chapbook pedagogy poetry

Beth McDermott on pedagogy: “we don’t make claims in isolation”

Your first chapbook, How to Leave a Farmhouse, was just released from Porkbelly Press and you have degrees in creative writing from Purdue University and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Talk about your experiences as a student of the chapbook, both in and outside of the classroom.

Like some of the other poets you’ve interviewed recently, I have very little experience with chapbooks in the graduate-level classroom.  While we read many poetry books at both Purdue and University of Illinois at Chicago, we didn’t focus our attention on any one chapbook that I can recall.  I was, however, encouraged by my professor at UIC to submit to chapbook contests and the like.  I didn’t really pursue this until after graduation.  I think my dissertation, which was creative, really helped me to think about which of my poems could work together as a chapbook.

I do want to mention that I was exposed to the chapbook in an undergraduate level poetry workshop at Hope College.  I had a professor who was big into showcasing the work of fellow faculty and other Western Michigan-based poets.  Part of the draw for him, I think, was that these poets were available to come to class and talk to us about their books.  I specifically remember that we read a chapbook titled “Threading the Bobbin” by a poet named Jackie Bartley, who was teaching at Hope during that time.  I was curious about the chapbook; its cover was a muted shade of light green, the color of a hosta or some other plant that likes shade.  There was an actual black button sewn along the chapbook’s spine.  Even though I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it (was this a book or wasn’t it?), I remember that my professors talked about it in much the same way that they would a “regular” book.  That is, there wasn’t really a discussion about how this kind of text was distinct from the longer texts we were reading, even if I noticed the obvious physical differences.  But–I realize now, even if I didn’t then, that the “homemade” quality of the chapbook was a prelude to the sheaf of poems I had to turn in at the end of the course.  Unlike some poetry workshops that require students to submit one sheaf or portfolio of revised poems to the professor, we were required to make enough of these things so as to distribute one to every class member.  Perhaps “Threading the Bobbin” influenced me more than I realized because I used vellum paper that had a leaf pattern for my cover.

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Your chapbook How to Leave a Farmhouse is a lovely mediation of the past and the natural world, as well as how to read nature by the way scientists, poets, photographers, and others suggest such work might be done. Your work as an editor at Kudzu House puts you in contact with writers who are exploring work that’s “motivated by concerns with human’s place in the world.” The site notes the journal’s name comes from two words, kudzu, meaning “a species invasive to the south,” and house, from Greek: oῗkoc, “eco”. Talk about the ecological work of a chapbook. In your answer, also discuss the new types of nature writing that you find invigorating.

I do think chapbooks can do ecological work, but I think such work is different from what a journal can do.  Perhaps the obvious difference is that a chapbook has less variety in its pages; at Kudzu House, for example, we’re publishing scholarly criticism and book reviews alongside poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.  Anyone who happens upon our journal is going to have the option to explore various types of responses to our global ecological crisis.  (And I do mean explore; we offer digital access to all of our journal’s content at no cost to the reader.)  In addition, Kudzu is a group effort.  Although there are exceptions to every rule, we have multiple people weighing in on the merits of the piece–not just whether or not it’s good writing, but if it fits with the mission of the journal.  In fact, the editorial process is a reminder to carry our ideal–that of a biocentric stance toward the environment–with us into the work that we ultimately publish.

My chapbook might not reach as many people as an online journal, but I think it’s doing a different kind of ecological work by hopefully stimulating conversation among myself, the reader, and the artists and scientists whose perspectives inform my poems.  I’m going to sound like a composition instructor for a moment (and I am one:), but I’d argue that we don’t make claims in isolation, and I feel the same way about the poems in my chapbook (i.e. I don’t make poems in isolation either).  The world could use more conversation, more overlapping of various perspectives, in our quest to try and understand what life is like for someone or something else.  I’m not claiming that my poems do this, but it’s a goal I have in the back of my mind.  I am, however, ok with saying that my poems explore the inability to state clearly what is ruin or art object, urban or rural, natural or artificial.  I’m fascinated by the human animal’s inability to know everything, even though, as Jorie Graham writes in “The Age of Reason,” “there is no deep enough.”

I find invigorating the work being published in journals such as PoecologyOrion or Terrain.org.  Orion authors Eva Saulitis and Sy Montgomery have written fantastic prose pieces that I’ve brought into the classroom, and I consult Terrain’s “Recommended Reads” when I’m looking for new books to read or teach.  But, to be honest, my reading is all over the place, and something becomes “nature writing” even if it’s not overtly ecological.  Take a fairly recent chapbook by Jill Osier: Should Our Undoing Come Down Upon Us White (Bull City Press).  I love this chapbook.  It’s beautifully written and incredibly visceral.  With poems about Alaskan weather (a magnified version of our harshest Chicago winter nights), I feel like I’m actually hibernating: cold to the bone but simultaneously warmed by the flames and embers flickering through Osier’s poems.  To my mind, “good” nature writing seems to do this; that is, it evokes an environment with criticism and longing, disappointment and nostalgia, and the speaker can’t completely separate her perspective from the place she draws with such care.

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You have a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago and you’re currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, IL. How does teaching serve your creative work and are there activities that you use in the classroom that fuel your own writing and research?

Well, I’m currently working on a series of poems that imagine what life was like for other people, including what they may have thought, felt, or done.  Sometimes I’m working off of a painting or photograph and attempting to imagine the figures in the exact moment I can no longer see them.  If ekphrasis is about “sighting” artwork as much as “citing” them (as per Grant Scott), then I’m equally invested in what happened outside of the frame lines.  I’ve written ekphrastic poems before, but what’s different about my newer poems is that my subjects are based off of real people in the distant or recent past; additionally, the images I’m working from don’t always qualify as “artistic.”  In Camera Lucida, Barthes begins by establishing the problem that Photography, with all of its empirical, rhetorical, and aesthetic facets, is just plain “unclassifiable” (4).  Maybe a photograph was taken off the cuff, perhaps even in a context of war, and yet, it exists.  There’s usually something about a random photograph that speaks to me, and what I mean is similar to Barthes’s puctum: “sting, speck, cut, little hole–and also a cast of the dice.  A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (27).

So, what does any of this have to do with teaching?  Two things.  First, I’m currently teaching a western-civ type course that spans from Ancient Greece to the Reformation.  It’s been quite a challenge selecting which texts, out of the seemingly infinite possibilities, we should look at, and so my intention has been to exploit the fragile state of this canon.  In other words, how are these texts, many of which have been lost, found, copied, and translated multiple times, the products of group efforts?  What has been erased or added to the “original”?  What has been re-visioned by a later author, and how does that act make a political statement about what’s come before it?  My teaching this course–emphasizing what’s there and not there–has further influenced these exact concerns in my writing, as well as contextualized the desire to re-vision what’s already been captured by human eyes.

Second, teaching a humanities-based course has permitted me to think more critically about the assumption that the imagination can bridge the distance, across time and space, between two people.  If I’m writing, say, a poem about a Chilean miner who goes back to work mining for ore after having spent 69 days of the previous year trapped inside a mine, how far can my imagination go?  What kind of metaphors can suggest a degree of suffering I’ve never experienced?  Discourse with my students about empathy, understanding, the imagination, and point-of-view has been entirely applicable to some of the questions I deal with as a poet.

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In what ways do you introduce young poets and writers to the chapbook as genre and poems as poetry in conversation across pages of books?

I taught a few intro-level poetry workshops at UIC, and I’m going to teach an ekphrastic-based poetry workshop next semester at USF.

In my previous intro-level courses, I’ve asked students to formulate statements about the collection as a whole in response to questions such as: how do these poems work together?  Is there one speaker, or multiple speakers?  Why is the book titled (for example) Citizen?  But we don’t spend too much time looking at more nuanced components of the poetry book or chapbook, such as the organization of the book into sections, or the (sometimes minutely crafted) transition from one poem to the next.  I think these are aspects of poetry writing that come later to students–at least, they did for me; I was someone who tended to bounce around with my reading until graduate school when I had to start thinking about assembling a book of my own.  One thing I have required in an intro-level workshop is research of literary magazines.  I typically assign one magazine to a small group or student partners and require them to report back to the class.  They look at the history of the journal, its affiliations and/or mission, how it’s funded, published and accessed.  They also use the poems as evidence to support claims about how the work published in the journal’s pages does or doesn’t suggest an overwhelming “type” of poetry the editors prefer.

How do you define chapbook?  A cross between a book and a pamphlet, usually less than 40 pages.  Anywhere from electronic to handmade.  A quicker read than a typical book–good for brief periods of immersion.

What makes a good chapbook? I think a “good” chapbook is accessible to a lot of people, including people who may be new to contemporary poetry.  What aids access, I think, is low cost–but also multiple ways to purchase the chapbook, i.e. at readings, in person, and online.

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What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? Anything edited by Nicci Mechler and published by Porkbelly Press.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Gardening at Dusk by Christina Pugh.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Well, I’ve only done this once.  To be completely honest, the arrangement of my poems in How to Leave a Farmhouse caused me great anxiety.  I didn’t send the chapbook out to many publishers, but I did shuffle the poems numerous times over the course of many months.  I relied a lot on my experience at UIC to determine arrangement.  Specifically, I benefited from defending my dissertation and being made to speak about my poetry formally, thematically, theoretically, and in the context of literary tradition.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? Read more chapbooks published by more presses.

What’s next for you? Writing more poetry.  I’d like to publish a poetry book, and perhaps some of the poems in my chapbook would make it into the book.  But I want to write more poems first.

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Current chapbook reading list:“Current” is a bit of a stretch; I’m teaching four classes, and when I’m not reading for class, I’m reading poetry submissions.  But I do intend to read chapbooks over the winter break.  One of my goals is to read books and chapbooks by my fellow editors at RHINO.  I interned there this past summer and just began working as an Associate Editor.  Everyone has been so supportive–they even gave me a spot at our regular reading series (RHINO Reads!) to correspond with my chapbook’s release date.

Number of chapbooks you own: Not enough…maybe 20?

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: I’ll go with somewhere around 30.  This doesn’t include chapbook submission to Kudzu (see below).

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. I’ve just entered this community, but so far I’ve supported it in two ways: first, by purchasing chapbooks by other poets (especially at Porkbelly); and second, by using Facebook (which I joined last year).

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Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets:
At Kudzu House, we’re now publishing an Echapbook each spring.  Last year was our first year doing this, and I was happy to write the Preface for Bright as Mirrors Left in the Grass by Luisa Igloria.

Your chapbook credo: You can read it, cover to cover, sitting in your favorite chair.

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Feels like a gift.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: The USF bistro or Brothers K Coffeehouse in Evanston.  I’ve also given many chapbooks away to people who have supported me in one way or another.

Your chapbook wish: That chapbooks get more attention, and I don’t mean mine specifically, but the chapbook in general.  Of course, that’s one of the things you’re doing with this blog, Madeline!

Residence: New Lenox, IL

Job:Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, IL

Chapbook education: In progress

Chapbook Bio: Beth McDermott is the author of How to Leave a Farmhouse (Porkbelly Press, 2015).

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    stephen steger
    November 3, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    Very revealing. It’s interesting to see what goes through a writer’s mind before words ever hit the page. Likewise, knowing what influences your poetry adds nice context. Good luck with this chapbook and the others you’re working on..

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    Beth McDermott’s new chapbook HOW TO LEAVE A FARMHOUSE interview | Kudzu House
    November 27, 2015 at 2:02 am

    […] Below is an excerpt from an interview our poetry editor, Beth McDermott, gave to The Chapbook Interview concerning her recent chapbook, How to Leave a Farmhouse. She says some wonderful things about Kudzu House in the excerpt, but you should really check out the full interview on The Chapbook Interview‘s website. […]

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