Christine McNair

Christine McNair’s work has appeared in CV2, Poetry is Dead, Prairie Fire, Arc, The New Quarterly, Misunderstandings, The Bywords Quarterly Journal, ditchpoetry.com, and sundry other places. In 2011, she was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch award for innovative poetry. Her first book of poems will be published by BookThug in spring 2012. She’s one of four hosts for CKCU Literary Landscapes and works as a book doctor in Ottawa. I’m very pleased to have her at Poetic Edits:

How do you work your way through revisions? Do you have any tricks or theories to removing commas, words or lines?

Christine McNair: My method of work produces a massive swell of a document. I write about two hundred pages of raw notes, lines, sequences, and abbreviations for a full manuscript. I write poems out of this soup, pulling lines, cannibalizing longer pieces, and cutting things to the quick. I try to skim off dull words, predictable constructions, and clichés. It’s primary that the lines sound right. The rhythm and the mouth feel of the poem is important to me. My typographic leanings means I spend time balancing the lines visually as well as acoustically.
 
I leave my first draft of a poem alone for a week or so then test its mettle. Because I start with half-processed lines that I translate into finished pieces, my process of revision is partially built into my method of writing. I’m adjusting lines written in the past to flex and fit the contours of the poem. This often means that my poems tend not to be revised heavily once complete. Weak lambs are removed from the flock wholesale. Sometimes I would rather push away an abortive attempt than salvage it. These might be cannibalised for other work. A line that I wrote ten years ago goes into the vast gooey mess of my mass raw notes file and might nose its way into now. I don’t take any line as sacred. Everything is up for butchery.

Kill your darlings, and all that. Scratch that: get them in step. Archive the weak.

I was fortunate because Sandra Ridley, Amy Dennis, and Stuart Ross all offered intelligent, detailed readings of my manuscript that will be published next year and their suggestions were invaluable. I think a key part of the process of revision is a thoughtful pair of eyes, or two, or three.

Robert Lowell wrote that “Revision is inspiration.” To what extent do you think that’s true?  How would you rewrite Lowell: “Revision is __________”
 
Christine McNair: Vino irises. Sin ivories. Iron Vise.

Is necessary. Is pulling a wire taut. Is violence.

Do you feel any difference/make a distinction between editing a single poem all by its lonesome and editing a series of poems for a collection?
 
Christine McNair: I’m more conscious of repetition within a larger collection or similarities in format. Generally speaking, I tend not to write single poems so my experience of editing involves working with a clump of poems, if not a full mound. I tend to repeat words when I working through a project as though I’m underlining the point and that gets stripped away in the revision process. There’s a larger structural framework that I’m trying to balance in a series of poems. An architecture.
 
Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to editing your own work or someone else’s?
 
Christine McNair: Many of my pet peeves are typographic, pointless, and pedantic. Lowercase i for example. I’m trying to purge myself of my hatred for the tittle. Contrary-wise, I have issue with thoughtless capitalization. And two spaces after a period aggravates me to no end in all typesets, but most particularly in a poem.
 
I tend to be sensitive to the visual balance of the poem on the page and become frustrated when poets don’t take full advantage of how poems can be subtly nuanced by the careful distribution of type. Letters matter to me, type matters to me, space matters to me. It’s a subtext to any poem on a page and to ignore the visual weight of a piece is to miss an opportunity.
 
I have a weakness for the emphatic and the parenthetical that I try to rein in. My work in the last couple years has moved away from punctuation within the lines. Partially I think because I’m following the disjuncture between words that invade their neighbour’s space and run out across each other. This may be a function of my tendency to list or my effluvial mind. I tend to write in-fever.
 
Are there any lines from an early draft of a poem that you’d like to share? What ideas, principles or gut feelings guided you through those changes?

letter (remix)

into the sunshine
supported by an unnatural
tension of the nerves

her sick and morbid heart
condemned her

a more real torture

Hester Prynne’s
term of confinement
a kind of lurid triumph

all the combative energy
of her character in her first
unattended footsteps

reckless of economy
all mankind was summoned

the very law meant
for no other purpose

than to reveal.
the common infamy
on her breast

convert the scene
with vigor annihilate
the scarlet the terrible

for many quiet years
from the threshold
of the prison

she came forth

Christine McNair: Within my manuscript there are three poems that re-mix older texts. In this example, the source is a description of Hester Prynne early in The Scarlet Letter. I wanted to reverse the quiet of the description into “a kind of lurid triumph”, a subtle resistance to her confinement. Early on, Amy Dennis offered suggestions regarding the ordering of the stanzas. I think my original opening was weak and ‘sunshine’ in particular, hit the wrong tone. I moved the nerves couplet closer to the prescriptive bit about annihilating the scarlet because it seemed to suggest the kind of tension that I wanted in this piece. I also removed the “quiet years” line because it set the wrong tone. Quiet suggested a passivity that was counter to re-imagining Hester as valkyric.

letter (remix)

her sick and morbid heart
condemned her

a more real torture

Hester Prynne’s
term of confinement
a kind of lurid triumph

all the combative energy
of her character in her first
unattended footsteps

reckless of economy
all mankind was summoned

the very law meant
for no other purpose

than to reveal.
the common infamy
on her breast

supported by an unnatural
tension of the nerves

convert the scene
with vigor annihilate
the scarlet the terrible

from the threshold
of the prison

she came forth

One thought on “Christine McNair

  1. Pingback: Reviews, interviews, and so on. | notes from a cartwheel

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