She picks bits here and there — oily pecans, a skimmer bird, rope-tied jeans. She plants them in her mind, and poems sprout.
This has been going on for decades and continues. There’s always something germinating: an image, a phrase, a memory.
Now poet and Gulfport resident Elaine McDermott is being honored for her long career of writing evocative, imagistic poetry. She was named “2017 Poet of the Year” by the Mississippi Poetry Society, and at the same time given a “Lifetime Achievement Award” by the organization.
“I’m honored and humbled,” the 81-year-old said from a quiet corner of the West Biloxi Public Library, a favorite haunt. “It’s a validation of your work.”
It started with kumquats
McDermott has been writing poetry since childhood, but points to one poem as the start of her professional career: “Kumquats in Winter.” The poem, which McDermott wrote and published more than 30 years ago, was an homage to a friend’s mother who had died.
In the poem, an unnamed narrator grapples with thoughts of death and decay; in the end, she is buoyed by memories of “golden syrup,” “strawberries in spring,” and “kumquats in winter.”
The poem was published by the Mobile-based journal Negative Capability in the early 1980s. Since then, McDermott has published eight books of poetry, including a 2017 collection called “By the Rivers of Babylon” that accompanied her Mississippi Poetry Society awards.
McDermott described her writing process: “You take a little glimpse of something, then you add some imagination to it and come up with a poem.”
She said she was most recently struck, driving to accept her awards, by the image of three roadside crosses marking the spot of an accident.
“Obviously when I passed it it struck me — who were they?” she said. “I filed it away and when I sat down to write a poem I pulled it up.”
She imagined what it would be like to be riding in a car with a husband and son and see the crosses. She began thinking about the fear of loss the family might feel contemplating the crosses.
“I think that’s one of the strongest things about her poetry — the concrete imagery,” said Brenda Finnegan, a longtime friend of McDermott’s and fellow Mississippi Poetry Society member. “It’s not abstract.”
Teacher, roommate, editor, friend
Betty Malone is the friend whose experience inspired “Kumquats in Winter.” McDermott and Malone met in an English class at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Malone was the teacher and McDermott the student.
A friendship developed between the two women. They became roommates around 30 years ago and have lived together since. Malone has helped McDermott along the way, reading and editing.
“We’re like family, except not by blood,” Malone said.
When Malone read “Kumquats in Winter” for the first time, she thought it was a nice tribute to her mother.
“It does capture the essence of who my mother was,” she said.
Malone has watched McDermott write for decades, and describes the poet as “a person of determination and will.”
She felt “gratified” when she heard about McDermott’s awards from the Mississippi Poetry Society.
“Sometimes your efforts are not recognized until you die,” she said. “Look at poor van Gogh.”
“In my poetry there’s an underlying theme of loss and longing,” McDermott said, “for a person, place or time.”
One image McDermott thinks back on is the big clock at the D.H. Holmes department store in New Orleans. She remembers, as a child, meeting people under the clock. The store has since become a Hyatt hotel.
“We always carry our memories with us,” she said. “The things that impress us most, whether they’re good or bad, they come to the forefront.”
A poem called “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas is McDermott’s favorite. The poem is heavy on imagery and infused with a sense of longing for the past.
“Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,” Thomas writes, “time held me green and dying though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
A productive retirement
McDermott worked for Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College for 24 years, retiring in 1996. She said she has written a lot since then. She prefers to write on a computer and has a small office in the home she shares with Malone.
She has some advice for young writers looking to start their careers:
“Read, read, read. Write, write, write. You get better.”
Kumquats in Winter
Traveling through scattered towns
ending again at a churchyard
in Monticello, I grow weary
watching spotted cows fold
into russet mounds, and I curse
the steel-grey clouds.
As I pass the old dairy farm,
the sagging loft of the oaken
barn staggers beneath the
metallic shadow of a silver
when we buried Daddy
on the land that the drought
had seared to sand. You rode
beside me and spoke of
a kinder God.
Trailing the autumn wind,
the wetwood scent of
promised rain blends with
freshly baled hay, stirring
memories of green peanuts,
of rain frogs and cricket songs,
smokehouses and wooden churns,
golden syrup in copper pans,
of strawberries in spring, and
kumquats in winter.
— Elaine McDermott
Eve’s Side of the Story
“Bone of my bone,
flesh of my flesh,”
that’s all I hear from Adam.
I know I’m made of bone;
he forgets he’s made of mud.
Then he reminds me that
God made him first, and he
named all the animals. He
gets angry if I call a lion
I can’t remember all the names,
but I do remember one: snake!
He told me I would know
all things if I ate the apple.
I took a bite and it tasted good.
Then I was afraid that God
would be angry with me, so
I gave Adam a bite of that
forbidden fruit, too.
Well, God was angry, and Adam
blamed me. I blamed the snake.
We were expelled from the garden.
Now, here we are wandering east
of Eden, wearing those animal
skins Adam named. And it’s all
— Elaine McDermott
I fold your vibrant colors
in a cardboard box—
gold and purple paisleys,
red dress, yellow silk scarf,
your lime suit of Irish linen.
Nothing for Quakers here.
Happy prints cover the walls.
Empty albums surround the stereo—
mostly New Orleans jazz: Al Hirt,
Pete Fountain, Satchmo, Sweet Emma
grinning beneath her red beanie.
How you loved your old records.
Why didn’t you call me, Phaedra?
Pictures lie scattered on the table.
You at nineteen, smiling bravely
in the Sausalito sun. We toured
vineyards in Napa Valley
until you were whole again.
You called me then, Phaedra.
I remember St. Patrick’s Day—
green beer, green beards.
Everything was green. No thoughts
of burning incense mingling
with the copper scent
of chrysanthemums. Were you
too worn to face another winter?
I could have patched you, Phaedra.
— Elaine McDermott