Ellen Elder, co-poetry editor of Literary Mama–a publishing venue for writers who write about and identify as mothers and/or through mothering–talks with Trish Hopkinson about how she became a poetry editor, how Literary Mama manages submissions and selects work for publication, what she looks for in poems being considered, and the importance of inclusivity in the literary community. Hear what Ellen is up to with her own writing projects and how to sign up for Literary Mama updates.
Trish Hopkinson: [00:00:00] Hello, everyone. I’m excited to be interviewing one of the poetry editors from one of my favorite feminist lit mags, Literary Mama Ellen Elder was born in New York city, raised in Cincinnati and educated at the University of Chicago, Chicago, Miami University of Ohio, and the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
She spent childhood summers in Ireland where her family ran an inn. Her poetry has been nominated for a push cart prize and has appeared in About Place Journal, Banshee Lit, Bird Thumb, DMQ Review, Tampa Review and elsewhere. She is co poetry editor at literary MoMA, and most recently taught at Heinrich Heina university in Dusseldorf Germany, where she lived with her daughter until 2021.
She now lives in Charleston, South Carolina. Welcome Ellen, and thanks so much for taking some time to chat with me for the Tell Tell Poetry Submission Interview [00:01:00] Series.
Ellen Elder: Well, thank you Trish for this interview for literary mama. And thanks to Tell Tell Poetry for the opportunity.
Trish Hopkinson: Yes, these interviews have been just really, just so much fun for me.
And, um, I’m really excited to have you here today. So how did you become one of the poetry editors for literary mama?
Ellen Elder: Well, I saw that literary mama was interviewing for a co poetry editor in October, 2020, the first fall of the pandemic I was living in Germany. And the poet, Allison Blevins was the other co poetry editor.
At the time. She since moved to a directorial position at another press, they interviewed me extensively. and when they offered me the position, I was thrilled to accept, uh, the esteemed poet, Libby maxi, who had been, and still is a senior editor at literary mama graciously stepped up to also act as co poetry editor.
When Allison stepped down. Um, Libby and I have been working together for about a year and she comes from a classics [00:02:00] background where I come from a creative writing background. So I think we bring to literary mama, a nice mix of both the classic and the contemporary, uh, with a big dose of feminist poetic.
Trish Hopkinson: Excellent. I love that. I certainly enjoy the poetry that was published in literary mama. So it’s, it’s exciting to have feminist editors. How can our listeners find. Editing opportunities like this. Yeah.
Ellen Elder: Well, first in order to find open editing opportunities, one must read and support the literary magazines.
Um, and once you read and support them, you inevitably hear about the openings also. Um, and this is one thing I didn’t know. Before beginning at literary mama, I’d only worked as a grad student on the, on, uh, cream city review at the university of Wisconsin, Milwaukee before. But so one thing I didn’t know about it is how detailed the mini tasks are that make up putting together a successful journal.
Um, and also how many roles [00:03:00] people play and how those roles need to be clearly defined and delineated. For example at literary mama, we have 24 editors, eight or senior and 16 are staff. Yeah. So it’s really, it’s really, um, versatile. Um, and that, this is good news though. So because depending upon one’s interest, there’s a chance if you look that you’ll find it opening somewhere and maybe if it’s not in the first sort of editing choice you had, um, it still might be in, in some other capacity that can serve the journal as a.
And also what was, what’s also surprising to me, um, is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of turnover, um, working at these journals, even though most of us work as volunteers. I think that editing work is so intrinsically rewarding. Um, I think it’s perhaps because writers thrive, uh, working with other writers.
That we end up staying in our positions. Um, even if it might not be that staff position that you first wanted. Um, and then if editors leave, it seems that the only reason they leave is just to take another position at another journal. And then [00:04:00] therefore that leads that position open. Um, and so to promote literary mama a little bit, right now, we are looking for a photo editor.
The last I knew, and we also need photography contributions.
Trish Hopkinson: Excellent. Excellent. Now that’s really exciting to, to hear about how that works. And I will tell you having, uh, been a reader, uh, for some lip S in the past, like there is something really, really exciting about coming across, you know, that next piece of work that you really want to publish.
So, I mean, I know, you know, working, it, it, it doesn’t sound. As exciting as it feels when you’re doing it. yeah. Yeah. Um, it’s, it is very rewarding. So I definitely, I appreciate, uh, you sharing that with the listeners. So, you know, we talked a little bit about the behind the scenes, but how does literary mom, mama manage all the submissions and, and what does that selection process look like?
Ellen Elder: Yeah, we’re getting a lot of poetry submissions right now, which is [00:05:00] exciting. We love that. Um, we accept them all year, which is not always the norm for literary journals. Um, we allow writing mamas to submit year round, I think because it caters to literary mamas, their busy lives, especially moms or those who identify as moms who are momming and writing and working all at.
Um, and as writers, when you move to submit a new piece and you see that the submission window was closed, or that the journal only accepts submissions for a certain narrow window of time, it’s kind of a let down. Um, so I think in literary with literary mama accepting year round, we end up rewarding, um, writers, um, and encouraging them to submit whenever they.
Um, we ask for three poems at a time or up to three poems in the body of the email. So not as an attachment, um, if their sent as an attachment, I’ll simply, um, kindly sends the submission guidelines back and ask them to resubmit. If a poet sometimes sends too many poems, they that. They don’t often [00:06:00] I’ll just read the first three poems.
So it’s three poems in the body of the email. Um, and a short bio is always appreciated. Um, as two co poetry editors, we then divide the submissions. Um, so Libby and I will read our poems carefully, um, and then set aside any, or read many that we want to discuss for possible publication. And we call these under.
So we have a system in place. We use a spreadsheet where we post and discuss the possible poems. We send many emails back and forth. It’s a very lively process. Um, often there might be a poem that one of us wants to accept and the other might not be so keen on. Um, but we always arrive at an agreement. We either win the other one over.
Um, who’s less enthused or we encourage that poet to submit again, perhaps we just feel that poem is not ready or unfinished. Um, so then with the dozen or so poems that we, um, agree on. And that reading cycle and a reading cycle could be every, every month or every three [00:07:00] months, we send those to the senior editors on duty to weigh in on.
So they do get, um, an opinion and if they have editing suggestions and a lot of times, one of us, or one of the senior editors will have a suggestion we’ll correspond individually with that poet to suggest those edits. Um, although this, this part can be time consuming. It’s always rewarding. Um, I, myself always respected when editors had suggestions for one of my poems, a new title, moving stanza, cutting lines, tightening and ending, um, as if it showed that they cared.
And, and so that’s a nice process, a nice back and forth. Um, and so that’s then we, um, once we have the go, then we send the acceptances and work out the contracts and then decide which issue the poems go into.
Trish Hopkinson: Excellent. Excellent. That’s I think it really is helpful for people to hear about everything that is happening behind the scenes to really put out, you know, a, a, the great next issue.
[00:08:00] So I love the literary mamas open year round for submissions. And I know you also take fiction and creative non-fiction and poetry. You mentioned that you’re looking for photography mm-hmm , but what do you wish you’d see submitted that rarely comes.
Ellen Elder: Um, for poems, we like what we’re getting. We’re always hoping for a most diverse range of submissions.
So we are looking for more submissions from non-binary LGBTQ plus and BI writers. For example, we want more poems from, uh, poets who identify as fathers. Um, we are inclusive. Our only stipulation is that the poem. Well, it, you know, it knocks us off our feet or it tugs at our hearts, but that the poem is somehow about mothering or that idea of the mother, the mothering experience, whether as parent or child, um, whether the writer identifies as a traditional cisgendered mom or not.
Or is writing about what might be considered sort of a normative mothering issues or not? Um, we have [00:09:00] seen an uptick in more experimentally voiced poems that dare to look at and reveal and question these assumptions and expectations about motherhood and mothering, um, in new ways. And for that, we’re really pleasantly surprised.
Um, but we do hope to see more so in our journal. Um, so our journal could continue to be expansive and voice and inclusive and representation. excellent. Excellent. And so, you know, in that, in that vein too, if, if anyone, if readers have questions, sorry, I would encourage them to look at, to check out our website, literary mama.com and check out the statement on diversity, equity and inclusion.
Trish Hopkinson: Yes. Absolutely. That’s, that’s great when journals have that type of information right there, where it’s available for folks who are checking them out to, to look at and, and understand the approach of that. Exactly. The literary magazine or journal. So that’s excellent. Thanks for sharing that.
Ellen Elder: And there’s also a statement there, sorry, there’s also a statement about the, um, about the concept of [00:10:00] literary mama there as well.
If I didn’t explain in full.
Trish Hopkinson: Excellent. Excellent. So what do you enjoy most about being a poetry editor?
Ellen Elder: Um, that’s sort of a. Easy question. It’s I, I think I enjoy most reading poems. Um, I’ve been writing poems since high school, so it’s like more than 30 years and I still find it difficult. So I find inspirational inspiration personally, in reading so many different poems.
To see how someone still crafts a poem, how they begin it, how they title it, how to shape it, how to end it, um, what they include and what they don’t include, um, that never gets old. Um, what I like about being a poetry editor at literary mama is I feel, I like reading poems that feel is if they were recently written as if they were urgently written, not as if they were pinned ages ago in some writing workshop in, in, in grad school
In a way, our journal is prompt driven because it’s [00:11:00] about the idea, this idea of motherhood and mothering. So the poems are all addressing something similar yet in different ways. So the whole experience of reading the poems is sort of, sort of meta. Um, what I like about reading these urgent poems is that they feel purposefully written.
So I’m into my second year at literary mama and I see. I sense that many of these poems were written as if in response to some lived experience that the readers that the literary mamas needed to tell or wanted to try to tell I’m like, no, this is what mothering is like, or no, this is how I think of a mother.
Or no, this is the sensation of nurturing or no, this is the worst in motherhood or no, this is the best in motherhood. So again, motherhood might be one of the most difficult concepts to capture. Um, I didn’t think of this before beginning editing at literary mama, but I think it’s one of the most difficult concepts to capture in words, because it depends on a writer’s perspective and because the idea of [00:12:00] motherhood and mothering is so universal and so vast.
And so time. So in the end, it’s really a joy to see the varied richness in all the different poets approach. Um, from writers writing all over the world in English, we get more and more international submissions, which is awesome.
Trish Hopkinson: That is, that is definitely awesome. That certainly expands on the diversity of voices.
Right? Mm-hmm cause there is, you know, there is a certain culture. That follows mothering as well from different country to country. So, yeah. No, that’s, that’s really exciting. So you talked a little bit about it, but what else do you look for in a, in a poem that you would publish?
Ellen Elder: So, so I’m speaking for myself.
Um, my co poetry editor might have a different view, but first I look for poems with a voice. As if it really wants to be shaped as a poem, a voice is an abstract term in poetry, but it brings me back to that idea of purpose. After reading a poem in our [00:13:00] journal, you might be moved to realize that, oh, that couldn’t have been a painting.
Although I like to think of poems as paintings, but, or, oh, that, that poem couldn’t have been a short story. That poem couldn’t have been an essay. It had to be a poem. Um, so visually I also think poems are stunning. Um, so I look for that when I hear the voice, I look at the way it looks on the page on the screen and usually, um, I sense, I like a poem that.
On one page. Uh, although I say I am one who tends to write narrative poems that go onto the second page. Um, so I, I, I listen for that voice. And in that sense, um, many times I might read it aloud. Um, second I listen for lyric, um, some lyrical phrase or line that sort of sings a deeper feeling. Um, or it maybe it’s a line that echoes with irony or some sort of nuanced meaning.
Um, my definition of lyric is, is deep. By lyrical. I don’t mean like past butterflies and painterly beauty, but I think of darkness. I think of [00:14:00] strangeness for me, a good poem that has a distinct lyrical voice is one where the language is almost organic. Whether through word choice or syntax. for me, a good lyrical poem, sort of coheres from start to finish.
There’s a flow, whatever that means. Um, and the line, there’s a line or a phrase that maybe almost echoes like a song. Um, but that said, you know, how do you define a good poem? I’m also a sucker for effective line breaks in a good line break. You can also, you can often hear before you see it. Um, In fact, you could argue that a line break where the line doesn’t end stop with punctuation or extend to the end of the page, but it breaks into jams to the next line.
You could argue that a line break isn’t really a break, but it’s, it’s its own ending. It’s that important? I think it’s the poet James log and B who believes that we should not call them line breaks, but we should call them line line endings. Um, in this argument of his, I think, yeah, I love that. So his, he doesn’t think they should be called line breaks, but [00:15:00] line endings, because it is essentially an ending and this argument of his, I think only heightens the importance of those moments in the poem.
Um, and finally, personally, I don’t really like predictable poems or poems where you know, what the ending is or it it’s, it is all revealed. Too perfect. The closure. And I respect a poem that surprises and that questions that risks a line break to do something odd, or that turns like a son. It does. And it ends with on an or changes perspective, or it ends with a distinctive closure or sorry, that ends without a distinctive closure that sort of opens it up to something new.
Um, and I think those are the poems that, um, understand themselves as a work of. That have the reader in mind and they allow the reader to participate more in the poem. Um, the reader participates in that sort of unfolding of meaning. Um, and those, I think are the poems that we want to reread. Sometimes they tend to be more difficult or confusing.
We want to reread them a little bit. Um, and we realize that those might be [00:16:00] the ones that readers connect.
Trish Hopkinson: Yes, I definitely, from, from my perspective, a poem where, you know, I can read it over and over and still find a new connection or something else. Interesting that I didn’t see before. Like you said, a surprise and line endings, I’m going to say line endings from now, and it’s so much better than line break.
Ellen Elder: I’ve been thinking about that more and more. Yeah. And that’s, I really love that. Yeah. And in that sense, the poem sort of is like a painting. So you stand before it, you know, for a while and you sort of let it sort of, um, take on its own meanings.
Trish Hopkinson: Yes. Absolutely love that very much. So what would you like to see more, uh, of in the literary community?
Ellen Elder: I think I’d like to see just more poetry, um, more reading and writing events. For women and children, I feel, I, I feel for, for non binaries in places where we [00:17:00] can all connect, um, in a safe, artistic place, sort of as a community, um, they, these places exist, but I feel like there aren’t as many of them, or they’re not very well known.
um, or you have to dig for them. I’ve only been in Charleston for a year. And so it has taken me for a while to find places. And here in Charleston and South Carolina, for example, there’s a poet Laureate position. Um, they’re actually accepting applications right now for a new one. Um, the, uh, the former one who did a phenomenal job six years, I think is just now stepping down.
Yeah. And when I, I researched the position and I found that it wasn’t compensated, not that they often are. And I had this like sense of scary disappointment, like for the future of poets, I thought, you know, here is yet another chance where it could just be a real job and it makes it feel like not a real job if there’s a poet Laan and there’s no compensation.
Um, so I think it’s sort of a dream, but what I’d like to see more of in the literary community is sort of [00:18:00] acknowledge. Um, of the importance of writers and what writers can do and what writers do accomplish. Um, my hope is that like sort of city and state officials would work more closely with school boards and work more closely with foundations just to find the means to, to fund positions like the poet Laureate.
Um, because poet laureates, for example, are instrumental in connecting poetry to the neighborhoods. Um, and they start with kids. School usually. Um, and then, you know, it’s nice to sort of think that the kids right now, I mean, those are our future poets. Um, and it would be sort of a dream to have two poet laureates in a city.
I was thinking a senior and a vice poet Laureate, and then one could work with the schools and the one could work with the community at large, but it get, again, it just comes down to what our society values and, you know, it seems to be other things besides poems right now, but.
Trish Hopkinson: Definitely. No, that would be great.
I personally would love to see a put Laureate in every town and city. I think that would be [00:19:00] fantastic. The hell town. Yeah, exactly. I live in a small town in Colorado and that would be, it would be awesome. Uh, we do have a pretty strong writing community here and I, I am seeing a lot of the writers really step up and sort of take those roles, but, you know, if they could be funded, that would
That would certainly, that would certainly help. Um, Add importance and it would help the rest of the community sort of understand, you know, how much their contributions do, make a difference.
Ellen Elder: So yeah, now I, and it would be a symbolic. I think it would be a nice symbolic acknowledgement too. I really think so.
But I agree. I agree.
Trish Hopkinson: So speaking of writing, what are you currently working on with your own.
Ellen Elder: Thank you for asking. Um, so I write about mothers and motherhood, um, from the framework of sort of at home and abroad, having lived in a few countries now, um, my debut poetry collections called mother float, and it has now been a finalist [00:20:00] three times, at least, um, and not yet published.
So my fingers are in eternally crossed mm-hmm . Um, it’s about a mother who abandoned her daughter when she was a toddler, um, leaving the father to. At the child, but it’s not that narrative. Um, and of course that child was me. Um, but I try to think of myself as separate from the poem speakers. Um, and many of the poems take place in Ireland.
Um, and the poems in my new manuscript center around, um, again, a mom, a single mom in Germany who has escaped a difficult, um, dangerous relationship. Um, and I have added more humor and of course the mom. Like me, I have added more humor and irony to this collection. Um, just, I think as poetry was a means of survival.
Uh, so we had to survive that. Plus we had lockdown after lockdown in Germany during the pandemic. So as a single mom, um, I found myself. More and more, I felt more and more as an [00:21:00] artist in my house because I was trying to create this safe, positive, light, and happy environment for my daughter. Um, in order to shield her from in part and also sort of explain to her in part.
The realities of what was happening, what had happened in our own small lives and what was happening in, in the greater world. Um, thankfully at that point I was only working halftime and teaching. So I could zoom at the university from home poetry workshops. Um, so I had time to create the space for her.
But ironically, because I was only working part-time it was harder to survive economically. Um, so that’s sort of that’s the, the, the bulk of the, the, the book I was existing, we were existing on a border of two languages. So that plays in with it as well. So with these new poems, I’m hoping that they might empower, um, sort of become an empowering blend of the tough and the vulner.
In this sort of domestic, um, space between home and abroad. Um, and the working title is [00:22:00] late light. Oh, that sounds lovely. You’re the first person I’ve told that to.
Trish Hopkinson: Oh, well, that’s very exciting. Well, now you told a lot of other people.
Ellen Elder:I’m like, is that I’m not sure, but it’s a working title. It’s I don’t, I can’t, I don’t know if that would stick. Um, I write book reviews too, and I have one coming out on Chloe hones, the poet, Chloe hones, new collection, the lantern room and her mom poems are great. Um, that’s coming out this summer. And so with all of us who do poetry on the side, and I know Trish that you do poetry a lot, both poetry too, that, um, it keeps us pretty busy.
Trish Hopkinson: Yes it does. Yeah. Certainly, especially with you. We do a, a lot of us have careers and, and other things that we’re managing or, or, or mothering right. Uh, in so many different ways. So I really, I think that’s why, you know, a journal like literary mama is so important and really that approach of just always being open and [00:23:00] supporting the literary mamas, uh, that are, that are contributors really, really great work that you do.
So how can our listeners sign up to get updates from literary?
Ellen Elder: Well, we can, um, we have a newsletter, so you can go to the website, literary mama.com and subscribe for our newsletter. We’re also on social media. Um, we have active Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. We’re also on LinkedIn. Um, we have a great expansive website.
Um, and just as a reminder in the website too, we do, um, that’s where you can submit the poems and you can also submit creative non-fiction fiction lit literary reflections profiles and, uh, book reviews. So. Have we, we’re looking for lots of submissions.
Trish Hopkinson: Excellent. Excellent. Book reviews are so important too.
I’m so glad that you mentioned those because it’s really, you know, it’s so much great support for your peers, but also I usually learn so much really digging in and reading on collection at [00:24:00] that level of detail. It’s just a different experience. So yeah. I love that. I love that. You mentioned book reviews.
Ellen Elder: That’s a good way to put. They feel very different in some ways, but they, but it is a necessary, I think part of the process of writing poetry is also to practice writing about someone else’s collection. Yeah. Yeah.
Trish Hopkinson: A hundred percent agree. Yeah. Well, thank you again for taking some time. This was such a great conversation.
Yeah. And, uh, best of luck, uh, with both of your collections. That’s so exciting. And please tell the rest of the editors at literary mama. We appreciate what they do.
Ellen Elder: Yeah. We’re 20 years. I meant to say that that’s turned 20 this year. Yeah. 20 years.
Trish Hopkinson: Yes, absolutely. Congratulations to everyone at literary mama.
Thanks so much for being here.
Ellen Elder: Yeah, thank you, Trish. I really appreciate this opportunity and it was fun. Answering your questions. Thank you.
Trish Hopkinson: It was, it was fun having you have a good night.
Ellen Elder: You too. Thank you. [00:25:00] Bye.