Poet Shane Neilson’s New Brunswick

Written by RM Vaughan on June 12, 2019

Oromocto-born writer Shane Neilson’s latest book of poems, plainly and aptly titled New Brunswick, is a major new work in the provincial, and way beyond, canon.

Centering New Brunswick within larger national dialogues, New Brunswick (Biblioasis, 2019) takes a hard and moving look at how the province (indeed, all of Canada) can and must reconcile its past with its present, begin to heal its deeply wounded environment, and turn “regionalism”, formerly a dirty word in poetics, into something urgent and far more resonant.

One of my favourite poems, simply titled “6,” is peppered with the refrain “(Be true to things).” Hard but necessary work. And Neilson practices what he preaches: New Brunswick is fuelled by Neilson’s own memories of life in the place he calls an object of “strange love.”

A polymath (person of encyclopedic learning), Neilson is also a professor, editor, author of scholarly works, award-winner for both his poems and his research, co-runs micro-presses, and, believe it or not, is also a physician (among other degrees, attained and in progress). One imagines he’d be a daunting poet to interview, but Neilson is sweet and enormously patient.

RM Vaughan (RMV): How on earth do you have the time and/or energy to write poems given that you have five degrees and, as far as I can tell, 11 jobs?

At the moment, I have neither time nor energy to write poems. Or, to put it better, I’m not writing poems because I’m so frantically publishing everyone else in addition to readying two books of literary criticism for publication that are due out in the fall of 2019. I’d feel bad about this under normal circumstances, because poetry has always been the thing that kept me alive. I reached for it (meaning writing it) in both good and bad times, but these days I reassure myself that I’m aesthetically banking my own future via the current extravagant philanthropy of time. So, even I have limits! As a disabled person, I work hard at what I can do and what I love to do, but there are times when the factory fires do go out. Happily, they start up again. There is also a lot of television.

RMV: In New Brunswick, you entwine your personal family history with the province’s history. That’s natural enough, but often the histories described are difficult, to say the least. Thoughts?

It was very important for me to write a book that New Brunswickers would feel was authentic. Not “representative,” but real, as if it too sprung from New Brunswick’s soil, because it did. As a child, I was very afraid and very lonely, in part because I was –in the language of my family and those in my community– “different.” This gave me a special vantage point into the unfolding events of the province as I witnessed them, but also those of my parents’ and New Brunswick’s history. I neither subscribed to nor passed within rural masculinity. So, though I faced a lot of abuse and bullying, I also had a lot of time to think and much time to feel the place.

I had a few objectives with the book. First off, I wanted to critique New Brunswick as much as I critiqued dumb centrist stereotypes about New Brunswick. I wanted no one to read the book comfortably. The Irvings too. No one gets out alive, including my parents, who were born and died in the province. One thing I wanted to do was to properly respect Indigenous people in the book. I did this by using the word “settler” on the cover, a word more settlers should just get over. I deliberately did not write poems that gave an Indigenous voicing, and I included “Mascarene’s Provinces,” a found poem from the very early history of the Maritimes that constitutes the Crown’s unmet obligations to Mi’kmaw, Wəlastəkwi, and Passamaquoddy peoples. It bugs me a lot that some white Canadian poets mine reconciliation in trendy books. But I hold my horses and say, “Of course not only Indigenous people need to do the work of representation and advocacy, we need to get our own house in order too.” Yet, knowing poets, I really wonder nevertheless.

RMV: You also run Frog Hollow Press’s NB Chapbook Series (through which, full disclosure, I have been published), and know a lot about New Brunswick literature. What drives this ongoing interest?

This question is probably answered now in spiritual terms. I care, because I don’t think I could not care. Books saved my life as a child, they were my absolute physical and real friends, they cared for me, and within me is a desperation to pay them back. I’ve spoken and written elsewhere about Alden Nowlan in this regard: encountering his work in the New Brunswick school system was a tremendous gift that I’ll never be able to return in full. But why not try?

The original New Brunswick Chapbook Series was overseen by [writer] Nancy Bauer, spanning the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies if I recall correctly, with over twenty books produced. I wanted to show the exciting writing happening in New Brunswick NOW, writing that I remain in touch with by returning to the province regularly, especially by attending Poetry Weekend every fall at Memorial Hall on the UNB Fredericton campus.

The basic idea is that we should be PROUD of ourselves. We’re doing good things. But we have to show it, and hence the rebirth of the chapbook series. It’s not like anyone else is going to do it for us.

RMV: Former Premier Frank McKenna travels around Canada telling people New Brunswick is in a “death spiral” (which, to my mind, he started). Why is this idea of NB as a “dying” place so prevalent? Your book proves it is very much alive!

I have an ambivalent relationship to this question. New Brunswick is contracting in terms of population. Entire communities –like my mother’s birthplace– are marketing themselves as retirement enclaves. That’s a truth. But then people remain, or stay, or would never want to leave. I write a lot of death imagery, but with irony always a page or line away. The Maritimes will survive in some form, of course, and much is happening now. [But,] I do despise self-inflicted damage from privileged idiots who mischaracterize us. Like anywhere, New Brunswick has its problems. But its strengths are my same strengths. I wonder, though, how much the Maritimes can fight [global] capital. I don’t wonder, however, how much we can love one another, how much better we can make things for one another. We should be what we want to be: fuck the rest of Canada.

RMV: Finally, for fun, what are your favourite spots in NB? 

Memorial Hall, UNB Campus, where beautiful things regularly occur (performances, readings, etc.) and the stained glass makes me conflate the beauty of Catholic ritual with poetry and biblical prose. Mazerolle Settlement Road, all of it, but especially my sister’s place along it. And, the banks of the Saint John River in Sheffield, near Crawford’s old bookstore.

Interview responses were edited for length and clarity.

RM Vaughan writes about art and culture for a wide variety of national and international publications. He is the author of 11 books.

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