Flowers in the Concrete: Hannah Macready Interviews Christina Shah
Christina Shah was born in Ottawa, lives in Vancouver, and works in heavy industry. Her poetry has also appeared in The Fiddlehead, Vallum, Arc, Grain, and PRISM international, with work forthcoming in The Antigonish Review and The Malahat Review. Brace yourselves for her first full-length collection, if: prey, then: huntress.
Hannah Macready: Hello Christina! Thank you so much for agreeing to chat with me. You have three poems in the latest issue of EVENT 49/3—”Scott,” “Rig Veda,” and “X-Ray Clinic”—that really stood out to me. Your words have an edge to them that to me is both empirical and raw. How would you describe your poetry? What kind of speakers can readers expect to meet in your work?
Christina Shah: Hello Hannah, thank you very much for the invitation. My primary focus has been work poetry, but I also write portraits of people, and descriptions of landscapes (specifically the built/industrial environment) where one might think no beauty might be found. I am always looking for that flower growing out of a crack in the concrete, or a bird’s nest on a creosote piling on the working river. I like to think of it as poetic xeriscaping. The speakers my readers can expect to meet are people who’ve seen it all, and I think a certain amount of dark humour comes through. There’s sadness and humour and a real appreciation for the small, explosively beautiful moments that every day offers us.
HM: A lot of your work is observational and you have a great skill in making the mundane hyper-real. In “Scott,” the speaker wryly observes the body of a man who shows romantic interest in them. In “X-Ray Clinic,” the speaker notices the increasingly surreal details of a medical checkup. In each, the descriptions are haunting, albeit beautiful to read, and full of poetic interest. What inspires your work and what does your creative process look like?
CS: I’m inspired by the people and environments I encounter in my work, or while simply walking around. I do like to write about food as well—with all of the sensory detail and playfulness that entails. Sometimes it’s the challenge of “what can I wring out of the most utilitarian situation”?
In terms of my creative process, walking and being on the road help my mind to work like a lapidary tumbler. I work with two other poet friends one-on-one to share new work on an informal basis. I can’t say enough about how my poetry group, The Harbour Centre Five, has helped me to understand my own work better, and has made me a better reader. We came out of the Poetry Series for the Weekend Student class taught by Fiona Lam and Evelyn Lau at the Writer’s Studio at SFU a couple of years ago. I struggle with a regular writing practice, so the buddy system definitely helps! My first draft is always longhand. Working with my hands (knitting/crochet or some serious baking) always precipitates a poem.
HM: I know you’ve recently completed your first full-length poetry manuscript, if: prey, then: huntress, which we hope to see forthcoming soon. Did you find the process of writing a full manuscript simple, cumbersome, grating? What did you learn from this process that you will take into future works?
CS: It’s been a long haul. You think you’re done and then you find yourself tacking later work onto the end and tossing earlier work. Be prepared to throw away a whole manuscript—this one had a couple of iterations. But make friends with your early work—you have to walk before you can run. Consider chapbooks too—they’re fun!
HM: Aside from poetry, you work in heavy industry, and a lot of your work reflects that reality. You write about working days, “diesel gearbox roars,” and “towering hammerheads / driven by their kinematic backs.” Is it important for you to document your working experience in art, and if so, why?
CS: In some ways I am trying to capture a dying era. As we continue to move into a service and IT/algorithmically-driven economy, the industrial world is being transformed, and many of its “analog” knowledge practitioners (e.g. machinists, logging mechanics, machine builders) are being sidelined or are simply nearing retirement. The kids these days don’t want to get their hands dirty. There are very few women in traditionally male roles in the industry, and as a writer, it gives me an unusual vantage point (along with plenty of material!). I get to see the world and meet the people who keep the wheels turning, all while making a living—and I’m capturing their stories and my own as I go.
HM: Of course, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, which has changed so much of our current discourse. What has the pandemic meant for your artistic life? Has it changed dramatically, opened new doors, closed others?
CS: Well, I did have some time off, and wish I had written more, but the timing worked out that I had a good run with several Canadian journals. I was glad to be able to participate in some online reading series as well. Mind you, not the best time to be submitting a full-length manuscript!
HM: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, Christina. As a final question, I’d like us to focus on something hopeful. What can we expect to see from you in the coming year? And, what would you like to see from the world?
CS: You will see one poem coming out in The Antigonish Review, and five (!) in The Malahat Review. Hopefully we’ll see if: prey, then: huntress find a home. I’ve also been threatening to make a videopoem for the longest time, so that’s something I’d like to work on as well.
In terms of what I’d like to see from the world? Plenty. If it’s not too late, hopefully a turning away from the creeping authoritarianism and all-encompassing corporate surveillance that continues to make incursions into our lives and narrow our world. I’d like to see real consequences for violence against women and online harassment. As the end of the pandemic nears, I would like to see people simply enjoy their own creative gifts and each other’s company with renewed appreciation. And more poetry!
Hannah Macready lives in Vancouver, BC.