Some people are in CanLit, others are at least as elemental as the & and /, like rob mclennan who seems to be everywhere. He can track the hundreds of publications of others in broadsheets and chapbooks, but there are also his essays and events, bringing people online Ottawater and in paper with Touch the Donkey and Peter F Yacht Club, and of gigs as editor of columns and series in magazines worldwide. I speculate that he doesn’t actually need sleep, or that this teddy bear of lit keeps a doppelganger in a basement trunk with whom he shares half the workload. Then there’s the number of small press interviews, poet interviews, reviews, and books published… he’s an encyclopedia of resources.
Then there’s the number of small press interviews, poet interviews, reviews, and books published. He has authored around thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, most recently notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac Press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) of flash fiction which you should buy as a first pick. As an editor and publisher, he also runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review, and online, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics.
Even if that were all counted, it’s probably incalculable how many writers he has encouraged and promoted. rob mclennan won a place in the VERSeFest Hall of Honours for community building.
He’s a connector. He’s a people-person and he keeps in touch with poets for decades, across continents. He has both an interest in living and in the living. He may know more poets than any other Canadian poet. He notices people and wants to find their story, connect them with other people. He seems to work from the principle that people should be optimized. How many times have I seen him in quiet counsel hearing a troubled soul out, listening, nodding. He is also a model of boundaries of unequivocal no, not happening. His humanity is on the table, joking, teasing, vulnerable, speaking his peace, keeping his peace, and sometimes hooting loud. He’s extended good will against the prickly and held grudges and kept distance. If we can’t make something better, then at least don’t exacerbate. He’s a person of peace because who doesn’t want everyone to be a big happy poetry family?
I remember seeing him in person in the basement of the Royal Oak in the early 90s, maybe when James Moran ran Tree, or before, also at Sasquatch. Sprawled on a couch on the stage, it was like a treehouse with beer.
I can’t tell you which of his poems or books I first encountered. Probably poem broadsides. Maybe one of his chapbooks. In the proto-rob of his early 20s there was an aching, intimate energy, an eye-watering intensity in poems that didn’t feel expected in the way sentimental verse I’d seen had been. It was poetry that met me where I was and pointed in the direction I wanted to go.
Here was something distinct and giving permission to write with mind and heart, external, internal and non-sequitur. His writing made sense to how I thought one could think, even if I’d not seen it done before. Juxtaposition as happens in life but doesn’t get reflected on the page. An archivist, the details are there, names, places, surface, profound, quotes of conversations. The aim is to capture life as it is lived, be self-aware, others-aware, get it all down, not reconstruct a pretty frame later based on a story.
Rereading a poem lends the idea to reread the whole book again, which would makes this take much longer, although enjoyable. In “we are lucky to be alive” in bury me deep in the green wood (ECW, 1999) he talks of internalized home, lost, refindable, remakeable, inescapable, “fortunate/in the desperate blue of the sky/clouds I chased the fields for[…] ,roots wrapped around my ankles//driving for miles in any direction,/unmoved.”
In poems like “hiroshima (six)” in Notes on drowning (Broken Jaw, 1998) the political currents are permitted, Oklahoma bombing: “when no-one is found/to take credit/hands searching minorities for the foreign culprit/americans moving for their visibility/& then discovering/it was a white american, all the time/w/ no apologies/or contradictions//thousands of years of evolution/welcome to america’s glorious heartland/ w/ your bible belt in hand/& what is it we learned”. It’s (unfortunately) still true. Our public history as a species seems not to grow character yet.
So much of poetry is culture internalized, is brain chemistry, is world view, is influence, is health, is random, is not moral. What can be spoken of in a rob poem is King Tut, an uncle, a Warner Brothers cartoon, a lost relationship and the way ice melts. There is no need to put up barricades between categories of things or people or time or place. There’s a humbleness to acknowledge how much we can’t know. We live in “the myth of the real” (in name, an errant). Profound doesn’t trump all. There’s a freeing democracy and even-handedness in this. You can make a poem or a life about anything. A nothing-place to a visitor is a centre of the universe to 4th generation living there. And vice versa. An awareness of the rest of the world is let in. There isn’t a centrality to self so much as admitting self among everything else. Authorship isn’t pretended out of existence. The tangential connections are allowed to sit in each other’s company and somehow add to mood and more in the larger and smaller pictures. In name, an errant (stride, 2006) in sweet flowers standing in the air “this is a poem abt /woodie guthrie//tho it mentions him only once//what is this “abt” you speak of//gentlemanly now, the dust bowl/whirs//spins on its axis, of/no wheat, no bread no water”.
There’s a falseness to only the arm’s-length random where nothing visibly matters and to closed box story of “aboutness”, but magic in the back and forth. Why should a poem be constructed as a play where the revolver only goes on stage to foreshadow. Everything with a logic and reason, a hierarchy of curated information and emotion, culling 9/10th of life. rob’s poetry embraces the everything, the personal, the public.
He’s curious, and energetic, even if often fatigued by all he aims to do, which is ever more. And he’s a writer. Writers gotta write. rob’s text questions itself, questions assumptions, leaves gaps for the reader to enter and debate. It is poetry for engagement. To be vulnerable is to ask others to do the same, to get at what’s real, to get around the constructions, to connect, to get around our own armour, to risk, to be whole even when feeling broken. That’s the subtext I see in his work, this sense of acceptance of the wholeness of self and of what life offers.
Many of his poems have a forward momentum that helps them cohere and bridge, while keeping a bigger mandala of the intact world. In my copy of What’s Left (Talon, 2004) the margins run as if I take attendance of each line read, yes, this, yes, this, this. Big checkmarks, little, big. “how much of any path do we keep clear,/snow falling behind,/& covering tracks”. The possibilities are not binary. His poetry enacts how there are always more possibilities than you think, and play, puns, comic, tragic and neutral are equally valued and may break out at any time. This all is unspeakably heartening. One is not stuck in a linear fate but able to move. Grief doesn’t trump all and silence the rest. There’s an ampleness to the world. “the horizon isn’t necessarily a safe goal” (What’s Left) so let us not presume the plot before we’ve even gotten out of bed. Religion is cast off its pedestal along with superstitions. In trying to reform myself from being petty and open-minded, the open voice was a doorstop against all the closures and threats.
Among other things, rob mclennan is an archivist. He’s a doer. He’s an encyclopedia of resources and an information clearing house.
Pearl Pirie writes and mostly reads. She is a co-director of the Tree Reading Series and president of KaDo Ottawa. Her latest book-book is the pet radish, shrunken from BookThug which is a finalist for the Lampman Award. Her most recent two chapbooks are Sex in Sevens (above/ground, 2016) and An Ongoing Lack of Spontaneous Combustion (words(on)pages, 2016). More at her website.