Ellen Birkett Morris: Poet Interview

Please join me in welcoming Ellen Birkett Morris to the Poetic Asides blog!

Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is the author of Surrender, a poetry chapbook. Her fiction, poetry, essays, reviews and interviews have appeared in journals including Antioch Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, wigleaf, Inscape, The Butter, and Shenandoah.

She is a recipient of a 2013 Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council.

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What are you currently up to?

I am currently shopping a novel around to agents. I have three agents reading the full manuscript, and I am hoping one of them falls in love with it enough to want to fight for it in the marketplace. I just finished teaching a class on turning life experience into poetry through The Loft Literary Center, where I was impressed by the range of talent I saw. I’m writing short stories, poems and essays and when they are finished sending them to literary journals. My most recent poem is in the current issue of 3Elements Review and is titled “One Woman’s Yard Sale Is Another Woman’s Temple.” I also have an essay coming out in The Common’s Dispatches column on August 30.

How did Surrender come together as a collection?

I wrote a series of poems throughout my forties that dealt with the stuff that happens when you are that age, like losing a parent and pet and being in a mature, loving relationship. When I had enough poems and I looked at them together it occurred to me that growing older successfully requires a certain amount of surrendering to your circumstance. I saw the theme of surrender running through the poems and knew the poems could work as a collection.

Were there any surprises in the publishing process?

I think that unpublished authors dream of publication and anticipate a level of interest in their work that might match that of a more widely published author. I was in a workshop with the writer Ron Carlson and he told all the writers, “There is no mandate for your work.” What he meant was that the world was not waiting for their work.

I had a great group of supportive friends who filled the bookstore when my book came out. It was fantastic, but I tempered my expectations when it came to the general public. Luckily, I got a good review in my hometown paper and there was some word of mouth so there were additional sales. I think it helps to work hard, spread the word and try to keep your expectations in check.

Have you done anything to promote the book since publication?

I sent out a press release and made sure the local book page editor had a copy of the book. I participated in local writing conferences and read at all the major reading series in Louisville. I did an interview with a local community radio station and participated in a podcast about writing.

You write and publish fiction, poetry, and essays. Are their cues that help you decide whether a particular subject should be a poem versus a story or essay?

I think topics that have a strong visual associated with them or a clear contrast call out to be poems. In poetry a simple image can represent so much. I could have written about my the pain of watching my father diminished as he grew sicker and the depth of our parent/child relationship in an essay, but my poem “Hollow Bones” says all that more powerfully and gracefully in fewer words.

Hollow Bones

Crows have hollow bones
Elegant scaffolding designed for flight
Had you hollow bones I could lift you from your bed
Carry you outside to feel the sun
See the clouds drift across the sky
Watch the shadows lengthen

But you fall into a darkness I cannot penetrate
Your bones riddled with tiny holes
Like a fossil found on the river bottom
By a small boy who shouts to his father
To announce his find
As a crow soars overhead

You teach creative writing courses at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington. Could you share one or two things you often try to communicate to your students?

I talk about the importance of finding the right kind of details to bring a piece alive – something unusual, vivid and particular that will provide insight into the character or situation and set the story or poem apart from all the other stories and poems that come through the slush pile.

I talk about believing in yourself as a writer, working hard, educating yourself, and being fearless in the face of rejection.

One poet more people should know: Who is it?

I really like the work of Christopher DeWeese, whose second poetry collection, The Father of the Arrow is the Thought, came out fairly recently. He taught at the Antioch Writers Workshop the year I attended and was a fantastic teacher.

If you could pass along only one piece of advice for other poets, what would it be?

Look around, set down your phone and let the world in, find the thing that stands for another thing and you will have the makings of a poem.

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Robert Lee Brewer is the editor of Poet’s Market and author of Solving the World’s Problems. Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.

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