Sentinel Poetry (Online) #36 – November 2005

Online Magazine Monthly…since December 2002. ISSN 1479-425X






A Worker in the Ministry of Poetry

Interview with Rob Mclennan

By Amatoritsero Ede


Rob McLennanAmatoritsero Ede: It is great to be able to have this conversation with you, rob. You are definitely a peripatetic figure in the contemporary Canadian poetic scene. Could you give the reader a brief genealogy of your literary progression and how you became so central to the Ottawa scene particularly?


Rob Mclennan: Geez, how does one begin? I've published ten trade poetry collections with presses in various parts of the country, over sixty-five poetry chapbooks in three countries, and toured across Canada ten times, as well as into the United States and Ireland. I've published poetry, fiction and critical work in eleven countries. Since 1993, through above/ground press and STANZAS magazine (for long poems / sequences) I've been the most active (poetry) chapbook press in Canada, and distribute not only across Canada but into a few other countries (it helps that STANZAS is free and I can just mail boxes of them to people). I've edited anthologies of writing for multiple presses, and edit an ongoing series for Broken Jaw Press in Fredericton, have been organizing readings in Ottawa since 1991, and founded the ottawa small press book fair in 1994, which I still run twice a year. Part of what kept me here, originally, is the fact that my daughter appeared in early 1991, when I was but young myself; also, I don't think my skills are needed in Toronto or Calgary or Vancouver. There are folk there that have that stuff covered. I think I can be more useful here. I just started writing, and kept from there. I don't know any other way to explain it.


A.E.: What drove you to poetry or poetry to you?


R.M.: I was always interested in making things, whether out of paper or out of words (and sometimes a combination of both), when I was very small. I took piano lessons, I drew portraits of people from photographs, I made fake newspapers and drew comics, wrote comic book scripts, all sorts of things. For whatever reason, by my late teens, I was gravitating more towards writing poetry and short fiction, and was publishing both in a 'zine we published in our high school alongside the work of Clare Latremouille and Patrick Leroux (who have since gone on to great things of their own). In high school, I was fortunate enough to have a strong social group that was writing, and interested in writing, including Patrick and Clare and Ann-Marie Seguin (the mother of my child, who got me reading Canadian Literature, good or bad), among others. We started a zine to publish our work when I was in grade eleven, and it even continued (through our English teacher, Robert McLeod) for a few years after we had all left. By that time, instead of a discorporate group of us publishing under pseudonyms, it was more of an official publication of the grade thirteen Writers Craft class (which took so much of the fun out).


A.E.: Your tenth collection is a return to roots, in a sense. What was the reason for this idyllic/pastoral preoccupation? And would you say Stone, Book One is a love poem?


R.M.: Perhaps it is. The whole piece is meant to be the loose story of a couple in a place much like where I grew up, in a time much like I imagine (right or wrong) much like the time my grandparents would have met and married. The poem culminates in the birth of their first child. I had originally thought that there would be three or four books to the piece, taking the second one into a further direction, watching the child of the original couple move through from original awareness to adulthood, but I've only moved half-way through the manuscript. Also, each poem title in the first book comes from lines and phrases from the American poet C.D. Wright, taken not only from poems, but essays and interviews. The second book borrows lines from the late John Newlove, who was not only the best poet in Canada from 1962 to 1972, but called Canada's best lyric poet (and my neighbour, for his last ten years).


A.E.: There is a lot of experimentation in contemporary Canadian poetry. In how far has this influenced your own praxis?


R.M.: Well, the question always becomes, a lot compared to what, to where? I can only speak for the writing I know. Canadian poetry certainly appears (from what little I've seen) to have more obvious experimentation than British poetry, but I really haven't seen enough to know what the hell I'm talking about. On the other hand, it has far less than American poetry seems to. It all depends on the angle you see the work from, doesn't it? I've always considered, for my own work, if I am going to attempt something that isn't better and/or different than what has appeared before in the same kinds of forms, then why go through the whole process? Sure, it's hard to write a sonnet and that can be an interesting process, but at the same time, so many people have written sonnets so well, that I don't think the world of literature needs me doing that, unless I can figure a way to really screw with it in ways that haven't yet been seen, so I choose to focus my energies working other forms (although, strangely enough, I accidentally wrote my first sonnet a few days ago).


Poetry is not what it used to be, and no longer needs to be what it started out doing. Poetry was originally used for storytelling, and keeping an aural history. Thanks to novels, CNN, movies, non-fiction, and various other media, poems no longer need to tell stories. So the question becomes, what should a poem be doing? If I have a story to tell, shouldn't I be using the novel or short story form? If I have an issue to get across, shouldn't I be writing an essay? If I have a history to tell, shouldn't I be writing a non-fiction book or producing a documentary for television? It forces the consideration of the poem to move into further territory, I think. I am interested in exploring that territory. Of what a poem isn't "supposed" to be. But so many of these considerations are completely arbitrary. It's poetry; we can do whatever we want.


A.E.: Who is your muse; or what is your muse: what inspires you?


R.M.: Ha. I don't think I really believe in the muse. I believe in doing the work; doing the reading, doing the writing. Reading as much as possible, and writing as much as possible, and seeing what happens out of the whole process. Lately I've been realizing that I want to start researching the work of Steve McCaffery, for example. I think I'm finally ready to start reading his work seriously, and I think I'm finally smart enough to enter into it properly (but I could be wrong). I enjoy flipping through a magazine and getting that amazement of a line or a phrase or a full poem that does something that makes my head explode. It comes much less often these days, but it still happens (I think once it no longer happens, I should just stop writing entirely; there has to be a sense of joy through all of this, otherwise why bother?).


What inspires me is the joy of discovery that comes from both the reading and the writing of new material. I know writers who map out what they are going to do in their fiction, for example. I don't work that way. I would prefer to begin and see where the story goes, and be surprised at the compromises and collaborations that occur between myself and the text. I want to be amazed by it, and will accept nothing else these days. I want to be stunned by a piece of writing, whether my own or someone else's.


Blame Glengarry County, blame John Calvin and the Protestant ideal. I believe in the work, work, work, work, dammit!


A.E.: Canadian poetry, it appears, desires to consciously create an identity for itself. In you own view what is responsible for this.


R.M.: rob: That was a very 1960s notion, of the self-discovery (the Dominion of Canada turned 100 years old in 1967; thanks to the Constitution in 1982, July first went from Dominion Day to Canada Day). Many people worried about that notion of identity, and many people didn't. Even now, many have argued that the identity has been long achieved, but some are still looking for it, not believing that it has been achieved. I think much of it comes from not really having a sense of what other identities are in other countries, and knowing how to compare.


It doesn't help that we have that annoying older brother still living just a bit south of us. Some say our notion of identity came through the War of 1812 (what the Americans called "Madison's War"), when they tried to invade, convinced that we wanted to be Americans too, but were too shy to ask. We are Canadian because we are not American. We still hold (I believe) the title of "only country to have successfully fought off an American invasion." The White House is painted white because a group from Halifax portaged down there and burnt it down during the War of 1812, after the Americans tried to burn down York (what is now Toronto).


But writing identity is a whole different thing. There are arguments that we didn't have a Canadian literature until the 1960s, while other claim earlier in the century, even though there were books being published by authors here in the 1860s. It gets very complicated.


A.E.: Voice in poetry here is close to the idiom of everyday speech, I note. Is it conscious or is it part of the desire to create of an ‘authentic’ Canadian voice?


R.M.: Was it Gertrude Stein who said that writing has to be as close to living as possible? I don't remember. I could have the credit completely wrong on this one. I have always considered (for my own work), that to write of the world, I also have to live in the world. I find it strange to hear a writer proudly exclaim that they don't own a television. Good, bad or otherwise, television (and movie) culture is a part of the world we live in. Mass culture doesn't necessarily mean bad. The division of high and low culture as being "bad" vs. "good" I find rather small-minded, and I think it causes the writing that comes out of it to lose a whole bunch of credibility. I'm not arguing that a piece of writing can't speak to me unless the author watches The Simpsons, but to exclude a whole element of mass culture and still profess to work within the bounds of the world seems a strange consideration to me (but I've never pretended to understand too many things). I read multiple newspapers every day, read poetry, fiction and non-fiction, watch new movies almost every Saturday with my lovely daughter, watch hours of both good and bad television, and own over six thousand comic books. There is something to be learned, I think, from every medium.


I suppose the question, too, comes out of who I think I am speaking to when I write. I don't want to exclude a reader through the language I use (but, at the same time, I do want a reader to work for it).


A.E: How do you find the time to write, given your ubiquitous activities – book-fairs, readings, mentoring, and other artistic public preoccupations?


R.M.: I've always been able to juggle a million things at once. Every time I've tried to set things aside to finish one or two projects, I end up starting others. I think it's simply how my brain works. It helps that I've been doing this full-time for about fourteen years now. When I started doing all of these things, I honestly thought (naively, perhaps) that it was an essential part of the job of the writer to write reviews, organize readings and go to other people's readings, mentor the ones behind me (as the ones ahead of me have mentored me), and other such things. I've always thought... how can I imagine anyone going to my readings if I won't go to anyone else's? And when I started publishing, I saw how easy it was, and thought that it could be a way I could help the writers around me, by making little books of theirs. I started running readings to help promote the authors and the books I'd made of theirs. I started running the Ottawa small press fair as an extension of that idea, etcetera. And now, how many years later, I still keep doing all of these things. I think the only use in starting something is to sustain it (or have someone else sustain it, but I'm not good at handing things off).


A.E.: I would expect you have a hand in the organising of the Ottawa International Authors’ festival, the resounding successful fall edition of which has just come to an uplifting close?


R.M.: I'm not involved at all in the organization of the festival. I do socialize regularly with the organizers, and I make recommendations, some of which they take. I have been involved with every festival so far, which has been pretty cool. They've done so much to help not only the writers in the Ottawa literary community, but the perception of writing and writers to a city that has historically been determined to ignore the whole process.


A.E.: What directions are you likely to take in your subsequent creative activities?


R.M.: I've been working on fiction for over a decade, which most people don't know. After abandoning three novels, I'm trying to get another three novels finished, and have since started a collection of short stories (I keep hoping to get one of these finished and placed). I've got manuscripts in varying degrees of completion of three collections of literary essays, and have also been doing genealogical work for about fifteen years (all the Mclennan / MacLennan lines in Stormont and Glengarry Counties in Eastern Ontario, from the point of landing, 1770-onwards). I had some shows of visual art in 2000 and 2001, but haven't had a chance to really get back into that yet. Oh, and a couple of us are starting a literary press in Ottawa, to produce eight trade books a year of poetry, fiction and (eventual) non-fiction, with our first four books to appear in fall 2006. Called Chaudiere Books, we're still putting the finishing touches on our five-year business plan. And a bunch of poetry manuscripts, but there's nothing unusual there. Apart from that, I think I'm going to wait until some of these projects are further ahead before I start making other plans.


A.E.: Thank you very much for your time.


2005 Amatoritsero Ede and Rob Mclennan



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