mr. mclennan comes to town

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mr. mclennan comes to town

Nathaniel G. Moore’s Conflict of Interest column appears biweekly.

It's an interview with Ottawa rogue poet and small press editor rob mclennan, who has been spotted around town and plans to stay spotted, on and off for the next few months. I thought I'd catch up with him and see what he's doing and report my findings. Beyond his own new work which continues to pour out, mclennan continues to edit Chaudiere Books in Ottawa with Jennifer Mulligan and map out even newer work this coming fall.

NGM:

What did you do for National Poetry Month? Also, I hear you’re moving to Toronto.

RM:

Well, I’m not “moving” to Toronto. My girlfriend is moving from Edmonton to Toronto to pursue an MA at Ryerson and I’ll be in Toronto at least half-time while she’s there, spending as much time with her as she’ll let me. Since I still have a number of things that I like to do and want to do back home, including the semi-annual Ottawa small press book fair (June 20 at the Jack Purcell Community Centre on Elgin Street, and pre-fair reading the night before at the Carleton Tavern). I’m keeping my Ottawa place, for now. It also allows her to get her MA completed, say, if I’m not constantly underfoot, and there are a number of Toronto-specific things I’d like to do while there, including research in the Provincial Archives.

I did spend two weeks in Edmonton during April and launched a new poetry collection, gifts (Talonbooks), at their poetry festival as well as at the Ottawa International Writers Festival a week later. Also, at the Ottawa festival, Chaudiere Books launched a first poetry collection by Ottawa poet Marcus McCann, who read with Molly Peacock and Jeanette Lynes, which was pretty exciting. He not only held his own, but I think he impressed his co-readers.

I spent much of National Poetry Month taking photographs and riding around Edmonton in a little blue car; tinkering with a few poems; reading through stacks of new books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction; writing essays, reviews and a few introductions.

NGM:

You have two new poetry books out at the same time. This is nothing new for you. However, they are new texts – can you tell us a bit about each? And what numbers are they in terms of your stats, etc. I know you sent me your CV but I want to see where you place them numerically.

RM:

Stats? An odd question. The Irish collection of ghazals, a compact of words (Salmon Poetry), was written circa 2003 and accepted three years ago, but is just out this spring. The Talonbook collection was composed some three years after that. They feel so far behind me since I’ve done so much since, including: two and a half novels, a manuscript of creative non-fiction, a travel/tourist book on Ottawa and a collection of literary essays. Sometimes the lag is quite jarring. Numerically, as published books, they’re poetry collections fifteen and sixteen (I’m counting the one that appeared online by a Swedish publisher as a PDF book in 2008); but what does that even mean?

gifts focuses on quick rhythms, line breaks, collage and where sound can go through a long sweep of poems made from a series of extended single breaths. So far, a couple of people have used the word “breakthrough” when referring to gifts, but I think it a bit premature. I will simply wait to see what the response might be after it has actually been out for a couple more weeks (at the point of this writing, the book is barely ten days old, so there have been no write-ups nor reviews yet). I do think that gifts already feels part of the short list of (published) poetry collections I consider my strongest, along with paper hotel (2001) and red earth (2003).

I could tell you that between a compact of words and gifts I have a number of full-length poetry manuscripts that haven’t been accepted by publishers yet, listing off titles such as vague histories, a day book, corrective lenses, variations: plunder verse (the other side of the mouth, book 3), the course, avalanche (which includes the text “solids, or, strike-out (a suite)”), glengarry: open field and Red Giant. But, what does that list really mean? It means there is, in my mind, quite a gap between the two collections, as far as style, tone and function, certainly. Will these other manuscripts ever see the light of day? I hope so; and there are even a couple which pre-exist a compact of words that I think are still worth pursuing, as well as a few new collections I’ve started since composing gifts. This is why I’ve been moving further into other genres. I think I can allow myself the time.

NGM:

You publish frequently outside of Canada, more so than others, in terms of Canadian poets, anyway. Why is that? What is that experience like, working with an editor you never see or possibly never even talk to...or do you?

RM:

Well, when I work with Karl Siegler at Talonbooks, we don’t see each other during the process either, or Michael Holmes at ECW, or Bev Daurio at The Mercury Press. It’s all done through the mail or email these days. I’m currently putting the finishing touches on a poetry manuscript for the University of Alberta Press through email comments back and forth with my editor, Andy Weaver. It’s pretty entertaining to have a poetry book in England (with Stride, in 2006) and Ireland (with Salmon Poetry, newly out), and these are not reprints but stand-alone collections that won’t make it into Canadian hands except through me. I don’t know of anyone else in Canada producing poetry collections who does such a thing. I’ve been trying to break into the American market for years and keep getting closer, but nothing has broken through yet. I’ll get there.

I agree with Robert Kroetsch that literature is a conversation. By publishing in other countries, I am engaging, hopefully, with that further conversation going on in those countries. I’m also trying to, obviously, read as much work going on outside of Canada as well and our Ottawa International Writers Festival helps a lot. The festival recently introduced me, for example, not only to the work of Israeli fiction writer Meir Shalev, but to the author himself. I was able to spend an hour or so talking to him in the hospitality suite, along with Young Adult author Leslie Livingstone who might just be my new best friend. Writing isn’t just Canadian, isn’t just poetry, isn’t just about what happens around me immediately. I would like to be at least listening to, if not outright engaging with, these larger, further conversations. How can I do that if I don’t get my books outside Canadian borders?

NGM:

Towards the end, gifts has a lot of strike-throughs in it. What are you doing with this negatron movement of the strike through?

RM:

I am intrigued by the negation, with lines or phrases that are part of the poem while at the same time removed from the poem. It makes them difficult to read publicly, since I am then forced to make the choice of removing or reading, which I think unfairly alters the pieces. It’s for the reader to decide if the strike-through parts should remain. It makes me able to play with two or three versions of a poem within a single piece, and the negotiation and exploration of such was rather interesting to go through. More recently, I’ve been exploring phrases, and, more specifically, the single, straight line to see where they might go.

NGM:

How did your residency in Alberta last year you affect your writing process? Or did it? How did you find Ottawa on your return?

RM:

My nine months in Edmonton affected me greatly, not the least of which involved greatly increased confidence and reduced stress through receiving regular paycheques, which allowed me to get three times the work done that I’d do at home. Part of what my year accomplished was a creative non-fiction manuscript on my time there, McLennan, Alberta, and a poetry collection on same, wild horses (University of Alberta Press), to appear either this fall or next spring. Part of what I’d like to accomplish as part of my upcoming Toronto period is the same kind of creative non-fiction exploration; what is this city I’ll be spending so much time in, and time with? What is the writing that has helped define at least the corners I’ll be spending so much time engaged in? I’ve been thumbing through books for a couple of months already, doing bits of research and taking notes in anticipation.

When I returned, Ottawa was a strange experience. Despite having travelled and toured Canada (and a couple of other countries) extensively, I felt as though there was an element of me not leaving home until I went west at 37, so returning home was quite jarring. How does one re-enter a life after nine months? There was certainly a discomfort, working to reconnect with all of those people and events that I’d left behind. I kept serious contact with much of it while I was gone, but there is still something different about being away. There was a sense of relief, though, that the city didn’t collapse without my promotional efforts; I returned with a sense that perhaps I didn’t have to push so hard on keeping all of it (in my mind) together. I think I liked that very much. And it’s made me look quite hard at what it is I want to do and where I want to go next. Do I simply re-enter the kind of existence I had before I headed west, or do I allow myself to become something different? What’s the point of having been away, if I return home exactly the same?

NGM:

What would you say to not publishing anything for say, five years then coming out with a best of/selected and a new collection the following season? Could you do it?

RM:

Stephen Brockwell suggests this every couple of years as well: that I should stop publishing for five years, just to see if I can. Why would I do all of that just for its own sake? What exactly do I have to prove to myself? I’ve never understood why, every so often, someone suggests that I should be publishing at a particular rate of speed simply because it would fit in with everyone else. Part of the appeal of publishing books in other countries is to keep my Canadian books from banging into each other. I have never understood why I should publish less, “to see if I can.” Does anyone ask a scientist or engineer to not work in their field for a half decade or so, simply to see if they can? Does anyone ask Elvis Costello, who has produced an album or so a year since the early 1970s, to slow down his production?

Part of why I’ve been working with fiction and non-fiction is to change the rate at which I produce poetry collections. It opens up a series of new writing challenges and I’d presume that not everyone interested in one of those threads would be interested in either of the others, even to the point of perhaps not even noticing when my other books appear, making it less likely for the works to interfere with each other. Where should I go next, I sometimes wonder. Screenplays? I think it would be quite interesting to attempt a screenplay; basically everything I leave out of my fiction, such as physical description and dialogue, is exactly what a screenplay is made out of. So, I think it would be an interesting challenge. It would force me to re-evaluate how a story gets told, and introduce skills I could then bring back into fiction.

I toyed with the idea of a selected around 2001; a British or American one since all but one of my trade poetry collections are still in print (my argument against a Canadian one, at the time), but it never really got off the ground. It’s an idea difficult for an author to bring to a publisher or editor, as opposed to the other way around. Still, I have too many things I’d like to accomplish first. When he was still at McClelland & Stewart, A.J. Levin and I discussed such, at his prompting, but I kept having “another book out next season,” so the conversation stalled. There’s plenty of time for that kind of idea further on down the road.

NGM:

How did the book subverting the lyric come about? What went into that critical collection of essays? What was your goal? Academia? It won an award (The 2008 Golden Cherry Award), didn’t it? You've done such a book before, correct? Any plans for future books like subverting?

RM:

Yeah, that book did win an award, didn’t it? I keep forgetting that. That book came out of years of reviews that grew larger, until they became essays. I’ve been an active reviewer since 1993, and even reviewed three books a week for four and a half years (until 1999) in my column in the Ottawa X-Press. At first the reviews were short and awkward, but some would just get larger and larger. I was unable to shake certain books from my imagination until I had gone further through; for example, Hello Serotonin! by Jon Paul Fiorentino. I had reviewed the collection for The Globe and Mail but the book wouldn’t let go of me; I knew I had to keep tinkering around with it, with him, for a few months longer, turning it into an essay that later went into Open Letter, and finally the collection of essays.

With three weeks of my first year of university behind me, back in the late 1980s, I’m not going to pretend that academia is a goal of mine but there’s nothing wrong with doing so-called “academic work” without being inside such a structure. I like the series NeWest Press does, “writer as critic,” which I think is more of what I am: a writer, engaged with some of the same concerns, simply responding to the work and works of other writers. I’ve already got another two collections of essays put together, and I’ve been half a decade or more working on a book-length essay on reading and writing Glengarry County, my original home ground. I think it will have to turn into something half memoir, half essay, writing about my own experiences and growing up with the writing and legacies of Ralph Connor, Gary Geddes and Henry Beissel, for example, amid the later discoveries of Don McKay, Stephen Brockwell, Clare Latremouille, Margaret Christakos, Roy Kiyooka, David McFadden, Nicholas Lea, Jesse Patrick Ferguson and others, all writing on and even from the same geography. Since then, too, I’ve even edited an issue of the critical journal Open Letter on new poetics and I am editing three collections of essays for Guernica Editions (George Bowering, Andrew Suknaski and John Newlove), and a collection of essays by Andrew Suknaski for NeWest Press’ “writer as critic” series. I just have to finish the introduction.

My collection of essays came about because I had enough essays together to construct a manuscript I quite liked, and I sent it along to Michael Holmes at ECW Press to see what he thought. I think it was the first book of literary essays that ECW Press has put together by a single author since John Metcalf circa 1994. I would certainly like to keep going, to see where the form takes me. There are so many of my contemporaries and beyond that I’d love to see write a collection of essays; whether Lisa Robertson, Clint Burnham, Susan Clark, Christine Stewart, Stephen Cain, Christian Bök or Darren Wershler-Henry. Or even a new one by Dennis Cooley, who I know already has the material. Why haven’t any of them put their collections together? At least BookThug managed to put out a title by Nathalie Stephens, and supposedly new collections of essays are forthcoming from Betsy Warland, Erin Mouré, Catherine Owen and Sina Queyras. I would like there to be more conversation. I enjoy the conversation.

There are so many writers who haven’t been written about, and Stephen Brockwell and I tried to counter some of that through our online Poetics.ca, which we no longer do, unfortunately, partly due to Brockwell’s time schedule. Because of this, I invented a new poetry and poetics online journal last spring, seventeen seconds, so I could further the conversation. There is so much that remains unsaid, unexplored. The second issue will include an essay I wrote some months ago on love and the poet Anne Carson, alongside an interview Sean Moreland did with Dennis Cooley and various other pieces.

NGM:

Any upcoming events we in the city of Toronto should be aware of?

RM:

I’m probably going to do a number of other events around Toronto in the fall, but I don’t know where or what yet. There will probably be a Mercury Press event in October or November which I’ll be part of, to launch my second novel, missing persons. I know if I’m going to be around Toronto, I would like to do more, certainly. I would like to see just what else is out there.

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