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A Conversation at World’s End: Q&A With Rob Mclennan

 

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa with his brilliantly talented wife, the poet, editor and bookbinder Christine McNair, and their daughter, Rose. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics, Touch the Donkey and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater. He also curates the weekly “Tuesday poem” series at the dusie blog, and the “On Writing” series at the ottawa poetry newsletter. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com. He currently spends his days full-time with toddler Rose, writing entirely at the whims of her nap-schedule.

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LG: You lived in Ottawa’s Centretown for about two decades as a working writer. From what I know of your life during that time, you travelled infrequently. Can you talk about your commitment to that neighborhood, to Ottawa, to Canada? What do you think staying “in place” has given you as a writer? Did you notice anything happening to your language when you travelled in Europe or, as you mention in your Atticus Review essay, when you toured Louisiana?

rm: Actually, from 1997 to 2006, I toured up to five months a year across Canada, doing annual (if not more frequent) readings in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, with less frequent stops in Victoria, Regina, Saskatoon, Halifax, Fredericton, Charlottetown and Regina (with other stops I can’t recall at the moment). My seemingly-relentless touring allowed me a perspective on writing on a scale far larger than my immediate local.

But to your question: Gertrude Stein spoke of writers needing to write of the times in which they live, and a number of my early influences included poets such as bpNichol, Artie Gold and George Bowering, who played in a variety of ways with their “local,” writing their immediate times, geographies and other references. I wasn’t seeing my time and place written about in any way (whether Ottawa or my point-of-origin, Glengarry County), and so took it upon myself to explore those spaces in writing. One of the triggers for my first Glengarry collection, bury me deep in the green wood (ECW Press, 1999) was George Bowering’s Alberta collection, Rocky Mountain Foot (McClelland and Stewart, 1968): I saw how George wrote out his own family histories and geographies, and I wished to do the same with a space I didn’t recognize in contemporary poetry, even during those rare occasions it did appear (via Gary Geddes, Henry Beissel and Don McKay).

Remaining in one geography, arguably, forced me to be more aware of a far larger space than my own, as well as a deeper awareness and attention for just what “here” means. Remember: I’ve even published a tourist guide, Ottawa: The Unknown City (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008). I love local history, and have dug up huge amounts of random bits of information on Ottawa and Glengarry, and attempt to explore the history of any space I know I’ll be visiting for any length of time. I wish to have at least some information before I enter a new geography, so that anything I learn while there can be added to what I’ve learned, instead of simply being a surface sheen of tourist-knowledge. I wish to understand.

My third poetry collection, Manitoba highway map (Broken Jaw Press, 1999), was a long poem composed out of a series of notes sketched while driving across the prairies on a reading tour in May 1998. To be in that prairie space made the “loping, coyote lines” of a poet like Andrew Suknaski make a lot more sense; I had John Newlove’s “Ride Off Any Horizon” in my head for miles and miles. To get a better sense of the physical space and the history of that space is to have a better comprehension of the writing that comes out of that same space. It is what I aim for with any kind of travel, and the writing that might emerge from it: to better understand.

Louisiana made more sense after the second trip. Europe: given it was our honeymoon, we weren’t really anywhere long enough for me to get much sense of anything, but for the occasional scattering (and I was, as you’d imagine, distracted). Alberta: being writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta shifted me enormously, even at the base level of realization that, despite all my travel, I’d never been longer than a week in any given place. I was nine months in Edmonton, and the shift in geography allowed me an enormous number of shifts in writing and being, forcing me to question a number of presumptions, routines and habits I’d developed over my three-plus decades. I allowed myself the space in which to write differently, and take different risks, predominantly in the realm of prose: short stories, the novel and creative non-fiction. Outside of my familiar spaces, I questioned a number of my habits, and even abandoned a few, shifting others around. In this new space, I could allow myself to be different.

LG: You’ve written in your essay about your current life’s geography: living in a 1950s suburbs outside of Centretown in Ottawa, caring full-time for a toddler, etc. Can you talk about your life for so many years while living in Centretown and holding “writing court” at Pubwells, running a reading series and so much more? Your life has seemed to be arranged around your writing and the writing life. How much has that changed even as you still maintain (or try to maintain) an active writing life? Give us a sense of your current geography, domestic and otherwise.

rm: I’m still, as you say, “running a reading series and so much more,” but my day-to-day has shifted to focus upon the wee babe. I might poke at emails and what-nots occasionally during the day (an hour of Sesame Street in the morning allows me to catch up on a couple of things), but predominantly I’m only at my desk during her afternoon nap, with a bit more time during the weekend, as well as on Christine’s fortnightly flex days. I’m also trading off with a couple of other parents who bring over their own toddlers to play with Rose, allowing us to take turns getting a little bit of work done, which helps enormously, both for my writing-sanity, and Rose’s social interaction. Perhaps in the fall we might start up with one or two mornings a week at a daycare half a block up the street from where we live, but I wouldn’t want any more than that; if she sleeps, I can get a little bit of work done, and that isn’t too bad. Really, she’ll be in school in no time, which will give me a bit more time to focus, again, on some larger projects.

Obviously, my pre-baby life was entirely different: I spent the first bit of the morning at the Second Cup at Bank and Somerset (where I sat daily for fourteen years, until roughly a week before Rose was born) with newspapers, mounds of books and notebook, before returning home to enter revisions into the computer to print new drafts and have lunch; post-lunch might have also involved another hour or two out sketching longhand at the pub on the corner before returning home for another bout of entering revisions and printing new drafts. During my last couple of pre-Rose years, that was when I would decompress in front of the television for an hour or so, possibly folding and stapling new above/ground press chapbooks, before working to prepare dinner for Christine’s return from work. Days centered entirely around the creation of work, including a few dozen threads of poetry manuscripts, fiction manuscripts, essays, reviews and interviews, as well as a variety of editing and publishing schemes.

During the four months prior to Rose’s birth I worked at a rather frantic pace, attempting to further and complete a couple of projects, aiming also to carve out a space of at least three months to be “useless,” uncertain of what time a newborn would allow—I was actually given far more than I might have thought, able to sit mornings at my desk as she slept upon me in baby wrap. I worked a version of the same during the four month prior to the end of Christine’s year-long maternity leave, uncertain of what shifts would occur during my new normal of full-time with toddler. It was a deliberate attempt to complete and reduce projects: I can no longer work on a few dozen projects, given my current time and attention. For example: my main project at the moment is the two-a-week ‘commentaries’ I’ve been posting throughout January and February at Jacket2. Once my time is up at the end of March, I’m hoping to return to short fiction, and possibly even complete a manuscript this year. I’ve also a long poem I’ve been poking at for a couple of months, attempting my “Sex at Forty-five.”

I’m still curating and hosting readings, often twice a month, via The Factory Reading Series. For some time now, these have been the only times I’ve actually left the house without the baby (leaving her with Christine), which still feels strange, somehow. I’m hoping to be able to start attending more events soon, although I don’t always have the energy to do too much of anything by 7 or 8pm.

And you know I started a poetry journal soon after the baby was born, yes? The quarterly Touch the Donkey, including a wide array of online bonus content.

At the same time, though, after twenty years of near-exclusive work, there is something I’m really enjoying about being able to focus on looking after the wee lass, and a household. I can still be productive while allowing myself a bit of space to breathe. Besides, the young lady is rather entertaining.

Last week we made apple pies from scratch; yesterday, strudel.

LG: I’m intrigued by this phrase “World’s End” since so many places in the world (not to mention movies, paintings, etc.) have been thought to be just that. One of my favorite places in the world is Finisterra, Spain (“end of earth”). The Romans thought that from the cliffs you could see “the end of the world” and after that, dragons, ghosts, death…. What do you think our romance is with this idea of a place being “the end”? Can you encapsulate your own interest in “the end,” especially since this time of your life is a beginning with a family, new location and new routine?

rm: “Here be dragons,” yes. Obviously, the title plays with the idea of living outside the city’s gates (Centretown), but any idea of “end” is also a “beginning” (there are no endings without new beginnings), which is very much the position I’m in: recently married, recently moved, recent child, and new space being full-time at home with a toddler. It’s an incredible shift from where I was, say, five years ago. Newness abounds.

World’s End: I recall sitting in a pub in London, “World’s End,” with Stephen Brockwell and Lawrence Upton, wondering what the name meant, given it wasn’t the only one I saw in and around the city (my only interaction with the pub name prior to this was via Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman). Once I finally looked up what it meant, it felt entirely appropriate as a title for my first post-Centretown poetry manuscript: writing about house, baby and the (comparatively) suburban space.

I should say: it took some convincing from Christine to get me out of Centretown in the first place, but there was no way we could afford a house there while keeping our library of some ten thousand books, as well as the required office spaces we were both hoping for, and a studio space for her letterpress and other printing equipment. Fortunately, where we are now (and will remain forever) manages to contain all of our requirements. And we’re close enough to downtown, on a major OC Transpo bus route, that Rose and I can easily get around.

And yet: I am outside the boundaries of what I used to know, and how I used to be. I can no longer count on the same forces to protect me. One must rebuild, and learn how to navigate the difference.

LG: You’ve written that “the length and breadth of [your] writing has been involved in ‘placement’ in some way, whether exploring geography, culture, history, relationships, language or the notion of the self. Placement need not be limited to that geographic where or what.” Talk more about how your sense of place exceeds geography. Could especially talk about what is different in the prose-poem line that you are working with currently as compared with the more fragmented nature of your earlier work?

rm: I would still consider that my work heavily explores and utilizes the fragment, even through the course of the prose line/sentence. I’ve simply set aside line breaks; I had begun to worry that I was relying on them too heavily, for one thing. I wondered: what might be possible if I abandon them altogether? What might my poems become?

But, to placement: I’ve always written about and to where I am at any given time. Go through my work, and see how often one of my daughters might be referenced, or the annual poems around my birthday. Where I am now.

LG: Can you talk about the legacy of Canadian writing and place? You’ve mentioned Aritha Van Herk and Robert Kroetsch, as you went to do a year as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta. Can you talk about them and other writers who have cut a space for you and young writers like you? Also, can you give a sense of what it means to write within a country of great spaciousness. Has that been energy for your writing or has it been daunting? Or possibly, both?

rm: I’ve heard arguments that Canadian writing has been obsessed with the idea for decades, including infamous Canadian literary critic Northrup Frye (1912 – 1991) who wrote: “It [Canada] is less perplexed by the question ‘Who am I?’ than by some such riddle as ‘Where is here?’” His “Where is here?” seemed to take over a large part of the conversation when it comes to national identity, which included a few decades of literature. I certainly don’t want to keep covering the same ground that has already been explored, but I would hope that my explorations are contemporary extensions of some of those same questions and concerns, while continuing to move forward into new concerns, and a whole new way of even thinking, let alone questioning. I doubt, for example, writers such as derek beaulieu and Christian Bök are terribly concerned with what Frye posed, well before any of us were even born. And why should they?

I am interested in the here and the why, but the nature of geographically-locked identity has shifted, as have our purposes for writing, and what that writing might be looking for, looking at or even attempting.

bpNichol composed a fraction of Toronto throughout The Martyrology: Book 5 (Coach House Press, 1982), and of course, William Hawkins wrote his Ottawa Poems (Weed/Flower Press, 1966), but I’ve been more interested lately in how Vancouver writes itself: a language-centred poetry heavily constructed around political commentary and calls for possible social action: Stephen Collis, Christine Leclerc, Jeff Derksen, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Mercedes Eng, Nikki Reimer, Sachiko Murakami and many, many others. Can writing bring about change? Can writing about change somehow make that change happen?

Pre-Alberta, I turned and returned to Aritha and Kroetsch, among others, for a very particular reason: to see what had already occurred in creative non-fiction, specifically in and around Alberta. Somehow, Alberta is a wealth of creative non-fiction, from Aritha to Kroetsch to Ted Bishop to Myrna Kostash and many, many others. Edmonton even shifted their writers festival a decade or so back to only feature creative non-fiction, which I consider astounding. It makes me wish I lived closer, so I could better engage with some of what they’ve accomplished. So much is possible!

Photo By: Robb North

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One Response to A Conversation at World’s End: Q&A With Rob Mclennan

  1. dennis cooley March 4, 2015 at 12:08 pm #

    Thanks to Lea Graham and Atticus for the informative interview with Rob McLennan, mad force in Canadian writing.

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