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Nail Builders Plan for Strength and Growth, Kathy Mac

Kathleen McConnell (Kathy Mac)

Kathleen McConnell, who publishes poetry, plays, and what she terms lyric articles under the pen name Kathy Mac, was born on 17 July 1961 in Peterborough, Ontario. Her father was Paul Goodwin McConnell, an electrical engineer from Waterhole, Alberta; her mother Gwendolyn Patricia Greer was from Edmonton. Mac was raised in Peterborough, Ontario and has lived since 2002 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where she teaches in the English Department at St. Thomas University and is an active member of local writing and performance groups. She spends part of each summer writing in Sambro Head, Nova Scotia.

Mac moved from Ontario to Halifax to study at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), earning her BFA in Art History in 1986. Work followed as editor, graphic designer, poetry instructor, and (significant for her second book) self-described “Hundefräulein” or dog-sitter to Elisabeth Mann Borgese, the oceans activist and daughter of writer Thomas Mann. Mac returned to university for formal study in English literature, receiving her BA from Mount Saint Vincent University in 1993, followed by an MA from Wilfrid Laurier (1994) and a PhD from Dalhousie University (2001).

Mac’s university career and scholarly projects are central to her creative work. She works in the emerging middle-ground genre of lyric scholarship, a hybrid form of scholarly research and literary text. Described as “an ongoing wrestling match between creativity and analysis” (Omar 128), the form, Mac says, “pulls connections together that I don’t know I would have gotten otherwise” (qtd. in Lahey 22). Mac places her third book, Porn, Pain, and Complicity: Women Heroes from Pygmalion to Twilight (2013)—published by a literary not an academic press—firmly in this lyric scholarship genre. Her pen name originally distinguished her creative work from her scholarship, but these lines are becoming increasingly and deliberately blurred. Today, this hybrid mode of thinking and writing is a signature mark of her work, contributing to the strikingly original style and bold, layered, conceptual approaches of her essays, plays, and poetry.

Mac has published two books of poetry. Her first book, Nail Builders Plan for Strength and Growth (2002), won the Gerald Lampert Award for best first book of poetry in Canada and was a finalist for the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry that year. A long poem from that book, “Tooke, Suitor to the Spectacular Givens,” received Dalhousie University’s Joseph Howe Poetry Award. Her second book, The Hundefräulein Papers (2009), documented the intense domestic and inter-species relationships in caring for the dogs of Elisabeth Mann Borgese. Written after Borgese’s death, it had, said one reviewer, “all the distinguishing Mac marks: experimental audacity; singularity of theme and content; an attractive playfulness admixed with transcendental gravity” (Higgins). Her work appears in several anthologies, including the Milton Acorn Memorial Anthology, the League of Canadian Poets’ More Garden Varieties, II, and Poets ’88. Since the late 1980s her individual poems have also been published in literary journals in Canada and abroad. From brief lyric poems to longer sequences, Mac strives to be structurally innovative, her patterned forms containing startling emotional softness and a wild, loose, intertextual play.

Mac is also known for her contribution to writing communities nationally and locally, organizing and participating in reading events, panels, workshops, fundraisers, conferences, and informal writing groups. She is a member of the League of Canadian Poets, doing editorial work on the Living Archives series produced by the Feminist Caucus; she belongs to the Writers’ Federations of both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia; she is active in the WolfTree Writers, a Fredericton-based women’s writing group; and she is a founding member of the Stand and Deliver performance group, originating at St. Thomas University in 2009.

Writers important to her own development include Carole Langille, Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Eleonore Schönmaier, Alison Smith, Matilka Krow, and Kathleen Tudor, of whom she has written “You make me / feel like dirt: / substantial. Sustaining” (“Five” 5.1-3).

One of her chapbooks, Reunion: Drawings (2004), co-produced with artist Elizabeth MacKenzie, illustrates her degree of collaborative engagement. Gallery curator Ingrid Jenkner invited Mac to respond to MacKenzie’s exhibit in an essay. Mac responded with a small collection of poems. Four years later she published her email correspondence with the artist: “collaboration was integral to the production of the poems,” she writes to MacKenzie. “The Reunion Poems are ecphrastic—art inspired by other art. But they differ from most ecphrastic work because the Reunion Poems are more than just an onlooker’s response—they were also influenced by our correspondence . . . . By responding first to the exhibit and then to your responses to my responses, we ended up with poems with layers of interpretive possibility” (“Subsequent” May 20 sec).

In terms of process Mac is alert to chance connections of idea, which she then carries through with formidable discipline. Pieces leap from personal experience, film releases (Catwoman [2004]), or news items, such as the fact that teenage Guantanamo prisoner Omar Khadr was enthralled with the Harry Potter books. Her embrace of happenstance and her willingness to draw on a range of sources, from formal texts to ephemeral scraps, influences the result. The Hundefräulein Papers, as example, contains obituary, animal sketches, want ad, poems, recipe, grocery list, dog philosophy, and what reviewer Michael Higgins described as “a potpourri, gallimaufry, of lyrics, elegies, found poetry, anti-poems, testamentary tributes and personal anecdotes.” Mac herself describes her 138-line “Epithalamium for W.H. Auden” as “a textual nexus—poetry and prose; fiction and creative non-fiction; the Elizabethan memoir, same-sex marriage, gay rights, and allusions to a bunch of other things like rap music and the anxiety of influence” (“On Memoirs” 2).

Grief borne lightly is a stoic seam that runs through all her work, whether in her choice of focus, in her counterpointing of disparate texts, or in the sharp ache of particular lines: “Family like a handful of gravel, flung / far and in the night / I wake to you all” (“Hand Movements - Fugue” 94). Here is human suffering, dislocation, absence, distance, all punctured by a comic and profound relief, whether by artistic form, by pop-culture counterpoint, by mythic transformation, by love that “triumphs over centuries” (“Fragmented”), by the plain fact of hound and ball “in the eternal doggy Now” (“Tooke” 20), or by the hard saving grace of plain work. At times she lets us glimpse the struggle: “though Elisabeth [Mann Borgese] clearly felt the melancholy that afflicted her famous family, she chose to deal with it through constructive, if sublimated, action rather than passive despair, a coping strategy which I have consciously adopted” (“On Memoirs” 2).

Feminist theory and practice, and power politics in general, recur in Mac’s work. Her awareness of the political significance of the act of making is especially poignant.

Stylistically varied, her poems range from the tightly wound free-verse lyric of “Sitting Between Two Clocks” to sweeping imagistic lines that marry inner and outer geographies. Her work is recognizable in the detailed, looser, prose-poem, such as “Epithalamium,” which “weaves and cross weaves the lives of several lovers, the life-giving and necessary deceptions, the political madness, the inhuman and constrictive laws, the subtle and covert parallels, the heroic stratagem and the carefully crafted self-disclosures and ambiguities of the poet(s)” (Higgins). This layered conceptual approach is further developed in the seven long poems of Nail Builders, each with its own original structure. “No brief review,” writes George Elliott Clarke, “can do any serious justice to such a brilliantly complex, layered and experimental text” (n.p.).

Engaged with her peers at the local, regional, and national levels, Mac’s work is original in conception and execution, erudite, and accessible. For all this, however, there is a startling paucity of critical response to her two books. This may be attributed to the ongoing lack of Canadian critical response to women poets in general.

In addition to the awards mentioned above, Mac was a finalist for The Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry (2010, 2011) and has also received New Brunswick’s Alfred G. Bailey Prize (2012).

Clare Goulet, Winter 2014
Mount Saint Vincent University

Bibliography of primary sources

Blades, Joe, and Kathy Mac, eds. Ecphore ’87 Poetry Anthology (BS Poetry Society). Halifax, NS: Broken Jaw Press, 1987.

Deahl, James, ed. Let the Earth Take Note: The First Anthology of the National Acorn Festival, 1987 to 1991. Charlottetown, PEI: National Milton Acorn Festival Publishing, 1994.

Hilderley, Bob, and Ken Norris, eds. Poets 88. Kingston, ON: Quarry Press, 1988.

League of Canadian Poets. More Garden Varieties, II: An Anthology of Poetry. Stratford, ON; Toronto: The Mercury Press; League of Canadian Poets, 1990.

Mac, Kathy. A Dancer on the Earth (In Memorium Jeanne Robinson). Dramaturge Don Hannah. Dir. Nicole Gordon. NotaBle Acts Summer Festival, 2011.

---. Dust from Outer Space [Chapbook]. Calgary: Circle 5 Press, 1990.

---. “Five Elements of a Good Workshop.” Arms Like Ladders: The Eloquent She, Poems from the Feminist Caucus. Toronto: League of Canadian Poets, 2007. 25.

---. “Flex and Stretch: The Inevitable Feminist Treatise on Catwoman – The Movie.” The Dalhousie Review 91.2 (2011): 151-167.

---. “Fragmented Epithalamium.” The Hundefräulein Papers. Black Point, NS: Roseway Publishing, 2009. 39-46.

---. “Hand Movements.” Nail Builders Plan for Strength and Growth. Lockeport, NS: Roseway, 2002. 94.

---. The Hundefräulein Papers. Black Point, NS: Roseway Publishing, 2009.

---. Leaving & Arriving: Excerpts from the Diary of a Trip Back [Chapbook]. Halifax, NS: Paisley Cow Publishing, 1989.

---. Nail Builders Plan for Strength and Growth. Lockeport, NS: Roseway, 2002.

---. "Omar Khadr is Not Harry Potter." DisClosure 18 (2009): 105-128.

---. "On Memoirs and Marriage." Pottersfield Portfolio 23.2 (2004): 2.

---. Pain, Porn, and Complicity: Women Heroes from Pygmalion to Twilight. Hamilton, ON: Wolsak and Wynn, 2013.

---. “Reverse Oscar.” Poetry Ireland Review 103 (2011): 55.

---. “Wrangling Sex Worker Complainants and Deportable Defendants.” Call for Poems: The Practice of a Lyric Scholarship (Literary Salon). Org. Clare Goulet. Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, 30 May – 2 June 2011, University of New Brunswick. Fredericton, NB: 28 May 2011.

Mac, Kathy, and Eastgate Systems, Inc. "Unnatural Habitats." Eastgate Quarterly Review of Hypertext 1.3 (1994): n.p.

MacKenzie, Elizabeth, and Kathy Mac. Reunion: Drawings. Halifax. NS: MSVU Art Gallery, Mount Saint Vincent University, 2004.

BIBLIOGRAPHY OF SECONDARY SOURCES

Brazier-Tompkins, K.S.A., and Kathy Mac. "Introduction." Women Poets in Canadian History, Feminist Caucus Living Archives [series]. University of Alberta Lister Conference Centre, Edmonton, Alberta, 8 June 2007. Toronto: Feminist Caucus of the League of Canadian Poets, 2008. 7-8.

Clarke, George E. "Kathy Mac's images shockingly original." The Chronicle Herald 8 Sept. 2002. N.p.

Ferguson, Jesse. "Kathy Mac. The Hundefräulein Papers." Arc Poetry Magazine 63 (2010): 124-5.

Higgins, Michael. "Poetic potpourri sustained by love, intimacy: The Hundefräulein Papers." The Telegraph-Journal. 30 Jan. 2010. Fernwood Publishing <http://www.fernwoodpublishing.ca/The-Hundefraulein-Papers-Kathy-Mac/>.

Lahey, Anita. "Academic Papers Get Poetic." University Affairs (5 Dec 2011): 8 Feb 2012. <http://www.universityaffairs.ca/academic-papers-get-poetic.aspx>.

Mac, Kathy, and Elizabeth MacKenzie. "Subsequent Collaboration: The Reunion Drawings and Poems." Educational Insights 12.2 (2008). N.p.