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Write On Ottawa: Christine McNair and her vast array of poetic flavours

By Alejandro Bustos on October 14, 2013

Local writer Christine McNair is like an ambitious literary chef, whose impressive skills and large imagination transform word “ingredients” into a delicious poetic menu.

In her first collection of poetry Conflict, published by BookThug, she draws from a wide range of writing devices to create a truly eclectic work.

“There are a lot of styles in the book, which is quite deliberate,” says McNair in an interview.  “I find poetry interesting when it covers a lot of formats and moods.”

Based on the critical reaction to her book, McNair has accomplished her goal of creating interesting poetry.  (Conflict is nominated for a 2013 Ottawa Book Award and 2013 Archibald Lampman Award).

To get a sense of what this poetry collection is like,  imagine you are listening to a compilation album filled with numerous musical styles.  One track could be rapid fire jazz, another experimental industrial music, a third smooth bossa nova, a fourth fiddle sounds from Cape Breton.

Conflict  is akin to such an eclectic album.  For instance, her poem Night (Remix) takes select lines of Dylan Thomas’ classic poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, and then combines them into a unique word combination.  The poem itself is laid out in a shape that vaguely echoes a plus  (+) sign. In effect, this poem allows McNair to become a poetic DJ that is scratching and remixing a classic poetic “record”.

A three-part series of poems called Time Machine, meanwhile, takes Facebook updates and links them together to form a stream of consciousness soliloquy, with each work comprised of a single, continuous sentence that runs between two to four pages.

ConflictNot all of her poems, however, are experimental.  Several of her works use poetic structures that would be familiar to readers of traditional poems.  Nevertheless, even when she is working with more standard formats, her words contain a lot of meaning.

As a case in point, the last work in the book, which comes after an index that provides background to several of the poems in Conflict, McNair writes an Anti-Statement that contradicts her entire collection.

“Here’s the truth: I take it all back,” begins the poem (or is it a clarification?)  “All the syllables, each line, each dip of punctuation, all the consonants and vowels, every serif. Let’s pretend I never wrote them.”

McNair is not second-guessing herself with this anti-statement.  Rather, she is reinforcing her point that people and things can be seen through multiple points of view.  To return to our hypothetical musical album, music is not a single genre but a myriad of sounds.  Similarly, poetry can be written from numerous viewpoints and with countless structures.

“What is the true authentic voice?” says McNair, when asked about the different styles in the book.  “Who speaks for you?  Can you speak with multiple voices?”  Based on the results of this collection, the answer to the last question is a definition yes.