rob mclennan- Interview
What are your thoughts about reading your poetry in Cobourg at the 3rd annual POW! Festival?
I'm excited to read! I like being asked to read, especially for festivals I haven't been able to previously attend. I know nothing about it. My mother's father was born in Cobourg, so it will be interesting simply, if nothing else, to be able to explore the space, to answer at least a fragment of 'where did he come from?' His father came directly from England, but his mother's brother owned the weekly newspaper in Kemptville during the 1930s and 40s, the Weekly Advance. I have yet to learn more about the area, and my family's history regarding such.
Please tell us about your most recently published book and also a little about any other books you've had that "saw print."
My long poem 52 flowers (or, a perth edge) - an essay on Phil Hall - (Obvious Epiphanies Press, 2010), published by Lary Bremner in Japan, came as a response to Phil Hall and his writing. I was intrigued by the lead section of his then-recent poetry collection, An Oak Hunch (London ON: Brick, 2005), which was subtitled "an essay on Purdy." I had wanted to interview Hall, but he said he wasn't comfortable with such, inviting me instead to spend the day with him at their cottage near Perth, Ontario. The poem is pretty much the result of that day. The newest collection, Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011), is made up of two very long poems and a less-long poem, continuing my ongoing exploration of my home-place, the eastern Ontario space where I grew up, furthering considerations I first brought to light in my second trade poetry collection, bury me deep in the green wood (ECW Press, 1999). The title poem "Glengarry" was originally triggered from rereading Barry McKinnon's Pulp Log (A Poem in 59 Parts) (Prince George BC: Caitlin Press, 1991) and Don McKay's Long Sault (London ON: Applegarth Follies, 1975), two overlooked classics of the Canadian long poem, each a similar consideration of exploring home space (including a slight geographic overlap with McKay's poem). The poem "avalanche" exists more of an accumulation, a sequence of unending and unyielding proportions. Both poems rely heavily on quick movement, sound and ambient rhythms.
I've been trying to figure out my geographic home-space, and my relationship to it; since that ECW title, I've started a number of critical and memoir pieces relating to home as well, but nothing that I've managed to quite finish, yet, although a few selections have appeared online at Open Book Toronto.
At POW! do you plan to read pieces from your book (or books)? Do you plan to read new unpublished work?
Usually when I'm touring a new poetry collection, I tend to focus my reading around such, with a generous selection of unpublished thrown in. This reading, hopefully, will be one of the first for Glengarry, so I expect to focus a good amount of my reading on that.
How would you describe your poetry?
I don't, usually. I try to allow the work to speak for itself.
A person who has never composed a poem is likely to think of that as something of a magical or mysterious process. Is it possible to explain that process of creation?
It's possible to explain some of the mechanics, but there will always be the unknowables, the completely unexplainables. I would rather allow something to be than to tear it apart, simply to explain it. It would feel too much like having to kill the frog to be able to comprehend its workings. Who wants to kill the poem?
Years ago in a poetry workshopping group I was witness to the following exchange: A novice poet breathlessly proclaimed "I don't know how to write formal poetry. All I know is -- my poetry comes from deep inside me -- it shows how I'm feeling at the time -- it comes pouring out of me unexpectedly -- once it starts I couldn't stop it even if I wanted to and when I see what I've produced in front of me I can hardly believe it came out of me but it's colourful and it's something that has never been seen before!" Without a moment's hesitation a woman I had not greatly admired until that very moment said "You know everything you just said also applies to vomit." In my opinion her retort captured something in a simply perfect way. Nonetheless it is true that sometimes a poem just pours out of the poet and when the initial product is viewed the surprising conclusion is "That's it. Amazing. I don't have to re-work that at all. Even if I did I would not make it better." Can you tell us about one of those moments happening for you?
David McGimpsey told me years ago that he doesn't allow certain words into his poetry workshops, including "heart," "soul" and such. Writing is an art, a craft, and feeling by itself doesn't make for any art worth looking at. Writing doesn't care how you feel, and its not about self-expression. Once you get over what you think you "have to say," then you can start getting down to the business of writing, and that's when it starts to get interesting.
However what I describe above is rare. More commonly any piece that a poet initially scratches out needs work. There will be re-writes scrunched up pieces of paper polishing editing moments when the poet recoils in horror at how weak this creation is and sets about strengthening it. Can you tell us about those moments?
Writing is an ongoing process, and writing out pages of notes to later salvage as little as a single workable line to build upon is simply part of that process of composition. Why agonize over it? Slow and steady wins the race, it would seem. Any writing project I manage to complete comes out of extended stretches of tweaks, edits, small changes, switching sections around and sheer patience. One step, and then one more step.
I don't focus on the thirty lines that might not work. I focus on the few that do, and keep going.
It is said that all artists create their art in part for themselves and it is born of a deep inner howl that cannot be denied expression but whether one chooses to admit it or not such creation is also in part for an audience. Do you think our audience influences what we create even if it is only a sub-conscious tailoring we do to make things fit?
Literature is a conversation, and one that exists between writers, and between writing. I am more interested in the requirements of the writing, and how the writing can be improved upon and made more interesting.
Returning to the assertion from years ago by that breathless novice I recounted above would you say it is true that poets should know various set-forms of poetry and have a conscious awareness of poetic device even if they then choose not to follow them or employ them? Is that an archaic ploy to ensure that writing poetry remains an elite activity?
Why is it that literature allows so many to ignore wilfully those who have come before? You need to understand a form before you can fuck with it. Most writers, if they worked the same ideologies in other careers, whether high tech, politics, fashion design or real estate, working so ignorant of everything that came before them and even what was happening at that same moment in their chosen fields would be considered incompetent failures and not succeed.
Writing comes from writing, no question. To create the best writing possible, a writer has to know about as much as possible, as varied as possible, and as much contemporary as possible, and fight like hell to be constantly improving one's own game. Otherwise, it's the equivalent of a tech company introducing a Commodore 64 to the market in 2011. The result: the market would know never to take you seriously again.
The POW! Festival rides along from year to year on the notion that poetry should not be relegated to an existence as "a niche art form" which an average person doesn't care about and never will care about. Some poets think that notion is so idealistic as to be silly. They might be correct. Others agree with us. How do you respond to that?
All art is niche. What's wrong with that? There's a great line in David McGimpsey's essay from side/lines: A New Canadian Poetics (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2002) about how no one ever asks for a people's trigonometry. Writing down to an audience is insulting. If you want to know about an art form, you have to engage with it on its own terms, otherwise it's meaningless.
You wouldn't watch one film in your life and dismiss the entire genre because you don't "get it," don't understand the form and its lengthy history. Audiences have to do work, and many of them do, possibly much more than most writers of poetry are even aware of. I refuse to subscribe to the idea that only poets read poetry; I've seen so much evidence to the contrary. And anything can be sold; why not focus instead on introducing new audiences to what already exists? That's been my focus for years.