On Collaboration: Interview with Christine McNair and rob mclennan

by Jen Tynes

Since the beginning of the year, Jen Tynes has been slowly and lovingly conversing by email with collaborative writers about their process. Here’s our first completed interview, with Christine McNair and rob mclennan. Look for more interviews here soon! Are you a collaborative writer who wants to talk about your work? Be in touch with jen.tynes@gmail.com.


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. She works as a book doctor in Ottawa.

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa with his brilliantly talented wife, the poet, editor and bookbinder Christine McNair, and their daughter, Rose. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He also curates the weekly “Tuesday poem” series at the dusie blog, and the “On Writing” series at the ottawa poetry newsletter. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com. He currently spends his days full-time with toddler Rose, writing entirely at the whims of her nap-schedule.

rob & Christine’s two chapbooks:
rob’s essay on their current collaboration:
some of their collaborative poems online:

JT: I’m curious to hear more about your experience collaborating with your partner specifically. Did you know that that’s sort of how Mike and I got to know each other? We began collaborating on a poem long distance, before we’d ever met in person. We wrote together pretty obsessively when we were still dating and living in different cities, but since we’ve started sharing a city and a house, we haven’t been writing together much! You mention your own interest in couple’s collaborations and you say that your first attempt collaborating with Christine at this particular location was less successful. How so and why? Was that your only other attempt to collaborate on a writing or art project? What do you think happened — that is, what changed — that allowed this go to feel more successful and generative?

rm: The difference most likely comes from more than a single factor. Certainly, back in 2008, we didn’t really know what “we” were doing, but I think the shape of the collaboration wasn’t one that clicked. We’d attempted a single poem or two, taking turns composing a line or two, but the poems never really cohered. Perhaps, had we kept to the poems and learned how to work together as such, it might have worked. By the time we’d re-attempted, we were cohabitating as well, and far less anxious and nervous about the ‘we’ that was being formed. When I suggested a new collaboration, I knew the prior shape hadn’t clicked, so suggested another shape. We’d each write a poem or two to begin, and then hand off our poems to the other, who would then write poems ‘in response.’ The idea was that the manuscript would slowly evolve into a mound of poems that began to shift into a voice that wasn’t entirely mine and wasn’t entirely hers. I wanted a manuscript of poems where even readers familiar with our individual works aren’t entirely sure who might have composed what. We’re at around fifty pages or so already, despite not having worked on it for a year or two, and I really like what we have so far. I’m hoping that once Christine gets her second manuscript together (something that has been evolving over the past few months) we can return to the collaboration and see where we are.

Our other collaboration is Rose, who was born in November, 2013, but you most likely aren’t asking about that.

JT: Hello Rose! It’s not necessarily central to the writing collaboration, but how do you think becoming parents has shifted not just the time and energy you have for writing but the way you write? I’m curious, too, to hear more about the voice that is developing in those poems. Using similar correspondence-style writing strategies, I’ve also had that experience where I can no longer tell who wrote what poem, but I don’t know that I’ve ever tried to articulate what has happened: how our two (or more) voices and ways of engaging language have shifted into something else. It doesn’t typically feel like we have reached a compromise or some blend of our writing selves that is satisfactory; it’s more like tuning a radio? Or working out diligently for enough days in a row that your physical actions feels automatic and fluid, “in shape.” How have you experienced that third/other voice or poem created by the two of you? And how would you describe it, in comparison to the way you each tend to write, or were writing those early poems in the collaboration, before the third space emerged?

rm: Well, we’ve barely worked on the project since Rose was born. That would be part of the shift of time and energy, certainly. The first three months were a baby-haze, and during the subsequent nine months we attempted a half-time, so we could both get work done on our individual projects . Since the beginning of November, when Christine returned to work, I’ve been home full-time with the wee lass, and my writing time has become incredibly focused, working during the space of her afternoon nap, and the occasional morning I’ve been trading off with another parent. After twenty years of full-time work, the focus has forced a rather intriguing space, allowing me to work on fewer things, deeper. Or perhaps I’m so damned tired that the haze feels somehow magical.

The blending of voices in our collaboration I’ve found really interesting. One hopes that it allows each of us to understand the other’s work better, even if on an unconscious level. I wouldn’t call the space “compromise,” as that suggests a loss of some sort. I would say that our individual works within the collaboration aren’t turning away from anything, but simply turning towards each other. We are reflecting off each other, and seeing what occurs through the process. Still, some pieces work, and some pieces don’t. We’re about fifty pages through the project, and I think I’d rather we get another twenty or thirty pages through before we start looking back at the process, or individual pieces (to cut, for example). One could also say we’re immersed in a variant on the process as we watch how Rose emerges: seeing what parts of her belong to either one of us, and seeing the parts of her that are hers alone. How did we get here?

JT: Your own post about the beginnings of this collaboration focuses on how both place and secondary texts (your genealogical research, etc) perhaps led you into this collaboration? Or created some direction for it? Can you say more about that? How is your collaboration engaging with the landscape and history of the landscape around your mother’s cottage, and with your family history? And how is Christine accessing and engaging with that, I wonder? It’d be great to hear from her if she’s available!

rm: More a fact of the collaboration led to place and secondary texts. Our first big push on the project was in and about that particular geography. We spent nine days at Christine’s mother’s cottage in Sainte-Adele, Quebec, and wrote the bulk of the beginning there, in a call-and-response between floors. What became intriguing about our responses was knowing how we were approaching the same space entirely differently. For her, it was a family space she’d been familiar with for some time. For myself, it was an entirely fresh space, so I took it upon myself to learn as much as possible about it, partly so I would actually have more material with which to respond. It was only through digging around that I realized that my larger genealogical research actually tied in with the area. It made me wonder if I was, quite literally, the only person who had never actually heard of this place (my father remembers running up these same hills in 1950, when he was nine years old).

Obviously, language is how writing is constructed, but I felt I had far less information from which to work a larger, ongoing and sustained collaboration. Really, every time I’m in a new and unfamiliar geography, my first response is to want to learn as much about the history of that space as possible. The collaboration provided more of an opportunity for me to dig in to what this region was all about.

Christine has talked about writing her own essay on the project, almost as a counterpoint to my own, given how, for her, the cottage and village are a far more personal, familial and intimate space. I really hope she does.

CM: rob mentions it in his reply but it’s been an odd collaboration for me in part because it treads into private/familial/dream space of mine. So while he can find some connections to family history of his own (visits to the Laurentians by his grandparents for example) and in the historic presence of the place — all of my connections to the cottage and the town are childhood bred. As such they’re somewhat sacrosanct and instinctual. When I was young I felt a definitive pull to the elemental aspects of the cottage. The thunderstorms that almost shake the house. The number of stars visible at night. All of which seemed wild and perfect to my little suburban head, even if it was completely tame and cozy.  It was a retreat for me. So to collaborate with rob in this project feels a little strange because it contextualizes my own psychic dream space into something more detached.

JT: Writing about family history and childhood for a wider audience is already tricky: how do you think writing to/for each other has affected how you’re thinking about the collaboration and its audience? Do you think of this collaboration as a conversation between the two of you that others get to overhear and engage with? Or is the blending of your voices creating a different dynamic?

rm: I would think that the way we’re using information is less a matter of subject, per se, than as material, utilized in collaboration as a kind of call-and-response. Ours is a conversation, certainly, not only between us, but between the material we’re generating. At the same time, I would hope that the blending also creates a particular dynamic in the writing that wouldn’t have been possible for either of us individually.

JT: Can you describe that dynamic?

rm: Uncertain if I can. My own writing responds to and absorbs a variety of materials, ideas, scattered notes and thoughts and subject matter, where this project, while including all of the above, is, through the very nature of the structural aspects of the collaboration, more focused on the element of ‘response.’ Christine adds a couple of poems to the manuscript, and I work through the new material and see if there is a way in which I can respond to such, incorporating possible new elements into the pieces I’m composing.

I find it interesting that Christine suggests a kind of detachment through the collaboration, where I’ve been reacting to the ways in which it has made me feel more connected to her and her writing, as well as to that familial space that I’ve only recently been able to be a part of (I was introduced to the cottage in 2008, and we were married in 2012).

CM: Perhaps detachment is the wrong word. More I suppose like viewing the dream space of the cottage as if it were not integral to myself. Like a gift or an awkward snow globe set on the corner of a mantelpiece. If a place feels like a part of oneself it becomes almost alien (new) in the rediscovery of it through another person’s eyes. So connected to the work and rob’s work and rob, sure. But also that connection and space having its own presence.

I think I’m trying to write because I want to find what’s interesting in it. So less about capturing a conversation so much as trying to wrestle out something of value out of the interaction. I keep making it confrontational. Which isn’t intentional but might be personality (mine). It is about the creation of something new and something more than ‘us’ as couple or ‘us’ as two writers in a room. It would not exist in any other context. What I’m interested in is seeing how much is interesting in and of itself beyond its collaborative value. I’m not always sure it will work but I’m comfortable with the potential for failure in the trying.