Photo by Christine McNair
AN INTERVIEW WITH rob mclennan
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan is the author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. He won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012) and grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). The Uncertainty Principle: stories, is scheduled to appear in spring 2014.
An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, and interviews at robmclennan.blogspot.com.
Mackinac: Why poetry? How did you become a poet and how has your voice changed throughout the years?
rob mclennan: “Poet” as a self-terminology is one I’ve long been wary of. I write poems, but that’s what I exclusively do, even within my writing day. I much prefer to self-designate as the more inclusive “writer.”
I started writing poetry and short fiction during high school, surrounded by a social group that was interested in writing. Some of them even ended up furthering their artistic work long after high school ended, such as writer Clare Latremouille, Franco-Ontarien playwright Patrick Louis Leroux and singer/songwriter Chris Page. We were also fortunate to have an English teacher, Mr. MacLeod, who encouraged us to write, even helping us found and produce a small ‘zine to showcase our attempts. It was wonderfully lucky to have his encouragement, as well as peers that understood that these oddball goals of writing poems and short fiction weren’t strange, and it allowed me a permission to get writing done for years afterward.
My twenties included years of bad poems and bad fiction, and I wrote my way through so much of the bad that only the good remained. Obviously my voice has matured in the twenty-plus years since high school (at least, I would hope). Once my daughter was born in 1991, I really started to think I should either put the proper time into writing, or not bother. I didn’t want to approach it with anything than my full attention and energy (this, while being a stay-at-home father and running a home daycare until my daughter was four).
Why poetry, specifically? I’m not entirely sure. I was attracted to the boiled-down language and the precision that only poetry really seemed to allow. When I was in my early twenties, I thought that to have attempted everything (poetry, fiction, visual art, etcetera) all at once would have been to do all of it poorly. I decided to focus on poetry first, and once I began to get a handle on such, I told myself, I would start to explore fiction, and possibly other forms as well. This is why I published so many poetry titles before I managed to produce a publishable work of fiction.
I’d say also, that since beginning to focus more on fiction a decade or so back, the narrative impulse slowly abandoned my poetry, allowing my poems to move in directions more in keeping with the language itself. I was no longer attempting to tell little stories, something I now do with my fiction.
Mackinac: Tell us about your process. Do you have certain methods or routines that work for you?
rob mclennan: My daily habits are a two-step process of longhand work and printed drafts, repeated as necessary, which is actually quite a lot. Printed drafts can end up in the dozens, with one or two drafts worked through daily until the poem feels finally complete.
My writing day begins with my wife Christine waking me via the cat before she leaves for work, around 8:30am or so. I’m at my computer for email around 9am, the coffeeshop down the street for 9:30am for newspapers, coffee and longhand work, back home for 11:15am for printing out new drafts, email and lunch. By 2pm, I’m often at the pub at the corner for further longhand work, home by 3:30pm for further computer work on the next draft(s), possibly a brief sojourn to the gym (we live a block from the YMCA), possible folding/stapling and stuffing envelopes for above/ground press, housework (including laundry, dishes, vacuum, etcetera), mailing, various blog postings, thoughts about dinner and watching the previous night’s Conan online before Christine returns home around 6pm.
Routine is how I get work done, and really the only way I get anything done. I wake up every day, and I write. It’s as simple as that.
I’ve been working a version of this schedule for nearly twenty years, daily visiting that Second Cup at Bank and Somerset Streets going on thirteen or fourteen years now. I find that the best way to generate work is to sit in a public place with a beverage of some sort for an hour or three without an overload of deadlines, with a couple of books to read through and just let my mind wander to wherever it might go.
With our house purchase last week, our upcoming September move to Ottawa’s Alta Vista area (from our current apartment in Centretown) and our baby due in mid-November, I’d say we should fully expect this entire schedule upended.
Mackinac: How do you balance your work in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and editing/publishing? Do they all complement one another or do you occupy different headspaces for each?
rob mclennan: They do complement each other, I’d say, but there are also different headspaces required for such. When I get stalled in one project, I am able to slip back into another for a while. Sometimes the stalled project can still keep working in the back of my head, and then when I’m ready to return to that, I do.
I can only really work on one or two large projects at any given time, with other smaller projects slipping in between those. Fiction and non-fiction manuscripts require a large amount of attention, which don’t really allow for much else. Perhaps my years of composing poetry have allowed me to process the workings of a manuscript far better than prose, but when working on larger prose, it doesn’t allow me to focus on too much else. I’ve been working the past couple of years to get a couple of large prose projects off my plate so I can return to completing a novel, my reworking of Don Quixote, which will take an enormous amount of attention; I can’t have any other large prose projects in the way distracting me.
Writing helps writing, so the editorial projects have always helped fuel my own work. Really, I’ve been doing all of this for so long, that my writing practice now includes editing, publishing and composing reviews and essays, as well as writing my own poetry, fiction and non-fiction. The only difference is that for the space of any given week or month, the focus might be short stories, with much of the rest in the background, before shifting to poetry again (with all the rest in the background). One project fuels the other, and propels the other. I am rarely bored, or suffering for nothing to do. And any writing block is simply an opportunity to shift gears, into another project.
Mackinac: Do you feel there is a strong writing community in Ottawa? Tell us more.
rob mclennan: There is an enormously strong writing community in Ottawa. Ottawa has an incredible amount of literary activity, from the annual VERSeFest poetry festival, Bywords.ca, the Ottawa International Writers Festival, the ottawa small press book fair and the ottawa poetry newsletter blog, as well as literary outlets such as Jam Jar Words, In/Words, The TREE Reading Series, the A B Series, Apt. 9 press and Arc Poetry Magazine. We have a strong community of writers who are engaged with community, and that includes Monty Reid, Amanda Earl, Stephen Brockwell, John Metcalf, Pearl Pirie, Marilyn Irwin, David O’Meara, Kevin Matthews, Rhonda Douglas, Elizabeth Hay, Christine McNair, Sandra Ridley, Steven Artelle, Deanna Young, William Hawkins, Cameron Anstee, Chris Turnbull, Max Middle and tons of others. We are rich with writers and writing in Ottawa, to the outright envy of other cities.
Mackinac: Who are you reading these days? Are there any new poets out there who are knocking it out of the park?
rob mclennan: More than a few. I would say that Cameron Anstee, Roland Prevost and Marilyn Irwin are Ottawa poets worth paying attention to. They’ve each published a couple of poetry chapbooks, working their slow ways up to possible book-length manuscripts. Otherwise, Sandra Ridley has a third poetry collection out this fall with BookThug, and Brecken Hancock (who lives a block or two away from us) has a first poetry collection out this fall with Coach House Books. I’m expecting both of those books to be amazing.
What I’ve been reading poetry-wise over the past couple of weeks include Elizabeth Robinson’s blue heron, Juliet Patterson’s The Truant Lover, Carrie Olivia Adams’ Forty-One Jane Doe’s and Edmund Berrigan’s Can It!, all of which I’d recommend.
I’m currently in the midst of Roland Prevost’s book-length poetry manuscript-in-progress, which has some amazing pieces within. I’m hoping someone picks this up for publication soon.
Mackinac: What are you working on now?
rob mclennan: I recently completed my post-mother creative non-fiction project, “The Last Good Year,” which I’m attempting to find a home for. I’ve been working to complete a collection of short stories this year, if possible. And I’m circling the ends of another poetry manuscript, “Signature form,” which might be finished around the same time. Other than that, I’m working on the usual flurry of short essays (including one on Chus Pato, one on the literary history of Ottawa’s Alta Vista Area, and another on McLennan genealogy) and short book reviews. The past four years have also produced enough short essays that I suspect the collection of such might be forming into a finished manuscript relatively soon. I’ve already put out my feelers to a few publishers to see if such might appeal (although literary essays are a far harder sell than poetry, if you can imagine).
August 2013 also marks the twentieth anniversary of above/ground press, so I’m putting the finishing touches on an anthology of the ‘best of the second decade’ to appear in October through an event hosted by the Ottawa International Writers Festival. The book will be published by the re-worked Chaudiere Books, a trade press I originally co-founded in 2006, but which has fallen a bit by the wayside. Our goal is to have this anniversary title be our opening salvo of a renewed and reenergized press.