Saturday, June 21, 2008

12 or 20 questions: rob mclennan answers his own

[photo by Lainna] rob mclennan lives in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, even though he was born there. He is the author of over a dozen trade books, and has published poetry, fiction, interviews and critical reviews in over two hundred publications in fourteen countries and in three languages. His most recent titles include the poetry collection The Ottawa City Project (Chaudiere Books, 2007), the novel white (The Mercury Press, 2007), the travel title Ottawa: The Unknown City (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008), subverting the lyric: essays (ECW Press, 2008) and Alberta dispatch: interviews and writing from Edmonton (above/ground press, 2008). He has two further poetry collections forthcoming, including a compact of words from Ireland’s Salmon Publishing, and gifts from Vancouver’s Talonbooks, and is currently editing collections on and/or by Andrew Suknaski, John Newlove and George Bowering, as well as books on Ottawa, adoption and Glengarry County, Ontario. He is the editor/publisher of above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, (with Stephen Brockwell, and ottawater (, and co-founder (in 1994) and current organizer of the ottawa small press book fair and the small press action network – ottawa (since 1996). He recently 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, a site that turns five years old in June, 2008.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

rm: Honestly, it didn’t. It wasn’t until the following year, 1999, that I really saw how books could alter one’s own life and writing life when I published three poetry collections throughout the year, and spent a couple of months touring around the country to promote them. It was a hard lesson to learn, seeing just how little the whole thing meant, in certain ways, despite all the ways that the books were, at the same time, allowing me an amount of confidence that I hadn’t earlier.

For whatever reason, I had been writing full-time for a number of years before even the first poetry collection came out, so there were ways in which they didn’t change my life at all, those first couple of books. I think what did change was the way people started regarding me, perhaps taking me slightly more seriously as “writer” because I finally had books. It was as though some of them were finally believing what I had been telling them for years.

2 - How long have you lived in Ottawa, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

rm: Geography, certainly. I think geography can’t help but influence, even if just stylistically. If you are writing a particular kind of genre, style, etcetera, it’s difficult to not be influenced by the writing that is happening around you. The kinds of poems that excite me aren’t necessarily the kinds of poems that Arc magazine publish (being the only trade game in town, it’s impossible to not use them as a kind of “local standard”), but there are certainly aspects there and here that wash over me. Being born here but heading east an hour’s drive, I didn’t actually return to the city until I was nineteen, way back in the fall of 1989. But for my Edmonton year, I’ve remained in the city since, and don’t really feel much need to leave (although a few more writer-in-residence gigs would be pretty cool; I’m kind of amazed at what I can finally accomplish with resources…).

Otherwise, I’m a straight white male of (I’m told) privilege. I don’t think anyone really wants to hear my “story,” as such. It makes me work, hopefully, to do something more.

3 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

rm: I think, back in the early to mid 1990s, I was the author of individual poems and individual pieces. Since having a dozen or two poetry chapbooks before my first trade collection was published, I’ve been thinking in larger units for so long, that even my occasional poems turn out into occasional books. What little I’ve tried in the genre of short story/short fiction even manages to want to work itself larger, into the book as the unit of composition.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Completely both, and sometimes at the same time. I never read anything out loud until I’m on stage, since I hear so much of it in my head as I’m working. I really like doing readings and going to readings, but I’m not always in the mood, even if I’m supposed to be doing a reading myself. I think I’ve done so many over the years, that I think I can still manage to read quite well even if I think I’ve managed to butcher everything I have in front of me. I’ve done hundreds of readings over the past near-20 years, but still manage to get completely messed up about them. I have no idea why. They still manage to both build and completely destroy my confidence.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

rm: I’ve been floating around that question for years. I think a poem is what is left after decades and even centuries of stripping away. When the poets were second only to the Scottish Chiefs, they were the historians and storytellers. With the advent of novels, daily newspapers, CNN, creative non-fiction, film, what is the “poem” left with? Language itself.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

rm: Not at all difficult, but not necessarily easy. A good editor is very hard to find, and even harder to become. Over the years, I’ve worked closely with Judith Fitzgerald, Michael Holmes, Bev Daurio and Karl Siegler, who is perhaps one of, if not the, best poetry editors in the country. He knows what I’m working toward and with, and knows how to make me better. Still, I don’t send out anything book-length until I’ve had at least another set of eyes go through it for me, and over the past few months and even years, friends like Amanda Earl [see her 12 or 20 questions here], Sandra Ridley, Stephen Brockwell [see his 12 or 20 questions here], derek beaulieu [see his 12 or 20 questions here], Monty Reid, Catherine Owen [see her 12 or 20 questions here], Lainna El Jabi and Trisia Eddy and others have been essential in helping make what I do just that much better. It was why we originally started The Peter F. Yacht Club (before it was a publication), as an informal writers group. More recently, last spring I think it was, a group of us in Ottawa even started a monthly group to go through short fiction, including Spencer Gordon, Tina Trineer, Amanda Earl, Emily Falvey, Steve Zytveld and Kate Heartfield, which has been pretty entertaining (although I’ve been missing it since August).

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

rm: I would have to say both. I have certainly more confidence in trying something that I know might not work unless I really push it, but I’m far harder on myself than I was even five years ago. I have far more work now that never makes it past the notebook, past the first printed draft, past the stack of manuscript pages. If it can’t be better or more than the previous work, why bother?

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

rm: I can’t even remember that far back.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

rm: Around 1993 or so, Ottawa poet Michael Dennis [see his 12 or 20 questions here] told me that a good reader sells more books than a bad reader, remembering back to those 1980s Peterborough, Ontario days with Maggie Helwig and others. I spent most of the decade working against my own character (just as Mike Myers once said of himself, I now consider myself a “site-specific extrovert”) and read in as many open sets as possible, to improve my reading skill and general comfort levels.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical/creative non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

rm: When I was a kid, I never really saw much of a division between any of it, whether writing poetry and short stories, playing music or drawing and taking photographs, all of which floated around my high school years. For whatever reason, once Kate was born, I decided to focus on one thing, poetry, and get a handle on that before I tried to move out into anything else. In hindsight, I think anyone else might have tried for the “big novel,” but apparently I’m not like everyone else. I’ve never wanted to simply do one thing, so why not? I think the appeal is that each genre brings its own set of concerns, its own set of problems and its own set of openings, all of which can be twisted around if you work in more than one concern. My poetry, for example, has become less “storytelling” since I’ve been working on fiction, and my reviews have turned into longer and longer essays. Now I’m delving more into memoir/creative non-fiction so I can see where that might take me.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

rm: A typical day begins with waking up.

I’m a big fan of routine, so anyone who knows me can usually find me pretty easily, despite my deliberate lack of cellphone or office or anything like that. I wake up, and go straight to writing desk. In Ottawa, that’s around 10:30am. In Alberta, with the 35-minute walk, it was more of a 10am when I got to my office (roughly), where I checked email, got the day started, and a couple of hours of desk before breakfast/lunch, and wrote longhand in public spaces such as the grad bar, RATT, and/or in the HUB Mall, before a few more hours of office on computer, entering new versions and printing them up, and then at the Garneau Pub on 109th Street by 7pm to scribble all over typed versions, do more longhand, and get random reading done. Now that I’m back in Ottawa, it’s back to writing at home for a few hours with coffee, email on Bank Street around 3pm, and then the Second Cup at Bank and Somerset for a couple of hours before either home to the computer, or to Pubwell’s (or even in the big food court at the Rideau Centre) for a bit more writing time. Although usually in the summer it gets too damn hot in my apartment to get anything done there during the day, so I’m pretty much at that Second Cup within twenty minutes of waking up. My ex-wife has said for years that you can set a watch to my schedule.

And on Saturdays, I hang out with my lovely daughter, with lunch, a movie and then playing cards or wandering around for a while, talking about all the important nothings.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

rm: I usually read, or go through what I’d done before, to get myself started. When I’m working to re-enter writing fiction, it usually takes a couple of days of just reading what I already have before anything new comes out of it, and then I have to keep working on it every day to keep up the momentum. These days I’m reading lots of poetry by Sarah Manguso, Juliana Spahr [see her 12 or 20 questions here], Kate Hall and Lisa Jarnot [see her 12 or 20 questions here].

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

rm: My last few books haven’t been poetry, but fiction, literary essays and a tourist book, so that’s about as different as you can (potentially) think from poetry. I am hoping that all of this movement across various (arbitrary) lines is opening up and expanding my repertoire.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

rm: Whenever I watch a really well-written movie or television series, it makes me want to re-enter fiction. Usually something like MI-5 (known in England as “Spooks”) or Six Feet Under. Even the movies Smoke or Lulu on the Bridge were pretty interesting triggers.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

rm: My god, there are so many of them these days, I don’t think I’d be able to list them all. I get pretty excited when there are new books by fiction writers like Paul Auster, Milan Kundera, Jeanette Winterson, Lisa Moore and Michael Winter. Lately I was really getting excited about a little poem by Stephanie Bolster in the Montreal issue of The New Quarterly. There were some magnificent lines that I think really transcend what she’s accomplished previously. I could mention poets like Gil McElroy [see his 12 or 20 questions here], Cole Swensen [see her 12 or 20 questions here], Jon Paul Fiorentino [see his 12 or 20 questions here], John Newlove, Fanny Howe, Robert Creeley, Robert Kroetsch, Fred Wah, jwcurry, Margaret Christakos [see her 12 or 20 questions here], Christine Stewart [see her 12 or 20 questions here], Lisa Robertson and Monty Reid [see his 12 or 20 questions here], among so many others.

I could even mention a whole slew of comic book writers such as Joss Whedon (not only is his Buffy: Season 8 pretty exciting, his current run on X-Men is mind-blowing), Neil Gaiman (easily the best storyteller I’ve ever read, if The Sandman is any indication; his 1602 was also pretty damn impressive), Mike Carey (check out his Lucifer series, taking a character out of Gaiman’s The Sandman), and Brian Michael Bendis, who has managed to (in my opinion) single-handedly save Marvel Comics from itself. I used to be a big fan of British-born and Calgary-raised writer and artist John Byrne, especially for his run on Uncanny X-Men, Alpha Flight and The Fantastic Four as well as Next Men, but he’s pretty much been a shadow of his former self over the past decade or so, simply repeating past glories.

I also spend a lot of time reading non-fiction, predominantly Canadian history.

Music is also essential. If there isn't a song playing around me, I manage to keep one in my head.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

rm: Pay rent on time. Live in a space where I can see all my books and even swing my arms without knocking something over. Have less guilt. Swimming pools and a house on the moon.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

rm: I’m not sure. When I was ten, I wanted to open a restaurant. I even had the location picked out.

I know my father wanted me to be a farmer. That didn’t quite work out either.

I’ve always wanted to write songs, but haven’t managed yet to figure it out.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

rm: I’ve always made things, even when I was very small. When I was nineteen, I couldn’t afford art supplies, but I could always get my hands on pen and paper. I’ve never really been good at too much of anything else.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

rm: When I was in my early 20s, Milan Kundera’s Immortality changed my life. It was a book that had far greater affect upon me (and I think a far stronger work) than his more famously-known The Unbearable Lightness of Being. More recently, Vancouver writer David Chariandy’s first novel, Soucouyant, was absolutely magnificent. I’m currently reading Sarah Manguso’s small book of fictions, Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, and thinking much of the same, but for different reasons.

As far as films, sure, I loved Iron Man and Spider-Man 3 and X-Men 3 (despite problems I had with all of them), but the films that stick with me are the ones that also tear all of my insides out, like Lulu on the Bridge (written by Paul Auster, a film that apparently no one else liked), which premiered in Canada at the ottawa international writers festival a few years ago, and Romeo is Bleeding. Utterly heartbreaking. Both films I had to get out of my system by walking around the city a couple of hours. I couldn’t interact with anyone afterwards. I could really mention anything that Wes Anderson has done, including The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. What about Broken Flowers, or even Million Dollar Hotel. Still, my favourite film has to be Wim Wenders’ Until The End of the World. I could watch and re-watch that film forever. A kick-ass soundtrack doesn’t hurt.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Re-entry, I suppose, now that I’m back in Ottawa after my nine Edmonton months. I’m working on a series of ‘unrepentant love poems,’ working to get this ‘big novel’ of mine finished, a memoir of little prose sections called “house: a (tiny) memoir,” as well as my Edmonton creative non-fiction project. I won’t mention all the editorial projects I’m supposed to be working on as well, including a few Andrew Suknaski projects. I’m behind on just about everything these days.

I am currently working on preparing myself for what might happen next.

12 or 20 questions archive

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