Ellen Hirning Schmidt’s collection of poems has been awarded the 2019 Helen Kay Chapbook Poetry Prize.

Ellen Hirning Schmidt’s collection of poems has been awarded the 2019 Helen Kay Chapbook Poetry Prize. 

Poems can be tiny journeys, a distillation of thought, reflection, experience. For long years, Ellen Hirning Schmidt, whose CV includes teaching, editing and coaching others in writing and self-expression, wrote poems and left them in a drawer. “I was more fascinated with the midwifery of writing,” she says.  

Two years ago, with the urgent encouragement of a participant in one of her workshops who was astonished to learn most of her work remained unpublished, Schmidt began submitting her poems. 

“She gave me a lot of encouragement at a time I was ready to hear it,” Schmidt said. “So I started sending out some individual poems. I got quite a lot of positive responses, plus some rejections. I wasn’t as bothered by rejections as I thought. And I began to think about pulling some of them together into a chapbook.”

“Oh, say did you know,” the collection she sent to Evening Street Press, was not only published this June, but also won the 2019 Helen Kay Chapbook Poetry Prize. The chapbook is locally available at Buffalo Street Books ($12).

This came as a delightful surprise to Schmidt, who received the news of the award in January.  After sending out her poems, “I pretty much forgot about it. I didn’t realize they spent a whole year considering them! Then I got an email announcing me as a winner and I had to write to the editor and ask, ‘Are you sure this is me?’ It was pretty exciting.”

It was also a little daunting. “I create workshops I’d like to participate in, where I could feel safe and comfortable and develop a sense of trust with other writers,” she explains. “It’s something I love doing. And writing poems is something I love doing. But sharing poems in a public way is a much more vulnerable experience—it’s sharing oneself in such a public way.”

Nonetheless, she came to agree with her “Medici”—the woman in her workshop who was so emphatic about Schmidt’s need to share her own writing. 

“I had a big burst of poem writing seven years ago and over the last years as well,” she says.  

Appropriately enough for someone who runs the popular “Writing Through the Rough Spots” seminars in Ithaca, her poetry-writing creativity was unlocked during a siege of breast cancer.  None of the poems directly related to that experience are part of this chapbook, but having weathered what she describes as “my own private holocaust” she says, “It was an impetus to think about time left and how I want to spend it. In celebrating life. Like Robert Frost says, a poem begins with a lump in your throat. I wrote through my cancer year, wherever I was—on the examining table, at a traffic light…” One of those poems was published last year in “The Healing Muse”; four more are about to appear in “Blood and Thunder,” an arts journal published by the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine.

“It was a huge surge of life and being alive and creative energy,” she explained. “This sort of experience ignites things that were already there and gives you the courage to say them.”

Barbara Bergmann, Managing Editor at Evening Street Press, who winnowed the original chapbook entries from 50 down to the five most outstanding ones, says the publishing company particularly values the feminist perspective. 

“Ellen expressed the ideas most strongly and with the most poetic voice,” she says. As they worked together, she found another reason to enjoy working with Schmidt. When she consulted with the poet on a cover, Schmidt submitted a compelling photo she’d taken herself. Wrapped around the cover, it’s like an invitation to explore the refreshing, welcoming point of view within. “As a press we’re very proud of our covers,” Bergmann says.

Then, when publication was announced, Bergmann logged 30 pre-orders from individuals who already wanted the book. 

“That’s outstanding in our experience,” Bergmann says. “She’s obviously an exceptional person.”

Schmidt’s poems have a sometimes sly humor, self-awareness, appreciation for time and place, using accessible language to make a point. In “Memory Foam,”

Shore and sea meet for

fleeting exchange in a 

moment of awareness and

inform one another of their creative work.

Then day and night

wake and dream, 

sea and shore

return to sculpt the same tales again and again

And in “Star Bright: for all the children”

twinkle, twinkle 

how I marvel that

we gleam like diamonds and 

just for a moment

touch each other.

Schmidt’s “Writing Through The Rough Spots” workshops resume in the fall, online. (More information can be found at WritingRoomWorkshops.com).  Like her poems, she considers these seminars to be “A window to one another in ways we don’t get to experience each other when we stand around with wine and cheese—or coffee cups. Whatever people want to say about themselves comes through the writing. And they’re also a mirror, a process of self-discovery through your writing.”  

In the meantime, she continues to write poetry and gather works together for a second chapbook.  Being a person self-described as a “connector,” she understands different poems will resonate with each person who reads them. Still, she says, she’s hoping people will take away from her work “a sense of finding a kindship of thinking or feeling, or thinking about something in a new way. I’m hoping people will find a connection and something meaningful.  Takeaway = might be different from different poems—some will speak to some people more than others—different people like one poem or another—a sense of finding a kinship of thinking or feeling about something or thinking about something in a new say—for me I’m hoping people will find a connection and something meaningful. 

“I hope my poems will nurture other’s spirits as writing them has nurtured mine.”

(1) comment

Melody Smith

Attending Ellen's classes have helped me gain confidence to write my way through life's many challenges. Reflection and support are key aspects to her workshops.

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