Poet Laura McDermott’s first book, Visions on Alligator Alley (Lominy Books), is an uncommon book. First it’s a “story in verse,” or a verse novel—a bastard genre that while not often seen, has a long tradition that includes works such as Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. Add to that a layer of ekphrasis, a literary work that either describes or is inspired by a work of art and you have a bastard of a bastard that is a narrative interwoven with dramatic images.
The project was the unintended culmination of McDermott’s 2014-2015 stint as writer-in-residence at Girls Club, a private foundation and alternative art space in Fort Lauderdale, FL that is the only private collection open to the public that features works by contemporary visual artists. During her residency, McDermott began writing new poems and revising extant ones as a response to the exhibition in place at the time, The Moment. The Backdrop. The Persona. which focused on single works or series of works that evoked narrative. The product of that flurry of writing takes us on a journey where we see a tomboy struggling with impending womanhood in the shadow of her difficult gearhead father. The speaker in Visions on Alligator Alley eventually claims her conflicted self near the end of the book with the poem,” The Pact,” where she asserts:
I made a pact with you, mechanic men—
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown woman with a gearhead father;
. . .
Now is the time for racing.
As Girls Club Executive Director Michelle Weinberg declares in her introduction, “Visions on Alligator Alley is a modest epic of sorts.”
Sliver of Stone recently got together with McDermott for a brief chat on the process of creating this book together.
Yaddyra Peralta: Talk to me about the book’s structure. And what was the process for making this an “ekphrastic story in verse”?
Laura McDermott: When I got the [Girls Club] residency, and I was in the gallery, there were a few pieces that evoked a feeling that reminded me of the work that I was producing in grad school. Once piece that jumped out at me was “The Brief Return of the Megalodon” which reminded me of the poem “Sometimes I Wish My Vagina Had Teeth,” and there were others that spoke to me.
Initially the thought was that I should write a few poems in response to pieces, but then I said, let me go above and beyond. I loved that that exhibit was about narrative: The Moment. The Persona. The Backdrop which was essentially about narrative and storytelling. I knew I wanted to tell a story, but I am not a sentence, paragraph and plot type of gal, so I dealt with what I knew which was poetry. I knew about stories in verse and ekphrastic [poetry], so I mashed the two together.
There were days when I would walk around the gallery or I would ask them to send me pictures. In my head I created this character, and then I began different pieces paying attention to what popped out at me [in the gallery]—certain colors, themes. I would ask myself questions. How did this person get here? What is this scene? I made a storyboard of the [art] pieces and my poems came out of that. Sometimes a poem came out of the art, but sometimes I’d have a [poem] and then I would go back and look through the art.
As far as the layout, my publisher put me in touch with book designer Charlotte Howard. We worked via email, she suggested a layout and sometimes we found holes and so I had to write new poems again. My strongest collaborator was Charlotte. The publisher was game when we were unsure and needed a third voice. Girls Club gave me free reign and put me in touch with the artists or whoever owned the rights.
Click here to read “Summer Solstice“
YP: In some of the pairings you can see the relationship immediately, as in the poem you mentioned “Sometimes I Wish My Vagina Had Teeth” and its facing art piece. [Note: “The Brief Return of the Megalodon” features the giant prehistoric shark]. There are also pairings such as that of the poem “Ode to the Wooden Fork that Left a Splinter in Dad’s Index Finger” about eating in the father’s garage and Lori Nix’s “Living Room” which features a cluttered living room.
LM: That piece reminded me of the messiness of my dad’s machine shop. Like most art it stemmed from the personal which is then bastardized for the sake of the art.
YP: I wanted to ask about the poems written for the Sophie Calle pieces from her series “Exquisite Pain (Day 7)”which already pair photographs with text. The series was inspired by a breakup and the text are collections of other’s people’s griefs. You did erasures of the text. . . [Note: the photos are of an empty bed.]
LM: These pieces, [two] large ones, were displayed with the photos over the embroidered text. I knew immediately I wanted to do erasures, but I didn’t know how that would turn out. I was influenced by a recent workshop with poet Mary Ruefle in Delray [Beach]. But Sophie Calle was the most protected person when it came to the process of asking for [artist’s] permission. There were three agencies I had to deal with. I was nervous because I thought they’d [have issues with] my manipulating the art. I took the high-resolution photograph and then painted over that, with Charlotte then creating a high-resolution version of the blackout. If I hadn’t had permission to erase on [an image of] the piece, I would have typed it out and then erased on that.
YP: You’ve created a new piece in the book. There’s the photograph, her text which comes out of this process of her working through this breakup by collecting narratives and you’ve made a new piece out of the text.
LM: I broke up the two text pieces—one about a father’s death, another about the breakup of an affair, and made so it continues in that vein of hurt and pain in the book.
YP: It continues that thread of the father and romantic entanglements in the book. There’s this great transition in the book that happens at the poem “Chalk Dust” in which a nine-year-old child—the speaker is aware that she is becoming a sexual object or a sexualized being—the father and the other men at the shop are joking about the daughter “c-cups.” Then, boom, right after are a series of poems about romantic encounters. Was that a planned ordering?
LM: The piece embodies a coming-of-age, innocence lost—as much innocence as she had growing up in a machine shop lined with girlie posters. The objectification that exists is now transferred to the daughter. Maybe not in a sexual way, from father to daughter, but there’s a crudeness. . .
Click here to read “Rebirth”
YP: There’s a transition here in the daughter’s identity, whether or not she is aware of it.
LM: Well, there’s a struggle now over who’s going to control or name her sexual identity. The poems after that are about the struggle of identity, and self and sexuality and relationships.
YP: Then there’s that poem near the end of the book, “The Pact,” that has a confident voice. The speaker is confident about cars, about car parts—there is a confident command of the speaker as the woman that she is.
Tell me about going from graduating with an MFA with a thesis to writing your first book.
LM: Well, I spoke to David Kirby about this. He told me “You’ll have a trunk of unused stuff somewhere in your computer. Take from that. Take lines, take phrases. Poems are not dead; they’re just in hibernation.” So during this process I had to, at times, revert back to old stuff. The first poem I ever wrote was “Sometimes I Wish I Had a Vagina with Teeth” which I wrote in a workshop with David Kirby in 2003. That was the first match I made [in the gallery]. The first poem I ever wrote ended up in my first book.
YP: I am sure that’s rare.
LM: Very little manipulation—a few changes.
I didn’t completely write this book from the blank page. But nobody does. I had some of the poems already, but as I began to organize it into a possible book, there were blanks and I had the gallery and the pictures to go along with [poems].
YP: And you had a new and specific project that helped to transform whatever you started out with.
LM: And I had a deadline. When I pitched this project to Sara [Michelle Rupert] and Michelle [Weinberg] at Girls’ Club, she said “Sure, go talk to some publishers.” And I said, “How do you find publishers?” (Laughs) I spoke to Lominy because I knew them and—they’re known for publishing works in French and Creole. I wasn’t looking for them to publish me. I was looking for names to reach out to. But they took it. So I had a book deal before I had a book. I just had to deliver. I said, “I think I can do this. I think it’s going to be good.”