Dickinson & One-Thousand Rages: An Interview with ‘Armed to the Teeth’ Poet, Ellen Hirning Schmidt


Happy Thursday, readers, writers, and shark fans! We love celebrating our Lit Shark community here, so we are excited today to share Ellen Hirning Schmidt’s latest poetry collection, Armed to the Teeth. Ellen graced us with her presence in Issue 2 of Lit Shark Magazine, and Armed to the Teeth is now available from Antrim House Books.

Though Schmidt did not begin to submit poetry for publication consideration until the age of 70, it’s clear that she spent time writing poetry throughout her life—even if that didn’t involve directly writing poems to the page. Observing the nature around her, the cities and places she called home, and her other life experiences, Schmidt developed a lengthy catalog of poetic fodder for what would become beautiful, startling, and at times shocking poetry. Like her poem, “Equinox,” which appeared in Issue 2 of Lit Shark Magazine, Schmidt’s poetry emphasizes nature and examines our relationship to it, our evolving identities, our hopes, and our deepest mistakes. And with a title like Armed to the Teeth, it stands to reason that her work would have a bite to it.

While Schmidt’s poetry is not strictly focused on nature, her depictions of nature and how nature comments on our living experience are reminiscent of Lorine Niedecker, and her verb choices remind me of Robert Hass’s use of animals as verbs like in The Apple Trees at OlemaI found myself thinking back to Shaindel Beers in particular and her poetry collection, Secure Your Own Mask, which is full of electric and startling poetry, violence, sharply smart writing, and memorable images of birds, plants, and deer. In both of these works, Schmidt and Beers describe at times life-changing and at times harrowing experiences with violence, nature, and fellow humans, and the results are memorable, sometimes shocking, sometimes heartbreaking, and always stunning poetry. Along with the common ties between Schmidt, Niedecker, Hass, and Beers, I also found myself enamored with the echoes of Emily Dickinson throughout Armed to the Teeth. Not only does Schmidt reference “the thing with feathers,” but her writing style has a similar sharpness, quickness, and wittiness that we found find in the works of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath.

Schmidt has developed incredibly refined and subtle poetry, poetry that begins as understated, quiet, and resolves itself with startling finality. She does not shy away from straight-forward, declarative statements while also enjoying some of the more beautiful facets of poetry, like alliteration, deeply imagistic metaphors, and verb choices that are bold, surprising, and original. Schmidt encourages us and equips us with the opportunity to employ all of our senses in this collection, from touch to taste, and there are stunning pops of color throughout, like the brightest shocks of gold, green, yellow, and red found in nature. Armed to the Teeth is quite honestly a delicious collection for the body’s senses and for the poet’s, as she encourages us to experience the world and experience her poetry with every sense and tool we have at our disposal.

Though Armed to the Teeth might sound aggressive or violent, the greatest message of the collection is that life is precious and not something to take advantage of or to steal. While the natural world and creatures in it might serve to teach us a lesson about ourselves, or might even work as a beautiful metaphor for what we’re experiencing, like feeling the freedom of a bird flying or the cornered feeling of an opossum in a barn, this poet does not shy away from the fact that animals are often viewed as disposable, though they should not be. Rather, salamanders should be saved and thrown back into their natural habitat. Birds should be celebrated in all of their appearances, colors, and songs. Insects should be respected in the context of their short, small, but deeply significant lives. It’s a lovely call to live and love life in the tiny moments, and while life has its devastating moments, it’s stunningly beautiful and sharp around the edges, and Ellen Hirning Schmidt handles it with all of the gracefulness and beauty of Emily Dickinson, but with a little extra ferocity—fierceness—bite.




Armed to the Teeth by Ellen Hirning SchmidtGet Your Copy of Armed to the Teeth Here

Armed to the Teeth: Poems

Written by Ellen Hirning Schmidt

Antrim House Books (March 13, 2023), 78 pages

ISBN-13: 979-8986552224


“Welcoming and generous, Ellen Schmidt’s poems invite us into her world of childhood memories and family stories filled with surprising images apt, often funny and familiar, and depicting the courage it takes to face the dark. Her compassion for all living beings—humans, trees, the smallest salamanders crossing a road—opens us to wonder and caring in new ways. These are loving poems with the power to change us for the better.”—Mary Isabel Azrael, Poet, Passager Books Editor


Exclusive Interview with Ellen Hirning Schmidt

Thank you, Ellen, so much for agreeing to talk with me about your writing process and your lovely collection, Armed to the Teeth. It’s an honor!

McKenzie Lynn Tozan (MLT): From “The Thing with Feathers” to attributions to Emily Dickinson/Emily to feathers, hope, and bird imagery, I loved the recurring conversation with Emily Dickinson’s work that you had throughout Armed to the Teeth. I’d love to hear more about your reading of Emily Dickinson and how she influences your work (and other writers, if you’d like!). What are some of your favorite poems?

Ellen Hirning Schmidt (EHS): The poems in Armed to the Teeth are about a juncture, even a seemingly small, unnoticeable one, when hope and despair met up. Not surprisingly, I gravitated to Emily’s hope poem (#254) in high school because of the tug between hope and despair, often daily that I, and perhaps many of us experience. Before I was 10 years old, I remember the very moment I believed I would never actually grow up. I knew that I was born two years after the atomic bomb exploded in Hiroshima. I had seen footage of the concentration camps. The world looked pretty hopeless to me. So, I looked for life-affirming writers and poets for hope within that struggle or to find kindred souls who also struggled.

“The Secret Compartment” refers, of course, to Pandora releasing all the ills of the world. I dig deeper to find hope hidden away in the same box, fragile, vulnerable, but able to take flight. (I discovered that a jewelry company and the ubiquitous music playlists come up on Google in front of the Wikipedia entry on the myth!) The last poem in the book, “The Thing with Feathers,” is an affirmation of hope despite all. The poem is written in seven lines, each line with seven syllables. I don’t know why that happened. And maybe this is preempting your later question about my process, but I follow my intuition when a poem comes.

Another favorite is “I’m Nobody.”

I admire Dickinson as an independent and courageous woman of her time. She’s a keen observer of the world around her, the world she was born into and struggled with, a woman with a strong sense of self, who felt sadness, loss, and wonder abounding. She translated her experiences and complex ideas into poems with simplicity and brevity.

I want to write poems that are within reach. The layer of meaning derived can vary in depth, but I hope to have ‘something for everyone’ to understand, to think about. I don’t want someone to read a poem and go “Huh?” or a poem that only a small slice of readers gets. I want to connect with people, for someone to think, Oh, I feel the same way or I never thought of it that way. Connection nourishes hope.

MLT: Much like Emily Dickinson, two driving forces that really drew me in were your linebreak choices and how your poems worked through white space and silences. From what goes on behind closed doors to what something was thinking to what might happen to a saved animal next, there was a lot occurring off the page that the reader is left to interpret, and there’s immense power to that. It’s haunting. When you’re writing and when you’re editing, do you find yourself writing more and then trimming the poem back, or do you naturally write with a certain sparseness?

EHS: I naturally write with a certain sparseness and I also trim. They say a poem is never finished only abandoned, but I think there is a place when it feels finished. That said, I tinker a lot. Sometimes for years even. Very rarely does a poem come out just “right”, but it has happened. Not surprisingly, I was drawn to haiku as a teen, then to tanka, and most recently I am loving haibun form as in Along the Road. I like tight forms because I have so much to say.

MLT: I also loved your word choice throughout this collection, especially your verb choices. When thinking about verbs, I always find myself going back to Robert Hass’s more ecopoetic work, in which he frequently uses animals as verbs (one line went something like, “I salamander down the walkway,” etc.), and while you weren’t specifically using animals as verbs in these poems, I found your choices equally as unique and surprising. A great example I found was in your poem, “Forecast”:

…And I?
I shoot thunder,
I gather fireflies
in snow storms.

I’d love to hear more about how you make your word and phrasing choices in your poems and how those considerations come up during your editing process.

EHS: I keep a pad and pen (more organic than digital) handy always—at a traffic light, in the bathroom, next to my bed. Often I wake in the night and write something in the dark (a bit challenging to read the next morning!), or use a tiny flashlight in part so I don’t wake my husband, but because low light largely yields something ephemeral that “full sun” can’t. By day, I am not afraid to use a thesaurus for ideas that lead to other ideas. And yeah, I love verbs!

You mentioned the last lines in my poem, “Forecast:” “And I? / I shoot thunder / I gather fireflies / in snow storms.” The poem, a rap that sounds best read aloud, is about climate change. Those ending lines connote the absurdity of it all, the wild departure from all that we have counted on, about how we need to think and act waaaay outside boxes for how to engage, how to deal with the present and the future.

Those last lines are emblematic of my role as a poet.

MLT: There’s a poem I came across on TikTok by Althea Davis (@writerandweeper) that I believe speaks beautifully to your collection, specifically the line, “Let death be kinder than man.”

And God,
please let the deer
on the highway
get some kind of heaven.
Something with tall soft grass
and sweet reunion.
Let the moths in porch lights
go some place
with a thousand suns,
that taste like sugar
and get swallowed whole.
May the mice
in oil and glue
have forever dry, warm fur
and full bellies.

If I am killed
for simply living,
let death be kinder
than man.

I was so drawn in your collection to how you used natural images to comment on human experiences, like monetary (and I think pandemic?) issues in “Saving Salamanders,” as well as the “human power” of what to honor and what to kill in “Along the Road.” I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you’re utilizing natural images as commentary, as well as how we (almost as a part of our human condition?) deem certain creatures as “disposable.”

EHS: That is a gem, McKenzie. Thank you for sharing it with me!

I grew up in the country, I learned to look carefully at plants and little beings and imagine their goings on. In “Saving Salamanders,” it was only after the poem had won a prize and was printed in an anthology that I read it and realized that although it is based on a true story, both voices in the poem are actually inside me. Hope vs despair, always vying. You pose incisive questions about human treatment of and interactions with the natural world. I don’t have answers, just experiences and questions.

Sometimes, a poem comes from something that has been rolling around in me for a while and until I find a scene that goes to the heart of the matter. Sometimes I only really understand what I have written after it’s been written, sometimes even after a poem is published do I get new levels of understanding of it. As with every poem, it is what the poet wrote, but also what a reader/listener brings to it. I, too, become a reader/listener of my poem after it is written or published.

I reflect on the exterior world, the political and natural landscapes surrounding us all, as well as on the navigation of the interior world. The cycles of nature provide stirring metaphors for these parallel terrains.

I have recently been re-reading The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey, a slim non-fiction book by a woman who had a very debilitating illness for many months. She found that watching the life of the snail engaged her. Reading about her courage and the remarkable abilities of a snail is a profound experience. I received it as a gift when I had late-stage breast cancer about a decade ago. My life activities are limited because of a congenital spinal malformation. I realized earlier in my life that we are not human doings, but human beings. And that notion feeds well into my work as an observer of nature.

MLT: What are you working on now? Do you have a new poem you’d like to share with us?

EHS: I have a new chapbook pretty well put together, which might expand to a full-length collection. The publisher of my chapbook, Oh say did you know (Evening Street Press) and of Armed to the Teeth (Antrim House Books) are no longer publishing books. So, I’ll be looking for a new home for it.

[Ellen also just had a poetic nonfiction piece published in the Summer 2024 issue of Persimmon Tree: An Online Magazine of the Arts by Women Over Sixty. You can find the issue here, and if you scroll down, you’ll find Ellen’s piece is the 17th entry on the page. It’s a lovely piece about time passing, aging, pop culture, and reminiscent of Armed to the Teeth, remaining hopeful. Enjoy!]

MLT: Thank you so much for your thoughtful responses and for having this conversation with me, Ellen. It’s been wonderful. As a final question, for our younger and emerging writers (or to your younger self!), what are one or two tips you’d like to share with them? What do you wish you’d known sooner?

EHS: I decided to submit my poems for publication for the first time when I turned 70, six years ago. I was extraordinarily fortunate to receive acceptances within two months, and a chapbook award within a year. I’ve continued to be very lucky in recognition, awards, and publications, which is a good thing because I’m a bit old to launch a career. So, I guess I am a newly emerging or emerged poet. I don’t think I could have written any of these poems when I was younger or young. I wrote poems earlier, but I needed to have lived this long, cherished this long, observed this long, lost this much – to find this voice.

Tips for Younger Poets:

      1. Follow your intuition, resist trends and expectations, and be patient.
      2. Keep submitting on an ongoing basis so that poems are always being reviewed, so that when the rejections come in–and they will be aplenty–you always have hope.
      3. I subscribe to Poets & Writers magazine. I research potential journals/publishers to see whether my work would be a good fit.
      4. I would encourage new older writers to go for it. It is assumed that emerging poets are younger–not so. Passager Books, for example, has been devoted to publishing the work of people over 50 since 1991.



ELLEN HIRNING SCHMIDT first submitted poems for publication when she turned 70 in 2017. She has received the Helen Kay Chapbook Prize, a Pushcart nomination, and a Connecticut Poetry Society Award. Her poems have appeared widely. Her chapbook, Oh, say did you know, is available through Evening Street Press. After retiring from a crisis center, Schmidt designed Writing Through the Rough Spots, a class enabling students to create clarity about life challenges through writing. Her students range widely in age and have come from across the U.S. and 15 countries. She leads workshops online and at Star Island, NH. A mother and grandmother, Ellen lives with her husband Oskar in Ithaca, NY.


Listen to Ellen Hirning Schmidt Read from Armed to the Teeth

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Written By McKenzie Lynn Tozan

McKenzie Lynn Tozan (she/her/hers) lives and writes in Europe with her family (originally from the Midwest). In addition to being the Editor-in-Chief of Lit Shark Magazine and the Banned Book Review, she is a novelist, poet, and book reviewer. She received her MFA in Poetry from Western Michigan University and her BA in English/BS in Education from Indiana University South Bend, where she began her work in publishing. Her poems have appeared in Rogue Agent, Whale Road Review, Young Ravens Review, The Birds We Piled Loosely, and Encore Magazine, among others; and her book reviews and essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Green Mountains Review, Memoir Mixtapes, The Life Collective, Her Journal, Motherly, and more. When not writing, she enjoys reading, appreciating nature, and spending time with her husband and three children.




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