poets and writers and talking about literature! How lucky can you get?
Most of my income comes from teaching—and now I’m also teaching in the M.F.A. Program at Pacific University. But I also have royalties from my non-fiction books. Because The Courage to Heal has been a best selling book, I've been able to put away money for my retirement, as well as send my children to college. But my teaching is the component of my income that's the most reliable.
I've never felt that I had to make sacrifices to be a writer. Janet, my partner, and I naturally live modestly and we are both great procrastinators, which saves a lot of money. We want to have bookshelves built for our bedroom and got as far as putting blue masking tape up on the wall where we want the shelves to go, but that was a year and a half ago and neither of us seems to be especially in a hurry to get any farther than that. So for now, we have blue lines for shelves. If you're familiar with the children's book, Harold and the Purple Crayon, it's a little like that.
RS: On the subject of starting new poems, I'm intrigued with the "physical" aspect of what one does with one's body. I'm thinking of a talk I heard by the visual artist Ursula O'Farrell. I'm a fan of what Ursula calls her "Figurative Abstractions." Gloria and I went to see her show, "New Approaches to the Figure," where she spoke on the one hand of inviting her female models to pose in such a way that they expressed their inner confidence, strength, and centeredness... and that Ursula herself painted from her center, which she located in the area around the solar plexus. One may begin in a certain physical state, agitated or calm, twitchy or prayerful, but when one sets pen to paper, one can quickly enter the "zone," so-called, and lose all sense of bodily awareness. Wonderful!
A long way around, but my question is: How do you begin...
ELLEN: I walk a lot. I find that if I'm stuck in a poem, the best thing for me is to walk. Being outside in another environment, the rhythm of walking, frees my mind and sometimes the next lines come to me. Often I'll literally look for the image I need.
RS: I'm intrigued. Can you say something more about "looking for the image you need"? I think I understand, but you're right on the edge, too, of showing us one of the ways in which a poet's imagination works. On one level, you're opening yourself, am I right? attuning yourself... alert to chancing on the exact image you need...
Dorianne Laux's Introduction to "Mules of Love" opens with three lines from Wordsworth:
"While with an eye made quiet by the power
of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things."
Is that in any way what happens when you are walking, pausing in the writing of a poem, walking... "looking for the image you need"?
I like what you say about "chancing on the image" because it often feels like chance. But chance that arises out of a deliberate attempt to discover something. So when I walk, I look both in my mind—at memories, ideas, thoughts, feelings—but I also look literally. I look around me at what I'm seeing. I look up at the sky, down at the ground, at trees and people and cars and whatever's around.
I try to look in places I haven't looked before as well. Years back it seemed like I was writing the "green vine" school of poetry. Too many of my images were coming from the garden. So I consciously tried to look in other places—the junk drawer, under a microscope, looking on a very small scale as well as a very large, not getting stuck in the middle distance.
RS: Peter Ackroyd in his biography, Blake, suggests the poet's imagination and visionary experiences were part of a special fate, a natural gift, perhaps inherited, and that for Blake, Imagination was primary, a near sacred element in his life and his work. As a poet, what do you understand by that word, Imagination?
ELLEN: I believe that imagination is what allows us to understand and enter the experience of others. I think many of the problems in our world stem from a lack of imagination. If you can imagine what someone else feels, then, to some extent, the separation between you diminishes. Some people are able (and willing) to do this more easily than others. I think it's part natural gift and part choice or commitment.
As you say, Blake saw imagination as sacred. When the barriers between “I and Thou” collapse, when we can see into the experience of another being, this is the essence of what is sacred. Many spiritual paths offer practices to help us feel the oneness of life, to help us understand that we are not separate from each other, and what happens to one person in one place is not, cannot be, isolated.
In some of my poems, I use, to the best of my ability, this kind of imagination directly. "Bearing Witness" from Mules of Love, for example, where I talk about the way that listening to an account of suffering allows us to "slash the membrane that divides us". Or, in "Gate C22" from The Human Line, I enter--and hopefully make a door for the reader to enter--a completely different experience, the joy of a couple kissing at the airport.
But even in poems which are primarily about my own experience, I still rely on imagination, because I am trusting that my experience is not mine alone, but in some way is also the reader's experience. If it were only mine, then what I wrote wouldn't be a poem. It would be a report of what I felt, thought, did. To become a poem, what I write has to go beyond "what happened to me" to express something about what happens to all of us, our human lives.
RS: I’ve been reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s "Eat, Pray, Love,” a book I admire. Taking it out of context makes Gilbert’s assertion [seem] simplistic, but at one point she says: Tell the truth. Tell the truth. Tell the truth.
ELLEN: Well, that's good advice, of course, but in a poem you're writing to find out the truth. Truth isn't a static thing that you start out with. And having too firm a grip on what you think is the truth is more often a hindrance to writing poems. Poems are not particularly good places to talk about what you're sure of. Instead, they're good places to explore what you don't know, don't understand.
RS: I agree, of course, but "Eat, Pray, Love" is a memoir and the author, in saying "Tell the truth..." is saying just what you're suggesting, "Be brave." What I like about the book is that, to my mind, "the truth is enacted, discovered."
ELLEN: Yes, and in a good poem the truth is enacted, discovered.
The poet Marie Howe says that if you write what you knew before you began the poem, you're still on the diving board. You haven't jumped off.
This process of discovery is one that many poets have written and spoken about--that every good poem discovers something that wasn't previously known to him / her--and in reading the poem, the reader also experiences this discovery.
Marie and I are teaching a workshop which we’ve titled Truth and Beauty. There are so many truths and they change over time. And of course just telling the truth isn't poetry. Nor would we want a poetry that is beautiful, but has no truth. If I were to give advice to poets, rather than say, "Tell the truth," I'd say, "Be brave."
RS: Dorianne concludes her Intro to Mules of Love with a line that resonates with me, "Ellen Bass has created a woman who stands on the edge of her life, looking for the moment that might change us all."
Do you feel you've created a persona? There is an authenticity to the poems in both Mules of Love, and in The Human Line. They are moving and brave, "luminous with the ordinary," and I personally feel I am hearing you, or who I imagine to be you.
ELLEN: This is a paradox where there are two truths. One is that there is a persona, that there's always a persona. The voice of the poem isn't—can't be—the person you'd know if you spent the weekend with me. Because it's a created voice, a "made" voice. It's poetry, not a person.
And the other truth is that the voice in my poems is probably more authentically me than I am. My poems expose not so much the events of my life—which are not all that different from the events of other people's lives in that we all love and suffer, we all have failures and regrets, we withstand losses and encounter unexpected joy. What the poems expose is the working of my mind. That's what feels most personal to me.
I often picture that I'm standing half a step behind the speaker in my poems. The speaker is a woman in her sixties, living in the United States in the early part of the century and I'm standing just slightly behind her, offering her the events of my life to make poetry out of.
RS: It's odd, but for this reader Ellen Bass is Ellen Bass and, rightly or wrongly, I've never thought of you as employing a "persona." I do in my own recent work, for example, in my book God is in the Cracks, where many of the poems are in the voice of my father, but maybe you're just braver... and speaking of diving boards, (re: Marie Howe), there are those of us who linger and never jump; there are those who, at the final moment find the courage to "jump," and others who do a whole lot more, ascend like angels and for them jumping is the least of it. And in the celebratory "Jack Gottlieb's in Love" for example, seems to me you're in a class of your own. You're airborne from beginning to end.
And there’s humor here. “Jack Gottlieb’s in Love” is a tour de force, a moving and wonderfully funny poem. And I’m thinking how serious all this begins to sound, my chin-stroker questions. But your poems aren’t weighed down that way. I think of them as direct and conversational, a pleasure to read on the page and a pleasure to read aloud. They’re often very funny. And they’re funny without losing any of the “everything else” they are. And this is not chuckle funny, but laugh out loud funny. So, here I go and ask another chin-stroker question: Ellen, do you think of yourself as funny?
I never thought of myself as funny until I began to work with survivors of child sexual abuse. The healing work we did was so intense, so excruciatingly painful, that we needed humor, we really needed the relief of it. So I'd say something that would give us a chance to laugh. I'm not sure how clever my jokes were, but people really laughed. Looking back I think that's where I began to love making people laugh.
And I believe it's best not to take oneself too seriously—at least not on a regular basis. In even the most serious situations—especially there--there's room for humor. Dark humor, to be sure, but it's still funny. You laugh and you cry at the same time. And you remember that your pain, as important as it is, is just a speck of the world's pain. That there are people suffering all over the world and you're all, in some sense, in the same boat. And one of the things that keep me afloat is humor.
Laughter, to me, is very intimate. When I write from my own quirky perspective and other people find that funny, I feel a strong bond. And it's so satisfying to be able to take painful or just irritating or frustrating experiences and write about them in a way that I can laugh with
RS: There’s humor and there’s tragedy. I’m thinking of your former teacher Anne Sexton. How do you take care of yourself? And, what do you say to gifted writers who seem, for one reason or another, bent on destruction?
ELLEN: Fortunately, we no longer have a prevailing image of the poet as someone who is more anguished, suicidal, alcoholic, etc. than other people. I try to take care of myself, not because I'm a poet, but because I'm a pretty disciplined person and I don't like pain. I grew up with a father who was very ill and I have never taken my health for granted.
As for gifted writers bent on destruction, I don't seem to encounter that stereotype. The students who come to me are, on the whole, bent on staying around long enough to write some good poems. Even the students I've worked with who are dying of a terminal illness, want to stay alive as long as possible to get their poems written. Especially these students. I am inspired by their determination.
RS: Off the wall question: What self-help books, if any, have been helpful to you? Can you name a couple books, fiction, nonfiction or poetry, that were in some sense, for you, "life changers" if not "life savers?"
ELLEN: I am a student of Pema Chodron's books, When Things Fall Apart and Going to the Places that Scare You. And Joko Beck's book Nothing Special was given to me at a difficult time in my life and was truly a lifeline.
RS: I'm reading your poem, "My Mother's Clock," (“In a narrow bed in Philadelphia…”) and wondering, in this book and in Mules of Love, how important is "place" in your poetry? What is the place of place in your poetry? What "places" serve you as a poet and why? Philadelphia, by the way, seems just right for "My Mother's Clock."
Place is very important to me. Most of my poems are located in both time and space. Molly Gloss gave a talk recently at Pacific University where I teach in the MFA program and she talked about the importance of place in fiction. She said she had to have the place well established from the very start of her story because the characters would be different people in a different place. If the place is an imagined one, she makes a map, filling in every mountain and river and if it takes place in a city, she names all the streets, she places the fire house, the schools, everything, before she begins to write.
So yes, in "My Mother's Clock" my mother really was in Philadelphia. I was in Spain, which doesn't get mentioned in the poem, but we know, from the poem, that I'm not in the same city, not in the same time zone. Perhaps the reader doesn't think about that consciously, but there's a sense of distance that's communicated.
RS: We’ve come full circle, seems to me, and re-reading the last four lines of "Your Hand,"
"How close loss comes, striding
straight at us, and then,
distracted maybe, turns
and wanders away."
I’m thinking that catches something, that’s the theme of this book, "How close loss comes..." that and perhaps the epigraph to "Birdsong from My Patio," / "Despair so easy. Hope so hard to bear."/ (Thomas McGrath). Again, for myself, the theme of The Human Line is: What it means to be human, to belong to the human line and what it means, quite simply, to have a heart.
ELLEN: Yes, this is what I'm always writing about—how do we carry all the loss and suffering and not close our hearts, not become bitter? How do we go on? How do we hold both the joy and the sorrow simultaneously? And how do we let it work on us--work us over--without falling into despair? All I have are questions and so I'm grateful for poetry because poems are good places for questions. You don't have to have answers.
Poet Laureate of Santa Cruz County, 2016-2018, Robert Sward has taught at Cornell University, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and UC Santa Cruz. A Fulbright scholar and Guggenheim Fellow, he was chosen by Lucille Clifton to receive a Villa Montalvo Literary Arts Award.