Monday, October 31, 2016

my Patreon patron-only blog : Alberta, and The Litter I See Project

Since building myself a Patreon author page, I've also been posting to a password-protected patron-only blog. I thought it might be worth reprinting the occasional post here, for the sake of general interest. Perhaps it might be worth tossing a ducat or two towards?

Here's a post from May 25, 2016, on the composition of a short story since posted here:

I recently composed a short story for the sake of a website I recently discovered, The Litter I See Project. I was curious at the idea of a project that invited short prose (or poetry, I have discovered) responding to a photograph of litter; it reminded me of an anthology I picked up a couple of moths ago, Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things (Fantagraphic Books, 2012). Instead of writing from litter, the anthology composed pieces from found and/or thrift store items.

I spent the entirety of my writing day this past Monday carving and crafting a very short story that accidentally sets in the space somewhere between my novel missing persons (The Mercury Press, 2009) and the short story, “Interruptions,” from my current manuscript-in-progress, “On Beauty.” I’d originally composed “Interruptions” at the prompting of Amanda Earl, who had wondered what might have become of the main character of my novel, so I wrote the teenaged “Alberta” some fifteen (or more) years later in short fiction. Now the manuscript has three stories that include and surround her (and another, in-progress, that attempts to further the story of her mother) at different points in her life, years beyond the events of my second novella.

I’m very pleased with this piece; it feels, in a certain way, like a “pivot point” for Alberta. Where the things that exist before this brief scene are not the things that exist beyond it. Sometimes the most significant changes are incremental, mundane and incredibly small.

I wasn’t, also, planning on making Alberta a smoker at any point, but that’s where the photograph took me. The only way it made sense.

Cut to her Saturday afternoon sequence of duMaurier extra lights amid the half-capacity shopping mall parking lot. As usual, Alberta arrives half an hour early, aware that her pre-teen will be fifteen minutes tardy, reveling in her new wealth of shopping detritus and gossip. Until her daughter appears, this is the single stretch of time that Alberta allows herself to breathe; the only moment she isn’t mid-task, or rushing between points or appointments. The only time, too, she allows herself to stoop to such youthful folly: a pack of cigarettes secreted beneath the driver’s seat, set alongside an increasing guilt. Weekly, for nearly an hour, she sits silent on the hood of their Ford Taurus and waits. She inhales. She follows the lacunae of parking lot seagulls, each one paintbrush smooth, floating across blue summer backdrop. On this particular afternoon she ponders rock climbing, hospital waiting rooms and swimming pools. She ponders her lost prairie, and the anonymity of suburban parking lots. She thinks back to the summer she watched a neighbour succumb to throat cancer, and now, as her husband emerges from chemotherapy, stoic and withered and weather-worn. She exhales, attempting to expel all of her fears and concerns along with the four thousand chemicals that make up cigarette smoke: nicotine, tar and carbon monoxide. In the soft August heat, Alberta treats asphalt as midden, newly littered with spent filters. Material remains. If everything were to end now, she wonders, if she were to disappear, might they ever find me. The small assemblage of abandoned butts the only evidence she’d been there at all.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Joel W. Vaughan reviews my Four Stories (Apostrophe Press, 2016) in Broken Pencil

Joel W. Vaughan was good enough to review my Four Stories (Apostrophe Press, 2016) in Broken Pencil. You can see the review here. I have only a couple copies left, so if anyone is interested, shoot me an email at rob_mclennan (at) (although I've been thinking about reprinting/reissuing it). As he writes:
Printed specifically for the University of Alberta’s Writer-in- Residence 40th Anniversary celebration, mclennan’s humble chapbook is as characteristically poignant as it is short-lived. This is no disparagement: right down to its bright yellow fly-leaves and lone, centered saddle- stitch staple, Four Stories is nifty—well worth its asking price.

Mclennan here, presents four previously published pieces, each four to five pages in length. His narrative voice rings familiar through all four, whether told autobiographically or in the third person, allowing his punchy visualizations to take the forefront both in personal observation (viz. “Reading my late afternoon newspapers at the pub, I see the sweetest looking young woman in a floral print dress stroll past bay window. She is summertime, blissful. In her left hand, fresh broccoli.” or an omniscient digression (viz. “She has been wanting to replenish their supply of preserves. Applied correctly, wax seals freshness in. / Cellar shelves by the cistern. Fresh cobwebs and field mice.” Mclennan’s loose piling of prose into stanzas suspends expectations, here, and makes a contemporary narrator feel natural throughout the timeless setting he sets out to build, word by word.

None of these four stories can be connected by time-line or geography, though thematically they express a preoccupation with Time, Absence, and Change: grand notions for the likes of a 19- page chapbook, but Mclennan does not disappoint. “Four Stories” is understated in its construction, and demands multiple read-throughs.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Elisa Gabbert, L’Heure Bleue or The Judy Poems

When we argue about war,

I say I’m a pacifist
and he looks for a loophole.

He brings up Hitler, genocide—
these noble causes.

The problem I have
is distinguishing between atrocities:
the genocide on one hand

and on the other
atomic bombs (their eyeballs melted),
torture, women and children

raped and murdered
for the greater good.
It’s like the difference between

a billion and a trillion—
I believe they are different
but can’t conceive of it.

The moral imperative
justifies the amoral,
the technically lesser atrocity.

I think citizens don’t have to think
like countries.

Denver, Colorado poet Elisa Gabbert’s third poetry collection, after The French Exit (Birds, LLC, 2010) and The Soft Unstable (Black Ocean, 2013), is L’Heure Bleue or The Judy Poems (Black Ocean, 2016), a collection, as the back cover informs, that “goes inside the mind of Judy, one of three characters in Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner, a play about the dissolution of a marriage in the midst of political revolution.” In the introduction to the collection, poet, musician and multimedia artist Aaron Angello explains the process of how a conversation he had with Gabbert and her partner, the novelist John Cotter, turned into the a series of informal performances, and therefore, an ongoing study, of Shawn’s play, which then prompted Gabbert to explore the play further through poetry:

Throughout our rehearsal process, Elisa (who played her part brilliantly, in spite of the fact that she constantly reminded us she was “not an actor”) often voiced a frustration with the way her character, Judy, was written. The character, she felt, lacked a depth that the male characters had. Within the text of the play, Judy seemed relatively underdeveloped, shallow. I think, like any good actor, Elisa began exploring the mind and history of the character in a much more nuanced way. She had been living with Judy for a year and had been imagining her unwritten life; she had been imagining Judy’s feelings toward her father and toward her husband with a level of complexity that the play does not. It made her performance as sophisticated as any I’ve seen by a “professional” actor.

However, Elisa is a poet. It stands to reason, then, that she would begin thinking through Judy in the form of poetry. A short time after we stopped performing The Designated Mourner, Elisa started to write what would become L’Heure Bleue, or The Judy Poems. This is how it happened, in her words:

All I know is that once I was sitting in the audience at a poetry reading, which is one of the places that I often get ideas for poems… and I suddenly had the first couple of lines from the book come to me. They’re still the first lines of the book. And I wrote them down, and I was like, Oh—I should write in Judy’s voice.

Composed with an opening poem, “I’m not in love with Jack.,” before shifting into two numbered sections of short lyrics, the poems of Gabbert’s L’Heure Bleue or The Judy Poems explore the details of “Judy’s” character, backstory and situation, from pieces such as “Some days I can’t escape the feeling,” “When we argue about war,” “Nostalgia is the only cure” and “I’m happiest when I live simply,.” The most striking of these poems explore the moments between the moments, revealing much while saying little, such as the poem “At the poetry reading.,” as “Judy” catches a stranger’s eye, writing: “There are times when desire seems / to transfer. He communicates desire; / I am infected by desire. /// It’s the worst kind of desire— / too thin a film / between desire and reality.”

The idea of composing a collection of poems around a fictional character, with the purpose of expanding upon that character, is an intriguing one, reminiscent of Canadian poets Dennis Cooley and Lorna Crozier who both, separately, worked to flesh out the story of Sinclair Ross’ “Mrs. Bentley” (she was never given a first name) from his classic novel As For Me and My House (1941); Cooley, through his poetry collection the bentleys (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2006), and Crozier, through A Saving Grace: The Collected Poems of Mrs. Bentley (Toronto ON: McClelland and Stewart, 1996). So often, it seems, these reclamation projects emerge from classic texts that underwrite female characters, and have the potential to reveal intriguing elements of their source materials in new ways, that straight literary criticism couldn’t do nearly as well. Without knowing the source text that Gabbert works from, the full effect of what she adds and reveals might not be known, but not necessarily essential; enough to know that she was composed in two dimensions, and Gabbert has allowed her, finally, character, heart and flesh.

Jack is jealous

Of our scientist friend.
He comes over for dinner

And eats a bowl of cereal.
Cereal is a local maximum,
He says, trying to impress me.

Jack can see it’s working.
He says the scientist is my type:
Tall and an asshole.

He’s right, I say, You’re right,
But the scientist is sweet
Beneath his ego.

He doesn’t care about looks
So I can be alluring
Without embarrassment.

The scientist: There are now more deaths
From suicide than car accidents.
You can’t harvest those bodies for organs.

Jack says, Ah! Progress!,
lights a cigarette.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Ploughshares : an interview with Stuart Ross

I'm a monthly blogger over at the Ploughshares blog! And my fourth post is now up: an interview with Cobourg, Ontario poet, editor, fiction writer and small press publisher Stuart Ross, author of the new poetry collection A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent (Hamilton ON: Wolsak and Wynn, 2016). You can read my interview with Stuart Ross here. My interview with Toronto novelist Ken Sparling, author of the new novel This poem is a house (Coach House Books, 2016), is still online here. My second post, an interview with award-winning Kingston writer Diane Schoemperlen, author of the new memoir This Is Not My Life: A Memoir of Love, Prison, and Other Complications (HarperCollins, 2016), is still online here; and my first post, an interview with award-winning Toronto poet Soraya Peerbaye, author of Tell: poems for a girlhood (Pedlar Press, 2015), is still online here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert [photo credit: Adalena Kavanagh] is the author of L'Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems, The Self Unstable and The French Exit. Her poems and essays have appeared recently in Catapult, Diagram, Guernica, Harvard Review, JubilatReal Life, Threepenny Review, and The Smart Set. Her advice column for writers, “The Blunt Instrument,” appears on Electric Literature. Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert

6 - 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?
I like poetry that feels close to philosophy, in that it uses language primarily to construct and engage with ideas and the act of thinking as opposed to, say, images or narrative. But I don’t think I’m trying to answer questions. The thinking is an end in itself.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
It depends on what kind of writer you are. The role of the critic is to demonstrate good thinking. But the poet? I don’t know that the poet has any particular role in culture. I think art exists to create meaning, but it could be any kind of meaning. It doesn’t have to be “relevant,” or even lasting.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I find prose much easier to write than poetry. It feels almost self-generating. It’s expansive, digressive, whereas poetry requires distillation. I can only write poetry in a certain mood, a certain mindset. Sometimes I go years without writing it.

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?
I have no real writing routine. I write when I can and when I want to, which is not every day. Usually late afternoon, when I’m done with my day job, or on weekends.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I don’t have a problem with gaps in my writing. Not writing is part of writing. If you’re writing all the time, how do you have anything to write about? In fact, knowing that I’m eventually going to write about something, thinking about it and taking notes, but delaying the actual writing, is a great pleasure for me and seems to make the writing better.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of rain in the desert. I grew up in El Paso and was so sad when I found that rain doesn’t smell that good anywhere else. It’s not just basic petrichor – I think it comes from the creosote.

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?
Definitely science, because it’s so idea-dense. Going to museums, too, but it’s almost more the act of museuming than the art per se. Also parks, concerts, bars, trains … anywhere you see lots of strangers. And I like specialized vocabulary, any subculture that has its own lexicon. Chess terms, sailing terms. I like to write down names of paintings.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Rather than name specific writers I’ll just say novels. I don’t write fiction but novels are my favorite thing to read. I’ve read hundreds of times more novels than books of poetry. I wrote a little about why I love them so much here.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Go to Greece. And Egypt. Also, space! I would love to go to space. I can do without skydiving though.

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?
I already do have another occupation, but if I wasn’t doing that either, I’d like to be a casting director.

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

20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m writing lots of essays and trying to figure out how to make them into a book.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Stacy Szymaszek, Journal of Ugly Sites & Other Journals

you ate
all the


Rachel’s cat
licks my

never a parody
of care i.e.

when there
is ground

sleeps in
own beds (“austerity measures”)

New York poet Stacy Szymaszek’s fourth full-length poetry title is Journal of Ugly Sites & Other Journals (Albany NY: Fence Books, 2016), a collection built from five extended poem sequences of short lyrics composed as sketched out notes and fragments: “austerity measures,” “late spring journal [2012],” “summer journal [2012],” “5 days 4 nights” and “journal of ugly sites.” Her journal/ notebook poems favour quick thoughts, overheard conversation, observations, description and complaints, and the occasional list, all set up as an accumulation of collage-pieces reminiscent of the work of the late Vancouver poet Gerry Gilbert, as well as various “day book” works produced by Robert Creeley, Gil McElroy and others. There is such an incredible immediacy to the quick notes in this collection, one that manages an intimacy while, as she says in her 2013 “12 or 20 questions” interview, dispenses with persona:

My recent work has dispensed with persona. The longer I live in NYC, the more autobiographical it gets. One idea I have about this is that I had always wanted to live here but I was convinced that I didn’t have what it took, so in my mind this was a city of especially savvy people, a city of heroes—so being here I’ve become heroic, or the persona is now the hero named Stacy. The book I just completed is called Journal of Ugly Sites & Other Journals and takes up the idea of poetic journalism in different forms. The centerpiece is “Journal of Ugly Sites” which is a year-long journal I kept which documents, among other things, the life, illness and death of a Beagle that my partner and I rescued.

One could say that Szymaszek’s Journal of Ugly Sites & Other Journals exists as an exploration of the private and the public selves, writing on and around daily elements of internal and external being, from the meditative and the sublime to stretches of grieving and frustration to the mundane, routine and even magical, as she writes as part of “austerity measures”: “cut self / slack day // org. better / be sea- / worthy // five years / before / the mast [.]” Through such quick notes seemingly, and deceptively, jotted down into these accumulated narratives, they begin to provide intriguing portraits of this semi-fictional “Stacy,” in these, as she calls them, forms of “poetic journalism.” How different is this, one might wonder, to the “I did this, I did that” poetry of New York School poet Frank O’Hara? Both poets moving their art through their days in similar ways (his first drafts were also written relatively quickly during lunch breaks), although Szymaszek’s poems read more natural, somehow, which could easily be as simple as the difference between her journal-poems and his poems composed more traditionally as “poems.”

What is interesting, also, is in how Szymaszek shifts the format slightly between each section, as the first section is dateless, but with the note that it was composed “during the months that followed the death of my dog Isabel on July 8, 2011,” the second and third sections include a scattering of dates within, and the final section is composed more as a straightforward (in comparison) poetic journal, with dates opening each section. As the “3.30.13 – 4.19.13” section of “journal of ugly sites” ends:

East Village: breathing into a paper bag before checking email any phone ringing increasing heart rate // photograph revealing how tired I am appearing on all the hot poetry sites with Warhol’s “Gold Marilyn Monroe” sure rub my ugliness in my face // publishing my shit list as a list poem? “Better to keep two chronicles?” (Harry Mathews) // when the poet said thank you for inviting me most people knew he hadn’t been invited so much as he wore me down // “do you make a livable wage? // Arlo as bearer of bad news today announcing “a bomb just went off”

            if burnout is disavowed grief will I come back to life if I publicly admit how bereft I am?

An extension of this project (and its structures) has already been seen in her short chapbook JOURNAL STARTED IN AUGUST (Projective Industries, 2015), making me curious to see just how far she might further her exploration into the poetic journal. Might there be further volumes?

therapist lets me take
notes in session now
that she understands
it’s not distancing

jot down


in 6 days I will be a 43 yr. old
lacking emotional outlets

a protégé

the wasp incident
glory of suffering
burden of an EpiPen
in your purse

get a holster (“summer journal [2012]”)