Interview: rob mclennan

words by Nathaniel G. Moore | photo by Christine McNair
| Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

photo by Christine McNairRob McLennan (stylized as “rob mclennan”) has created a deluge of small press literary materials since the 1990s. An Ottawa-born poet, novelist, journalist, editor of literary magazines, and perennial host of readings and book launches, mclennan has slowed down over the last year or so (by his standards at least) to get married and take stock of his fledgling publishing house Chaudiere Books, a small press publishing house in Ottawa that focuses on the seemingly endless array of poetry in the area.

Over the last year he’s seen the birth of his second child with his wife and fellow Ottawa poet Christine McNair, and made the relaunch of Chaudiere Books a top priority. Not to mention, this fall marks the 20th anniversary of the Ottawa Small Press book fair, a biannual event he founded two decades ago.

In 2010, mclennan won the John Newlove Poetry Award, and was long-listed for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. 2014 sees mclennan with no fewer than three titles: a book of nonfiction, notes and dispatches: essays, a new collection of poetry, If suppose we are a fragment and a collection of micro fictions called The Uncertainty Principle.

You recently published a collection of short prose fiction. Where did the lion’s share of this manuscript get done? What were some of your influences for the work and how do you feel about the final project? It sort of reminds me of Richard Brautigan’s cheeky juvenile voice at times.

The stories that make up The Uncertainty Principle were composed over five years. The first of the stories emerged during the tail end of my nine months in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, with a finished, completed manuscript sometime in 2011. The original trigger for the stories within came from American writer Sarah Manguso’s Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape (McSweeney’s, 2007). There was something about her first-person narration of short, incredibly dense, self-contained and untitled fictions that somehow accumulated into something magical that caught my attention, and for quite some time after. Her stories made me want to see what was possible using the short, short story format.

Given the density I was working with in this collection, I spent an enormous amount of attention working on the individual pieces, and some went through a period of near-daily editing that went on for months. The bulk of the manuscript was a couple of years old before I even started considering sending any of them out to journals, or admitting that I was working on the collection at all. And in the end, I suspect I discarded somewhere between half and a third of the manuscript to end up with the seventy-some that appear in the final published book. I am enormously happy with the result.

Richard Brautigan has long been an influence, certainly. As far as my fiction is concerned, those writers over the years who have made a difference to what it is I am attempting to do, alongside Brautigan and Manguso, would also include Nicole Brossard, Dany Laferrière, Ken Sparling, Sheila Heti, Michael Ondaatje, Aritha Van Herk, Ali Smith, John Lavery, Kristjana Gunnars, Elizabeth Hay, Milan Kundera, Sheila Watson, Elizabeth Smart, Timothy Findley, Lydia Davis, Jean McKay, Etgar Keret, Emmanuel Hocquard and Paul Auster. I’m sure there are plenty of others.

I wanted to play with the possibilities of brevity, of being able to say an enormous amount in a very short space.

Going back a few years, Canadian Publishing came up with a tagline YOTSS (Year of the Short Story). Collections have been using this over the last four years or so as a marketing device — but beyond those confines, how do you see the form of the short story working as a contemporary means of communication, expression, and connecting people?

That’s a good question. The short story allows for a particular kind of compactness that isn’t always in longer-form fiction. It took me many years, as both reader and writer, to arrive at the short story. It took me many years to realize it was less a matter of a form that didn’t engage me than finally discovering the right examples of that form.

The internet continues to produce a hotbed for both unavoidable content and must-read material. What are some of the benefits of publishing online, and what are some of the online projects you are involved in or admire?

As you might suspect, I’m a big fan of online publishing, as writer, publisher, editor, and reader. I’ve made incredible discoveries through online journals, predominantly non-Canadian writers whose work I wouldn’t have necessarily crossed paths with otherwise. A few months ago, for example, I discovered the work of Vancouver writer and activist Mercedes Eng thanks to Lemonhound. It immediately made me order her first poetry collection. The limitations of using any particular format to present your work is that it limits your audience to those who engage with that particular format. To broaden the scope of your delivery systems can only help to broaden your audience.

As you know, my online forums are multiple: I post reviews, interviews, notices, essays and other materials on my daily blog, now 11 years old; both above/ground press and Chaudiere Books have blogs as online notifications of publishing/author activity, as well as the main Chaudiere Books site; after editing/publishing Poetics.ca with Stephen Brockwell for a few years, I’ve now produced 10 issues of seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics, and am working on the 11th issue of the annual Ottawa poetry PDF journal, ottawater. I’ve also been curating a weekly “Tuesday poem” series on the Dusie blog for well over a year, which has been enormously fun, soliciting work from a variety of writers from the dusie kollectiv, Canada and the United States, as well as the occasional poet further afield. More recently, I founded a new journal of experimental poetry, Touch the Donkey, which also features a series of online content.

As far as my reading habits go, I attempt to regularly see what is happening at Lemonhound, Jacket2, Omniverse, Literary Mothers, Open Book: Toronto/Ontario, Harriet: the blog, Rain Taxi Review of Books, Numero Cinq, and a whole slew of others. I’m a bit disappointed The Poetic Front didn’t continue on, more than it did. Often, fortunately, it is through Facebook that various materials float by my attention, and it has allowed me an incredible amount and variety of reading. I’m sure I’m forgetting at least half a dozen online sources I’m fond of. There is simply too much to recall all at once.

The potential of the internet is fairly obvious, and one would be a fool, whether as writer, editor, publisher or simply reader, to not attempt to take as much advantage of such as a resource. But in the end, I favor books. The internet, to me, is simply a means to an end, as opposed to an end unto itself.

The Uncertainty Principle

You have a pared-down focus in this collection as it pertains to structure, voice, and possibly intent. I can even quote and entire page quite easily in this question. You wrote, “I know a Canadian book is a book of retelling, clarifying what we already know. I am trying to change that. I am trying to change that. We no longer talk of the bald prairie, of Atlantic fury or rainy Pacific rim. We no longer mention the centre. I am not here for your stories, storied, used or ancient. Up north, the freelancer’s taste for gold. There are ghosts set along any journey.” Were you condemning tradition, examining stereotype, or deserting your post? I try to design this particular question as if its a reaction to the quoted text. Do you think Canadian writing or whatever we call our team has a national flavor or reputation? A predictable region twang?

Not condemning, per se, but simply aware that some stereotypes, whether accurate or not, still attempt to claim repeated relevance despite being completely outdated. They are stereotypes, after all. Jon Paul Fiorentino and Robert Kroetsch were attempting the same when they co-edited their anthology of prairie poetry, Post-Prairie (Talonbooks, 2005); they were attempting to show by example that what had long been considered “prairie poetry” was an outdated idea that reflected very little of the landscape of poets that had emerged over the previous decade or more. The idea was so prevalent, it was beginning to overpower the attention that this other writing had long deserved, so the response was to produce their anthology, which was absolutely incredible.

Another downside to a particular idea or genre becoming popular is the emergence of the replication of such, predominantly via watered-down copies of copies. One must be aware of these things, certainly, but constantly be on the search for alternate directions and influences. One must make it, as they say, new.

You reference fantasy baseball leagues and John Waters in this book as well as some very obscure animal space travel and INXS facts. This piece in particular, or page, that begins with, “At the toy store, she picks the soft baby plush ‘Rocket Baby Play Set,’ for her friend’s baby shower….” You’re able to cram a lot of pop clutter into what appears to be a couple of hundred words without sounding like a Wikipedia entry. It ends nicely with a Major Tom octave and laments in general about how things are connected and unconnected, plush and pulsing. What was the process for putting together this seemingly complex web of personal knowledge and global theatrics?

There is something pretty entertaining, at least to me, of attempting to write short stories using as much of the random information I’ve been collecting over the years, especially bits of information that haven’t seen fit to be utilized anywhere else in my writing. I’ve got references in this collection to the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, to the man who attempted to shoot Ronald Reagan, as well as a whole theory about SpongeBob, and as another on The Lost Boys. What appealed in the composition of the book was in the seeming-randomness, that, through the process of being done in a particular way, manages to make complete sense as a single unit.

The process of working that particular story was an extremely slow one of pouring over the story repeatedly. I wanted my little fictions to be bulletproof, and that required editing, editing and re-editing pieces some 40 or 50 times. Sometimes it was a matter of the right word in the right place, or a phrase that would turn the whole story on its head. I’ve actually been working a short story in a subsequent manuscript for about two years now; I haven’t yet discovered the exact phrase that connects two seemingly-unrelated ideas. Another piece attempts to connect Magneto from The X-Men to Magnus, Robot Fighter to another set of more contemporary ideas that reduce the purposefulness of those characters to near-zero. I simply have to keep returning to each piece, and remain both patient and attentive. If I spend enough time on each piece, they will come.