Ellen Birkett Morris on the creative process, poetic form, and publishing

You are the author of the chapbook of poetry Surrender (Finishing Line Press), and you have the recent poems “Surveillance,” “Blind Weaver,” and “Paper Children” published online. You also write fiction, essays, and plays. Talk about what your love for the genre of poetry. In your answer talk about your chapbook. How did your admiration of the poetic form, constraints, and expectations invite this sequence into life?

I love poetry because of the challenge it poses in marrying the right words and images to set a tone, create a world and convey an emotion. This pairing of word and image matters in essays and prose, but is especially important in poetry because of constraints of length and the boundaries of form. These constraints challenge me to be precise and specific in my details. These details do the important work of creating a credible world and effective emotional landscape.

My poem “Leaving” deals with a moment of present loss, but also reaches back into history to remember the loss of my husband’s uncle (who he resembles) in World War Two, all in eighteen lines. The poem’s tone and impact depends on images of loss and decay—peeling paint, closed shutters, a bronze star the color of the fall sun, faded tea roses and fall light.

These images build on each other to put the reader in the place of the man who is saying goodbye to his boyhood home after the death of his father. The poem culminates with the image/phrase “the fall light is filled with golden dust, dried leaves, ash, the yellow of goodbye.”

There is a pleasure that comes in unfolding these details, matching word to image and creating an emotional landscape within a poem in such compressed form. There is no room for extraneous detail or speculation. The result is crystalline.  Poems thrive under the creative pressure to make them concise.

Poetry was the best tool for me to explore the themes of Surrender, lost love, aging, death, middle-aged sex and the legacy we leave behind. Each of these themes was tied to specific moments in my life that imprinted on me as snapshots. Those images, the simple cabin where the heartbroken farmer lives, the girl on the horse, the sleeping dog, the crow flying overhead as a father and son search for fossils in a riverbed, acted as prompts from which to build the poems. The images both ground the reader and provide a point of departure from which to explore the emotional landscape of the poem.


Your poem “What Broke My Heart” available here, is a prose poem. Some of your other poetic work is flash or lineated, and you write across genres and collaboratively. Talk about your creative process. When you begin writing, do you begin with the intention to write a poem or an essay and then follow that through to completion? Does your work shift forms as you compose? Do you change genres to reimagine or re-see a piece? Or does some other thing(s) influence your choices? In your answer, talk about other writers you admire who write in multiple genres and what such writing offers to the audience of those works?

My process is pretty organic. I may think I know what a piece is, but the real choices are made as I write. I try to stay open. I had an idea that I thought would make a great essay about how each generation dismisses the culture/artistry of the one that comes after it. When I started to write, I found that contrast between generations was best suited to something shorter and more pointed. With that in mind, I came up with these lines of the poem that would become “The Divide” collected in the chapbook Surrender (Finishing Line Press).

Making this a poem helped me narrow the focus to a very specific experience that had universal implications, that the young and old see things differently and have different emotions related to what they see.

Usually I decide what something is in the writing, but I had one piece, “Lost Girls,” that was published first as flash fiction that I later turned into a ten-minute play, which had a staged reading at Cincinnati’s Arnoff Center. The piece was essentially a monologue and I added stage directions and pauses to determined pacing.

I deeply admire the work of writer/poet Maggie Nelson. Her book Bluets is a wonderful blend of scholarly material, personal experience and the vivid images of poetry.  I tried to employ her approach in a piece of creative nonfiction about my experience cerebral palsy called The Nine, which first appeared in The Butter. It is a wonderful form of mind play to draw connections between seemingly disparate facts and personal experience. The connections reverberate, taking the reader to unexpected places. I know this was true as I read Bluets. The experience was a journey through Nelson’s mind. I also admire the work of Wendell Berry, a fellow Kentucky native, whose work across genres is a thoughtful exploration of what is lost in modern life.


As a writer, editor, teacher, and speaker, most recently here the Antioch Writers’ Writers Workshop at the University of Dayton, where you lead a discussion on publishing, talk about the business of writing. Where do writers find support and mentorship in publishing their work? What’s the best path for publishing—blogs, literary journals, independent presses, agents? When should a writer seek publication for their work? How does a writer know who their audience might be?

The business of writing is the most challenging part of the process for many writers. Writing is a pleasure and sending work out can be a drag. That said, I know that no one is waiting to discover me or champion my work. It is my obligation to make connections, make the work the best it can be and get it in front of editors for potential publication.

I found writing conferences to be a wonderful way to get feedback and encouragement regarding my work and to form connections with fellow writers. They are many generous, thoughtful teachers to be found. I’ve also formed critique groups with fellow writers I’ve met at workshops.

Do the work, let people look at it, give it time to develop, and, when it is the best you can make it, send it out for publication. Do the work first, before you seek publication.

I think literary journals are a good place to start to build your reputation and develop a bio that shows you are a serious writer. Which journals are the writers you admire and your peers are sending work to? Once you have some publications under your belt, and when you have developed book-length material, consider looking for an agent or sending your work to independent publishers.  Many very fine writers work only with independent publishers because they get personal attention that might not be available at a larger publishing house.

Reading journals, magazines and books is the best way to get a sense of which publications might be best for your work. Don’t be afraid to start small. A poem I wrote was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by a very tiny community college in California. Conversely, don’t be afraid to shoot high. I sent a short story that I thought was really strong to the esteemed Antioch Review and the story was accepted.

A good resource for educating yourself about literary journals is Clifford Garstang’s rankings. You can also consult New Pages, which offers reviews of journals and submission opportunities.

Be fearless in sending your material. Try to view rejection as a learning experience. If you love a piece keep sending. If it keeps coming back consider revision. Writing is an ongoing process. Try to focus on the process as satisfying in and of itself and then publication will come.


How do you define chapbook? A brief collection of poems that illuminates a concept or idea.

What makes a good chapbook? A collection that is multi-faceted, offering insight into an idea in a variety of ways that come together to lead to deeper understanding.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? Sherry Chandler’s The Woodcarver’s Wife.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Unity of theme, however loose. A variety in the tone and form to keep the reader interested.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? Continuing to write, read about craft, read good chapbooks.

What’s next for you? I am working on a second chapbook around the concept of what it means to abide, to continue, to persist, to survive, to dwell in a state or feeling.

Number of chapbooks you own: 7

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 10

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: Foremost by buying the work of other chapbook writers, and recommending them to readers.

Your chapbook credo: Unity of theme, precision of image, depth of exploration.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: On books to inspire my work.

Residence: Louisville, Kentucky

Job: Writer/Editor/Teacher

Chapbook Bio: Ellen Birkett Morris is the author of Surrender (Finishing Line Press). Her poetry has appeared in The Clackamas Literary Review, Juked, Gastronomica, and Inscape, among other journals. Morris won top prize in the 2008 Binnacle Ultra-Short Edition and was a semi-finalist for the 2009 Rita Dove Poetry Prize


Acknowledgments for Poems Cited or Linked

“Blind Weaver,” “Back Streets/New Orleans,” Clapboard House.
“The Divide,” Inscape.
“Paper Children,” The University of Iowa’s Daily Palette.
“What Broke My Heart,” Kentucky Monthly, The Revivalist, Surrender.
“Sixteen,” Cease Cows.
“Down by the Lake,” Zócalo Public Square.
“Surveillance,” Qarrtsiluni.
“Two Fathers,” with Lois Barr, Mixtini Matrix.
“Leaving,” Surrender.

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