A Conversation with Beth McDermott about Figure 1

Interview by Tiffany Troy

I pressed the glass, thinking my palm was a match: A Conversation with Beth McDermott about Figure 1

Beth McDermott is the author of Figure 1 (Pine Row Press) and a chapbook titled How to Leave a Farmhouse (Porkbelly Press). Reviews and criticism about art and ecology appear in American Book ReviewAfter the ArtKenyon Review Online, and The Trumpeter.

Figure 1 (Pine Row Press, 2022) is rooted in the ekphrastic tradition 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. 

Tiffany Troy: How does the first poem, “Matryoshka,” set up the rest of the collection that follows?

Beth McDermott: I think the first poem sets up the collection in a couple of ways. The poem has some threads that the book has. It introduces artifice in relation to the natural world when I describe the art on the Matryoshka doll. That moment of ekphrasis foreshadows some of the ekphrastic poems later in the book, as well as a brief description of the biology of the poppy. In that way, it sets up some of the book’s thematic preoccupations or interests, specifically art and the natural world.

I also like that the poem suggested an inward movement that I hoped would create a gesture of wanting to move forward, so the reader takes that next step of looking more closely at what the book has to offer. It’s like when you open a door and walk into someone’s home and think: Now, I’m going to get to know what comes next better. 

Tiffany Troy: I love the idea of ekphrasis with the twist, with the paintings and images where you look behind the artistic techniques underlying the objects of observation. You have the objects being depicted respond to the materiality of their creation. You also have some poems that think through the idea of creation itself and the framing of art. Can you describe the process of writing this collection?

Beth McDermott: First, thank you for the compliment! It took a long time to write the book. I was always interested in ekphrasis but I stepped up my interest as I was finishing the collection, and wrote most of the ekphrastic poems later. 

I was still really interested in representation in the early stages of the book, perhaps before I even knew it would be a book. I was thinking about the perspective of a photographer, poet, or someone standing outside of a frame or an image and their attitude towards what was in a photograph. 

I was very interested in learning about and doing research on the subject of an image, and, as you mentioned, looking at it in relation to the materiality of the art, artistic technique, or historical context. Could I search beyond the work of art to imagine or see something that I wouldn’t have seen before?

Tiffany Troy: It really felt to me like the poems are very close looks at things that we would usually just have a one word or one phrase description for. You really made them come to life.

Beth McDermott: Oh wow, Thank you.

Tiffany Troy: How did you organize the poem into its three sections and relatedly, how did you organize the poems within the sections?

Beth McDermott: I’m sure you’ve reviewed and written criticism about a number of books with three sections. That seems to be a magic number. So, subconsciously, I was probably aiming for that just because of my own reading experiences. 

Take The Death Spiral by Sarah Giragosian (Black Lawrence Press), which has three distinct sections, and each section break is encapsulated with a beautiful word or a phrase. I admired that strategy but didn’t know if I could do that with the sections in my book. 

I first started by sorting poems into sections, including ekphrastic poems; poems about nature; poems about landscapes; and a few personal poems. That felt clunky and highlighted the weakness of some poems against others.

I then mixed poems from the separate categories more deliberately, and funny enough that was more of my organizing tactic than being deliberate about grouping.  Could I put an ekphrastic poem next to an ecological poem?—versus bundling them together. I probably moved more by instinct, which is frustrating because when I talked to poets about how they structured their books, I would ask, What do you mean when you say you move by instinct? I experienced the sense that one poem should be an opening poem for a section, and if I could justify in my head as to why, then I felt even better about it.

Tiffany Troy: I really love how the poems with the different themes talk with each other like you said.

Beth McDermott: Oh, good! I’m glad.

Tiffany Troy: How does form inform your collection? What do the variations allow?

Beth McDermott: I really like short-lined poems and enjambment. I’m not especially skilled with writing long, beautiful sentences. Some poets can write long, beautiful sentences that also vary. One sentence can have a very different kind of syntax than the next sentence, but I have to work hard and be conscious of that.

At least in this book, it made sense to foster a sense of music through lineation. Couplets are a tried and true way to do that, probably because they bring with them the shadow of the heroic couplet. Piling them perhaps subverts that expectation of closure. And of course there’s the benefit of white space, visually and musically. 

Your question about variation, though, is really helpful for me to think about. I was looking at the poem titled “On Stieglitz’s Apples and Gable, Lake George,” and it’s an anomaly, formally-speaking, although there’s one other poem in the book that’s formed similarly. Having each line essentially double-spaced and sitting by itself in the poem created for me a kind of breath lacking in the couplets. 

We were just discussing poems talking to each other: the Stieglitz poem is next to a poem called “On Metaphor in the Rural Historical Structural Survey of New Lenox Township.” Both poems have this interest in capturing an image and saying something through a lens, perhaps, or in the second poem, through language as well. But there’s a kind of sturdy naturalness in the Stieglitz poem that’s not there in the short, highly enjambed couplets that sit to the right of it. And that poem doesn’t really have that sturdiness because it’s exploring this high-stakes question, What has historical integrity and what doesn’t? 

So form can underscore tension between poems throughout the book. The poem after the Stieglitz photograph, with its complementary geometric angles and circles, admires the photographer’s technique. But then you go to this next poem, and the stakes are quite high. It’s perhaps harder to aestheticize or just appreciate the beauty of a relic without also being like, Oh, wow, we’re talking about a big question. Why try to regain something that’s been lost?

Tiffany Troy: The variations you have interwoven are gorgeous, and I appreciated your answer too. Do you have any closing thoughts?

Beth McDermott: When a book is published, I sometimes wonder, did the writer take many years to write the book, or have a residency, or some kind of particular support that assisted them?

I wanted to mention that although I never did a residency, and I took a long time to write the book, I did attend conferences from time to time, and one of them was the Tupelo Manuscript Conference. Now, ironically, I brought a different manuscript to that conference. It still needs a lot of work, but doing that helped me go back to this book, which I had stopped thinking about at that time, and really consider, Could I have a book here?  How do these poems talk to each other thematically, but also formally? Experiencing that conference over Zoom was very beneficial. And so if that’s of interest to folks out there who are thinking about next steps with their manuscripts, I’ll give a nod to that.

About the interviewer: Tiffany Troy is the author of Dominus (forthcoming, BlazeVOX) and the chapbook When Ilium Burns (Bottlecap Press), as well as co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the Women in Translation project at the University of Wisconsin. Her reviews and interviews are published in The Adroit Journal, The Cortland Review, The Los Angeles Review, Matter, The Laurel Review, EcoTheo Review, Rain Taxi, New World Writing, Hong Kong Review of Books and Tupelo Quarterly, where she is Managing Editor.