Rusty Morrison interviews rob mclennan

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction in Canada, the United States, Ireland, Japan and England, he has published work in over two hundred trade journals in fourteen countries and three languages, and performed in Ireland, England, Wales, the United States and across Canada. His most recent titles are the poetry collections grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011), kate street (Moira, 2011) and 52 flowers (or, a perth edge) (Obvious Epiphanies, 2010), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater. In 1999, he won the CAA/Air Canada Prize for most promising writer (in any genre) in Canada under the age of thirty, and the John Newlove Poetry Award from in October 2011, judged by a. rawlings. In 2008, ECW Press released a collection of his literary essays, Subverting the lyric: essays, the same year Arsenal Pulp Press produced his expansive tourist guide, Ottawa: The Unknown City. 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

Rusty Morrison is the co-publisher of Omnidawn.

A new poem by rob mclennan follows the interview.

Rusty Morrison: For a poet, what do you see as the primary difference between the Canadian and USA publishing scenes?

rob mclennan: An interesting question. My awareness of American publishing is only in its early stages, but I get the sense that, for poetry at least, we suffer here for the sake that we haven’t that many large publishers pushing works that move easily across borders, and we remain at least half a decade behind Americans for online publishing. One can easily go online and find hundreds of pages of writing by, say, Robert Creeley, but it would become impossible to find the same by his Canadian equivalents, whether George Bowering, bpNichol, Robin Blaser or Fred Wah, our current Parliamentary Poet Laurate.

There are amazing books we get here by American and British authors published through Faber and Faber, University of California Press, Penguin Books and others, but Canada, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have the same kind of large publishing. I’m glad presses such as BookThug, Talonbooks and University of Alberta Press have American distribution, but more often, I see many Canadian writers working instead to get published by American publishers, whether seeing University of California titles by Nicole Brossard, Lisa Robertson and Robin Blaser, Nightboat titles by Nathanaël (nathalie stephens), McSweeney’s titles by Sheila Heti, or Dalkey Archive titles by Gail Scott. There are plenty of other examples, I’m sure.

A long-winded way to explain that, for the most part, small or medium-sized Canadian titles are reissued by American publishers, and small or medium-sized American titles somehow manage to make their way into Canadian bookstores.

Why is it Penguin publishes poetry in (seemingly) every country it has offices—allowing Canadians to read Coral Hull from Australia and Alice Notley from the United States—except Canada? It’s certainly not for the lack of quality, given a list of Canadian poets that would include derek beaulieu, Lisa Robertson, Christian Bök, Stephen Collis, bpNichol, Sylvia Legris, Sina Queyras, Robert Kroetsch, Anne Carson, Daphne Marlatt, Nathanaël, Meredith Quartermain, Stan Rogal, Rachel Zolf, Priscila Uppal, Suzanne Buffam, Margaret Atwood, Emily Carr, Kate Eichhorn, Peter Jaeger, Lissa Wolsak, George Stanley, David McGimpsey, Michael Ondaatje, Jeff Derksen, Adeena Karasick, Steve McCaffery and Erin Mouré, a number of whom seem to be publishing quite well in journals in your country (sometimes, better than they seem to do here).

We take far too long to celebrate our own, which might be related, and possibly, might not. One hundred pages on Lisa Robertson in Chicago Review is amazing, but it was another half decade or so before any equivalent happened in Canada, when Open Letter produced an issue on her work.

Perhaps the increased online activity of publishers and booksellers erases many of these complaints and concerns. Thanks to the internet, I’m aware of far more of what you folk are doing, most of which would be difficult to find in any Canadian bookstore.

RM: How did you start your blogging and why do you stay with it, what are the advantages/disadvantages the blog brings to your writer-mind?

rob: Originally, it came because I had produced three reviews a week for a column I had in our local alternative paper in Ottawa, The Ottawa X-Press, from early 1994 to the end of 1999, and quickly realized that most small press Canadian titles don’t get reviewed at all. It was quite a strange feeling to be thanked by Vancouver poet Mark Cochrane, for being the first person to review his book, or by Toronto writer Martha Baillie, told I was the only one to review her second novel. For years, Edmonton publisher NeWest Press even told me I was their favourite reviewer, talking about more of their titles than anyone else in Canada, whether I liked the titles or not. Why are certain titles over-reviewed, and the rest barely mentioned at all? This to me is a serious problem, and one I work very hard and loudly to counter.

When I was pushed out of the paper for the sake of more music articles, I floundered a while, spending more time trying to place a review than compose, and someone suggested I simply start my own blog for reviews. This way, a review doesn’t appear a year or three later in a journal, thus rendering it historical, and I can review as far and as wide and as much as I feel the need. The reviews I post, once posted, are immediate, can travel, and don’t have limitations on how long they will remain. I would hope that a review I post might be far more useful to an author and/or their publisher for being online than, say, had I hidden it somewhere in a literary journal, sequestered on the shelf of a university library.

Yes, I get books in the mail daily, yet constantly feel behind in what else is out there that I haven’t yet dealt with. For me, reviewing is part-and-parcel of my development as a writer, picking up fresh tools to keep my writing constantly pushing. How can I be the best there is, unless I know everything else that is happening? Having the blog to post reviews has allowed me to move into an awareness of American writing and publishing that I couldn’t have been able to do, otherwise. It helped me discover Omnidawn, for example, as well as other American publishers such as University of Iowa Press, Wave Books, Fence Books, University of California Press, Apogee Press and BlazeVOX. At the same time, I often receive titles for potential review from worthy Canadian publishers such as Talonbooks, BookThug, New Star Books, Coach House Books, NeWest Press, University of Alberta Press, Nightwood Editions and Brick Books. I am amazed by the constant opportunities my mailbox allows me, to learn.

My former neighbour, the poet, publisher and bookseller jwcurry once told me that his biggest goal was to “remain interested,” and I struggle for same. I wish to engage a broad spectrum of writing, at a pretty high level.

On certain days, I suspect that reviewing and blogging eats up time that I could be putting into my own work. Why haven’t I finished another novel yet, or that memoir I’ve been working on since my mother died? On certain days, I worry I’m seen less as a writer and more of someone to add to your media list, receiving attention only when a writer might have their own title to support. I sometimes worry I’ve painted myself into a corner, somehow.

RM: How do you choose the books that you review for your blog? You must receive mountain-loads. Do you review elsewhere too? What value is the reviewing process to you as a writer?

rob: I review what appeals to me, basically. Most of what I review are titles that I’ve requested, and I’m constantly scouring the internet for publisher’s catalogues and whatnot. I work hard to keep a balance of fiction and poetry, a balance between local, national and international, a balance between trade books and chapbooks, and a balance between reviews and interviews, as well as the occasional notice, and rare piece of my own writing. There are a ton of threads I suspect anyone reading the blog on any kind of ongoing basis has most likely figured out. There are dozens upon dozens of writers whose works I try very hard to follow.

I’ve been reviewing since 1993, when I reviewed a poetry collection by Ken Norris for The Carleton Arts Review, and have reviewed since for plenty of places, including Jacket magazine, The Ottawa Citizen, The Globe and Mail, Rain Taxi and Rain Review, among others, and the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to write regularly in a variety of venues, including galatea resurrects, RAMPIKE, Arc Poetry Magazine, filling Station, The Antigonish Review and a few others I can’t think of, at the moment, as well as my past two or so years writing two columns a month for Open Book: Toronto, and my brief stint as guest blogger for The Capilano Review. I think I’m in the midst of an article on small publishing for Cordite Review, also.

If I write only for myself, I might lose my perspective, and therefore, my ability to review clearly, in a way that is appropriate for what I am attempting to discuss. Also, if I want more folk to come to the blog, I really should be moving around to other venues, hopefully with a few folk coming back to see what else I’ve been up to.

I think reviewing, and the extension of reviewing that turns into essays, help sharpen my skills and make me a stronger writer, as well as making me aware of a wider variety of potential influence. I work hard to sharpen my skills as a writer and reader, both. I want my writing to be constantly moving. Of course, I also think that unless we review, we can’t expect anyone to pay attention to us. Writing is, as Robert Kroetsch said, a conversation.

Unless we talk about what we have already done, one might argue, what’s the point in producing more?

RM: What caused you to become involved in above/ground, the small press you edit? How long has it been a press?

rob: I started making a couple of my own chapbooks in 1992, and by the following summer, had evolved into above/ground press, producing chapbooks by myself and various other writers around me I thought were doing interesting things. Ever and only and always a solo show, above/ground press has produced some six hundred items since it began, and will only slow to a halt once it stops being fun. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

I make chapbooks and broadsides by writers that interest me, so I can see new work, and be able to recommend that work to others. above/ground press is, and possibly always has been, about my own excitement about writing and writers. There are threads there you can follow too, with repeated publications by writers such as Gil McElroy, Marcus McCann, Amanda Earl, Stan Rogal, Stephanie Bolster, Stephen Cain, Stephen Brockwell, Rob Budde, derek beaulieu, Pearl Pirie, Marilyn Irwin, George Bowering, Max Middle, Lea Graham, Nathalie Simpson and hopefully plenty more to follow.

Over the past decade, I’ve been offering annual subscriptions, since most of what I produce rarely gets individual orders. I’ve managed around fifty or so annual subscribers since, which I’m pretty happy about, that receive everything above/ground press makes in a calendar year. It does mean that I’m most likely keeping Canada Post alive on my own.

Another publishing project that evolved out of my work through above/ground press is Chaudiere Books, a trade publishing house that Jennifer Mulligan and I founded. We produced our first four titles in the fall of 2006, and have produced a dozen titles so far, including by authors I’d been producing chapbooks by as above/ground. Basically, for Chaudiere, I worry about the editorial and publicity, and Mulligan deals with the production and business ends, but we’re working on a re-tooling and expansion to take some of the pressure of her.

And, can you believe, August 2012 makes nineteen years above/ground?

RM: What is the aesthetic direction of above/ground? What do you look for in the work that you publish? Do you take open submission? Why? Why not? Is it primarily a press for Canadian writers? If yes, or no, why?

rob: The books, broadsheets and other items I produce through above/ground basically have to hold my attention; any editor, publisher or writer should know how difficult a thing that can often be. I want something that amazes, something that I’ve been forced to produce because I feel that push to share the work with those around me.

My interests have always been rather broad, and I see no reason why my publishing can’t do the same. Much of my interest is in the experimental and/or avant-garde lyric, whatever it is that means, but I’ve also produced work by more formal writers, as well as various works of concrete/visual. Again, I go where my interest takes me.

The aesthetic is rather simple, photocopied items folded and stapled by myself. I’d rather produce three hundred of something that I can then have at least a quarter around for free distribution, over another few years. I’d rather sell one hundred items for four dollars than, say, fifty items for eight. My goals are to get the work out as far and as often as possible, and some other projects have even extended into free downloadable pdfs, including a series of chapbooks produced by above/ground press when I was writer in residence at the University of Alberta from 2007-8 (“Alberta Series”), and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual journal, ottawater, celebrating its eighth issue this month.

I do take open submissions, despite the fact that I take so little from that. I can’t close myself off to accident, and have discovered some magnificent writers through open submissions over the years, including, most notably, Carla Milo and Meghan Jackson (formerly meghan lynch). Chaudiere Books produced Jackson’s trade poetry collection, movement in jars, in 2006.

One of my biggest complaints about Canadian publishing has been its insistence upon regionalism. By itself, this isn’t a bad thing, but unless there are connections between the regions, the whole system falls apart, so above/ground press (as well as many other of my publishing projects) have worked to connect the regions, and connect writers, across the country. That being said, above/ground press certainly isn’t limited to Canadian writing, and I’ve produced chapbooks by various American writers, including Lea Graham, Kate Greenstreet, Lisa Samuels, Paige Ackerson-Kiely and Jessica Smith, and have various titles forthcoming by Rae Armantrout, j/j hastain and Sarah Mangold. Again, I move where my interest takes me.


Love letter

by rob mclennan

            welcome to the weather here. it’s snowing—
                  Pattie McCarthy, L & O

No one forgets, the traces of pageantry. Squirrels on the windowsill. Speechlessness folds, deepest blue. If you were to ask. These interlocked fingers. The trees for the forest. The great shadow of language, between sitter and subject, assimilating a sense. I am attracted to linens. Love, phrased perspective. Stained mobilities, vanish. Dread the upcoming drive. Talked a bottle of red wine. A second. Sound cut from another. Sequins, an alternate word. Clouds asleep in the yard. Daytime cable, Bridezilla. Once a neighbour in costume. Microscopic pearls. So little else is recorded. As happy as moonbeams. A kitten dubbed ‘Lemonade.’ Obviously, a girl. Your initials in tracery, silks. Dialogue, disguised as a monologue. I await the grey page. Sketch out the stretch of a syllable.

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