Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Christine McNair on feeling Conflicted

 
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Christine McNair

Christine McNair steps up to the microphone, holding a little white book in one hand and adjusting the stand with the other. She begins speaking, rolling off in slow and careful beats a poem called ?Chart?:

I have no specific aim in life.

I am studious, patient, rigorous, austere. I carry out all the plans I make.

I have difficulty adapting to the modern world, to new technology.

I am always at the forefront of progress. Like everything new.

I am frank, honest, full of vigor and ambition. I am amiable, and sociable.

I have problems being open. I accept solitude.

I am intuitive, sensitive. Not a fighter and indecisive. Gentle and yielding.

I am quarrelsome, critical and violent. My success is obtained by dubious means.

I am agreeable company and always in demand.

I am not particularly popular in my circle, but am feared and respected.

All medical, paramedic or social work are recommended. Work in the police field. I can work as a funeral director.

I can fight for a particular ideal but might abandon it along the way, being less convinced than at the beginning of its virtue or because I realize that it is a losing battle. Conflict abroad. Weak point: the throat. I control my feelings.

Not frightened by the unknown, death. I have a tendency to bad dreams.

I have a great sense of observation and quickly grasp the situation. I am a stay-at-home.

I like long voyages, things foreign, water.

I persevere.

I had the pleasure of watching McNair read when she visited my home town as part of the Virus Reading Series, in May of this year. Earlier that month, BookThug had published McNair?s debut collection Conflict — the little white book from which she read. Though she is not especially loud, McNair has a very strong reading voice which projected over the usual ruckus of the Irish pub where the reading was held. The words were slow and carefully enunciated, the beats kept carefully with small and tidy taps of her foot.

?Everything I write,? said McNair, ?is immaculately temporal and ultimately kind of futile in the face of the world?s timescale. I relish that kind of absurdism. Because I do believe that there is so much beauty to be found in the dishing out of words. Words are slippery beasts if you use them for good or ill.?

Even before it was published, Conflict had already been highly praised, having been nominated for the 2011 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry (eventually losing to Pearl Pirie?s Thirsts). The collection is highly varied. There are plenty of free-verse poems like the one above, but also prose poems, a mock-manifesto, a poem made to look like an index and one that looks like it has been gone over by an excessively zealous censor.

?Much of the book,? McNair said, ?revolves around the myriad tensions between people, systems, language, self. I?m interested in the range of human behaviours painted with that almost chemically restrained word. I find the word itself to be a source of tension. Even the consonants are sticky.?

?My work tends to be a bit of a hybrid — so it can be considered arbitrarily too weird or not weird enough.?

The collection embodies its theme. Each poem is about conflict, though that meaning is often implicit in the poem?s form rather than its content. ?Night (Remix)? is a good example of this kind of writing. The text is a remix of Dylan Thomas?s villanelle ?Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night,? but McNair did not simply reconfigure the text. Instead, she took the new poem she had assembled out of Thomas?s raw material and flipped it on its side, then she split it into two columns which mirror each other. What we are left with is a poem that begins unfamiliar ? not only being visually unlike our expectations, but also, because of the extent of McNair?s rearranging, a unique poem on its own. But nearly everyone has read ?Do Not Go Gentle,? which is part of the point. As the reader continues, the alien writing begins to coalesce into something we recognise:

go gentle
into that
good go
gentle go

As we read, the alien writing reveals its secrets to us. What once looked like unintelligible noise becomes familiar. ?Night (Remix)? is just one illustration of Conflict?s chief asset as a collection ? its utter dedication to its theme. Not only are the poems themselves each somehow about conflict, but are also in conflict with each other. This combativeness is not the product of haphazardness on McNair?s part, but is clearly the product of careful and intelligent arrangement. The poems are not juxtaposed, or disorganized or chaotic, but conflicting, as if each one knows that the other is there and is plotting a way to deal with them (perhaps in a smoky room beneath the seedier side of the bookstore). Coherence like this does not happen accidentally, but instead emerges naturally in the way the book is written.

?The bulk of the poems were conceived as a unit over a short period of time in 2009 with a few strays that meandered into the mix,? said McNair. ?The book seemed to take shape when I was working in a specific kind of fever. But there are a few older poems that seemed to round out the book's arc.?

The poems? varied composition histories may have lead to a less harmonious clash had it not been for McNair?s editing. Treating the collection as a single work rather than something like a concept album allowed her to smooth the wrinkles and cracks that emerged between the various parts, leading to a superior piece of work.

?I edited the manuscript as a whole unit and that tends to bring out the flaws and repetitions that aren?t as obvious when the poems are set individually. It was a mind-breaker to learn how to visualize the book as a whole.?

The past few months have been extremely busy for McNair, who has done an impressive number of readings both before and since her book came out. Hopefully she will have time to get used to the attention. This is, after all, her first collection, and conflicts have a tendency to stick around even when we think they?re done.

On August 11, McNair will be re-launching her collection at the Argo Bookshop in Montreal. For more information, visit BookThug.

Jeremy Colangelo is an author and journalist living in St. Catharines, Ontario. His work has been published, or is upcoming, in several magazines, including The Dalhousie Review, Steel Bananas, and The Incongruous Quarterly. Jeremy has an degree in English and History from Brock University. He is currently working on a novel. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter, @JRColangelo.

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