Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. 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) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the forthcoming poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics, Touch the Donkey, and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater. He spent the 2007-2008 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.
Questions and Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
I can’t think of any specific moment, but I do know that even when I was a kid, I was interested in various kinds of arts practice, whether my piano lessons, writing little stories or drawing from family photographs. Later, in high school, I played around with writing poetry and fiction, in part thanks to the support of a social group that was also writing—Clare Latremouille (I published her first novel in the fall of 2007), Patrick Leroux and my eventual ex-wife, Ann-Marie Seguin. It was really when our daughter Kate was born in 1991, when we were still twenty, that made me realize I should devote a proper amount of time to writing, or otherwise not bother. For some reason, I focused first on poems.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
Inspiration is a funny word. It presumes that so much of this has nothing to do with the hours or hard work, and more to do with something random and otherwise nebulous. Perhaps it’s the Scottish Presbyterian in me. I read constantly, going through literary journals, newspapers, books of poetry, fiction, essays, creative non-fiction, history, comic books and whatever else I can get my hands on. I watch a lot of television, films, listen to music, and sit hours in public places with my notebook and pen. I participate in readings all over my city and a few others. I suppose I am inspired by an impressive line, or any kind of great writing, something I hadn’t considered before. I ended up writing a lot of fiction after watching a good series such as MI-5 or Six Feet Under, or the movie Smoke. I am inspired by surprise.
What is your writing process?
My writing process involves an hour or two on morning computer, a few hours in coffeeshop writing longhand, another hour or so on computer, and then to my neighbourhood put for another few hours of notebook and longhand, before home again. I’m constantly marking up printed pages, lengthening already long projects. I work daily on books, reviews and essays and various other projects, and wait for what the morning mail might bring. I sometimes answer questions like these ones. I write letters.
What is your revision/editing process?
My revision/editing process is through going over the printed page and marking up whatever I need, adding or tweaking or subtracting, and going back to the computer to , and print a new draft before repeating the whole thing. It’s a daily process. My archive is filled with boxes and boxes of earlier, marked up drafts.
Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?
I wrote my first poem in grade two, I remember, for a girl I liked (it never worked out). I started again in grade ten for another girl, and happened to have a good social group around me that was also writing, so we started a little zine of our own, produced by our English teacher, Robert MacLeod. Called “the zine,” I think it started when I was in grade eleven, and Paul Newmann, then in grade twelve, was the first “editor” (who compiled and gave everything to Mr. MacLeod). By the next year, it was myself and Patrick Leroux (now a Montreal playwright, married to poet Stephanie Bolster). For the first couple of years, we were all publishing in there under pseudonyms, and to this day, I don’t entirely know who was attached to what name, whether Clare or Patrick or Ann-Marie or the half-dozen others who were also included. I published poetry under one name, and short fiction under another. There was a pile of writing going around our little high school, and we constantly passed it around to each other (I think the zine was monthly, but can’t remember properly). It was still happening a decade or so later, but everyone had their proper names in the front of it, so I think a lot of the initial fun of it changed after we left. They took it all far too seriously. Around the same time, a number of us were also doing these all-day annual poetry workshops with local poet and editor Gary Geddes, who had a daughter attending the same high school.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
I am constantly going through the Electronic Poetry Center out of SUNY-Buffalo, or Jacket magazine out of Australia, and am on a number of list-serves (including The League of Canadian Poets, SUNY-Buffalo Poetics and others) that give me a constant stream of listings for new publications, calls for submissions, announcements for readings, and other notes that I find interesting. On the sidebar of my blog are a list of other sites that I check in with regularly, including blogs by other writers—Sina Queyras, Amanda Earl, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Shawna Lemay and Pearl Pirie—and sites such as CanCult, The Rain Review, The Danforth Review and Rain Taxi. I’ve even been running my own list-serve since 1994 for Ottawa-area literary events, calls for submissions, etcetera, that have a few hundred people on it, and produce a number of my own on-line publications.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
I was fortunate, in that I was able to interact with Gary Geddes and Henry Beissel (his youngest daughter was friends with my sister), and even did a week-long poetry mini-course at Carleton University when I was in my final year of high school with Robert Hogg. Not that any of them actually imparted any useful advice, but at least allowed a farm boy like me to understand that writing poems wasn’t strange or alien; it was possible, and it was okay. Hogg had us all purchase Geddes’ 15 x 2 anthology of Canadian poets, which I carried around like a bible for some time, before being more aware of the limitations of the collection. Earlier than that, my eventual ex-wife gave me a copy of Eli Mandel’s Poets of Contemporary Canada 1960-1970 (1972) that was essential for much of my future reading, including George Bowering and John Newlove.
Anyone that asks, I usually give them the same answer: read as much as you can, write as much as you can. Expect trouble. Also, anthologies are important, because they give a number of directions to head off into. They’re far easier to take one further across reading interests and styles than, say, picking up a single-author collection.