20 Questions with... rob mclennan
Updated: Feb 8
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than 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 and 2017. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include the poetry collection the book of smaller (University of Calgary Press, 2022), and a suite of pandemic essays, essays in the face of uncertainties (Mansfield Press, 2022). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, periodicities: a journal of poetry and poetics (periodicityjournal.blogspot.com) and Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com). He is editor of my (small press) writing day, and an editor/managing editor of many gendered mothers. In spring 2020, he won ‘best pandemic beard’ from Coach House Books via Twitter, of which he is extremely proud (and mentions constantly). 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
Please introduce yourself. Where are you from? What was your life like growing up?
I was born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, and raised on a dairy farm an hour’s drive east (roughly half-way between Ottawa and Montreal), near the village of Maxville, Ontario. The area I emerge from is considered to hold the largest concentration of Scottish immigration in all of Canada (established pre-Loyalist), and our Glengarry Highland Games is said to be the largest highland games on the planet. Naturally, I own a kilt.
Childhood included mounds of comic books, Ontario stretches of open fields and a variety of particularly valiant efforts on my part to avoid farm labour. I had other things on my mind.
Did you always want to be a writer? If you also work, what do you do / did you do?
Before leaving the farm, I’d always been engaged with some variation on making or craft, whether piano lessons, noodling on guitar, making up stories or poems, or engaging with drawing and painting. A bunch of us even ran a small zine for a couple of years, out of our high school English department, thanks to our teacher, Mr. Robert McLeod. Once I moved to the city at nineteen, writing became more of the focus over the rest, as art supplies cost money I simply didn’t have. Writing only took paper and pen, and of course, time. There is always time.
And as far as work, I would say writing counts as work, although it tends not to offer much in the way of financial compensation.
Tell us about your most recently published work in a sentence.
essays in the face of uncertainties: a suite of pandemic essays, blending memoir with other non-fiction threads, composed across the first one hundred days of original lockdown.
What are you working on right now?
As usual, I’m working on a handful of poetry book reviews while simultaneously nearing the end of a poetry manuscript, “Autobiography,” and attempting to push through a novel, as well as a book-length essay around literary community and responsibility, titled: “Lecture for an Empty Room.” I recently started a substack to help further prompt movement on the book-length essay: https://robmclennan.substack.com/
I’m also putting the final touches on editing the anthology groundwork for Invisible Publishing, celebrating the third decade of my chapbook press, above/ground. The book is scheduled to appear this fall.
Do you have a writing routine, and if so what is it?
Given the invention of our young ladies a while back (they’re currently six and a half and nine), my routine has shifted, but otherwise I’m still first thing at my desk (once the children are delivered to school, naturally) and work until I collect them at the end of their day. I tend to work all day every day, although today I made chili. I’m currently two weeks solo with the young ladies while my dear wife attends the Banff Writing Studio, where she’s working on her next poetry manuscript. This tends to alter the routine just a bit. Perhaps I’ll finish this interview during the brief window between collecting the youngest from her evening’s Sparks to when I need to announce the start of their bedtime ritual.
Where do you write – always in the same space, or different places? Can you write ‘on the move’?
I spent twenty-plus years writing in public spaces, establishing a routine of mornings at a particular Centretown coffeeshop for fourteen years, for example. During my twenties I couldn’t establish, between partners or roommates, a space at home through which to work, so I learned to work in public, something that continued even after I met my dear wife, the poet and book conservator Christine McNair. Since our young ladies emerged, I’ve predominantly been at my desk in my home office, a space carved out soon after our nine year old was born. Recently I have started, once again, to move out into the world, whether working an hour or two in a coffeeshop once delivering each of the young ladies to school, or occasional afternoons at my local tavern. I’m at the point where I can get a certain amount of work done almost anywhere, and even managed an hour or two while awaiting our nine year old at a friend’s birthday party; she was next door at laser tag, I was at the Tim Horton’s. I’ve written in food courts and coffeeshops, on airplanes and Greyhound buses between cities. As long as I have a table space and some quiet, I can get something.
What advice do you have for other authors who are starting out? What is the best advice you’ve heard?
There isn’t much better than simply read everything you can get your hands on, and don’t be afraid to try and to fail. Also, it is important to seek our your people. Be nice to each other.
Do you enjoy doing live readings or are they a necessary evil – or somewhere in between?
I enjoy readings very much! I spent roughly a decade working various reading tours across Canada (and occasionally beyond), spending anywhere from two to five months on the road, until around 2006 or so. While it is harder to do such a thing with small children, it would be fun to return to a version of that at some point. Perhaps when they’re teenagers.
Are there recurring themes in your work? Where do you feel these emanate from if so?
Over the past decade or so, I suppose one could say I’ve been exploring elements of the domestic through language, existing somewhere between Robert Creeley, Margaret Christakos and Pattie McCarthy. Elements of this would most likely emerge from the fact that I’ve been the “home person” for our young ladies, as Christine works outside the home (at least, pre-Covid).
Should writers have a moral purpose? What is the purpose of a writer in today’s society?
As Gertrude Stein offered, writing must exist in the times in which one lives, which allows for responses political, social, intimate, personal and otherwise. As well, writing isn’t simply made up of language, as some have suggested, but is language. The role of the writer, as any artist, is to witness, explore, resist, anticipate and document, although the best art doesn’t simply respond, but reveal. Think of Oglala Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier’s response through an archive of treaty failures by the American government in her Whereas (2017), or Vancouver poet Stephen Collis’ resistance to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion through his Once in Blockadia (2016). Think of the 9/11 response of American dramas such as CSI: New York (2014-2013) or Rescue Me (2004-2011), or even the film The King of Staten Island (2020). It is true what they say about art simultaneously holding truth to power and holding up a mirror.
Do you write between genres or not?
I write between and amid, at times, although I have published many books with the descriptor “poetry” on the cover, as well as books with the descriptors “fiction,” “essays” or “non-fiction.” Genre is more vibrant when not seen as absolute. My interest in poetry and prose has always steered clear of easy narrative for the sake of lyric flow and rhythm, elements of sound and visual components. If I am simply describing what one might see why not simply offer a photograph?
My sense of prose, for example, has long favoured writers such as Elizabeth Smart, Bobbie Louise Creeley, Sarah Manguso, Lydia Davis, Sheila Watson, Richard Brautigan, Dany Laferrière and those early novels by Michael Ondaatje, if that clarifies. I’ve always envied the work of Milan Kundera, also, for his ability to write threads of a variety of elements each with simultaneous weight, from the political to the personal to the sensual.
Which living writers do you most admire?
Too many to list, honestly. But I am always very excited when new titles appear by Monty Reid, George Bowering, Anna Gurton-Wachter, Norma Cole, Sawako Nakayasu, Megan Kaminski, Hugh Thomas, Gil McElroy, Rosmarie Waldrop, Jordan Abel, Stephen Brockwell, Cameron Anstee, Gary Barwin, Kate Siklosi, Sylvia Legris, Stephen Cain, Margaret Christakos, Julie Carr, Pattie McCarthy, Susan Howe, Cole Swensen, Jessica Smith, Stuart Ross, etcetera. Just today, the latest by Stacy Szymaszek landed, for instance. I am looking forward to starting that.
Which dead writers do you most admire?
Again, too many to list. There are books by multiple writers I keep close at hand, including various by Robert Kroetsch, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Timothy Findley, bpNichol, Bernadette Mayer, David Donnell, Etel Adnan, Richard Brautigan, Nelson Ball and William Hawkins.
What’s the book you wish you’d written?
Oh, too many, too many. Those books become sources of joy, and prompt toward my own writing. There’s just too much exciting work out there, although there are times I feel I have to dig through hundreds of other titles to find those particular ones.
What other external influences do you have: nature/place, music etc?
Music is a constant in our house, although occasionally our nine year old turns it off. At times she requires a particular silence, to hear herself think.
There was a stretch during Mad Men that watching new episodes prompted me further through prose. What a well-written show that was.
Do you suffer from ‘writer’s block’ and how do you overcome it if so?
If I feel stalled on one project or piece, I attempt to move into another. Sometimes the distance of time or attention is all is required, to see with new eyes. If I feel really stalled, I attempt an afternoon at the tavern (as the requirements of the household might allow) with a stack of books, notebook and pen, and a lack of pressure to do anything but sit there and read.
What’s been your favourite reaction to your writing?
The impulse to read further.
How do your family and friends feel about your writing?
I’ve been doing this long enough that this is something I do and how I think. Most of my relatives seem to like me well enough, but aren’t terribly interested in the fact that I write. Although I don’t hear a lot of working-class folk asked the same question: “How do your family and friends feel about the fact that you’re a plumber?” etcetera.
Do you have a favourite bookshop?
Most of my favourite are long gone. Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeebar in Ottawa, for example, or Annex Books and knife|fork|book in Toronto. Although every time I’m in Toronto I do attempt a visit to Type Books; in Montreal, The Word Bookstore is essential; in Vancouver, MacLeod’s Books or The Paper Hound; in Winnipeg, Red River Books. Right now, the best local in Ottawa is Perfect Books, which always has what I’m looking for.
How do you see the future of writing? Will we become more or less dependent on Amazon?
There will always be an element of literature engaged with Amazon as a kind of necessary evil, but there are entire literary ecosystems beyond their boundaries. Even if Amazon fell apart entirely this week, whole swaths of literature would still continue to engage, thrive and distribute. Just check out a small press fair, whether Meet the Presses in Toronto, or our ottawa small press fair: little to nothing of any of the wares displayed might ever set foot in an Amazon warehouse.