I feel very fortunate to have been the result, it would seem, of my mother’s damned stubbornness and my father’s farm work-ethic. I mean, I’ve published over thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction since 1998, and well over one hundred poetry chapbooks since 1992 (that’s a lot, right?). And yet, some of my earliest writing possibilities came from established writers who might not have known exactly what my teenaged or early twentysomething self might have been attempting, but enough to pass along that most important of directives: This is important. This is worth doing. Keep going.
For a kid barely published, even at the time it felt like an incredible wealth of support: the arrival of a postcard from George Bowering when I was twenty-two, or a signed copy of one of John Newlove’s poetry books when I was twenty-four, that I’d mentioned to him in a note (along with a stack of chapbooks furtively deposited in his mailbox) I had been reading and enjoying from the library. Ken Norris sent typed letters, Don McKay mailed handwritten notes on small cards, and Judith Fitzgerald sent notes on the back of the cover of her latest book, utilized as a large-format postcard. George Elliott Clarke always included (and still does) a new poem with his letters, handwritten in his distinctive, enthusiastic swirl. By the time I was twenty-six, David McFadden met me at a restaurant on Toronto’s Church Street, and suggested we order the pancakes, which were awful. “I know,” he said, almost gleefully.
While I was desperate at the time for editorial feedback, these moments of encouragement, of acknowledgement, were deeply important, and incredibly generous, and fed the machine that pushed me further to write, read and simply explore.
One might suggest that I consider my biggest prompts to have come from the outside, fully aware how this would dismiss my eagerness and willingness to simply “take the ball and run.” The past twenty years have included prompts from review copies received in the mail, something I might read online, or even sitting through a really good reading. Just as often, the social engagements with friends, many of whom are also writers, are enough to provide energy. Back when I used to tour heavily—some two to five months wandering across Canada with a box of chapbooks for the sake of poetry readings—I would return home renewed, and be able to continue in solitude for another six months, before heading out once more.
Writing prompts writing; activity prompts further activity. The best response to a poem is another poem, someone said. Attributed and reattributed, repeated ad nauseam. There’s nothing finer than encountering a piece of writing that makes you stop in your tracks, something that might prompt both admiration and envy, but also the impulse to want to try that out as well. There is nothing wrong with influence, and writing comes from practice as much as attempting as many ideas and tools that cross our paths as might be possible.
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 titles include the poetry collection A perimeter (New Star Books, 2016), and the forthcoming How the alphabet was made (Spuyten Duyvil, 2018) and Household items (Salmon Poetry, 2018). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), 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, a former contributor to the Ploughshares blog, 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