POWER OF POETRY #46: rob mclennan

I’m not sure how I came into poetry: if I discovered it, or it, in turn, discovered me.

During my high school years, my friends and immediate peers were littered with those who wished to write, and were beginning to do so, sketching out poems and bursts of short fiction. We had an English teacher, Mr. MacLeod, who encouraged us, even to the point of founding and producing a small photocopied ‘zine, The U-Name-It Zine (we considered a contest for the sake of naming it, before deciding this was funnier). We had no way of knowing much of anything. We handed bits of our writing to each other, and to him. We pulled books from school library shelves, but the poetry was few and far between. A lone copy of Irving Layton’s For My Brother, Jesus (1976).

Fortunately, the classmate who would eventually give birth to my first daughter was a big follower of CBC Radio. Our grade ten year was the onset of her self-described “Canadian literature phase,” providing a supplement to the works of fiction assigned during English classes: Margaret Lawrence, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Timothy Findley. Through her, our reading grew, devouring works of fiction by George Bowering, Robertson Davies, Michael Ondaatje, Sheila Watson, Leonard Cohen, Marie-Claire Blais, Matt Cohen. Given we were in the latter half of the 1980s, it was very much the Canadiana of the period, eagerly and quickly absorbed by us both. But how did poetry emerge? At one point, during our grade eleven year, she handed me a copy of a paperback reprint from McClelland and Stewart’s New Canadian Library, Eli Mandel’s Poets of Contemporary Canada 1960–1970 (1972), a slim anthology that introduced me to Canada’s mimeo small press explosion: the poetry of George Bowering, John Newlove, Al Purdy, bill bissett, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Milton Acorn and Michael Ondaatje. I latched on, somehow. I held on for dear life.

During my final year of high school I attended a week-long poetry course at Carleton University, which also provided essential early influence through Gary Geddes’ anthology 15 Canadian Poets x 2 (1988), a collection I carted around like a bible for years. Now, some three decades later, I can see the flaws with the collection: the exclusion of the experimental poets—bill bissett and bpNichol, for example—and the removal of Victor Coleman from the list since the publication of prior volumes, 15 Canadian Poets (1970) and 15 Canadian Poets Plus 5 (1978). My copy of 15 Canadian Poets x 2 is rather beaten-up, but littered with autographs. And once I moved into the larger world, at the onset of my brief time in university, I read everything I could get my hands on; I moved through multiple library systems, using these names as a springboard.

Over the course of my twenties and thirties, I was fortunate enough to begin interacting with names from those anthologies; some of whom became friends and important mentors. There are numerous poets from those anthologies I’ve produced new chapbooks by, from Vancouver poet George Bowering to multiple of the poets that have since passed, such as D.G. Jones, Robert Kroetsch, Patrick Lane and John Newlove. And the professor who facilitated that week-long writing seminar, Ottawa-area poet Robert Hogg, is now someone I would consider a friend and a peer.

During his final decade, the late John Newlove (1938-2003)—a Saskatchewan poet who spent his final seventeen years in Ottawa—became not only a friend and a mentor, but an immediate neighbor, and I was later able to see his posthumous collected poems to press, as collected and edited by Robert McTavish. I’d managed to become not only the publisher, but the contact for reprint rights for a poet known in the early 1970s as “the best lyric poet in Canada,” whose work I’d first discovered during my high school years. How many can say that? It was through him, from my seventeen year old Eastern Ontario vantage-point, that I caught my first glimpse of Canadian prairie:

Ride off any horizon

and let the measure fall

where it may—

off the edge

of the black prairie

as you thought you could fall,

a boy at sunset

not watching the sun

set but watching the black earth,

never-ending they said in school,

round: but you saw it ending,

finished, definitive, precise—

visible only miles away. (“Ride Off Any Horizon”)

Those first few years of engaging with poetry allowed me to experience and explore the world through writing, and a permission to attempt to make my own explorations and experiments into and through the lyric poem, and the lyric sentence. For me, writing evolved into a way to better comprehend, articulate and even reshape the world. Now the work that excites me is writing that is exploratory; a writing that seeks and reaches out through language, attempting to reach further than grasp, even if to provide a new way of getting to where I already know. No matter the context, the purpose or subject, it must be the language that propels. Otherwise, how else could we qualify as writing at all?

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 poetry titles include A halt, which is empty (Mansfield Press, 2019) and the forthcoming Household items (Salmon Poetry, 2019) and Life sentence, (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He is “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, editor of my (small press) writing day, and an editor/managing editor of many gendered mothers. 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 or visit his author page at robmclennanauthor.blogspot.com

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