This interview was conducted over email, from Tuesday, March 15th to Wednesday, March 16, 2011, by Gillian Massel, editor of McGill's The VEG Literary Magazine, and published in same later that month. For info on the journal, email Gillian at email@example.com
VEG: Today is your 41st birthday (happy birthday rob!). Twenty-one years ago, you would have been the same age as many of our readers and our writers; at the beginning of, some would say, your adult and professional life. What were you doing at that time? Did you imagine you would be doing what you are doing today? In what ways have your plans changed and in what ways have they stayed the same?
rob mclennan: Thank you so much! By the time I was twenty I already knew I wanted to write, although I didn’t exactly know how to go about it or what exactly it meant. Twenty years ago my daughter was two months old. I don’t want to tell you what I was doing a year earlier than that (certainly not going to school or doing anything useful). I didn’t know much about anything. Once Kate was born, I went from writing a poem a month to pushing myself to set up a daily writing schedule.
VEG: You are an established poet, novelist, reviewer, editor, publisher, and a prolific blogger: how does working across such a variety of disciplines influence your writing? Do you think it is important for writers to explore more than one way of expressing themselves? Why or why not?
rm: Art should never remain static, and I’ve always been interested in a great number of things, so why shouldn’t I move around as well? I think the best way to approach one’s art is to go where your interests take you. Besides, figuring out something in one form can often allow a new element to appear in another. One form can only enrich another. And I’ve always thought that if we don’t bother reviewing, don’t bother talking about and working to understand the writing that has already been published, why make more?
VEG: As well as a poet, you are also an editor and publisher for above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, 17 seconds, and ottawater. In your opinion, what is the importance of small press publishing and the underground writing community for the literary scene in Canada as a whole?
rm: It just kind of happened, if you can believe that. Apart from writing itself, the best way to learn about writing is to read, completely, broadly and expansively, and publishing simply creates a broader opportunity for me to read as much as possible that interests me, by directly producing it. It also allows me to spread work I find interesting around to others, which encourages community, both writers and readers alike.
I grew up on a dairy farm, so I’ve always been aware of the essential nature of living within a community. We provide for our neighbours those things we are able, those things we can do. It is impossible to do all things on our own, alone. One person might be good at editing, one might be better at encouraging, another might be better at hosting and promoting events, etcetera. To help those who need it as they require raises us all. As Ondaatje wrote for The Long Poem Anthology, the poems can no more live on their own than we can.
VEG: Your collection red earth features poems you wrote while living in Prince Edward Island, while wild horses includes poems about your time spent in Alberta. You currently live in and write from Ottawa. Do you find that the geography of a place influences your writing? Do you think it is important for a Canadian poet to respond to the landscape that surrounds them? Is it possible to associate a specific aesthetic, as you would with a poem, with certain places in Canada?
rm: I actually wasn’t living in Prince Edward Island, but through briefly on a trip across parts of the east coast with my friend Sandie Drzewiecki. The long poem “red earth” came directly out of that little trip, but the remainder of the collection was actually written in Ottawa, in the apartment above where I currently live now, when I was apartment-sitting for Ottawa poet, publisher and bookseller jwcurry (that was when I still lived a block north). I spent three months apartment-sitting, and using his space as my summer writing studio, where the poetry collection cohered and finally completed. I think writing should respond in some ways to the immediate, whether that be geographical, literary, social or political. We live in the immediate world, Gertrude Stein told us, so we must write of it as well (I’m paraphrasing).
In wild horses I was making certain conscious choices about Alberta writing generally and Edmonton writing specifically. I wanted to compose a book that couldn’t have existed otherwise, but for my interaction with the city and the poetry of/by that city. I was experimenting with long prairie lines in ways I couldn’t have, all the way from Ottawa.
I mean, we have to react to the world around us, don’t we? It’s part of how we learn about where we are, who we are, etcetera. I wanted to learn Edmonton at a deeper level through writing it.
VEG: You use “______” blanks often in your work, which suggests a sense of absence. Are you concerned with what Earle Birney once said about Canadian Lit: “it’s only by our lack of ghosts that we're haunted?”
rm: I’m intrigued by the use of silence across the page, and the more overt ways of suggesting something that isn’t there. Ghosts can’t be helped, I don’t think. Every journey has some.
VEG: You tend to work a lot with memory and the notion of one's own personal history. In “Saskatoon” you say: “is it write what you know or what you don't?” Do you support the old adage, “write what you know” or do you think it's a bunch of hogwash? At what point must a writer must mythologize, create the “tall-tale”?
rm: I much prefer what George Bowering wrote, saying “write what you don’t know, otherwise you’ll never learn.” I don’t think I’ve ever been a writer of tall tales; I leave that to Robert Kroetsch. I simply move where the writing takes me.
VEG: In your poem “a little white li(n)e” from your collection what’s left you say “the first thing to do is abandon style.” For a poet who shows a preoccupation for experimenting with form, punctuation, spacing, and even the use of shorthand such as “thru” and “w/”, in what ways does a “poetic convention” limit or restrain your writing? In what ways does it help?
rm: Well, convention according to who, whom? Not every writer or reader is working from the same set of interests or influences. I know many who work happily in the sonnet, for example, doing amazing things with a form that most writers manage to mangle in the most dreadful and dull ways. Constraint can really bring out some magnificent and unexpected moments; George Bowering has done years of constraint writing, what he calls “the baffle,” and the best thing a writer can be is surprised by his/her own work. Isn’t that part of the point? I want my writing to be the best it can be; I want my writing to end up in places I haven’t yet been.
I often wonder at those writers who insist upon working within certain forms (like the sonnet) who refuse to bring anything new to it, who refuse to do anything interesting with them. If you love the form so much, why do such horrible things to it? Why bring it down? Why bother, I wonder.
VEG: When do you know a poem is good or “done”? Do you ever abandon a work, or do you continually go back and revise?
rm: Poems often get abandoned, even after major revision. Often when I’m at the beginnings of any book-length project, the first few pieces fall away in later drafts; those first few pieces are often my attempts to understand and clarify the shape of the project, and often end up feeling more like warm-up poems. Some pieces go through minor tweaks over a period of a few days, and others go through major upheavals. Often a completed manuscript sits for a few months before I return to it, to see what pieces might need removing. Distance is a good test for any piece; does this still work? Do I still like it? I’m no longer in a hurry, it seems.
You only know a poem is “done” (or, “abandoned,” as some have suggested) through practice. Lots and lots of practice. Some pieces you only know complete or incomplete or nearly-there through other ears, whether handing to a trusted friend or performing at a reading, to catch what works or doesn’t. These tests don’t always work out the way you’d expect.
VEG: Who and/or what are some of your major literary influences?
rm: Early influences, starting with my later teenage years, came out of the Poets of Contemporary Canada, 1960-1970 anthology, edited by Eli Mandel, including Margaret Atwood, John Newlove and George Bowering, and Leonard Cohen. Reading Bowering really opened me up into a great many directions, not the least of which was his exploration of other forms and constant mutability, as well as his endorsement of other writing and writers. He is one of the very few writers who has regularly engaged with a whole slew of genres, from long poems, short lyrics, short stories, novels (including young adult), criticism, history and plays, and appears constantly reenergized from his years of encouraging and engaging younger writers. From Bowering I flew off into a hundred other directions, almost at the point of original contact.
Since those early discoveries, I’ve developed a number of healthy touchstones for my writing, including Michael Ondaatje, Sheila Watson, Elizabeth Smart, Aritha Van Herk, Barry McKinnon, Judith Fitzgerald, Rob Budde, Robert Kroetsch, Phil Hall, Stephen Cain, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Artie Gold, Stephanie Bolster, Michael Holmes, Stan Rogal, Gil McElroy, Ken Sparling, nathalie stephens, Pearl Pirie, Anik See, Monica Kidd, Dany Laferriere, Richard Brautigan and Lisa Robertson. More immediately, I’ve been influenced by the startling works of a great many American poets: Paige Ackerson-Kiely, Lea Graham, C.D. Wright, Rae Armantrout, Richard Froude, Kathleen Fraser, Juliana Spahr and Elizabeth Robinson. Reading great writing can only improve us.
VEG: Which contemporary writers inspire or excite you and why?
rm: I think I covered some of this in the previous answer. What I look for is writing that excites me, even confuses me. I want to be challenged; I want to have my point-of-view shift a little, if possible.
VEG: As a publisher and editor, what qualities do you look for in an emerging writer?
rm: Again, I think my answer continues from where the previous went. I want writing that engages, excites. Over the past couple of years, I’ve had enormous fun watching writers such as Amanda Earl, Marcus McCann, Nicholas Lea, Jesse Patrick Ferguson, Sandra Ridley, Marilyn Irwin, Michael Blouin, Christine McNair, Pearl Pirie, Chris Turnbull, Roland Prevost, Ben Ladouceur and Cameron Anstee work their ways up into chapbooks, towards and, for some, already beyond, their first trade collections.
VEG: And just for fun: if you were a vegetable, which one would you be and why?
rm: I don’t really think I’ve ever had vegetable notions. I’d never be able to answer this.