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An Interview with rob mclennan | Proved on the Pulses: On the Essay and its Literary Cousins

Proved on the Pulses: On the Essay and its Literary Cousins

An Interview with rob mclennan

rob mclennan has probably done more to put Ottawa on the literary map than anyone else alive. He writes poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and literary essays; his clever blog attracts hundreds of readers each week. All this, and he’s also a walking, talking archive of Canadian literature and a tireless promoter of other writers’ work. rob may be best known for his poetry, but today, December 1, he launches his second novel, missing persons. In addition, rob’s currently engaged in two intriguing nonfiction projects. In the selections of these I’ve seen I’m particularly interested in the ways he puts literary history to work, using little-known or sometimes well-known details as springboards for further exploration, looking at place through the lens of its literary past. These manuscripts continue and extend his experimentation in poetry and fiction. I spoke with rob by email between November 5th and 7th, 2009.

Q: You’re an incredibly prolific writer who seems to cross genres with ease. Is it as easy as you make it look? Does one genre feel most “natural” to you than others? What are the challenges?

A: Well, I’d hardly call it easy; my self-education process is both extremely quick and excruciatingly slow. I learn by fumbling around, in not knowing what it is that I’m doing. Like bpNichol working the presses at Coach House Printing, figuring out what do to by not knowing, and exploring the boundaries. The obvious drawback is that the short term becomes more frustrating, but hopefully the longer term becomes richer, deeper. I don’t want to write books that look like everyone else’s.

Before my first novel appeared in print, I’d been over a decade attempting fiction, with numerous manuscripts in various stages of completion, including a few already abandoned. For any genre I work in, it seems, I need a book to fail, before I figure out the process for anything subsequent; I learn by doing. Fail better, said Beckett. Perhaps I should be listening better to this. perhaps I need a larger failure before what follows can transcend itself.

Part of what took me forever into the novel form was figuring out the shape of my own style, after attempts into what I thought a “novel” was supposed to look like. Remember Jack Kerouac’s first published novel? It was completely different from what came after; that first book written, it would seem, in the style he thought a novel was supposed to.

When I was still a teen, I worked in multiples, writing poetry and fiction, playing piano and guitar, drawing, painting and taking photographs. I even attempted a comic book script at one point. My interests have always been multiple, diverse yet frustratingly separate. Part of what I’ve long admired about 1990s English-speaking literary Montreal was the way the younger writers like Corey Frost, Anne Stone, Dana Bath and Catherine Kidd were blending and blurring poetry, fiction and performance, one slipping easily and seamlessly into the next (and almost even a matter of context). It’s what I find fascinating about Vancouver writer Michael Turner as well, exploring alternate shapes of a literary work. Why do these genres have to have such solid barriers between them? Who gets to decide such a thing?

It appears as though Canadian writing is one of the harshest climates, in terms of the barriers between these arbitrary notions of genre, yet we’ve produced some of the most daring when it comes to breaking those same barriers down, including Erín Moure, Phil Hall, Ken Sparling, Sheila Watson, Elizabeth Smart, Nathalie Stephens, Michael Turner, Nicole Brossard, and so many others.

Obviously I’m far more interested in lyric prose, so the form of fiction I’m working is closer to poetry than certain straighter and more narrative kinds of fiction, deceptively called the “poet’s novel” (a term I find needlessly dismissive, without really being descriptive). Whatever else their poems were doing, Elizabeth Smart and Sheila Watson were writing wonderfully lyric books of prose. One does not automatically fall into the other (Smart’s poems, for example, seemed quite traditional, compared to her prose).

My current prose fiction works to explore moments, slowly working out the threads between those moments, and projects that end up weaving a sequence of threads into a particular weave, somewhere between complicated and straightforward. Does that even make sense?

Perhaps, as you ask, not with ease, but with patience over quite a long period.

Q: You’ve currently got (at least) two memoir projects on the go: house, a (tiny) memoir and Sleeping in Toronto. What sparked your desire to write memoir? What are the special joys and challenges of this genre for a writer? For a reader?

A: As far as non-fiction goes, there is a merging of essay, history and memoir I’ve been exploring through projects such as McLennan, Alberta (my Edmonton year as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta) and current Sleeping in Toronto.

Years ago, maybe a decade or so, I started a similar project on my home territory, Glengarry County, eastern Ontario, wanting to mix a memoir of sorts with writing done on the area, as well as working through the county’s rich history. Glengarry County is well documented in poetry and fiction, going back well over a century, including “Ralph Connor” (pseudonym of the Rev. Charles Gordon), who was Canada’s bestselling novelist circa 1900, and his aunt, Margaret M. Robertson, writing novels from the 1860s to the 1880s (Connor’s mother and aunt were classmates of Emily Dickinson at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Mass.). Being that my family grew out of the Gordon Church, St. Elmo, a building created under the auspices of Rev. Gordon’s own father, writing became geographically local for me at quite a young age; when I was about ten years old, my father pointing out where various scenes of Glengarry School Days (1902), for example, were set.

I got fifty pages into such a project well before I knew what the hell “creative non-fiction” even was, and the whole manuscript, Reading and Writing Glengarry County (I really need to revisit that title) just felt unwieldly, so I set it aside to return to, later. Heading west in September 2007 and discovering the work of Edmonton writer Myrna Kostash, it was as though simply by existing, she was giving me permission to move into what I had already begun, these forays into “creative non-fiction,” without knowing a shape or understanding the genre. From Kostash, I headed into some other directions, rereading early Elizabeth Hay, and into the non-fiction works of Ted Bishop, Guy Maddin, Monica Kidd, Stan Dragland, Sarah de Leeuw and Brian Fawcett, exploring some of the possibilities of what the form could provide.

I’ve long been interested in the idea of memoir, but uncomfortable with writing a story that’s all about me. I can’t imagine finding anything about me interesting enough to sustain such a project, and much prefer the movement of the creative non-fiction form, exploring a particular idea or geography through its writing and history, using the memoir as its framing, the bare thread that ties the project together.

Once west, I started a project of creative non-fiction, McLennan, Alberta, to explore my nine months in Edmonton, trying to figure out the context in which I’d entered (the project got its name from a town north of the city, which may have been named after a doctor from my Glengarry County who worked for the railroad, Dr. John K. McLennan). After thirty-seven eastern Ontario years, what did it mean to be in Alberta? Over nine months, I wrote pieces centred around the Banff Centre, Whyte Avenue, the University of Alberta and the West Edmonton Mall, exploring the histories and myths of the place, and writing by such as Elizabeth Smart, Sheila Watson, Robert Kroetsch, Eli Mandel, Aritha van Herk, Kristjana Gunnars, Douglas Barbour, Erin Knight, Christine Stewart and Trisia Eddy.

The book even writes of the beginnings of a new relationship, which turned the manuscript into another kind of project, another kind of thread woven in. I admit, I still haven’t decided if the manuscript as a whole even works (I plan on returning to it soon, to complete it, finally), but now that she’s in Toronto doing a Master’s Degree, I’m here too, as much as she’ll let me, making Sleeping in Toronto a loose sequel, writing out what comes next, through the exploration of a brand-new city.

Q: In house: a (tiny) memoir, you’re working from old family photographs, using visual records to piece together what you remember – and don’t remember – of the past. Tell us something about that process.

A: I’d been thinking quite a while on writing from old pictures, and somehow, this project came together during my Edmonton year. What is it about going away that makes you think back to home? It must have been Christmas, heading back to the farm and pilfering that old photo album, getting back to Alberta and picking away at it during the first few weeks of January. I’m hoping the project, once published, can appear with one picture per text, if possible. In many ways, house: a (tiny) memoir was my attempt to reclaim the good parts of my childhood, before my mother got really sick. From the mid-1970s all throughout the 80s were pretty rough, and I know there are stories that, unless I tell, would never be told. Ones my sister (b. 1976) wouldn’t know, or her kids, or mine. It’s a tribute and acknowledgement to a period of time that existed, and my family tells few stories, so would disappear completely, otherwise.

It is a strange process, to work through one’s own history, and one’s own memories. I’m hesitant to check information from my family, to potentially taint or second-guess what I think I know from my own memories, although wonder if the project requires such, once it’s further along. My mother claimed surprise a couple of years ago at some of the things I remember, vivid memories of her mother’s cabin in Quebec, sold by the time I was two and a half. And yet, nothing of my grandfather, who died around the same time. The challenge, really, is to write these pieces in such a way that a potential reader might care to read them. Why should a reader care?

Q: Sleeping in Toronto is in its early stages, but so far, it appears to be constructed in journal-like installments (written during, or of, your visits to Toronto) that don’t entirely resemble journal entries. It’s a voyage around, through, and into Toronto, beginning with a bird’s eye (condo) view of the lake, finding its feet on the Island and waterfront, and then travelling, by way of history, to points west, east, and north, and through poetry – yours and others’ – aiming deeper into the city’s mythologies. It’s memoir in the sense that the narrator’s experience provides a point of departure – but it’s less about the narrator than it is about the narrator’s attempts to understand the place. Thoughts?

A: Sleeping in Toronto starts in her condo by the lakeshore, and then works its way out, which, as I learned into the process, is how the city itself got created, so I really appreciate the happy accident of such. I’d much rather a book about learning Toronto than about me in Toronto. When travelling to any place, it’s impossible not to be aware of myths, thinking of Ernest Hemingway when seeing the Toronto Star building, or Daniel Jones when seeing the CN Tower. How could you not? Alberta was thick with that, the mythology of the landscape. I would like to learn where I am, and where I am headed. My own Glengarry County is rife with history too, to the point, sometimes, that it has almost no present (a joke from my 1980s high school days was that Alexandria had just entered the 1950’s).

Is my creative non-fiction working to understand place, understand history, and my fiction working to understand story, and people? Perhaps I’m reading too much into myself.

Q: Do you ever adapt the same material for poem (or fiction) and nonfiction?

A: No. I might work around different aspects of themes or ideas in a different form, but never the same material. That said, I’ve put a poem or two of my own into the creative non-fiction, but only inserted as self-quotation. To illustrate a point.

Q: You’ve written many literary essays (and Sleeping in Toronto includes entries that are mini-essays about poetry). What do you like about the essay form?

A: I like the essay because it’s entirely malleable; I enjoy working the form. My essay on Anne Carson looks entirely different than, say, my essay on Phil Hall, or Andrew Suknaski. I like forming the shape based on the subject. My essay on Suknaski took the shape of a series of open letters to him directly, which is how many of his own essays and reviews were written, writing directly to Eli Mandel, for example, or Robert Kroetsch. I would like to think it adds another level of stepping inside an author and their works to write further into such shapes. It seems rather arbitrary, somehow, to write every essay solely in the same singular shape. Arbitrary, and somehow lacking. I mean, I’m not an academic, so there would be something insincere in any attempt to write purely academic pieces. It’s also a form I know I don’t understand, so why not go somewhere else, make the process more interesting?

Look at Phil Hall’s “Essay on Purdy” from An Oak Hunch (2005), or Michael McClure’s essay on Richard Brautigan in Richard Brautigan: Essays on the Writing and Life (2006), moving the form around to suit their subjects. Art, including fiction, poetry and non-fiction, is supposed to be fluid, not static. I’m not interested in writing everything out the same way.

Perhaps there is a sense of freedom here I’ve managed that I haven’t quite yet in my poetry or fiction, who knows. But I am still exploring.

Q: Who are some of your favourite writers of nonfiction, and why?

A: Apart from the list of authors I’ve already given ( I haven’t gone through as much as I should have), I quite liked Robert Kroetsch’s book on Alberta, and Jonathan Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist. Can we call Dany Laferriere’s books novels or novel-essays? Or what of David W. McFadden’s “Great Lakes Suite”? As far as literary essays, Aritha van Herk and George Bowering have always made the form far more engaging, blending in parts of fiction along the way, or even memoir. Sly traces, one might say. I remember Clint Burnham had some really engaging essays in the mid-1990s out of Vancouver’s old Boo magazine; why haven’t they been collected yet into a single volume?

Q: What would you tell aspiring writers to read?

A: Everything. Read as much as possible and as widely as possible. And every so often, make a point of reading something you know you disagree with; there are still things to be learned.

Q: What are you reading now?

A: I always have a mound of things I’m carrying around, actively or passively reading over various stretches of time, but here is a list of sorts, in no particular order: Hemingway on Fishing, ed. Nick Lyons (New York NY: The Lyons Press, 2000), Peter & Max: A Fables Novel, Bill Willingham (New York NY: DC Comics / Vertigo, 2009), Stitches, a memoir, David Small (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2009), Hush Up and Listen Stinky Poo Butt, Ken Sparling (Toronto ON: self-made by author upon request, 1996), Excerpts from the Real World, Robert Kroetsch (Lantzville BC: Oolichan Books, 1986), declining america, rob budde (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2009), Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry and Poetics, eds. Kate Eichhorn and Heather Milne (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2009), The False Laws of Narrative: The Poetry of Fred Wah, ed. Louis Cabri (Waterloo ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2009), Toronto: The Unknown City, Howard Ackler and Sarah B. Hood (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2003), Barcelona, Robert Hughes (New York NY: Knopf, 1992), Once Upon a Hill: Love in Troubled Times, Glenn Patterson (London UK: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009), Quarter Life Crisis: Only the Good Die Yung, Evan Munday (Toronto ON: self-published, 2009), My Beloved Wager: Essays from a Writing Practice, Erín Moure (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2009), and Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City, Sherry Simon (Montreal QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006).

Born on the Ides of March in Ottawa’s Parkdale neighbourhood in 1970, rob mclennan is an Ottawa-based writer, editor and publisher, and author of more than twenty titles of poetry, fiction and non-fiction in Canada, Ireland, England and the United States, with work appearing in over two hundred journals in fourteen countries. He has published a travel book on Ottawa (Ottawa: The Unknown City) and a collection of literary essays (subverting the lyric: essays). More recently, his second novel is missing persons (The Mercury Press), launches in Toronto on December 1, 2009, and his eighteenth poetry collection, wild horses (University of Alberta Press), is due out in February 2010. He spent the 2007-8 academic year as writer in residence at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and blogs regularly at robmclennan.blogspot.com.

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5 Responses to “An Interview with rob mclennan”

  1. Sheila Murphy Says:

    Really fine interview, and I am happy to see this wonderfully wide range of forms and projects. Rob, do you ever sleep? :)

  2. Alan Drake Says:

    Excellent, thoughtfully spoken/written, informative article. Always so good to hear what Canadian cousins are drilling though as well. Thank you.

  3. Cousin Erin Says:

    Wow. Cousin, you blow me away. Congratulations on all of your phenonmenal accomplishments and works in progress. You are truly brilliant, a genius in jeans.

    Luv you lots,
    Your cousin Erin

  4. Mo Pigeon Says:

    Great interview Rob; thoughtful replies that raise up some of the guts of the issues of writing in this Canadian landscape.
    Heartiest congratulations on another book. You are prolific, but not verbose! ;) Mo

  5. Joanne Epp Says:

    Interesting, about working with one’s own memories and history. I find that some odd questions come up in the process of piecing stories together.

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