Monday, July 6, 2015

TtD supplement #30 : seven questions for Christine McNair

Christine McNair’s first collection of poems Conflict was published by BookThug in 2012. The manuscript, and then subsequent book was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, the Archibald Lampman Poetry Award, the Ottawa Book Awards, and the Re/Lit award. Her poetry chapbook Pleasantries and Other Misdemeanours (Apt9, 2013) was shortlisted for the bpNichol chapbook award. Her chapbook notes from a cartywheel was published by Angel House Press in 2011. She works as a book doctor in Ottawa.

Her poem “The language of the text is the original and as transcribed.” appears in the fifth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “The language of the text is the original and as transcribed.”

A: The poem developed diagonally out of some genealogical work that I was doing in online archives. I like finding the weak cracks in provincial genealogical and newspaper databases to see what leaks out. In this instance, I was searching out deliberately surnames of relatives in the area in which they lived. So most, if not all, of the stories here relate somehow to persons to which I am related on my father’s side. Specifically, the fragments come from the Daniel F. Johnson database of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick. You can read more about his transcriptions here: http://archives.gnb.ca/Search/NewspaperVitalStats/Default.aspx?culture=en-CA. In part, the lure of working with this material was that these notices were transcribed by one individual. Working in a system of stories that is almost arcanely scribal. Passing along the local news and genealogical detritus to the paper of the day to an archives to a man who transcribes it to the online system where it is searchable to me. The refrain is tagged onto every entry as a warning for human flaw. There is something so beautiful and hopeless about these little news bites. They sat in my notes for quite some time before I tried to gather them into the poem.

Q: Given that the information is, as you suggest, predominantly attached to a variety of paternal family members, how does that impact upon your relationship to the finished poem? Is the poem a way in which to enter or absorb potentially familial data?

A: It’s more like listening on the other side of the wall. Or playing a game of telephone. The story distorted by the string of the medium. The particular details about which I know nothing but would have been intimately awful or beautiful. How I’m connected to some of these stories by blood but the stories themselves have been erased from memory except in these excisions. How the individual moments of our life – birth, death, tragedy – are reduced down into simple little paragraphs. How those things are flatly or coyly talked about.

Q: I know that archival work is an aspect of your day-job as a book conservator, on top of your interest in genealogical research, but I’m less aware of how you explore archival research for the sake of your poetry. Is this an ongoing engagement, or something that occurs very occasionally? How does the archive impact your writing?

A: I use it as raw fodder. I’m concerned with its inherent virtue and vice. I suppose I’m quite conscious of the limitations of the archive. Its extreme importance and yet how it can only capture limited aspects of a thing. That the totality of preservation is impossible. All the factors within the material (cultural, societal, individual, physical) which can define its continued existence. I spent a lot of time during my studies reading about the conservation of artefacts lost through attrition or war or indifference. The language of conservation and the archival blurs into my work in part because to me it’s not an alien vocabulary.

Q: How does this poem fit into what you’ve been working on since the appearance of Conflict?

A: I’m not sure. It’s part of a second manuscript and it relates to the pathways I’ve been following relating to blood and memory in the blood/body (or lack thereof). The impermanence and generational utter amnesia.

Q: I know the process of putting together your first collection was very different from how you put together your second collection. Is this a matter of simply the difference between projects, or do you feel that your compositional process has shifted since the publication of Conflict?

A: I don’t know what my process is yet. I know that Conflict was written en masse, quickly, with fervour. Charm was slower, pick-a-bric, made up of different elements in alliance. I think my time is more scattered now than when I wrote my first manuscript. I had the luxury of time and solitude. I wrote the majority of Conflict when I lived alone, was on EI, and had a luxury of time to think. I was broke but I had lots of time to be alone. Now I work full-time, work 10-20 hours per week on a small press, am married, have a small child to share care of and live in a house that seems to always need need need. My (now nostalgically beautiful) small apartment is a dream state. I think Charm is a reflection of trying to work out my edges in the midst of that kind of overwhelmed state. I’m overwhelmed. With excess both good and bad. 

Q: When you say “work out my edges,” are you suggesting that your poems (and compositional methods) tend to pattern the clutter of your attention? If you are feeling scattered, are your poems scattered, or are they attempts to reign the chaos in, and comprehend a clear path?

A: No, that’s not what I mean. I mean more substantively, finding out where I begin and end. Where the edges of what/who I am is in relation to the things I love, do, participate in, exacerbate, believe. Self-definition. Contemplatively standard.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Random and omnivorous gulps of my bookshelf. A fat and heavy pile to bring to a restaurant where I can drink bad coffee and read. Often bring some of these in the mix: Paul Celan, Threadsuns (translation by Pierre Joris). Elisabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Nathanaël, The Sorrow and the Fast of It. Elizabeth Bishop, Poems. Other things I can’t think of because the question empties everything out of my head.

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