“‘The story starts in conversation’: An Interview with Beth McDermott & A Folio of New Poems” – curated by Virginia Konchan

Beth McDermott is the author of a chapbook titled How to Leave a Farmhouse (Porkbelly Press, 2015). Her poetry, reviews and criticism appear or are forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Southern Humanities Review, American Book Review, Kenyon Review Online, and The Trumpeter. A graduate of the Program for Writers at UIC, she is currently an Assistant Professor of English at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, IL.

Virginia Konchan:  Several poems in this suite, while not all ekphrastic, refer to images that exceed their boundaries or that invite not just viewer but readerly interpretation (“Disappearing Act,” of course, but also the reference to “beyond the frame lines” in “The Ongoing Moment”). What other interpretative modalities do you feel your poems encourage beyond the textual? What do you feel your poems are saying about the limits of the ear versus the eye?

Beth McDermott:  An image is usually something one can look at for a long time and over and over again. Because it doesn’t always contain words, I wonder if an image can be less communicative and more potentially about power. Perhaps Shelley’s poem is the best example of an image deconstructing and the residual text forcing a new irony: the words outlast the visage, causing the traveler to wonder what type of ruler this really was. The iambic pentameter really does feel like lone and level sands, or expansionist in a way Ozymandias could have only dreamed.

What I like about that poem is how the exchange takes place between the speaker and traveler; the story starts in conversation, and it’s almost like we’re the one who gets told the story next. It feels personal and limited in a way that the eye might miss. So maybe there’s   something necessarily restrictive about even the most maximalist lyrics; I’m thinking about A.R. Ammons or Alice Fulton as authors of highly inclusive poems that nevertheless have the  effect of feeling written just for me.

VK:  Several of the sparer poems in this suite contain very short lines, often just a word or two long, and occasionally the sense is further heightened by the hyphenation of a single word (e.g. “audio-book” and “other-/wise” in “Who Shall Say”). What attracts you to brevity and short lines, however enjambed?

BM:  This might sound strange but I’m attracted to the idea of using the fewest amount of words possible at the same time that I’m personally drawn to the rhythm of short-lined poetry. It might be because short pithy poems are easier to memorize than longer-lined poems that get their sound texture from variation in the poems’ syntax. But the ease in memorizing something by Kay Ryan, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean her poem isn’t complex. In The Art of Syntax, James Longenbach compares Pound to Williams to get across what I mean. I’m not sure I can write a long line of poetry and have the sound in the syntax alone do any kind of annotative work. However, enjambment in a short-lined poem usually provides rhythm at the same time that it can work for or against meaning. The pleasure afforded by the rhythm of a line ending and the meaning of a line ideally makes us want to hear the poem again.

VK:  The moving poem “On Containment” references a 2010 mining disaster, wherein 33 miners were trapped for over two weeks 2,300 feet below ground after the collapse of the San Jose mine in Chili. This poem references the decision of Chilean miner Alex Vega to return to work as a miner despite this harrowing ordeal. What do you feel is the responsibility of a poet working in a documentary poetics mode? And can you speak to the subject matter of “The Ongoing Moment”?

BM:  Honestly, I was fascinated by Héctor Tobar’s work in that article.  Before it existed, there was so much in the media about the actual rescue mission and little about what the men actually experienced. Reading about the experience in such detail amplified my astonishment that Vega would choose to return to mining. I guess the poem was an attempt to figure out what motivated him.

“The Ongoing Moment” is a photo from The Stroop Report—a report sent to the SS chief that documented the people who were either killed or sent to camps after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. I think I agree with Sontag that it’s doubly heinous to photograph someone before killing them and was attempting to see from inside the photograph rather than as a casual observer holding the report in my hands.

Documentary poetics is something I’ve thought a lot about in relation to New Historicism’s critique of Romantic poetry, or Barthes’ argument that first-order representation is inadequate. The desire to undercut either subjectivity or objectivity is often on my mind, especially as someone who teaches in an interdisciplinary program with an ecological emphasis.

VK:  Relating the poem “On Containment” to the poem “On Aspiration”—both these poems reference the dangers inherent to manual labor (“On Aspiration” to the work of a farmer diagnosed with silicosis).   How did you choose to title these poems, and what about these subjects compels you?

BM:  I like the idea of taking a broad topic and narrowing it to a point; I imagine it feels like how someone who works for the dictionary finds a use for a particular word and a subsequent example of how it was once used in a sentence. Maybe this comment on titling also pertains to your question about labor; both reading and writing often require moving from the general to the specific. Even though writing poetry or criticism is certainly labor, there’s a danger in becoming so specialized that the market refuses to protect you, and I think I’m simultaneously scared and inspired by that type of risk-taking.

VK: “Disappearing Act” is the only strictly ekphrastic poem in this suite. Do you frequently engage with ekphrasis? What about the figure of the officer in the foreground of this painting “Officer and Laughing Girl by Johannes Vermeer (painted between 1655 and 1660), an artistic technique called repoussoir meant to increase the depth of field in the painting, do you find oppressive, as suggested by your line “You can’t work around him”? Do you have an opinion on whether the female figure represents a woman being honorably courted or asking for payment before sex?

BM:  I do frequently engage with ekphrasis because I’m drawn to its critical history. Whether citing artworks as much as sighting them (Grant Scott) or understanding ekphrasis as a verbal representation of a visual representation (James Heffernan), criticism on ekphrasis has often pulled text and image apart. However, whether it’s a museum or Netflix description, we tend to find that modes of representation are often contingent upon one another rather than diametrically opposed.

While writing the poem I was thinking about authenticity or density as the point at which something “real” transitions (or disappears?) into something else. Words like “real,” “light,” and “palm” are repeated, perhaps in an effort to highlight the effect that depth of field has on the way we see the girl. Focusing on her hands rather than her expression makes the question of whether she’d being propositioned somewhat pointless. In more than one poem I’ve compared the shape of painted women to trees—particularly something that triangulates when hands or arms are brought into play. By foiling her, he’s reminding her of that shape.

VK:  The generating language that begins several of these poems seems like language interrupted (e.g. “Because the real subject of the painting/ is light” from “Disappearing Act”), and is often paratactic (a unit of speech winding through several stanzas). I’m thinking of Charles Olsen’s formulation in his 1950’s manifesto “Projective Verse” that a poetic line is a unit of breath, and wondering how you think about the line as a unit and its relation to the poem as a whole?

BM:  What Olson says about form being an extension of content appeals to me, as does the line having an oral history. I recently watched a documentary on the creative process in which a pair of fashion designers talked about design being inherent in a single thread, which reminded me a little of the Black Mountain Poets and their Romantic forbearers. I’ve always been interested in organic form at the same time that I derive poetic content from images and the ability to zoom in or research them further. Being guided by another text is perhaps one way to complicate the idea that a poetic line is only one person’s unit of breath or one perception leading to another perception.

VK:  There are so many wonderful stand-alone lines in this suite of poems, such as “As if reciprocity is not a thing” from “Disappearing Act,” and “Who/ shall say/ if perseverance/ is inertia/ is a question I’ve/asked out of fear” from “Who Shall Say.” How do you keep language surprising? What are some ways (conscious or not) you torque meaning or sense in your poems?

BM  Even if I end up changing it, found text often operates as a scaffold for the language I decide to keep. I also have an old hard copy of the OED that works better than a free online dictionary at helping me to think about a word within a connotative net of meaning.

Sometimes being as exact as possible with what I’m trying to say ends up surprising me and hopefully the reader in turn.  I’m fascinated by the idea of there being the right word or phrase at a particular point in a poem. But what I think is “right” has to feel right to my ear at the same time that I’m guided by the desire to have both the music and the meaning of the poem achieve rest or closure.

VK:  Lastly, your poems seem concerned with the politics not just of representation but also observation (e.g. references to experience and hearing in “Covert”; “Are there trees outside?” in “Disappearing Act”). What do you feel a poem can do that other art forms can’t in rendering both three-dimensional reality as well as all that is necessarily occluded by perspective?

BM:  I’ve had the kind of year that makes poetry necessary and thought a lot about perspective as it pertains to knowledge of the facts. I think this particular suite of poems is somewhat obsessed with persistence in the absence of fact or even despite factual knowledge; there are multiple instances where it might make more sense for a person to choose a more comfortably realistic option, but they ignore that advice in favor of their own practicality, whether that has to do with work or money or even the survival of someone near them.

I think poetry can make us question the status quo, which is often linked to the stagnancy of language as it’s used to reinforce existing power structures. Even well-intentioned information, whether that’s professional advice or something as simple as a metaphor, exposes ways of thinking that poetry can challenge in favor of giving voice to “underdogs” (rebels?) who are actually vital sources of strength.


A Folio of Poems by Beth McDermott

Virginia Konchan is the author of the poetry collection The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2018), a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017), and three chapbooks, Empire of Dirt (above/ground press, 2019), That Tree is Mine (dancing girl press, 2018), and Vox Populi (Finishing Line Press, 2015). She holds degrees from Beloit College (BA), Cleveland State University (MFA), and the University of Illinois-Chicago (Ph.D). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets, The Believer, and The New Republic, her essays and criticism in Kenyon Review Online, Boston Review, Jacket2, and Guernica, her translations in The Brooklyn Rail, Asymptote and Circumference, and her fiction in StoryQuarterly, Joyland, and Memorious, among other places. Her work has been anthologized in several collections, and her honors include grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Vermont Studio Center, Ox-Bow, The Banff Center, and Scuola Internazionale di Grafica in Venice. Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, and Associate Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, she currently lives in Montreal and teaches at Concordia University.