Friday, October 31, 2003

“yes, i HAVE published a lot of stuff: a dozen reasons why i will not apologize” — a schizophrenic text for a talk i will probably not follow

The first thing to say, is that I didn’t come up with the title, but don’t mind using it as a loose guide. When Jay MillAr first approached me to do this talk, with the suggested title, I realized that merely by him asking, I had already won my argument. Not that there was really an argument to be made, this is simply how I work, & will continue to work. I feel no pressure to change speed, really, & for the most part, let the work itself govern where it will go next. I refuse to apologize for any of it, but don’t mind speaking as apologist, in the classical sense. (An idea I have always liked. In titling his selected poems, Apology for Absence, John Newlove wasn’t telling you he was sorry for being gone, he was telling you were he was.)

Having said that, I have published a lot over the past few years, with eight trade collections of poetry since 1998 (& another forthcoming), & over fifty poetry chapbooks since 1992, with various book-length poetry manuscripts finished, another half dozen in various parts of beginning & completion, & a multitude of other projects. I’ve edited six anthologies of writing since Written in the Skin appeared with Insomniac Press in 1998, & written hundreds of book reviews for various weeklies, dailies, journals, etcetera, since 1993. After seven years of work, I finished a novel two years ago, & have since started three others. The first has been returned by publishers so many times, that I don’t even bother with it anymore. (They say you’re supposed to abandon your first novel anyway, so it feels less awful, knowing I’m simply following a long & established tradition.) I’ve started various collaborations with photographers, visual artists & other writers, am working on two separate collections of essays, & a collection of interviews with Canadian poets. After years of chapbooks, & subsequent books, I can only think in the format of the whole book as a unit of composition. There haven’t been occasional poems for years & years & years. Occasional poems become occasional manuscripts. & lately, I’ve begun two different works that might be up to four full books each. The further I work, the more complex my constructions become. The multiple book as unit of composition.

Since 1991, I’ve forced myself to write almost every day, finding a schedule by 1993 or so that had me writing six days a week, at least five hours a day. For a few years, I would write my poetry & reviews during the day, & then retire to the pub in the evenings, where I would work on my fiction. Ottawa poet Stephen Brockwell once suggested that simply due to the time we individually allow ourselves to write, he & I are forced to be different writers. For him, with a poem every few weeks if he’s lucky, the individual poem becomes the thing, the important unit, with the book as a whole becoming mine. Even poet George Murray, who has given me grief over the years for what he thinks is my publishing “too much,” presuming I put to print everything I write, says in the long run, I’ll be known more for books than for individual pieces.

Not just working in the literary, over the past eight years I’ve been working on a genealogical project; in 1995, starting to update a long-ignored family history my late great aunt Belle had done on the McLennans in the late 1960s & early 70s. Going through what she had, & doing my own research, I found a third of her information wrong, & a generation she didn’t know about. After a few years working on the project, still stuck on the book as the unit, I decided to expand my research to include every single McLennan & MacLennan throughout Glengarry & Stormont Counties, going back to 1770. With the history of my area producing numerous books of the same — McLeod, Campbell, McDonald, McRae — it only made sense to me. & I like having a non-literary project I can completely obsess upon, for a few weeks at a time, a couple of times a year. With my travel for reading tours, I’ve been able to do research in Toronto & Regina, finding out more & more detail of what had come before me. Currently I’m reading up on early Ontario history, of the “indian wars” that preceded the Scottish immigration to Glengarry County that happened from 1770 to 1820. Someday my research might even produce a book of non-fiction on Glengarry County, once the genealogy is complete. I don’t imagine it being anywhere close to complete for another ten or fifteen years, at least. Still in the mid-1800s, I’ve found at least 45 unrelated McLennan families (apart from eventual intermarriages). Luckily, I’m in no real hurry (although sometimes I am).

I multi-task rather well, depending on what kind of week I’m having. Every so often, I do have to pull back from a multitude of projects when they start to overwhelm, to focus back upon only a couple. Two weeks doing nothing else (writing-wise) but work on my piece on jwcurry for Open Letter, for example. The sort of thing I really needed to wrap my whole head around. Or, whenever I’m working on fiction, able to do almost nothing else. I usually get a few weeks of that before something else happens, whether a weekend jaunt to Toronto or Montreal for a reading or book fair, & I’m back into poems again, my million billion manuscripts.

Part of my considerations over the past few years, to effectively “slow down” the appearance of my speed, has been to focus on various prose projects (which, through learning new forms, automatically takes more time), as well as to send the bulk of my poetry submissions to non-Canadian publications, so I don’t “use up” Canadian journals. (Hell, I’ve been in most everything I want to in Canada, already.) Every six months for the last three years, I’ve sent about forty or fifty submissions to American journals, with varying successes. My submissions to Canadian journals are much rarer these days. Canadian readers who pay attention to such things already know who I am. There are other things I could be doing. I don’t need to be in everything anymore, at least not up here.

My first writing models were west coast, from the 1960's & the early 70's, & their slow movement into the book length work. Everything I do stems from that. Ken Norris has been saying for years that he’s 2nd generation Tish, & I’m 3rd, but I don’t agree. I was influenced first by the writing of George Bowering, Fred Wah, Daphne Marlatt & John Newlove, well before I was ever influenced by Artie Gold, or Sharon Thesen. (Most of my earlier structures can be traced back to George Bowering’s work. A good game for that party going nowhere.) I feel almost a late bloomer 2nd generation Canadian postmodernist, whatever the hell that means. Maybe on this I should just shut up.

(I’ve always felt somewhat out of synch. At my mother’s side in the 1970s, for example, growing up, effectively, on 1940s black-&-white films...) I’m a big fan of the extended poem, the serial poem, the book length. It goes without saying, no matter how many times I’ve said it before.

1. How can you be the best there is at what you do, unless you focus on it? It’s something I learned years ago from Judith Fitzgerald — aim to be the best & accept nothing less. She was one of my earliest supporters, telling me that, yes, what I did was important, did matter, & that she understood what was going on. I don’t have a job, didn’t go for a university degree, & I’m not terribly interested in doing either, at any point. Eighty percent of my time goes into the work. Why should I spend the bulk of my energy on employment that, in the long run, doesn’t matter? I’d rather be writing.

History doesn’t care if I have money in my pocket, but it might care about the writing I could be doing instead.

As well, with the amount of work I’ve done in a relatively short time, I’d rather get the bad work out of my system earlier, as opposed to later. I work hard to vary my reading, in literary & non-literary, printing off thousands of sheets of paper from the internet, ordering books, & scouring used bookstores as I travel, mailing home far more books & magazines than I started with. The nature of working so much, & so quickly, is also having to take in a lot of information in a relatively short amount of time. I take in lots of reading, & am constantly distracted by other books I’ve gone through over & over. I am always running out of things to read. Books piled over my floor I still haven’t got to.


Fragments of a self-interview:

rob mclennan: Through my last few projects, I’ve felt my formal considerations shifting. Over the past two years, I’ve tried my hand at the ghazal (after John Thompson), the collaborative renga (with Stephen Brockwell, Dean Irvine & Shane Rhodes), various other individual collaboarations (with b stephen harding & Matthew Holmes), and am working the utiniki (after Fred Wah & bpNichol), a travel journal written as a mixture of prose and poetry. Five years ago, I was content to work on more all-encompassing projects that still happened two, three at a time, composing concurrently. For example, paper hotel (Broken Jaw Press, 2001) and what’s left (Talonbooks, 2004) were written with an almost complete overlap over a two year period. (A third in the “trilogy” is still unpublished, the collection ruins, a book of absences.) Now, my projects might take longer, but I’m currently working on over a dozen prose and poetry projects, each one working another strain of formal consideration, and breaking down still.

rob mclennan: Do you worry about confusing or alienating your reader through, not just the variety of production, but sheer volume?

rob mclennan: I do and I don’t. As far as magazine publication goes, I’ve been sending far more work over the past three years outside of Canada for consideration, and most of that to the United States. It’s a whole other range of options to open up into. Really, I can’t imagine everyone picking up everything I publish, although there are a few that try. I thought the response to my three poetry collections in 1999 were very telling. Kevin Connolly (an ECW Press author) preferred my ECW book, derek beaulieu at filling station preferred the fragmented style of Manitoba highway map, and Mark Cochrane (a Talon author) preferred what was happening in my Talonbook. People go to different books for different reasons, and my reading is all over the place, so why shouldn’t, then, my books?

rob mclennan: Why do you have to be such a jerk?


Over the past few years as well, my reading has moved far more into international poetry than only Canadian. I decided early on to focus on Canadian writing, so I could get a sense of it before I went anywhere else, & I think I have that now. With recent explorations into the work of CD Wright, Lisa Samuels, JL Jacobs, Cole Swensen, Robert Creeley, Fanny Howe, Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan & Anselm Hollo, among others, my work is then forced to move in another direction still. The most interesting part of any writing, really, is not knowing where it will end up. Its the exploration that makes the whole process interesting, to me, anyway.

2. I write at my own speed. Despite what folk might think, I have spent up to seven years on my first novel (since shoved in a drawer), & six years on my second poetry collection. Books aren’t written over the course of a weekend, although there are always exceptions. I work at the speed at which I work, & pieces can go through as many as thirty or forty edits before being sent out. Some pieces don’t get seen at all. Despite what some think, I don’t publish everything I write. There are manuscripts that have been seriously reworked before going to press, & whole manuscripts that have been abandoned, including a sequel to bury me deep in the green wood that fits between bagne, or Criteria for Heaven & harvest: a book of signifiers. I doubt anyone will see that collection as a whole, although there are parts of it I wouldn’t mind seeing in a selected at some point, with selections over the years variously published in magazines & anthologies.

3. I make as many slots as I take. Despite what some have claimed, I don’t think that my activity as a writer is obscuring the work of other writers. If you don’t like what I do, don’t read it. It gets pretty simple. With the editing work that I do, as both publisher and non-publisher, I’m getting numerous works out by lots of other writers that deserve as much or more attention than I do.

4. What the hell is too much? The Canadian standard for poetry collections seems to be every five years, with the occasional writer publishing a book every two years or so. Still, there’s a context — bpNichol, George Bowering & Daphne Marlatt were all publishing “too much” for a number of years (although I do understand that the 1960s & 1970s were different times in Canadian publishing. I think that’s when folk used to buy books, right?) I’m certainly not the first one to try it, although a few who’ve decided to take me to task seem to act like it. George Bowering published three books of poetry in 1969, the year he won the GG, & Daphne Marlatt the same, in 1980. Stan Rogal does the same thing now, between poetry & fiction, although I don’t know if he gets the same complaints thrown at him. I’ve always thought, if the books individually sell well enough to make the publishers happy, it really shouldn’t matter. If the work is interesting, & different enough that it simply isn’t a repeat, then it really shouldn’t matter. Again, I’m of the Bowering school, where every project is different, & has its own individual concerns, with poems that can’t necessarily be included in any others.

Of the three books of poetry I had in 1999, by the end of the year, a thousand of them had sold. That’s not too damn bad, I don’t think. That includes five hundred of my first Talon book, gone within the two months between appearing in October & January 1st.

5. I enjoy making books, & what’s wrong with that? As both publisher & writer, I learned long ago that I’m apparently not in it for money, fame or women, so self-amusement is all I have left. Once it stops being fun, I’ll stop doing it. George Bowering said very early on, that he would only publish his long poem magazine Imago for ten years & twenty issues. I’ve made no such claim. I’ll keep publishing as I see fit, until it’s no longer fun. From here, I can’t even imagine that happening.

When I was still a teenager, my interests were all over — writing, music, visual arts. Thirteen years of piano lessons, musings on guitar, drawing classes, short fiction. It was only in my early 20s that I decided to focus on something, & do it well, before moving on into other areas. But for gods sake, why did I pick poetry? I have no idea. I should have started with fiction. At least I would have made some money by now.

It seemed a good idea at the time.

Written & published for the third in Jay MillAr’s Speakeasy series:
(second series, number two)

series of informal talks

rob mclennan: “yes, i HAVE published a lot of stuff:
a dozen reasons why i will not apologize” & Angela Rawlings:
“My Centre for Sleep and Dream Studies: A Linguistic Guide”

Sunday, November 2, 2003 at 2:30pm
Lynn Donaghue’s studio, 2154 Dundas Street West, Toronto
[just East of Roncesvalles]