A Conversation with Beth McDermott & an Excerpt from Figure 1 — curated by Kristina Marie Darling

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 RowTupelo QuarterlyTerrain.org, and Memorious. Reviews and criticism about art and ecology appear in American Book ReviewAfter the ArtKenyon Review Online, and The Trumpeter. She’s an Associate 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. She is editor in chief at Cider Press Review and lives with her family in the southwest suburbs of Chicago.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Tell me about the larger project that these gorgeous poems are culled from.

Beth McDermott: Figure 1 is a collection of poems in conversation with art and the natural world; it’s rooted in the ekphrastic tradition—from Vermeer to Hockney to Takigawa—and features the mind at work framing and dismantling images and exploring what exists beneath the surfaces of our socially-constructed selves. In these poems, beauty is deep-seated, landscapes are historical, and paintings and photographs are interpretable. That is, there’s a new historicist impulse at work in the book alongside my fascination with framing: what happened outside of the frame, and what happened before or after what we think we know? Against a nondescript, endless expanse, Figure 1 foregrounds “chisel and stone dust” so that remnants of a lost landscape knock against poems that narrativize a still life, arguing on behalf of a story or perspective beyond the frame.

KMD:  How did you first become interested in placing poetry in conversation with other artistic disciplines?  

BM: I can’t play an instrument very well or dance gracefully, yet I find engaging with the discourses of other art forms to be very inspiring. I once attended The Home School in Hudson, NY, and took workshops with Douglas Kearney and Myung Mi Kim. In both workshops we discussed texts and media other than poetry, i.e., documentary filmmaking, album covers, and interviews with musicians on SoundCloud. Thinking about one word specific to another medium invites connections with other words and worlds.  

KMD:  I admire your approach to ekphrasis.  Here, what’s left out of the artworks is just as important — and revealing — as what’s included.  Can you speak to the roles that silence and absence play in your poetry?

BM: I’ve found The University of Chicago media glossary instructive for recalling the history of ekphrasis. At a time before mechanical reproduction or easy travel to museums, the glossary explains that students practiced describing an artwork and imparting their emotional responses to someone who didn’t have the same viewing experience. For me, ekphrasis already has a lot to do with absence (nonce ekphrasis is an even stronger example), in the way that a writer evokes a specific and sometimes well-known work that isn’t immediately there. But beyond the absence of a visual representation there’s also the question of what isn’t present or may not be easily observed with the human eye. In Figure 1, I seek out the microscopic or hidden elements of an image to offer an account that is mysterious or even chilling, as Marianne Boruch puts it in her blurb for Figure 1.    

KMD:  While we’re on the subject of ekphrasis, I have to say, it’s such a powerful tool to move beyond the autobiographical while still getting at emotional and philosophical truths.  What advice do you have for writers who may struggle to move beyond autobiography as their primary tool for meaning-making?

BM: There’s a terrific article by Christina Pugh in the Cambridge Companion to American Poetry since 1945 edited by Jennifer Ashton. The article is titled “The Contemporary ‘Mainstream’ Lyric.” Pugh offers readings of “mainstream” poems where the first-person speaker is a fiction rather than an extension of the poet who relays their personal experiences through the poem. 

However, despite the fictional poetic speaker, I bring personal experiences and emotions to my own poems, even if I can’t always explain how such early stirrings translate into the poem that’s on the page. Sometimes that process of revision takes time and dialogue: for example, in an earlier draft of the poem “Mutation,” I had left out the fact of my skin cancer, which had recently been removed from my face. It wasn’t until I worked with an editor years later that the highly personal element made its way into the poem. 

I’d also recommend reading poetry collections that make little to no use of the first-person “I,” such as Williams’ Pictures from Brueghel, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, and Myung Mi Kim’s DURA.  

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a poet, you are also an accomplished educator.  What has teaching opened up within your artistic practice?  

I teach at a small liberal arts college where teaching is given significant weight. I’ve had to learn how to inspire students but also walk them through how to write creatively in a way that’s legible to them and faculty in other disciplines. This includes space for drafting and exploration as well as extensive reading, workshop, and approaches to revision. We also design rubrics together as a class based on our study about what poetry or nonfiction should entail. All these stages and stakeholders require that I think about my own writing practice as process-oriented and grounded in technique.  

KMD:  What are you currently working on? What else can readers look forward to?  

BM: I’m hoping to assemble a new chapbook sometime in the next few years. Before revising Figure 1, I was experimenting with prose poetry, perhaps because it was a formal impulse that forced me to look closely at how a sentence could be made rhythmic without line endings. I’m interested in the way anthologies sometimes associate prose poetry with liberation and formal experimentation and other times refer to the prose form as a box or block. What is it about the prose poem that allows for these diametrically opposed associations? I’m at a time in my life where I’m wanting to simultaneously contain my kids, who are growing up, and allow for their freedom at the same time. I’m looking forward to summer when I can hopefully get back to writing new poems.