Poet Beth McDermott on Displacing Silence in Her New Collection “Figure 1” [INTERVIEW]

Beth McDermott is the author of Figure 1 (Pine Row Press) and a chapbook titled How to Leave a Farmhouse (Porkbelly Press). Her poetry appears in Pine Row, Tupelo Quarterly, Terrain.org, and Memorious. She’s an Assistant Professor of English at the University of St. Francis and recipient of a Distinguished Teaching Award, an Illinois Speaks Micro-Grant, and first place in the Regional Mississippi Valley Poetry Contest.

An edited transcript of the interview with Beth is included below. The full interview, including Beth reading selections from Figure 1 is available on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast:

Poet Beth McDermott on Displacing Silence in Her New Collection “Figure 1” Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast

James Morehead: Your very first poem, “Matryoshka”, perfectly sets the stage for Figure 1 with nested layers of lines and stanzas, interconnected like the Russian dolls that inspired the poem. How do you decide which poem should lead a collection?

Beth McDermott: “I was trying to determine what would be a strong poem that could handle being the first poem in the book. I had a dialogue with other people to get their opinions because poets do not always have the ability to judge what their strongest poems are. I have been thinking about the gesture of the first poem in a book and how that acts as a kind of invitation or welcome. I was really interested in how the poem “Matryoshka” has both the acrostic thread that my book has, but also thinking about what it means to break something down into its parts. The poem served as a gesture of what this book would be about.”

James: The poems in this collection retain much of a blank page’s silence; you displace that silence so intentionally, with enjambment and indentation. What is your process for refining how your poetry appears on the page? What do you think about the role white space plays in a poem?

Beth: “I am a pretty incessant reviser. I know I’ve got something to work with when I’m starting to get down to the line level and really think about the syntax, relation to the line, the strength of certain words and images, and the punctuation. I tend to revise for a long time, and even wait on poems before sending them out for any kind of feedback, sometimes even for years. I love thinking about the importance of white space and I do think what is unsaid is often as important as what is said. So for me, white space is definitely a sonic aspect of the poem and an individual one as well.”

James: How do you approach creating ekphrastic poems, so that both the inspiring work is respected and something novel, something poetic is created? “Can You Be Present” is a particularly effective example, including this stanza:

“Can you accept how fire
starters, mulch makers, nest
builders and composters
unraveled crepe yarn to build
an arch—that, when lifted,
the speckled eggs would
float against the silk.”

Beth: “I really appreciate the suggestion in your question that I try to be respectful and ethical with the treatment of someone else’s images in my work. Ekphrasis has a long, critical history of sometimes being antagonistic, but I actually enjoyed that because I think the competition between the visual image and the words that one comes up with in order to capture that image is a lot of fun. At the same time, I love painting, photography, and imagery. I don’t like to think of myself as just merely competing with somebody else’s medium. I’ll go back to the image over and over and over again until the point where I know there’s nothing I’ve missed and I’ve looked at everything. I’ll read beyond the image to learn a little bit about the materiality, what the artist’s process was, and what some of their own philosophy might be. There’s a lot of research that goes into how I approach ekphrasis.”

James: I couldn’t resist Googling some of the sources, the works of art and other resources, to learn more. The poems in this collection stand alone and also tickle the reader’s curiosity. An example, in “On Metaphor in the Rural Historic Structural Survey of New Lenox Township”, you use as inspiring material a report that is over 200 pages long. Such an unlikely source of inspiration. You write:

“Thanks to Wiss,
Janney, Elstner

and Associates,
I can spot

a spindle work porch
and jig-

saw cut trim.”

Did you intentionally seek out source material through research, or stumble on studies and art that struck you in some way, or a mix of both?

Beth: ‘I think it’s probably a little of both. I don’t remember how I stumbled upon that rural historic structural survey, but I do know that I was really interested in seeing some of the landscape around where I had grown up change. I was wondering about the processes for determining what happens with some of the land and some of the structures that are on those properties. I may have sought that particular report out, but why I ended up reading it is another question. I must have found some of the language in there inspiring. I was thinking these decisions are likely made on objective and empirical grounds. But at the same time, I was imagining that there would be an emotional component where one can’t help but be subjective. I imagine they must feel a certain way about this particular place and how that is very much a part of the history of poetry about a place.”

James: Images of ballet, dance, and the ballet of nature, of birds, insects, and flight, are recurring through this collection. The presentation of your poems – so light on the page, so open to empty space like the sky – reinforces these images. What interpretations of your work have most surprised you, this book and other poems you’ve created?

Beth: “It’s an interesting experience to get blurbs back after you request them. I think I was really honored by all of the blurbs  I received and excitedly surprised that Marianne Baruch had referred to the poems as post-apocalyptic. That was definitely something I had not thought about. I know that I am very inspired by science and technology and that perhaps comes through in some of the poems, so that was very cool and exciting.”

James: Related to images of birds and flight I was particularly struck by “Constructing Audubon’s The Birds of America” which ends with the lines, “He marked an x on his map, / left for his gun, and went back again.” that immediately compels the reader to start at the beginning and read the poem over again.

Beth: “It’s great anytime I can write or read a poem that leads me to think a little bit more about history, art, or whatever subject it may be, because there’s something hopefully really conversational about that. I don’t see myself as being too critical of someone like Audubon, but at the same time I do think the actual person had some interesting approaches for how birds were going to be ‘captured’. To go back to the tendency or the impulse to frame something, what is at stake for the artist, regardless of the medium, is knowing when to stop something and try to limit the interpretation of it in this habitat or pose for example. Audubon did that with the intention of disseminating fantastic information and knowledge, but at the same time, I think that’s probably not my ideal. Of course, I’m not an ornithologist, but my ideal would be to have multiple perspectives weigh in on something if that were possible. I would also like to have the subject itself speak, which I may not be capable of even though that would be something I’m hoping could happen. I realize I can’t speak for some of the subjects of the painting.”

James: I’ve asked several poets how they approach constructing their books, which poems to include, how to order and organize the poems. The most common response I hear, and it’s the approach I take, is to print out all the poems and place them on my living room floor – to manipulate the poems in a physical space, to step back and see the entire book. What approach did you take in constructing this book, both the poems to include and how to arrange them?

Beth: “I tried to have a few more poems in the book originally. There were some poems that no matter how much I tried to force them or believed I could make them better, they were just a little too weak. In terms of arranging the poems, I like the floor better than the wall because I like to actually get into the book. If you imagine the floor of your room being covered with all the pages, and you are stepping in the book and physically moving it around. I remember the first time I did that I was actually sweating and breathing heavily afterwards, which was the first time poetry has winded me up. One thing I thought was helpful was to identify threads and then color code them. So I had purple as the ekphrastic thread, green as the ecological thread, and orange for landscape home type poems. Then, I made sure there weren’t places that were too heavy in one color, and if there was then I’d make sure there was intentionality in that decision.” 

James: Many of your ekphrastic poems have effective turns, becoming more than rich, descriptive images from the source material. A couple of examples – in “Mutation” from a skin cancer biopsy to a beach scene, and in “Arm (Self Portrait), 1976” you connect Robert Mapplethorpe’s Arm (Self Portrait) to the tiny, quarter-sized Barbados threadsnake. What is your approach for discovering or creating these connections?

Beth: “I do try to fit things together like a puzzle and it doesn’t always work. Sometimes, for example, there’s a quality or something linguistic in the first part of that metaphor that I can then see picked up elsewhere. These connections arise through a little bit of research and a little bit of luck.”

James: I love the title of your book, and the reference to it tucked into “The Partitioned Task”: “As Figure 1 shows, / she gives her seed without / hesitation to the next / available ant”. In many cases the author has little involvement in the title, cover and interior design of their book – that is left up to the publisher. What was your journey from completed manuscript to published book?

Beth: “My book is from Pine Row Press and I did have a lot of say which I realize is not always the case. It was a good experience and I had a lot of autonomy. The cover artist, Angelica, has her own illustration business and this was her very first book design. So, we both really enjoyed the process since it was my first book and her first cover.”

“Figure 1” by Beth McDermott
Beth McDermott

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