Inside the basket of her ribs,her tiny heart beats.
She snores. I listen.
—from "Sleeping Dogs," by Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris writes poetry, fiction and short plays from her home in Louisville, Kentucky. Her fiction has appeared in Antioch Review, Sawmill Magazine, South Carolina Review, Notre Dame Review, and Santa Fe Literary Review. Her story, “The Cycle of Life and Other Incidentals,” was selected as a finalist in the Glimmer Train Press Family Matters short story competition. Her ten-minute play, “Lost Girls,” was a finalist for the 2008 Heideman Award given by Actors Theatre of Louisville and was given a staged reading at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati. Morris is the author of Surrender, a poetry chapbook from Finishing Line Press. Her poetry has appeared in journals including Thin Air Magazine, Clackamas Literary Review, Alimentum, Juked, Inscape, and Gastronomica. Her work won top poetry prize in The Binnacle Ultra-Short Edition in 2008 and was Semi-finalist for Rita Dove Poetry Award. Her poem, "Origins," was nominated for the 2006 Pushcart Prize. Morris has received grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation, Kentucky Foundation for Women and Kentucky Arts Council. She is a recipient of a 2013 Al Smith Fellowship for her fiction given by the Kentucky Arts Council. Morris works as a public relations consultant and writes regularly for www.authorlink.com.
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I've never met Ellen Birkett Morris, but I'd heard her name as a fellow Kentucky writer. When she emailed to ask if she could send me a copy of her poetry chapbook for review, I accepted her invitation.
—Karen L. George
(This interview was conducted via email in April 2014.)
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Your bio mentions you not only write fiction in addition to poetry, but you won the 2013 Kentucky Arts Council’s Al Smith Fellowship for your fiction. Congratulations—quite an honor. Have you written poetry for as long as you’ve written fiction, and do you have a preference as to which you enjoy more?
EBM: I started writing seriously in my mid-thirties with the idea that if I didn’t do it now I never would. I started with children’s fiction and found it was challenging to do all the things a writer needs to do (plot, characterization, pacing, dialogue) and gear it perfectly to children. I moved on to poetry and fiction for adults. I enjoy writing them both equally. I think both forms demand attention to detail and rhythm and insight into the human heart.
Do you work on poetry and fiction projects at the same time, or do you work exclusively on a poetry project until it’s finished and then turn to a fiction project?
EBM: I do work on poetry and fiction concurrently, but with a major focus on just one form. I may write a few poems while I am developing a collection of linked stories or a few pieces of flash fiction while I’m compiling a chapbook, but one genre always takes precedence.
What do you find different and/or challenging about writing/revising poetry vs. fiction?
EBM: I think the challenge in poetry lies in how condensed it is. In fiction you have a lot of room to explain the situation, but in poetry you have to put people there right away. Every word must count. Every image needs to carry weight. I think revising is pretty much revising no matter the genre.
Your poems have a strong narrative voice, as well as great attention to detail and a sense of place. Do you think this was developed and/or strengthened by your fiction writing?
EBM: Thank you! I’m sure the fiction helps, but I think it also has to do with my preference for being grounded in a place and viewpoint when I write. I’ve done poetry and fiction workshops, and teachers always stress the importance of detail and the power of using the particular to help the reader reach a feeling of the universal.
I’ve not read any of your fiction, but I’m curious if you write about totally different, or similar, subjects in your fiction compared to your poetry? And when you sit down to write about something, do you know right away whether you will be writing a poem or a piece of prose, and have you ever started in one form and then switched off to another? Or written about that subject in both forms? Have you ever considered writing something that includes both poetry and fiction?
EBM: A lot of my recent chapbook Surrender dealt with loss and growing older. While I have some stories that center on these themes, I tend to write fiction about what it means to see others and be seen, what it means to really be known by another person. I think this is our central struggle as humans and it comes across whether my stories are about a young naïve soldier in Iraq or a woman who accidently finds her way into a breast feeders group.
I never know what a piece will be when I sit down to write. It really is a process of discovery. I had a story from my childhood of watching SNL with my father and seeing Mick Jagger lean over and lick Keith Richards on the lips. My dad was disgusted and I was fascinated. I thought it was an essay and tried to write it as such. Finally I figured out that it was a poem (titled “The Divide”) that went back through the generations—the Shadow on the radio, Elvis shaking his hips and then Jagger and Richards.
I have written about a subject in two forms before. I had a monologue called “Lost Girls” that was published in The Pedestal Magazine as fiction that I later turned into a ten-minute play that was a finalist for the Heideman Award given by Actor’s Theatre.
I think I would be well suited to develop something in hybrid short form. Short form writing is really popular now with works like Bluets and Dept. of Speculation gaining attention.
How do you think writing poetry affects your fiction writing and vice versa?
EBM: I think writing poetry has helped me hone certain aspects of my fiction writing, such as rhythm and word choice. I recently graduated from the low residency MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte, NC and my professors there weren’t surprised that I wrote poetry when they read my prose, which they described as “spare and poetic.”
Many of your poems have a deep connection to the natural world (they contain birds, horses, dogs, bodies of water, trees and plants.) Did you grow up in the country and/or do you currently live in a country rather than urban setting?
EBM: This must come from the poetic tradition because I am a city girl. I was born in Louisville and have lived in Lexington and Cincinnati. I really think this comes from paying attention, because nature is all around us, even in the city. I also think that nature is a great vehicle for poets to carry meaning and image simultaneously.
There are several consecutive poems near the center of the book, “Fatherless Girls,” “Hollow Bones,” and “August Leaves,” that contain no punctuation except for one or two commas. I have an idea why poets might choose to do this, but can you talk about why you chose to eliminate punctuation in those poems?
EBM: I think this had largely to do with the flow of the words. I wanted the sentiments to pour out with brief interruptions for emphasis, and I think the commas achieved that.
In many poems you use second person, addressing a “you” in the poem. I’m wondering about that decision, because I wrote a whole collection of poems exclusively in second person, but in workshops I’ve had people react differently to that choice, some bothered by it because they feel uncomfortable as if you’re addressing them and the situation of the poem doesn’t apply to them. Others readers like it. What is your opinion on that, and can you say why you chose to use it?
EBM: I feel as if the “you” serves to draw readers in and also lends an air of authority to the poems. I am thinking of David Foster Wallace’s short story “Forever Overhead” in which a second person voice is used to convey the gravity of coming of age as a boy prepares to jump off a diving board on his 13th birthday.
The preceding question brings me to a sometimes touchy subject. The series of poems in the center of your collection refer to and/or address a “you” that I assumed was your father, partly because of clues in the poems themselves and partly because of your book’s dedication note—“In loving memory of John Birkett.” But I know that many poets write persona poems, exploring people and situations they may or may not have experienced themselves. And as a reviewer, I often choose to refer to the poem’s POV person as the poem’s narrator rather than the poet themselves, because it feels too intrusive and/or presumptuous to do otherwise. What are your feelings about this?
EBM: The “you” of those poems was my father, who died in 2009. I spent many years honing my writing before I experienced the hard life experiences that made me feel like I had something important to say. I have also used “you” as the poem’s narrator (persona poem), as in the poem “Your Mother.” The lines go: "Tell me again about your mother. / Tell me how you held her hand, / limp with fatigue, half-dead." I’m not so much worried about whether a poem is autobiographical or not, but whether the details are authentic and moving.
On a similar subject, in “Detroit Skyline” you speak of a “you” looking like your grandson, so I assumed you were speaking of your father, though again it could be a persona poem. Further in the poem you say, “You…write books.” I hope it’s okay to ask if your father was a writer, and if you feel you inherited an interest in writing from him? I also ask this because one of the recurring themes in Surrender is a reverence for ancestors.
EBM: My father wrote detective fiction novels set in and around the racetrack. Louisville and Lexington served as backdrops for his books The Queen’s Mare and The Last Private Eye, both will be reissued as e-books this fall. He passed on his love of literature by taking me and my sisters to the library and reading to us when we were kids. I actually remember him reading Flannery O’ Connor stories to us when I was around eight. I also got to see how challenging and all consuming the work of writing could be. He sat at our kitchen table every afternoon typing away, so I knew it wasn’t a glamorous job, but felt driven to do it anyway.
Who are some of the poets who have influenced you, and can you say in what ways they have influenced you? What poets/collections are you reading now?
EBM: I like the work of Ted Kooser for the simplicity of it and also the way that he can animate inanimate objects through his poetry. I played around with that idea in my poem “Everything Must Go.” I think W. S. Merwin is amazing. The cadence of his poems are beautiful, and he writes about important things. I have always loved Jane Kenyon, particularly the poem “Otherwise,” which uses repetition beautifully and focuses on the importance of the everyday. Right now, I am reading Mary Ann Reese’s Down Deep and loving it.
What writing projects are you currently working on? Do you have any books forthcoming?
EBM: I have a set of linked short stories set in a fictional eastern Kentucky town in the mid-70s which is under consideration with an editor right now. I am also putting the finishing touches on a chapbook manuscript that I hope to send out soon.
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A sampling of Ellen Birkett Morris's work on-line:
"Down by the Lake" in Zócalo Public Square: http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2013/08/09/down-by-the-lake/chronicles/poetry/
"Blind Weaver" and "Back Street/New Orleans" in Clapboard House: http://clapboardjournal.squarespace.com/new-blog/2013/12/7/ellen-birkettmorris-blind-weaver-and-back-streetnew-orleans
"Sixteen" in Cease, Cows: http://ceasecows.com/2013/09/16/sixteen-by-ellen-birkett-morris/
"Paper Children" in The Daily Palette: http://dailypalette.uiowa.edu/?artwork=1732
You can read more about Morris at Poets & Writers "Directory of Writers:" http://www.pw.org/content/ellen_birkett_morris
Karen George lives in Northern Kentucky. Since she retired from computer programming to write full-time, she has enjoyed traveling to historic river towns, mountain country, and her first European trip. Her chapbook, Into the Heartland, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2011, and her chapbook, Inner Passage, is forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks. You can find her work in Memoir, The Louisville Review, Tupelo Press 30/30 Website, Wind, Border Crossing, Permafrost, Blast Furnace, Adanna, and Still. She is co-founder and fiction editor of the online literary and arts journal, Waypoints.