Thursday, October 08, 2009

an interview with rob mclennan, by Darryl Salach

Here’s an interview with me that appeared recently in the fourth issue of Darryl Salach’s The Toronto Quarterly, conducted over email during May, 2009.

1.) Do you remember the first poem you ever composed and what inspired it?
The first full poem I wrote I was in grade two, for a girl I liked in my class, Julie Williams. I don’t remember much about the poem specifically, but I do know my mother knew about it before I arrived home from school that day. I remember playing with what could now be a low-end visual poem, pulling the word “home” apart and seeing two fragments. I might have been five at the time; I remember being very impressed about the “me” inside “home.”

2.) Where did you grow up as a child and did any of your childhood memories inspire your writing over the years?
I grew up on a dairy farm just five miles outside of Maxville, Ontario, in eastern Ontario, Glengarry County, something I’ve been writing about for years, and spoken of in many other places. I’m currently writing a project of small prose-memoir pieces from early 1970s Polaroid pictures called “house: a (tiny) memoir,” working it into a book, with an excerpt to appear as a chapbook with Amanda Earl’s AngelHousePress. I’ve been posting bits of the project on my blog for some time, working an area of my past I hadn’t before, stories that my younger sister wouldn’t necessarily know, let alone her three children or my daughter.

Other works have come out of the same material, including a book-length essay I’ve been working a decade on, “Reading and Writing Glengarry County,” working through particular pieces by Don McKay, Stephen Brockwell, Nicholas Lea, Roy Kiyooka, Ralph Connor, Henry Beissel, Margaret Christakos, David McFadden and others. My second poetry collection, bury me deep in the green wood (ECW Press, 1999) was all about home, as is the unpublished “glengarry: open field,” a long poem still seeking placement.

How can childhood memories inspire writing? I’m thinking on this. There are parts of my history I’ve written about, and there are parts of my history that have directly influenced my arts practices, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same thing. I have older cousins who would spend extended periods on the farm when I was small, during their summer vacations, and I know, between them and my mother, I could read before I started school. My father read National Geographic and local histories, and my mother read Harlequin romances and mystery novels (neither being terribly interested in “literature”), but I remember being surrounded by books. I remember being extremely sheltered while there, but through television and books, being very interested in the wider world around me. I quickly learned to pick things up on my own.

3.) Was writing a frustrating process for you in the beginning? Where did you first have your poetry published?
It wasn’t necessarily frustrating. I think I understood pretty early that most stuff sent to literary journals comes back, and persistence is sometimes more important than anything else. Milton Acorn sold his carpentry tools one day and became a poet; that’s pretty bold as a statement, and he did quite well through his own persistence. I was publishing in a little zine we made in our high school, with other writing inside by Clare Latremouille, who has since gone on to publish a first novel, and Patrick Leroux, a Franco-Ontarien playwright. I suppose I was fortunate to have a good social group around me during my later teen years, who supported writing, whether my own specifically, or generally, through composing their own.

The 1990s were pretty exciting in Ottawa, with a whole swath of little magazines to get our strange little scribblings into, reading series and other activities, including Bywords, Box 77, The Carleton Arts Review, Pooka Press, The TREE Reading Series, Dusty Owl and other venues, as well as the invention of my own above/ground press in 1993 (after making a couple of chapbooks a year earlier), and the ottawa small press book fair in the fall of 1994, that I’ve run since semi-annually. It was almost harder to not get published in town during that time. I was fortunate, too, to have the early support of such Ottawa and otherwise writers as Diana Brebner, Ken Norris, Michael Dennis, Judith Fitzgerald, Dennis Tourbin and Bruce Whiteman. I even had a poem in The Antigonish Review, a piece I know will never otherwise see the light of day again.

Frustrating: well, it is what it is. One sends out work, one reads obsessively in open sets, one reads everything one can get their hands on, one makes chapbooks and broadsides and distributes them everywhere. This is basically how I spent my 20s, laying the foundational work for what I knew was to eventually come.

4.) You have two books of poetry soon to be released. Do you care to tell us about each one and who's publishing them?
My fourteenth trade poetry collection (and seventeenth trade book overall) is gifts, newly out from Talonbooks, written circa 2006, working through movements of quick sound, rhythm and collage works, pilfering some of the language of old issues of Writing magazine from the Kootenay School of Writing. I wanted to work pieces that used a different level of language, and pilfered seemingly at random from the level of language in those back issues. a compact of words, out with Salmon Poetry in Ireland, was composed three years before that, and works a long poem/sequence around a break-up, and a poem for my daughter, among other subjects, but influenced structurally by British ex-pat John Thompson’s consideration of the ghazal that he brought into Canadian literature in the 1970s through, most of all, his posthumous Stilt jack (1976).

I’ve a poetry collection out soon with American publisher Moira, kate street, which was focused more on longer, extended lines, and seeing where a series of single threads could go. Another I’ve out this fall or next spring, wild horses, was composed during my nine months in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, to appear with University of Alberta Press. This book is more aware of trying to work out new thoughts on this foreign geography, writing sequences that explored what it meant, this Alberta, this Edmonton, for an eastern Ontario farm kid’s perspective.

5.) Do you have any thoughts on the Canadian-Harper government cutting back on funding to literary and arts magazines in Canada?
I have plenty of thoughts. I think an idea of culture that includes the necessity of its continued funding a particular rate of financial return is obviously a consideration that doesn’t fully comprehend what “culture” actually means. Do we replace the Canadian flag if it doesn’t sell enough patches through dollar stores? This is the same idea being brought to the dismantling of the CBC; culture is essential, and needs to be supported. It needs to make a return, it should make a return, but a lack of return shouldn’t cause that same culture to be dropped.

At the same time, it seems baffling that arts funding generally keeps proving a return, and a higher rate of return than any other funding sent out into the world, but is ignored along those lines, suffering cut after ridiculous cut. Every couple of years, Ottawa tries to cut city funding to arts entirely, and we have to go through the whole process of arguing against it. Again. We already have the worst per-capita arts funding in Canada, for the so-called major cities, and the Canada Council apparently announced a few years ago that they give less ground-level funding to Ottawa artists, so it doesn’t look as bad to the folk out west. I wrote an article on this recently for FUSE magazine, about some of these frustrations. It seems as though Ottawa artists, not just historically but still, are being mandated out of existence.

Did you notice that the federal government has quietly erased the Contemporary Museum of Photography? Every few weeks, it seemed, the federal government was quietly cutting, quietly erasing. Getting rid of programs that actually helped put money back in the public coffers, through some kind of artistic enterprise. If it isn’t about money, what is it about?

5 B.) If the funding cuts go through, do you feel that most literary and arts magazines won't survive and if so, would poetry disappear altogether as well?
No. It will hurt, it will struggle, but it will survive. John Metcalf used to present the argument for years that writers shouldn’t receive government (Canada Council, etc) funding, and those who were really doing it for the right reason would continue, still. It’s a daffy argument; just because we will still be here doing what we do doesn’t mean we should be beaten with sticks along the way. There are plenty of us making small publications, online and print, chapbooks and books without funding and somehow managing to make it through, despite whatever financial hurts we might feel.

5 C.) Any ideas on how we change the current governments perception and importance of funding literary and arts magazines in Canada?
I don’t know. The only thing I can think of is getting more people to tell the government how damaging this ideology is. The elected are there to work for us; if enough of us explain to others and them that these cuts shouldn’t happen, can there be a worthwhile change? I really think the only thing we can do is to educate the public on just how important culture is in Canada, and how much revenue is generated by the arts. Then we wouldn’t get the knee-jerk “handout” misunderstandings which allow so many of these cuts to happen. If we’re giving such a high rate of return, why aren’t we considered “essential service,” alongside public transit, for example?

6.) Tell us about your recent trip out to Western Canada. Is poetry thriving out there?
It was less a trip than re-touching base, there for a conference and to visit my girlfriend, at the end of her own time in Edmonton, before Toronto begins. Poetry is very much thriving out there. Edmonton is home to a number of interesting writers, many of which I tried to focus on as I worked my first series of “12 or 20 questions” on my blog during my tenure there. What I found baffling was how there were plenty of writers, and two trade publishers (University of Alberta Press and NeWest Press), but there was really no small publishing, no journals, and no reading series. The Olive Reading Series is amazing, but can’t cover everything, and Other Voices, a small semi-annual journal, was practically invisible. Edmonton has the trade publishers, but Calgary has all the small activity, including reading series, small journals, chapbook publishers and other wonderful movements, yet doesn’t have trade publishers.

Wouldn’t it make sense for the two cities to get along better? During my time there, I invented a reading series called Factory (West), currently being run as a series of occasionals, taken over by Lainna Lane El Jabi and Trisia Eddy, and Eddy also started a lovely chapbook press, Red Nettle Press, so at least there is some other activity there now. Edmonton has a poet laureate, something that Ottawa was first to have in Canada in 1981 but no longer does, and a thriving literary community, both on and off campus. I think I was even envious of some of what Edmonton has. Can you imagine, a poetry book reviewed by the daily and both weekly papers? We’d never get that in Ottawa, not even one. How else could you not be envious, for a city that includes Christine Stewart, Trisia Eddy, Douglas Barbour, Jenna Butler, Alice Major, Marita Daschel, Heather McLeod, Christine Wiesenthal and kath macLean, as well as a thriving community of so many fiction and non-fiction writers?

7.) Do you think it's important for a poet to go out and read their poetry in front of a live audience? Is that something you like to do on a regular basis?
I’ve always enjoyed participating in readings, whether as audience, organizer/host or reader, and spent a great deal of time touring back and forth across Canada, as well as a couple of other countries. There is something you hear in a reading that doesn’t always show up on the page, and I’ve heard a great number of writers read, often more than once. Hell, I’ve pretty much been to every day of every writers festival here in town, as well as been audience for a great number of events outside of the city. There are a number of ways that writing gets out into the world, and public readings is just one example.

8.) Who are some of the Canadian poets you currently enjoy reading and see big things from in the future?
This answer could go on for pages. I think Rob Budde is coming into his own, I think Barry McKinnon’s next book is going to be awesome, and I recently heard that Robert Kroetsch even has a new poetry collection out in the spring, and Fred Wah as well. I think there are plenty of folk out there that need to be watched, and I keep my eye out for everything they do, including Jon Paul Fiorentino, Sylvia Legris, Phil Hall, Wayde Compton, Gil McElroy, Lainna Lane El Jabi, Christine Stewart, Marcus McCann, Margaret Christakos, Stephen Cain, Andy Weaver, Lise Downe, Rachel Zolf, Christian Bök, Peter Jaeger, Monty Reid, Pearl Pirie, Steve McCaffery, derek beaulieu, Natalie Simpson, Nathanie Stephens, ryan fitzpatrick, Michael Turner, Jeff Derksen, George Bowering, and perhaps dozens of others. How can I narrow such an important list down?

And why does it just have to be Canadians? There are plenty of Americans I read too, and get plenty excited about, including Rachel Loden, Jennifer Moxley, Arielle Greenberg, Rachel Zucker, Cole Swensen, Juliana Spahr, Lisa Jarnot and Joshua Marie Wilkinson, for example.

And why do I have to wait for the future? I see big things from some of these people right now.

9.) Selling books of poetry these days is difficult at best. Do you have any ideas that might make more Canadians aware of poetry and how it might even inspire them in their everyday lives if they would only give it a chance?
Well, its dangerous to start projecting into the world the idea that the world will be vastly improved if more people read our poems; a touch arrogant, I’d say. Certainly, I think more people should be reading books generally, reading work that questions the world, whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction. Great poetry, by its very nature, can’t help but question and rethink the world, so more people should be going through the work of Christian Bök or Margaret Christakos or Stephen Cain or Sarah Manguso, according to what I believe. But what do I know? In the 1980s and before, there was always that element of Canadian literature being pushed because its “good for you.” What an awful way to promote something; why not say what it truly is, great, and worth reading? Some of the best writers that currently exist are Canadian; why can’t we say something like that? And many of them even write poems.

I’ve always been in favour of pushing work to those who might not necessarily be exposed to it otherwise, through individual “poem” handouts I’ve distributed since 1993, perhaps some 20,000 poems in all, with only a percentage of them being my own. If someone says they hate poetry, I’ve noticed, more often than not, they haven’t actually read any, or haven’t read anything since the dead English poets from two hundred years past that they read back in high school; how educated is that? I’d rather someone know what they’re talking about. And more often than not, when exposed to contemporary writing, ordinary people are intrigued. I just wish we had a better promotional system in place. Bad enough our books don’t get reviewed anywhere, promoted or discussed, but now all the newspapers are reducing their weekend books sections, if not dropping entirely. How are we supposed to counter all of that?

Much of what I’ve been doing over the past few years has been exploring more online options, noticing that Canadian writing is years behind other countries in getting the work out; you can print out hundreds of pages of Robert Creeley, for example, but almost nothing of George Bowering or John Newlove. How can we get the word out if we won’t even tell each other? Most Canadian publishing isn’t really big enough to get the books past our own borders (or even distributed properly within our own increasinly regional country), but our bookstore shelves have plenty of Faber & Faber poetry books, Penguin poetry titles, and so much else. I’ve had writers in other countries tell me that all they know of Canadian literature is what I talk about on my blog, which is both terrifying and electrifying; what a responsibility that becomes, don’t you think? Some of my projects over the years have included the Ottawa pdf poetry annual ottawater (, which appears online every January, the poetics journal that Stephen Brockwell and I used to do, the new online poetry and poetics journal seventeen seconds (, a series of poetry chapbooks I produced and then put online from my year in Edmonton (, and a new Edmonton poetry pdf journal, The Garneau Review ( Unlike ottawater, this new publication will have different editors for each issue, so the responsiblity doesn’t fall solely on me, who no longer exists in that space. Already Trisia Eddy and Lainna Lane El Jabi are working on a second issue, and future editors might even include Jenna Butler, Alice Major and Christine Stewart, so hopefully that will stir up things in that quiet prairie town.

10.) Do you think the internet has helped build a stronger community of poets or has it only exposed a lot of poets who lack any real talent?

The same conversations happened during the 1960s during the gestetner revolution, or in the 1970s and 80s when every second person with photocopier access was producing a poetry journal. The only difference seems accessability, which is obviously larger. Between the democratic aspect of the internet, and the usual growing pains of any new form and/or production, there’s going to be a load of crap before you start seeing the good stuff. Australia’s Jacket magazine is essential reading, and has helped me enormously, as has Ron Silliman’s blog. Communities are now no longer limited to geography in the same way that they used to be. I’m part of a community, for example, through the SUNY-Buffalo poetics listserve, and able to access writing, writers and other information from all over the world from people who share simliar interests. To a lesser version, The League of Canadian Poets listserve functions in much the same way. How can this be anything but a good thing?

11.) Is there anything that excites you today in the area of music and poetry as a collaborative force?
Not specifically. But what has excited me has been watching East Coast comedian Ron James, who has a magnificent grasp of language, and perhaps the sharpest sense of craft since George Carlin. Now this is a man who knows how to write.

12.) What's next for rob mclennan?
The second novel, missing persons, is out this fall, and I’m working on a third, as well as re-working a creative non-fiction manuscript on my year in Edmonton; I’ve already started my Toronto equivalent, following my girlfriend to the big smoke so she can do her MA, as well as a scattering of poems that are working their way toward a larger, longer manuscript. What’s next? I know I already have a few long poems sitting in my apartment seeking good homes. I’m thinking I might, once this third novel is further along, try my hand at a screenplay. I think there are some interesting elements to the form that could bring out some new kinds of story, new kinds of writing, compared to what I’ve done before.

13.) Can you tell us about the last three books you have read and how they have inspired you in any way?
Well, the past week or two, I’ve been reading the new poetry collection by Lisa Robertson, rereading Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person by Erin Mouré, and February, the new novel by Lisa Moore, among other titles by Jeramy Dodds, Nathalie Stephens and Arielle Greenberg. I love the way Robertson and Mouré work their lines, working point by point and stretch their considerations apart. I love the nuance, the language and the leaps.

I’ve always admired Moore’s prose, the lyric and human quality of such. She knows how to explore the emotional detail of people, and of relationships in a way I’ve always admired, and she really knows how to write beautifully. Most “mainstream” fiction bores me, a kind of prose that seems barely functional, taking the plot from point A to point B; it makes the book so much more dependent on plot. If the plot bores the reader, and there isn’t anything in the language to keep them reading, why are they reading? I admire fiction writers like Steven Heighton, Lisa Moore, Michael Winter and others that really understand the importance of the line, the importance of the flow of the line. A story isn’t just the story, a story survives, thrives and captivates through the way it is told.

Inspiration can come from all places, all forms. A book that doesn’t appeal might inspire me to put that book down, and do something else, read something else. A television program might inspire me to get a beer from the fridge, or work on the computer an hour or two, until something interesting is on. Inspiration is such an open word. What does it even mean?

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