better to direct sometimes and be directed: An Interview with rob mclennan

better to direct sometimes and be directed: An Interview with rob mclennan

if you cut every sentence
like silk

or like leaves

–from map of edmonton (belgravia)

Scroll Down to read the full poem

rob mclennan is the prolific and occasionally radical author of twenty-some books of poetry, fiction, journalism, and essays. His newest is wild horses, from the University of Alberta Press. rob and Torontoist’s Jacob McArthur Mooney exchanged messages recently with the combination of fervour, standoffishness, and play that only two men of Irish ancestry can share. What follows is a selection from that chat.

jacob mcarthur mooney: well, to start, i’ve decided to adopt as much of the rob mclennan personal grammatical lexicon as i can: lower-case letters, few periods, etc; consider it both a homage and my personal stanislavskyian method-interviewing exercise. anyway, you’re a guy who publishes a lot of books; between the novels, the poems, and the essays we’ve seen as many as five new titles a year. my first question pertains to rob mclennan’s cutting room floor: what’s on it? anything? are you someone who writes at a prodigal clip, and then pares away; or are you someone who finds an eventual home for most of what he begins as a first draft?

rob mclennan: first draft never even makes it out of the house; editing happens regularly, and even daily. hell, i just cut 20% out of a poetry manuscript that im still trying to find a home for. you wouldn’t believe what gets left on that “cutting room floor,” including whole manuscripts. but why do i keep having to counter notions that everything i publish is first draft, and everything i write i push to publish? there were 3 unpublished novels i abandoned before white appeared in 2007, and 3 others not given up on yet, some going back a decade. some of those long essays (McKinnon, Fiorentino, Suknaski) took up to eight months to compose, revise, even with daily work. my second poetry collection was six years between the first few lines and final publication.

everything takes its own time, im just a few books ahead. apparently Kinsella is always four books ahead, between writing and publishing, in that queue. would he ever be asked the same?

jmm: i’d hope so. and i wasn’t suggesting that you publish your first drafts. i was just asking how likely you are to stick with something that begins as a first draft, instead of engaging in a sort of cutting-and-restarting cycle. one thing about your process that i would like to press on a bit more is this idea of multitasking. you say you’ve got many projects (the unfinished novels, the essays, plus i’d bet a new collection is somewhere along the way) in the hamper right now. to what degree are you open to some mutualism between those creatures, in utero? are you willing to let either the abstract (themes, philosophies) or concrete (lines, characters) elements of each book migrate if you feel they’re not all in their ideal homes? or maybe you’re more aware of the dangers of that, and of needing to let each project cultivate its own identity. which of these practices do you stick closer to?

rob: different threads seem to emerge through different projects. currently ive got a thread of poetry collections that start with wild horses, migrating to the unpublished Poems for Lainna and continuing with the in-progress, wooden hearts. a thread of content, and structural considerations. really, threads are emerging in one form that don’t necessarily in another, which i find quite interesting, the more i explore fiction and non-fiction (i have 2 creative non-fiction titles, for example: one on my Edmonton time, and the Sleeping in Toronto that Open Book Toronto keeps publishing fragments on, on my current “Toronto period”). but in the end, books move as they move; better to direct sometimes and be directed.

jmm: it’s interesting to talk about threads across books. because after a certain number of books, the threads sort of become, for lack of a less hyperbolic (or alliterative) descriptor, the crucial concerns of your career. one of the elements that work to keep your books distinguishable from each other is the element of place. you’re certainly identified as an “ottawa” poet, but this (wild horses) is an edmonton-centric book, and you said you have another upcoming from your “toronto period”. in what ways will these books be different from each other? does the change in place drive a change in poetics? and if it’s not that, what is it you get out of writing about place?

rob: well, what im known for doesn’t necessarily mean anything about who i think i am, or what im trying to do, right? ive been moving further and further from poetry and ottawa for years; it’s only now people, i think, are noticing the shift.

jmm: so then what sustains and encourages that move? beside the obvious stuff, that you yourself moved around the country and so the poems moved with you. do you feel you write about ottawa as a resident and edmonton, or toronto, as more of an outsider? where to live is a personal decision, but whether to write specifically about your geographic location at a given time is a professional one. all i’m wondering is what your poetry gets out of having “place” as a subject, why you come back to it, and why you’ve made it one of the major concerns of wild horses? you also used the expression “my toronto period”, so what’s the nature of that period? in what ways is it an evolution from your earlier work?

rob: i’m obviously a resident of ottawa, but i’ve never worked from the position of thinking i know everything. the travel book Ottawa: The Unknown City was far more research than i was expecting, but also, so much more of it [was] already in my head than i knew. it was exhausting, but overall a positive experience, working that book. as far as non-fiction, i really wanted to explore other creative spaces, challenge myself into other things, and see what is possible. there are things possible in one form that aren’t in another, and i really wanted a book that explored properly the experience of Edmonton, things i thought couldn’t be explored or expressed in poetry or fiction. what did it mean to be in Edmonton, to be in Alberta at all?

my poetry has reached an important point, if only to me; i’ve got a number of unpublished manuscripts from the past few years that i still think are worth attempting into print, and the nature of the poem in my writing has shifted. ive done enough now that i have to work that much harder so as not to repeat myself; where does my writing go now? in so many ways, it simply allows for the opportunities of prose; why not just do something else for a while and let the poems worry about themselves?

geography can’t help but affect change. Lainna [rob’s partner-jmm] and i have been talking about travel, to the middle east, perhaps, spaces where her parents are from. i would really want to get these other projects out of the way so i could explore all of that fully, and let the changes to my writing and to my thinking be completely open. i remain excited about the changes, even if they might terrify. isn’t art supposed to be just a little bit scary?

jmm: another recurring pattern in your books is the richness and variety of your various forms of author-to-author call-outs, and that’s very much apparent in the newest book. wild horses has epigraphs, ekphrastics, and lots and lots of dedications. is there a specific aesthetic concern there, something you’re trying to say with all this intertextual dialing? or is it more simple than that; are you just trying to acknowledge friends and heroes as you proceed through your career?

rob: i don’t think i’m overtly doing anything different there i haven’t done before. my writing and reading has always existed with serious overlap, much the way Douglas Barbour has claimed, writer as reader. why not include what is already there?

also, i was trying to write Alberta, so a few things fall into the work more specifically.

jmm: absolutely. by way of closing, do you want to take some time to introduce this poem, map of edmonton (belgravia), that we’re running alongside this interview?

rob: the poem you mention, i was working a whole series of poems on different neighbourhoods of Edmonton, dedicating each to different people. Michael’s Park is where Catherine Owen was living, for example, the only reason i was there, Allandale where i lived in the basement of a house owned by two lovely women, and Windsor Park, where author Sheila Watson used to live. Belgravia is where the Olive Reading Series lived when i was there, not more than a few blocks from Douglas Barbour’s house, where i’d even stayed once. i mean, that’s not necessarily what the poems were strictly about, but where they started, you know?

how’s that for an introduction?

map of edmonton (belgravia)
for doug barbour

where trestle
comes up against bone
an endless spark, a promise
don’t compete
for the same word
the ground relents
& the street goes
& the rock
& the stone
& the slapdash of houses
in postwar arc

if you cut every sentence
like silk
or like leaves
in his basement office
in belgravia, nights
& the virginal self
& the olive, the olive
in new home